Had you needed to take refuge from a local war a decade ago when the city’s foreigner hang-outs were livelier than they are today, Jakarta’s infamous backpacker street, Jalan Jaksa, might well have been the best place. That’s not because some of the budget hotel rooms were like concrete bunkers. Nor was it that the restaurant meals could have served as biological weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t even that there were prostitutes willing to re-populate the planet for only a few dollars each in the event of the war escalating into nuclear Armageddon.
This street of cheerful iniquity had long been the haunt of drunks, losers, and charlatans. Among these charismatic lowlifes were men who claimed to be former members of daring-do military units, like the British SAS and the US Navy SEALs. Finding one of them was not easy, or was, depending on how you looked at it. You struck up a conversation with a fellow drinker, a loner. Talk turned to former occupations.
“I’m not allowed to say,” the stranger murmured.
“I perfectly understand.” You changed the subject.
“It’s confidential,” he insisted.
“It’s quite alright.”
He shifted right up close. “Actually, I was in MI6.” And then he told you all about it in exchange for an alcoholic drink – neither shaken nor stirred – because he was skint. It wasn’t long before you realised that, while entertaining, this man’s tales of skulduggery were plain sociopathic, and that he was unlikely to have ever been entrusted with a license to hunt rodents, let alone a license to kill soviet spies.
As far as I know nobody had ever been shot on the street, by a ‘James Bond’ Walther PPK or otherwise, though I do recall a poignant passing away. The victim was known as The Chinese Parkir, a homeless unofficial parking attendant who wore rags and lived at his post outside one of the busier restaurants. When not shouting directions at parking cars, he occupied a stool on the pavement. This was where he rested, ate and slept.
One morning a crowd had gathered around him. He was dead – arms folded, chin on chest, having slipped away in his sleep – but people were prodding him. Some prodded him to confirm that he really was no more. But others did it gingerly, as though suspecting that he was playing a joke and might leap to his feet with a cry of “Ah-ha!” When later I passed by, he had been laid on the pavement and covered with a tarpaulin. There would be no ah-ha. Cars were left to park forlornly and unassisted that day.
I once had breakfast in a restaurant on Jaksa where an angry customer was complaining that the hamburger he had ordered looked like a luncheon meat sandwich. I instantly imagined him to be an ex-catering officer with the Navy SEALs. Tossing the offending pink meat patty to one side of his plate, and the crumbling pieces of bun to the other, he claimed that – with just one phone call – he could summon an Indonesian five-star general that he knew personally to come and shut the restaurant down. He ranted for a good while. He was American, you see, so he knew a thing or two about hamburgers.
Navy SEALs aside, an assortment of dubious sailors had dropped anchor in Jalan Jaksa over the years. The most famous of them was Commander Tim, an ex-US Navy officer whose hard-liquor habits were funded by a modest military pension, and who never tired of showing off his navy ID card. Although it was hard to imagine any sane government giving this man command of 30,000 tonnes of prime seagoing military hardware bristling with gun barrels, unless it were being towed out to sea to be scuttled, he did seem to have a talent for stealth. This was evident in the myriad ways he sneaked cheap whiskey into restaurants – in small plastic bags, in water bottles, in a concealed hip-flask.
This may not sound like an achievement except that his archenemy was the eagle-eyed proprietor of the most despotic restaurant on the street, famous for its long list of ‘no-nos’ pinned to the wall (which included no tipping), and for barring most of its regular customers, often just for using the toilet before sitting down to order. It even had a ‘wanted’-style poster of its number-one barred customer – NO ENTRY OR SERVICE TO THIS MAN printed beneath a black-and-white mugshot of him looking like a desperate fugitive. His offence had been to set up a spoof website in the restaurant’s name.
Perhaps the proprietor couldn’t be blamed for being especially vigilant. When the restaurant first opened, several very nice glass table tops got clubbed into fragments by a local gang because he considered the payment of protection money to the local hoodlums a no-no.
Still, sometimes a place received genuine protection. I was in a tourist bar when a group of drunken Ambonese men sauntered in. One of them pulled a chair out from under a table to sit on, and found a kitten curled up on it. He scooped up the animal and hurled it into the air. It rebounded off the ceiling, narrowly missing a spinning fan, which would have accelerated its trajectory, and bounced off my table top before skimming out of sight along the floor. I managed to continue sipping my beer as though nothing horrifying had just happened. After harassing the customers, these men were driven off by the local hoodlums. The resilient kitten lived to curl up another day.
This incident shows the dangers of alcohol consumption among some Indonesians, turning otherwise amiable souls into the equivalent of snarling British hooligans on a pre-football match pub crawl. This country in the main has never had a drinking culture, despite the prevalence in parts of Sumatra of tuak, a white liquid – though often a sludge – made from fermented palm leaves which, frankly, pongs a lot. Alcohol is a no-no to Indonesia’s majority population of Muslims. And a few can be fanatical about it.
The FPI, a hardline Islamic organisation known for targeting bars it deems to be operating illicitly, came to Jaksa one Ramadhan, its members clothed in white and brandishing sticks. However, it wasn’t the clash of civilizations predicted by some. Not even a tense standoff. They simply congregated in the middle of the road and prayed, perhaps imploring Allah to turn all nearby wine into inoffensive water – though at this late hour most drinkers would have been too inebriated to notice the miraculous change inside their glasses even if Jaksa bars did serve anything made from berries that didn’t have a Fanta label on it.
Disappointingly, none of the questionable military types were anywhere to be seen when trouble was afoot on the street. The FPI didn’t get tossed to either side of the road by the Navy SEAL burger critic. The MI6 guy didn’t press a button to open up a shark pit beneath them. And Commander Tim didn’t direct an air strike from a battleship lying off Jakarta Bay. Perhaps these people were passed out in corners of bars after having scrounged one drink too many.
Navy SEALs aside, an assortment of dubious sailors had dropped anchor in Jalan Jaksa over the years.