It was breaking point for Jakarta. Days of torrential rain and years of incompetent urban planning were about to exact a terrible toll upon the city. Daniel Pope recalls the deluge.
Dusk settled early on the overcast Indonesian capital on January 15, 2013. For days, water had been flowing in from the outlying hills. The city’s drainage system, clogged with tonnes of garbage, could no longer cope. That night, rivers burst and floodgates overflowed.
The following morning, a strange stillness hung over Jakarta. Workplaces were empty. Shops closed. The usual din of traffic was eerily absent. Walls were dappled with cockroaches clinging above the murky waterline, where bloated rat carcasses bobbed. Dozens of people had died – drowned or electrocuted. More than 10,000 residents of inundated areas had to be evacuated.
After a night spent in Menteng stranded upstairs in a friend’s house and a morning recovering with coffee, I was ready to attempt to get home, which was a rented room in West Jakarta. This meant finding a taxi sufficiently predatory to be out in these conditions, negotiating an inevitably high fare and searching for a dry route. The first two parts of the equation were relatively painless, not so the third.
While attempting to go through Tanah Abang, an area notorious for organised thuggery, we reached a man who was helpfully directing vehicles across a large, yet by no means impenetrable, puddle. “Dua ribu (Two thousand)!” he shouted. When I questioned this illegal toll, he poked his head through the window, noticed the colour of my skin and screamed, “Sepuluh ribu (Ten thousand)!”
On any other day, I might have pretended not to understand that Indonesia allows criminals to extort motorists. Instead, I paid up. We crossed the puddle, navigated over a slight rise and then discovered the enterprising thug was directing traffic into an area submerged beneath four feet of water. I should have taken greater note of all the reversing cars. Other routes proved equally impassable. Evidently I would not be getting home.
It is said that an Englishman responds to adversity by making a cup of tea. But there is another type of Englishman. When the going gets tough, he doesn’t meekly seek solace from a teacup. He heads to the pub. Inside my local bar, the water was at seat-level, owing to the building being located in a dip. This created the impression that the customers, jolly from having been there since last night, were floating on the water with their legs submerged. Certainly not the first time they had been legless. The patrons were few, mind – just the most determined drinkers. The sort of fellows you’d find making merry down at The Apocalypse Arms, blissfully oblivious to the hellfire raining down around them.
I ordered breakfast – a large Bintang – took a sip, and surveyed the surroundings. I hadn’t seen so much water in the wrong place since my friend had sunk his wooden cabin cruiser in the Thousand Islands. I took another sip and cast my mind back to that fateful day.
The boat had just departed Pulau Burung Indah, an island of tall trees occupied by birds whose incessant droppings sounded like the patter of light rain. We had on board two young Dutch tourists, who had paid for a weekend pleasure cruise in this idyll of mostly unpopulated and privately owned islands set in crystal-clear waters. Already annoyed at being dotted with bird feces – the bird island had been an unscheduled stop – they were wondering if Judd, the boat’s boisterous American skipper, really was the experienced seadog that he had claimed to be when they had signed up.
Whenever the boat left harbour, it was amply stocked with crates of beer. It could easily have been mistaken for a Bintang cargo vessel. Only five hours into the trip, Judd was, to use a nautical phrase, three sheets to the wind. He had a competent crew of three local young men, which should have ensured a safe trip. But on this vessel the skipper, or publican – take your pick – had the last word at the wheel, or behind the bar – again, take your pick. The crew could argue all they liked that being native to these tropical waters, as opposed to the streets of Boston from where Judd hailed, made them the better judges of navigational issues. It was during one of these potential mutinies, with Judd insisting the boat stay on the course he had set, that the keel crunched into a reef and the vessel began to sink.
Captain Judd gave the order to abandon ship. His own part in this procedure involved transferring all the remaining bottles of beer into large carrier bags, plunging into the water with them, and wading toward the nearest shore, shouting, “Follow me!” Despite a reluctance to enter the sea, or indeed to follow Judd anywhere further, the tourists scooped up their belongings and clambered over the side. Luckily, we emerged on an inhabited island, enabling us to negotiate passage back to the mainland.
Splashing out of my reverie, I exited the bar and noticed something peculiar. In my experience of floods, the water always receded soon after the rain had stopped, but this time it was getting deeper. I soon learned the answer. A barrier had collapsed on the bloated Ciliwung River and more water was spewing into the city.
It seemed another abandon-ship was called for. But how does one disembark from a sinking city that has been holed by decades of having too many Captain Judds at the wheel? My first impulse was to wade back to the bar and do what Judd did: save the beer. But with the situation looking perilous, I decided to stay sober. I also wanted a second attempt at getting home before boat rental became the only option.
On that day, the water indeed rose to record levels, deluging all main roads and even the Presidential Palace. Nevertheless, I managed to make it home. How? By moving house. As I waited for a taxi, a nice high-and-dry room for rent in some flats caught my attention. It was furnished, so I paid a month’s rent and moved in immediately. The following day, I fetched my possessions, most of them sodden and ruined, from my former home. Then, feeling weary of Jakarta, I booked a trip to the Thousand Islands, a much drier destination.