After many weeks of staying here, the hotel has started rotating through its staff. They recently changed the person who works at the front desk. The women who used to work there could talk in Indonesian and in English and so was quite effective for being able to convey needs and problems to. I am not sure why they rotated her out from her usual shift. There was always the issue of her boyfriend and how his job in the Police Department seemed to involve him getting newer and bigger cars then his pay should allow for. I of course have no idea whether or not the small-scale corruption had any part to play in this at all.
One thing I forgot to do before coming to Indonesia was actually checking up on the history of the country. After having spent time here and reading up a little bit, I have gotten a very quick and basic grasp of the history of the nation.
This is the History of Indonesia: first the Dutch came and kept the people oppressed by keeping them uneducated and dumb. Then the Japanese came and used the same facilities the Dutch used to torture the Indonesians but they weren't around for long due to World War Two and the Americans. After a Crisis in Parliamentary Democracy, Sukarno (a leftish autocrat) ruled the country. He was followed in the 70's by Suharto, a righish autocrat in so much as he was not in league with Beijing. Both of them used the same strategy the Dutch did, "Dumb Down and Rule." Today Indonesia has a large but unskilled workforce which also has the reputation for being lazy because it was used to getting government handouts. A major problem is that foreign companies don't even want to hire cheap Indonesian labor since they are just not good enough to hire for basic work. Considering how many problems Indonesia has had since its Independence (which they celebrated last Friday) it would probably have been better for them to be colonized by the British.
Sure that sounds a bit harsh coming out of my Anglo-American mouth, but what about when it comes out of the mouths of an Indonesian?
A few weeks ago I met an Indonesian who said exactly what I said. This Indonesian also happen to seem to have been one of the more informed ones I met in my time here. His specialty should not be surprising; he is a Historian.
I decided that I needed to go to a couple of Jakarta's museums while I was here. Lonely Planet was being exceptionally unhelpful and the combined powers of the interwebs were only able to quickly produce a quick list of all the possible tourist locations in Jakarta. Surprisingly, this list can fit onto a single piece of A4 paper, once formatted. Two places seemed like sensible options, one was "The Jakarta National Museum" and the other was "The Jakarta Museum of History." It's great when names like those tell you everything and nothing at exactly the same time.
"The Jakarta National Museum" is in the CBD and government area of the city. The building is white and clean and rather big. It's essentially a sort of giant warehouse that the government has refurbished and attached to another government building to make it look presentable. (Or it was a government warehouse that was attached to another building before being turned into a museum). I call it a warehouse because that is how it is treated. They throw stuff into it and hope that the people who walk around it can figure out where everything it supposed to go. Sort of like a bad puzzle.
The set up was simple. They took stuff that seemed similar to other stuff and they were all thrown into a room because they look similar. If there was no space for the stuff, then it was put into the hallways. Most the exhibits were only very loosely tied together, and it was sometimes hard to get a sense of the proper context for things because of the way they were presented. For example, there was a large collection of Chinese porcelain, all in one room. I assume that this is relevant because Indonesia has a sizable Chinese immigrant population but as far as the museum is concerned, porcelain is just cool to have. (Fun Fact: The Chinese Immigrants run the Indonesian economy because they are the only ones who know how to run a business. Some of them are fantastically wealthy which is why there is much resentment towards them from the locals. This resentment was why many Chinese were attacked during the 1998 riots. I also hear that in order to keep their wealth safe, the Chinese like to turn their hard currency into Gold and carry it around with them. Apparently that's safer then just putting it in a bank.)
In addition to the Chinese pots, there were mock-ups of certain types of boats that were used by the earliest Indonesians, as well as many Buddha statues thrown around for good measure. Some of their exhibits were interesting, like their exhibit on Thailand. It was very informative, clear, and surprisingly interesting. It also was paid for by the Thai government. Still, it was a good room, it air conditioning and everything.
To be fair, the Museum is renovating, and they have built a new ultra-modern wing to showcase some of their other items. I unfortunately did not find this part of the museum till the end of my time there (I needed to leave soon since I wanted to make it to the other museum before it closed) so while the new wing seemed more thought out and much less like a government warehouse, I unfortunately was not able to spend much time there to soak up any of it.
The drive to the other museum ("The Jakarta Museum of History") was long. This was of course due to the traffic, which was bottlenecking the city again. The first museum was in the CBD while the second one was in the old part of the city, nearer to the port. I was annoyed about the traffic because the info I had said the museum closed early even on weekends and by my watch I was pushing it.
Such fears were ultimately unnecessary since its Jakarta and things like "closing times" are just suggestions that are offered but not necessarily followed. Sort of like project deadlines. In any case, it turned out I was not going to be late at all.
"Old Batavia" as I prefer to refer to it is not like downtown Jakarta. The buildings are painted with brighter colors and they're no sky-rises. People are also friendlier and much more willing to engage in conversation to the best of their (sometimes surprising) English abilities. Batavia is what the Dutch called the capital of Indonesia and since the city was important as a trading port, the Dutch set up shop closer to the harbor. This was the part of the city where the colonists ruled.
As we pulled up to the museum, I assumed the it would just be small and not necessarily all that informative. The building was squat, painted in what I remember to have been a sort of bright yellow. There was no clear front entrance path so I had to find a break in the side railing and walk on some rather new cobble stone steps. I entered and after paying the entrance fee I was greeted by the museum curator.
It turns out that in some cases, museum curators in Jakarta have so little to do during the day that they are able to offer personal tours of their establishments. My curator's (nick)name was "Aldy" and he had a surprisingly clear grasp of English. What was more surprising was that his English was learned by being self taught with books and by just being friendly and talking to tourists. It also helped that was a sought after person among the various Embassy personnel in the city but I am not surprised, he really knows his stuff.
It turns out that the "Jakarta Museum of History" actually used to be the former Colonial City Hall, Governor's Residence, Court House, and Torture & Execution building. It was quite the multi-tasker. We started in the dungeon. It was small and dark, an appropriately bad place to spend your final days. It was explained that the facilities were used by the Japanese for the short time they were in Indonesia. The second torture place we saw was a water well where inmates would have been thrown down and either have drowned or try and keep afloat out of futility. For extra kick, the Dutch would often throw leeches down there as well.
He told me that not all the Dutch governors made extensive use of these facilities against the local population. To show me this, we went to the second floor of the building.
The second floor had a fairly large conference room with a rather large painting on the wall. The guide explained that the painting was not there originally and had not even been painted back when the Dutch ruled the colony. It was a typical European style-portrait of one of the former Dutch governor. Aldy explained that he was the one Dutch Governor who was a more benevolent dictator and who had a reputation among the Indonesians of being more fair and equitable. For this reason, the Indonesian government requested that the Dutch government send over a large portrait of Indonesia's "least mean governor" for them to hang in the museum.
The fate of being a governor who was possibly more careful and discriminating in his use of capital punishment was not pleasant. The tour took me to the balcony. He explained that from here, the Dutch could see the prisoners below get shot and their bodies be thrown into the sewer to flow to the river (they only recently started to discover the skeletons of the bodies underground while doing unrelated construction work). From the Balcony, they would also have been able to see how the more benevolent Governor was killed by the Dutch. His punishment was to have his arms and legs tied to a different horse, and to have each horse run in an opposite direction, stretching his body at all four corners and physically breaking him that way.
It was at this point that Aldy explained that as far as he was concerned, the Dutch were bad colonialists and that it would have been much better for Indonesia if they had been ruled by the British instead. He is a perceptive man. He knew that Singapore and Malaysia were under British rule and that they have both turned out rather well. He felt that the main problem was that the Dutch never taught the locals any language. While it would have been ideal in the long run to learn English it would not have hurt if they were taught Dutch as well. Instead there was no history of any education being done, and as a result, the Indonesians suffer from mass simplicity. (Not mass stupidity, just simplicity.)
The Dutch attitude is not all that surprising in hindsight, Indonesia was essentially just a giant base for the Dutch East India Company and so they never really settled or set up some sort of semi-permanent residence, they just ruled the island to protect the company.
Aldy did not have any seem to have any resentment towards the colonialists. His training as a historian seemed to suggest that he had a full appreciation for why things happened and was more concerned with informing those who came to the museum more then anything else. Although he does appreciate Indonesian culture he was clearly educated in aspects of the Western tradition. He took the tour into another room that had a large wooden tapestry with a Greek deity in the middle. To my surprise he pointed out that it was Athena. He also pointed out a fresco which was painted over an entrance. He explained that it was brought over from the Netherlands back when Indonesia was a colony and that is depicted the famous Biblical scene were king Solomon has the baby and he intends to split it. As he explained "It's a scene of Biblical justice and wisdom which fit in with this building being a courthouse." I think he may be the one of the few Indonesians who actually knew anything about the history of his own country and foreign ones as well.
Despite his surprising appreciation for Western culture Aldy was still very appreciative of aspects of Indonesian heritage, notably, their shadow puppets. You may have heard or seen them, the puppets which get their image transposed onto a giant screen with the aid of light. They are a big part of native Indonesian culture and Aldy's entire family is made up of professional puppet makers. He is of course one himself and hopes to raise his son to be one to. They aren't easy to make. The process of getting the cow skin, drying it, cutting and painting it, it can take up to two months.
The puppets depict deities and archetypes from Indonesian legend (he refers to each characters in ways that Westerners can understand such as "This is the Indonesian Superman, he was invented in 500 AD.") They are very popular with Embassy personnel and business travelers. This is a nation that still believes in ghosts so it probably helps around the office to show you are trying not to offend the bad demons to much.
Yes, many Indonesians still believe in ghosts, spirits, and demons. Not the in western sense where you may be a little bit scared of a scary house if it makes noise. In the Indonesian sense, you can get leave from your office if you make the case that you need to see the local shaman in order to get yourself cleared of any curse that was put on you by the demon you annoyed last weekend.
I blame such unfounded superstitions on a lack of education.
P.S. I recently got to spend a short holiday in Singapore. There are many ways to compare and contrast Jakarta and Singapore, such as by how clean or safe one is compared to the other. There is one comparison which I think underscores the main differences well though.
In Singapore, there are seatbelts for the passengers in all the different Taxis. In Jakarta, there is only brand of Taxi that is trusted and even they don't have seatbelts for passengers.