Christmas in Jakarta- 1986
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
“Our five-day ordeal in Jakarta is mercifully over. At times, especially in the middle of the night, when the mosquitoes, the heat and the noise made it impossible to sleep, and our minds reviewed the horrible scenes from the day before, we were certain we would be stuck in this hell hole forever. And to think that we had spent Christmas here!” Elaine’s journal, aboard the MV Kerinci Ferry, enroute to Sumatra, Indonesia
In June 1986, Chris Edwards and Elaine Weeks, embarked on a one year, backpacking around-the -world, honeymoon. During their journey, they visited 15 countries; here is how they spent Christmas in 1986, halfway around the world from their home in Walkerville.
December 27th, 1986
Six months into our unforgettable round-the-world backpacking honeymoon, Chris and I found ourselves on yet another gruelling train trip. Getting from A to B on a tight budget can be debilitating- in the tropics it is survival of the fittest. The ten-hour journey from Jogjakarta to Jakarta on the over-populated island of Java was bearable only because we had reserved seats in second class.
We weren't looking forward to Jakarta, our next destination. It had a reputation on the coconut telegraph (the budget traveller’s gossip and destination rumour mill) as the hell hole of Asia (a distinction it shared with Dhaka, Bangladesh).
But we had few options. In order to catch a boat to our next destination: Lake Toba on Sumatra, renowned as a fantastic place for weary travellers to rest their bones we had to go to Jakarta first.
Our decrepit train was packed; school kids were returning home from holidays, and combined with the usual hoards of people headed somewhere on this island called Java, which is only twice the size of Vancouver Island, but well over 100 million souls! Many passengers stood or sat in the narrow aisles the entire way; we shouldn't have complained, but still did anyway.
Adding to everyone’s misery was the tropical heat; like a gigantic wet tarp over our heads. Ancient fans whirring lazily over our heads did little but shift the stifling air about. We were unable to stretch out our legs so there we were, trapped in hot and sticky seats like giant ants in maple syrup. Well, at least we had seats.
As usual, the locals stared at us. I had long ago understood what the term “alien” really meant. Although our skin was no longer pale, having been in the tropics for many months, my light blonde hair and Chris’s blue eyes and beard attracted gawkers as if we were movie stars wherever we went. (Later in our journey, while travelling through India on yet another interminable train ride, I couldn’t take the staring any longer and threw a scarf over my head and face and sat like that for the entirety of the journey.)
Another annoyance, that grew more irksome as time went by was the fact that we restricted our liquid intake while on board; we did not want to use the toilets (no doubt perfectly disgusting). Trying to pass all the hordes wedged in the aisle would have been a feat in itself
Besides stopping at dozens of stations along the way, the train periodically halted for no apparent reason. Everybody seemed to grin and bear it, even though the fans were turned off during these increasingly irritating intervals. Chris and I morosely stared out the window at yet another rice paddy shimmering under the sun’s relentless glare.
“Reminded me again why we doing this again?” we’d ask each other.
Near sunset, we finally entered the outskirts of Jakarta. Wes congratulated ourselves on surviving yet another travel ordeal and reminded each other that the best places were usually the hardest journeys. Soon we would be sitting in a beautiful lake house house enjoying banana cognacs.
Our revery was snapped when the train stopped dead in it tracks, with narry a station in sight. For no apparent reason. And stayed that way for half an hour. With the fans turned off.
Everyone’s eyes seemed to glaze over as if to trick themselves into believing this wasn’t really happening. The waiting was like Chinese water torture. And then finally, the train began rolling slowly forward. Fifteen long minutes later, we inched into the station.
Another Honeymoon Hotel We stumbled off the train, exhausted, dehydrated and near delirium. Our Lonely Planet Bible "SouthEast Asia on the Cheap" promised cheap rooms and food just across the street in Jolan Jaksa, Jakarta's budget travellers’ ghetto. Of course we had to trudge for a half hour before finding a vacancy. For 5000 RP ($5), we were shown a small room with a fan, a double bed and a table. It wasn’t the Ritz but the pickings were slim as all the hotels seemed filled with travellers.
What was everyone doing in Jakarta at Christmas?
After a fitful night and an early “wakeup call” – someone’s radio blasting away at 6 am – we discovered – oh the irony – that while we had been stuck on that bloody train during the final half-hour delay, we had been just one street away from our hotel. Ouch…
Much of the budget travellers’ life is spent in one location while trying to get to another more desirable one. We were at the mercy of the boat schedule; all we had to do was somehow survive the heat, the noise, the crowds and the filth (did I mention heat?) before we were released from our purgatory on the day after Christmas. Only five nights....
We passed the time catching on postcard and letter writing. Coming from big families, we’d written over 100 cards and twenty letters at this point in our journey. In remote areas, it would be weeks before we could post so we were never certain sure how worried our loved ones were back home. There wasn’t any mail waiting for us in Jakarta – the next news we would receive from home would be in Singapore some four weeks later.
The Sights (and smells) One morning, we woke early to take in the local sights before it became too hot. Jakarta was once known as Batavia, capital of the eastern Dutch Empire. The Dutch arrived in 1596 when Cornelis de Houtman landed at Jakarta harbour. Trade blossomed and their foothold in ‘Jayakarta’ grew stronger after the founding of the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company). In 1619, Jayakarta was razed by the Dutch under Jan Pieterszoon Coen. On its ashes, the Dutch founded a new settlement, Batavia. The settlement became the Dutch center of power for 350 years in this part of the world, until it fell into the hands of the Japanese imperial forces in 1941. For the Dutch, the islands were an embarrassment of riches.
In 1986,, the old Dutch port Sunda Kelapa was a marvel. Hundreds of wooden ships – Makassar schooners called "pininsis" lined the wharf like a scene out of a pirate movie. We didn’t see any under sail but we did witness the vessels being loaded and unloaded by hand. It was incredible to see the deck hands carry huge planks of hardwood, sacks of rice and other foodstuffs up and down 8″ wide ramps from the boats to the dock.
The canal near the port made our stomachs turn. All manner of human and animal waste, garbage and general debris coated the surface. Two rows of dilapidated shanties lined the water’s edge along a smaller canal. There was probably no hope in hell for anyone living here to ever improve their lot in life. This was where they would be born, live and die.
While walking along another fetid looking canal a day later, we spotted three men up to their chins in the blackish brown, wretched looking water. We eventually realized that they were not mad, they were fishing! For what, we never discovered. Better not to know.
We encountered many beggars in the streets. At least we didn’t see as many people sleeping outside as we had seen in Jogjakarta. They shared the streets with the rats and giant cockroaches, ubiquitous in South East Asia.
Christmas Dinner – We Splurge To ensure our $10,000 budget lasted the entire year, we generally ate with the locals. “Western” food was pricier; we actually preferred the noodle and rice dishes. Besides being easier on the pocket book, they were usually delicious.
It had been a while since we'd tasted a cheeseburger and once in a while, nothing else will do (not even turkey!) so for Christmas dinner, we splurged. We located a restaurant that not only prepared amazing hamburgers but served up pretty mean chocolate shakes too.
It may not have been a turkey dinner with all the trimmings, but we felt almost festive as we ate our food with relish (and ketchup and mustard!) especially since we knew that the next day, yes! – we'd finally be leaving!
Walking back to the hotel with a friendly Aussie couple Lou and Sue, we kept a wary eye on the giant rats that seemed to follow us up the road. We joked about how it was a real ‘rat race’ here!
The Boat Ride – There is a God! We had not been alone in our long wait for deliverance. Fellow travellers shared our frustration and Bob, an engaging lawyer from California, told us he was scheduled to depart on the same boat.
But Bob decided to celebrate Christmas by sharing his bottle of Scotch with another traveller who produced a bottle of cheap Indonesian hooch. Needless to say, when we rapped on Bob’s door the next morning, he was in no shape travel.
Bob decided the best remedy was to polish off the remaining Scotch. We were so sick of waiting, we couldn’t bear the thought of being delayed and missing our ticket out of here.
We made to the port by local bus, although finding the right boat proved to be tricky. When we finally spotted our ship, we were drenched by a tropical downpour as we ran up the gangplank. But we didn’t care – we were finally on that damn boat!
We had made it aboard and into our relatively luxurious accommodations (at this point, anything looked good!) half an hour before sailing. At ten minutes past the 1 pm departure time, the door to our cabin burst open and Bob staggered in with his bag, a huge gash protruding from his forehead, muddy knees and a goofy drunken grin on his face. A couple of deckhands had taken charge when he’d fallen flat on his face after climbing out of the taxi at the port; they had gently deposited him in the room.
Exactly two minutes later, we felt the boat move. After celebrating with a laugh and a hug, Chris and I let Bob sleep it off for a while.
As our boat passed the island of Krakatoa between Java and Sumatra, site of the massive volcano eruption in 1883 felt around the world, I had an overpowering sensation I was dreaming.
Was I really here or would I wake up in that dingy hotel room in Jakarta for yet another day in hell?
Perish the thought!
Next Stop: Into The Wilds of Sumatra