48 - Trafficking & Mall Madness (Jakarta, Indonesia)


Smiley Smilerson meets circle of confusion. To everything turn, turn, turn… or don’t. To the mall, y’all. Satin Class for your snooty ass. And still the children smile.

by Mr. Nos T. O’maniac


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MY “GET NOTHING ACCOMPLISHED” TOUR OF JAKARTA CONTINUED… as did my traffic vexations. The city center and outskirts are chalked full of one-way streets which may or may not allow you to turn right or left. No way to tell, really. I certainly couldn’t. Destination in sight? Oh, the cruelty! Might as well be a fucking mirage. The shortest distance between two points always required misconduct. Right turns were particularly elusive, on par with the fabled snow leopard. One evening stands out. I was hungry but didn’t want to drive far, ergo I chose a nearby restaurant. I consulted the map and surveyed the fastest route. Geographically, this was correct. Metaphysically? Not so much. The “one-way, no right turns” phenomenon led me ten miles astray. The unintentional joyride ended in a U-turn, probably illegal.

Traffic circles were my kryptonite. The rules seemed fluid, changing from circle to circle. In Bali, I was tagged for making an illegal left-hand turn, a turn I deemed permissible given the lawless nature of road etiquette. Nope. This country bumpkin hit roundabout bingo a second time in the big city. Done in by a right-hand turn this time… Fiddlesticks! Jakarta has some large-ass circles. Mine was bisected by four lanes on all sides. Green did indeed mean “go”, but only straight ahead… allegedly. Not sure what the point of the circle was unless there was a separate color for “turn in the circle.” I probably missed the sign pictogram highlighting this regulation, but I had good reason for doing so. When in Rome? Do like the Romans… or not.

You’d think the strategy would be rock solid, but it was impossible to determine which folks were following the rules and which couldn’t give a rat’s ass. On this occasion, I apparently followed someone of the “rat’s ass” variety. (Assuming they were native to the area, of course.) He curved right, I followed. We ended up facing the opposite direction (mid-circle) stopped at a red light. This just happened to be in front of a traffic police post. I realized this when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, two members of Jakarta’s finest strolling in my direction. I assumed fault in my neighbor, the motorist’s who’s lead I followed. Leave Johnny Tourist alone, right? Just to be safe, I went with Jedi protocols. Can’t see you if you don’t look. Can’t see you if you don’t look. I’m invisible… now! They don’t want you. They want him. Him. He did it. He’s the one you want, officer. Stay cool. Tell the bitch to be cool. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Not the droids—Busted!

I was invited (a la stern pantomime) to park my hog and join them in the traffic shed. I graciously accepted. Yes, my Jedi skills failed me, but there’s nothing more foolproof than stupid. Illiterate and stupid force field… engage! Thus began the incomprehensible utterances and pantomiming.

Mr. Traffic Cop #1: “You no turn right. Right you no turn.” (Lots of pointing and gesticulating.)

Me: “Aaaaah… ummm… huh? Can’t right turn there? Whaaaat? Uuuuuuuhhhhh…”

Mr. Traffic Cop #1: “Indonesian blah-blah—blah… Mumbling… More blah-blah-blah.”

Me: “Uuuuuhhhhh… sorry? I don’t understand. What? (But I did. I did understand.)

Mr. Traffic Cop #2: “Indonesian Blah-blah-blah… license-blah.”

Me: “Yes. License? Okay. License.” 

Mr. Traffic Cop #1: “How long you Indonesia?”

Me: “Four months.” (I executed a four finger visual assist.)

Mr. Traffic Cop #1: “You like Indonesia?”

Me: “I love Indonesia.”

I produced my registration and International Driving Permit. After a perfunctory glance, the dance began anew.

Mr. Traffic Cop #1: “You go justice. Pay registration. (And then, in response to the quizzical look on my face—) Injustice. You know justice?”

Me: “Ummmmmm… huh?” (Do I know justice? I love justice. Injustice bad. Justice good.)

Mr. Traffic Cop #1: “You go justice (pointing out window) and pay money. You know money?”

Me: “Money? Ohhhh… moooooney. Yes. Pay money? What? Where? Huh?”

I thought he was saying I needed to get an amendment to my registration which required a trip to their version of the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles). The name on the registration was the woman from whom I purchased the motorcycle. What he actually said was I needed to go to the “Justice Department” and pay a fine. A fine for what? A fucking ridiculous right turn. That’s what. While this is happening, the guy driving the car was being issued a ticket. The things is, why would a local be stupid enough to commit such a heinous traffic faux pas right under 5-0’s watchful eye? Never understood that. Perhaps, he wasn’t local but he looked the part and spoke Indonesian. Kooky, is it not? Is.

Mr. Traffic Cop #1: “No problem. You pay here. Five hundred.”

Me: “Five hundred? Five hundred rupiahs?” (Five hundred rupiahs equaled five cents back then.)

Mr. Traffic Cop #1: “Five hundred rupiahs… Five thousand rupiahs.”

Me: “Five thousand rupiahs? Huh? (Fifty cents.)

He was not amused. I refused to help. So, he resorted to his own visual aids by writing down five hundred thousand rupiahs (approx. fifty dollars). I knew this from the start but decided if he was going to extort me, he should have to earn it a little. Also, I was hoping he might get frustrated and set me free sans bribe. (Worked in Bali.) Nuh-uh. Still, isn’t it nice that in lieu of wasting your precious time at the “Injustice Department” you can seamlessly resolve the issue right on the spot? Sure is. Convenience is our courtesy. 

On the outside, I was Smiley Smilerson. On the inside? Ya dirty bastards! Do you know who I am? Nobody! That’s who. I’m fucking nobody, you corrupt assheads. Decision time. Pay the fine and move on or raise a stink and fight to the bitter end. Our hero chose the former. Admittedly, more resistance and a threatened call to the embassy might’ve done the trick, but I didn’t have the gumption to persevere. Like an asshole, I chose the path of least resistance. Then again, if I had actually committed a moving violation, perhaps they would’ve taken legitimate remedial action and made life unpleasant. Perhaps. So, I paid the fucking blood money. All of it. Hard to negotiate a bribe downward when your cash is heaped together in one big slovenly shit lump and the cop’s eyes are glued to your pockets. Oops. I was screwed. Screwed, I say!

I suppose it could’ve been worse. They were fairly excited at the prospect of me touring Indonesia on the motorcycle, so maybe that helped. (I did get a thumbs up.) However, I’d wager they were more excited at the prospect of making a quick fifty bucks. I really wanted a photo with my new friends, but thought that might be pressing my luck. 

In the days following, I avoided further legal intrigues. This is good. I was in no mood. Extortion is fun the first time. After that, the novelty wears off considerably. Bribery needs to be a two-way a street, mutual benefits and all that shit. Next time, I wasn’t going down without a fight… probably. I’m super tough in the abstract and hoped to keep it the way. 

I did find a traffic circle you’re allowed to circumnavigate, so I knew I hadn’t imagined them. I was still a little shaky on the precise significance of a red light. Sometimes you can turn left on red. Sometimes not. Sometimes a red light means stop. Sometimes it means, “Ummmm, maaybe” or “Yeah, right!” Polite suggestion. Immutable law. Fluid reminder. All those and more depending on the location, time of day, traffic cop’s whim, current Zodiac configuration, angle of the sun, etc.

One reason I may be forgiven for not paying rapt attention to signage and behavioral cues from other drivers? Trying not to die, a laudable goal I should think. It’s the quantum mechanics style of driving. Everyone wants to occupy the same space simultaneously. Like Schrödinger's cat, at any given moment, I was both alive and dead while under constant threat of quantum entanglement.

*Video courtesy of Al Jazeera English

Through all the traffic shenanigans, I did try to get shit accomplished. Success level? Slight to moderate, I’d say. Sumatra was to be the adventurous portion of my Indonesian fandango, so preparation was key. The materialistic bounty of Indo’s capital could provide all. But, alas, I had a really hard time staying motivated. Being in a city that big and chaotic was such a contrast to all my Indonesian experiences thus far. A large part of me wanted to stand, stare, and walk around aimlessly with no set agenda. That required little brain power (as opposed to the constant vigilance of driving). Even street walking required too much bandwidth at times. Solution? The mall, ya heard.

I’m not a big fan of trolling the mall for hot bargains, but, as I’m mentioned before, all the mundane morsels of everyday life back home take on new meaning and interest when abroad. (For me, anyway.) What’s the übermall like in Jakarta? I wondered. I had already been bedazzled by one in Surabaya after spending the months prior on the rural, relatively undeveloped islands of Sumbawa and Flores. Talk about walking into the future. The mall in Surabaya was a kiosk compared to The Plaza Indonesia Shopping Center in Jakarta, the future’s future. 

Hands down the nicest mall I’d ever had the pleasure of patronizing. Over four hundred fifty stores. Seven floors of shopping. Five underground floors of parking. A movie theater (Cinema XXI). Restaurants galore. Conspicuous consumption on a western scale. Designer stores with designer prices. FDBD (For Douchebags By Douchebags). Everything you hate about modern capitalist society. I fuggin’ loved it. It was this weird guilty pleasure I can’t describe. At home, I could give a shit. Hey, wanna go hang out at the mall? Fuck off. In Jakarta? It was like visiting another planet. Same shit. Different country. And yet, it was all the more surreal and exotic for the similarities. 

So, I strolled the hallowed halls of Indo’s Temple of Consumerism snapping photos of the trite and blasé. Part of the mall had a gauche Manhattan NYC theme I found mesmerizing for reasons I can’t readily explain. Oddly, I was instructed to cease and desist all photography by mall staff. Why? Couldn’t fucking tell ya, and I never did find out. Plaza Indonesia a sensitive government building? Sure… except for the fact others were taking photos on their camera phones in the midst of my reprimand. Cameras? Nope. Camera phones? Cool. This absurdity was duly punctuated by the absurdity of my perverse enjoyment in mall stalking. Felt like Opposite Day.

What’s better than wandering fecklessly through a seven-story symbol of Western excess? Easy, sitting on your ass in a ridiculously posh cinema. My reward for getting so little accomplished? To the theater, lad! (Author’s note: This description is dated. I’m guessing they’ve probably made everything even more ridiculous.) At that time, the cinema occupied the upper two floors (accessed by a long escalator) with a commanding view of southern Jakarta. The area in front of the ticket counter was perfect for lolling and staring into the city below. Apparently, going to the movies ain’t no casual affair. The grandeur would’ve struck me without having encountered the large economic disparity in other parts of the country. This theater blew away anything I’d seen in the states.

Other amenities? Eleven auditoriums (Two “Satin” class theaters), Satin Lounge, Blitz Cafe with stage, Party Room, Smoking Lounge, and Gamesphere arcade. Satin class tickets, you ask? If slumming it ain’t your style, you could purchase Satin tickets on the theatre’s top floor containing sixty-four reclining seats in each “lounge” (theater, that is). Cost? Eight dollars. I hadn’t realized the different options when I purchased my ticket to Terminator: Salvation in “economy” class. Somehow, I endured. Even without the fancy-smancy option, this was the finest theater I’d ever been in. So, how far did a movie ticket, popcorn, and lemon iced-tea set me back in Indonesia’s premiere mall? Six bucks. Small price to pay for the inner peace and tranquility I found sequestered from the chaos inside a dark theater. The movie sucked, but it mattered not in that atmosphere.


All was not lost. I pulled my act together long enough to stock up on supplies (razors, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, rain poncho, etc.) and, more importantly, bring the Phantom in for a tune-up. The tune-up tuned me up as well… to the tune of one hundred forty dollars, the alleged cost of a new drivetrain. Did I take it in the poopshoot on price? Maybe, but it didn’t feel so, and I suppose that’s all that matters. (Moral victory?) Then again, hard to tell if they took this honkey for a ride. Still, I was happy to have it done in light of my upcoming Sumatran safari. 

And though Jakarta isn’t designed with foot traffic in mind, I did take a stroll here and there to brave the fumes and photograph the grit. I have to wonder what living in that urban maelstrom does to the human mind. It has to have an effect, and it can’t be a good one. And yet, still the children smile…