The drums roll, signifying something is going on outside the Wayang Museum in Old Jakarta. I get up from a stall where I am eating ketroprak – a popular rice noodle dish served with chips, peanut sauces and sweet soy bean ketchup – and take a look.
A monkey zooms by on a toy motorbike.
The trainer tugs hard on a long chain to give the dare devil monkey some momentum, and the crowd quickly disperse. It seems the puppeteer is the one terrorizing everyone along its path, as the crowd again quickly disperses. The monkey crashes into a cart, and the crowd gives nervous smiles.
Monkey troubadours are quite popular fair in Jakarta, and usually are brought in from the poorer suburbs of the city, where tips are guaranteed.
Old Jakarta is not only a National Heritage site but it’s the playground of the Indonesians, “the heart and soul,” says social critic, Ali Sayief: “ Old Jakarta is a place that we learn from the past and learn to criticize what has been happening in the current situation.”
The shows are less than politically correct. Nearby in the main courtyard, a human circus is underway. A young girl is sealed and stitched up in a hemp bag like a mummy. She stands frightened as a man who makes Indiana Jones look tame, is wielding his large whip and making deafening cracking sounds.
She is carried like a bag of spuds and put underneath a red tent. The sadist wields his whip again. Crack! Then the tent is uncovered to reveal the young unrestrained Houdini laughs, while a member of the team walks with a hat, collecting donations.
Not to be outdone by their previous performance, the father and daughter duo are now blowing fire balls from their mouths. Flames cut across the courtyard and petrol fumes mingle with the smells of clove cigarettes and deep-fried Indonesian snacks that pervade the air.
The young girl plays up to the crowd and runs her flame stick between her legs. And I’m thinking, is this some kind of Salvador Dali painting I’m inhabiting.
Nope, says and inner voice. This seems very normal for Jakarta. And it’s confirmed when I visit the Wayang Museum. After seeing a great selection of Wayang puppets, I go to the show to buy a few souvenirs. The retail assistant asks me if I am Russel Crowe. “You look so big!” Then he goes on about his male assistant who is in the corner, telling me he’s an exotic dancer. “See these puppets? “ – he’s holding up two lead figures of the Ramayana, “They are Romeo and Juliet.” I buy them and head out of the museum.
A quick rest at a street stall, then some Indonesian mariachis come up to the table and play a Mexican song. Be prepared to be surprised in Old Jakarta, and have your senses rattled. It’s a sensory overload, or as Hemingway might say, “A veritable feast!”