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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!”

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15 thoughts on “Old Jakarta, surreal and very real

  1. This is one of my favourite places to visit in Jakarta. The sights, the sounds , the SMELLS are all there. I haven’t seen the monkey on the motorbike in Fatahillah Square, but I’ve seen some pretty sadistic/masochistic shows going on… lots of whippings and beatings and piercing screams. It kind of makes the shows in Covent Garden (London) seem very tame. Life will never be the same after living here that’s for sure.

    • I really loved that place, oh it’s called Fatahillah Sq, i’m lousy with names, I did a video, reminds me, I better post it on the story ,thanks so much, I’m sure you could do the subject better justice than me! But it is one my favorite stories I wrote. Yes they had the whip, let me pull up the link for you , you might get a good laugh at the video !

      • Coolio! Look forward to seeing it. Actually I remember now, I did see that monkey on the motorbike but it was in Pasar Mayestik. Totally crazy but good fun. The Monkey seemed very happy and well fed. I’m sure that he would rather have been in a jungle somewhere, but at least he wasn’t stuck in a cage and he was obviously enjoying his performance. I rather liked the motley band that accompanied him – they were like wandering minstrels with their drums and flutes and guitars…kind of medieval.

      • I posted the vid, there u go, two comments, and now u have a blog post, i’m waiting to see u post it , wonderful descriptions . I saw a monkey performance in Bangawangi, East Java, a guy with his monkey on his bike, got images too, should post it!

      • I got another vid i need to edit, about Jakarta and traffic and the wonderful city, half complete, better get onto it. I find vids are a great way to communicate travel as well!

      • They are indeed and as long as they are not too long, I think they really add something to a post. I tend to give up on the ones that take forever to download. I wish that I was more technically brilliant – I havent a clue how to get the vid from my camera onto my blog and Irishman is so busy that he hasnt got time to show me. If I was a bit brighter and could work out what to do, I’d have loads of them on my posts!

      • It’s actually quite easy, all u need is an edit program, windows media maker is easy, think u will rise to the occasion like raising pigs, i’m not really into that pig dish or any bali dishes for that matter! for uploading vids, u can use the embed, yeah, upload a lower quality if u don’t have broad band, editing vids can be tedious, but it’s time i finish the last one i filmed, while walking around the streets of jakarta, just lacked the inspiration , the transition from writing to vids, ok time to make another leap of faith!

      • Good luck!
        you’ve inspired me to have a bash at it. I took a small video of part of a trip in a becak the other day. My son has just arrived from London so I’m sure I can rope him in to help me.

  2. Pingback: Indonesia, The Far Side | Far Side Travel: Photos

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