Bogor: "The Botanical Gardens"


West Java

May 14, 2005

Salamat Malam,

Years ago, in Boston, my colleague Paul used a favorite expression when I made an error in judgment. With a smile, and a slightly affected tone, he would pronounce, "Well...That... Was... Stuuuuupid."

I thought of Paul as I made a long distance journey on the back of a motorbike, 60ks south of Jakarta to Kebun Raya, the Bogor Botanical Gardens.

Covering an area of 80 hectares - 200 acres - the picturesque rolling hills and gardens hold more than 15,000 species of trees and plants including 400 types of stately palms from everywhere in the world; lotus ponds; streams and waterfalls.

My favorite spots: A suspension bridge over a white waterfall. An avenue of huge trees planted by Olivia Raffles, the wife of the governor-general, who died in 1814 and is buried in Batavia. A bamboo "jungle."A grand lawn where large groups of young men and young women were "meeting." A lotus pond where I spotted a large lizard, turtles, and a few black and white birds fluttering about the trees.

I chatted with a young American couple with milky-white Wisconsin complexions. They are enrolled in a graduate program in forestry and ecology.

Towards the end of my two hour stroll in the forest, I was accompanied by two young "covered" Muslim university girls who were curious about my travels and my impressions of Java.

As we approached the exit, I was besieged by several men selling "batik" note cards. They clearly and firmly reminded me that earlier in the day I had said, "See you later."

A note to fellow travelers in Asia. NEVER! say, "Maybe later" or "See you tomorrow" to street vendors. Your words will come back to pick your pocket. Smile, just and say, "NO!"

Anyway, I was happy to visit the gardens - a breezy, cool, green respite from Jakarta traffic.

My faulty judgment occurred much earlier.

My young American friends were astonished that I decided to make a two and a half hour motorbike ride. (Yes. Your math is correct. 60ks = 37 miles = 2 1/2 hours!)

Actually it was three hours getting there. We had a pit stop to repair a blown out rear tire. (And I thought I was losing weight.)

Well if Java is "carpeted with people," then Java is "wall-to-wall" with motor bikes.

How can I describe the flow of traffic?

The image that comes to mind is the microscopic stream of blood cells. Red cells, white cells, platelets, whatever, rushing through our arteries.

My Singapore friend, Faye disagreed. She pointed out that the movement of blood cells is haphazard and the cells are constantly colliding.

Faye likened the flow of traffic to a "dance." There is a choreography. There are rules of the road. The frenetic stream of traffic really is "organized chaos."

Every driver simply looks ahead and accelerates to fill an empty space.

Broken white lane markings are irrelevant. Solid white shoulder lines go unheeded. The black and white painted curbstones and "No Parking" signs must be invisible to the Indonesian motorist.

Side view mirrors? If...if they are in place, they are mostly used by girls to adjust their scarfs or make-up, or by boys to examine their one or two chin whiskers. ("You shave every day?" asked an astonished man. One day I tried three different pharmacies before I could score one small canister of Gillette Foamy.)

It's true. Many Asian men use a nail clipper to dispose of the sparse beard that pops up here and there from time to time on their otherwise hairless body.

Sometimes young boys unabashedly pull on the hair on my arms. They are astonished. Then I yell, "Monkey, Monkey" and give them my best imitation. I also pound my chest with my fists and bellow, "King Kong. King Kong." I always get a laugh.

Back on the motorbike, my ass is getting sore and my lungs are getting angry. Large trucks and buses are belching black smoke from their tailpipes into my wind pipes. A mechanized chain of virulent volcanic vents. Pollution control device? Forgetaboutit.

To add to the airborne particulate matter, my conservative estimate is that 90% of Indonesian men smoke cigarettes. Incessantly. Who knows how many women smoke? It is not polite to smoke in public. Only at home.

A packet of the local brand, flavored with cinnamon and other spices, costs pennies. A box of twenty of the preferred "foreign" brand costs maybe 75 cents, on the high side.

And what a marketing job! Some ad exec thought up a brilliant gimmick. Plastered everywhere, on billboards and store fronts, is a broad white banner with that red geometric business to one side. One familiar word is painted black on the white background. "COUNTRY."

And what a stroke of luck! The main shopping street of Yogyakarta is called "Malioboro," named for, who else, the Duke of Marlborough.

What a country!

Traffic. Fumes. Exhaust. Smoke. Even the countryside is "carpeted wall-to-wall."

Is this a hell or a paradise for pulmonologists? A few more days of this contagion and you can bet your MO equity position that I will need to consult a doc myself.

And yet, your friend Jan is cool, cheerful, happy, enthusiastic - tunneling through this fumigated fog, this malicious, malodorous unholy miasma.



Perhaps you are thinking, "Psychiatrist." "Jan needs to see a Psychiatrist."

Salamat tinggal.


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