I like to think that I can quickly tell when a stranger is a threat even when the subtleties of cultural variations complicate the situation. Even so, I prefer to be on the conservative side and conduct whatever feels as sufficient due diligence. So, when this young man approached me in the middle of Fatahillah Square, in old Jakarta, I did not hurry my assessment. He introduced himself as a local guide and offered to show me around the area for the next two hours.

About as tall as me, he held a comfortable gaze as we talked. He spoke English well enough that I did not have to struggle to understand him. He wanted to know where I was from, probably wanting to decide how much he could charge me. I wanted to know where he was from, wanting to decide whether he was a guide or a con artist. Conversation ensued for a few minutes as I watched his face attentively and held on tightly to my purse, just in case. Then the right moment came for the obvious question: how much. His answer was not reassuring: “Let’s do it and you can pay me whatever you think is fair at the end.” See, I do not like that. If you are a guide, you must be able to price your service. My mind quickly wandered back to my trip to Nepal a couple years earlier. A local women’s group had “volunteered” to play some music and at the end were upset because my friends and I did not have enough for the tip they expected. Well, we had just come back from a long trek, had not seen a bank or ATM machine for at least a couple days and had used most of our cash during the trip. The little left was going to have to last us until we got back to Pokhara the next day and we were not ready to part with it. The women’s group strategy had really annoyed me and I wasn’t about to go through the same situation.

“No. Give me a price, or we cannot work together”, I said with my best serious face. “The Dutch paid me 25 US dollars for two hours last weekend”, was the much better response I got this time. So we agreed on 20, although he would have probably accepted 10, and my guided tour of old Jakarta started. I must say, before going on with this account, that I have strong feelings about foreign tourists haggling too hard with local business people, street vendors or what have you, particularly the more humble ones. One thing is to come to a sensible, reasonable price given the circumstances and cost of living in the place you are visiting. The other is to take advantage of the fact that in certain places people are so desperate for money that they will take basically anything. I consider the latter a form of enslaving, will not indulge in it and despise the practice.

So, anyway, back to old Jakarta. My guide was now taking the lead and chatting happily about the buildings around the square. He obviously knew his history and his way around very well and after our little heart to heart on the price issue I was comfortable he could be responsibly trusted. I laid out my plan for the afternoon lest he assumed he was going to do his standard circuit, which did not interest me. My idea was to take a brief walk around the square and then head to Sunda Kelapa, Jakarta’s old port and the main reason for my visit that Saturday. Off we went.

It was seriously hot, which did not really bother me, even though sweat ran down my neck as we walked around the heart of Old Batavia, Jakarta’s downtown of Dutch times. This incredibly rich city has obviously not been kind to its colonial architecture. The buildings around the Fatahillah Square are in a very poor state of conservation, so I had more fun with the people and the food.

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Once a quick overview of the main attractions around the square had been completed, we started to make our way north towards the port, weaving through little alley ways and heavy traffic.

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The great advantage of having a local guide, to my mind, is to be able to hear the perspective of someone who is a part of the local culture. That person walking next to me had lived his life in this country and probably knew more about it than he could even articulate. Our conversation went from religious tolerance to life in the villages of Indonesia, from the challenges of migration from rural areas to cities to the difficulties of finding a job. I wondered, then, what his plans were for himself, what he dreamed of for his life, how he spent his free time. “I am a student of Buddhism”, my guide said. The comment sparked my curiosity, but I was just in the middle of taking some photographs of the massive wooden vessels lined up along the docks. I made a mental note to go back to the topic later.

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I felt like the tiniest of creatures in comparison with the huge schooners that inhabit Sunda Kelapa. I could tell how proud the port workers were of these beautiful vessels, currently used mostly to transport construction material between the islands. I watched the loading and unloading go on, people, ships, vehicles and streets covered in a fine layer of cement dust. This old port was strategic for Indonesia from the 1200’s to the 1900’s but has been replaced by a larger, state-of-the-art facility. It has managed to stay alive, though, contrasting its traditional ships and ways with incredibly modern and bold skyscrapers of today’s Jakarta, forcing past and present to occupy parallel spaces.

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Sitting in the public bus, on the way back to my hotel, I had a chance to go back to my guide’s comment about Buddhism. “Tell me more”, I said, “about your interest for Buddhism.” “Well”, said Guide, looking relieved for having a seat in an air conditioned vehicle, “I study Yoga and Kama Sutra. Yoga is very good for your health and Kama Sutra teaches you how to make a woman happy.” Sounds good. But wait! Aren’t Yoga and Kama Sutra Hindu traditions?

 

Beatriz Coningham

Beatriz Coningham

Why write about travel? Travel and exploration have always fascinated me. I marvel at history’s navigators and explorers who expanded the frontiers of the world and of human existence.

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