My Jakarta Story (part 1)

It’s been almost three years since I came back to Jakarta, for good. For someone who is obsessed with cities, with how deeply melancholic Orhan Pamuk writes about Istanbul that he never wants to depart from, it’s kind of odd that I haven’t even once stopped, looked back to those almost three years, and wrote about it.

Now I know why. And it took me quite a while to realise it.

It’s just too scary.

At first I was too scared to admit that this is all real, that here is where I end up in. Back then, thinking of going back and leaving all the people I care about in Berlin used to give me night sweats and anxiety. Thinking about going back was not pleasant, for it was full of uncertainties, doubts and one thing I hate the most, changes. But I had to do it anyway. However, once I landed here on 3 May 2013, I knew that I was not meant to get bored (I was informed that my luggage was still in Abu Dhabi while I had to attend a job interview in 1 hour, at rush hour).

I didn’t even have the time to reflect and evaluate how I’ve lived here. I no longer write. No melancholy. No effort of romanticising nature. No nature in sight to admire. No park bench to sit on to write poems. No ducks swimming in a pond. There are only cars, people, motorbikes, and lots of Alfamart. Before I make it sound so terrible, let me tell you that it’s actually not.

And here I am now, thinking. Hey, this isn’t bad at all. I have, in fact, survived my fears, my what’s-it-gonna-be-like-in-Jakarta. Just last Sunday a friend who is in Berlin asked the most FAQ, “Do you miss Germany?”. In less than three seconds I replied, “Sometimes I do, but not often.”

I even found my next sentence surprising, “It’s more lively here.”

Dear brother

Oh brother I can’t, I can’t get through
I’ve been trying hard to reach you ’cause I don’t know what to do
Oh brother I can’t believe it’s true
I’m so scared about the future and I wanna talk to you
Oh I wanna talk to you.

Been trying to come up with several lines to express how I feel, to no avail. Been thinking of how all the saying is wrong, that blood is thicker than water. Good family relationship isn’t something that exists just like that. You have to work hard and earn it, just like any other relationships. Some last, some just don’t.

Guess I’ve missed him, more than he’d probably ever know, or care.

On marketplace and evening star

Market in Genoa, Italy. 2013.

Sunday afternoon, I was reading D.H. Lawrence Mornings in Mexico, a book that describes Mexico in day-to-day early stages. As I arrived at Chapter 4 – Market Day, it captivates me in such a way that I began to read it audibly. At some more difficult parts, I had to stop and reread silently until 2-3 times. It starts with a thesis:

To buy and to sell, but above all, to commingle. In the old world, men make themselves two great excuses for coming together to a centre, and commingling freely in a mixed, unsuspicious host. Market and religion. These alone bring men, unarmed, together since time began. A little load of firewood, a woven blanket, a few eggs and tomatoes are excuse enough for men, women, and children to cross the foot-weary miles of valley and mountain. To buy, to sell, to barter, to exchange. To exchange, above all things, human contact.

It continues to emphasize on how the act of bargaining’s sole purpose is not to acquire money. There’s more to that:

It is a bargain. Off you go with multicoloured pinks, and the woman has had one more moment of contact, with a stranger, a perfect stranger. An intermingling of voices, a threading together of different wills. It is life. The centavos are an excuse.

The marketplace, which fulfills each of its participants, is more pleasant than religion.

It is fulfilled, what they came to market for. They have sold and bought. But more than that, they have had their moment of contact and centripetal flow. They have been part of a great stream of men flowing to a centre, to the vortex of the marketplace. And here they have felt life concentrate upon them, they have been jammed between the soft hot bodies of strange men come from afar, they have had the sound of strangers’ voices in their ears, they have asked and been answered in unaccustomed ways. … There is no goal, and no abiding-place, and nothing is fixed, not even the cathedral towers.

The chapter closes by leaving me a substance of contemplation between the value of the tangible and the intangible. Lawrence uses the term “spark of contact”, or perhaps in my term, cycle of memories.

Nothing but the touch, the spark of contact. That, no more. That, which is most elusive, still the only treasure. Come, and gone, and yet the clue itself.

The money gained from the transaction “will disappear as the stars disappear at daybreak, as they are meant to disappear. Everything is meant to disappear. Every curve plunges into the vortex and is lost, re-emerges with a certain relief and takes to the open, and there is lost again.”

Only that which is utterly intangible, matters. The contact, the spark of exchange. That which can never be fastened upon, for ever gone, for ever coming, never to be detained: the spark of contact.

Like the evening star, when it is neither night nor day. Like the evening star, between the sun and the moon, and swayed by neither of them. The flashing intermediary, the evening star that is seen only at the dividing of the day and night, but then is more wonderful than either.

A Thank You Note

Berlin, 1 May 2013.Dear Loved Ones,

So I guess this is it, huh?

I can’t help but to look back to the day I first arrived here on Monday, 16 July 2007. It was the hottest day of the year, weather-wise. The journey began in the Summer with warmth and up til tomorrow, there are 5 years 9 months and 16 days spent here.Last time I checked, Berlin is still the largest city in the country, Berlin is currywurst, Berlin is the most vibrant of all German cities, Berlin is the “man” when it comes to local art, Berlin ist wunderbar. Berlin to me, is all of you reading this.

And no, this isn’t a goodbye note. It’s only a thank you note written from the very bottom of my heart.

Thank you Berlin, for preparing a mosaic of family that open their arms wide to welcome this poor soul. Thank you Berlin, for these family-like friends who are extremely different than me, but then I learn that I am welcomed, listened to, prayed for and cared for. Thank you Berlin, for the scenes that I learned to capture each day. A week ago, I thought I would miss this city terribly, but then as time drew nearer and nearer, this city grew smaller and all I can think about is nothing but the people in it. And I can’t help but to yield to this overwhelming feeling of gratitude. So thank you, thank you and thank you.

Thank you for the time we’ve shared and cherished. Thank you for the generous helping hands. Let the journey begin and end as well with warmth. Jokes, laughter, may they all fill your memory of me. And as we meet again someday, we never are strangers.

Yours,

Nita.

“What sort of a sun?”

(Of possessing Beauty by understanding it and asking yourself enough questions in the process)

Why are some of us so drawn into drawing/painting and writing, even before an idea of being good or not good enough at it ever dwells in mind? According to John Ruskin (1819 – 1900), mainly known as a watercolourist and an art critic but also a writer, the twin purposes of art is to make sense of pain and to comprehend the sources of beauty. For the latter, there are five central conclusions of human’s interest in beauty and in its possession:

Firstly, that beauty is the result of a complex number of factors that affect the mind psychologically and visually.

Secondly, that humans have an innate tendency to respond to beauty and to desire to possess it.

Thirdly, that there are many lower expressions of this desire for possession, including the desire to buy souvenirs and carpets, to carve one’s name in pillars and to take photographs.

Fourthly, that there is only one way to possess beauty properly and that is through understanding it, through making ourselves conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) that are responsible for it.

And lastly, that the most effective way of pursuing this conscious understanding is by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, through writing or drawing them, irrespective of whether we happen to have any talent for doing so.

Since his early childhood, Ruskin had had an unusually peculiar sensitivity towards observing details of the visual world, recalling himself at the age of 3 or 4 as being “contentedly in tracing the squares and comparing the colours of (my) carpet – examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses with rapturous intervals of excitement.” To him, the matter of drawing is neither about doing it well or becoming an artist. He values the act of drawing as a higher conduct than becoming a good sketcher or a skillful artist itself, because he believes in the act of drawing as an act that has value even when it is practiced by those who have no talent. Above the act of drawing, the beauty of the object of drawing is what matters more to love: “I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”

Often irritated by how seldom people noticed details, Ruskin told his fellow students in what way he wanted them to see things:

Now, remember, gentlemen, that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see. Two men are walking through Clare Market, one of them comes out at the other end not a bit wiser than when he went in; the other notices a bit of parsley hanging over the edge of a butter-woman’s basket, and carries away with him images of beauty which in the course of his daily work he incorporates with it for many a day. I want you to see things like these.”

At another occasion, he describes two kinds of persons going out for a walk: one is a good sketcher, the other is not familiar with that of any kind:

There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the case of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. [...] Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.”

I find that there’s often a close acquaintance between the act of drawing and writing, with the latter being termed by Ruskin as “word painting”. This explains how Orhan Pamuk describes his obsession with drawing/painting in most parts of his autobiographical book Istanbul but ends it in a way that left me speechless for about 5 minutes pondering over the last sentences he said to his mother:

“I don’t want to be an artist,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”

Both (drawing and writing) are the most effective tools in understanding beauty. Photography is often chosen as a “lower” means of expression, as a less powerful visual mean to possess and carry the beauty of a scene in our mind effectively since “the camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing; it may give us the option of true knowledge but it may unwittingly make the effort of acquiring it seem superfluous” (de Botton). Although respected for his drawings in his lifetime, it was Ruskin’s word-paintings that ignited his admirable fame in the public sphere during the late Victorian period. From a younger generation than Ruskin, Virginia Woolf shows this similar obsession in observing details, a great asset she always trains to apply her stream of consciousness techniques in writing. She found great delights in looking at blossoming flowers and most things that people fail to notice or even don’t find as worth observing:

“I adore looking at blossoming flowers though for the most part, it emotionally drains me. I like getting a sense of the world constantly reborn and enhanced; yet I am melancholy because such beauty is untouchable. Such beauty is chaotically intolerable.” Virginia Woolf, aged 15, from The Early Journals 1897-1909.

“I spent an hour looking at pots and carpets in the museums the other day, until the desire to describe them became like the desire for the lusts of the flesh.” -Selected Letters.

Ruskin reveals a simple key to opening the sensitive part of our physical senses in observing the details and the causes of the beauty by doing something meditatively intimate with oneself. We need to ask ourselves questions while observing something that fascinates us, a series of questions that a trained sketcher usually raises and tries to answer in the process of sketching:
‘How do the stems connect to the roots?’
‘Where is the mist coming from?’
‘Why does one tree seem darker than another?’
‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations?’
‘What is a better word for it than big?’

Failing to ask ourselves these series of questions in the process of understanding beauty leads to the thread of sloppiness: of not being precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt. And not being precise in analyzing them leads to the failure of making sense of things and to preserving the lasting effect that beauty is supposed to have on us.

In a much simpler way, Woolf taught the little Nigel Nicolson, the son of her lover Vita Sackville-West to go further with himself and to understand what he has experienced by asking questions in order to describe his morning (skip to minute 07:10)

“I remember once she said, ‘What has happened to you this morning?’
And I would reply, ‘well, nothing.’
Oh come on, come on,’ she would say. ‘What woke you up?’
And I would reply, ‘It was the sun. The sun coming through our bedroom window.’
‘What sort of a sun?’ she would say. ‘A kindly sun? Angry sun?’

 

-For more, see Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, as all the quoted parts on Ruskin are from there.

On the Hill

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. (Mat. 5:5, The Message)

They’re wrong. Money can buy happiness. What it can’t buy is contentment, and hence the above-mentioned saying. Grab a paper and a pen, jot down things that surround you or what you own. Then get rid of those that money can buy from the list. It turns out that it’s not happiness that I’ve been lacking all this time. It’s not happiness.

Nigel Slater, a cook who writes

 

As much as I love reading, the only time I have ever opened a recipe book was when I was at someone else’s bookshelf (indicating that I have none), and yet all those books with apparently good looking photographs of ready-to-serve meals have never really caught my attention. But this time was different. The other day I was at a friend’s place and a curiosity was tickling me to open a recipe book that has been lying around her table for quite a while. The book is by Nigel Slater: Nigel Slater, The Kitchen Diaries II. This friend who owns the book has been kind of obsessed with making all the meals from the book lately that she even made a special blog on which she follows each entry of the diaries, narrates her experience in finding the ingredients and going through the process, and then displays the results in a neat way. If you read through her blog, you would notice that it’s not just for the sake of making meals. There’s something from the persona who wrote the book that drives her to that point of making such big efforts. And that perhaps, is what invites Mr. Curiosity in the first place.

 

As I started to leaf through the pages of this kitchen diaries, it took only the first few sentences to get me hooked. It’s truly different from any other “recipe books” I’ve ever laid my fingers upon. This one has its charm on me, not only the photographs of four different seasons in between each parts, but the sentences that this Nigel Slater writes. He mentions in the book that he’s not a chef, but he prefers to be called a cook who writes. The sentences are crafted, they have a personal depth, and as always, there’s an old blanket of melancholic beauty covering the whole process of making a meal without being corny, just like an honest skillfully-written personal journal. Below was how he described his thoughts as he was sitting in a restaurant by the harbour staring through the window while waiting for his meal to be served:

 

I have always loved the colour grey. Peaceful, elegant, understated; the colour of stone, steel and soft, nurturing rain. The view from the window across the harbour has every shade, from driftwood to charcoal: the lagoon, the restaurant’s weathered cedar cladding, the moored boats, the trees on the opposite shore, all in delicated shades of calming grey.

 

And the best part of what I’ve read so far (not so much I guess) is how he gives me a revealing perspective on white rice. Yes, that particular seeds of grain that I’ve been consuming for like, forever. I’m aware that his idea of white rice will occupy my mind each time I think of or eat white rice from now on, which I clearly have no objection to.

 

Sometimes, I rather like noise. The testosterone-fuelled roar of a football match heard from my back garden; the tired and blissfully happy sounds of a crowd singing along at a festival; the swoosh of a barista’s steam wand. But most times I prefer peace and quiet. The sound of snow falling in a forest is more my style – something I have yet to hear this year.

There is quiet food, too. The tastes of peace and quiet, of gentleness and calm. The solitary observance of a bowl of white rice; the peacefulness of a dish of pearl barley; running your fingers through couscous. The thing these have in common is that they are grains or something of that ilk. What is it about these ingredients that makes them so calming? Could it just be that they bring us gastronomically down to earth, show us how pure and simple good eating can be? This is food pretty much stripped of its trappings. It is, after all, the food that many people survive upon.

The peacefulness of grains, their earth tones and the fact that they don’t snap or crunch between the teeth, is what makes them food to eat when we are looking for solace and calm. The fact they are not from dead animal probably has something to do with it, too.

and the way he ends most of the sentences, it gives me the sensation of riding on a soaring imagination:

A bowl of porridge is a quiet breakfast (no snap, crackle or pop) that sets me up for the day. I feel a sense of calm and wellbeing after a breakfast of porridge. I should add that mine now comes in a wooden bowl. I regard my porridge bowls as some of the most beautiful items in my kitchen. They are made by Guy Kerry at his croft in the Black Isle, with ash wood from a tree blown down in a storm.

I’m also aware of my own crush for people who write skillfully, who ignite beautiful sensation and vivid images through written texts, whose obsession might be driven by the longing for something they’ll never have in life but consequently drives them to keep creating stuffs. I might read his whole book one day, and indeed one doesn’t necessarily have to want to be a pilot to want to read about a pilot’s life, right? But perhaps, I’ll probably have my own perspective on food-making be changed drastically. I, a non-cook who reads. I mean, based on the mere beauty of it all, how could I resist?

ps: oh do watch Toast, a film based on his autobiography with the same name.

Medan the Nostalgic City

“You know, as I was little I used to wait for your grandfather to get his big mug and tell us (me and my older sister your aunt) to go fetch him a mug of black coffee from a coffee shop next door every single day. We were very happy to do that because he always let us keep the change.”

That’s one of the childhood memories of my mother in the city where she was born and grew up, Medan. That’s it, I thought. I have to go to Medan, even if it’s based on that single piece of story alone. I guess I’ve always believed in myself as a story-teller, and I’ve always been intrigued by stories. Stories carry me away, listening to them I can’t help creating a stage in my mind where I reconstruct everything I hear. Anyways, I’m kind of obsessed with the ideas related to places and cities lately. I need to see that old coffee shop, the street lined with old colonial style offices on Jl. Hindu, the colonial style of architecture of the main post office my mom told me once, the famous Tiong Sim noodle restaurant that she explained to me with excitement coming out of a buried passion I hardly see in her before, the puzzled feeling I always have towards all passionate foodies, not that my mom is one except when it’s about Medan.

The first impression that struck me as I first arrived in this third biggest city in Indonesia is that its cleanliness. I mean, you can hardly spot any garbage piling up on its pavements. Or maybe it’s only the main streets I didn’t dare to be decisive about it, for as I brought up the subject to my cousin who spends all his life there to get some sort of affirmation, I noticed that he had never even thought of that.

Medan is a rich city. However it’s too bad that the locals don’t seem to be fully aware of it, or even if they do most of them have a hard time to really present the richness of the heritage, monuments, and historical values to the outsiders. This is the city that is far than boring (I’m not talking about the lunatic betor or becak motor that will, believe me it will, drive you crazy with the slowness, heedless turnabouts, and ridiculous size/width). Medan skillfully presents a mixing scene of old and new, of pristine and modern. On one side of the street you may find the typical character of big cities tattooed with numerous amount of billboards wherever your eyes look upon, but there’s also this positive stubborn air of collaboration among the Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Malay, Western, and Islam seen through its urban architecture shaping the diverse cultural heritage of this city. In almost every street corner, there’s always a scene that captures my eyes. A Hindu temple with a shabby-hipster-looking Indian sleeping at its entrance (they might not be homeless for then I knew from my cousin that when those people have money they spend the money on liquor, get drunk and sleep on the streets but when they run out of dough, they stay home), some Colonial ruins right in the city center, the grand style of architecture of Lonsum (London Sumatera) originating from the colonial time, the black-white pavements and wide streets that strongly remind me of Bandung, the Maimun Palace adopting the blend of Malay, Islam, Spanish, Indian and Italian styles of interior, the impressive Tjong A Fie Mansion that most Medaners have never been to, the ancient to modern Buddhist/Chinese temples, the historic Hindu street (Jl. Hindu which happens to be where my mom’s childhood home was located), and last but never the least, the fabulous multinational food scenes that would leave Bandung’s to be worth no mentioning at all.

The Medaners, yes, they’re a bunch of community that try to convince you that the traffic in Medan is worse than in Jakarta and if you bother to argue and convince them of the opposite (like I did), you’ll end up desiring to have the worst traffic, which is nothing but pointless if you really think of it. The Medaners, I believe, always have a hard time wiping the smug look off their faces every time you give kudos to their chili paste, pork, and whatsoever being served on the dining table alive or dead. And if the Germans drink beer like water, the Medaners eat durians like monkeys or some of us eat peanuts. And when you tell them how expensive and distasteful the durians in Jakarta are, they will gasp in fake disbelief “no waaaaayyy” as if it’s the most disgraceful thing on earth and when you don’t see it, their pitiful look will reach out to the back of your head “oh look at these poor Jakartans let’s feed them with durians while they’re here.” I guess I didn’t go there for the food for I’m more of a light eater and I’m not a die-hard fan of durians either, and besides, I believe that the weight of my body determines the chance of happiness I get. But still, I was deeply impressed by the overly-packed Soto Medan restaurant that my cousin took us to for breakfast, of Tip Top which happens to be the oldest surviving restaurant in Medan whose wood-oven is exactly as old as my father. I was fascinated by the fortune that Ucok the durian “Donald Trump” might make from feeding hundreds of people coming to his duriandom every day, I was enjoying the night scene on Jl. Semarang which is mushroomed with food stalls, and I took notice of how the Apek’s coffee shop still keeps its interior as well as exterior ever since 1922 perhaps out of idleness or an anchored fondness for nostalgia (I’m not sure which). And how a group of Chinese-Indonesian middle-aged businessmen were enjoying the coffee in their tight bike outfits while parking their fancy bikes outside the coffee shop unlocked. And the combination of all those, I believe, is what makes Medan rich, in my own terms.

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more photos.

plastic cup

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath” This is a law. This was, is, and is going to be the law of abundance. Binding and enforcing.

It’s pretty much the same as the “you’ve got to have money to make money” thing.

Now look into yourself, your very self. You’ll surprisingly find that this law has been living inside you, in and out through your skin pores. Look at what you have, what you always risk in order to obtain more, look at how you’re given more of it. And look at what you don’t have, what you’re so afraid of losing because you’re so aware of the minimal amount of drops you can contain in your plastic cup, or for that matter of scarcity, nothing but the palms of your hands. Look at how it’s all taken away from you, you’re allowed to have it for a short time, only to see it vapor in no time.

Some people, they’re just born into a situation of abundance, and as they grow up they’re given more of more abundance because at times of testing, they’re not afraid of risking what they have, as many that have been living in abundance outrank those who haven’t. Some others – born into scarcity – they’ve got used to living in wanting and lacking, hold everything dearly for the fear of risking blinds them from seeing, understanding, and obeying the law. They sit, stand, mate, sleep, eat in their homes only to watch the roof’s being taken away, then the door, the windows, and the walls.

 

decrepit castle and disrepair

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasureable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me–upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain–upon the bleak walls–upon the vacant eye-like windows–upon a few rank sedges–and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees–with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium–the bitter lapse into everyday life–the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart [...]

-Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

Who hasn’t heard of Poe, but well I haven’t really read or enjoyed any of his works til I heard it being read in the closing scene of Detachment. In the scene, Brody read this short story to his students with his deep calming voice combined with the somewhat charming uninterestingly thin lips and crooked nose. I must say it was a very well-done closing scene (although a bit dramatic). And it’s what he said to his students that’s really been floating in my mind til this very second: “so as we read we can see that the House of Usher is not merely an old decrepit castle and disrepair. It’s also a state of being.”

It’s how one feels beauty in the ruins of bleaked walls and decayed trees, even to a higher point than mere beauty, of the combination of terror and sensation, which is the sublime. The beauty of his detached-hollow-depressed self, the beauty that art produces out of the chaotic world and failed parenthood, and the beauty of the movie itself as a form of entertainment (that some might find less or least entertaining).