The first two nights in Jakarta passed in a vague blur of climate adjustment, jet lag and psychotic dreams, induced by anti-malarial medication. Hair raising rickshaw rides on 8-lane highways aside, the city held little intrigue. In the backpacker district of Jaksa we got a taste for Bintang (local beer) and delicious Indian-inspired snacks, but generally we were unenamoured. Our one attempt at sightseeing found us stood at the base of a tall, architecturally dull monument, in a swarming sea of short Asian people pointing timeworn camera phones in our faces, giggling and shuffling around us as they each awaited their turn to pose alongside the strange white couple. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie themselves couldn’t have drawn more attention.
We escaped the polluted sprawling mass of the capital (population: ten million) as fast as the train would take us, moving out of the city’s traffic-plagued centre and crawling leisurely through a vast area of slums, flanking the filthy river banks. Sighting such poverty from within the train was heart breaking, and I wondered how it would feel to be amongst it. Maybe one day I’ll find out.
Late at night we reached Cirebon, a small city on Java’s north coast, known for masked dance, a thriving batik industry, and an abundance of walled palaces where sultans luxuriate in wealth. Yet these are not the elements of Cirebon’s character now etched to memory; the experience of welcoming 2013 in the presence of 200 robed men chanting Islamic prayers before their Imam is unforgettable. Whilst we’d been keen to experience a different kind of New Year’s Eve, neither of us could have imagined what would come.
With much of Indonesia being predominantly Muslim, alcohol is scarce. In anticipation of the presumed forthcoming party, our evening started in the city’s sole watering hole – a smoked filled, caricaturised Westernised bar where 90s music and onion rings were coveted novelties. We sank a few beers, played some pool and tolerated the fact that we were (temporarily) completely devoid of culture. Before making our exit I got chatting to some local girls who couldn’t comprehend our intention to leave the ridiculously clichéd bar. They looked at me sombrely and warned of “many traffic” and madness on the streets outside. I was undeterred. What did they know? They were clearly only staying in the bar because it allowed them to dress minimally and dance drunkenly for the night – behaviour not tolerated in their everyday lives.
Strolling out onto the street, tipsy and eager for celebration, we found the sobering reason for their warnings: motorbikes, covering every possible inch of road and pavement, from here to eternity. The width and length of the main street was rammed, with barely an inch between each. On each bike sat three, sometimes four passengers, all at standstill. Engines revved aggressively, horns honked relentlessly. Believing we could cut through to find an alternative route, we submerged ourselves amongst the petrol heads, soon realising it was too late to make an escape. The bikes closed in around us and we were trapped in the throng. The fumes were hot and suffocating. Every bike pointed towards a large park a mile further, which housed a huge stage (the location of the free public event we so keenly anticipated) but nobody was moving. It was total gridlock. As we attempted to weave a passage through the mayhem without losing a layer of skin on the burning exhaust pipes, I pondered whether these people expected to make any progress or whether they were content to sit amongst the pollution and searing engine heat all night.
Through the haze of my beer-buzz I observed something about the crowd I hadn’t seen at first: it was formed of gangs. There didn’t appear to be any trouble yet but the vibe was menacing. Each gang we passed eye-balled us, the only white faces in town, and there was an air of intimidation. I know little about biker culture, but Ben’s ardent wish to escape said enough.
Over the course of an hour we made little progress, the gargantuan traffic jam had not eased and we were barely closer to our goal. A dirty piece of metal cut into Ben’s foot, protruding up from a pile of putrid rubbish which occupied the only small parcel of land not already claimed by a revving engine. Morale was dipping.
Sometime later we entered the park, bleeding, sweating and nerve-wracked. At least now we were out of the chaos we could enjoy a beer and some live music. Correction: we could enjoy a serious and sober night of Muslim prayers. I don’t think either of us spoke for a few minutes while we tried to take in the scene before us. On the stage sat a swarm of men in traditional robes, chanting what sounded like the same prayer repeatedly and monotonously (although I’m willing to accept that my lack of religious knowledge could render me completely mistaken). As far as the eye could see, multi-generation families gathered to pray before them. There was no song, no dance, no jubilation and no countdown. At the stroke of midnight nothing happened to signify the start of a fresh year. Nobody embraced, and even amongst the younger couples nobody kissed. Now it was obvious why those girls stayed in the bar drinking mojitos.
Unsure how to conduct ourselves in this situation – we could neither participate nor celebrate – we simply observed from the shadows, our pale skin a beacon to inquisitive eyes. The community of Cirebon does not see many tourists; I imagine our presence at such an event was beyond unusual.
At around 12.06, as the prayers were winding down and families were filtering out of the park, we beat a hasty retreat down a quiet side alley, unable to face the main street and its Hell’s Angels wannabes. Sitting on the pavement to compose ourselves we shared our first discreet kiss of 2013 and contemplated the night’s atypical events. Within moments a surge of bikers tore through the silence, shrieking as they sped past. On foot, huge crowds of youths swarmed around us in a 360 degree frenzy of excitement, shouting and high-fiving us, demanding to know our names and touching our white skin, departing as rapidly as they arrived, making room for the next group.
New Year’s Eve: best night of the year? Certainly the strangest.