Go Jack

The big bird is flying over Romanian airspace, headed for the land of Brexit. I’ll only stay a few hours, enough to read the papers and discover the flavor du jour. When I was on the other side of the world, someone whispered that the Northern Irish unionist party had been won over by May—apparently the pound was up a couple of points, but unless the hard-line brexiteers give way, I can’t see the present deal going anywhere.

The two or three Brits I talked with in Indonesia shared my confusion at the United Kingdom’s lost compass—my body clock tells me it’s already dusk, even though dawn is barely peeking through the 787’s porthole, and in the half-light my fingers perversely type the anagram ‘Untied.’

The East is a great leveler, and in gigantic cities like Jakarta the poverty tears your heart apart. Beggars are not in evidence here—but the millions scrabbling to live, the little kids pushing their noses against the car window at the endless traffic lights, who can remain inured to that?

Uber was pushed out of Southeast Asia by the likes of Grab and Go-Jak. The former started life in a dingy room in Kuala Lumpur before being snapped up and turned into a megabiz by the Singaporeans.

Everything about Grab is better adapted to the teeming Asian way than Uber or Lyft. The app is streets better, if you excuse the pun, tempting you with a polite ‘Good afternoon’ before getting to the good stuff.

Sukarno and Suharto, the two strongmen of Indonesia.

Yesterday morning, my driver smiled constantly until he suddenly began muttering, voice rising exponentially as he failed to convey a critical message to his passengers—Jakarta has an alternate number plate rule to reduce traffic jams, and he would not be able to get us to our destination.

Cash solves many problems in this part of the world, so bills were profered. Tidak, and a vehement shake of the head. The rainy season is in full swing, and the skies parted. As we crawled along surrounded by motorbikes, like tuna through a school of sardines, hapless cops stood drenched in the pouring rain, frantic with their batons and whistles. Other spurious traffic directors were clad only in a plastic cape or T-Shirt, water running down them in sheets.

We stopped.

We spoke.

We pulled into traffic, scattering Go-Jak bikes.

We stopped again. Discussed. Started. Stopped, extraordinarily, on the forecourt of an Aston Martin dealer, the poverty of the city reflected in the streaming plate glass windows, the shiny cars winking at us from inside.

Cellphones were produced, examined, thumbed… Google Maps squawked mindlessly in Bahasa.

Bluebird! The only cab company in town—licensed taxis can circulate in the forbidden city!

My driver leapt out and spent five frantic minutes hailing Bluebirds. No dice. A tuk-tuk was offered and rejected. Tukman shrugged and drove off—Asia at its best—no harsh words, just resignation, and the prayer for another chance, Inchallah!

At some point, the Aston Martin doorman was summoned by the driver, by now soaked to the bone. At length another Grab was grabbed—it had the same problem, but a different solution.

We took a longer road, circumventing the center of town, hypnotized by bizarre nodding toys stuck to the dash. A soft-rock station played indifferent American music.

Rock romantis!

The driver laughed—the Indonesians are a truly gentle people, far readier with a smile than their Thai neighbors. The romantic rock became a thing. Rock romantis! The four-lane road shrank into a narrow lane, the rain pouring down, pipes streaming into a fetid black canal to the incongruous twang of the pedal steel guitar.

The rainy season floods Jakarta in a merciless and persistent downpour.

As I write, the plane follows the Syrian refugee trail—names like Sopron, Eisenstadt and Klosterneuburg appear on my map. As we fly northwest along the course of the Danube, Amsterdam and Paris tease us on the horizon—Fortress Europe, an impossible dream for the Jakarta Grab driver who charges eight thousand rupees for a fifteen-minute ride.

Fifty cents—a scream of inequity and a sincere smile of gratitude.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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