I arrived in Jakarta last night. It is midday Saturday and I am in a chair with a woman at my feet. Rogers, with its white marble polished floors and large central tank with colourful corals and exotic fish, is bustling like the lobby of a five star hotel. Young women in Rogers uniforms are purposely carrying trays with tall glasses of iced tea for customers. In chairs all around me, wealthy Indonesian and Chinese women are on Blackberrys; talking or tapping out messages. The Blackberrys are in colourful or jewel studded cases and have silver initials, little dolls or plastic dogs dangling from them. The women mostly come in looking gorgeous, and then they get ugly in the chairs – hair wet like rat’s tails, blotchy pale bare shoulders, puffy faces, and then they leave gorgeous again. It is a sort of butterfly – caterpillar – butterfly thing. The only discernable difference I can see is, as they leave, the women walk with more accentuated movements and purpose. I guess a lot of feeling beautiful is the fleeting lifebuoy in the storm moment, that how you feel you look and how you actually look, are more or less aligned.
‘Kalokagatia’ is a Greek word which means “beauty – good” a fusion between goodness and beauty. It occurs to me that a beautiful person may not necessarily be good, but a good person almost always tends to be perceived as beautiful. For me, the latter is lovely image; of saints and goddesses. Maybe I should start a beauty salon for goodness.
A middle aged woman with a kind face is working on my feet, using a variety of implements to sand off the calluses, scraping out the cuticles, cutting off bits of skin and nail. Abdul, my regular hair stylist, wanders up half way through the pedicure and removes the blue towel that has been draped across my freshly shampooed head. I have been looking like a cross between an aged Middle Eastern matriarch and Hitler to this point. Abdul starts cutting my hair, and I have complete confidence that he knows what to do. And anyway, he speaks no English and I have learned in the past I may as well talk with a parrot as Abdul just repeats whatever I say, and nods and smiles and then does his own thing. He is very skilled and it always seems to turn out fine. I am not facing the mirror as my feet are having things done to them that I could never do, and I just acknowledge his presence with a thumbs-up.
It is the wet season and facing the outside windows, I watch the rain falling in sheets. The road is now around 10cm deep in water, moving on its own past stationary vehicles, scurrying pedestrians with newspapers covering their heads making exaggerated leaps, upright cyclists covered in makeshift clear plastic ponchos leaving snake like wakes. And through the darkened glass, from the comfort of my chair, I secretly observe the freshly beautiful women waiting for their chauffer driven cars from under the covered entrance way, trying not to end up looking like wet animals again.
Finally the work on me is completed. I look down at my shining toe nails and then sideways to myself in the mirror. It seems that Abdul has become creative and I am now an aging white man with a teen idol Mohawk. I tip my mechanics, pay at reception and walk out into the chaotic, humid, mid-afternoon Jakarta streetscape. I have no concerns about the rain, this hairstyle may not get better but it may get different. There is a certain freedom in letting go any pretention to beauty; maybe I can just be good.
I meet up with a friend and we go to a coffee shop that harks back to the Dutch colonial era. There is a sign on the wall that says “Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love” which when I think about it doesn’t make any sense at all and I find myself playing with the words, in different orders like love, hell and death, a weird kind of ink blot association thing.
Three days later and I am in Surabaya, an hour’s flight east of Jakarta and Java’s second largest city. I am here to conduct a 3 day workshop for our Business Facilitators and today I ran a workshop on ‘How to Negotiate’ for 20 Indonesian staff. My haircut has settled and I think I now resemble a US Marine General.
I am staying at the Bisanta hotel. At breakfast this morning I read the table place mat which encourages guests to use the full range of hotel services. One of the sections reads:
“We’ll make sure all your wedding just more Romantic and Perfect it will be the Unforgettable and Beautiful moment”
“Hotel Bisanta…..feel the new luxurious”
It is now 7.30 in the evening and I leave the “new luxurious”, wave to the young woman named Risky at reception and step out into the night. The air is heavy, so humid I feel like I am breathing through straws. I am on my way to a Chinese restaurant opposite the hotel. It is where I go when I get sick of the Club Sandwiches with cold french fries at the Bisanta.
The Flying Duck, a name you don’t want to say too quickly, is a strange place that caters primarily to Surabaya’s Indonesian born Chinese population. Inside is the size of a town hall, there are twenty five, twenty seat round tables, each table covered with a burgundy cloth and expectantly set with many bowls and chopsticks. There are huge Chinese golden motifs around the walls and abundant curtains; the cheap lavishness of a theatre set. The waitresses mill about and have skirts the same colour and fabric as the table cloths. As always, I sit at the back, because there is a live five piece Karaoke band on stage and the music is loud. The way it works is that the band plays and sings requests from the audience and between songs they invite and cajole members of the audience on stage to sing. Sometimes they help the singer along, other times the guest does a solo, generally in Mandarin.
The MC is a Chinese man named Eric who I guess is around sixty and has a lovely silky singing voice. Eric typically wears a colourful harlequin shirt and reminds me of an aging Jockey; his polyester black pants fastened high, successfully restraining in his paunch. His hair is dyed black but there is grey around his crown and some reddish bits that I don’t understand. I think he is a little drunk most of the time. He remembers me and comes to my table with a beaming smile of greeting, “Hello Mr. Jo, so good to see you again”. I am wary, the last time I was here he invited himself and over time a variety of others, to come to my table and to share my wine. Wine here is expensive and I had been hoping to make the bottle last a number of nights.
The woman on stage is Ari. She is singing something that sounds vaguely familiar but I can’t make out if she is singing in Bahasa or Mandarin. I am the only person in the restaurant, sitting solo at a table for 10 and Ari is singing to me, looking in my direction and nodding appreciatively. She finishes and says something that ends up with “Mr Jo”, and I smile and nod my head acknowledging her. Ari begins a new song; it is the Elvis song, “Vize maan sey …. And the refrain “I can hel falling in love vid you….” and she is casting me long meaningful looks. Ari has remembered that six or eight months ago, under pressure from Eric, I requested this old Elvis favourite. I am still the only person in the restaurant. I do some more appreciative nodding and return to my book “In Patagonia“ by the enigmatic Bruce Chatwin and resolve someday to write travel as well as he does.
I remember the last time I was here another singer, Aline, who is not here tonight, came a sat with me for a while. She was visibly upset and told me one of the Chinese man from a centre table tried to grope her… who did he think she was… just a thing… that he could touch her? Tears welled up in her eyes, she told me she was a single mum, that she supported herself through her singing. I listened and nodded, and she invited me to come to the restaurant she was singing after this one. I made an excuse, and we said “maybe next time”. Aline is probably around thirty, but up close, she has lines on her face from a tough life, dark under eye rings of weariness, sad eyes and the poor skin of a bad diet; her beauty is fading. I didn’t know whether I am just a sympathetic ear or being manipulated. Aline went back to the band table, shoulders bowed, her stage confidence gone. There was a real sadness about her situation and I felt the least I could do was to feel her sadness deeply.
Ari sings another song. She is moving like a MTV star, hips swaying and she is beautiful again. Another large round table has now filled with seven or eight Chinese men; Ari has finished her song and leaves the stage to greet each of them individually. A special look here, a nod there, a touch of the shoulder, as though with each she shares a special secret. Then she comes to my table and sits down. I don’t mind, I know it is her job to keep the customers happy, to make us all good friends.
Like Aline, up close Ari also looks much older. She has lost most of her teeth on one side so that just the front teeth are intact; I think she knows that her time as a stage diva will be coming to an end in a few short years, and there is no social security here for karaoke singers past their prime.
I hear my name mentioned again. Eric is on stage, “would Mr Jo like to sing?” Of course I would, but I can’t sing to save myself and so decline. I think I might one day but not tonight and I pour myself another half glass of the ‘Two Oceans’ wine from South Africa that cost me $30 for the bottle and is only slightly better than vinegar. I am celebrating; my workshop went well, very well. I have long recognised how little Indonesian staff seem to know about negotiation and today was my first chance to share some of my knowledge and the participants loved it, hungry for new skills.
It is only 8.45pm but it is time for me to retreat. The Chinese man from the audience is now on this third song, every note seeming flat and out of tune, I can no longer concentrate on my book and can wait to get back to the quiet of my room.
Ari is at the door, as I leave she gives me her best conspiratorial smile, I think she is hoping that at this moment she looks as beautiful as she wants to be and deep into my eyes she says “Mr Jo, don’t forget me”.
Surabaya Indonesia August 2010