A tale of two cities

By Georgette Gouveia

Just as New York City is known as the Big Apple, the Indonesian capital of Jakarta is “the Big Durian,” after the spiky, pulpy, sweet/savory fruit that’s definitely an acquired taste. Perhaps that’s a good metaphor for the city, a challenging metropolis of fascinating contrasts, not the least of which are its traditionalism and modernism.

Like New York City, which is about the same size, Jakarta has a Dutch-English pedigree. And like New York, it’s a money town. Its billions rival the Middle East, one observer told me. Entrepreneurs like Noni S.A. Purnomo – who heads the Blue Bird Group, an excellent, pervasive taxi service – as well as society hostesses are trumpeted in the glossy, heavy-stock pages of the city’s publications, including the sleek, fat Indonesian Tattler. You can also see the city’s wealth and internationalism in five-star hotels like the Shangri-La (best pizza I ever had) and the Four Seasons, upscale malls like Pacific Place and Grand Indonesia and a host of superb ethnic restaurants like Turkuaz, where I savored a spicy hummus, grilled shrimp and a light but creamy rice pudding.

A mélange of architectural styles, Jakarta appears to be in the middle of a building boom. Among the exciting ongoing projects is the Regatta, a complex of 10 24-story towers set in north Jakarta’s Aqua Park. Inspired by the tall ships, the buildings are oriented toward the global ports for which they’re named. Future buildings include one honoring New York City.

Yet with big-city “dreams” – a favorite Indonesian word – come big-city hurdles and tensions. Shanties vie with neoclassical buildings, Hollywood-style mansions, contemporary skyscrapers and softball fields for the eye’s attention. The free-for-all traffic combines with a lack of mass transit to impede movement about the city. Unlike New York, Jakarta is no walking town, with the few sidewalks reserved as passing lanes for buses.

Then, too, Jakarta’s role as the capital of the world’s largest Muslim country puts the city in a delicate position. Its Westernization has raised alarm bells with Muslim authorities who have voiced concerns about whether modernism has brought moral laxity to the city and the nation as a whole. There are proposals to move to a more fundamentalist education in the primary schools, to have women ride modestly sidesaddle instead of astride the ubiquitous motorcycles that circle the city, and to ban liquor. The last would certainly put a damper on “pressure hour” at Eastern Promise, a British-Indian pub where the local brew, Bintang, flows free of charge from 5 to 6 p.m. on Fridays – as long as no one leaves the bar in that time.

If Jakarta is a place where you can still let down your hair, Singapore is a place where you’ll want to put it up, preferably in one of those French twists favored by the attractive flight attendants in native dress on Singapore Airlines.

Singapore is like Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way. Manicured hedges and orchids stand at attention as you glide from immaculate Changi International Airport to the swank Mandarin Oriental downtown. Construction projects are neatly organized so as not to impede traffic’s flow.

In Singapore, God is in the details, so much so that the concierge at the Mandarin informs you politely that you have lipstick on your teeth so you, too, can be picture-perfect and camera-ready along with Singapore Harbor, with its distinctive but not overwhelming skyline and latest playground, the Marina Bay Sands, complete with a casino, the Sands Skypark and a mall to rival Dubai’s.

At Daniel Boulud, one of several celebrity restaurants there, we had an excellent lunch of Alsatian flatbread, flank steak, mushroom pasta and mini madeleines.

There’s more shopping to be had on Orchard Road, or you can skip it in favor of sightseeing at the Singapore Art Museum and the neighboring Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, whose gleaming arches and columns are pristine souvenirs of Singapore’s colonial past.

As Harry, our chatty cabbie, noted as we exited the city, “Singapore isn’t Jakarta.”

And how.


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