I need air. There’s not enough in this claustrophobic downtown bar. So I leave and sit on the steps outside to watch the purple midnight sky. Jakarta’s tropical heat hits me like a sandbag, but the crickets make a nice change from jaded rock tunes and beery bonhomie.
“Why the long face, birthday boy?” asks my friend Mario, following me out for a smoke. I shrug and mumble platitudes about how birthdays bring bigger questions. Below, the red and white lights of endless traffic wink like glow-worms, as if to cheer me up. Street kids loiter in ragged T-shirts, hoping for a handout. We oblige with a few coins and they whoop off to buy late night rice from the wheeled kiosks of the kaki-lima men.
“Want something a bit livelier?” Mario offers, stubbing his cigarette, dark eyes shining with Latin mischief.
“Like where?” I ask.
“Trust me,” he says, turning up his stylish Italian collar, even though it’s not cold. And I do, just about. He’s an engaging mix of very intelligent, accomplished and falling apart. He’s been on the cover of Forbes mag: a canny young venture capitalist, who moved to Asia after the Thai baht collapsed. He mopped up, got rich. Now his marriage is on the rocks and he spends most days staring at his art collection, wondering why. But he sure can party.
We head for Kota – the old town – and a huge old nightclub called Stadium. Dark and a little dangerous – you want it, they got it. Four floors high: opera-house-meets-Victorian- brothel. It opens Friday afternoon and the techno beats don’t stop until Monday at 8am. It boasts the best sound system in SE Asia – bass bins the size of a bus. A transparent dragon hangs from the ceiling and appears to be breathing fire. This is no place to consider your past or future. You’re too busy trying to make sense of the flashing present, having fun. Most people are on something. They dance in a daze, eyes like fish. Out of it. Wacked. Stoned.
I arrive home around 4 am and stumble to bed, still smiling. That Mario is something else. But soon I’m woken by strange noises: shouting, screaming and splashing through water. From my window on the twelfth floor, I track the source though the gloom below.
On the far bank of the canal around my tower block, a crowd is gathering: men, women and children in vests, baggy shorts and flip-flops. They’re from the kampung beyond, a crowded community of low shacks and considerable poverty. They seem angry, shouting and hurling rocks across the water. Some make little pyramids of ammunition. To chase a rabid dog, a mythical urban crocodile, a python? Whatever their target, it has taken refuge in a culvert, out of my sight. After ten minutes I give up and return to bed. I must rise soon for a working weekend. They’re still screaming as I fall asleep. I’m older but none the wiser.
At 08:30, I’m downstairs in the elegant marble lobby, heading out for the office. Two policemen are quizzing the receptionist, who gives me a curt nod instead of his customary grin and wave. He stands to attention in his crisp, spotless uniform. One of the cops is taking notes.
Outside, the air is scorching. Lizards are doing press-ups in the neatly clipped grass. As usual, the stink of sewage and garbage from the canal wafts towards me. But also noise. Because there is still a crowd of people from last night, and more cops too trying to keep order. How come?
They’re looking at something on the embankment. Guys in business suits stop to take a peep. School kids dump their backpacks and burrow through to find out. I wander over, wondering at the fuss. I stand on the edge of the crowd, waiting for a gap in the tight mob of shoving, muttering Indonesians. Soon enough, I see for myself.
He’s about twenty-five. He’s lying on his back, staring at the sky, dead. His clothes are wet and filthy, covered in a stinking muddy slime. His skin is wax grey. There is a deep gash on his head, dark with blood. His black hair is matted to his skull. His faded T-shirt is shredded. His hands and arms are covered in cuts and bruises, as if from protecting himself.
“What happened?” I ask. One of the cops explains. The guy had tried to steal a bicycle from the the kampung, the neighbourhood, but got caught red-handed. He escaped, jumped into the canal but didn’t realise it was a dead end. The cop gives me a bored look: now do you get it, sir?
Eventually, I get it: the angry yells, the splashing, the mob hurling rocks. While I was trying to sleep, the guy at my feet was fighting for his life. He lost.
“Stoned?” I ask the cop, incredulous, “For stealing a bike?”
“Ya, so they say,” he replies, pushing the crowd back. Most of them look concerned or just curious. But some are grinning, apparently satisfied. No more birthdays, sucker.
(First published in FHM , Oct 2008, by S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL. Photo by Ascanio Martinotti)