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Living with the Dead

My Days as a Deadhead, published in Farang Untamed Travel 2005

All photographs by the extraordinarily talented Joe Ryan

Jerry Garcia, singer, songwriter and founding force of the Grateful Dead was a larger- than-life character, hailed by many of his fans as a Messiah-like figure. When he died in 1995, 20,000 people gathered in San Francisco for a candle-light vigil. Shortly after, the band announced their split and to many it seemed like the end of an era. But time has proved otherwise and ten years after Jerry’s death, and forty years after the band played their first gig, the spirit of the Dead is alive and kicking. The Grateful Dead formed in the 60’s and seamlessly provided the background music for Ken Kesey as he unleashed his acid tests on California. Playing their unique, psychedelic boogie music, Jerry and the Dead came to symbolise the summer of love and the phenomenon of the‘Dead Head’ was born as loyal followers went on the road for the bands legendary tours across America.


In the spring of 1993, I embarked on my own summer of love and went on tour with the Dead– albeit selling falafel to hungry Dead Heads. We arrived in Chicago for the first show and seemed to have passed through a time warp when we entered the parking lot. There were tie-dyes, buses with flowers painted on them, girls in patchwork dresses, drumming circles. It was bitterly cold but everyone was in high spirits and incredibly friendly. I swapped a falafel for a space cake and off I went. A truck opened its doors, revealing hundreds of balloons, a queue formed and people were soon reeling about with big grins on their faces as they inhaled the happy gas from the balloons. Everything seemed to go a bit crazy, my friend Martin was arrested for selling falafel and the cops were bombarded with snowballs. The disco bus raised its flag, cranked the volume and the air was filled with the funky beat of Freak out, suddenly everyone was dancing – even the cops. All around the snow gently fell.

There were thousands of us on the road with the Dead, but we weren’t just following a band, we were following a lifestyle. I had stumbled upon a sub-culture, whose roots were firmly entrenched in freedom of expression and that was something I could relate to. Although I could never fully silence the cynic in me, at times I came close. I have never experienced such kindness and dare I say it, love! Dead tour was about people coming together; it really was one great big happy family, complete with its own lingo. Everything was ‘kind’; ‘kind bud’ to get you high; ‘kind veggie pasta’ if you were hungry and it seemed that I had become a ‘kind rainbow sister’ which I wasn’t really too sure about. Kind brothers and sisters kept asking me if I could ‘kick down a kind falafel’ which I eventually figured out meant they wanted one for free. If something was good, it was‘styling’ or ‘grooving’ and no-one said hello, it was ‘hey now’ or ‘hey dude’ or ‘hey bro’. Scores of people would hang around outside the venue calling out for a miracle (a free ticket).

The scene teemed with vitality and energy. In the heat of the summer I saw a show at Shoreline, California in which Terrapin (my favourite song) was jammed out for over an hour during the most glorious sunset. The music built and built until it became almost unbearable, erupting into a frenzy just as the sun sank behind the horizon.

It soon transpired that my friends ( a motley crew of fellow backpackers) and I were working for the falafel mafia, so-called because our boss, Bill, was no Dead Head, he was in for the money and not the vibe, which was very uncool. I eased my conscience by kicking lots down (falafel that is) and later by kicking in the whole job. It had all got a bit much anyway, six of us sharing a room, Wendy screaming out “Falafel” in her sleep and Dave – who seemed to have missed the point entirely – waking us all up every morning with blaring Megadeath tunes. He was increasingly drawn to the black power movement and had started shedding all his belongings which were not black. I scored a purple sleeping bag and a red Swiss army knife. He was last seen at the end of the tour buying an axe and heading off to live in the caves of Yosemite National Park. By then I had traded in travelling in the back of a truck- with six people, bulk falafel mix and pitta bread – for a styling van and a Dead Head boyfriend named Dion. He was beautiful and funny and loving and kind, until he broke my heart when he took off with a Dead Head chic in a ‘I love Jerry T-shirt’. “Ali, I’m just grooving on Jacky’s energy”, he explained to me. “Well, groove on this baby”, I screamed as I punched him in the face. And my days as a kind rainbow sister were over.

I was travelling in the Middle East a couple of years later when I met some US Marines who told me Jerry had died. With only two tours and ten shows under my belt, I was hardly a Dead Head, but I had been touched by the magic and it seemed that things would never be the same again. However, the movement that surrounded the Grateful Dead proved to be big enough to sustain its own momentum. “While he was the guitarist extraordinaire, half the voice and arguably the leader of the band, the band was a whole lot bigger than the fat man”, claims David Dranginis, a veteran of 30 Grateful Dead shows. The sales of music and merchandise continued, Dead Heads kept doing their groovy thing and other ‘Dead’ influenced bands such as Phish and Blues Traveller partially filled the void for people looking for a similar experience. Surviving band members went on to form their own bands, keeping the music alive by including a number of Dead tunes in their sets.

In 2003, to the delight of fans, surviving members reunited, calling themselves simply,‘The Dead’. “For a while we had to let it go, but now we’re reclaiming that part that we had a right to”, says Bassist, Phil Lesh. The band embarked on successful tours in 2003 and 2004.

Dead Heads have heartily embraced the cyber world and there are thousands of websites related to the band. Many fans have their own pages; merchandise is sold on-line; music is traded and there are numerous chat rooms and forums. I logged into a chat room recently and my inquiries about the current scene saw my inbox inundated with messages. People sent photos, colourful anecdotes, general musings, and a couple of people even remembered me (there weren’t to many Australians on Dead tour).

The Dead and their various incarnations continue to show almost total disregard for the record industry, at all times remaining true to their artistic vision. While they have enjoyed limited success in the studio, it’s always been the atmosphere of the shows that provides the magic: the unstructured improvisations: the legendary light shows: the people spinning in the doorways: the chance to see all your friends. They went from crazy hippy freaks to mainstream popular culture, but did it their way; they ignored the rules and against the odds became phenomenally successful.”The band became synonymous with a way of life”, wrote Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle, shortly after Jerry’s death. “Without ever intending to, Jerry and the Dead came to symbolize the summer of love, both for aging baby-boomers who lived through it and those who wished they did.”


A walk on the wildside


Bali Herbal Walks

I drive up to Ubud early in the morning, dark ominous clouds hang over the hills creating a moody backdrop. I hope the rain will hold off for the next few hours as I have signed up for a herbal walk, and trudging through rice fields in torrential rain isn’t quite what I have in mind. I meet my guide, Westi, a wise and gentle soul with an innate knowledge of all things herbal. He and his wife Lilir have been leading guests on walks through the ravines and rice fields of Ubud for twelve years. Their extensive knowledge of herbalism gained from their families, working in the field, and from years of studying with traditional healers.

The use of natural medicines, known as Usada, is a strong custom in Bali, as traditionally the only medicines that people had access to were those provided by nature. Most Balinese have some knowledge of natural cures and many families keep an apotek hidup (living drugstore), a small garden of herbs with medicinal properties in their yard. The edges of Bali’s fertile rice fields also host a plethora of herbs, fruit and trees that have therapeutic and health enhancing properties.

We head down a walled path way that edges along a steep ravine. Westi points out a magnolia tree, its leaves can be steeped in hot water and the resulting brew creates calm and balance. He adds that many Balinese women can’t afford perfume, instead enjoy the scent of fresh cut flowers such as magnolia, tied into their hair.

We wander through dense foliage, thick with trees, shrubs, and fernery that grows with untamed abandon. He tells me that unlike the heavily landscaped gardens that are popular in the island’s holiday resorts, a traditional Balinese garden is more wild and artistic. We come to a ylang ylang tree, with a solid trunk leading to a mass of leaves high above. He says the Japanese use it as ‘honeymoon oil’ which I guess makes it an aphrodisiac. Here in Bali, the flowers are considered holy and are used in offerings, but, “You have to be feeling strong to climb,” he says, “because it’s a tall tree and if you fall off, it’s all over.” Nearby, an avocado tree is sprouting with tiny green fruit; when ripe these can be used as a natural colouring and women blend the creamy flesh into a body mask which is highly moisturizing.

The path winds around the river and leads us up a gentle slope. We pass back yards where women are busy preparing morning offerings. Roosters crow, dogs bark and the air is fragrant with frangipani.

We find the dark red Indian long pepper growing on a climbing vine that clings to a stone wall. It is hard and shriveled and, as I discover when I taste a tiny sliver, very very hot. “The heat creates power,” Westi says, and is chewed by men as an aphrodisiac. I ask if women can chew it too, and he replies, “Yes, women are more equal now.” It is also one of the ingredients in boreh, a traditional body mask that relaxes the muscles and helps prevent rheumatism.

We head into a more open area, resplendent with the verdant green rice fields (sawahs) that Bali is so famous for. As with so much in Bali, the growing of rice is approached with an artist’s eye; just because something is practical, doesn’t mean that it can not also be beautiful. Palms line the path, butterflies flitter by and the sound of trickling water is ever present. We come across a couple of water snakes but they are timid and quickly slither away.  Westi points out the Balinese rice crops which are tall and stately and tells me that this is the best quality rice, as it is high in vitamins and nutrients, but only yields two crops a year. Nearby we see the Philippine variety which is more common, it is shorter, thicker and less aesthetic, but produces three crops a year and needs less attention.

I have never really given the rice paddies much thought beyond admiring them, taking numerous photos and regularly tucking into nasi goring. I learn that all farmers must be part of a rice co op a system known as Subak. There are 200 Subaks in Bali, seven of which are in Ubud. The one we are walking through is called Juwukmanis (Sweet orange organization of rice fields.) Water is set into irrigation channels to which everyone has equal access and although fields are individually owned, all members work together for the prosperity of all.

A few farmers are at work in the fields and a man in a rattan hat walks by with a stick over his shoulder laden with bushels of rice that have just been harvested.  A couple of small fires are burning which Westi tells me is sometimes necessary to rejuvenate the soil, the farmers decide what is needed. Natural insecticide is provided by a gaggle of ducks that are busy pecking away.

Small temples are scattered over the fields, and offerings are made to ensure good harvests.I notice a doll like figure dangling from a large bamboo stick and Westi tells me that this is a representation of the Rice Goddess Dewi Sri. It has been made from harvested rice husks, and is an offering of thanks to Ibu Purtiwi (earth mother.) He adds that after the rice has been planted, it is deemed  pregnant, and in the early growing stage, offerings such as sour fruit, which control nausea, are made to the rice goddess to prevent morning sickness.


Although Balinese practice Hinduism, the more ancient practice of Animism imbues much of the spiritual side of life. The earth is considered female and the sky is male – when the two meet, as in human relationships, there is power. The wet season is considered particularly powerful as the continual rain from the sky pounds the earth nurturing everything that grows with in it.  Nature’s bounty is powerful, because it has been created by the union of earth and sky. The reason that there are so many problems in Denpasar he explains, is that there is too much cement and the gods are angry because the sky and earth never meet, there is a block.

“When we eat, we absorb the character of the food,” he tells me. “Holy men eat only duck which is a symbol of wisdom, roosters are no good to eat because they like fighting.” I ask about ritualistic animal sacrifice and he tells me that, “Whatever we need, we offer the gods, blood sacrifice symbolizes fertility and may be necessary to ensure a good harvest.” But before killing an animal a ceremony is held to bless it, so that the animal will come back to a better and higher life.

We come to the temple compound of the Subak, it is late morning and the clouds have dispersed revealing the sun in all its scorching glory. We sit in the shade, enjoying the rest and the peaceful rural scene that surrounds us. A farmer brings me a fresh coconut to drink, skillfully opening it with a long curved knife.

We continue on our way, stopping to crush Citronella leaves which release a strong aroma that repels mosquitoes. We inhale the scent of Melaleuka leaves which are also used as an insect repellant, and pick stalks of lemongrass which are good for colds.Outside a temple Westi points out a tiny little plant not much bigger than my hand, it’s a banyan, one of the most sacred of all trees, it seems hard to imagine that this scrawny  little thing will one day be a magnificent sprawling mass of branches and vines.

Westi and Lilir are both keen to revive and preserve the natural heritage of herbalism, for the sake of the young generation of Balinese, and for the tourists who flock to the island. With the help of Melanie Templar from the UK, they established Utama Spice in 1997 which produces a range of high quality herbal beauty products, including lotions, oils and soaps. Westi tells me that some of their clients were interested to know more about the natural substances they used, which gave them the idea of taking guests on  guided walks. He says that there goal is sustainable tourism “You must have an income, but it should be a positive income, whereby you also look after the environment and share ancient knowledge.”

I meet Lilir back at their little shop on Sweta street in Ubud, she is tiny in stature, but big in spirit, and bubbles with enthusiasm. She tells me that her family had strong healing traditions and the brood of 11meant that there was no money for doctors, instead all ills were cured by trips to the living drugstore – the family garden.It has been a pleasure to meet this couple who are so passionate and dedicated, and I feel like I have learned more in these few hours than I have in years of living on the island. Lilir invites me to come another time and sample her special tumeric tonic and to join one of her Jamu classes, but that’s another trip, another story.

Book one day in advance.


Food of the gods on the island of the gods….

Chocolate truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe

The magical world of raw chocolate

A few years ago my  friends had a ‘decadent dessert party’ and we all took along a dessert of our choice, not surprisingly there was a lot of chocolate – including my own triple chocolate cheesecake. What had started as a very chilled affair suddenly turned into a mad crazy night of dancing, I assumed we were all on a  sugar rush, it only occurred to me recently that we were more likely high on chocolate.

Few foods can evoke such passion, sensuality, comfort and addiction.  What is it that makes chocolate so special?

Legend has it that the first cacao beans came from paradise and lent wisdom and power to the person that ate them.  Deep in the tropical rainforests of central America, ancient Mayans  used ground cocoa beans in wedding rituals and for healing magic. To the Aztecs it was known as the food of the gods; and it is said that the  god Quetzalcoatl, was  kicked out of paradise for giving chocolate to the human race.

Most of us have experienced the ‘feel good factor’ of chocolate, its smooth exotic taste known to induce feelings of euphoria, even its aroma is enough to promote feelings of well being and happiness.  But if you are reading this while munching on a Mars Bar, its time to think again. While mass produced store bought confectionery might taste good and have a small amount of nutritional benefits,  this is sadly outweighed by vast amounts of chemicals, refined fats and sugars.

Raw chocolate, on the other hand provides a dose of pure natural goodness and is packed with magnesium, antioxidants and  a taste far superior to anything you will find on a supermarket shelf. In its purest form chocolate contains  an abundance of Tryptophan, a substance which triggers a reaction in the brain and creates a feeling of elation and giddiness. It is also packed with  Anandamide a name derived from the Sanskrit word ananda, which means bliss. Also known as the love chemical, Anandamide induces feelings of euphoria…. just like falling in love. While cooking and processing chocolate destroys much of its natural goodness, raw chocolate is healthy for the mind, body and soul.

Raw Chocolate cake at Alchemy, photograph courtesy of Suki Zoe

A number of places in Bali are now making raw chocolate, but Alchemy, a quirky health cafe in Ubud has the best,  with its  gleaming refrigerator shelves stocked with a dazzling display of cakes, candy and chocolates that don’t just taste good, they are good for you. The slabs of dense chewy chocolate bars are seriously ‘to die for’ (or at least to ‘drive to Ubud for….’) I also love the homemade bounty bars filled with fresh shredded coconut, the dark peppermint infused Stevia Mint Drops and the coconut dusted truffles. Bali Buddha also has a good selection, including lovely heart-shaped chocolate truffles, while Desa Seni serves up a tasty range of energy balls – just the thing after a yoga session. The raw chocolate dream pie at Clear Cafe in Ubud also deserves a mention – it is positively dreamy! It is also worth paying a visit to Five Elements in Mambal, a divine eco retreat offering gourmet raw cusisine that provides one of the most profound dining experiences on the island. Actually, the first time I tried raw chocolate was here and it was a moment I will never forget.

One of the newest venues on Bali’s raw chocolate scene is the inspiring Bamboo Chocolate Factory, also in Mambal (just near the Green School.) The soaring bamboo building rises from a sea of tropical forests and has been created by Big Tree farms who work with local farmers to produce organic ingredients such as salt and pepper, vanilla, cashews and honey.  You can join a tour of the factory, which starts with  a cup of thick and creamy organic hot chocolate to get you in the mood. A guide will then lead you along the labyrinth of bamboo hallways and cavernous rooms, following the trail of the humble cacao bean as it is transformed into a delicious chocolate bar. If images of oompa loompas and rivers of chocolate are flowing through your mind, think again; but if you are remembering the movie ‘Chocolate’, with the beautiful Vianne sensually grinding beans on a stone you are a little closer, but still not thinking big enough.  Actually, the six tonne, 70-year-old Mélangeur is so big it has its own room – with two giant granite rollers that crush the cacao beans (fermented, not roasted) into a thick paste.  Twelve hours later the paste is ready for the conche which turns it into a smooth liquid, while a cold press separates the butter. In the cashew sorting room, nuts are hand selected and trimmed, before making their way into chocolate bars.  Back in the tasting room you can try the fresh slabs of 70% bitter chocolate, which is also on sale, along with cold processed cacao powder, and cashew chocolate nibs. Chocolate-making workshops are planned to start from August so you will be able to create your own sublime concoctions.

cocoa dusted truffles at Alchemy, photograph courtesy Suki Zoe

The enchantment of the Yasawas


I was nervous and jittery as we began our descent into Nadi, it felt like I was going to meet a lover, my heart was beating fast and when we finally landed it took all my self control not to push past all the people in the aisle. At last I was down the stairs and on the tarmac taking big deep breaths of Fiji…. warm damp air tinged with just a hint of sugar cane.

I was determined to stay detached, after all I had only come back for a few weeks to look after my friends resort and to finish research on my book about my former life here.   I mean, what could happen in three and a half weeks…..?   The only thing is I have gone and fallen in love all over again…. The spirit of Fiji seems to be running through my veins and the thought of leaving in a couple of days fills me with such sadness. I am certainly no stranger to beautiful places, or to goodbyes but these enchanted islands move me beyond words, and it is a rare thing for me to be lost for words…..

I am sitting in the office, it’s pouring with rain and the guests are huddled in the dining room as the staff perform the meke, a traditional Fijian performance of song and dance.  Nobody sings like the Fijians, they harmonise so beautifully and sing with such passion, gusto and joy, it must be the happiest sound in the world, but it is so hauntingly beautiful that it always makes me want to cry. Everyone is in such good spirits, it’s Frasiers 60th birthday – he has been with the resort since it opened and is the loveliest man, with the sweetest smile and the kindest nature. We are celebrating his birthday in true Fijian style… morning tea preceded by a bowl of kava for everyone, and a flower lei for the birthday boy, then Grace said grace, and we all tucked into bowls of tea (yes bowls) and heavy buttery cakes which the Fijians love. The party continues with singing, guitar playing and more kava, (the quintessential fijian drink that makes you feel mildly euphoric, and leaves you legless if you drink enough of it… ) All the guests have joined in – today its one big Navutu family, except of course Maddalena, Freddy and Giovanna are missing, and this is their baby!!!!   Like me they were seduced by the island magic, so much so that they built this beautiful resort from scratch, no easy task in this remote group of islands adrift in the Pacific Ocean.  Fiji certainly isn’t for the feint hearted, and despite incredible challenges they persevered and created this  island paradise. Now they are in Cambodia and have just opened their new resort Navutu Dreams.  Actually, Madalena is in Thailand about to deliver her third child, and thanks to modern technology I can send her a constant stream of photos and updates via facebook.  Life has certainly changed from a few years ago when our only communication with the outside world was by two way radio…….

Working here has been amazing, my days are long and often bizarre, with twists and turns in every directions –  spontaneous visits from the island chief, boats breaking down,  local fishermen dropping by to sell freshly caught snapper and mud crab, our  waiter Wati (better knows as Queen Mother) doing his Billy Ocean dance routine, most strange of all is one of the guests (quite a diva)  who  refuses to eat in the dining room because she saw the resort cat there,  and apparently has a cat phobia. And now the meke has finished and all the guests and the staff are doing the snake dance around the dining room and laughing hysterically. Actually its the  laughter i love more than anything, in all my travels around the world I have never met a culture more disposed to happiness and merriment,  and it is so utterly contagious. How blessed I am to have Fiji in my life….


Back to Fiji

Life is funny, one minute you are striding down a certain path, and the next, tragedy strikes  like a metaphorical avalanche and the path is swept away from under you. But all the cliches are true…. out of the darkness comes the light… one door closes another opens…… And so it was that a disaster on the harsh rocky island of Gran Canaria  in Spain seven years ago would change my life in ways I never could have imagined.

Fate, and the trade winds blew me to Fiji where I landed a job on a remote island in the Yasawas.  Here I worked with a local, tradition-bound community domineered by a powerful autocratic chief, and answered  to a wealthy and eccentric American billionaire (owner of the island where Blue Lagoon was filmed). It was a crazy time typified by cyclones, a  coup, and suffocating heat, of sabotage and skullduggery….where cheeky spirits roamed by land and sea, and tales of cannibalistic forebears were shared over many a bowl of kava.   But what i remember most is the laughter, the singing, the awe inspiring beauty and the big beautiful smiles of the Fijians who welcomed  me to their island home.

Two years passed and my life became totally entwined with the community….All my friends told me how lucky I was to live on a coral fringed island, but paradise is a lonely place and slowly island fever took a grip – it was time to go.  Leaving was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but  knew I would come back, Fiji was a part of me and I had come to love these islands fiercely and unconditionally . And now, five years later here I am. Oddly enough, it is like nothing has changed, and memories, like the incoming tide, roll in relentlessly. My time here is brief – just one month –  as  I ‘resort sit’  Navutu Stars, a boutique resort owned by my amazing Italian friends Maddalena and Freddy. Actually, the timing has been extraordinary, as I am writing a book about my time in Fiji but had lost the freshness of the experience and had been thinking of ways I could return – when out of the blue Madda called and asked me to come.

I am remembering so well the isolation, and the peacefulness, it seems so incredibly still after the chaos of Bali and it has taken me a while to adjust to the pace of Fiji time. The rhythm of life is so slow here, but this is the magic.

Health cafes in Bali

Gone are the days when gado gado, vegetable nasi goreng  and overly sweetened fruit juices were the only options for vegetarians in Bali. These days there is a great range of choices for vegetarians, vegans, raw food lovers, and anyone who just want to eat something light and healthy. Please scroll down the menu on the side of this blog to read my reviews.

24 hours in Jakarta

24 hours in Jakarta

Jakarta doesn’t enjoy the best of reputations ,but anyone who spends any amount of time in Indonesia is bound to pass through the sweltering capital at some point. I have 24 hours and am determined to find something endearing about the city which is home to ten million people. I arrive two weeks after the bombs, but apart from the area directly around the Marriot and the Ritz Carlton, life has continued as normal.

I fly in to Soekarno-Hatta Airport, and drive straight into one of the city’s legendary gridlocks. Slowly the traffic clears, and an hour later I am in the traveller’s enclave of Jalan Jaksa. It’s hardly Koh Sahn road, but the string of budget hotels, bars, restaurants, and travel agents, make it a convenient base.

Armed with a map, I set out to find the flea market in Menteng. I am expecting urban squalor and thick smog, but find myself walking down wide leafy streets filled with beautiful houses and lush gardens. The market on Jalan Surabaya is truly bizarre and crammed full of ethnic oddities from around the archipelago; scary tribal masks from Papua; antique shadow puppets; elaborate jewellery; as well as an eclectic mix of ancient typewriters; antique telephones; brass dive helmets and  worn out suitcases. It’s all so random. One stall sells battered golf clubs, tennis rackets with broken strings, and has a great collection of Led Zeppelin framed photos, as well as vinyl records with soundtracks from obscure 80’s films.


I could browse for hours, but there is an entire city to explore, and only 20 hours left, so I get on a train which zooms across the city. One minute I am passing over a clean, orderly street scene, the next, graffiti covered slums littered with trash and open sewers. In Jakarta, you never know what’s around the corner.

The city brims with contrasts and contradictions. Ancient mysticism meets mass commercialism; rich meets poor; old meets new; east meets west. It is also a true microcosm of Indonesia and all the nations’ religions, cultures and people are represented here in one great seething mass of humanity.

I arrive at Kota, the old city and push my way through the throng of pedestrians, motorbikes, cars and street vendors to Taman Fatahillah (Fatahillah square). The plaza, one of the few remaining colonial relics, is ringed by old  Dutch buildings which now house Jakarta’s finest museums. Historically, the entire area was surrounded by a fort and moat, but the Dutch destroyed much of the city in the early 19th century in a bid to wipe out the disease that plagued the filthy streets.  There are balloon sellers, food vendors and people milling about as they do in city squares all over the world. I sit to drink a coffee and chat amiably with the old man sitting next to me. Out of the blue he tells me that his wife is older than him and he is worried she will die first. “What will I do for sex when she dies,” he asks, “Are you married?”


I take this as my cue to leave and make the short walk to Sunda Kelapa. Jakarta’s origins lie in this harbour town that served as stop on the lucrative spice trade for hundreds of years. It was conquered by the Dutch in 1619 and renamed Jayakarta, City of victory. The crumbling old port gives a glimpse into a by gone era, with its fleet of graceful Phinisi schooners ─ the last wind powered sailing ships in the world. These colourful wooden ships are the traditional vessels of the Bugis seafarers of Sulawesi and continue to ply the island trade route, as they have done for centuries.



A fisherman points to his small row boat and offers to row me up the river. We float slowly upstream, the tiny row boat dwarfed by towering hulls. There are at least 40 ships lining the dock, a truly magnificent sight. The same cannot be said of the port itself which is decaying and squalid with dilapidated stilt houses crouching over the putrid canal – this is Jakarta at its worst.


Night is falling as I climb back on a train. It is dark, hot and crowded, but all the doors are open as we lurch at high speed across the city. I worry about people falling out, or falling off, as the roof is also crammed with people.  We stop for ten minutes on the middle of a bridge, which is fortuitous as we are in front of the National Monument which shines like a beacon against the night sky. The giant obelisk, Jakarta’s best known land mark, is topped by a glittering golden flame, and rises 137 meters from the spacious gardens of  Merdeka (Freedom) Square. It symbolizes the nation’s strength and independence, and was envisioned by Soekarno, the flamboyant first President, who had a penchant for building extravagant monuments. It is rather phallic in nature, and is often referred to as Soekarno’s last erection.


I have a quick meal at a street market, then its back into the night. This time I hail a taxi, the traffic is heavy but I enjoy the chance to relax in the comfort of an air conditioned cab, and it feels like I am getting a private tour of the city. At one particularly fearsome intersection all the traffic lights are out and a lone policeman is trying to direct the traffic, its absolute chaos. We pass the glitzy Mangga Dua Mall, the biggest shopping centre I have ever seen, the opposite side of the road is filled with humble dwellings of corrugated iron.

Driving under a giant archway we leave Jakarta behind and enter into another realm, that of Ancola, ‘Dreamland’. The immense recreation park is home to Dunia Fantasy (Jakarta’s answer to Disneyland); Sea world; a Water Adventure park; as well as a beach park; hotels; restaurants; golf courses; and my destination, Pasar Seni, a stylish and charming arts village set amidst lush tropical gardens.  Its 10.00pm and things are winding down. A lively rock band performs for about 40 people and I wander alone through the market which is full of incredibly inspired art work. Many of the stalls also operate as studios and I see a number of artists at work. One is making life size replicas of animals out of thin silver and gold wire, another paints in a studio filled  with three meter high portraits of head hunters from West Irian.


I arrive back on Jalan Jaksa at midnight to find it heaving, the bars are noisy and overflowing and people are spilled on to the sidewalk.  My Indonesian friend calls and asks if I want to go out.  I am tempted, I have heard the clubs in Jakarta are pretty wild, but exhaustion wins, so the nightlife will have to be sampled on my next trip.

Early the next morning I am in yet another taxi, this time driving down Jalan Thamin, an impressive shopping and hotel district, which is smart, modern and filled with shiny sky scrapers. My destination is Taman Mini Indonesia Inda (beautiful mini Indonesia park) a sprawling cultural park. Once again Jakarta has me gob smacked, this place is incredible!  There are 26 full-scale traditional houses and pavilions, representing each of Indonesia’s provinces. A total of 15 museums showcase themes as varied as; heirlooms; sports; oil and gas; and transportation. There are also 11 parks and gardens. Each pavilion is like a mini museum and filled with artifacts, photos and traditional costumes and many have cultural performances under way. I explore the round houses of Papua; visit the Batak boat-shaped houses from Toba; get a glimpse into the life of the Dayaks of Kalimantan and the Toraja of Sulawesi; and watch a traditional dance from south Sumatra.  It’s kind of overwhelming, like doing a whirlwind tour of the entire archipelago in just four hours and I realize just how diverse this nation of islands is. It is Sunday, and the park is packed with local tourists, without doubt all of Indonesia is represented here on some level.





I wander through the herb garden and the flower park; discover a great second hand book stall filled with old picture books of Indonesia and a dog-eared Indonesian version of Men are from Mars Women are from Venus. I have a quick peak at the aquarium, which is interesting, but the tanks are depressingly small. At the Doctor Fish Spa three women are perched on the edge of a tub, feet dangling in the water which is filled with hundreds of tiny fish nibbling all the dead skin off their feet.


There is so much to see, but my time is up and with a final wistful glance at the IMAX Theater which is playing Road to Mecca, I am in a taxi bound for the airport, where, ironically I learn that my flight has been delayed by four hours. I treat myself to a reflexology massage at the Kedaton Airport spa which proves to be the perfect place to fill in time, with its comfortable sofas, herbal tea, healthy food and free internet.

Finally my plane is boarding and I feel a little sad to be leaving. I can’t pretend to really know Jakarta after just 24 hours, but my ‘taster’ has left me with a lengthy list of things to do on my next visit. I am surprised at how much I enjoyed my time here, but after all, it is a city that is full of surprises.