May 22, 2013 | by Evan James
On my second day in Jakarta, an exhilarating, traffic-choked terror of a city, I’m walking through the Garden District of Grand Indonesia Shopping Town. Grand Indonesia Shopping Town claims to be one of the largest upscale shopping centers in Southeast Asia, and it’s here, with a view from half a dozen stories up down to the luxury car parked outside a showroom on the ground floor, that a frightening, familiar, visceral impulse nearly gets the best of me. As I’ve learned from talking to friends and near-strangers, it’s an impulse shared by many people, and, though the consequences of ever following through on it would suggest otherwise, not a suicidal one. I have to grip the railing that separates me from the shaft of empty space running from the top of the building to the bottom—the shaft that provides a view between floors, a vertical column boring through what would otherwise be a flat, dangerless circuit of shopping opportunities—because some part of me wants, more than it wants any other thing, to fling itself over the edge.
I remember a friend in New Zealand, goaded into conversation about this impulse, saying that it may “fall” into the same family of impulses as the one that drives us, as toddlers, to touch a hot stove. Driven by a basic instinct for discovery and, ironically, survival—a need to methodically taste-test the environment in which we are to go on living. But as an adult I only occasionally have to restrain myself from bringing my hand down on a hot grill. I often cling to a wall in the fear that I might actually, if I let my guard down, follow through on the impulse to fling. It’s as though the overriding, rational mental jury that keeps me from known harm remains undecided on the subject of sheer drops.
Some shopper, some shopping Muslim woman in a stylish hijab at Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, must see me pulling myself away from the railing carefully—carefully but forcefully, as though I am one man physically restraining another. She must wonder. Unless she understands.
Even on the second floor of the courtyard at my guesthouse in Menteng, the Jakarta neighborhood where Barack Obama spent part of his childhood (a statue of Barack as a boy stands outside of State Elementary School 01 Menteng, moved there after its original installment in Menteng Park incited protests), I gingerly bounce my fingertips against the stone wall to combat the impulse as I walk to my room.
A month ago, in Auckland, I nearly broke down on a visit to the observation deck of the Sky Tower, 610 feet above street level. The edge of the observation deck, up against a wrap-around window providing panoramic views, also features panels of glass flooring one-and-a-half inches thick. I more or less lurched over these, fearful not that I would fall through—clearly, there was no risk of that—but that the unruly, violent, psychotic and child-like impulse would finally wear me down, and I would hurl my body against the protective glass, just to see what happened.
Not that street level in Jakarta lacks for potentially perilous excitement. In a place where the mere city proper’s population tops ten million, it really is an adventure just crossing the street. Locals step into ceaseless traffic with one hand held out in a “stop” gesture, presumably hoping for the best as they ford each new roaring river of transport. After losing almost an entire day to cab rides in order to visit Kota, the derelict remains of sixteenth-century Dutch walled compound Batavia, I mostly stick to Menteng, striking out on foot. Because I want to flaunt a handsome new pair of navy leather Fred Perry shoes picked up in Sydney, I give myself painful blisters exploring the neighborhood. I make frequent stops at Indonesian coffee shops filled with cigarette smoke and chattering, stylish young people, and at the many local 7-Elevens that seem to be, with their European-style outdoor café seating, hugely popular social destinations. My heels throb with pain, lacerated by the offending shoes, but I’m charmed by life on the ground, where I can eat nasi goreng and never even think about throwing myself over a ledge.
This oddly innocent, feverishly suppressed impulse returns later, though, and with maximum intensity, at SKYE Bar, a fifty-sixth floor rooftop venue offering views of the Jakarta skyline. The bar also offers an all-too-imaginable fatal drop, which appears to me to be kept from patrons by only an admittedly discouraging band of decorative plant-life. I don’t dare investigate the truth of this statement more closely, but my old friend and city contact, Dan, concurs that there is probably no significant railing, then hands me a beer.
“Has anyone ever fallen off of it, do you think?” I ask.
“Probably not,” says Dan’s co-worker. “It’s only been open for three months.”
Another of Dan’s co-workers wonders out loud whether anyone has ever thrown a beer bottle over the edge.
“Can you imagine, if you threw a bottle off this building, what would happen if it hit a car in the street below?” I ask. “God. It would be like a meteor.”
Conversation moves on to the recent meteor event in Russia, but I’m only half-listening, the other half of me grappling with the terrible impulse to take a running jump from SKYE Bar. The immediate possibility, visible from where we stand, of a fifty-six story free fall, pulls at my body with a magnetism so nearly irresistible that my legs begin to tremble. Before too long we gravitate away from the edge, back towards the bar, where I’m certain more than a few beads of the sweat under my arms have nothing to do with the humidity here on the island of Java.
The day before I leave for Phnom Penh, I fail to muster the taxi-taking fortitude to visit Taman Mini, a theme park east of Jakarta full of pavilions encapsulating Indonesian life, including examples of the building styles and architecture of this country’s many and diverse provinces. Instead, I take a taxi to and from the post office, an errand that takes a few hours. Friends and acquaintances in Jakarta tell me that giving up on one’s ambitions for the day after running a single errand is not uncommon. (Though I don’t stay in town long enough to do it the right way, which requires purchasing entire pirated seasons of TV shows on DVD in exasperation and retreating to ones apartment, defeated by the city.) I go to the post office to send some gifts back to America by sea mail, and to get rid of the handsome, offending Fred Perry shoes that so cut up and blistered my heels.
A lithe, quick-moving young Indonesian man who may or may not work for the post office scares up a ragged cardboard box to use for packing. I sit and watch as, cigarette hanging between his lips, he stuffs in my fabrics and trinkets and the offending shoes, then uses a length of black plastic thread tied to a spear-like piece of metal to encase the parcel, with zigzagging stitches, in a layer of protective tarp. Soon the things I want to get rid of are safely hemmed in, the stitching as quaintly and monstrously uneven as on an old rag doll. The young man, still smoking, scribbles something on a scrap of cardboard, then hands it to me.
I understand this to mean the package will arrive in two to three units of time, though I don’t know what bulan means. Months, probably. It could be years. Lifetimes. I don’t really care. More than the gifts, I want the shoes gone. Blisters aside, that’s one less pair of shoes in which I could, in a moment of incomprehensible, raging curiosity, take a running leap from a Southeast Asian skyscraper, or topple to my demise from the food court at Grand Indonesia.
I nod my assent, and he hauls the thing away.
Evan James is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Sun, and elsewhere. He is writing a novel. He is also on Twitter.
April 10, 2013 | by Evan James
“I forgot my camera,” I said to Wayan, the tour guide on our bicycle trip. He had, moments earlier, announced “Kodak moment!” as we slowed for our first stop—a lookout point over a mist-filled valley of tiered rice terraces. Two Swedish girls, two Dutch girls, and an English girl posed at the precipice, photographing themselves with evidence of having been to a beautiful vista in northeastern Bali.
“Oh no,” said Wayan. “Well, you will keep it in your head.”
My head already resembled a home interior from the TV show Hoarders, more so now that the compulsive caretakers within had made it their mission to collect as many Indonesian words as possible. I knew the word for “beautiful,” but lacked the impulse to document beauty. If I had to build a new mental wing to house the active volcano Mount Batur, so be it.
Still, imagined disappointment from intimates ate at me. It seemed I could not cement a solid habit of picture-taking, and in this way I felt I failed the demands of our time at every picturesque turn, successful only in my failure to do the thing I should have, in retrospect, done—done for friends, for family, for Facebook.
The feeling left me as the day progressed. The Swedish girls took cheeky snapshots of themselves knee-deep in the mud of a rice paddy outside a small village. “Dirty feet!” they cried, flashing smiles.
“It’s like a spa treatment,” one joked, stepping out with wet muck on her calves.
“I used to help my father do this when I was a boy,” said Wayan. He crouched down to plant a few sprouted seedlings.
“It must be kind of fun for little kids to be in the mud and the water,” said one of the Swedes. “Like playing.”
When we stopped at a coffee plantation, the Dutch girls took pictures of a caged civet, whose digestion and excretion of raw beans is essential to the production of expensive, earthy kopi luwak. Pictures of old Balinese women in their family compounds chopping and peeling bamboo into usable strips. Pictures of a five-hundred-year-old banyan tree. I would later persuade my fellow tourists to e-mail me these pictures, so that I could pass them off as my own when I returned.
At a particularly stunning view of the volcano, the English girl said to me, “Bet you wish you’d brought your camera now.”
“There’s a lot of things I wish,” I said in my head, keeping that there as well.
“What do you do all day? Just sit around?” Read More »
March 11, 2013 | by Evan James
The night before Sydney’s world-famous Mardi Gras parade (“I think it is the largest gay parade in the world,” a young German woman would shout behind me at the actual event, as if her sequined cowboy hat didn’t explain it all), I’m in a three-level bar in Darlinghurst. Which, as the name suggests, is an absolute darling of a hurst. It’s also where the gay people who want to live in the gayest part of Sydney live.
I’m a few hours off the airplane. I’m having a good time. But the crowd, even squeezed in shoulder-to-shoulder, comes off a little chilly. By the time I’ve had a couple drinks and the Justin Bieber song “Beauty and a Beat” comes on—which, to my surprise, and delight, sends at least several of the hundred or so men around me into a celebratory sing-along—it dawns on me how out of place I may actually appear. The men, though they surely must have flocked here from all corners for Mardi Gras, are clean-cut to a personne, reeking of meal replacement powder and Romanian deadlifts. Meanwhile I’m sporting a beard born of two months’ neglect, a pair of sneakers that I may as well have grabbed from the top of the nearest Sri Lankan landfill judging from the looks they’re getting, and whichever of my sad ensembles of neutral rags wasn’t crying out for a beautiful laundrette at the dressing hour. I look like a suburban dad who stopped shaving after an unexpected lay-off and wandered out of his house in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
In any case, it seems to be putting people off. The whole night I move from one floor to another, trying to cruise to music that sounds like it was produced inside of a crystal meth molecule, trying to decide which floor is right for me when clearly none of the floors are right for me. Not one to dwell, being thirty now and basically on a high-speed honeymoon with myself, I set my discomfort aside and get to dancing up on that third floor. Just as I’m getting into a splendid imitation of a gay man having fun in a club, some young thing wearing a T-shirt with more graphic design information on it than I can process tugs at my beard with both hands and screams, “Is this real?”
A question for the ages, barely heard over Ke$ha’s “Die Young” played at tinnitus-inducing volume. Read More »
February 19, 2013 | by Evan James
On the Saturday closest to my thirtieth birthday, I went out on the town with Andrew and Izzy, two of my Highbury flatmates. With my time in dreamy Wellington drawing to a close—to say nothing of my waning metabolic rate—the need to run a little wild at the end of an afternoon spent contemplating fiction felt realer than ever.
To this end our trio wound up, at three in the morning, after hours of dancing, walking toward a Burger King on the corner of Cuba and Manners. This Burger King occupies the ground floor of a heritage building with an Edwardian Baroque façade. Once home to the first Te Aro branch of the Bank of New Zealand, the building now shoulders what the local government describes as “considerable townscape significance.”
“My uncle used to be the president of Burger King,” said Andrew, sitting across from me and eating fries. The Burger King before us teemed with loud, drunken revelers.
“I can one-up you,” said Izzy. “My grandfather used to be the chairman of the National Front.”
“What’s the National Front?” I asked.
“You don’t know what the National Front is?” said Izzy. “Are you kidding me? Fucking Americans!”
“Look,” I said. “I know about a lot of things outside of America. I can’t know about all of them.”
“You know what the Klu Klux Klan is,” said Izzy.
“Well, of course.”
“It’s like the Klan, but in the UK.” Read More »
January 31, 2013 | by Evan James
I had only just started stepping to and fro under the shifting blush of light-emitting diodes, and with only the most pitiable amount of rhythm or flair, when a strawberry blond officer of the Wellington Police crossed the dance floor, tapped my shoulder, and asked me to come outside. My first thought was that, at last, I was getting hit on by someone who had their own car. Then I prayed, “Please, please be arresting me for writing about my impressions of the South Island.”
Since arriving, I had not suffered so much as one evil eye in the world’s southernmost capital city (the closest being when I somewhat brusquely thrust a five-dollar note, the front of which shows the grinning profile of explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, at a middle-aged Chinese fruiterer at the Vivian Street open-air green market; she glared at me and my bag of ripe apricots). A peachy, pacific place. What could I have done to attract this sun-damaged arm of the law, aside from describing the kea parrot as a “bastard”? Being a bastard myself, I have nothing but affection for the kea. Had my two-step been so criminal?
“Slow night?” I said.
He asked how much I had been drinking. I managed a modest guess, adding, as he copied the details of my driver’s license onto a clipboard, that I worked for the university.
“And how long have you been here?” The officer pointed his pen at the indefatigably thumping club.
“About two minutes.”
He sighed, embarrassed by his task (a random check, I would later learn), and wrote my two minutes down on his official paperwork. “All right. You wanna head back in?” Read More »
January 9, 2013 | by Evan James
Read part 1 here.
On the table, next to an incomplete, five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle meant to show a pair of docile horses, a magazine calls my name. It calls to me with bold yellow proclamations in sans serif (“MY MAGIC WEDDING!” “THE FROCKS THAT ROCKED AND SHOCKED”), photo-framing pink boxes, and a rogues gallery of fame-brushed faces. This is the rope bridge, heavy with gossip, across which your sunburnt correspondent has teetered for the last two weeks—over howling, hungry rivers with names like Little Devil and Charming, further and further into a land where the bone marrow of J. R. R. Tolkien is used to fashion everything from high-grossing puberty allegories in 3-D to cheeky airline safety videos. This is Woman’s Day, New Zealand’s number one weekly magazine. The date is December 31, 2012, and, according to the mag’s house astrologer, manic Mars is moving smack-dab into my center stage.