It starts like all paths to wisdom do—accepting the things we cannot change. By it I mean going to the mall, which is inevitable in Jakarta. By some accounts, Jakarta has more malls than any other city. There are more than 170 malls in the Indonesian capital—each a glistening palace of commerce that takes the place of typical urban public spaces like parks, walkable streets, or playgrounds. When in Rome, one goes to a piazza. When in Jakarta, one goes to the mall.
I try to avoid the mall as much as possible. Back during the salad days of my youth in the U.S., the mall was a promised land of glitter-blasted jeans and triple dates with chaperones and Icees. Those days are now long behind me (Alhamdulillah), so you can imagine my response when my editor at VICE Indonesia asked me to spend 19 hours in the city's iconic Grand Indonesia Shopping Town. My Jakarta is a city of dangdut bars, cobra blood shots, and savory paru (fried chicken lungs). It's not traipsing around some frou-frou mall past The Gap.
But then again, after two years in this hot, polluted, totally unwalkable shit-show of a city, the idea of spending an entire day out of the traffic, away from the streets, and in an organized, air conditioned mall wasn't the worst idea in the world. So early one Thursday morning, I found myself standing at Bundaran HI staring straight at Grand Indonesia.
It's an indomitable, 263,000-square-meter temple to global retail divided into the East Wing and West Wing (two separate malls, really), linked by the Skybridge. It has everything—spas, arcades, a mini theme-park for kids, nice restaurants, trash restaurants, a movie theater, karaoke, and more than 180 stores. If I can survive 22 hours on a China Southern Airlines flight, surely I can glide through 19 hours at Grand Indonesia. Or so I thought.
You want to know if something's fancy? Look for the word "platinum" in its name. I'm swimming laps at Fitness First Platinum—where I signed up for a free three-day trial. Well, I'm trying to swim. The pool is outdoors, eight stories above the street, and right in the middle of a wind tunnel that blasts water into my mouth when I try to catch a breath. The mosaic tiles on the bottom run diagonally, making it impossible to swim in a straight line. Not that it matters. I'm the only one in the pool. Everyone else is hanging out poolside on the wooden lounge chairs. Do they really pay US $1,500 a year for a place outside the home to lie down?
OK, the lounge chairs are pretty comfortable. I fell asleep in one while watching a giant Mercedes Benz logo perform hypnotizing pirouettes atop a nearby office tower. Down on the street a large group of protestors are demanding independence for Papua. But up here it's all blue skies and palm trees.
I fell asleep again. This time in the steam room. The gym is so exhausting. Now I'm blow-drying my hair in front of a billboard-sized makeup mirror where the same women have been primping for more than an hour.
Out in the lounge, more people are relaxing on cushy leather couches. It's amazing how much relaxing goes on at this gym. I get the feeling that, for a lot of members, the gym is more a pleasant place to start your morning than a place to break a sweat.
An egg is making me question my life. I poke my fork tines into a perfectly poached egg and feel my sense of self worth ooze out with the yolk. What am I doing having a bougie brunch alone in the basement of a mall on a Thursday morning? Maybe it's the fact that the restaurant (it's called Benedict—get it?) is empty. It's awkward and it's making me think dark thoughts. Is this why I moved to Jakarta? Does this even count as journalism? I pay and book it to the taxi queue. But Grand Indonesia's gravity is stronger than that. The protests are causing gridlock. None of the taxi drivers will take me home. My house is walkable but too far for the wedges I'd worn for a heels-only sunset bar later. I'm stuck.
I'm looking into Justin Bieber's eyes. His face is staring back from a t-shirt in Grand Indonesia's massive H&M. My head is full of bizarre questions. Is a lilac velvet skirt Clueless louche or Romy and Michelle tacky? Just how slinky of a shirt can I actually pull off? All I wanted was a basic white tee—a simple purchase that just may make me feel sane again—but would it be completely absurd to leave with a Bieber t-shirt? The questions never end. This is why I never shop at H&M. This is why I don't come to malls. Retail therapy can quickly pinwheel into a need for actual therapy.
What shade of blue pen perfectly captures my mood? I'm trying every pen in the Gramedia book store, writing my name countless times with the hopes that the perfect pen will make me feel better. I fall into a deep state of meditative focus as I search for the perfect instrument to actualize my career as a writer. I'm no Wall Street banker, but I feel certain this investment of Rp 18,000 (US $1.34) will yield larger dividends for me than Justin Bieber's face.
But more importantly, I feel better now. And judging by the batik-clad workers pouring into the mall from the adjoining office tower, it's time for lunch.
I'm feeling nostalgic for an Icee, but Grand Indonesia doesn't have any of those, so a Dairy Queen Banana Nutella Blizzard will do just fine. The food court is a microcosm of things I'll never understand about my adopted home. Why do Indonesians spend their lunch breaks staring at their smartphones, but work hours chatting away? Why aren't there ever enough trash cans? And why does a place called Fiesta Steak sell honey soy chicken wings?
I just finished watching the new Disney film Moana in 3D, and everything looks a bit rosier. It's amazing what wonders a few Disney songs can do for the spirit. At the nearby Funworld I crush it at a virtual downhill skiing game. The morning's fear and loathing seems as far away as the sordid city streets, where rush hour is soon to start. Hijab-wearing older ladies are taking selfies in front of me on the escalator. The mall is an incubator of selfie memories. I walk past wealthy families with their maids in tow, which I typically find unbearably tacky. But what do I know? Perhaps their maids also love coming here. I think I'm starting to figure this place out.
If you're into swinging, then Ace Hardware is the place for you. I try every single piece of patio furniture on display. The Living Accent's Wesley 2-Person is the solid winner. My iPhone tells me that I've already walked 12,347 steps. This mall is enormous, and my feet are killing me. It's massage time. The mall is an incubator for self-love, too.
My wedges fulfill their purpose at Skye—a rooftop bar overlooking the whole city from 56 stories in the air. The sky is somewhat clear, and the mountains on the city's edge that are normally obscured by pollution are visible as gray silhouettes. There's something about being lifted out of Jakarta that makes me remember how incredible it is that the world's second most-populated city is built on a swamp, and that it's actually a sleeping giant, a powerhouse of a place that's just starting to wake up. Jakarta is actually kind of miraculous.
I settle the bill with friends at Milano, a restaurant three floors above Benedict and owned by the same company. But this meal didn't trigger an identity crisis. There's a big difference between eating dinner at a mall and eating brunch, I guess.
I hop a small fence and crouch by a tiny child's ride. After shooting pool at a Japanese billiard and karaoke bar, my friends and I are now playing hide-and-seek. In the dark, the children's area looks like an abandoned circus. The beer tower is hitting me, but there's only one hour left! A man is scrolling on his phone in the window of Ace Hardware just to my left. A cleaner is pushing a sweeper across the floor. A security guard is on his walkie-talkie by the escalator. I remember the employees I saw sleeping on cardboard outside of shops when I'd arrived for the gym nearly 18 hours ago. This place is its own eco-system—one that never really closes. One could, actually, never leave the mall.
It's finally time to go, but all the entrances are locked. Of course. We find a fire exit, and I'm free! It feels good to be back, reunited with the thick, warm air tinged with that distinct aroma of exhaust and wet trash that makes Jakarta, well, Jakarta. I spent 19 hours—or, close enough, who's counting?—in Grand Indonesia. Malls aren't all that bad I guess, but the city is still better.