(In)visible cities: Cargo Ships and Fish Scales: The Essence of Jakarta

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

A nauseating smell of fish rotting in polystyrene boxes mingled with the peculiar fragrance of the Java Sea humidity, seizing your olfactory system and temporarily dwelling in your nostrils. The skyline reflected its lights on the brackish water, whose waves were drawing ephemeral colorful faces. A sweltering February night was giving way to a pale dawn in the port of Tanjung Priok, north of Jakarta. “It can’t be far” he sat down on a red brick wall trying to keep the sweat running down his forehead from getting into his dull eyes “yes, it cannot be far.” He lit an unfiltered cigarette and stood up again. His trembling hands dropped the red pack of Gudang Garam Merah he bought from a street vendor the night he arrived in the city. He decided to leave it there in the midst of shards of bottles and plastic bags. Cursing the night for ending too quickly he rushed into the fish market terrified by the siren of a cargo ship reverberating far behind him. 

A pallid and trembling Eastern sun was lightening large shipping containers and dockworkers unloading Western goods. “Bisa Bantu Aku?” he stuttered looking around him, “Please, can somebody help me?” He found himself in a wide room, whose floor creaked at his heavy and tense steps. An old woman was standing behind a small fish stall. Mackerels, salmons, and tunas were piled in polystyrene boxes and plastic buckets. Hundreds of eyes were looking at him, although the only ones that met his anxious glance were the old woman’s. She looked astonished at him; however, her grim smile seemed to indicate that she understood what had happened. She was wearing a claret and golden kebaya covered in fish scales, which sparkled like diamonds in the artificial light of headlights. “Sorry, where is…?” her smile quickly turned into a giggle that did not let him finish his question. Without adding anything else, she pointed to a wooden door with her knife covered in fish entrails. Sirens in the harbor kept echoing in his ears. Jakarta was waking up and the sirens of the cargo ships were its alarm clock.

As he entered the door, he felt an unbearable pain in his stomach. He could not feel his legs anymore after running all night, and still he could not stop. “I need to find it, I need to find it, I need to find…” he kept on repeating to himself, quickening his pace while biting his upper lip until he tasted blood. He found himself in a long corridor, fish stalls on his right and on his left. He felt that everybody was looking at him. They were all staring, he was sure they all knew what he was looking for and they were laughing at him and at his stumbling legs. The noise of knives slamming on cutting boards combined with the echo of cargo ships in the distance. Suddenly he felt something touching his hand; a shadow appeared and quickly disappeared in front of his eyes. Without realizing, he was now holding a piece of cardboard that looked exactly like the one he had received at the reception of the hotel he was staying, where the time and the address of the fish market he was supposed to go to were written. “Wisma 46” he whispered to himself reading the message “Wisma 46” he repeated louder. Ten thousand eyes were looking at him; he felt the need to run away. The old woman disappeared just like an illusion or a nightmare and her fish stall was not there anymore either, both memories of a long forgotten past. He rushed outside the market and found a taxi waiting for him. He knew there was no need to tell the driver where he was headed. In fact, as soon as he closed the door, the car was already moving towards the south of the city, where skyscrapers, crowded with businesspersons in Western-tailored suits, seemed to keep under control everything that was taking place in the streets, replacing fish stalls run by old women wearing kebaya covered in fish scales. He kept on biting his lip, while looking distracted outside the window. A completely different scenario from the one he had just seen. Modernity was seizing the spirit of the city. “I hope it will be there…” he whispered anxiously. The driver answered with a grotesque smile that he could pick up by looking at the rearview mirror. The sirens of the harbor were still echoing in his ears and the smell of fish was resolute to stay in his nostrils. It was the old Jakarta manifesting its essence. The old city was determined not to be replaced by a modernity of skyscrapers and Western-tailored suits.  

Andrea Acqualagna

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