Gazing Across the Java Sea

Café Batavia, housed in a 19th-century building beside the Java Sea.
Café Batavia, housed in a 19th-century building beside the Java Sea.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — The mind reeled with possibilities standing on the edge of the Java Sea just after sunset.

At the apex of an amazing day biking across Jakarta and discovering a coffee treasure, Josh and I pedaled our way to the city’s northern port.

The image of the seaport loomed in my imagination after having seen it in Josh’s fixed-gear bicycling video, and I looked forward to seeing it firsthand. But due to a tire that persisted on flatting and an emergency detour to the Chinatown bike shops for a spare, we arrived at dusk.

Winding past Fatahillah Square and along a pier that held back water blackened by raw sewage, we witnessed the sun dip below the minarets and the wooden, triple-mast prows that remained unchanged since colonial times.

Unloaded, several ships rose high off the water, their pointed bows angling heavenward. Full of cargo, other prows sunk into the muck, casting a sleek profile against the waning light.

At the end of the pier, the only light came from a boat whose crew lounged in the cool evening breeze. And there the Java Sea stretched out before us, the color of midnight.

You could catch a ride to Borneo from here if you so desired, or to your pick of any of the Spice Islands from here to Papua New Guinea.

“It would take three very boring days, with nothing but the sound of that engine,” Josh said, the chug-chug-chug of a cranky diesel engine punctuating his words.

“How much would it cost?” I asked.

“You’d have to pay for the crew’s meals.”

Our proximity to the sea which offered access to many of the Indonesian archipelago’s 17,000 islands boggled me. I thought of the 1970s documentary, “Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey,” and the uncertainty filmmakers Lorne and Lawrence Blair faced on their 10-year-long adventure, not with envy but admiration.

From accompanying pirates on a black-sailed prow across these waters to living among a cannibal village where a Rockefeller disappeared and building the ultimate green house in Bali, the brothers had an incredible tale to tell.

But that was their path.

Mine has yet to be written.

Incidentally, Josh, who read the eponymous book, told me that one of the brothers died from injuries he sustained from falling into one of Bali’s open sewers. (And it was Bali, not Jakarta where Melissa’s friend met his mishap.) Now I’m doubly motivated to avoid any sidewalk surprises.

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