A. Lin Neumann
“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” W. H. Auden
Is there any more enduring symbol of hospitality than the offer of water to a stranger? It seems the most universal of gestures, a kindness that refreshes the body and allows life itself to continue.
That is unless you are a customer in one of Jakarta’s many high-end dining establishments. In this city — and sadly in many other cities — the thirsty stranger may end up with an $8 charge on the bill for some colorless, tasteless liquid drained from an Alpine spring that tastes exactly like any other potable water.
In most restaurants not so long ago, a waiter always appeared with a pitcher of water to fill your glass. But now that bottled water companies have turned the fundamental elixir of life into a profit center, bars and restaurants have become meaner, cheaper places.
The “hospitality industry” is frankly abandoning hospitality when it pads out already high prices with charges for the water that people need to drink to maintain their health and balance through a long night of rich food and wine. I know there are more pressing issues on the Indonesian agenda. Elections loom in 2014 with a so-far dismal field of candidates. The euro may collapse. Corruption is everywhere and the country often seems rudderless.
And water itself is, of course, a bigger issue. Jakarta must come to grips with flooding, polluted rivers and the sinking of the city due to groundwater extraction. But on a daily basis, this mini water crisis has my blood boiling. Still, this is one urban irritant we can do something about.
You know how it goes. A waiter appears to offer “still or sparkling,” in advance of a pricey meal or expensive cocktails. I smile and say, “Air putih aja.” He persists, “We only have San Pellegrino sparkling or Spa from Belgium.” I say, “Tidak bisa, my friend. I want free water. Air gratis.” It is a moment of truth.
To be honest, I will settle for a Rp 5,000 bottle of local Aqua and in lower-end eateries I can understand that they charge for mineral water.
But in high-end joints the reply often comes back that the restaurant only serves imported water — and certainly no free water. At that point, I make a mental note to cross the place off my list or track down a manager and explain that while I have been known to pay $75 or more for a mediocre bottle of red wine, I find it deeply insulting that a customer cannot get a free glass of water, something I take to be a human right in a world of rapidly diminishing social graces.
And it is getting worse. A modest Italian restaurant I have been going to for years in Jakarta always presented every diner with a glass of water before the menu even arrived. Last week they added that “still or sparkling” nonsense. The first time they did it, I pointed to the kitchen and said “free Aqua — like always.” It came, but I imagine newcomers won’t know there is an Aqua dispenser in the kitchen.
At another popular local hangout, I go for the martinis, which are both expensive and excellent. I have educated the bar staff that I only drink free water and that as long I get my free water I will buy martinis, bring friends to the bar and tip the staff. It works but it is maddening to have to battle for water when there are pitchers of the stuff behind the bar that are used for mixing drinks.
This is what needs to happen. The next time you are in one of those high-concept places ogling the crowd and waiting for some fusion-y food to appear, demand free water. Call over the manager, explain that you will happily pay outrageous amounts of money for the pleasure of visiting his establishment if — and only if — they restore free water to the place of honor it deserves. Maybe if enough of us do it, the world will be a slightly better place.
A. Lin Neumann, founding editor of the Jakarta Globe, is the host of the “Insight Indonesia” talk show on BeritaSatu TV.