Metro Madness: A Day of Betawi Culture at Setu Babakan
Last weekend, I revved up the old car and drove down to one of the few Jakarta tourist spots to have so far eluded my attention. Four or five kilometers southeast of Ragunan Zoo in South Jakarta, on the way to Depok, lies Setu Babakan, one of the city’s more sizeable lakes.
Around the lake’s perimeter is a Betawi Cultural Village devoted to preserving the ethnic and cultural heritage of Jakarta’s indigenous people.
There are apparently about 2.5 million Betawi people in the capital, which is, I guess, around a quarter of Jakarta’s total population.
The Betawi have a culture and a language — not to mention music, traditions and food — that are distinct from Java’s Sundanese and Javanese. They are also known for their rough and ready manner, their openness to strangers and even for their short tempers — all character traits that are anathema to the supposedly refined Javanese.
I headed down a bumpy track to the side of the lake and took a stroll down Setu Babakan’s bucolic — and only slightly bubonic — boulevards.
The lake is ringed with cheap and cheerful chairs, tables and warungs (food stalls), where couples can whisper sweet nothings into each other’s ears while taking in the pleasant view of the lake and scarfing down a few bowls of baso meatballs. In fact, there were plenty of them present during my visit, all enjoying the relative pollution-free calm.
There were also quite a few groups of Betawi gentlemen enjoying some rather dubious-looking homemade concoctions and shambling about arrhythmically to a cassette of traditional dangdut music.
One of them tipped a bottle of Red Bull into a mineral water bottle of fearsome-looking brown liquid and offered me a drink. Fearing for my optic nerves, I declined his kind offer and continued on with my stroll.
If the Shariah religious police ever manage to expand their sphere of influence down through Sumatra and on into Jakarta, they will surely have a field day cracking the skulls of the young couples and half-cut bapaks down at the Betawi Cultural Village. Let’s hope that this shall never come to pass.
Stationed around the lake were various fishermen trying to hook a few bites. Mind you, I saw precisely nothing swimming through the rather brackish waters and perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that the lake is fed directly from the somewhat less than pristine Ciliwung River.
Next to the lake, I came across a hawker selling posters of a guy called Benyamin Sueib, who was apparently a famous native Betawi actor. “Mr. Ben, 1939-1995” was the legend under one such poster. Yet another Indonesian gentleman fails to make 60. Ho hum.
The other famous Betawi gentleman is, of course, Jakarta’s current governor and moustache enthusiast, Fauzi Bowo. I wonder if he ever brought a lady friend down to Setu Babakan during his formative years?
Next to the lake sits the Betawi Cultural Village, which is well worth a look around. Regular musical and theatrical performances are held here.
Strolling back to the lakeside, I felt it was time to head out to the high seas on a pedal-powered fiberglass sea lion with a ball balanced on its nose. A 20-minute, self-powered cruise will set you back a mere Rp 5,000 (55 cents) per person.
Back on dry land, I rounded off a fine Betawi afternoon with a tub of my favorite durian ice cream, purchased from one of the lakeside stalls. While it wasn’t quite a holographic, high-tech ride through Disneyland, Setu Babakan at least has the ring of cultural authenticity to it. Even the “hello misters” and suggestive innuendo were right on target.
Perhaps, though, with a little investment, the place could be turned into a modern Betawi theme park.
They could put in a loop-the-loop roller coaster with a Bluebird taxi going around it, or a Ferris wheel with bajaj (three-wheeled motorized vehicles) for gondolas.
They could even set up gridlocked bumper car rides on which one only gets to move five centimeters during a single five-minute session. Drivers could also get to have real, authentic Betawi road-rage brawls with other bumper car drivers.
Eventually, it was time to head home and I left the courting threesomes (boy, girl, scooter) of Setu Babakan to enjoy the dusk in peace.
If you’ve already done Ancol, Taman Mini, Taman Safari and the zoo, then this relaxing little spot could be the ticket. Just don’t drink any strange liquids.
Simon Pitchforth has lived in Jakarta for 13 years. His Metro Mad Jakarta blog is at metromad.blogspot.com.