Traveller’s Tales, No. 27 - Pete Loud

Down and Out in Jalan Jaksa

Jalan Jaksa is the place in Jakarta to which all backpackers head. It’s central, it’s near the railway station. It’s in the Lonely Planet guide and it’s the only place listed with lots of cheap back-packer accommodation. It’s a seedy side street with bars, restaurants, pavement food stalls, hostels, cheap hotels, travel agencies and a couple of billiard halls. The side streets and alleys off Jalan Jaksa have open drains filled with filth. When it rains they overflow on to the street. Rats scamper everywhere and at night cockroaches join them. It not only attracts backpackers, it also attracts young whores, gays and transvestites on the pick-up. More recently, along with the backpackers, it’s been African drug dealers and Iraqis & Afghans waiting for an old fishing boat to sneak them into Australia. Although a grubby area, there are always interesting travellers to meet and talk to over a beer, so it also attracts westerners who are hanging around Jakarta for a thousand reasons, expats. between assignments, English teachers, backpackers looking for work teaching English and others just killing time cheaply.

In the early 90’s, I was in Jakarta for three months at the start of a long contract before going out to Sulawesi. Three months is a bad length of time to be in Jakarta unless your company pays you good expenses. You couldn’t rent a house for less than a year, and even then you had to pay all the rent up-front, good hotels are expensive and medium priced hotels are tacky and unfriendly. After a few weeks staying in a comfortable room above the consultant’s office, away from all social life, I decided that staying around Jalan Jaksa was preferable to social isolation. So, even though I had a very comfortable expat. salary, I moved into a cheap hostel, Bintang Kejora, off Jalan Jaksa. The hostel was basic. Although I had the best room in the place, there was no aircon. and the ceiling fan clacked away like a sheet of corrugated steel in a storm. There was one shared shower and two toilets, one without a seat and the other just a hole in the floor. But it was a great place to live. Every night there’d be new backpackers with tales of cycling across China, walking in the Himalayas, being robbed in Bangkok, or diving with sharks on the Barrier Reef. There was an endless stream of interesting people. At least once a week I’d meet some fascinating girl travelling the world, we’d talk for hours about travel, about life, about everything, and I’d fall in love. If I spent six months in England I would be lucky if I met a recently divorced secretary who wanted to talk about house prices and the problems she was having with her children. Here I was meeting international adventurers on my wavelength. This was much more important than having aircon. and a TV in my room.

One day, as I sat around the entrance of the hostel, in staggered a drunken westerner dressed in grubby clothes and big army boots. He mumbled something in an English regional accent so thick I couldn’t understand him. I thought here is one guy to avoid. I saw him a few times, always in the same drunken state, and then he’d disappear. He’d do something disgusting in his room, I was told, and he’d be chucked out of the hostel. I often wondered what it was that he did, but I never found out. Then off I went to Sulawesi.

While based in Sulawesi I often returned to Jakarta on business for a few days. Sometimes I’d stay in a smart hotel, sometimes I’d stay at my old hostel off Jalan Jaksa, but where ever I stayed I always drifted back to Jalan Jaksa for a beer & a chat. I’d always call in at the hostel to see my old friends. The English drunk was still around the area. He’d have a few weeks at one hostel be kicked out then move on to another. The hostels had short memories. They’d let him return, then he’d disgrace himself again and he would be kicked out again. This went on for several months. At one point his fortune turned and he started teaching English, I once saw him wearing a tie, but I did wonder if his students could understand him with his thick accent.

On one return trip, I popped into the hostel and saw a pile of hardback books lying around so looked through them. ’Heat Engines’ by Morfield & Winstanley, "Now there’s strange one", I thought. It was the same book I had studied when I was a marine engineering apprentice in Liverpool decades earlier. The next book was ’Engineering Workshop Practice’, "Well, Blow Me", I thought, another book that I studied on the same course many years ago. The rest of the books also turned out to be books on marine engineering. This was uncanny; they must have belonged to someone who had been on the same course as I had been, at approximately the same time. I looked back at "Heat Engines", inside the cover, handwritten in ink, was the name C. Parsons. I thought, "Ho Ho", some student joker had put in the name of the inventor of the steam turbine, Charles Parsons. Then it dawned on me, the books must have come from the drunk Englishman. When I asked, "Yes, it was Colin, he left the books". Then I slowly realised that when I was a student I had a classmate, always nicknamed Clog, who was called Colin Parsons. The English drunk, who I’d seen and ignored dozens of times, was an old friend of mine.

Colin wasn’t just another class-mate, he had been a close friend. Out of hundreds of students, we hung around together in the same group of about six or seven students. We spent all our tea breaks, our lunch breaks and evenings together. I remember the weekend when we went, on my motorbike, to visit his family in Derbyshire. I clearly remember his father, a railway steam engine driver, taking me for ride on the footplate of his steam engine. I remembered our getting very drunk with his brother and other friends, and my making a terrible mess vomiting all over his parents house. A million memories flooded back of the antics that we teenage students got up to. And I had not even recognised him.

It was a few months before I returned to Jakarta and was able to re-introduce myself to Colin and we could talk of old times. He was already very drunk so it was an unsatisfactory conversation, but at least we made contact and covered some of the times we’d had since we last saw each other 30 years earlier. I hoped I’d get a chance to meet him sober and get the full tale from him the next time I returned to Jakarta.

A few months later I returned to Jakarta and visited my old hostel off Jalan Jaksa and asked, "Where’s Colin?". "You don’t know?", they replied. A few weeks earlier Colin had been staying at another hostel across the lane, he returned one evening and collapsed in the bar. Everyone assumed he was absolutely drunk, so delicately stepped around the crumpled Colin. He wasn’t drunk, it was a burst ulcer, he was dead.

A few days ago, (Nov. 2010), more than 15 years after the death of Colin, I received an email from someone who was able to give me more accurate information about Colin. He didn’t die on the floor of the hostel bar but in hospital 2 or 3 days later.

"I knew Colin well as I lived in Indonesia for a number of years and despite his almost permanent state of drunkeness - he was clearly a lovely man at heart. As you mentioned - he used to stumble from one hostel to another getting chucked out and then returning. People were genuinely worried about him and one of the ’local’ expats went to the British embassy to see if anyone could help him - they basically said that unless he wanted to help himself they couldn’t do anything about it and so the drinking continued.

Anyway, I was intrigued by the ending of your account as it sounds more like a variation of what actually happened. Admittedly, my memory is a bit vague but I actually saw Colin in hospital - next to him was a container with a lot of green bile (not a pretty sight) but he was still (barely) alive at that point. So, it is very possible that he collapsed in a bar beforehand - but ultimately he ended up in hospital which I believe is where he died.

Not a pretty story - but in his moments of ’semi-sobriety’ he was well liked and very proud of his merchant navy background."

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