Brandon Hoover braves the smell to visit a historic Jakarta fish market.
Their day begins as most of the city slips into slumber. The fishermen of Muara Karang have a schedule all their own. The fish market of Sunda Kelapa is their version of the business district although the dress policy may not reflect that of the ‘other’ CBD in downtown Jakarta.
If you have yet to visit the historic fish market, you truly are missing a plethora of sights and smells not seen many other places, even in The Big Durian. From what I’ve been told the district of Muara Karang has its own jurisdiction in a way, its own set of rules, and its own way of life. When entering this area, you certainly become aware of these notions.
We maneuvered through the small, winding street filled with water from the heavy rains released in days prior. The streets here are prone to flooding in the rainy season, so it would be advisable to use an SUV of some sort if coming in those months. We easily found ample parking adjacent to the market. Stepping out of the car, the first observation wasn’t formed with my eyes, but rather my nose. It emits the permeating, raw stench of a working market; make no mistake, it’s not the most pleasant environment, but one worth experiencing first hand.
The rain soaked streets both absorbed and reflected the dazzling glow of the umbrellas lining the narrow path leading towards the market. Dozens of customers made their way from stall to stall perhaps searching for a fresher alternative to the grocery store, perhaps re-stocking their restaurant’s supplies, or maybe simply venturing through the market out of blatant curiosity like us.
Upon entering the warehouse-like main market, the sheer vastness of the place was nearly overwhelming. There must have been hundreds of fisherman and dockworkers engaged in the night’s work. Makeshift aisles separated each worker’s wares from another’s. From what I’ve heard, the fishermen make their way into shore in late evening, and continue to arrive well into the night. Those seeking the most action would be well advised to arrive somewhere between 8pm and 12am.
To say that the variety of sea life on display was phenomenal would be an understatement. The market was brimming with sea life so vibrant and multifarious that you can’t help but wonder how it’s possible to obtain such creatures from the murky depths of the waters surrounding Java. I won’t pretend to pull a Jaques Cousteau here – I truly couldn’t name, with any accuracy, more than a handful of the creatures on display. What I can do is provide a small amount of photography and let you figure out the rest. Shark, squid, eels, rays, and an array of fish of all colors, shapes, and sizes await those adventurous enough to enter this startling place.
A foreigner walking through this scene would undoubtedly attract attention. A foreigner walking through these aisles armed with a camera certainly attracts even more, and this is when the true characters come to life. Everywhere we went, fishermen would look around for the most gargantuan, impressive fish to represent their days’ labor and hold it up like a football star would hold a trophy; grinning and laughing the entire time. Occasionally, the odd joker would find the most meager of his lot and flaunt it with just as much pride creating waves of laughter from those around. There was a real sense of community emanating from these laughs; a zone of comfort and a sense that they were one large family.
As midnight approached, our energy waned as our appetites grew. Near the parking lot was a small warung, in front of which a makeshift grill offered welcome relief. The worker offered to cook over his hot coals, any seafood we chose from the market. The other option was even more enticing; he would choose some giant prawn himself and save us the task of bargaining. Within minutes he presented us with succulent prawn skewered and laden with a mouthwatering sauce unlike any I’ve ever had. Despite the fact that we were sitting on a picnic bench, eating on paper plates, I’ll gladly admit that it was some of the best prawn I’ve had in Indonesia. For three of us to let out another notch in out belt it cost us a grand total of Rp.70,000 including drinks!
Certainly, fishermen the world-over have a culture all their own, a language which outsiders are not privy to, and a sense of humor which may be defined by some as crude. Nonetheless, these men and women of the dock deserve respect for continuing a tradition that likely has not kept pace with the rest of Jakarta. The working conditions they endure, the night shift that keeps them from their families, and the overall tenacity of their lifestyle is something most of us will never properly relate to.
Looking for something different this weekend? Take a journey back in time, slow the pace for a while. The fish market of Sunda Kelapa is only minutes from Jakarta. Experience yet another part of what makes Jakarta special. Have a glimpse into the lives of these fishermen, have a laugh with them, and feast upon the pride of their efforts.
First published in Kabar 2006.
Write to Brandon Hoover at email@example.com, or visit www.thejavajive.com