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New Kid's View

Family lured Jerrianne and her husband to South Milwaukee in 2002 from Southern California where she worked as, first, a journalist, then, as a court information officer. She now stays busy with media-relations consulting, playing with her three grandchildren (part of the lure), writing, discovering her new environs, and hoping her garden will produce before the first fall frost.

Car-Free Sunday

Since it was Sunday, I hadn’t set an alarm. Turns out I didn’t have to. The throbbing of what sounded like a hyper-amplified boom box woke me. It was 6:30 a.m.

Although the Grand Hyatt Jakarta’s guest rooms are superbly sound proofed from each other, street sounds do penetrate. That’s where the music came from. It was the monthly car-free day.

This is a practice started on one of my previous trips to Indonesia. The idea was to shut down some of the city’s main thoroughfares to motorized vehicles for several hours – Sunday, because less business is conducted then than on other days of the week – thereby encouraging pedestrian and bicycle traffic. City residents would benefit, the thinking went, from getting physical exercise, enjoying family-oriented activities and breathing less air pollution – at least for a day.

The street in front of the Hyatt was among the closed streets. That street is one of several that radiate out like wheel spokes from a half-block-wide traffic circle and fountain directly in front of the hotel. It seemed almost ghostly on that first car-free day last year without the usual teeming buses, trucks, cars and little three-wheeled kerosene-burning run-abouts that belch bilious clouds of black exhaust.

The initial attempt was deemed, at least by the press, to have been a colossal disaster. The (English language) Jakarta Post reported the day after the first car-free day, that in the aggregate, more, not less, pollution was created because of inadequate notice and confusion over which streets were closed and poor planning for alternative routes. So motorists, in fact, had to drive further than they would have under normal circumstances.

Apparently the city deciders decided not to heed the press. Car-free day is now held the last Sunday of every month.

As it turns out, I didn’t mind this past Sunday morning’s unexpected wake-up call. Having worked out a very successful system for avoiding jet lag, at least coming this way – going home is a different story – I try to get to sleep and wake up early on weekend days in order to stay on my weekday schedule.

After rolling out of bed on Sunday morning, I opened the drapes to a jewel-studded day. An overnight rain had washed the city clean. Lingering drops clinging to the window glittered like diamonds. The rising sun highlighted the blues, greens, blacks and whites of the scene below. People lounged around the wide lip around the water fountain. Bicyclists pedaled in from the left, steered around the traffic circle in a wide U-turn and rode back in the direction they had come from. Two large pavilions set up about a third of the way around the traffic circle from the hotel held lots of electronic equipment -- source of the music.

Across the fountain from the pavilions four badminton nets had been set up – right in the middle of what normally were traffic lanes – and games were in progress. Clumps of people were engaged in activities I couldn’t make out from my 16th-floor window. The scene looked like a street fair.

It wasn’t even 7 a.m. and I had yet to eat breakfast, but I wanted to join in the fun.

I turned on my laptop to catch the tail end of "A Prairie Home Companion" – Jakarta is exactly 12 hours ahead of U.S. Central Daylight Time – and do a quick email check – most of my incoming comes in while I sleep. Then I got dressed and headed for breakfast in the first-floor café. I joined project colleague John Sherman who was already eating. He was taking a Greyline tour of some area I had heard of but hadn’t yet gotten to. Did I want to join him?

Sounded tempting. But the bus left the hotel at 9 a.m. and the tour lasted 8 hours. Going would mean missing the car-free festivities and not having time to write about it. So I declined, and was glad I did.

Walking from the air-conditioned hotel out into the breath-gasping heat and humidity – even at 8:30 a.m. – almost sent me back inside. But I plowed on.

People of every size and age filled the street and sidewalks around the fountain. Some on bikes, some on razor scooters, some walking. Some had spread picnics on the fountain perimeter. Some women wore head scarves, most didn't. Vendors with push carts sold fresh fruits and melons – all peeled, sliced and stacked in a rainbow of colors – cooked hot dishes to order and hawked an array of newspapers and magazines. Badminton games were still in progress.

I set out in the direction most of the bike traffic was coming from. Toward the area that flooded one day on my last trip here and found me wading thigh deep in murky rust-colored water in an attempt to get from the office back to the hotel.

That stretch of pavement was now converted into mini-soccer ‘fields’, six or eight of them, each four traffic lanes wide and about twice that long, strung end to end down the avenue. Each team had five players and a goalie – yes, each ‘field’ had a goal net at each end. Each game had a whistle-tweeting official and cheering fans sitting on the curb. Most of the fans were members of other teams, all in uniforms, waiting a turn to play.

Beyond the soccer ‘fields’ the traffic thinned to a trickle. I walked on to a department store that has one floor devoted to nothing but batik fabric and fashions and another to Indonesian handicrafts. It’s my main source for souvenirs and gifts for folks back home.

On my return I passed a young woman wearing a black t-shirt with "I (red heart) my boyfriend" on the front. She also wore a matching black head scarf. Right behind her came a young man wearing a black t-shirt with "I (red heart) my girlfriend" on it. Although Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, couples holding hands and other displays of affection in public are not verboten here as they are in more fundamental Arab countries.

It was nearly noon by the time I got back to the hotel. The soccer games were still going full tilt, but the badminton nets and players were gone. I decided to walk the long way around the traffic circle, which meant having to cross one of the widest boulevards. It felt so liberating to be able to do so without having to dodge traffic or hold my breath against inhaling toxic air.

A phone-booth-size glass cubicle for traffic police sits on one corner of that boulevard. As I started across, a police officer stepped out and asked where I was going. That could have felt a little off putting, especially given that it was pedestrian-friendly day. I mean, what business was it of his? But I’ve come to realize that often as not someone will speak to me in English (I’m very obviously a boule) just because he (it’s almost always a man) can.

"The Hyatt," I replied.

"Oh," he said with a smile. "I will escort you across the street."

It was just very endearing and a perfect end to my Sunday morning promenade.

And so far as the success of car-free day is concerned, I think The Jakarta Post got it wrong.

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