web counter The Madness of MokcikNab: A River Runs Through It
The Madness of MokcikNab
Motives, movements and melodrama in the life of a thirty something mum.

Saturday, February 03, 2007
A River Runs Through It

It's nearly eleven at night, and the whole family is up, wide awake. The house is usually asleep by nine, but not tonight. In about 15 minutes, the River Ciliwung, already swollen with rainwater from drenched Bogor and Puncak highlands, is expected to overflow its banks. We live about one kilometre away from Ciliwung.

Saiffuddin and I are relying on the assumption that whoever is running
Jakarta will probably do all that is humanly possible to keep the floods from inundating Menteng, where we live. Just a few minutes away are the houses of the Vice President, two past Presidents, the American Ambassador, and the owner of two TV stations. We live in a modest single storey, right in front of Kali Grissek, and we can't exactly say we're rich, but we're banking that the old-moneyed people of Menteng will get the usual preferential treatment, even from Mother Nature, even if it means the Governor of Jakarta would have to send down thousand of troops, all armed with ceboks to scoop out the offending water.

We also think that we'd be okay because look, you simply cannot allow floods to happen to Barrack Obama's former school, SD Menteng Satu in Jalan Besuki. That's like hallowed ground now.

Jakarta's mayhem began Thursday evening, when the skies poured open and kept on pouring. By Friday morning, the main byways slowly became waterways. Flashfloods halted traffic, several main buildings were swamped, and some offices and schools were closed or allowed their students and workers leave early. Trisakti and Tarumanagara, both respectable universities, were in worst hit West Jakarta, and a radio DJ joked that these two can now re-print their brochures and add that they now have waterfront colleges. Rain didn't subside until the afternoon, by which time some places were engulfed in almost three metres of water. Telephone lines were down, and did not improve since. The main road to the airport was inaccessible to cars, and desperate travellers, some of whom were businessmen in coat and tie, jumped on the backs of dumptrucks to catch their flight. Thousands, thousands of people climbed up to their roofs and waited for help. While most did -- thanks to the fact that this year is election year and political parties are eager to be remembered -- a handful did not. The news today said an old woman and a four year old died of hypothermia, because they could not get treatment in time. Four others died of electrocution. Four young boys were swept away.

We watched the news unfold with some fascination, because I have never been in a flood as big as this, even though as a child I lived in Terengganu, where banjir is a yearly occurrence. We gawked at the gushing rivers and canals like accident spectators. We saw people wade through hip-high water in the middle of the Jalan Sudirman business district and hop on wooden carts or gerobaks to get through. We watched as TV reporters tried their best to outdo each other in their standuppers. Each one simply must report while standing in the torrential flood, and it can't be chicken-feed knee-deep water, no. One young man had water up to his neck and could barely keep his microphone from getting short-circuited. Another was clinging to a rubber boat, emphatically telling viewers that his feet can no longer touch the bottom.

Everyone had a story. Like how one man had to sleep at the office because all roads leading home was underwater. Or my friend, who had to spend the night in her submerged car because her husband left her, presumably to look for help, and couldn't return. She said the worst thing was the fact that she really, really needed to pee.

This afternoon, the weather was threateningly gloomy, but it didn't rain and we thought the worst was over. Not likely. As I write this, water from upstream
Bogor and Puncak is rushing down to sea and Jakarta is in its way. We heard that the Manggarai water-lock, which is in the next suburb, will be released, so that the torrid Ciliwung River can do as it pleases. Some inner-city neighbourhoods are already in four metres of water tonight, and the snaky Ciliwung is expected to overflow by 6 metres. Suddenly the prospect of being hit by floods seems actually possible, and no army with ceboks can impede the water. In the very least, we're expecting for electricity to be cut off, should surrounding suburbs get overwhelmed.

Saiffuddin, previously stoic, decided we should stock up on supplies. So off we went this evening to the nearest supermarket, where others apparently had the same idea. People were pushing out trolleys with boxes and boxes of instant noodles and gallons of water. Batteries and torchlights and nylon tents flew off the shelves. We had to fight for the last two packs of candles with a man who had frantic eyes. He won.

A docent once told me that if you look out the main balcony of Museum Sejarah Jakarta, the former Batavian stadhuys, you would realise that the Dutch colonialists tried to build
Jakarta in the image of Amsterdam. This city, too, is built mostly below sea level, with canals criss-crossing the metropolitan. That it is prone to floods is a given, but Jakartans will tell you that the worst ones happen every five years. The last catastrophe occurred in 2002.

We're only at the start of the wet season, said the weatherman. Wait till the end February, he said when the rains will really come. I’m going to persuade Saiffuddin to buy a perahu. In the meantime, he’s sleeping with all our passports in his pocket.


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