Indonesians seem to have a soft spot for SpongeBob SquarePants and strawberries. As my companion and I wander down “Jeans Street” in Bandung, themed paraphernalia
bombards us from every direction: T-shirts with strawberry designs, SpongeBob towels and sunglasses, and strawberry-bedazzled denim. The street boasts inexpensive textiles, and racks of clothing spill out onto the curb. There is no room for pedestrians. The gutter is our tightrope; we struggle not to stumble in front of the army of scooters that waits at the stoplight, ready to charge.
The clammy heat of the midday sun carries a tide of smells that assaults our senses. Burning rubber, cigarettes, and mie goreng – fried noodles that gleam through the glass panes of the snack carts.
A vendor sells souvenirs with the slogan “Bandung – The Paris of Java,” a call-back to the city’s colonial role as the cultural capital of the Dutch East Indies. Up ahead, I spot a two-storey KFC and a larger-than-life Spiderman that clings to a shop roof, and I wonder if that slogan is false advertising.
We pass the KFC and slip down the first alley to escape the chaos and stench of Jeans Street. Within moments, the air clears and the murmur of a river washes out the buzz of traffic. The alley leads to a small neighbourhood. Concrete shacks with corrugated metal roofing lean on each other to prevent from slipping backwards onto the muddy river bank. A man bathes in the chocolate water. He flashes a piano key grin.
We weave a path through the labyrinth of houses, which grow in size and quality as we move away from the river and up the hill. Doors and a splatter of paint appear, and corrugated metal becomes tile. Laundry bakes on the roofs and crowds the narrow
passageways. We find ourselves ducking under bras and baby blankets. A scrawny chicken perches on a crate of old Coke bottles, nibbling leftovers.
Beside it, a woman watches over her shop. She sells fruit, water, candy, and brooms. Two children peek out from behind her with wide eyes. As we continue walking, we hear footsteps behind us and I spin around. The two kids shriek with laughter. They hide behind a corner. We clamber up a mossy staircase and the train behind us grows. Each time I turn around the kids scatter, just as baby crabs do when you lift up a rock on the beach.
Near the top of the hill, we discover some boys playing football. My boyfriend joins in, gesturing for our followers to do the same. He towers over the kids, so he makes up a one-man team. Team Indonesia runs, passes, kicks, screams, “GOAAAL!” The kids exchange high fives, but fall silent as we turn to leave. A little boy wearing a Batman T-shirt waves his arms and gives me a shy, gapped smile.
We leave the children behind, take the last set of stairs up the hill, and resurface on Jeans Street.