Thursday, 5 April 2012

In Search of Beauty

If there's an adjective that doesn't belong to Jakarta, it's Beauty. You know, in the real sense of the word. The balance and harmony in all the senses, the sight, the sound, the smell, those sensations that evoke within us the finer feelings of awe and appreciation, piercing through the depth of our emotions and stirring the soul. These sensations are absent in roads and streets dominated by misshapen buildings and constructions that pay no attention to their surroundings, in the jagged and twisted metals of bridges and flyovers, in the uneven tarmac and stingy pavements that shun pedestrians so they weave and wind their way between stubborn cars and suicidal motorbikes. For sure there is no beauty in the smell, a mixture of fumes, sewage and long uncollected rubbish, as for the sound there is only cacophony. After all, what else can the heavy traffic, loud speakers and the noise of millions of people living in close proximity and seemingly deaf produce other than discord?

Indeed, Beauty these days is a luxury. It's not something one can readily find. Perhaps one can stumble upon it in a passage of a book, a line of poetry or a painting hanging in a gallery. Or in a beautifully designed piece of technology. But beauty other than the landscape that Nature graces us with, is a rare treat for those of us living in a city that is constantly changing, perpetually under construction and becoming the repository of all our wastes and dirty habits.
I wanted to search for a different kind of atmosphere and I couldn't think of a place more different and so opposite to my hometown than the city of Venice in Italy. Even the very name conjures up so much history, literature, art, romance and a touch of mystery. Here is one place on earth I hadn't visited, though I have seen many times in films.

Taking the train from Rome I arrive at the station at Venice Santa Lucia in the late afternoon and stepping out into the open air, with the damp winter chill against my face, I catch my first glimpse of the city. There is water, there are boats, there are historic looking buildings lined up along the canal whose rooftops blend into the flat cloudy sky as in a watercolour sketch. A thin mist is descending. And there is not one car nor a motorbike in sight.

I wonder how to navigate the place. A mixture of laziness and desire for surprise when travelling prevents me from consulting the map or locating where my hotel is, prior to the journey. At least I know the name of the hotel and the street, and the island. San Marco. Venice has several islands joined together by hundreds of waterways where other cities would have main roads. Other than via water, finding your way around the city is by walking on narrow cobbled streets, paved roads and crossing little bridges. A Taxi signage takes me to the edge of the water. It is the Grand Canal, Venice's main highway, so to speak. Here the water is wide and a deep green with choppy waves. It is surprisingly clean and doesn't have much of a smell. I expect it's different in the summer.

Seeing I have no idea which public transport to take, there appears to be many water buses, I have no choice other than agree to a 70 Euro fare offered by the taxi boatman, who incidentally looks like an aging Alain Delon. He promises to take me directly to the hotel and since my suitcase is the size of a baby whale, I hop on. Times are tough in Italy, I say to myself. I shouldn't begrudge helping the economy a bit. As it turns out, Venetian taxis are notoriously expensive, but then you do get the entire boat to yourself and can pretend you're in a James Bond film.

The motorboat winds in and around small canals, under foot bridges, often so narrow that it bumps the sides of the buildings. Looking up from the canal the sky is a long stretch of grey between the rows of facades of washed out pastel-coloured buildings. The trip lasts barely ten minutes (I would say the most expensive ten minute taxi ride ever) after many complicated right-angled turns and passing by elegant black gondolas carrying cold-looking tourists. I wonder how I'm going to get dropped off my hotel. The building is on a higher level than the canal and the lobby would have to give way directly to the water.

Sure enough, the boat stops right outside the hotel. A helping hand by the boatman and the hotel concierge and I'm inside the lobby which is only slightly higher than the boat. In the mornings I notice that boats carrying supplies and provisions and taking garbage away would come plying the water to service the hotels and presumably the residences along the canals.

I begin to explore the city, the once maritime republics that were famed for their wealthy merchants and their seafaring traders. And here beauty is not only in the palaces, the churches and the ancient and historic buildings that line the canals and the huge squares that attract visitors. Beauty is there from the moment you step out of doors, in the terra cotta roof tiles, the curve of the street lamps and the boats moored along the water.

Everything in this place evokes beauty, from the narrow passage ways with cobbled streets flanked with shops selling brightly coloured Murano glass beads, jewellery and trinkets, ornate masks of harlequins, pierrots, feathers and fabulous animals and to buy or rent for the famed Venetian carnivals and masquerades, to the curved footbridges separating one alley way with another, giving out onto picturesque views of pink facades with shuttered windows and potted plants. Even the sound here rings of beauty. No honking of traffic and other loud industrial noises. Only the sound of the bell ringing every hour from the San Marco bell tower.

(Desi Anwar: First Published in The Jakarta Globe)

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