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Rough and ready in Jakarta

My memories of that first trip to Jakarta, before the Asian Financial Crisis of 97 and Suharto’s fall from grace, are few and far between. I remember only specific details: the tiled roof of the international airport terminal, yellow-tinted water running out from a tap, and the two figures with outstretched arms on Tugu Selamat Datang – the ‘Welcome Monument’ built ahead of the 1962 Asian Games.

Now, more than fifteen years later, I can see it through the windscreen, coming up ahead as we near the cluster of landmarks that surround Bundaran HI, the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout. We circle the fountain at its base and I crane my neck at the familiar faces, smiling from the top of a pedestal. We will return here later in the day, but first, Bama is taking me to places I would certainly not have seen as an eight or nine year old.

We park beside a canal lined with drooping coconut palms and set off to uncover small pockets of Jakarta’s colonial history. But finding the Maritime Museum – Museum Bahari – is an adventure in itself. A wrong turn leads us over a bridge, along a busy artery lined by warehouses and heavy vehicle repair workshops. The pavement is virtually nonexistent, littered with broken concrete slabs, open drains, and little heaps of garbage. Dodging an array of parked vehicles, we are forced to walk out into the oncoming traffic, a rush of container trucks and relentless motorcycles. This part of Jakarta, it seems, is not for the faint-of-heart.

Breathing in the hot diesel fumes, I earnestly seek out glimpses of beauty amid the scenes of chaos. We cross another bridge, spotting two smiling girls in the shade of a flowering tree. But I can’t ignore the pervasive stench of raw sewage rising from the adjacent canal, its murky waters stagnant and strewn with rubbish.

Inside the Maritime Museum

Papuan dugout canoe

A typical bajaj

The port of Sunda Kelapa

Loading up the pinisi

Dock workers at rest

Hidden within a set of whitewashed colonial warehouses, Museum Bahari is mostly empty, devoid of exhibits except for scale models and a few traditional boats – among them an impressive dugout canoe from Papua. In the sweltering midday heat, the air is stirred only by a row of white ceiling fans, hanging low from the timber-framed roof.

Nearby we duck beneath the tarpaulin roof of a street stall, occupying the narrow and broken pavement on our way to Sunda Kelapa, the very cradle of the Indonesian capital.  Once the main harbour of the Sundanese kingdom, Sunda Kelapa is still a working port, with goods being loaded onto the motorised pinisi schooners lined by the wharf. A hallmark of the Bugis people in South Sulawesi, these two-masted sailing ships have plied their cargoes throughout the archipelago for centuries, shuttling precious spices and other commodities between Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

Signs of decay

Waiting for change

Abandoned shophouse

A food cart – kedai makan

Bicycles for rent

Fatahillah Square

Kota Tua, literally the “Old City”, is what remains of Dutch-built Batavia. Inside the stately residence which once housed the Governor General of the VOC (Dutch East India Company), the Jakarta History Museum faces the grey expanse of Fatahillah Square. Our footsteps make a dull thud among the towering bookcases and intricately carved screens in tropical hardwood. Standing in the centre of a room, a Portuguese commemorative stone pillar (padrão) is conspicuously carved with a globe. Bama tells me of Bahasa’s loanwords from Portuguese, among them bendera – flag; gereja – church; and jendela – window. They were the first Europeans to reach the fabled ‘Spice Islands’, and along with Malay, Portuguese gradually became the lingua franca for trade over the next three centuries.

Outside the history museum, the rest of Kota Tua possesses a faded beauty; an art deco post office and railway station stand amid several blocks of graceful stone buildings, many with stains running down from the upper stories. Others have fallen into a state of advanced decay, roofless ruins at the mercy of the elements. Still, the streets are marked by the rhythms of an ordinary weekday, from the food carts, kedai makan, to the ubiquitous orange bajaj (pronounced bahdge-eye), puttering three-wheeled vehicles imported from India in the 60s and 70s.

Streets of Kota Tua

Lovers’ balcony

Coconuts for sale

Along the Kali Besar, a canal in the old town

On the way back from Bundaran HI, we spend two hours and 40 minutes in macet – the term for Jakarta’s infamous traffic jams. We had left the city centre on the cusp of rush hour, but not quick enough to escape the gridlock on a Tuesday night. Inch by inch our vehicle crawls southwards, jostling for space with motorcycles weaving through every possible nook and cranny. A handful of peddlers wander from lane to lane, offering snacks and bottled drinks to weary drivers. Behind the wheel, Bama is visibly frustrated. “We have the second-worst traffic in the world, behind São Paulo.”

Jakarta is often likened to a “Big Durian” – large, jagged around the edges, and betraying a rancid odour; it’s a popular moniker among visitors and expat circles. This megalopolis is a vivid picture of both wealth and desperation, a startling contrast that is even more pronounced than in my hometown of Hong Kong. Shacks roofed in corrugated iron line the banks of the Ciliwung River, while glassy skyscrapers rise above upscale shopping malls parked along the gridlocked avenues. In the entertainment district of Kemang, a Japanese restaurant sprawls beneath a set of pavilions within a lush garden setting, hidden from the chaos behind a high stone wall and barrier of well-trimmed foliage.

There’s a dish I try on my first night, soto betawi, that strikes me as a microcosm of the city itself. It doesn’t look particularly appealing at first, a host of ingredients swimming in a bright yellow soup that glistens with drops of oil. I dip a spoon into the bowl and take a whiff of its pungent, unfamiliar scent, a meld of flavours that I cannot pinpoint with my limited vocabulary of spices. This – alongside the diesel fumes of an army of motorbikes, the rotten odour rising from polluted canals, and the comforting aroma of cloves and tobacco – is the smell of Jakarta.

45 Comments Post a comment
  1. A very honest yet beautiful depiction of Jakarta, James! I can understand why many found this city hard to love. But just like soto betawi, it is a city of different flavors mixed together.

    October 12, 2012
    • James #

      Makasih Bama! Can’t thank you enough for being my tour guide while I was there. After the solitude of Bromo and Cemoro Lawang, Jakarta was often overwhelming. We may have been stuck in traffic but at least it was not longer than 3 hours!

      October 12, 2012
  2. That was great – reminded me of the bewilderment of my first visit, and took me into the Jakarta of a terrific book I read recently (whose name I forget and whose story I need not recount – it’s the referencing I so enjoyed!).

    Made me laugh too … I didn’t know people refer to Jakarta as a Durian, but I can see it – like the durian, whose aficionados swear by its deliciousness, Jakarta’s vitality has a piquancy all its own ! 🙂

    October 12, 2012
    • James #

      Thanks Meredith, I love how you saw parallels with your own experience! Funny thing was, I don’t remember being nearly as bewildered the first time I went as a child… then again it was entirely different being escorted by two very protective parents. 🙂

      October 12, 2012
      • The Wanderlust Gene #

        Of course you don’t – there was nothing to be bewildered about with a guardian on each side! And this time you had a friend – you two didn’t know each other prior to blogging, did you? How fantastic! Hope you enjoy your trip in December – minus some of the crowds 🙂

        October 12, 2012
      • James #

        We didn’t know each other at the start – the first time I met Bama properly was back in January when he came to Hong Kong. He went out on a limb and asked if I was interested on joining him for two trips to Laos and Mainland China, so of course I said yes. 🙂

        It’s remarkable how blogging can connect people – now we’re the best of friends and we have several more joint adventures lined up in the future. Thanks again Meredith, I’m sure I will! 🙂

        October 12, 2012
  3. Great account of Jakarta. Of my 13 months of world travels, I found Jakarta one of the hardest to embrace. That said, every place has its—Jakarta included—holds some nice memories. Thanks for sharing.

    October 12, 2012
    • Glad you enjoyed it, Drew. It was a struggle at times to adapt, especially with the traffic and general lack of pavements, but having a local friend to guide me made it a whole lot easier.

      October 12, 2012
  4. I learnt a lot about Jakarta through this post. Despite, the mixed views, it’s on my list.

    October 12, 2012
    • James #

      It’s not my favourite city ever, but the older districts are well worth a look. If the authorities are serious about restoring those old gems and cleaning up the rivers it would make a big difference!

      October 12, 2012
  5. I am sure Jakarta has its good points, but I probably won’t be going there. I am not a fan of heat and traffic jams.

    October 12, 2012
    • James #

      It’s a far cry from Bagni di Lucca, that’s for sure!

      October 12, 2012
  6. That’s cool! I didn’t realize until I read through the comments here that you and Bama met through blogging. I’d just always assumed that you guys were old buddies! 😀

    October 12, 2012
    • Ha, I guess we do come across as old buddies – it’s hard to believe we barely knew each other just a year ago! 😀

      October 13, 2012
  7. I like the hats that go with the bikes. And enjoyed your soup comparison. It gives me something I can relate to and yet another reason to go there. Thanks.

    October 12, 2012
    • You’re welcome Jessica. My next post on Indonesia will be on the food… 🙂

      October 13, 2012
  8. After over 14 months of living in Jakarta, this made me smile and recall my first very hot days there and then the bewildering ones when hujan (rain) first came. Here is a feature you may enjoy, old postcards of Jakarta contrasted with photos of the spots today:

    October 13, 2012
    • Fascinating! I recognise some of those places from my latest visit – surprisingly there are a few that haven’t changed a whole lot. I’ll be returning in early December, so will most likely experience the hujan… fingers crossed it won’t be too bewildering!

      October 13, 2012
  9. I like this post a lot. I also live in Indonesia, but on different city: Yogyakarta, a city of education and culture. Have u ever visiting Yogyakarta? I will be very pleased to be your guide 😀

    October 13, 2012
    • I was in Jogja many years ago – loved Borobudur the first time, and I hope to go back in the next couple of years. Thanks for the offer! 😀

      October 14, 2012
  10. As i guess you will write about the traffic :p, at least you weren’t stuck for 3 hours. And it will go worst at Friday Night.
    Agree about the food, a lot of tasty food here :).
    Hope Jakarta will be better, because in this short time the jakarta’s governor will change 🙂

    October 15, 2012
    • True, I can’t believe just how bad it was on a Tuesday night though… Jakarta urgently needs a good metro system.

      October 15, 2012
  11. Well told James.Jakarta sounds a lot like one of our big cities. Might be less of an assault on my senses then 🙂 Would love to read your perspective on an Indian city like Mumbai.

    October 22, 2012
    • Thank you Madhu. Fingers crossed I’ll be visiting India in the next couple of years… I have my eye on a few areas in the south – especially Goa, Hampi and Kerala. 🙂

      October 22, 2012
  12. Beautiful homage to the ‘Big Durian’. You put into words how I exactly feel about my hometown.

    December 7, 2012
    • Makasih Jill. This was an attempt to capture the broad swath of feelings and emotions that I went through – even if it was only for a few days, being in Jakarta was quite a challenge. After the quietness of Bromo I found the traffic (and the noise) completely overwhelming!

      December 7, 2012
  13. James, this is a wonderful account of the Jakarta I experienced, complete with the confusion. We had been warned to bypass Jakarta, but after living in Khartoum, Sudan for several years I knew that a city is so much more than what shimmers on the surface. I went in with open eyes, embraced the “durian” and loved it. Thanks so much for this insightful post. All the best, Terri

    February 24, 2013
    • You’re welcome Terri, I’m glad you enjoyed reading this as much as you did. My experience of Jakarta was a real rollercoaster ride – it prompted a vast range of emotional responses that I still struggle to understand. Thanks also for leaving the kind words, best wishes and happy travels to you too. 🙂

      February 24, 2013
      • You’re welcome James. Your blog is a fascinating discovery and I”ll be back regularly. ~Terri

        February 24, 2013
  14. Great pictures & posts, I especially like and appreciate the history. I regret that I must return my attention to work. I would happily read your stories all day long. Can’t wait to return!

    July 9, 2013
    • Thanks for the kind words Stephanie, they’re much appreciated. 🙂

      July 9, 2013
  15. Mo #

    So interesting as I last visited Jakata in 1992 and remember the smells, the canals, the busy harbour andgorgeous boats and the yellow water from the tap ( I had an infected would on my foot and it was especially scary to wash it with yellow water!) It doesn’t sound as if much has changed! I also have great memories of friendly and kind people, one of whom found and handed in my purse at a cafe where I left it! I don’t think that would’ve happened in too many places – I was pretty lucky! Now travelling with my kids we have still to work out our Indonesia itinerary and Asia! So I’m looking forward to exploring your blog and picking up some ideas and inspiration 🙂

    July 19, 2013
    • I’m back in Jakarta as I write this – my friend here assures me that the yellow water is a thing of the past, and so far the water running out of the taps is clear just like anywhere else. On first appearances Jakarta is not a place that most travellers tend to like… but you’re right, the kindness of the people (and the food!) more than make up for it. 🙂 I think coming with your kids will really help to connect with the locals, especially here in Southeast Asia!

      July 19, 2013
      • Mo #

        That’s true I’m sure…. I can’t wait to be back jn SE Asia with them. Last visit was Thailand and Cambodia almost three years ago… We hope to see so much. Glad to hear yellow water is a thing of the past!! Enjoy your visit. Mo

        July 21, 2013
  16. This is a really good piece on Jakarta. It is a place I have visited twice, and the last time in November. It is a crazy and at many times a frustrating place with bribery and corruption endemic. 0.1% of people have so much and many more just get by. However interestingly as I visited some of the shopping malls I did notice there is definitely a teenage generation of consumer class emerging, hopefully it signals an evolution is slowly taking place.

    April 2, 2014
    • Thanks, Geoff. Jakarta is not my favourite place by any means – but beneath the traffic snarls and pollution it is truly a fascinating melting pot. I noticed the same trend in the shopping malls; with Indonesia’s economic boom there is certainly a growing middle class!

      April 9, 2014
  17. alexberman123 #

    Loved the post! Been meaning to go to Indonesia for a while now. This definitely sheds some light on what to expect in the inner-city!

    June 19, 2014
    • Thank you, Alex. Jakarta is a sprawling megalopolis with a real buzz to it – I do enjoy the energy and the sheer humanity of the place, although it can often be overwhelming!

      July 2, 2014
  18. Kevin #

    Beautiful description of Jakarta, nicely done, however i must Batavia isn’t the only place the Dutch left. Batavia have 2 town center one was Weltvedrenen (Merdeka Square) and the other one is Stadhuisplein (Fatahillah square). This was because the old town of Batavia is unhealthy because the European architecture is useless in the tropic, and soon people are moving south. It wasn’t until 18th century the Dutch finally starts to adopt local culture and creates hybrids of Indo-Dutch architecture which becomes absorbed by native and grew as the base of modern architecture. While Batavia’s administration moved south, the commercial importance is maintained, Weltvedrenen is the city’s administration, military and civic center, in 18th century Batavia was dismantled because its canal is cause so much disease and left to deterioriate while Weltvedrenen flourish but soon it rose again as commercial center later. Beautiful 17th and 20th centuries buildings can be found standing next to one another… untouched by modernity as the cbd now is in the central-south. It is a shame that its surrounding colonial era shophouses however have dissapeared. Weltvedrenen consist high concentration of Dutch mansions, government buildings, religious buildings and palaces.

    August 26, 2014
    • Thanks for sharing all that detailed information – I didn’t have enough time to explore the area around Weltvedrenen/Merdeka Square so hopefully that can be covered in a future visit. I’m also very much intrigued by the neighbourhood of Menteng and the Tugu Kunstkring Paleis; my Jakarta friends also tell me Kota Tua is being given a large-scale facelift so it would be great to check back and see how it’s been changing.

      August 26, 2014

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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