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Jakarta for the long haul

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What if I told you impossible dreams could come true? Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know of my serious obsession with Indonesia, where I have taken eight trips (including a three-month stint) in the past four years. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances far beyond my control, I have left Hong Kong to start a new job in Jakarta.

Maria is the first person I meet at the workplace, and through her, I discover that Jakartans talk about their traffic woes the way the British talk about the weather, for the gridlock they face on a daily basis ranks among the worst of any major city in the world. I am sitting in Maria’s office when thick rainclouds blot out the sun, turning the skies an ominous black at four in the afternoon.

“I have never seen anything like this,” Maria says. Creases of worry are etched into her forehead, and she points out an elevated ribbon of concrete among the skyscrapers in the distance. “You see that highway there? Once it rains, you will only see the backs of cars with their red lights – they won’t move.”

We hear the rain begin to fall, pattering softly on the glass façade. It continues unabated, growing in strength until the drizzle becomes a full-fledged thunderstorm. By the time I leave the office the rain has slowed traffic to a crawl. Getting a taxi home is unthinkable in these conditions, so after work on my first day, I choose to walk. First I must cross a busy four-lane artery – six if you include the motorbikes – by walking straight through the oncoming traffic.

Perhaps it is down to the presence of an onramp leading onto a major flyover, but there are no footbridges or zebra crossings in sight. I hold my breath and go forward, reaching another traffic-choked avenue by way of a quiet road. Turning off the wide boulevard called Jalan Sudirman, I find the pavement broken and wanting, if it even exists at all. The passage is obstructed by makeshift street stalls, an array of simple stoves, plastic stools and low wooden benches under tarpaulin.

Here, the diesel fumes are mercifully interrupted by the smell of satay being grilled over hot coals; if I am lucky I catch a whiff of Jakartan beef or chicken soup, soto betawi. Sometimes the pavement widens out into a tree-lined promenade, but for the most part I am just inches away from a torrent of motorbikes weaving in and out of the incessant traffic. Bama, who has lived in Jakarta for nearly a decade, jokingly suggests I should mount a GoPro on my head and film the commute for my worried parents.

It takes an hour to find my way back to the apartment, with a quick detour into a sports centre and shopping mall to buy bread for dinner. I’d been warned that Jakarta was a difficult city to live in, especially since I was coming from a place where things run like clockwork and the public transport system is second to none.

But neither the mad traffic and resultant air pollution, nor the pressing humidity has diminished my fondness for Jakarta. I am still seduced by its electric energy, partially fueled by the exciting possibility that anything could happen, and the way it gathers people from all across Indonesia. I see the beauty beyond the grime, not least the multitude of food carts laden with hearty, inexpensive meals or sweet treats like es podeng. In this city that people love to hate, I inexplicably feel at home.

*             *             *

I have been here for only two weeks, but it feels much longer. No one has helped me more with settling in than Bama, my long-time travel buddy, and I am deeply grateful for his warm welcome and gracious hospitality. From offering his place as temporary accommodation, to buying a local SIM card and showing me how to get around by public transport, Bama has been instrumental in making this transition a relatively painless one.

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Hunting for food on a weekend morning

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Looking in, looking out – a vendor’s point of view

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A hearty breakfast of bubur ayam (chicken congee) for roughly US$0.75

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These wooden carts with wheels are called ‘gerobak’

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Inside a traditional market

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Skyscrapers on the horizon

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A mosque beside an apartment complex

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Yes, I do

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Rush hour on a Friday night

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Bright lights, big city

65 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good luck James! I lived in Jakarta for 2.5 years and my transition was hard even when I was only moving from Yogyakarta. I can’t say it’s the best place I’ve lived but the bubur ayam makes it all worth while sometimes 🙂

    June 5, 2016
    • Makasih Aggy! The huge variety of Indonesian food is one of the upsides to living in Jakarta – I am thrilled that I can eat some every day. 🙂

      June 7, 2016
  2. Jakarta has many faces. For those who have found the right face(s), they should be in love with Jakarta.

    I love Jakarta. The old Dutch buildings, the rich culinary, coffee shops and cafes here and there, the lively Chinatown (Glodok), and the glamour shopping malls. lol.

    June 5, 2016
    • Haha, well it isn’t really Jakarta without all those malls. I haven’t had the chance to explore Glodok but we shall see on one of these coming weekends.

      June 7, 2016
      • You should try the Commuter Line too 🙂

        June 7, 2016
      • Yes, maybe sometime I will take it to Bogor. 🙂

        June 7, 2016
      • Where do you live in Jakarta? You can take the commuter to other part of the city, like from Sudirman to Tebet in Southern Jakarta.

        June 7, 2016
      • I live in Kuningan, but the nearest station is a few kilometres away so I don’t think I will take the train on a regular basis.

        June 7, 2016
  3. Very welcome to jakarta! Thats the pom bensin in satrio.. i used to live 10 seconds away from there last year. If you need any help, let me know! Selamat datang

    June 5, 2016
    • Eskerrik asko, Mikel! And thanks too for your offer to help. I walk past that pom bensin every day after work – I’m thankful that the pavement there is so wide. Are you still living near the centre of town? I’ll send you my contact details so we can meet up later on.

      June 7, 2016
      • I live in setiabudi so let me know your contact details, i’ll be glad to “ngopi bareng”😃

        June 7, 2016
  4. Wow, James – this is very exciting news! I’ve never been to Hong Kong or Jakarta, but I can imagine the transition would be dramatic. Best of luck with your new job and life there!

    June 5, 2016
    • Thanks so much, Lex! It is a big change although my previous trips here and Bama’s anecdotes dampened the initial shock somewhat.

      June 7, 2016
  5. I recognize that flyover and gas station ahaha… I work in Jl. Dr. Satrio 😀
    Welcome, welcome to Jakarta!
    I personally think that to efficiently work in Jakarta, you have to live in walking distance from your workplace. The traffic to everywhere is pretty insane unless it’s Saturday and Sunday mornings, hahaha

    June 6, 2016
    • I guess that gas station is something of a local landmark! Thank you for the welcoming words. 😀
      That is so true. If I walk straight home from work it can take only 40 minutes. I have thought of taking Go-Jek but with the traffic it probably takes the same amount of time.

      June 7, 2016
  6. hy friends..
    your blog is good.. You can also check out my blog on
    https://theshubhamjoshi.wordpress.com/

    June 6, 2016
  7. Congrats on your move, James! I’ve never been to Jakarta — unfortunately it seems to have a reputation that precedes it (and it’s not usually positive). I can’t wait to see the real Jakarta through your words and images. You’ve already portrayed the city’s energy and contrasts here in this post. Looks like there’s a lot to love and explore. Cheers to all the adventures ahead for you and Bama. 🙂

    June 6, 2016
    • Thanks so much, Kelly! Well I can say that Jakarta feels very different compared to Singapore. As much as I liked Singapore when I last visited two years ago, I just knew that I couldn’t live there – it was too much like Hong Kong. Somehow I prefer the madness and excitement of Jakarta, not to mention the warmth of its people! 🙂

      June 7, 2016
      • You’re welcome, James! I completely understand your love of the madness and warmth of Jakarta. I love Bangkok for that same reason. There’s just something about a buzzing city, great food, hot climate and a little craziness that makes life really exciting. Soak it all in! Great to hear from you! 🙂

        June 7, 2016
  8. Enjoy your new home! Jakarta is one big crazy city but I really love it.

    June 6, 2016
    • (((one big crazy city)))
      that’s goddamn right, lol

      June 6, 2016
    • Thanks Rebecca – I already am. 🙂 Glad to know I’m not the only outsider who loves Jakarta!

      June 7, 2016
  9. I only stayed a few days in Jakarta and it was for the exact reason you write about – the traffic – that made me heave a sigh of relief once I reached Bogor.

    June 6, 2016
    • Yes the traffic here is something else! They are finally building Jakarta’s first MRT line… fingers crossed it will be ready before 2019.

      June 7, 2016
  10. Great photos! Rush hour looks maddening. 🙂 And breakfast looks hearty, James. All the best with settling in.

    June 6, 2016
    • Much appreciated, Eric. 🙂 I could never drive in this city – you’d need incredible patience and nerves of steel.

      June 7, 2016
  11. Congrats James! I have been following you and Bama for awhile now. How wonderful that you are starting a new life in Jakarta! Very exciting!

    June 6, 2016
    • Thanks Nicole! In a strange way, it hasn’t completely sunk in that I’ve moved here to work!

      June 7, 2016
  12. Congratulations ~ not sure if there is a better feeling than the excitement of finding yourself in new surroundings and getting to know the area. Of course, that is made even better when you have good people around you (Bama) and it seems you are all set to start off on a new adventure. It never ceases to amaze me how life will throw something new at people every now and then – and good to hear to took this opportunity. Cheers to a great beginning!

    June 6, 2016
    • Thank you so much, Randall. The job opportunity came out of the blue – I still can’t believe how quickly it all happened. Things more or less fell into place and I had just one month’s notice to prepare for the move.

      June 7, 2016
      • I like how things like this come about ~ exploring new opportunities and ideas is what life is about 🙂

        June 8, 2016
  13. Had so many flashbacks!!! I’ve done more than my fair share of water drenched long walks to where I’m staying – approx 1 hour walking (though treacherous!) is preferable to 2+ hours in a taxi! Alas once Jakarta busted my ankle, it was far more challenging. Not a place for the disabled. Yet through it all, would have a great big giant smile being there.

    Congratulations on your move! Brilliant you have Bama to support and all the best!!!!

    June 6, 2016
    • I’m not surprised, Carissa! Jakarta must have felt totally natural after living long-term in Mumbai. I hope I don’t bust my ankle – that would make getting home an ordeal. Thank you for the well-wishes!!

      June 7, 2016
      • Noooooo!! DO NOT be physically disabled in ANY way! I may love Jakarta but Jakarta is not kind to folks with any kind of mobility issue…. Mind you… neither is Mumbai. 🙂

        June 7, 2016
      • We are so spoiled in Canada and Hong Kong when it comes to getting around!

        June 7, 2016
      • I’m looking forward to a little upcoming ‘spoiling’ as fly to London Thur, Toronto Sunday then Winnipeg Tues….

        June 7, 2016
  14. First of all, Congratulations for your new job. Just friendly advice as a person who lived in Jakarta, try to find accommodation closed to your office. Traffic in Jakarta could be like a hell. Good luck, James..

    June 6, 2016
    • Makasih Nurul, and thanks for the tip. Another friend has offered his place (not far from my office) as he’s away until the middle of next month, but I’d rather find something more permanent.

      June 7, 2016
  15. Congratulations James on your new job in one of your favourite places! What kind of work do you do? I’m slightly disappointed that you will no longer be in HK for when we finally come to visit 😦
    but I wish you all joy and success in your new venture.
    Alison

    June 7, 2016
    • Thanks Alison! I am back in the realm of publishing – as deputy editor of a regional travel magazine. I guess I’ll return to HK from time to time so we may still have a chance at meeting up there. 🙂
      James

      June 7, 2016
  16. Selamat datang di Jakarta James, semoga betah, betah, dan betah. Ditunggu kunjunganmu ke Bogor ya, harus coba naik commuter line Jabodetabek 🙂

    June 7, 2016
    • Makasih banyak Bart! Iya, mau datang lagi ke Bogor untuk wisata kuliner. 🙂

      June 7, 2016
      • Asiiik, nanti kita buat daftarnya.

        June 8, 2016
  17. Once again, welcome to the Big Durian! 🙂 Your story is a reminder for everyone that dreams do come true if you never lose hope. Reading Bart’s and Nugie’s comments made me realize that I still have one more thing to do: teaching you how to take (and survive) the Commuter Line. 🙂

    June 7, 2016
    • Thanks for everything, Bama! Without your help the move would have been a serious challenge. 🙂 I guess we can try the Commuter Line on one of these upcoming weekends.

      June 8, 2016
  18. Hola amigo mío, cuánto tiempo! I’m glad to see you’re still up and running with your fantastic blog and amazing travel experiences. I’ve been afk for a long while (busy finishing my economics degree and other projects), but now I finally found the chance to go back to my blogger community, and you’re one of the first blogs I come to visit again. Bring me up to speed, how have you been all this time? I really need to catch up with your blog!

    Un gran abrazo amigo! Y enhorabuena por tu nuevo trabajo!

    June 7, 2016
    • Javi, estás vivo! It feels like it has been two or three years since I last heard from you! What have you been up to these days? Keeping the blog going has been a challenge at times – for about two years I was working and doing a part-time masters as well. After I finished that last summer I decided to quit my job and travel with Bama for six months – crossing Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal. We have both been uploading stories and photos from that epic trip since then. But it has been nice to get back to a “real job”, especially in a country I love so much!

      Hope things are going well in Barcelona. Muchas gracias y un abrazo fuerte desde Yakarta!

      June 8, 2016
      • Haha yeah! I’m finally back, I took a long break from the internet to focus in my degree, and now it’s almost over 🙂 Well I’m pretty sure those 6 months travelling with Bama were absolutely epic. Quitting one’s job like that might feel like a crazy thing to do, but I’m sure the experience that came afterwards was definitely worth it. I need to check all those posts on that trip ^^
        We stay in touch amigo!

        June 8, 2016
  19. Congratulations James! I am convinced you were Indonesian in a previous life 🙂

    So happy for you that things have worked out the way they did. Our plans for Indonesia just got pushed up with a close friend’s son’s wedding being scheduled to be held in Thailand later this year. So hope to catch up with you both if/when our plans materialise. In the meantime, I look forward to more fascinating updates from your favourite country. Wishing you much good luck and happy adventures as you begin this new phase in your life.

    June 8, 2016
    • Thanks so much, Madhu! Bama sometimes jokes that I’m more Indonesian than he is… especially when it comes to timekeeping! 😀

      With Thailand being relatively close, I hope you and Ravi have enough time for Indonesia. Let us know if you need any suggestions or advice when it comes to planning the trip. I’m excited to see what you make of India’s long-lost cousin.

      June 8, 2016
  20. Congratulations James! I look forward to reading about your continued adventures in beautiful Indonesia (and further afield).

    June 10, 2016
    • Thank you, Caroline! These past few weeks have been quite the adventure in their own right. I will be off on another trip next month so I will be sure to bring my camera and laptop along.

      June 11, 2016
  21. HA! I love Bama’s remark: “Welcome to the Big Durian.” That would make Denpasar The Big Rambutan then, right? I love this line: “I discover that Jakartans talk about their traffic woes the way the British talk about the weather.” And congrats on going with your gut and making the move to Jakarta. My memory of Jakarta is very similar to my memory of Denpasar, only way worse. You make it sound pretty cool, despite the issues! For me, it was one ugly, dirty, grimey city that made me want to run right out of there. But those were the days when I just couldn’t tolerate big cities. And your photos make it look like maybe Jakarta has cleaned itself up a bit since I was there?? Good luck, dude. What’s your job?

    June 11, 2016
    • Thanks Badfish! I’m now editing a regional travel magazine called DestinAsian. I don’t think they’re distributed in Abu Dhabi but you might have seen copies lying around in hotels and airport lounges around Asia.

      Jakarta is one cool place – there’s so much going on here and the arts scene is booming. The grime is a fact of life, but parts of the city centre now resemble Singapore. Think high-rise office blocks, upscale hotels and swanky malls bordered by tree-lined avenues… all that’s missing is a subway system to whisk commuters to and fro (Jakarta’s first MRT line is finally being built). The current city administration has done an amazing job cleaning up the rivers, and a large-scale restoration of the old town is underway. I wonder if you’ll still recognise the place the next time you come!

      June 12, 2016
      • James….you make it sound like a completely different place than the Jakarta in my mind…because there it is just a dull brown dusty growling monster. I might like to see this new version…especially once they get a few Starbucks on the streets! Congrats on the job!!

        June 13, 2016
  22. Good luck on the new job. I am not a fan of huge cities. I have come to realize that I enjoy them only for short periods of time and need to get myself out of them and into nature often. My husband had to be in Jakarta for work and he was not a fan due to the traffic and pollution. Thats the thing though, even if big grimy cities one can often find a neighborhood that makes everything feel different or as you say, even makes one feel like it’s home. And thats what counts.

    Peta

    June 12, 2016
    • Much appreciated, Peta. Although I love being immersed in nature from time to time, I cannot deny my attraction to big city life. Perhaps it is only natural since I grew up in Hong Kong, that skyscraper jungle par excellence!

      June 12, 2016
  23. Adam Morris #

    Breakfast looks tasty – and looks like a beautiful place to visit, although I can see what they mean about talking about the traffic… have fun in the city life!

    June 18, 2016
    • Thanks! Jakarta is not conventionally beautiful but it has a certain offbeat charm – I can’t wait to explore the city with my camera in tow!

      June 22, 2016
  24. Congratulation James, considering the date which the article was posted my commentary remarks seems picture best the perks most Jakartans shares, Jam Karet. for what it’s worth living in Jakarta can be a pain in the arse sometimes, i can only imagine how many Jakartans telling you a series of notorious commuting story by now. 🙂

    Having fathom your affection if not knowing you and your unyielding determination I’m sure the line of adapting will neglect the matter that it is in fact a time-consuming process. Keeping the “surprise me” attitude while moving to a new country can be rewarding. I know it delightfully works for me before and hopefully it will turns out well for you too.

    Good luck.

    June 20, 2016
    • Makasih Madito. There is no hurry to reply – these days I don’t often comment on blog posts soon after they’re published! In spite of the maddening traffic and the treacherous walk home, I am loving Jakarta so far. It has such energy and optimism, and I find the people much friendlier than in my native Hong Kong. The food of course is a huge plus as well.

      June 22, 2016
  25. Aulia #

    Hi James, I love your blog. Sorry my english not good. Maybe someday you will be visit pulau seribu, pulau tidung, and other pulau in Jakarta, for see other side about Jakarta.

    July 1, 2016
    • Makasih banyak Aulia. After seeing my friends’ pictures and hearing so much about it, I would like to go to Kepulauan Seribu in the future. Nggak apa-apa – your English is much better than my Bahasa Indonesia!

      July 1, 2016
  26. Have fun in Jakarta 😊

    August 14, 2016
    • Thank you! I’ve been having a blast so far. 🙂

      August 19, 2016

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