Jakarta for the long haul
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 now 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. ◊
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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.