At a recent dinner inside a five-star hotel fronting Jakarta’s most-photographed roundabout, hosted by a visiting uncle, an Emirati diplomat based in Hong Kong recounted her experience of a weekend traffic jam from a beauty parlor down south. “On the way here, the driver told me it would be another 15 minutes but it was really 45. I wanted to hang myself!” she half-jokingly declared. “How do you even live here?”
People more used to developed countries and cities with far less people might describe Jakarta as a dystopian nightmare. Sure, the sprawling Indonesian capital might not have the efficiency and supreme orderliness of Singapore. By no means is it a bona fide tourist destination; I would not recommend the place to anyone looking for a convenient, family-friendly getaway. But if you happen to be adventurous, have a taste for chaotic megacities, and don’t mind a bit of grime and pollution, perhaps Jakarta will surprise and delight you as much as it has with me. In spite of the soul-destroying traffic, my attachment to this wild, rambunctious beast of a city has only deepened in the three years since I moved here from Hong Kong.
What is it about Jakarta that I find so alluring? I love the raw energy and sense of optimism pulsing through the streets, the creative, entrepreneurial streak shared by so many of its inhabitants, the surprises at every turn. I also love the fact that, in the capital of a diverse Muslim-majority nation (and the world’s most populous one at that), I can still satisfy my occasional pork cravings without any difficulties. And that no one bats an eye when large numbers of hijab-wearing office workers dine in canteens at lunchtime during Ramadan.
Of course, that pragmatic, relaxed attitude toward other people’s lives isn’t shared by all 10 million Jakarta residents. There are deeply conservative and intolerant segments of the populace – as shown by the existence of the FPI, an association of thugs who masquerade as hardline, ultra-religious people with long beards – but the Jakarta I know well, and the ordinary Jakartans I interact with on a day-to-day basis, could not be more different.
I think of Roni, the young barber who gives me a monthly haircut and the chance to make linguistic mistakes as I test the limits of my Bahasa Indonesia. Among the regular coterie of Bluebird taxi drivers Bama and I depend on to get to work every weekday, Ridwan stands out for his ever-cheerful demeanor and openness to honest conversation. Then there’s Regina, the kind but serious-faced vendor at my office building’s canteen who greets me by name and knows exactly how I like my nasi goreng (fried rice): with shredded chicken, just the right amount of chopped bird’s-eye chilies, and a runny fried egg on top.
And how could I neglect to mention my good-humored coworkers? They are my primary source of Jakarta slang – expressions and phrases not found in any textbook – and never fail to lift my spirits whenever the going gets tough. Most will even buy a generous stack of pizzas on their birthdays to share with the entire office. (Here in Indonesia, the general rule of thumb is that the one celebrating the milestone treats everyone else, not the other way around.)
As it happens, Jakarta is celebrating its 492nd anniversary this weekend. It commemorates the date in 1527 when military commander Fatahillah, fighting for the Javanese Sultanate of Demak, captured the important port of Sunda Kelapa from the Hindu-Buddhist Sunda kingdom. Sunda had signed an alliance with the Portuguese to counter the rising power of Demak just five years before, granting them access to the lucrative pepper trade in exchange for military assistance. Fatahillah renamed the place Jayakarta, Sanskrit for “Accomplished Victory”; it would eventually become the root of the modern-day moniker Jakarta. But then Jayakarta was razed less than a century later by the Dutch, and, as arrogant colonialists do, they christened it Batavia after their own ancestors, an ancient Germanic people called the Batavi who fought against the Romans.
The name stuck for the next three centuries. Indigenous Indonesians soon adapted it into the more palatable Malay form, Betawi. In time, a whole new ethnic group, the Betawi people, would emerge from the intermingling of immigrant communities – not least the Javanese, Sundanese, Malays, Chinese, and Arabs. Betawi culture and food today reflect those melting-pot origins.
Which brings me to another thing I love about Jakarta: its astounding complexity. Even today, it harbors a mosaic of peoples drawn from just about everywhere in the archipelago, each with their own habits and languages and cuisines. Scanning the horizon from an elevated toll road to the east of downtown, you might spot a church serving the resident Toraja community from South Sulawesi that appears to be a supersized tongkonan, a traditional dwelling with a distinctive roof in the shape of an upturned boat. And part of the city’s complex nature can be attributed to its dominance of the national conversation. In American terms, Jakarta is the equivalent of New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles all rolled into one – it is Indonesia’s unchallenged hub for politics and business and pop culture.
One only has to venture into the hip neighborhoods of South Jakarta, where young people mix random English words (“literally” and “which is” are two oft-quoted examples) into their sentences, to see how worldly Indonesia’s capital has become. Here, plant store owner Darwin Senjaya created Living with L.O.F. (the acronym stands for “Lots of Flowers”) by combining his shop with a whitewashed café. Look through the menu and you’ll find fusion comfort food like baked cheese rice featuring bechamel and meatballs with tomato sauce – all served in a cast iron skillet – and a Korean-inspired fried chicken and kimchi burger. Living with L.O.F. certainly catches the eye: it occupies a zany, lattice-clad building just down the street from the city’s French international school.
Speaking of the expat French community, they can depend on several small companies when it comes to sourcing artisanal, top-quality bread. One of these is BEAU, the brainchild of Jakarta-born, Auckland-raised pastry chef Talita Setyadi, who graduated top of her class at Paris’s Le Cordon Bleu. I have not found croissants as exquisite as hers anywhere else in town: they are wonderfully flaky and delicate on the outside (the paper-thin crusts yield a discernible crackling sound when prodded with a fork) and moist and pillowy within. Together with Bama, I finally made the pilgrimage to Talita’s flagship bakery, patisserie, and café yesterday afternoon to try items like the popular Smørrebrød. These are Danish-style open-faced sandwiches with all manner of toppings: think piquant beef pastrami wrapped around a poached egg on lettuce and caramelized onion; house-cured salmon, beets, and yogurt; and slices of avocado and fresh tomato over a luscious homemade pesto.
I like to say that Jakarta is a city of many worlds. A five-minute walk from BEAU brings you to Pasar Santa, an unassuming building with a unique surprise. Imagine Melbourne’s laneways compressed into the upper floor of a traditional Asian market – without air conditioning, of course – where you might order an iced avocado latte or red velvet frappucino to cool down in the sultry tropical heat. There’s a food court strung with fairy lights, colorful murals, and an abundance of pint-sized booths that offer everything from vinyl records and vintage clothes to artisanal coffee and nitrogen ice cream. On a recent visit to Pasar Santa, Bama and I made a beeline for POST, a cozy independent bookstore run by fellow bloggers Teddy and Maesy.
Another Jakarta characteristic I love is the palpable sense of opportunity, the idea that anything can happen as long as you are willing to take risks and work hard. Indonesia’s four unicorns, all headquartered here, immediately come to mind: ride-hailing startup Go-Jek, travel and hotel booking specialists Traveloka, e-commerce companies Tokopedia and Bukalapak. I also think of local fashion designers like Iwet Ramadhan and Stella Liem who are reinterpreting batik and the archipelago’s age-old weaving traditions for the 21st century. But I have a soft spot for the people who go unnoticed – everyday fighters like Andri, who migrated from a rural district of Central Java to build his own small-scale culinary business from scratch, operating a stall with his wife at an apartment complex for more than a decade before being forcibly evicted. Nowadays, he runs a food cart and a weekend delivery service out of his own home.
Bama and I regularly indulge in Andri’s version of the Betawi dish nasi uduk, or rice cooked in coconut milk, with all the trimmings: fried, skin-on chicken, thin slices of marinated tempe (fermented, earthy soybean cakes), flavorsome rice vermicelli stir-fried with sweet soy sauce and kaffir lime leaf, boiled egg and diced potato coated in a spicy chili-and-tomato sambal, and a side of shrimp crackers.
That hearty nasi uduk only costs the equivalent of less than two U.S. dollars, but what if you were willing to splurge for a meal with a bird’s eye view of the capital? A “secret door” in the ground-floor lobby of The Westin Jakarta leads to a trio of express elevators that whisk knowing patrons to Henshin, a Japanese-Peruvian restaurant taking up the top three floors (Level 67–69) of the hotel. From the alfresco bar, perched 270 meters (885 feet) above the ground, the sprawl of Jakarta is at once majestic and strangely beautiful, stretching to infinity across a sweltering coastal plain. Look down at the eight-lane avenue fronting The Westin and you’ll see the concrete U-beams and sturdy pylons of the LRT Jabodebek, a much-needed elevated rail line that will connect the downtown area with suburbs in the east and south.
The biggest improvement in infrastructure these days is of course the MRT system, whose first line opened at the end of March. Jakartans have been waiting a very long time for this dream to be realized. The project initially took root 34 years ago; subsequent administrations shelved those plans for financial reasons even as the population grew by more than two million and traffic jams worsened by the year. The MRT was only revived in 2012 under then-Jakarta governor Joko Widodo, who is now the Indonesian president. The cleanliness and modernity of both the trains and stations, which use Japanese technology, are undeniably impressive. I’m convinced that the MRT is on par with that of Singapore and a far cry from the crumbling, antiquated New York subway. “Finally,” Bama said as we stood inside a spotless carriage filled with excited families after spending a few hours at Pasar Santa. “I don’t have to go abroad to take the metro.”
Disembarking at the northern terminus below Bundaran HI, the iconic Hotel Indonesia Roundabout, we walked on in the sweltering heat for an early dinner of Middle Eastern–influenced goat fried rice at Nasi Goreng Kambing Kebon Sirih. This is a no-frills culinary institution of sorts that has been operating since 1985, garnering rave reviews by locals and visitors alike, and becoming the subject of many Youtube videos in the process. Bama and I were keen to see what all the fuss was about.
The first thing that caught my attention was an enormous mound of rice in an equally enormous wok. I’d seen videos that depicted vendors spooning out liberal amounts of curry powder before emptying an entire bottle of sweet soy sauce and then a tin of ghee prior to mixing it all. But the nasi goreng itself proved to be a resounding disappointment. The taste wore thin after the first few bites, the goat meat was sinewy, and for lackluster street food from a makeshift stall, it was very expensive. I craved the heat of chopped bird’s-eye chilies and the smokiness of Regina’s stellar fried rice, which I knew had been constantly stirred over high heat in individual portions.
Still, the place was big on atmosphere. Bama and I sat on low communal benches under orange tarpaulin, digging into our meals and occasionally swatting at flies as roving buskers made their rounds. The experience was a reminder that Jakarta, despite its high-rise pretenses and brand-new infrastructure like the MRT, essentially remains one enormous village. I observed a young couple across from us striking up a conversation with an older man and couldn’t help smiling. For in this city of 10 million people, it is entirely possible to laugh and chat with strangers like old friends. ◊