Ah, the New York of Indonesia! A bustling metropolis teeming with over 10 million living, breathing bodies shelved on top of one another in crooked arteries. Indonesia’s capital is unlike any other city I’ve ever visited, and it is here that I chose to make my home for the past four years.
Considering its size and position, few outside of Asia could give much detail as to where or what Jakarta is. As a dweller in England, I had heard of it, but couldn’t have pointed it out on a map, let alone have furnished any further information about it. So here’s a rough geography.
It is located on the island of Java, has a tropical climate, is the largest city in Indonesia and one of the most densely populated in the world. It also holds the dubious honours of both the worst traffic in the world (2015 survey by oil company Castrol) and Indonesia tops the list of most corrupt leaders in history (Mohamed Suharto, based on having embezzled between 15 and 35 billion dollars).
Thus far, Jakarta looks like a deeply unappealing prospect for any purpose, least of all to actually live in. But live in it I did. And for the numerous gifts it afforded me, I am deeply grateful, but I do not view the place with rose-tinted spectacles, even retrospectively.
Having never been to Asia, landing in Soekarno-Hatta Airport was pretty perplexing. There were people everywhere, filling every gap with no awareness whatsoever of those around them. Every single gap was filled with people, many squatting on the floor, some just randomly stopping in the middle of walkways. I later developed this into a game I like to call ‘macet walking’, which I will go into later in this article. This airport is grossly unprepared for the volume of traffic it receives daily, and nowhere is this more apparent than in baggage retrieval. Irrespective of which terminal you arrive at, you will wait for baggage. And you need to be prepared for this, because it’s inevitable. On occasion, I think I’ve been out in around 45 minutes. The worst wait was three hours. Yes, three actual gloriously fat hours of waiting at the baggage carousel. And people will push you out of the way to stand directly in front of you to watch nothing coming out of the flappy-doom-doors of it. Take a book, call your mother, compose a sonnet -anything- but don’t expect a quick exit.
The Joys of a Jakartan Bathroom
It is in Soekarno Hatta that I first learned Indonesian toilet etiquette. Being British, and more specifically painfully and apologetically English with a perpetual penchant for queueing, I really struggled with this. Whereas I am accustomed to standing in a queue and waiting for the next available cubicle, Indonesians nominate their cubicle and stake ownership of it, standing right at the door. After having been surpassed by three women and reacting in the quintessentially English manner of a horrified glance and shriveling sense of worthlessness, I figured out what was taking place and gave it a go. It is fairly disconcerting when leaving a cubicle to find yourself face to scalp with a woman who comes up to your armpit and is determined to be in your cubicle, even if you haven’t quite left yet. Four years on, it was still a personal bone of contention, but I fully accept that I needed to assimilate and shake off 30 years of queue-conditioning. Don’t be horrified when this happens to you. It just is.
Bagged and emptied, I was finally ready to embark on Jakartan-life.
Exiting terminal 2, I was greeted with the sensory assault that very much characterises Jakarta. Firstly, within seconds I felt as though I were being boiled from the inside out as the 32 degree heat enveloped me and rendered me an immediate sweaty mess. Then came the smells: burnt coffee, the wet aroma of boiling noodles, the sweat of others, car exhausts and the permeating scent of trash. I later became immune to this strange perfume, but on that day, my mind could barely keep up with my nostrils. After the smells were the views. I thought that there were a lot of people inside, but out there, there really were no gaps. Drivers jostled for business calling relentlessly and persisting even after headshakes and hand gestures that grew increasingly firm as I pushed through the melee.
I later learned to say “tidak terima kasih, saya sudah punya sopir” which means “no thank you, I already have a driver”, which seemed to do the trick, so if you plan to visit Indonesia at all, it’s probably worth learning. Taxi drivers everywhere in the country can be fairly forceful in their approach.
On the Road
Sinking into the soft cool pleasure of an air conditioned bus, I asked my guide how long the journey would be to our accommodation. Smiling wryly, an expression I caught myself using around a year later, he shrugged.
“Listen,” he told me, “Traffic in Jakarta can be difficult.”
He wasn’t lying.
The 34 km trip to Countrywoods Residences took close to two and a half hours. On a positive note, it was an excellent opportunity to look out of the window and see the world that I had agreed to live in for two years. And it gave me plenty of time to wonder what on earth I was doing coming to live in a place like this.
The first thing I noticed was of course the traffic – as we lovingly refer to it in Indonesia, macet – which moved at the pace of sludge attempting to squeeze its way through a worm-hole. The lack of order in the traffic jams was unbelievable. Road lines were meaningless as were any rules of the road I’d ever seen followed in the UK. Cars, buses, trucks carrying hundreds of live chickens, motorcycles carrying entire families jostled and squeezed for space. The only rule appeared to be that if you see a space, it is absolutely vital that you squeeze into it whatever the cost. This rule also applies to the game of “macet walking” that I enjoy playing in airports, which is basically that if you see a space, you have to move into it in whatever means possible. Of course, the difference with macet walking and actual macet it that when you macet walk, you actually stand a chance of getting somewhere else relatively soon. Jakartan macet rarely moves. Which is excellent for crossing roads.
The soundtrack to this traffic is the relentless blaring of horns. Again, this sound would later form the backdrop of the entire Jakarta experience. After a few years, you begin to block it out, but having re-experienced silence, it always slightly grates on immediate return.
On that day, my eyes drank in the sights greedily with a tinge of foreboding. There were people everywhere, sitting in unexpected places, carrying odd things, staring at everything that went by. That journey took us by some fairly poor neighbourhoods and I felt ashamed of my comfort in the face of their poverty. Houses that we passed seemed to consist of one small room with the occasional mattress and the obligatory tv. Food took precedent over space in most neighbourhoods. Small wartegs (one small room food spaces usually selling one particular dish) or kaka lima (translating to ‘five feet’, these pushable carts had space to cook a dish such as martabak and to be moved wherever the trade might best be captured) occupy much of the available roadside spaces in densely inhabited neighbourhoods.
Pavements don’t really exist in Jakarta – only really seen in the most stylish areas – but open drains characterise the sides of the roads. This adds to the unique scent of Jakarta as well as providing handy points to fall in and injure yourself in the dark. Potholes are everywhere, causing accidents and filling with water during rainy season.
We saw all of these on that first journey, but they only became characteristic features later.
Four years later, I realised that I still didn’t have a clear sense of the geography of Jakarta, so it’s unsurprising that everything was confusing that day. It is a city that somebody picked up and threw at the land. There appears to be no rhyme nor reason behind its structure, no functional reasons why things are where they are. And there aren’t many ways to navigate it particularly well.
I have much, much more to tell you about Jakarta – it was my home for four years – and though this particular piece highlights some of the more bewildering points, further articles will demonstrate some of Jakarta’s more endearing and glittering features.
The Big Durian is a fairly apt description. The durian smells like rotten garbage while resembling something that fell out of a dragon’s bottom, but if you are brave enough to hold your nose and take a bite, the result is surprisingly sweet.