I couldn’t breathe, for every time I did, I let out a horrid cough. The air was so rancid. So pollution filled, choked by all the endless stream of cars passing by. Where was this CouchSurfing host of mine? He said 15 minutes!
That was my first impression of Jakarta, the bustling capital of Indonesia, where everyone else I’d met left and right throughout the vibrant archipelago had warned me…”there’s nothing to do in Jakarta…just traffic, heat and mosquitoes.” I was determined to give it a chance, having just flown in on Lion Air, only 90 minutes late this time (as opposed to my last domestic flight in Indonesia where AirAsia had me 4 and a half hours late).
Finally, my host arrived, having been stuck in Jakarta’s infamous traffic (an experience I would share a few days later) and before I knew it we were sharing a lovely traditional Javanese dinner. This was a quieter part of town, where my host lived, in the Southeast section of the city. Maybe there was more to Jakarta than everyone said there was…
By day, I went off to explore on my own and actually found getting around Jakarta to be pretty easy. From where I was staying I could catch a local bus (called Mini Metro, which was 3,000 IDR or (US$.0.30) to Blok M Square, where I could hook into the generally fantastic TransJakarta bus system (3,500 IDR (or US$0.35), a bus rapid transit system where you pay in advance and wait in air-conditioned bus stations. The buses have their own dedicated bus lanes too so they beat that infamous Jakarta traffic…well, most of the time.
I found my way to Kota, the historic old city, and while the old colonial buildings are nice and all, I was much more interested in the harbor, a short walk from the terminus of Koridor 1 on the good old TJ (it’s ok if I call it TJ, right?). Here was something you don’t see so often. An actual working harbor, a delicate ballet of cranes, forklifts, and nearly everything you can possible imagine being put on or pulled off ships. Nylon chips. Various chemicals. Fish. Brand new cars (that’s right, I said cars). Crates were everywhere (and sometimes, spilling everywhere). And you know what? It was fascinating!
By night, my host showed me around some of the more atmospheric parts of the city. The fancy neighborhoods where the U.S. Ambassador lives (a rather extravagant looking bunker, which is apparently host to a number of parties), a cool park with sculptures from the different ASEAN nations (Association of SouthEast Asian Nations), art galleries and even a salsa-dancing club!
The side streets we perused were a world away from the sheer madness of the main roads. Here was high society. Here was the school that Barack Obama attended when he was young (which, for the record, is a public school, not an Islamic school as some in the media had reported). Here was a cool city with a definite vibe. It was a view I never would have found through a guidebook.
I became absorbed with wandering, my favorite part of exploring a new city. I took TJ to one of those ubiquitous malls that are so popular throughout Southeast Asia for some lunch before setting off on foot, passing the phallic-like National Monument, the U.S. Embassy (which could easily be confused for a military base and where I was yelled at for taking this photo of some graffiti on an elevated railroad bridge, seen below…) and a really cool Cathedral. Wasn’t Indonesia supposed to be a Muslim country?
It was only when I got that text from my host about where to meet for dinner that I braved the TJ at rush hour. It was only 2 stops to Harmoni Sentral, where I could get back on the proper Koridor. Except, of course, I should get on the wrong bus that would skip Harmoni entirely and end up in the worst traffic jam I have ever seen. A disabled vehicle in one lane caused cars to dive right into that dedicated Busway, rendering it useless. All said and done, it took me 90 minutes to move what was effectively 2km (1.2 miles)! But I finally made it.
“You walked to where?!,” was the disbelief I was greeted with when I reported my day. Yes, Indonesians don’t tend to walk all that much. But I like it. I had gained a certain appreciation for the city through my explorations. Yes, there was bad traffic…really bad traffic. But if you avoid rush hour, you’re gonna be ok. And yes, it was warm, but not really any worse than anywhere else in Indonesia I had been. As for the mosquitoes? I didn’t get a single bite the entire time I was there!
There’s a lot of Jakarta-hatred out there, but, as I learned, if you look at it with open eyes, you might just be surprised at what you find…