Indonesia 2016

Jakarta: Fruit, Incense and Frankfurters

A man on the street here in Jakarta told me that here, the rich are very rich and the poor very poor, and that this due to systemic mismanagement and corruption (his words). Further into the suburbs, he said, many thousands of families have one meal a day, if that. I was to go back home and put his story in a newspaper, so that Western people might be aware of this.

I asked where he was from, as he didn’t look Indonesian, and he said he was a first generation immigrant from China. China’s president Deng Xiaoping, he said, rounded up all the corrupt officials and shot them. (My eyes went a bit glassy at this point, especially when he advocated Indonesia do the same.)


My guidebook tells me that of the big cities of southeast Asia, Jakarta is the one travellers hate. Matt tells me that the city is known as The big Durian, after the repulsive fruit (about which more in a few days). My Dad recommended I only spend twelve hours here, and that I leave as soon as I possibly could.

All of this meant that my opinion of the city was somewhat made before I even arrived, although a substantial part of me was determined to adore it and prove the naysayers wrong.

Jakarta is enormous — thirty million strong; almost half the population of the UK. Despite this it didn’t seem as densely packed as the big cities of Delhi and Mumbai — although in many other respects, it’s extremely similar to both. When we arrived I remarked that the city seemed more developed than either of the aforementioned cities in India — more high-rise buildings, better-quality roads, and fewer people on the streets themselves — but I had forgotten that not only was there a thunderstorm, but it’s in the government’s interests to make the journey from the airport nice and shiny.

Much of the city I saw may have looked in good repair, and with middle-class houses and official buildings, but for a city of thirty million, it’s impossible to generalise from a fraction of the city centre.

So, what did we do? Not very much, but not from a lack of enthusiasm. Our hotel, top-rated hostel in the city, was good: small, immaculate rooms, friendly staff, WiFi, free breakfast and beer on sale. We were up early, keen to “attack the day”, ignoring our jetlag. After so much travelling, I was desperate to actually see and experience something.

Our rickshaw (rickshaws again! How I love them) took us a couple of kilometres north to the old town of Kota, so named by the colonial Dutch who founded the city. The journey itself made me feel totally overwhelmed, as we wound our way through the alleys of a market.

We saw stacks of birdcages filled with small green and brown birds; people of all ages who smiled and waved at us as we passed; dozens of food stalls making delicious and dubious-smelling food; and roadside stalls selling everything you can imagine.

Why overwhelmed? Because those kinds of places are where I feel most alive; most at home; closest to who I want to be, experiencing what I find most interesting. It made all the discomfort of the plane journey worthwhile.

Our first stop was Museum Bank National, which the guidebook promised was an excellent, slickly presented history of the country through a loose financial framework.

It was not good. It was almost entirely about monetary policy through the ages, and featured such delights as a video about money told by a bank note and a wall full of ringing telephones to illustrate the financial crisis of the nineties. I did economics; I should have understood and been interested in what was being haphazardly explained to me, but I just didn’t get it. I didn’t see why I should care, without a background in what was actually going on historically.

More compelling to me was how people seemed fascinated by and curious about Matt and me, and adults and kids grinned at us constantly and occasionally sidled up,  asking for pictures. This never gets old.

We then had a brief wander around the surrounding streets. We were approached by many more kids, and learnt that a popular snack round here is frankfurter sausage split into ‘petals’. We then headed to Glodok, the Chinese enclave. This was where the fact it was Sunday was most obvious — only around a third of shops were open, and although there was plenty of traffic, things still felt much quieter than usual.


We spent a happy half hour in the market, definitely only half open — although we still saw some amazing fake DVDs, a jewellery shop with a gorgeous dog on the counter, and some peculiar medicine inside a Chinese alternative shop. My personal favourite place was a shop filled with devotional figurines of every size — and every religion.

By now we were certainly in a less well-developed area; one which reminded me very clearly of the stink and disrepair of India, complete with wastewater streams under the pavements full of rats. Oh well: we pressed on.

The final ‘sight’ of the day was one of the most spectacular — a Chinese Buddhist temple. (We’d visited a few other smaller ones nearby, but this was the biggest). The complex was inexplicably full of people and children hanging around. The kids waved and gave us high-fives, and one of the women looked at me, touched her nose, and burst into laughter when I did the same.

I have been to many iterations of Buddhist temples, but I most clearly understand and am at home with Tibetan Buddhist. This was quite different. The complex and lurid thangkas and paintings were pared back. One needn’t remove shoes. The statues were less jewelled, and the figures looked very Chinese. To worship, people bought a bundle of incense sticks and went around each shrine in the temple (each to a different embodiment of the Buddha). At each one they put some of their sticks in the jars of ash in front of them, before depositing the rest before the main statue, which is also surrounded by enormously wide candles.

It was while walking around one of the side shrines, and seeing a corridor of statues on the right and rows upon rows of flames on the left, that I thought “I’m really here. I’ve really made it.”

After a light lunch and an afternoon of sleep, we headed to a nearby fancy restaurant – which requires photos, so I’ll write about it separately.

For the simple lack of things for tourists to do, the air pollution, the disgusting conditions for so many inhabitants (I’ve not told you the half of it) and the fact many things were closed, I did not love Jakarta.

But the friendliness of its inhabitants, its fascinating culture, and the richness of its street life (of which I only had a tiny nibble), suggests that I have plenty to look forward to in the next two weeks.