This article features Jakarta Travel Writing, after visiting the city and staying in North Jakarta – if you’re interested in photos, videos, or travel tips, see below for the links.
“One thing that inspires me is people who go from rag to riches. I had this professor, who started out as a street kid. But he worked hard and never gave up, and eventually got to be a professor and be content. He’s not very rich, but he’s happy, and that inspires me,” says A., when I ask him to share a story of his choice.
A., our gracious Couchsurfing host, turns off the heating plate and removes the pan of fried shrimp. He sets it alongside the bowl of fried rice.
He’s invited two of his friends over for dinner. They’ve prepared a typical Indonesian dessert, a recipe based on jello and condensed milk. We share Diet Coke (his girlfriends aren’t allowed to drink alcohol) and stories. The evening is merry. The perfect way to end our stay in Indonesia.
After leaving Bandung aboard a train that led us through hills colored with palm trees and rice paddies, we arrive in the bustle of Jakarta’s central train station at night.
Pull out of the hub cautiously – we haven’t been in such a large city in weeks (with over 10 million inhabitants, it’s reportedly (one of) the most populous cities in Southeast Asia) – getting a grasp of our surroundings. I have no idea how safe, or unsafe, it is. Spot a well-dressed man who kindly points us in the right direction to the BRT.
Pleasantly welcomed by a convenient, clean and modern public bus system, where we settle down, in separate gender-based compartments – courtesy of religious decorum (see the photos).
The streets unravel, building after building, we’re headed north, far north, to the very outskirts of the city, close to the bay area. The night is full, the city’s mystery remains whole.
Thanks to the always appreciated help of yet another stranger, we manage to stop off at the right station. Tall institutional buildings in the midst of construction, cross over a metallic bridge to two lone towers.
A. greets us with a wide smile – a relief after some of the hustle of the last weeks. We’ve begun to travel harder, and our bones and joints are already feeling it. So is our mindfulness, I would suspect.
In the morning A. has left out a bowl of bitter melon and tuna. I taste it greedily, perhaps enjoying for the first time ever the dear bitterness of the super-vegetable. Outside the window bulldozers are swiveling back and forth, building the malls of the ‘morrow.
Coco and I venture outside in the morning. We hitch a bus which takes us in an unknown direction and are forced to descend in the middle of the nowhere. Today is the hottest it’s ever been: the bludgeoning heat numbs our senses. I remember walking through poor, littered neighborhoods, under an overpass, near rivers taut with stank, whose still black waters fester with toxic life, much like the acidic cesspools so-oft depicted in movies.
We find our way back to the towers somehow, parched and crass, through sidewalk-less roads of sand, covered in soil and soot. Fall asleep early, rudely leaving Coco alone to converse with our host.
The next day, more comfortable with our sense of direction, we discover the neighborhoods of North Jakarta and Kota. Schoolboys gape in awe as a street demonstrator performs tricks with a large snake. Now that we’ve managed to find our way off the large soulless roads, I gawk at the street life, the multitude of storefronts, the people of Jakarta.
We’ve studied the map of Java and Indonesia and have decided against spending another day or two to travel westwards, so we’re relieved when A. suggests that we stay longer than had been initially agreed upon.
He takes us to the rooftop of the building and the sprawl of the city unfolds before us, veiled by the smog, revealing skyscrapers and tall glass buildings in the distance. The stark contrast of Jakarta appears in its full ingloriousness as I gaze at the nearby tin-roofed shacks built all around the bay, straight, as it seems, atop the heaps of litter degurgitated by the ten-million-strong city.
A. suggests we visit Taman Mini on his day off, a curious park home to plethora of life-size reproductions of Indonesia’s traditional houses (and also, for some reason, a Disneyland-inspired castle).
The tall glass buildings of downtown Jakarta slide by the bus window, lines of workers briefcased and suited saunter through the spotlessness of the Central Business District…
As we cross one of the highways, A. points to the lines of mothers and infants standing on the side of the highway. Due to a nearby tollbooth levying taxes based on the number of people in each vehicle, it has become customary business for the mothers and children to ‘rent’ themselves as passengers.
Everyday then, the mothers and their babies line up on the side of the road, to be picked up by the lone drivers, thus reducing their toll fee.
I watch, equally saddened and amazed. Make a note to write a story about this.
On our last day, Coco and I spend some time downtown, running around to capture some pictures of monuments, the nation’s largest mosque… the heat of April, the thick fumes of traffic, remain dreadful as ever. As we return to North Jakarta, I also take a walk through the nearby ‘slums’, curious to see the actual living conditions. The narrow streets are partially flooded, but the markets are open, their song livening the whole neighborhood, droves of people going about their daily lives. The houses, though far from luxurious, are more comfortable than they seem from afar. Their inhabitants greet me, mostly, with a smile (see the photos from North Jakarta).
Coco is excited. We are to meet with her family, for the second time in two months. Though I have only respect and devotion for my promised in-laws, I am not entirely happy about this turn of events. Part of me feels like we haven’t yet had the chance to ‘lose’ ourselves, to whisk and wallow in the winds of wondrous wandering.
Is that not, after all, the sought-for luxury, the real currency and treasure, afforded by such type of long-form travels?
It also means we’ll be slightly derogating to our ‘linear’ itinerary through Asia, as we fly over Singapore and Thailand on our way to Laos, only to return southwards afterwards.
I feel like I’m just beginning to hit my stride – if a physical, sports metaphor is even appropriate when it comes to travel, to discovering the world, to forging one’s mind and coercing one’s humility, to lending an ear and eye to different people and cultures.
On the other hand, I have much work to catch up, to say the least. And however much I enjoy backpacking, I too am tempted by the delicateness of clean sheets and homely cooked food.
And at that, the plane lifts and soars through the sky, the city grows to the size of a ball of thread, and smaller yet – bye-bye Indonesia, may you prosper, and farewell!
See more stories and videos from Jakarta, Indonesia: travel writing, life philosophy video interviews, timelapse videos and videos of North Jakarta and the Taman Mini Museum of Indonesia.
See more photo series: portraits of electronic shops and shopkeepers, public bus and traffic, Masjid Istiqlal photos (Technology and Religion), children of Jakarta, North Jakarta Kota area street photography.