When I first came to Jakarta I was at a total loss of what to do. I didn’t know anything about the city; it’s not a city that is famous for any great landmarks or institutes and it’s hard to tell when you walk around, what anything is; if a little alleyway is a public thoroughfare or if it leads to someone’s front door. I didn’t know yet about any kind of courtesies of walking around a kampung; how to distinguish between what is a restaurant, a warung or just a family group sitting on their doorstep. Signs and advertisements don’t mean anything when you don’t speak the language. It took a long time to work out when I read the sign saying ‘temple ban’ that it had nothing to do with banning people from praying at the temple – it was place to get your wheel fixed.
To walk around the place near I lived, which was apparently a haven for expats, I was confused as I didn’t see any other expats walking around and those that I did see would never acknowledge my presence as though they wanted to be the only foreigner there. Warungs were too confusing, I didn’t know what they sold, food carts were too risky (would I be struck down with Jakarta belly) and my eyes just couldn’t see beyond the lense of what was normal to me. They searched for things that were familiar, they hadn’t been trained to look beyond this but the only familiar things seemed to be McDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC, but I never wanted to go inside.
I remember walking around with an Australian friend on one of my first nights here looking for something to eat; it seems unbelievable to me now that we couldn’t find anywhere to eat on the main street in Kemang which is filled with nothing but bars and restaurants, but my eyes just couldn’t see. Maybe it was all of the distractions of dodging potholes and attempting to dodge through traffic, of people calling out “hello mister”, of seeing a horse and cart on the main street or an old man struggling to pull a large rubbish cart. It was hard to stay focused on the feeling of hunger when other feelings of wonder, confusion, sympathy and amazement along with the hope that you wouldn’t be run over, would often reign.
The joy of living in an unfamiliar environment is feeling your eyes readjust to what’s around you. When you stop thinking “oh god, I don’t know what anything is, I have no sense of direction, I don’t want to get lost, why are people laughing at me as I walk past, I am hungry, oh god they are staring, do they hate me” and all the other absurd things in your mind and relax – then you can look beyond what is normal and see the abundance of treats at your fingertips in this city.
Often it is only when someone comes to visit that you realize, through their eyes, that you have been learning things all along and are surprised to find that you can answer some of their questions. This can be simply knowing the method to cross the street while making a hopeful stop sign with your hand, reassuring your visitor that people aren’t laughing at you, but at the fact that one person had been brave enough to call out “hello mister” and their friends were laughing at them. Or that when you go around on an ojek, especially if you are a woman, it is best not to hold on to the driver’s waist as he may not be able to focus on the road.
Sometimes it’s also about knowing the best times to visit a place. The time I walked around Kemang with my friend and could find nothing to eat, was at 6pm on a Friday. We were way too early. Another time I came on a Sunday morning before 10am and it was totally deserted and nothing was open. I thought that maybe the shops were closed in Jakarta on a Sunday. If only I had come at 2am the night before, or any night in fact, when Kemang is buzzing and traffic-ridden. Any time Tash and I arrived somewhere, we always seemed to be the first ones there, wondering what was going on, and then at a certain hour, all of the Indonesians would arrive together as if on cue.
When I hear horror stories of people coming to Jakarta and having a horrible time, I think well no wonder, you paid $4 for your room on a seedy street, so what did you expect? You have to aim higher than that.
Jakarta doesn’t make it into international news for many other reasons than terrorism or natural disasters, so people who come from outside often know very little about what to expect except traffic and pollution, millions of Indonesians and lots of Muslims. This means that people often arrive with low expectations expecting to be stuck in traffic for the majority of the time, sucking up diesel fumes, having to walk through crowded streets any time they leave their accommodation, and possibly putting their lives at risk any time they go around the city.
The great thing about a city in which you live having such a reputation, is that when people come, it is easy to surprise them. Jakarta is a mix of super modern and deluxe, poverty and mess, and it is always full of surprises. My dad, who just left on Sunday, was surprised that Jakarta had a freeway; he expected narrow streets and broken roads.
People come to places like Indonesia to experience something new and to see how other people live and survive; to take a break from what is normal in their own lives. So it’s an adventure to catch a bajaj around or go by motorbike taxi around the city, or to see a family of 5 on one motorbike, to not have to wear a seatbelt, to try out new taste sensations; to sit in a place like Warung Solo set in a traditional Javanese house with men playing guitars as a woman makes batik, to eat at a Padang restaurant where waiters deliver 20 different dishes for you to choose from, to select your favourite fried foods from a street side stall, to be helped across a busy street by a man waving a flashing red light. Or the great pleasure of standing on the balcony and calling out to the man in the Warung below that you want some Indomie and him delivering it to your door.
In Australia it’s not uncommon to have to park 10 minutes walk away from where you actually want to go. In Jakarta it’s not uncommon to always park directly in front of where you want to be, helped by a parking attendant who may roll a car or two to the right or left so you can squeeze in, and then direct you out of the carpark and stop all of the traffic so that you can make what would be an impossible right hand turn in Australia onto the main road for the bargain price of 1,000 rphs.
While it’s a surprise and a delight to find so many different things, you can experience the same feeling by finding things that are the same, or even better, than what you find at home. Things like really groovy little cafes and bars which serve delicious food while you lounge on a super comfortable chair and sip your oversized coffee. And in the same bar, you can ask them to wrap up your leftovers, food and drinks (this is against all health regulations in Australia and you will only receive a raised eyebrow if you make a request to take the food you paid for home), or call them up when you are too lazy to go out and they will deliver pizza and beer to your room at midnight.
Another great surprise is the number of people in Jakarta who are really talented musicians. So many bars and cafes have amazing singers which give you goosebumps to hear them singing (go to Loca Café on a Monday night if you doubt me, or the Trip on the weekend), and not only can they sing, they also smile and say hello when you walk in, even ask you if you want to come up and sing with them.
Everyone who comes to Jakarta is totally surprised about the shopping malls here – no one expects to come to Jakarta and be surrounded by huge department stores selling super-expensive Calvin Klein or Burberry. As I don’t particularly like malls and avoid them at all cost in Australia, I was surprised to find that I didn’t totally hate malls in Jakarta, and in fact, started to like them a little. Friends who have come to visit can’t believe that I would even think of taking them to a mall, but once they go inside, they can understand why. For one, they are good places to escape the heat. Also, for movie lovers like me you can go to some deluxe cinemas like Senayan City with the big reclining seats, or Pacific Place where you can lie in bed and watch a movie and people deliver your popcorn. It’s the best. And you don’t have to pay $50 for the privilege, like in Australia.
If you want to impress visitors with delicious, the mall is a great place to go. Me and Tash always go to Social House in Grand Indonesia for the best breakfast ever, and to Marche in Plaza Senayan which is full of fresh, delicious food.
And after being in air-conditioned comfort (or nightmare, depending on your taste) and ensuring your visitors have relaxed into the Jakarta groove and you feel that the stereotypes they held about Jakarta are starting to disappear, then you can take it back to the streets where the real life is happening. Indonesians are great to watch in their leisure time and a constant source of amusement. Going to Monas, Soekarno’s final erection, is a must see; not for the structure itself, but to watch Indonesians posing for photos, lining up for hours patiently to go to the top (well kind of lining up) taking the horse and cart around, flying kites, and setting out their plastic for 50 of their closest family members to sit and eat and laugh together, while young couples have a romantic walk around the structure. You might even get to pose for lots of photos with the couples, or the group of 50.
We took dad to Kota Tua which is another great place. You can pretend to be extremely posh (and talk with a posh accent and feel a slight discomfort for being a neo-colonialist) in your old clothes while sitting under the chandeliers at Batavia Café in the old city, and watching the people down below like a silent film as “chatanooga choo choo” rings in your ears. Or better yet, walk around the square and see engaged couples posing for pre-wedding pictures, or riding around (and around and around and around in the same circle) wearing matching his-and-hers hats which come with the bike hire. There you are guaranteed to be followed by at least one group of Indonesian students who go there looking for native English speakers to do an interview for their assignment (what is your name, what is your favourite colour, do you have brothers and sisters, how do you feel about the 300 year colonial reign of the Dutch Empire and the effects on Indonesian education?). You can buy fresh mangoes, watch some scarey buskers breathe fire and get your palm read (but have a long think whether this is a good idea if you don’t speak Indonesian so you ask your boyfriend to translate for you as the palm reader says “you have not yet found a relationship, you are a playgirl”).
So while Indonesia may not have the icons or Paris or New York or little old Sydney, it can hold up to the best of cities with its variety and “adventure-potential”. The best thing to do first is decide what you need in order to feel comfortable – what kind of person are you? Do you need the familiar first or the strange? Did you come to experience things that you can’t afford at home like daily massages, gourmet food, 3 taxis a day, a pair of levis? Or to feel the sun on your back after a long, cold winter? Or to be in a place where you feel like you are a part of an unknown and funny world where everyone wants to say hello?
One thing for sure is that the people of Jakarta will shower you with hospitality, warmth and humour, good music, delicious food and a thousand possibilities. Does that sound ok?