Before I travelled to Seoul, South Korea earlier this year, Jakarta was the most populous city I’d ever been to. It took us about 8-9 hours by train from Yogyakarta. Our arrival into the urban sprawl that is the metropolitan area was so gradual it took a little while to even be sure we’d arrived.
Despite a growing economy and middle-class, the city is extremely overpopulated, polluted, and dotted with some of the worst slums I’ve ever seen. And yet, the city is also home to numerous business establishments catering to a well-to-do demographic. Massive, upscale malls can be found in more than one area selling a wide variety of luxury items that most people in the world couldn’t afford. It is a perplexing contrast, comparable to some of what I saw during my brief stay in Manila a few months ago. In Jakarta, acting only as passive witnesses, Desiree, Teresa, and I would explore both facets of the city, taking away good and bad in both settings.
We were staying at a hotel at the end of Jalan Jaksa, a short strip with several guesthouse/hotel options and a variety of multicultural food. It wasn’t a long walk from Jalan Thamrin, a multi-laned highway and central corridor for much of what Jakarta has to offer travellers. Lined with a variety of shiny, glass skyscrapers owned by banks and other corporations as well as dozens of street stalls serving up delicious, cheap Indonesian food, this was the central area that we would always wind up back at. There were a couple of smaller malls that we shopped at a few times, one with a decent movie theatre that drew us more than once. The street leading up to the main highway was where I had my first taste of Soto Ayam, this incredible Indonesian chicken soup with a whole boiled egg, noodles, and vegetables. Add a little bit of spicy sambal and you’re set. There were also dozens of outdoor grills selling satay chicken skewers. The combination of peanut sauce and sambal was unbeatable. We also came across a long string of stalls stretching for blocks and frequented by employees of the surrounding banks. In addition to all the seemingly unlimited cuisine options, we would stop by for cheap, hearty fruit shakes, from these tiny little strawberries to pineapple and mango.
We walked about half an hour from our hotel to Monas, the National Monument located in the centre of Merdeka Square, or Freedom Square. Just like in the Sultan’s Palace back in Yogyakarta, busloads of students were visiting for a look at the tower and the retelling of Indonesia’s history in the basement levels.
If it was too far to walk, the three of us mostly used the Transjakarta Busway to get around. I’ve read accounts that the service is unreliable with high wait times. In my experience, we never came across these types of issues. The buses always arrived when they were supposed to, it was rarely overcrowded, and from what I remember the fares were reasonably priced as well.
One afternoon, after spending some time at a government office for Teresa and I to apply for and receive our Indonesian visa extensions, we travelled to the north end of Jakarta to check out a large parkland area, Taman Impian Jaya Ancol, or Ancol Dream Park. There are numerous parts to the park, one being a theme park that we didn’t bother going to, much of it simply spanning, beautiful parkland with gardens, rivers, and little islands dotted around a lake. It made for a very nice walk which eventually led us to a grounds with multiple outdoor stalls selling all kinds of vibrant paintings, stone carvings of menacing lions and tigers, handcrafted wooden instruments, you name it. We didn’t buy anything, but there was so much to look at to hold our interest for a long while.
Later on, we hopped in a taxi which took us near the National History Museum, not far from the park. Along the way, we drove through some very impoverished areas. I’d driven around myself all throughout Asia since we’d arrived, including the large capital cities. However, this experience was one of the most moving, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting it. I’d never seen such poverty before, especially in children. It was so widespread and encompassing. We walked through some of these areas that day. We crossed a bridge over a river contaminated with human waste. The smell was nauseating. The river was lined with shacks where thousands of people lived. Women, men, children, entire families. The river was black, like oil, and peppered with bits of garbage, plastic, metal, rubber. In your mind, you always know this exists in the world. I think our brains just naturally disconnect that last bit of it that makes it really real, until we can’t deny the simple fact of it upon observation, when all the senses are activated by its presence. I couldn’t believe that wallets and handbags were being sold not far from here for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
It didn’t settle in like that, right then and there. The thought has taken time to evolve to the point where it is currently manifest. So we moved on from what we’d seen, and wound up at the National History Museum. It was light on the mind and insightful as to how the country had developed up until this point, and what part it has played in world affairs.
It was another part of a leisurely day, one that allowed us to take in many facets of Indonesia, from the enjoyable, to the undeniably real, from its past to how its present currently operates. I always read about the major cities of Southeast Asian countries to be many people’s least favourite on their overall journey. But there is so much to get from the experience and what you’re privileged to see tells a major part of the entire story of a country. The sheer size of these metropolises might seem daunting; Hanoi is massive and confusing, Bangkok is spanning and polluted, Jakarta seems endless when you stand up and look around. But they’re all brilliant in their ability to contextualize a nation and its people. Don’t miss out.