Exploring Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta

I arrived into Jakarta after a flight from Medan and was lucky enough to be greeted at the airport! My friend Mabel, her husband Rodrigo and two friends were my welcoming party to the Indonesian capital. Mabel is a former colleague of mine and has been living in Jakarta for over a year with her husband. 

On my first proper day in the city, we took off sightseeing. We left about midday and made our way to Loewy’s, a hot spot for expats that serves delicious western food with a French twist. I had the Eggs Benedict with coffee, followed by coconut ice cream – absolutely delicious! We walked across town to a nearby mall (stopping for a photoshoot with some local moto taxi drivers), and experienced the craziness of rush-hour Jakarta traffic (even on a Sunday). Nobody pays any attention to the traffic lights and I witnessed a pick up truck full of young boys literally playing with traffic. When the cars and buses stopped for a moment, a few of them would jump out of the back, screaming and laughing, trying to race around the surrounding cars and jump back into the truck before the traffic started up again. A recipe for disaster if ever I saw one!

There are tonnes of glossy, expensive malls in Jakarta – it reminded me of Singapore in this respect – but it also has its share of ‘local malls’, where there are pirate DVD stalls, smaller more informal eateries and a bit more character really! In one of these malls, we sampled a local sweetbread ‘Roti’ or coffee bun which is made with a lot of butter and coffee essence. YUM.

We drove over to the Menteng area of Jakarta. A leafy, suburban middle class area filled with expats. It’s where Obama lived during this time in Jakarta as far as I know. In the centre of the neighbourhood is a park called Taman Suropati, which at the weekend is filled with musicians – I saw violinists, cellists, guitarists – as well as some food stalls and people relaxing, reading, talking with friends, just generally enjoying their Sunday afternoon. Lovely.

Our next stop on the whistle stop tour of Jakarta, was the park where Monas, the national independence monument (commonly known as ‘the erection’) is. The monument itself is nothing spectacular, there is a museum and viewing gallery at the top but unfortunately we just missed it as it closed at 3pm (which didn’t stop the throngs of locals we saw climbing over the pretty high railings to get into the monument). We took a few fun photos, posing with the monument and when I was trying to get a pic of Rodrigo, a few local kids ran over to try and get their photo with him too. This is another Indonesian phenomenon, ‘Photo! Photo!’ you’ll hear people of all ages cry, and sometimes in a questioning manner and you think ‘Oh they want me to take their photo’. Next of all, they’re standing beside you posing and their friend is taking a photo of the two (or more) of you together.

So the couple of kids who initially went to Rodrigo kept increasing and increasing until I think at final count, there were 15 kids in the frame, smiling and posing alongside the ‘bule’ (the Indonesian word for ‘white person’).

As we took off away from the park, we stumbled upon a one man puppet show (wayang) and, another typical Indonesian phenomenon, a man searching another man’s hair for lice with a tweezers. On a main street. In broad daylight. Cue the next typically Indonesian experience, the ‘magic hand’; when navigating your way across a street in traffic, with no wardens, lights or crossings to aid you, simply wait for a (small) break in traffic, and walk across slowly but surely whilst holding one hand out and up in a ‘yield’ fashion in the direction of oncoming traffic. Hasn’t failed yet.

Next stop: Istiqlal Mosque, or Masjid Istiqlal, (Independence Mosque). It is the largest mosque in Southeast Asia and has the highest capacity, a truly impressive building. It was my first time at a mosque and it was a very interesting experience. Firstly, we had to remove our shoes before we entered, bringing them into a room where we could store them in a bag while we looked around. Most people seemed to just remove their sandals outside as there were a lot of shoes unattended at the doors. There is also a foot washing area, where you can wash your feet before and after entry.

We were given a short guided tour for a few thousand rupiah, going up to the top floor where we could see into the mosque below, where a number of people were praying. The men and women were divided, with the men’s section taking up at least 80% of the ground floor space. The ceiling is magnificent and we were told that at full capacity the mosque can hold up to 120,000 people. After washing our feet and slipping back on our sandals, we were out on the Jakarta streets once more.

Dinner that night was at a fantastic Indonesian-Asian fusion restaurant. I had a delicious Soursop juice, which Mabel told me was quite similar to her native Colombian fruit the lulo which i had told her I absolutely fell in love with while I was there. We shared a number of different plates, including chicken and squid satay (skewers with peanut sauce), a brothy seafood and vegetable soup, pineapple rice, a tofu dish and some other delicious and very healthy food.

During the rest of my stay in Jakarta, I wandered about myself whilst my friends were busy working. Located in Kotas, the historical district is called Fatahillah Square or ‘Old Batavia’ and was the heart of the walled city in Dutch colonial times. At the weekends the square is filled with artisans, jugglers and tourists. I wasn’t too impressed with the old part of town, it was a Monday so all of the museums and galleries were closed and at midday the temperatures soar so it wasn’t the most pleasant time to be walking around.

After a stroll around this area, I made my way to Jalan Surabaya in Menteng, a street lined with market stalls selling all kinds of antiques and crafts. I stopped off in Cali Deli, a Vietnamese restaurant, for a lunch of lemongrass chicken and Vietnamese coffee which was delicious.

On Tuesday, I decided to take a day trip out to see the Taman Safari Park. About an hour or so outside Jakarta, it had been mentioned to me by others as a good thing to do when you’re in Jakarta and Mabel had been there a couple of times and also highly recommended it. Myself and Agus took off in the car and after a quick pit stop for snacks, for us and the animals (you can buy bunches of carrots and bananas to feed the animals before you enter) we arrived at the safari park. Unfortunately (like a number of different tourist attractions/activities in Indonesia lately) the entry price has recently skyrocketed and it was almost three times more expensive to visit then the last time Mabel was there a matter of months ago.

How and ever, it was a great day and well worth the entry – just because of the sheer proximity to the animals. It’s like a drive through zoo! Giraffes, camels, zebras, rhinos, hippos, all come within a stone’s throw of the car. The lion and tiger enclosures have slightly more ‘security’ but again, I was closer to the animals than I have ever been in my life! The park is nice but has a kind of run down feel to it, but it probably didn’t help that I went mid-week so it was quieter than usual I suspect. There is a ‘baby zoo’ that you can visit and get even closer with young tigers, lions and orang-utans for photo-opps. I’m not sure whether I agree with this to be honest, as it feels quite exploitative. However, a swift Google search informed me that the safari park is a serious conservation centre. The zoo conducts captive breeding programmes to multiply the numbers of protected and endangered species it houses too, where possible, and it has an active Sumatran tiger breeding programme.

I spent about four days in Jakarta in total and I have to say, it was wonderful to be able to spend time with my friends, but I didn’t develop a great love for the city itself. Comparing it to Singapore, it has a lot of the same type of high rise buildings and huge luxury malls everywhere, however once you step outside of these places and areas, it is hectic and sprawling and polluted and, well, much more ‘Asian’ (from what I’ve heard). Because I was taken care of so well, I really didn’t need to negotiate my own way around either, and perhaps this is why I felt like I didn’t get to ‘know’ the place all that well. One thing is for sure though, I definitely learned a lot about and experienced Jakarta/Indonesian culture with thanks to my wonderful hosts and guides.

ps: Check out this YouTube video series created by an American girl living in Indonesia ‘How to Act Indonesian’, it’s brilliant!


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