Note: Before Manila, Jakarta was the first place I ever thought of as home. It was there that I lived for almost seven years from 1981-1987 — I was 7 when I arrived and 13 years old when I tearfully bade goodbye to a country that had been so good to me. Twenty years later, I’m now 33 and married, living the next chapter in my life. This is the story of my journey back to Jakarta, my Jakarta.
Jakarta is one of those cities that has a trademark smell: the unmistakably sweet and spicy aroma of kretek, clove cigarettes. They look like ordinary cigarettes, white and slim, (although I’ve seen some that are slim and dark brown), and they also contain tobacco, but in typical Indonesian fashion, they are stuffed with ground cloves in addition to a hundred other nuanced flavors from fruit to liqueurs. It’s this smell that assails my nostrils when I step off the plane and instead of wrinkling my nose, I smile. It’s good to be back.
Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago. No one really knows how big Indonesia is, but conservative estimates place its number of islands at 18,000 (give or take). From the tip of Sumatra in the northwest to the swamps of southeastern Irian Jaya, Indonesia is an assortment of snow-capped mountains, rainforest, rice paddies, swamps, and savannah. The country also lies within the so-called “Ring of Fire,” the meeting point of two of the earth’s tectonic plates, thus Indonesia’s propensity to seismic activity. In fact, on my second night in Jakarta, I’m awakened by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake that has me fleeing my hotel room and dashing down 15 flights of stairs clad in my pajamas, clutching only my passport and a bottle of water. It’s an experience, I tell you.
Like Jakarta, Like Manila
Jakarta reminds me of Manila in countless ways. In fact, if I ignore the billboards printed in Bahasa Indonesia, I could swear that I’m in Ortigas, or Divisoria, or even Makati. And the buildings! There are so many buildings now, most of them glimmering condominiums and hotels. From outside my car window, I see children carrying their smaller siblings and begging for alms; farther on, I see asongan, young men and women carrying sturdy cardboard boxes offering almost everything weary motorists would need: bottled water, kretek, peanuts, tabloids, etc. Then there are the roadside stalls similar to Manila’s sari-sari stores that sell drinks and cigarettes (photo above).
Seeing how much Jakarta has changed in 20 years, I realize that when my family and I lived here, the city was a veritable commercial wasteland ”“ there was nothing here yet, not even a McDonald’s. Now it’s got the Golden Arches in spades plus lots of Chili’s outlets, Starbucks everywhere, internet cafés, cable TV, and malls galore. And oh yes, the ubiquitous cellphone known locally as HP (hah-PEH).
But if there’s one thing that equalizes Manila and Jakarta, it’s got to be the undisputed traffic jams known here as macet (MAH-chet). A sobering, incessant reminder of so-called city developers who prioritized building property before roads, traffic is the great nemesis of both rich and poor. I daresay however that Jakarta’s traffic is slightly worse than Manila’s, or perhaps it’s because I’m only accustomed to traffic in Manila and nowhere else. One notable difference: Jakarta traffic is on the “wrong” side of the street, that is, the left ”“ and all their vehicles are unlike Manila’s, right hand drives.
Soaking Up The Local Color
Similar to other great cities like Manila and Los Angeles, it’s impossible to get around Jakarta without a car. There’s no public transport system to speak of and a subway system is considered next to impossible given the city’s near-sea-level location. If necessity is the mother of invention, and Manila has its jeepney, then Jakarta has its bajaj (BA-jai). Simultaneously loved and hated, the bajaj are motorized, three-wheeled shoeboxes that scurry around the city like electronic cockroaches. Noxious black fumes spew from their rear ends with odious vroom-vroom stridence. But they’re cheap to operate and they get people to their destinations. And, like jeepneys, there’s always plenty of room for personalizing one’s bajaj.
There used to be another cheap form of transport in Jakarta called a becak (BEH-chak), a three-wheeled pedal-rickshaw that I actually rode a few times when I lived in Jakarta, and I remember thoroughly enjoying the experience. I remember becak drivers to be lean with powerful calves because of all the uphill pedaling they do. Not seeing them on the streets on this visit, I ask my supir (driver):
“Becak, masih ada?” (“Becaks, are they still around?”)
“Ah, becak,” he says, shaking his head, a touch of forlornness apparent in his tone, “sudah habis!” (“Oh becak, they’re gone!”)
Shocked, I utter, “Kenapa?!” (“Why?!”)
He goes on to tell me that becaks have been banned since 1994 due to their propensity to cause traffic jams. “Oh no, saya sedih,” (“I am sad,”) I say softly more to myself than anyone else.
Although becak can still be seen outside the city limits, I can only imagine how missed they are by people living off the main roads that buses don’t service. In my mind’s eye, I can still see becak drivers taking uniformed children to school each morning, and women home from the pasar (wet market).
I believe that a city’s spirit can’t be gleaned just by sitting in an air-conditioned car so on more than one occasion I hop out of the vehicle and walk around. I see itinerant food vendors hawk their wares from the sidewalks ”“ everything from bakso (meatball soup), nasi goreng (fried rice), ayam bakar (grilled chicken) and kopi (coffee). There are also the more permanent warung (food stall) complete with monobloc chairs and tables serving up hot and hearty snacks.
Coming back to Jakarta, I see that I never really forgot my Bahasa Indonesia (the local language). It all comes flooding back after only a few hours in the city, and good thing too, because most Indonesians can only speak a few sentences or two of English, if at all. Jakarta is also a place where a guide would be most helpful, either a living, breathing guide or in my case, my memories.
Up next: Revisiting Old Jakarta Favorites