Before the flood: What to expect if you’re moving to Jakarta, Indonesia

It’s hardly the nicest city in the world, but if you’re in that corner of the world, by all means it’s worth a look…

Jakarta is crowded. And hot. And dirty. And politically unstable.  And prone to devastating natural disasters.  It smells. It’s polluted. There’s cockroaches the size of rats. There’s rats the size of cats.

And this is is hardly untapped information – almost everyone I’d told about my impending trip to one of the fastest growing cities in Asia responded with the same raise of the eyebrows and high-pitched, questioning reply, while the rest struggled to recall where or what this “Jakarta” was. It’s fair to say, it’s not high on many an expat’s radar.

Essentially, I came here as a challenge. What I wasn’t expecting was that behind the muddying veneer of thick clouds of exhaust fumes, 30+ degree heat that makes walking outside like wading through a greenhouse, and the 16 million-strong stew of natives and expats hustling and bustling around, beside and into you –if you let it, Jakarta can be quite pleasant.

It rains. A lot. (Please forgive all photos. Cameras were on crusty, terrible iPhone 3s back then.

After a three-week crash course of in-your-face Asian countries while traveling through India and Nepal a month before I took a journalism internship in Jakarta, I was it to be pretty much on par in terms of offensive males, endless rows of tear-inducing beggars and unbearable weather (I’m sorry India and Nepal, I love you but there were parts I also did not love). I’d also done my dash in a fair few South-Asian countries to form a rough idea of what was coming (dusty streets, slums neighbouring mega-malls, poverty-stricken locals around every corner, public transport that looks like it’s a hodgepodge of junkyard scraps etc etc). Listen, when I moved here I was young and naive.

While some of these expectations were fairly well validated, real Jakarta is far from the Jakarta in my head. First of all, it’s HUGE. It’s modern. There are flashy skyscrapers everywhere.  If you only visited Central Jakarta, you could be forgiven for not knowing that over half the population of Indonesia live on less than $2 a day. It’s more Kuala Lumpur than Delhi as I was expecting.

The National Monument, somewhat of a tourist draw.

The security in this place is also unreal. Guards check every boot as the car drives into the entrance of the mall (what for I don’t know, nor do I want to) and there’s more security around every door. One of the most comforting/ unsettling experiences we’ve had was at the movie theatre the other day when a child popped a balloon. The security guard behind him was on his walkie-talkie before the pieces had even hit the floor, and was three seconds away from commando rolling over and tackling the confused child to the ground. After he’d figured out what had happened, he backed off sheepishly but needless to say, through experience– these guys mean business.

But what was most affronting was the people. Forget what countless surveys hammer into us about New Zealanders being the friendliest people on Earth – the authorities on these must have left Indonesia off their to-rate list. The people made the transition into life in the “Big Durian” practically seamless  – no matter how poor, down and out, wealthy or high on life, someone’s going to help you carry your groceries across a street. Lost? A friendly woman at the nearby hole-in-the-wall convenience store will gladly pull out her phone and check directions for you. Can’t find a guesthouse? The guy chatting with his friends on the corner will happily waste an hour of his time wandering the streets with you, translating and trying to find you a room. Can’t figure out how to turn on the treadmill in the gym? The concierge working in the restaurant will spot you struggling, run to the gym to turn the machine on, stand over you even when you’re well into your workout, and then when he’s finally satisfied you’re not going to trip on a loose cord and maim yourself (or the machine), he’ll return with a fresh towel and point you in the direction of the water cooler.

And the best part is – (most of the time) they expect nothing in return. In India, if you so much stole a glance at someone’s baby, you’ll pay for that (again, India I love you. But it’s true).

However, I was never quite so head-over-heels in love with this city that I refuse to see the glaring flaws.

Beggars still line the line the streets to milk you for what they can. Pangs of guilt still hit you every time a gaunt old woman dressed in rags knocks on the taxi window for money. There’s more rubbish in some of the rivers than there is water. If you don’t spot a cockroach or rat on a lengthy walk down a street, there’s probably an impending natural disaster.  You’ll be struck down with flus regularly because of the reliance on air con, and the stifling pollution. Getting two kilometres down the road often takes upwards of an hour because of the traffic that is just ridiculous at this point. But if you can’t hack the sun shining, don’t get me started on the rain. You leave the house in the morning, clear skies, and three minutes into your walk it’s raining torrentially. And then the sun returns, and then it buckets down. And this process repeats itself. All. Day. Long. Meanwhile, it’s still 30 degrees and so humid even if you have an umbrella, you’re still wet.

To add to my transient displeasure, I also momentarily retract my commentary about the overwhelming kindness of the Indonesian people. It seems there are two types of Indonesian in this country; the ones that will do anything they can to help you out, and the ones that steal your iPhone as you’re walking over a bridge. Yes, despite following all the precautions (bag zipped up, slung over the opposite shoulder, holding on to it loosely) someone will always manage to outsmart the naive Westerner.

This pickpocket was in and out of my bag with my phone and a wad of cash in three seconds flat, and the only reason I knew it had even happened was the fact that the music stopped playing through my headphones. Looking down at my bag, and around at the old ladies around me, the only explanation I got was when one of them said “thief”. Where were those security guards, game enough to take down a small child, in the streets – where people are desperately in need of help.

The feeling of vulnerability is extremely disconcerting, and sticks around for quite a while.

There’s also the infrastructure problems. Try as I might to make walking the 30 minutes to my work each day, I just don’t think it’s going to stick. The footpaths are crumbling, the pollution and exhaust fumes will shave years off your life with each breath, and the amount of times I’ve fallen face-first and dropped my laptop on the concrete because of a pole, or a metal rod sticking haphazardly out of the ground is beginning to feel like a bit of a joke. There’s only so many times you can explain away grazes on your knees when you’re not eight years old.

And there’s still the political unrest and unnerving diseases that meant our “Welcome to Jakarta” orientation lecture was a 3-hour advisory warning about how to avoid catching Dengue Fever and being blown up (no more crowded Starbucks in a popular mall for me for 6 weeks).

Traffic. On a good day.

Kos (apartment) hunting is almost unbearable. Wandering the streets of Jakarta dripping with sweat only to be constantly told “Sorry, we’re full” made me feel like I was in an Indonesian nativity play. Luckily we weren’t forced to shack up in a barn – the next day us three sole New Zealanders stumbled on a swanky by New Zealand standards, lower to middle class for the rest of the world, place to live for the next two months. Brand new house as of the 1st of January, wrapping still on all the furniture, ensuite, fridge, endless TV channels, Wi-Fi, and a fresh towel every morning is something to expect from your typical Jakartan apartment.

But these are just cracks in the façade of what is soon to become a dominating empire of the ASEAN region. Or, so they say.

For a city synonymous for being “ugly” and without many, if any, tourist attractions – Jakarta is not without its little treasures. A trip to the Old City (Kota) and a café housed in a huge colonial-style building embedded within it will be a lasting reminder that tourist attractions aren’t all towering mausoleums, museums or mosques. Café Batavia is famed for its happy hour and A-list clientele – and an unassuming dinner excursion might just become your favourite part of the city, and a step back in time to the Dutch-colonial era when the furore of modern Jakarta was beginning to get too much.

And coming from Christchurch, looking at old, crumbling buildings is practically a favoured past-time.


Cafe Batavia. Feat. rain.
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