However, once I was wrenched out of the place I had just begun to enjoy, my temporary home – despite the floods, pickpockets and the odd unruly male – really left me feeling a bit disconcerted. Don’t get me wrong, for the days leading up to my departure back to GodZone I was damn near counting the minutes to be back in a place with footpaths, more air than pollution and less reports of Westerners being targets of terrorism plots, but there is an element of nostalgia nonetheless.
Thinking back on it now, Jakarta in a nutshell is basically things you’re nostalgic for, and those you’re not so much – and how to master the system. So here’s that.
1. Things to get nostalgic for
– Taxis costing $2.50. I got a rude shock when I sauntered into a petrol station after I arrived back to New Zealand, feeling pretty suave being behind the wheel again, when I saw the price of petrol. You want my entire pay packet for my tank of gas?! Should I give you my first-born too?!
– The expat community. You’d barely know you weren’t in a sightly undeveloped city in Australia. There is a thriving expat community here, and there’s plenty of regular catch-ups at bars for mingling.
In Jakarta petrol was barely half what it is in NZ, and although the government’s petrol subsidies only alleviate the fact that the city’s roads become one huge tangled traffic jam for all but two hours a day, $2.18 is pure daylight robbery. Shame on you New Zealand.
– No longer being able to eat for less than $3-5 a meal. Much the same problem as above – my last meal in Indonesia was a three courses, and it cost me $4.50. The equivalent in NZ would cost 10 times that, and that would only be a cut above a feed at Maccas or the likes.
-The malls – such shameless, decadent luxury. Though I could never actually afford anything in the shops, I could still wander around the insides, feeling important and pretending I did. Until an attendant glanced at what I was wearing and shuffled me towards the door.
-Ego-inflators – Sure, a lot/ most of the comments us Westerners (especially pasty, blonde me) got weren’t of the overly complimentary variety, but the gaggles of people crowding around me asking for photos etc sometimes made me feel like yeah, I did succeed in becoming famous for doing absolutely nothing special. If you ignored the fact you were simply a speck of yellow/ white in a sea of black, you could almost pretend you were a D-list celeb. Geordie Shore here I come.
– 7/11s– Oh the convenience! NZ dairys have got nothing on these cheap, forever-open (well 11 hours a day anyway, thus the name), would-be weekend hangouts.
– Bahasa Indonesia – it’s literally the easiest language to learn. Same alphabet as English, same sentence structure and essentially the same pronunciation. This means a two-week crash course will have you just about conversational. I’ve been striving for that in Japanese for six years.
2. Things I am not nostalgic for. For fairly obvious reasons.
– Never being able to dress with the weather: A typical day: “Great it’s a beautiful day outside. Oh look I’m five minutes into my morning walk to university and it’s pissing down. Oh, the clouds have cleared thank goodness it might clear up. Oh, torrential downpour again.” Repeat, all day, every day of the week. There’s a reason I ended up carrying a poncho with me everywhere I went.
– Never knowing what you’re going to get: Case in point: One day I bought a chicken-flavoured steamed bun. One bite and I wish I hadn’t: chicken bones and cartilage. I’m assuming they would argue that technically it’s still chicken, but I would object.
– The words “transport?” and “Hello Mister” – no-one ever say those words to me again, seriously. Never. I almost need to issue a trigger warning to all friends and family.
– The lack of footpaths, proper roading, or really anything that would make getting from point A to point B even vaguely simple: Every day I chose to wade to work in the 98 per cent + humidity to avoid being stuck in macet (traffic. Those Bahasa Indonesia lessons really paid off) chaos in the back of a taxi. The trade off? Getting to work wanting to punch anyone and everyone in the face after tripping over random objects sticking haphazardly out of the ground, falling into holes and being hounded by every ojek and taxi driver who truly believe Westerners are completely adverse to physical activity and I must be lost.
– Ego inflators – Yes I know I have amazing eyes, an incredible personality and the body of a supermodel – I’m still not giving you any money.
– Getting scammed, All.The.Time – Oh I look like Jennifer Lawrence? Yes Mr Batik man, I will buy your ridiculously overpriced 1 million rupiah painting that I will later discover is completely fake. (I did buy a very expensive batik in Yogya. Yes, it was fake).
– Being an untrustworthy bitch- Who knows if that little girl, or that 20-something year old guy on the corner was actually just being nice by waving and yelling at you – regardless, you shot them a tried-and-tested filthy stare to back right off.
All I’ve learnt from these two months is basically, I’m a terrible person. Jakarta might do that to you.
How to master the Jakarta system:
After admitting defeat to a flood and a pickpocket in quick succession, I was feeling beaten and conquered by the city that refused to play anything but hard to get. But it seemed this may have been exactly what I needed to figure out exactly how to win at particularly shit situations here. House flooded? Just a good excuse to accept defeat and put yourself up at a hotel for some much needed R and R. Pickpocketed? Subconscious just trying to curb your reliance on technology – and a trusty bag-safety reminder message.
In fact, it seems the ‘Jakarta system’ relies on three very simple rules:
1) Take something to do in a taxi. Jakarta is famous for its ridiculous merry-go-round of a failing transport system. The government subsidises petrol despite the congestion already being agonising at best, and this coupled with the intolerably poor infrastructure means a two-kilometre trip to the supermarket will turn into a 4 hour slog in honking, bunny-hopping and stuttering traffic that means you may as well buy your groceries for the next six months while you’re there, rather than face it again in the near future. Moral of the story? Don’t plan your day by the clock.
2) Dress appropriately. Jakarta is a meticulously Muslim country and you will be shamelessly ostracised if you strut around with more flesh on show than clothes. Don’t want creepy wolf whistles (which actually, you sometimes get whether you’re fully covered or not) and women staring you down all day, complete with tutting and shaking their heads? Cover your boobs and butt. And then cover your shoulders and knees. Simple as that.
3) This leads me to the next rule: Reply graciously to the complete randoms that greet you, yell at you from 100m down the road and smile at you (shady or not) everywhere you go. It might be unsettling when you’re a lone female walking down the street to wolf whistles and men screaming in a language where you can only understand the words “white foreigner” and “go”, but most of the time it’s not menacing. Your reply? Smile and wave, smile and wave. Most of the time they actually do just want to say hi.
And if all else fails, find some children to hang out with to bolster the good spirits. Indonesian children (the ones that don’t constantly barrage you for money, which is most of the time under instruction from parents concealed out of view anyway) are sincere, always happy and earnestly amused by Westerners. They’ll spend hours speaking to you (despite you already telling them you don’t understand), stroking your white skin, and being endlessly fascinated at how you change colour when pinched. A trip to a refugee shelter for the floods was transformed into a one-woman show when I, a blonde, intensely-white girl, walked through the door. Seriously, one kid punched another just to stand closer to me in a photo.