Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.
My view of Jakarta had been enlivened a little since I had arrived a couple of weeks ago. The city had been opened up and exposed some of itself. Amongst the slick suits and loud shirts there was also the inevitable dirty laundry; there was a little more in this wardrobe than headscarves, robes and work wear. However, there were still no surprises. I had found no magical doorway leading to a world of culture, wonder and excitement in Jakarta. Whilst it had been fun to let off some steam and it was interesting to get some exposure to the seedier side of the place, I still didn’t like this city. Being unsettled both here and at home didn’t really help my perspective on things, but the simple fact was I didn’t feel any connection to Jakarta yet. Despite only being here for a couple of weeks, I’d already started to hate the place.
My early conclusion was that Jakarta was a shithole of traffic, pollution, garbage and malls. Since then I’d had an opportunity to experience a little bit more of life here, but whatever charms this city had to offer I had either missed them, they were still as yet undiscovered or they were simply lost on me. I found everything about living here contrived and awkward, but mainly just frustrating.
The most frustrating thing about Jakarta is traffic congestion. This is one of the first things you read about when researching life in the city. It’s like New York and crime, Pattaya and prostitution, Lagos and fraud, Manchester and bad weather; a marque of infamous distinction that establishes a place’s unique character; a badge of dishonour that somehow becomes an accepted trademark. However, it isn’t just the stagnant traffic that prevents things from happening in Jakarta.
When you need to get somewhere fast in Jakarta it’s as if you’re time is struggling to move through the dense, thick, polluted atmosphere. Despite being one of the most populated cities in the world, everyone walks at a shuffle pace. This is particularly annoying when you’re in a hurry and you find yourself really tempted to punch people shuffling in front of you in the back of the head. I don’t think this slow shuffling is down to the heat either. Nobody walks anywhere here because a consistent level pavement that isn’t used as an ojek stand or vending site for traders is such a luxury. The better paid working population spend most of their time stuck in air-conditioned vehicles in traffic jams in between going to air-conditioned apartments, offices and huge malls. The lower paid locals who aren’t on mopeds pack into the death traps that pass as local buses. No, it’s as if there’s an invisible cord binding people’s upper thighs together and preventing steps from being any longer than six inches. Steps move as much sideways as forwards. I wouldn’t be surprised if Indonesians were banned by FIFA from being professional referees as they could never measure out the correct distance for a free kick.
The fact that many things just don’t seem to work properly contributes to the frustrations of life in Jakarta. Lifts that indicate ‘up’ go down and lifts that indicate ‘down’ go up. Empty buses stop at packed busway stations, then without any explanation they drive off without collecting passengers. Most of those buses don’t have adequate markings or a display to indicate their number or destination. Wifi signals show full strength but fail to connect. Menus don’t show the actual price that the customer is paying or the actual service charges, despite the fact that service charges vary from place to place. The Padang food is nice, but it’s served cold and not many places will warm it for you. The currency is so weak that everything is rounded up to the nearest 100 and taxi drivers automatically help themselves to the best part of the nearest 10000 or 20000. Times of opening are often just general and times of meeting can only be speculative because who knows what traffic you’re likely to face. Security checks are little more than a pantomime of appearances with security officers responding to bleeping detectors with a smile and a cordial “Terimah kasi” (at one particular ‘checkpoint’ in the Central Park mall, the guard beams at you with his wonderful smile, collects your bag and simply hands it back to you once you’ve passed through the metal detector); and the guys who open the car boots and glide that mirrored bomb finder under the chassis for the briefest of moments looking for explosive devices, do they really know what they’re looking for? I think not. No, things in Jakarta don’t work properly. Certainly not in the way any Westerner would expect. The way people go about things here defies the familiar logic of western life.
When Claire had said that the people in Indonesia were stupid, it sounded a bit racist and judgmental, especially considering that the average reading age in the UK is about 9 years old with around 15% of the population being “functionally illiterate” according to the National Literacy Trust. She had spent four years living in Jakarta working as a primary school teacher. She had seen how life and the formal education system worked here, so I couldn’t judge her judgment. Particularly when she told me the story of her teaching assistant who caught typhoid and actually believed her doctor when he told her that it was caused by drinking too many energy drinks and eating too many Chitato’s. However, in my short experience here, I had found that my Indonesian hosts were really not the sharpest of the proverbial tools in the global toolbox of intellect. Sure they’re very nice – they smile and they’re friendly and subserviently accommodating – but common sense does not appear to be a common trait. It’s as if the people in this city aren’t taught to think independently. They seem to short circuit when faced with a decision that deviates from the instructions. This is a problem, because they frequently make mistakes and fail to deliver services as promised.
When you are dining out in Jakarta or purchasing any significant number of goods, every bill and receipt has to be checked (and it’s frequently incorrect). The server seems to expect this as they wait for you to tell them where they went wrong. Then there is the service itself, it borders on harassment. When you go up to a food venue to take a look at the menu on display, the service personnel spring to your assistance and proceed to point at the things that you are obviously looking at, sometimes reading out to you – the English speaking Bule – the English details of the menu. If you then decide to enter the restaurant, you are immediately confronted by an eager member of staff with a pen and pad ready to take an order that you haven’t even had a chance to decide on. When you politely indicate that you need a little time, they smile, take half a step back and stand looking over your shoulder.
In the popular malls, shop assistants stand at the entrances of predominantly empty shops, eager to usher you in. The poor souls stand there for hours, all day and throughout the evening, desperately hoping that you will become their customer. Maybe they just want an opportunity to get the circulation in their feet moving again. Maybe they stand at the shop entrances to get some of the kinetic body heat from the people passing by because the building controlled air conditioning inside is jacked up so high that they’re freezing. If they’re stood there to encourage you to buy, then somebody needs to tell the fucking idiot who’s trained them that it’s not working. Furthermore, it’s creepy and off-putting when you walk toward a shop and before you’ve even made an approach to the door, let alone any of the products inside, the sales assistant is looming with a big toothy grin.
On the third floor of Taman Anggrek where EF have their school, there is a corridor where two competing phone shops are directly opposite each other. Each of these shops have a team of sales staff – some with A-boards over their shoulders – all with flyers and all shrieking special offers to passers by whilst horrible techno music pumps out of in-store speakers at full blast. In between these two shops is a toy shop that releases motorised dogs, yapping and wagging their tails at the entrance all day. The obnoxious noise of competing traders compounded by the shrill sound of loud tannoy announcements during promotional events in the lobby forecourt in Taman Anggrek on a Saturday makes it sound like an asylum for mentally ill sales staff and customers with chronic consumeritis. I don’t know if the shop managers and shop assistants are badly trained or they’re so terrified of losing their job that they over-compensate and don’t dare try something of their own. Maybe it’s just commercial naivety or maybe it’s just the way it works in Jakarta. Whatever it is, the noise in the mall on a Saturday is like having somebody scratch at your brain with a cactus.
There is another thing that I have found stupefying about Jakarta. The issue of litter and the problem of garbage that blights the city is something that people who live here are aware of. I discussed this in a lesson with some of my students and one of them asked, “Do you think Jakarta is dirty?”
“Yes” I said, “It’s very dirty!”
“I know, lots of rubbish everywhere in Jakarta” she replied.
So this is an obvious problem that is plain to see, yet there is little recycling done in the city. And whenever you go into a shop, whether you’re buying a week’s worth of groceries or a single bottled drink, you are given a plastic bag to put it in. A bag for groceries makes sense, but a bottled drink? You see people get their drink and their cigarettes, walk out of an Indomaret or Aplha Mart (the main mini-market chains), take their drink and cigarettes out of the bag, and then discard the bag on the street. In fact, you see people indiscriminately discard any wrapper, plastic cup, can or disposable container on the street. It’s disgusting. But it’s this type of illogical rationale and lack of awareness of the totally obvious amongst the people who live in Jakarta that make it so frustrating.
You wouldn’t expect a developing country, where millions live in abject poverty and good education is a luxury of the rich, to have the most sophisticated infrastructure and organised services in the world. However, it seems it’s too much to expect even the simple things to make sense.
This isn’t the city I expected when I saw the skyline of towering skyscrapers in pictures on the internet. The night I arrived and saw that amazing LED screen wrapped around Taman Anggrek mall, I was impressed and I had high expectations. But Jakarta is nothing like any other city I’ve ever visited – and I’ve visited a fair few. It’s a place of contradiction and dysfunction. Regress dressed in high tech; “All fur coat and no knickers” as my mother would say. However, apart from the climate, there is one thing that I find redeeming about Jakarta and its culture.
Having the largest Muslim population in Asia, a Westerner coming to Jakarta – or just Indonesia in general – may expect that there is an unwelcoming and repressive atmosphere; this is not the case. Granted, there’s not much of a bar or drinking culture outside of the expat areas in Kemang and the centre of the city – the ‘sin tax’ makes drinking an expensive pastime. Although, with cigarettes being manufactured in Indonesia and providing work for thousands, they’re as cheap as a dollar a pack, so Indonesian’s can happily smoke themselves into an early grave. Or they can pass their time in the numerous eateries, gorging themselves on oily, fatty foods, sugary drinks and confections and ease toward coronary thrombosis and heart failure instead (Indonesia is by no means a slim nation). However, unlike the homicidal maniacs and fanatical fundamentalists coming out of the Middle East and Africa who are hell bent on violently imposing, oppressive Sharia law on the world and regressing society back to the Middle Ages, the Islamic doctrine here is one of harmony and a general ‘live and let live’ culture prevails.
The Muslim people in Jakarta integrate with anyone and everyone from what I have seen. All over the city you will find young Muslim women in and out of headscarves who are in active, gainful employment. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Muslim women are free to drive and walk the streets without their husbands. You will see young girls happily making their way through the city between schools and colleges, laughing and joking with other girls and boys alike. Even though modestly dressed, they appear so without a look of stifling discomfort – you seldom see the Ghost Wife in full veiled Islamaclava, covered from head to foot in black robes. And whilst displaying cleavage may be frowned upon, young women in tight little shorts are a common sight, as are tattoos. Nobody is spat at or stoned in the streets. Even the gay men don’t feel a need to hide their camp demeanour. No, whilst the religion is prevalent, it is not a social imperative that is imposed on everyone (but the call to prayer is loudly obtrusive).
I know I’m probably suffering from culture shock, and I do hope I learn to go with whatever flow it is you have to go with to enjoy this city, I really do. But right now, the noise, the pollution, the traffic, the landscape and the sheer isolation I feel from everything here is getting in the way. Hopefully settling into a permanent place to live will help. Hopefully, sorting out all of my loose ends back home will set me at ease. Hopefully meeting a few more expats and making some friends amongst my hosts will help. Hopefully, because the only plus side so far are my students. They are a delight to teach, and if their warmth, respect and eagerness to learn is indicative of the true Indonesian character, then this is a wonderful characteristic that I’d like to experience more of outside of the classroom. However, for now, all I have to look forward to is my three-day stay in Jogja. Perhaps experiencing a bit of the ‘real’ Indonesia will help me to readjust my compass and get me back on track to fully enjoy my experience of life in this city.