Yesterday I blew my nose and a huge black bit of gunk came out.
But you get that in Jakarta, the relentless dirty yellow and grey air is an obvious downside to one of the world’s most fascinating and vibrant big cities. And big it certainly is. The official figure is twenty-three million but nobody actually believes that it’s anything close to that number. The figure everybody throws at you, from taxi drivers to diplomats is closer to thirty, and the truth may lie somewhere in between I guess – if anyone really knows. Whatever it is, that yellowy grey fog, much of which comes from the untempered exhaust fumes (vague attempts to officially control it have come to nought) that seem to spew out of almost every vehicle, but in particular the multitudes of buses and bajaj, is both omnipresent and choking.
On Wednesday evening last, three of us, after coffee, and naively believing it was only a few hundred metres, walked from Aksara, along Jalan Raya Kemang for some two kilometres or so. It was far further than we planned to walk, but, despite the light rain which began towards the end and then intensified, we did so. The footpath on the way, what there was of it, was broken and blocked here and there, including a sector with rolled barbed wire, was no reasonable way anyone could walk on it for any distance, so you spend eighty percent of your time on the road dodging the
The footpath on the way, what there was of it, was broken and blocked here and there, including a sector with rolled barbed wire, and there was no reasonable way anyone could walk on it for any distance. So you spend eighty percent of your time on the road dodging the fume-spewing vehicles rolling past you in an endless nose to tail line. It was pretty awful but you soon realise that this is the way eighty percent of Jakarta’s millions live – the ones who don’t own one of those countless new Kijangs or, as likely, BMWs streaming past (this was Kemang after all), and you shut up and stumble on.
Yep, Jakarta, the air aside, I love more every time I visit – and it’s never long enough. It has better food and better shopping, on more levels, than Singapore now (at much better prices) and more chaos – and is more tolerant than KL. With Bangkok, it’s the city that defines in a positive way, urban South East Asia for me.
This time we spent a morning exploring the twenty four stories (over two buildings) of the wholesale fabric and clothing markets, where Indonesia’s manufacturers’ and it’s mom and pop outlets source their fabrics, readymade clothing, buttons, accessories and everything else you can imagine. Downstairs, where fabrics are only sold in multiples of thousands of meters, and upstairs to the ultra-modern foodhall where traders can enjoy any cuisine from any corner of the world. And it’s in places like that where the sheer scale of this city really hits you. It’s immense….an urban juggernaut with a population five times that of the country I come from (and that excludes its endless sprawling dormitory and manufacturing suburbs across East Java), and yet for most of we westerners, like the country that it exists as the capital of, it’s almost, beyond the terror alerts we read about over our eggs (oh, and Bali…but it never ceases to amaze me how many compatriots don’t know it’s in RI) an absolute unknown. Whilst writing this I tried to find a reasonable link for Kemang, but found nothing much, which when one considers that in Western terms it is
It’s in places like that where the sheer scale of this city really hits you. It’s immense – a mega-urban juggernaut with a population five times that of the country I come from (and that excludes its endless sprawling dormitory and manufacturing suburbs across East Java). Yet for most of we westerners, like the country that it is the capital of, it’s almost – beyond the terror alerts we read about over our eggs – an absolute unknown, Bali aside. Whilst writing this I tried to find a reasonable link for the inner city suburb of Kemang, but found nothing much, which when one considers that in Western terms it is the size (and sophistication) of many of Australia’s trendier inner suburbs, is astounding. And even Jakarta as a whole, exists only in the sketchiest terms on the net. This city looks inwards towards Indonesia, a country which is increasingly comfortable in it’s own skin but is such a bemusing enigma to outsiders.
After two and a half years here, and quite some visits to Jakarta (and countless more to other parts of Java) I find the things that used to astound and confuse, and yes frighten me, now seem so very normal, and warming. I love the groups of young kids on their bikes grinning widely and yelling hello mister at me, and the groups of workers gathered around the bakso carts in hungry anticipation. The heartland of Indonesia is wonderful and welcoming.
It’s a very easy country to fall in love with, and – despite an understanding that it has to change if things are to improve for the masses – you do find yourself selfishly hoping that it doesn’t change too much.
I sound like a gawking tourist, which of course I am, but what was once a mindboggling, even terrifying, place (I described Jakarta after my first visit, to friends, as the “wild west”) feels surprisingly normal to me now. Perhaps it still is the wild west, and the back streets of Glodok still have that scary feeling, but it doesn’t phase me anymore.