One of my great finds during travels to South East Asia in early 2015 was the sensational Thai rock band Endorphin. I had their album on its third loop when Thai Airways flight TG433 thundered down the runway at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta on a balmy February morning. A tropical wet breeze engulfed my face the moment I disembarked from the aircraft, a more than welcome change from the deep freeze in New York City. The arrival hall had an eerie calm to itself, as if this was the first flight of the day. Immigration was a breeze and all it took was fifteen minutes and $35 in visa fees. A few foreign exchange counters come into sight just before one exits the terminal, which typically make for a perfectly normal sight at every international airport. What made these counters unique were the excessively competitive women behind every glass panel, making eager animated hand actions to beckon new business. The lady passenger ahead of me actually paused to soak in this funny sight. No harm witnessing some light hearted entertained early morning. The quiet inside the terminal was in stark contrast to the chaos outside, where there seemed to be more touts, taxi drivers and idle bystanders lingering about than passengers put together. I soaked in my surroundings – groups of families carting luggage, people waiting for relatives, men reading newspapers, and others who seemed perfectly content just ambling up and down the terminal exit area.
First order of business was to quench my parched throat. I saw a bank of vending machines and offered one of them a crisp Rp 10,000 bill. Out tumbled a bottle of deathly sweet yet refreshing orange juice. The Airport Damri (bus service) is one of the cheapest ways to get to the city and one-way fare to Gambir station costs Rp 40,000. Having 20 minutes to kill until the next bus, I found a good people-watching spot and took this opportunity to collect my thoughts. Leafy, hot, humid and safe were some of the first words that came to my mind about Jakarta. I was finally here, on the other side of the world.
To my pleasant surprise, the bus station had fully functional Wi-Fi and I refreshed directions on how to get to Six Degrees Backpackers hostel in Menteng. The bus arrived on time and snaked its way through other terminals of the airport and onward into the city. Muslim prayer rooms, called Moshallahs were ubiquitous and dotted every terminal building. An hour or so later, we were at Gambir station in the city center. Per directions from my hostel, the fastest and cheapest way to get to it was on a motor-bike taxi, popularly known as Ojeks. I spotted one and an easy bargain later, the driver gave me a helmet to don and we dove right into chaotic traffic. The traffic in Jakarta reminds me of New Delhi – intense, restless, hurried and unruly. The hostel was located on the bustling Jalan Cikini Raya and was a perfect pad a solo traveler could look for. Clean economical rooms, helpful staff, strong Wi-Fi, cozy common areas and a colorful rooftop terrace.
Menteng is an upscale leafy neighborhood in Jakarta, perhaps most famous for the fact that a young Barak Obama spent four years of his childhood here. A short walk from the hostel is the antique market on Jalan Surabaya. One side of the street is lined with dozens upon dozens of shops selling everything from old gramophones, telescopes, musical instruments, books, maps, puppets, ceramic wall plates and vases. If you like this sort of stuff, hours could go by in effortless window shopping and perusing the crammed shelves in the postage stamped sized shops. One gets transported back in time, as if most of the dust coated items on display are from treasure troves discovered in shipwrecks of yore. Though as soon as my mind pictures a treasure laden ship in Dutch colonial waters, I see a shopkeeper rubbing some chemical mixture on to a brand new copper rotary dial telephone to make it look rustic and “antique”. At least I have a fertile imagination.
Outside one of the shops stood a granite sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesha. I went in and was surprised see many more stone and ceramic sculptures of other gods and goddesses. Sensing my curiosity, the owner named each one – Ganesha, Indira, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. Before I could tell him that I’m familiar with whom these statuses represent, he explains to me how all of these are central figures in Hindu mythology. Somewhere through the corner of my eye, a Chinese ceramic wall plate caught my attention. It’s the perfect pattern, colors, size and weight. “How much?” I ask. “Rp 375,000”. My brain tells me $35. Too much. I feel like pushing my luck. “Rp 35,000” I counter. “Ha!” he belches and offers me a cigarette, which I politely decline. An intense yet humorous round of bargaining ensues. We finally settle on Rp 75,000 which seems like a win-win situation. He gets a neat margin and I on the other hand, can see the wall plate hanging from my living room wall in Brooklyn as I write this piece.
While walking around Menteng later that evening, I come across a roadside hawker selling a colorful syrupy concoction of fruits and ask for one. The guy puts three handfuls of ice (of suspect origin) in a bowl and adds a few slices from a mango he must have cut open earlier that day. That is followed by some fresh coconut pulp, dragon fruit, avocado, carambola, jelly cubes, another tropical fruit I do not recognize and lots of condensed milk and sweet syrup. In no time, the ice starts melting, and the pulp of the dragon fruit and jelly lend their color and transform the dish into a deep shade of pink. It is light on both hygiene and the wallet but curiosity has got the better of me. The first spoonful tastes really good. Second one tastes even better. Nevertheless, I cannot get past the thought that every bite comes with a couple of million bacteria cells. I chicken out after six spoons.
Back in the hostel, I head to the rooftop terrace with a cup of freshly brewed coffee. Jakarta is all around me, a sprawling urban metropolis with an overdose of life pumping through its veins, fueled by the constantly honking vehicular traffic. Just then, in perfect unison, mosques all around started playing the evening call to prayer and drowned the city in Arabic verses of the adhan. While this may be a very commonplace occurrence for the locals in Jakarta, there is something mystical about it.
The next morning began with a scrumptious breakfast at the hostel – fresh papaya, watermelon, orange juice, coffee and toast while swapping travel stories with a backpacker from Ontario. Shortly after, I walk towards the Cikini train station. While waiting on the platform, I see a couple of young and jocular railway policemen. They come over and ask where I was from. Clearly, I do not look Indonesian. We employ broken English and sign language chit chat. They tell me they love watching Bollywood films. I could not suppress a smile. The world is truly becoming a smaller place. The train arrives and slowly limps towards Kota, which literally means town and is in the old part of the city. The station is close to Fatahillah Square, a large open area abutted with many historic museums and other landmarks. The rest of the day goes by in a whizz and I manage to check the box on a number of notable tourist must-do’s – lots of people gazing at Fatahillah, a sumptuous meal at the tasteful and historic Café Batavia, and visits to the Bank Museum and Masjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in East Asia.
There are a lot of reasons why this mega metropolis makes for an interesting travel experience. To me, the most incredible feature of Jakarta, and by extension possibly most of Indonesia, is the wonderful interplay and between Muslim identity and Hindu and Buddhist cultural heritage of its populace. There are umpteen examples of this delicate balance in day to day life. The national language Bahasa is richly infused with Sanskrit words such as Surya, Prathana and Aditya. The towering National Monument in Central Jakarta which commemorates the struggle for Indonesian independence from the Dutch Empire symbolizes Lingam and Yoni, representations of Hindu gods. The national airline is named Garuda, the mount used by the Hindu god Vishnu and so on.
Over these two days, a number of local Jakartans asked me where I was from. Upon hearing India, many broke into a wide smile of recognition. Some said “oh Bollywood!” and named popular stars and films, “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” being one of them. Others expressed some sort of connection with the country by referencing the epics Mahabharata or Ramayana. However, full marks to the guy, who the moment we were introduced aptly recited in perfect Hindi the name of a Bollywood film “Mujhse Dosti Karogey”, which literally translated means “will you be my friend?”
Jakarta, I’ll be back.
MORE INFO ON JAKARTA RECOMMENDATIONS
Here's a small sampling of recommendations related to accommodation, bars, restaurants and other things to do.