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Travel Stories

Jakarta: A love-hate relationship

By Jacqueline Elizabeth

Jakarta is not an easy city to love. It is chaotic, ambitious, selfish, crowded, polluted, and noisy. Even the rich find it hard to rise above the problems.

Here, everyone suffers to varying degrees. You can hear complaints uttered by the second, be it through curse words or the equally-aggressive honking sounds.

Yet no one seems to be leaving.

In fact, it’s getting more and more crowded. Today, Greater Jakarta is home to over 30 million people, making it the most populous urban area in Southeast Asia and number two in the world, just below Tokyo and roughly equal to the entire population of Malaysia.

The capital is packed with ‘islands’ of gleaming office blocks, marbled malls, and towering condos. But while these aggressive skyscrapers stand erect and confident as beacons of the nation’s prosperity, it also serves as monumental insults to those living below.

Yes, in spite of its urban modernity, we can still find sights such as an old man offering tailoring services on his bicycle, or water canals that are lined with squatters’ shacks.

But it is the mingling of these highs and lows that form a fascinating metropolitan paradox. It is how they are juxtaposed against each other that makes Jakarta so frustratingly impossible to resist, and what makes Jakarta a place I like to call home.

While it’s so easy to be consumed by Jakarta’s banal urbanity, I am inviting you to see Jakarta with a different perspective―to look past the obvious beauties and appreciate Jakarta for what is betwixt and between, through the tangled alleyways and the enticing calls of the street food vendors.

After over 25 years of living with this alternate perspective in mind, these are my five favorite ways to see Jakarta.

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1. Jakarta is a city for those who creatively persevere

Jakarta citizens are the type of people who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer―even if it comes from the government (or especially if it comes from the government!). With their perseverance and creativity, Jakarta citizens have a way to turn the city’s vicissitudes into virtues. Jakarta is a city where government laws are considered opportunities rather than rules to be obeyed.

Once, the city government ruled that each car must have at least three passengers in its efforts to reduce traffic. But within days, the sidewalks were crowded with unemployed people hiring themselves out as jockeys or extra passengers to help meet the required three-in-one rule.

Or if you’re wondering about those weird gaps on the road dividers, just the size of a motorcycle tire, they’re made by anonymous locals so those “in-the-know” can still make their U-turns anytime. These simple instances of inventiveness are what captures Jakarta’s creative citizens.

2. Jakarta is a land of opportunities

In Jakarta, every inch is an opportunity―and I mean this quite literally. The basic principle is that no land should go wasted.

No matter how small the space is, it must be good for something. You can find many warung’s, a 1×2 grocery stall that doubles as a place to sleep in, or pop-up restaurants constructed of tarpaulin and bamboo sticks, on every sidewalk in Jakarta. Sometimes, people would just lay out their goods on the sidewalk or pedestrian bridge, hoping to attract those walking by.

Take a walk around Kota Tua (Jakarta Old Town), and you’ll find the sidewalk is lined with such merchants, causing a human gridlock as people stop and shop.

Jakarta warung
Source: GeorginaCaptures / Shutterstock.com

Opportunities also arise as the sun sets between the gleaming skyscrapers. An empty street by day can magically transform into a market with hundreds of pop-up shops by night.

Explore the Blok M Square area by day, and you’ll find your typical shopping center. But explore the area by night, and you’ll find the entrance gate transformed into a night market and its drop off zone is now lined with street food vendors, offering everything from rice porridge to gudeg (a traditional Javanese cuisine made from unripe jack fruit boiled in palm sugar and coconut milk).

Even a narrow bus corridor can be utilized as a concert venue for the street musicians.

3. Jakarta is a city of hidden treasures

In Jakarta, you can find beauty in the most unlikely places. If you know where, when, and how to look, you will be surprised to find the city is filled with hidden treasures.

You can dive into the intricate backstreets of Pasar Baru and find the best noodles in town, or casually cross the street under a flyover only to find a mosque underneath, hidden behind the greenery surrounding it.

In the mood for the smoothest classic ice coffee? You won’t find them in hipster cafés, but rather in a humble shop hidden in the alleys of Glodok, known simply as Kopi Es Tak Kie.

Take some time to explore Pasar Mayestik, a shopping center in South Jakarta where you can buy almost anything from wedding souvenirs to exotic herbal remedies.

Go to the back section of the market, and find Toko Maju. While it may look like a small, old and dusty shop from the outside, don’t let the entrance fool you. Take a step inside and suddenly you’ll find yourself in a labyrinth of buttons and ribbons.

The shop is literally filled with thousands of stacks of buttons, ribbons, beads, ropes, fabrics, threads, varying in colors, textures, shapes, and sizes. And as you step out of this maze, you’ll be surprised to find yourself already in an entirely different side of the market.

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4. Jakarta is a heartwarming battlefield

Every commute in Jakarta is a battle. People are always racing to their next destination, that they, especially motorcyclists, are always fighting to be at the front line once the traffic light forcefully stops their race.

But here, right on those battle frontlines and amidst the frustrating traffic jam, is where heartwarming exchanges happen―a simple nod, a smile between motorcyclists, or a brief small talk about one’s day.

It’s almost paradoxical to the chaos a second before. But enjoy it while the red light lasts. Because as soon as that light turns green, it will be replaced with deafening honks from every direction.

It is back to each man on his own.

Jakarta traffic
Source: Artush / Shutterstock.com

If you’re tired after a long day of hard work and you happen to cross the Sarinah pedestrian crossing at night, get ready to be serenaded by the smooth tunes of Luki Giri Purnama, a street saxophonist whose playlist includes the music of Dave Koz and Kenny G.

Or if you’re stuck at the intersection between Radio Dalam, Haji Nawi, and Pondok Indah, Fathoni, a street saxophonist, is also ready to soothe your soul.

The city that nurtures the battle has its own balm for its soldiers.

5. Jakarta is famed for its after-hour activities

Yes, yes, most of us must know that Jakarta can offer you a wide variety of high-profile nightlife venues. But if you’re interested in the real after-hour beauty of Jakarta, I suggest to step out of the nightclubs and into the streets.

Take a midnight stroll at Jalan Surabaya, Menteng. It is a busy antique market by day, but as soon as the sun sets, the shops close and the street is silenced. Then, the street will be lined with dim yellow light bulbs, warming their way into your heart.

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If you want to keep busy during the night, you can find the local charm by visiting the market around Kebayoran or Palmerah. These are one of those streets that turns into markets by night.

You’ll find trucks unloading bags of fruits and vegetables, and merchants laying out their goods under the dim yellow lights―yes, I have a thing for dim, yellow light bulbs.

Or if you’re in the mood for something sweet, try going to Pasar Senen or Blok M Square, where the Pasar Kue Subuh (Morning Cake Market) is held every day from around 4:00 a.m. each day. There, you’ll find rows and rows and rows (you get me) of traditional snacks and cakes, from lemper to roti buaya, guaranteed to satisfy your sweet tooth.

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These are only glimpses of the Jakarta I have grown to know and love. I found that it is the chaos that makes the city so vibrant and alive. Once you can accept the chaos, Jakarta will teach you that not everything in life can be controlled and you will learn the valuable art of letting go.

While Singapore may feel like a breath of fresh air where everything works and everyone follows the rules, Jakarta gives excitement and surprises.

There is so much to experience, and even more to discover. It is messy and unpredictable, but then―so is life―and that is what makes it so interesting.

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