I can see Adam at the back portion of the bus, his head is bopping away above all the other men’s heads that surround him. He is holding unto the railing, looking out the window, out into the city. Every now and then he is looking over to me, trying to find my gaze, making sure I am still on the bus. I’m sitting right at the front with the other female passengers. We are in Jakarta – the capital of Indonesia. Major culture shock.
Perhaps for the first time on our travels we failed to do our usual research. Perhaps we had become a bit complacent, having been on the road for three months, perhaps we have seen so much, experienced South East Asia in a way that allowed us to feel that it is OK to be unprepared when visiting a new place – after all, everywhere we had visited so far had been easy, fun and self-explanatory.
The capital city of Indonesia, a sprawling metropolis of 10 million residents is by far the biggest place we are visiting in Asia. And at the same time it is by far the least touristy.
We arrived on a cheap flight from Yogyakarta. At Yogya airport for the first time I felt that I had to change my clothing as I felt I was inappropriately dressed. All throughout our travels I always made sure I dressed in culturally and religiously appropriate clothing out of respect for the locals and I just think that is the right thing to do. For the first time, sitting in the terminal at Yogya airport waiting to board our flight, I went into the toilet and changed my shorts for long jeans. I felt uncomfortable even walking to the toilets, with locals fixing their gaze at me. Apart from us there were only a couple of other tourists at the airport. They didn’t seem too bothered, they were dressed in far less clothing than I was, but maybe they just aren’t that sensitive to prying eyes.
This quickly gave me an indication on what to expect in Jakarta. The city was blisteringly hot and humid, but I always made sure I covered my shoulders and legs at all times. This is a Muslim country, which is easy to forget when frolicking around on the Hindu island of Bali, packed with tourists in their bikinis most of the time. Even though Jakarta is religiously diverse, 85% of the population are Muslim. The only place where we saw tourists were in the shopping centre near our B&B and in here it seemed tourist felt they could wear very little, but as soon as we left the shopping centre complex we hardly saw any tourist and definitely no uncovered body-parts.
Wherever we go we try to explore the place by using local public transportation. Figuring out the transport system is definitely a fun part for me – it’s like cracking the local code, it takes a lot of forehead wrinkling, but then in a light-bulb moment suddenly all becomes clear. That’s not what happened in Jakarta. Although perhaps had we stayed a bit longer we would have become much better versed in the transport system. But while we were here, we just couldn’t crack it. The first time we were waiting for the local bus, we committed – what I perceived to be – a major mishap. When waiting for the bus here people queue up at little walkways elevated from the ground high enough for each to lead exactly to the bus doors. Quite innovative actually. However what we failed to notice – and to be honest didn’t read about it anywhere in any of our guidebooks or online travel guides or forums – is that men and women were queuing up at separate doors. Women at the front two queues, men at the back two queues. Adam and I both queued at the front. We both got on the bus at the same door and then stood together at the front, trying to work out our route together, to make sure where we needed to get off the bus. Each bus has a conductor on board. Sure enough the conductor tapped Adam gently on the shoulder and instructed him to move to the back of the bus. We didn’t really understand at first why, until kind local ladies explained. They actually tried to reason with the conductor, trying to convince her it was OK, and that they didn’t mind sharing their bus space with a tourist man. But Adam graciously moved to the back anyway. From then on we just had to communicate over the crowd to make sure neither of us missed our stop! 🙂
So what did we get up to in Jakarta, while we were there for 4 days? To be honest – not that much. We found the city to be a bit underwhelming. There wasn’t enough things to do for tourists and the fact that wherever we went we almost became the tourist attraction ourselves didn’t really help us relax while exploring the city. Because there are so few tourists here, wherever we went locals were sniggering behind our back, following us, constantly asking to take photos of us. It wasn’t a problem at all, and we found it sweet, but it does make it a bit difficult to move around and just explore a place in peace. Is that perhaps why so many tourists just stuck to shopping malls and leisure complexes rather then venturing out in the real city?
Regardless, we tried to see as much as possible – even though our tourguide, Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring doesn’t really have any solid offerings on what are the most worthy attractions to visit and see in the city. Here are a few pics and captions to give you some ideas of our time here:
And what did I love about Jakarta? I absolutely adored the couple we were staying with in their B&B. They were such gracious hosts, even though perhaps we weren’t the best guests at this point – we were just tired a lot of the time while we were staying here and also spent a lot of time trying to sort out our onward travel from here, so we spent much of our time with heads in phones and guidebooks, buying flights, booking accommodation, adding up finances, working out dates… We had a lot of decisions to make while we were here. What I loved most about B&B Tomang was the breakfast we received every morning. I swear the lady of the house must have been a chef before as every morning we couldn’t believe the spread that was waiting for us on the table in the dining room, it was so lovingly prepared and so different every day, real Indonesian food, really awesome!! If you’re ever in Jakarta on a budget, stay here!!
Something else I really loved about Jakarta was how helpful and kind locals were here. For example when they kindly reassured us on the bus that Adam’s presence at the front was not offending the travelling ladies. We also got completely lost on our way back from the Kota area toward the Freedom Monument – we got on the wrong bus line and didn’t realise until we had already travelled 40 minutes in the wrong direction. Because we were sitting in different parts of the bus it took us a bit longer to realise, but then I suddenly started to get agitated and I think the two ladies sitting opposite me noticed my body language and my worried looks over to Adam. Even though they did not speak English, somehow they managed to decipher from me where we needed to be and showed me how to get there on the bus map. Not only that, but then they got off with us at the next bus stop and walked us around to the correct stop. They then told the men waiting for the bus at Adam’s door where we were going and for the rest of the trip on the now correct bus the men kept passing the message to new passengers to make sure we got off at the right stop! Even though they did not speak English, the changing passengers passed our stop name around and when it was time for us to leave the bus they tapped Adam on the shoulder and signalled to him that we needed to go. Amazing.
Or when we were trying to cross an incredibly busy street in Kota and the road-workers noticed our predicament, one of them casually walked out into middle of the busy street, held up one arm to stop the traffic, like a trusted lollipop lady, and waved to us to cross. We couldn’t thank him enough.
We did spend quite a lot of time in the mall, because it was so close to our accommodation and its air-conditioned halls were an easy escape from the sweltering heat outside. It also had a good selection of cafes and restaurants and also some nice shops where I could add a few basic pieces of clothing to my travel wardrobe collection, which let’s face it by now I had really become tired of.
As we got to Jakarta, we were coming to the last week of our Indonesian visa. We figured that after staying here for 2-3 days we would still have enough time to hop over to Sumatra and then head back to Thailand. We had to stretch out right until the end of our visa, because these days you can only get a 30 day single entry tourist visa to Thailand and that would have taken us to the date of our return flight to the UK. So we calculated it all out you see… 😉
Of course once we got to Jakarta and actually set down to work out a plan of action for the coming days we quickly realized that we didn’t have enough time OR money to make it to Sumatra, especially as we would have to come all the way back to Jakarta before flying to Thailand. So we decided to not visit Sumatra and to stay put in Jakarta until the last day of our visa. But because, honestly, we didn’t find Jakarta that exciting, and it was way too hot and intense for us, we decided to leave Indonesia a few days before our visa expired and have an extra stop which we had never even planned for.
Stay tuned for my next blog post to find out where that was. I’ll tell you one thing – unexpectedly, it was one of my favourite stops on our whole journey! 🙂