August 19, 2007

The Big Durian
Jakarta (Java), Indonesia

South of the Equator, in the heart of the Indonesian nation.


Two o'clock in the morning and airports don't mix, especially on evenings that happen to coincide with a holiday. Yet this was the situation Tatiana and I found ourselves in.

It took longer than average for us to process through immigration. I had to dip into my backpack's stash of U.S. dollars to pay for a 30-day Indonesian visa (at least my US$25 bought a rather pleasant looking full-page stamp in the passport), while Tatiana had a lengthy confab with a half-dozen immigration officials to convince them she didn't need to pay for one herself (my research showed that Peru is one of just a handful of countries listed on the Indonesian embassy Web site that says need not pay to play). As usual, the fake onward tickets I created were accepted and approved of.

Jakarta's airport is a sold 35 kilometers outside of the city center, and because of our arrival time, we found ourselves in a hard spot. Mass transit would normally have taken us into town for about US$1, but wasn't due to start service for several hours. We instead found ourselves fighting a long battle for an overpriced ride into town in a unofficial taxi.

A haze floated about the city as we zoomed along the modern, empty highway, partially obscuring the towering skyscrapers (that I was more than surprised to see). I really didn't know if the haze was from an evening of excessive Indonesian Independence Day fireworks, or if the city's air pollution was visible, even at night.

We landed in the middle of Jakarta's traveler ghetto (in the Jalan Jaksa district) to find vacancy a serious issue. As Tatiana waited with the car outside of our first failed attempt at procuring a room, I ran around with our driver, finding success after bouncing around nearly a dozen hotels.

First Impressions

With a population pushing 10 million, Indonesia's capital (dubbed the 'Big Durian'), is congested combination of slums and skyscrapers. Impressive security-minded hotels catering to businessmen and women dominate the city, which explains why tourists and accommodations priced for backpackers seems to be a rarity. Java's pockets of militant Islamic fundamentalist remain a threat. Never before have I seen a vehicle checkpoint inspection for a Hilton with mirrors on poles and bomb-sniffing dogs.

One thing's for sure: I'm finally back in a culture that loves tea—iced tea, in particular. I'm getting delightful flashbacks of the craze I found myself mixed up in during my time in Malaysia. So sweet, I think the stuff is closer to chocolate milk, than tea. The street food seems to be back on par with what I'm use to seeing as well—a much welcomed improvement over the Philippines, although it doesn't take much.

Sadly, I'm not only getting pleasant flashbacks of Malaysia, but unappetizing ones as well. With the world's fourth-largest country by population (after China, India, and the USA), Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation (80% of the population—over 200 million strong). Every few hours the streets are awash with the obnoxious sound of wailing prayers, pumped through the obligatory loudspeakers attached to the top of mosque minarets.

The pain is especially acute when awoken in the early morning hours by the overlapping sound of multiple mosque muezzins on the same block. Even the radio pauses to flood listeners with the not-so-gentle reminder to pray.

Tatiana and I received rather perplexed looks from staff at our hotel when we ventured out late this evening to get food. Tatiana, noticeably pregnant, was told that (good) "Indonesian women don't go out after dark." They seemed to think it most irregular for a mother-to-be to be leaving the hotel, even in my company.

Reading between the lines, these men clearly believed that only prostitutes were found outside of the home after dusk—and judging by the scene at the bars we past, I just might say they're not far off. Tatiana, still having flashbacks of her time in the Middle East, recognized the male attitude all too well.

East or West?

One of the most immediate challenges I needed to tackle was where we were going to go in this country—not an itinerary, but at least a direction to start heading in.

The Indonesian archipelago is a big collection of islands—the world's largest, in fact—somewhere on the order of 17,500 islands, covering nearly two million square kilometers. Not only trying to figure out what we might like to see, but also planning an exit strategy from the country has been at the forefront of my thoughts recently—especially since I want to get out of boring, big-city Jakarta as soon as humanly possible.

Still searching for that paradisaical beach location that eluded us in the Philippines, I've been trying to find someplace comfortable and sandy to hang my hat. Simple Google searches like "Indonesia best beaches" have turned up endless lists of garbage, and the hefty chapter in my guidebook scarcely mentions sandy spots to lounge about on (aside from an overabundance of popular surfing destinations). Indonesia seems to be less about scuba diving and sunning yourself on a beach and more about volcano treks and breaking surf.

I was entertaining the notion of swinging up through the western island of Sumatra, and then hopping back to peninsular Malaysia or Singapore, but scrapped the idea after reading about the rawness of the coastline. Instead, we'll head for the spot most every Aussie with a round-the-world trip ticket hits on their way into SE Asia: Bali. As the country's second-largest airline hub, it should be fairly easy to flee, should things turn sour.




May 10th, 2010

hi! just stumbled into your blog.
i think the comment regarding your wife doesn't really apply in other areas of jakarta. the thing is, the jaksa area & its surroundings are quite dodgy at night, with prostitutes trawling about looking to score a gringo. the fact that your wife is peruvian, unfortunately, made things a bit more tricky since i'm guessing she looks indonesian & therefore by walking around with you, a gringo, in a dodgy area at night, would just make people jump into the wrong conclusions.
i, for one, used to work in advertising so had to go look for food at odd hours (darn those deadlines!) & no one gave me or my female colleagues dirty looks. i guess it depends on the area & the circumstances. hope that clears it up.

FYI, there are pretty white sand-turquoise waters beaches on the cluster of islands off jakarta called kepulauan seribu. belitung island also has some fab beaches for relaxing with giant boulders. the same with the sumatran coast. i can show you pictures if you want.

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