Continuous streams of roaring motorbikes weave dangerously between four-wheel vehicles, hand-pulled and pedal carts. Swarms of citizens rush about in daily pursuits, seemingly oblivious to the sweltering tropical heat that has me drooping. My first impression of super-sensory Jakarta is both dizzying and exhilarating.
Java, the largest and most densely populated of the 17,504 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, we soon see
this capital of 9.5 million as one of stark contrasts. Back from the incessant chaos of the main thoroughfares lined with fancy restaurants and cafes, my husband Rick and I dip into side streets filled with tarp-covered eateries where locals sit on plastic stools spooning in soups and rice dishes cooked over small propane stoves. The atmosphere here is easy-going. Chess games are a popular activity set up under trees on a plank table, the players perched on crates. We walk further in behind skyscrapers and fashion malls to a world of seedy tenement houses and lanes plugged with parked motorbikes belonging to those luckily enough to be on the payroll of these conglomerates.
Jakarta's sprawl has no focal point or centre. The closest to a centre is
Merdeka Square where we start our sight-seeing at the 132-metre obelisk-shaped National Monument or "Monas." This principal landmark is said to be made totally of Italian marble topped with a faux flame of 35kg of gold leaf; an extravagance by former dictator Suharto. A museum at the base tells the story of Indonesia's struggle for independence.
Since "Java Man" roamed circa 1 million BC, a huge leap to
Indonesia's written history goes something like this - Hindu Kingdoms reigned from 4th Century, then came the Muslim Sultanates, followed by 3 ½ centuries of Dutch rule, occupation by the Japanese during WWII, and finally the Republic of Indonesia was proclaimed in 1945, although independence was not acknowledged by the Netherlands until 1949.
The major religious following is Islam. We are fortunate to be on hand for the February 5th celebration of
Mohammad's Birthday in front of the National Monument. A stage with rock-concert-worthy amplifiers is set up so messages can be heard by a jubilant crowd of over 10,000, including many dignitaries (gauged by the number of sleek black limos and military presence).
To see another side of Jakarta, we hop a taxi to Kota, the old town of Batavia that was once the hub of Dutch colonialism. The activity in the central square is midway-like lined with enclosed glass-topped carts filled with savoury tidbits, chunks of pineapple, and durian ice (yes, the smelliest of fruit in Popsicle form). Sitting on rows of straw mats are fortune tellers, souvenir sellers, plus tattoo artists chiselling designs into body parts. A few Rupiah will buy a five-minute-ride on florescent coloured bicycles complete with helmets for gents and bonnets for ladies. A child's ride is comprised of basket-seats attached to a stationary-bike with a grinning fellow furiously pumping the pedals to rotate this novel Ferris-wheel.
We stop for a cappuccino at the expansive
Café Batavia, barely changed since Dutch traders in white linen suits sipped coffee here. As we take in more of the old town it is apparent its grandeur is now rotted, collapsing or has already seen the front-end of a bulldozer. The buildings that still hold their original charm are now a series of museums. One such gem is the
Jakarta History Museum. Its bell tower first tolled in 1627 as the City Hall of Batavia. A later function was administrative quarters for the Dutch East Indies Company, with dungeons that were once the main prison compound.
Wayang Museum boasts 5,147 puppets, collected from all over Indonesia and many other parts of the world. Our interest lies in the Indonesian section where we have an opportunity to chat with a sixth-generation master puppeteer named Aldy. He explains the two types of puppets used in Indonesia, one-dimensional paper or leather ones, and three-dimensional puppets of wood. He then smiles sadly, "My son is not interested to carry on this family tradition."
We plod on in the mid-day sun to find
Toko Merah, meaning "red house" (which it is), formerly the residence of Gustaaf Willem Baron van Imhoff, the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies. This building looks in good repair, while other buildings in this once high-class residential area adjacent to a canal are crumbling. By this time we surrender to Old Sol and take an air-con taxi back to our hotel.
Super-charged Jakarta is often only considered by travellers as a base for hopping between islands for sun, sand and surf, but if you want to get under the skin of Indonesia, milling around this colossal metropolis is a must.
Irene Butler writes for Canadian and US newspapers and magazines. She has trekked thru 69 countries with a focus on culture and history and off-the-beaten path travel.
Passport must be valid for at least six months from the date of arrival, and proof (tickets) of onward or return passage. Visa on Arrival - valid for 30 days to nationals of 63 countries (extendable for another 30 days) - see particulars at http://www.indonesia.travel/en/travel-information
Indonesia 237.6 million; Java, the largest island 137 million, which includes the capital of Jakarta at 9.5 million (2010 census).
Indonesia has something for everyone:
Java has numerous National Parks with varied terrain: rugged volcanic peaks, rainforests, tea plantations and terraced rice fields. The ancient magnificence of Borobudur Buddhist Temple is in central Java (UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991). With over 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, here are the wonders of just a few: take in the rich culture and beaches of Bali, witness the Orangutans in their natural habitat in Sumatra, visit the Dani tribesmen of Papua, snorkel/dive off reefs of Banda Islands, sample the deserted islands, volcanoes and jungles of Maluka (formerly the Moluccas).