Jakarta is a city that is perhaps best savored in retrospect, allowing time to temper its images and experience. Like the Durian, Jakarta is an acquired taste. Singapore may have built the Esplanade in the shape of the Durian but Jakarta will always be the ‘Big Durian’.
The religion of Jakarta is shopping with numerous malls, shopping centers, and traditional markets. There are no parks or green areas and malls provide the main recreation. There are huge statues at the major roundabouts of the city and are affectionately called names such as ‘Hot Plate Harry or Pizza man’ on Jl Sudirman and the ‘flying Hanuman’ in Pancoran. The most famous, is the iconic ‘Hansel and Gretel’ statue on the M.H. Thamrin Traffic Circle, while the most eye-catching statue gracing the south-western corner of the Freedom Square which I love, is a Mahabharata themed Arjuna Wijaya chariot statue and fountain.
When it rains, all roads become unending, a stagnant rivers of vehicles. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes stuck on the road as if super glue was pouring from the heavens, gluing the tires to the asphalt. A 10 minute drive can take up to 2 hours or more in the rain and I too have horror stories of being trapped in my car for hours on end. This is also when the ‘umbrella kids’ appear, lined outside malls and office buildings, holding umbrellas to help people walk short distances while they walk behind soaking in the rain for a small pittance. Chattering teeth and thin bodies are indeed a pitiful sight.
Traffic in Jakarta is a lesson in patience. In the many years that I have lived in this city, this has been my biggest learning. ‘What cannot kill you only makes you stronger!’ is the common refrain. But getting from point A to B is a slow death and a torturous one. Always in a state of grinding my teeth, clenching my fists and pushing down with my feet while praying fervently to get to the destination in time.
By the time I would reach my destination, my nerves would be stretched and strained adding to the compounded ignominy of being late. A couple of years ago, I decided that the time spent in car could be ‘ME’ time and so geared up with all my reading material, a loaded iPod and planners. This also became my time for meditation sessions to delay the onset of insanity.
A surprising aspect of traffic in Jakarta is the absence of any honking. The drivers patiently wait and smilingly give way to other motorists without a single horn being heard. Motor cyclists however, a breed apart. They buzz through traffic and form a swarm at red lights much akin to mosquitoes rushing past. The image intensified by the full face round helmets that they all like to wear.
The roads are not merely conduits to destinations but also to the most amazing array of street food. I love the martabak manis, sweet coconut pancakes made with condensed milk, cheese, chocolate, sesame seeds and ground nuts. A recipe for a heart attack but amazingly good!
Meatball soup with meatballs as big as tennis balls and the omniscient ‘mie’ at the noodle stands. Even assorted fruits are popular. In the durian season, its piles of durians on the road side and one can stop and enjoy the amazing ‘King of fruits’ which has been described variously as almonds, rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks. The odor has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in South-East Asia.
A few days before New Year’s Eve, streets are lined with vendors selling the most amazing paper trumpets. Such imagination at work and you cannot but help buy them to liven the New Year celebrations. The Independence Day on 17th August, finds carts selling the Indonesian flags in all shapes, from small ones for cars to flagpoles for homes and buildings. If you are lucky you can chance upon huge puppets called ‘ondel-ondel’. Standing at about 2.5 meters tall, they represent a Betawi couple dressed in traditional garments moving gracefully, accompanied by drummers and a crowd of followers.
It takes a lot of patience and dexterity to manoeuvre through Jakarta and if your car happens to be dented, fear not as help is at hand in the form of the mysterious ‘ketok magic’ – a small, badly lit, hole-in-the-wall workshop where you wait for magic to begin! Your car gets all fixed at a fraction of the price with no trace of the dent or scratch on its expensive paint job. The belief is that magic is involved in the process and hence the name. Getting around Jakarta is a challenge at the best of times and it can evoke a whole set of human emotions. Just like durian!
by Poonam Sagar