The Indonesian capital's attractions lie not in its past, but its glittering present, with all the benefits and complications of modern city life.
Grown up too fast, Jakarta is urbanisation’s future
Thursday night in Indonesia and I am stuck in the city everyone leaves. I’ve been here for weeks, and now that it’s time for me to leave, I can’t get out. The clock on the taxi’s dashboard ticks down the minutes to my flight. Outside, the traffic is still, blurred through the rain, like an absurd Impressionist painting.
If you don’t live in Jakarta, no one expects you to stay. The millions of tourists who pass through Indonesia’s capital usually head for the coasts, to the beaches of Bali or the waters around Lombok. On paper, the city is not appealing, a sprawling mass of nine million people with few tourist attractions. When I tell people I am staying for a few weeks in the city to research a book, they reply in familiar formats.
“It’s too hot,” says the engineer on the plane.
“It’s too crowded,” says the student at the next table in the restaurant.
“It’s impossible to get anywhere,” says the driver, before offering to take me anywhere.
Every problem with Jakarta is accompanied by superlatives, as though, if there were simply less of it – less traffic, less heat, fewer people – the city would be acceptable. Not for nothing is this sprawling metropolis nicknamed the Big Durian, after a particularly large Asian fruit.
But if you look for experiences on a human scale, there is more to Jakarta than that.
It’s the weekend before last and I’m in Merdeka Square, a vast park in the centre of Jakarta (in the loosest sense, since the city doesn’t have an obvious centre), accompanied by a Romanian academic. We’re trying to film a short documentary, but it is impossible: there are children all around us and the camera and the Romanian’s exotic looks attract them. They bounce up behind me in the frame or alongside as I walk. They shout their hello misters and hello madams into the camera, pull faces, push each other and laugh and laugh and laugh. It’s infectious: most of the footage is of me being distracted and laughing with them.
Saturday is a family day in Jakarta and the whole of Merdeka is a big bazaar. Stalls selling freshly cooked food are doing a roaring trade – mie goreng, the ubiquitous fried noodles with seafood or chicken, are especially popular. Several generations of families gather on the grass to picnic, while young children fly red kites. As we walk, boys interrupt their games of football to wave.
It may not seem it, but this is one of the best attractions in the city. In the centre of the square stands the National Monument, a 132-metre tower symbolising Indonesia’s independence. But the atmosphere is the real attraction: in Jakarta, it is difficult to be outdoors for long and most Jakartans move from home to office to malls without lingering too much in between; there is little outdoor life. But here in Merdeka, the joy of Jakarta is evident. The city seems cooler and the people are relaxed, happy to talk and inquisitive with strangers.
Jakarta is an old city, but it expanded late and too fast. It has been an important place for at least 700 years, thanks to its port, but has only been the capital since 1950. Before that it was called Batavia, named by the Dutch who settled here.
As the Dutch began to establish themselves in Indonesia, they set about recreating a version of Amsterdam within its walls, with tall, thin houses and canals. That old town is now called Kota, perched at the far north of Jakarta. Parts of it, especially along the canal, are attractive, where if you squint you can imagine you are in a faded version of a Dutch city. But time has not been kind and most of the buildings are ruined. Here and there are some fragments of architectural gems, arches and balustrades, but the money to maintain the area has moved south to the urban centre.
In Kota’s central square of Taman Fatahillah, there are posters advertising musical and cultural events but, at midday, the place is almost deserted, exuding a shabby, exhausted air. A man with a cart comes over and tries to talk to me, but I don’t want to buy anything and he has nothing to sell apart from coconut water. The sunshine has drained all the colour out of the square and all the vigour out of the people. I’m drawn by the laughter of a crowd to the Jakarta history museum, now housed in the opulent white old town hall, but the museum looks shut. The windows are covered and there is a homeless man sleeping across the main entrance door. What attractions Jakarta has are not found in its past, but in its gleaming urban present.
I’m still in traffic near the Welcome Monument, looking out at unmoving lines of cars and three-wheeled Bajaj tuk-tuks. You can’t overstate the traffic because, after merely a few days, predicting it becomes an obsession of vital importance. For a good reason: a journey of 30 minutes can take three hours in traffic, so choosing the right minute to depart can save you hours.
In the future, this is what the mega-cities of the world will look like. The bullet trains and the planes flying short-haul will rein overhead, but at ground level the traffic will be immoveable. We will fly across continents and crawl across cities.
In one of the many restaurants in one of the many malls that dot Jakarta like islands of life, I saw a sign that said, “Urban living – enjoy it”. You really have to in this city, because there’s nothing else. Along Thamrin Road, one of the city’s main arteries, are several of the city’s best malls, enormous, sprawling ecosystems of shops, restaurants and cinemas.
The centrality of malls to the life of this city, with its astonishing humidity and huge distances, cannot be overestimated. They take on specific characters. The malls in Blok M, in south Jakarta, are surrounded by small cafes and bars, where the young teenagers of the city go to relax. In the evenings, the malls are full of young Indonesians strutting, their musical tastes reflected in their hairstyles and broadcast from their phones.
All across Jakarta are dedicated bus lanes from where cars are banned. Only around here, they are taken over by the cool kids riding their fixed-gear “fixie” bikes, the retro transportation favoured by urban hipsters in east London and New York’s Williamsburg.
It is another story in central Jakarta around Thamrin Road; Grand Indonesia and Plaza Indonesia, two of the city’s most upmarket malls, have a very different feel. These are the places Jakarta’s elite come to shop, with luxury brands, extensive food courts and art galleries. Women in luxurious fabrics glide through these malls, their paths smoothed by doormen, who carry bags and call limousine taxis for customers. The money coursing through these malls is astonishing, as the Bentleys, Hummers and Porsches pulling up outside the doors suggest. It would be entirely possible to spend days in these malls without experiencing everything; they are small communities unto themselves.
The other side of Jakarta is not far away, but it is comprehensively hidden. Jakarta has vast slums, nestled side by side with appalling luxury. From the door of one of Jakarta’s most luxurious malls, with Gucci shops and chauffeured Mercedes, I walk two minutes – two minutes – down a back street and find myself in a row of narrow homes, where a child is being bathed outdoors in a bucket. The journey – it’s just here, walk a few moments up the street, turn left and you are in the mall – is epic. It is the journey of capitalism. I can’t help thinking there is cleaner water available in the public toilets of that mall than the young child will drink tonight. Yet it is only if you look that you see it and most tourists (and well-off Indonesians) understandably don’t look.
I am in Jakarta during the Haj, and everywhere I go I meet Saudi Arabians. Indonesia has become something of a mini-break destination for Saudis during the Haj – they rent out their homes to pilgrims and leave for a holiday. In the queue for Hainanese food – there are so many food outlets here, China’s cuisine is subdivided into its provinces – I meet Fahd, a Saudi banker and his Syrian-born wife, gushing about a spa they have booked themselves into for the following day.
As they rave about Jakarta, I start to see the city from their point of view. If you drive around in air-conditioned cars, sample the huge range of restaurants and shops on offer, go to the galleries, museums and even the up-market karaoke bars, the whole city seems like a vast playground, especially if you are used to the prices of the developed world.
It is this world that I am trying to reach. The traffic finally eases and I arrive at Plaza Indonesia for the opening of a showcase for Indonesian fashion designers. The cool kids of Jakarta are out in force, beautiful young men and women in artfully designed clothing, clothing fashioned to provoke comment rather than cover flesh. They wave their laminated invitations and speak quickly, impatient to enter.
Inside, the heat of the city is merely a myth, the crowded streets an apparition. Asian models glide past, lithe and flawless, followed by portly men eating canapés. I stand talking to a French designer as a camera crew hovers, eager to learn the views of non-Indonesians. I am the tourist, vague and complimentary; she is Parisian, specific and critical.
It is time to leave and I don’t want to go. Nine o’clock. My flight is at midnight, the airport is an hour away and, although I am staying only a few minutes from the mall, I am not packed. I already know what I will do: I will rush back to my hotel through the rain, throw my clothes and books and accumulated papers into my luggage haphazardly, shoes wrapped in T-shirts, socks wrapped around my toothbrush. I will offer the taxi driver twice the usual fare if he gets me to the airport in half an hour, and we will speed furiously across Jakarta, spraying jets of water at other cars until I rush up to the gate, the last person in the terminal, while the air crew tuts. But not just now. I am not yet ready to leave the city that everyone leaves.
If you go
The flight Direct flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Jakarta cost from Dh2,465 return
The hotels Prices in Jalan Jaksa start from US$10 (Dh37) for a bed in a shared dorm to about $40 (Dh147) per night in a budget hotel. Prices at the Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com) and the Grand Hyatt (www.hyatt.com), located off Thamrin Street, are comparable, starting at $220 (Dh808) a night for a double room at both hotels, but the Mandarin has recently been renovated. Big spenders could consider the $4,500-a-night (Dh16,525) Mandarin Suite at the top of the building, overlooking the Welcome Monument.