Jakarta isn’t a city that makes the best first impression. Not even the second-best impression. Indonesia’s capital is a rapidly growing city, but not in a good way. Its population is estimated at around 10 million people. Locals say it doubles during mornings when people commute to work. That is a lot of people in a place with terrible infrastructure. Think about all the garbage they generate. The administration has no means of processing all that waste. It has flaws and issues of its own. See, Indonesia declared independence in 1949 and went through a streak of lousy governments. Most presidents were involved in some kind of a scandal, but Suharto was in a different league. That guy was allegedly the most corrupt politician in modern history. He established a military dictatorship and ruled for over 31 years. During that time, he managed to embezzle something between 15 and 30 billion dollars. He also launched a campaign to purge communists from Indonesia. That was basically a mass murder of random people. Despite all that he still led his nation to a relative prosperity. They’re even considering granting him the status of national hero. Joko Widodo is the current president and all-around awesome guy. He declared he will move the capital from Jakarta to a new site on Borneo. Why? Garbage isn’t their only issue. The city has been built on a swamp and is sinking 15cm every year. I imagine it will snowball soon and sink before we know it. Then again, I’m no expert on sinking cities.Experience the “glitter and the gutter” of Jakarta while it’s still there. Java was the main colony and sit of power of the Dutch East India Company, it went by Batavia then. The Dutch governors’ former office is now home to Batavia Café. Their bar won Newsweek’s “Best Bar in the World” award in 1996. Something I wouldn’t mind traveling to another hemisphere for. Stroll around the square it’s located on, surrounded by beautiful colonial architecture. Visit the Jakarta History Museum in the Old Town Hall, one of the oldest buildings in the city. There are all sorts of unpleasant stories to be told, like the briefly mentioned massacre of Chinese people. Gedung Pertunjukan Wayang Orang Bharata should be your first stop for a taste of Javanese tradition. In my opinion, it looks and sounds Chinese but what do I know. They wear that over-the-top makeup and clothes, dance and sing around the stage. Those actors live and breathe theatrical arts. Literally. Entire generations of performers have lived on site for decades. They give birth, live, eat and sleep there, no wonder they’re so good at their art. The word Wayang stands for shadow theatre, like finger shadows but with puppets. There’s even the Dirgantara Monument dedicated to that spectacle. I think it looks like Willem Dafoe as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man.
Jakarta closes down for car traffic and opens up to pedestrians on Sundays. Only morning until noon but it’s still huge for a city so plagued by traffic jams. It’s also the best time to do some sightseeing on foot. You can find the best stuff within the walking distance from Monas, the National Monument. It’s that giant torch with a plastic flame. Two important places of worship are on the opposite side of the surrounding park. The humongous Istiqlal Mosque was built to celebrate Indonesia’s long-awaited independence. It’s the largest in South-East Asia and it reminded me of Vatican for some reason. St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral stands besides the Mosque. It’s your average neo-gothic church, but its true value is symbolic. Indonesia was and still is a thoroughly Muslim country. A Christian temple standing here like that is the greatest testament of how powerful was the grasp of Dutch East India Company over South Asia.
Monas also marks the city centre of Jakarta. It’s where people shop in malls and party in modern clubs, it’s the glitter. The further you get from the monument the more guttery it gets, and also the more interesting. Upscale shops are replaced by farmers markets, clubs by seedy bars. Try to avoid buying meat at the markets. The smell should be enough of a hint that they have no refrigeration in this heat and humidity. Hygiene aside, people say that Jakarta is catching up to Singapore when it comes to the food scene. Sambal and Nasi Goreng have already become familiar tastes to western audience. My first and last trip to Indonesia (Java and Bali) is already long time ago and I still treasure the memories as one of my best holidays ever: the warm-hearted people, the majestic temples, the breath-taking beautiful nature; especially the volcanoes. It was all in all a mind-blowing experience. But most of all I can recall the unbelievable richness of the local food. Already for breakfast we got the tastiest satay (sate in Indonesian): skewered and grilled meat with peanut sauce, and other heavenly stuff. Luckily enough, when living in the Netherlands, you have an Indonesian restaurant around every corner. So I can still enjoy this wonderful cuisine so now and then. Step outside of the city and you’ll discover goodies not for the faint of heart. That is a problem in Indonesia. People are eating so much “game meat” they’ve endangered several species. Rats, bats, dogs, snakes, everything you can catch in the jungle. You can buy some of that questionable stuff in bush meat markets if you’re feeling adventurous. Don’t count on any pork though; it’s still a Muslim country.