Travelling from Kathmandu to Jakarta felt something like being transported into the future. The difference was most evident during a brief stopover in the Bangkok airport, with its 21 automated baggage carousels and enormous halls made of seemingly weightless metal and glass. After spending so much time in the stone villages of rural Nepal, the process of extracting the raw materials required for this building and transforming them into their final form seemed to defy imagination.
The airport in Jakarta doesn’t compare to the one in Bangkok, but at least in the arrivals area, it still seemed incredibly bright and modern compared to what I was expecting. I was last in Indonesia almost exactly ten years ago. At that time the immigration area was just a large open room. I distinctly remember being the only Western tourist in line, as well as being about a head taller than everyone else, and therefore able to see directly into the eyes of the immigration officers from the back of the room.
This time, much to my surprise, the process was as simple as buying a visa on arrival and getting a sticker and stamp. I collected my bags and exited the terminal without incident. Other things have not changed as much, however. Jakarta is still a vast, sprawling metropolis with huge boulevards and no sidewalks. The traffic is still impossibly congested, with motorcycles filling every available space between the cars, and I still somehow managed to get scammed by an airport taxi, despite having very clear directions on how to avoid it!
This time, I had come to Indonesia primarily to visit my friends Nick and Sharmila, who have been living in Jakarta for the past year. The plan was to spend a few days in the city and then head off to do some scuba diving, with me continuing on independently when they had to return to work.
Looking out over the city from their balcony on the 17th floor (actually more like the 14th given all the unlucky and therefore absent floor numbers in the building), I was immediately reminded of the dystopian future of Blade Runner. (Photos will have to wait until later, unfortunately). The air was thick with haze and smog. Giant, gleaming skyscrapers had been built in clusters throughout the downtown area. At night the lights from these buildings appeared as floating neon castles in the sky, with the murky air only partially obscuring the people living in shanty towns on the ground below. At that moment, it would not have surprised me to see a glowing airship flying between the buildings.
On my first night in town, we went to an art opening by a photographer friend of Nick and Sharmila’s. The artworks echoed the feeling of the city – fascinating portraits of endemic plant species captured through the distorting lens of a soap bubble, and then printed on plastic sheets and lit from behind. It was a fun chance to get a glimpse of the contemporary art scene in Indonesia, and mingle with the hipsters in from Yogyakarta.
On the second day, we attended a Kentucky Derby party hosted by one of Nick’s colleagues. Although the results had been announced in the morning papers, it was still a dramatic race. Best of all, the host did an unbelievable job of bringing Kentucky to Jakarta, with Hot Browns, Mint Juleps, and several types of bourbon on offer. The party was mostly attended by people in the American expat community, and it was fascinating to learn about some of the peculiarities of life in the capital, where hired help is the norm, everything is a taxi ride away, and a trip to the airport can take anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours, depending on traffic.
On my third day, I launched a brief sortie against the Indonesian bureaucracy, in an attempt to extend my visa. A website I found laid out all the steps required and made the whole thing seem quite simple. With Sharmila’s help, I did manage to find what seemed to be the proper office. However, the facade of the building looked nothing like the picture on the website, the signs were all in Indonesian, and the waiting area was filled with people who hadn’t seen the line move in an hour. Moreover, the necessary form (to be obtained from a photocopy shed out back) seemed to have run out for the day. Preferring a cautious retreat to a costly defeat, we withdrew to fight another day.
On the other hand, I am pleased to say that in Jakarta, I finally found the coffee I have been looking for. Purchased on the island of Flores as green beans and home roasted by Nick in his own cast iron pot in the oven, the freshly ground coffee delivered a superlative punch with subtle and interesting flavours. In fact, one of the delights of my time in Jakarta was eating an entirely homemade breakfast, with the bread, jam, and peanut butter all made from scratch!
On our last night before flying out to Nusa Tengarra, we sat on Nick and Sharmila’s balcony, watching the skies turn from white to grey to black to yellow, as tropical storms rolled through the city. My friends assured me that beautiful mountains lay just beyond the clouds, but that one could only glimpse them perhaps one day per year. Finishing our drinks, we called it a night, with alarms set for three o’clock the next morning to wake us for a ride to the airport.
Update: I’ve added a few photos – Jakarta during the day, at night, and during a storm. Finally, on my very last night in town I was able to catch a glimpse of the distant mountains during sunset.