I WAS BORN AND RAISED in Jakarta until I was shipped off overseas for university. It wasn’t until I came back a few years later to the “Big Durian” that I experienced my own form of culture shock. Since then, I’ve developed a love / hate relationship with this city, which is probably how most people who visit also feel. Here are 13 things you’ll experience when you come.
1. 15 minutes of fame
If you’re Caucasian, you’ll probably be treated like Richard Branson. Poor locals will fall at your feet and kiss the steps you walk on, hoping you might grace them with your magical white touch and some dollar bills for their families. Walking down the city streets, or even traveling to the malls, means stares, questions, and at times, a few photographs with the bule (foreigner).
2. Cigarette ads everywhere
Many Indonesian citizens smoke, so don’t freak out when you enter a restaurant that allows smoking indoors. I’m pretty sure even the trees produce smoke instead of oxygen. The richest man in the country earns his wealth from tobacco, and the poorest man in the country will sell his soul for a cigarette. You see grade-school children around the city smoking, and even orangutans.
Every street has a billboard or banner promoting local cigarettes, although they’re all purposely vague (as per government regulations — the cigarette itself can’t actually be shown). There are disclaimers at the bottom of each ad, and at the end of every commercial it states smoking causes cancer and heart disease. This doesn’t really make an impact, but it helps the government feel a tad better. “Hey, at least I warned you this was going to happen!”
3. Gigantic malls
These aren’t your typical shopping centers. These are giant, marble-floored, extravagant malls, sometimes with apartments nestled on top for convenience (who wants to walk outside when you can go down the elevator in your pajamas to shop?). These malls seem to appear out of nowhere, and each one has a reputation.
There are around 173 malls in Jakarta, which means 173 places you can meet your friends. You go to shopping centers without the intention to shop, but to hang out at indoor cafés, restaurants, karaoke bars, or billiard lounges. Q Billiards is usually the go-to stop for people from different schools to meet up and mingle. OKCupid has nothing on Q.
4. Cheap everything
Rp. 1000 is equivalent to US $0.084, so you can just imagine how cheap everything is. Most of the time, eating out will never be a problem; a nice duck confit will only cost you US $15 at Union in Plaza Senayan. Late-night food in Senayan, like nasi goreng gila (crazy fried rice), costs only $1, or try a delicious $2 nasi Padang that puts Gordon Ramsay to shame. Jakarta is also awesome for shopping, because it doesn’t matter if you go to small boutique shops, or big international chain stores — everything is incredibly affordable, especially in the Mangga Dua district.
5. Adorable restaurants
Restaurants owned by yuppies in their mid-20s, who are most likely fresh out of college from an overseas university, have proliferated in recent years. These places will do anything to make you stay, using comfy couches, trendy music, and impeccable service to make sure you never want to leave. No one walks into Goods Diner in the Sudirman Central Business District and leaves right after their meal. We stay, we talk, and we build a tent, because we end up staying the whole day.
6. The worst traffic in the world
Jakarta is a city of around 10 million people crammed into a 740-square-kilometer piece of land. To put it in perspective, New York City has only 8 million people, and 1,213 square kilometers of space to fit them. The public transport here is limited to buses (some of which have no windows), and trains (whose stops aren’t convenient enough for people to ride on a daily basis). So people rely on cars, taxis, angkot, ojek (motorcycle taxis), and the occasional bajaj.
Bus stops literally mean that when the bus stops in the middle of the busy road, people have to climb in and out of a vehicle that only has one door. A 30-minute distance could take two hours, so always plan ahead when it comes to going places, because traffic is the norm to the point where experiencing only a little traffic feels incredibly unsettling. Where is everyone? Are they all dead?
Visiting Jakarta in the beginning of the year will feel like visiting the Pacific Ocean without a ship. There will be nothing but water up to your knees or neck, and endless amounts of rain. The worst flood was in 2007, which displaced half a million citizens, killed 80 people, and caused $400 million in damage. Around February, the news will be dominated with stories of evacuations, and images of people in inflatable boats will circulate around the internet.
This happens each year due to the poor drainage system in the city. Instead of schools having snow days, they have flood days. I know the season has started when half of the students don’t show up to class because they couldn’t get out of their front gates without being submerged in water.
There are different types of beggars: musical beggars, amputated beggars, fake-amputated beggars, child beggars. They roam about the streets all across the city, meander among cars at stoplights, knock on your window to ask for a few cents to help them get by. They don’t care if you’re riding a beat-up Commodore or sitting in a Porsche, they will find you and they will serenade you with their two-string ukulele. A simple wave of the hand will send them off to the next car, and it’s important that you not give them any money, as it’s now illegal to do so.
9. A harsh juxtaposition of rich and poor
I can pass by shacks on one side of the street and see mansions on the other. A perfect example of this is the Menteng area, home to both the rich and the poor. In Jakarta, it’s normal to see Ferraris amidst secondhand Kijangs, and women with big hair and Hermés bags walking on the same sidewalk as those wearing worn-out slippers.
Maids are hired not only for the rich, but for anyone too busy to cook or clean for themselves. Most maids are sent to an institution where housewives can easily pick out their future helpers. Prior experience is not necessary. Maids are housed, fed, and treated well by the household. It might be a bit jarring at first to see three or four maids in one house, each doing their own individual tasks, but you might even get one yourself if you plan on living in Jakarta.
Some maids can work for the same family for decades, and are treated as extended members of the family. Different families pay their maids different wages — it depends on the size of the house and the role of the maid, but it can be as low as $90/month. Keep in mind they don’t pay for food or shelter. My past maids and I still keep in touch via text and Facebook.
11. Luxurious movie theaters
For US $9, you can watch the newest Hollywood blockbusters on an extra-comfortable reclining chair with a wine list and in-house services that deliver you the popcorn on a silver platter (because lining up for popcorn is so blasé).
Of course, $9 is still considered pretty expensive for most people, so we all opt for the typical $4 option, which is the standard cinematic experience. However, if you want to crank it up a notch, Blitz Megaplex’s Velvet Class has rows of king-sized beds for couples to cozy up in.
12. Pirated everything
The piracy culture in Jakarta is pretty big. This means that in some malls, such as Ratu Plaza in Senayan, you’re able to buy pirated DVDs for less than a dollar. They range from old movie classics to new films that aren’t even in cinemas yet. The quality can be absolutely superb or complete crap, which is why you can ask to view the film right there on the spot. You can also buy good-quality, albeit pirated, computer software and applications, ranging from The Sims to Windows 8. I got my Adobe Suite for $7.
13. Diarrhea-inducing street food
Don’t complain about the runs you might get after, because it will always be worth it. Always. These carts peppered around the city streets are filled with cakes, fried food, noodles, meatballs, and bread that costs at the most $4. Even though they probably haven’t washed the grill and the beef balls might have a little asphalt on them, it’s what makes the food great. Street food will forever be the best thing to happen to this city.