Jakarta, Java – the good, the bad and the smelly.
Touching down at Jakarta international airport and disembarking the aircraft, I flashed a broad and cheeky grin to the cabin crew. As a geographer, Jakarta is a very interesting city with regards to its ‘megacity’ status, being the capital of Indonesia and its (very recent) rapid development. I also teach the city as a case study of the effects caused by rapid urbanisation to GCSE geography students, so I was eager to explore the extremes of the city first hand; rather than from the pages of a textbook.
Indonesia is a geographers dream for many geological, geophysical, social and political reasons; but for now I will focus on just demographics. Indonesia is made up of over 17,000 islands, covering 1.9 million square miles of land. It is also the world’s 4th largest population at 270,000,000; although what is outrageously fascinating is that over 57% of this population live just on the island of Java. Java isn’t even the largest island (it is 5th largest), New Guinea is 6 times bigger! Time to apply some relatable context. Java is essentially the same size as England (in isolation) however the population of England is around 55 million; Java therefore has TRIPLE the population. That is one dense island. I was excited.
I hoped off the plane, breezed through customs and (via a short hygiene stop and ‘sink shower’ in the airport toilets) quickly found myself on a train to the city centre. My draft plan was to spend just the one day exploring the city and its stories, then take advantage of a 1st shower in several days, comfy overnight sleep and hearty breakfast before doing battle with a 10 hour train journey to the city of Yogyakarta.
From the very moment I stepped off the train Jakarta swallowed me up. Jakarta was a cauldron of shiny, metal structures relentlessly reflecting rays from an unforgiving sun seemingly in an attempt to fry me on the very tarmac I stood; and THAT smell.
That smell. It is hard to put my finger on precisely what that smell was, other than it was repulsive, invasive and most probably toxic. You could smell the rivers, canals and water system of Jakarta before you could see them. A vile concoction of chemicals, human feces, all forms of waste and disregarded items mixed together to form a foul-smelling cocktail.
What terrified and disgusted me the most however was witnessing people, some of which were small children, playing, washing and walking barefoot through these water ways.
For a city with so many tall structures, there was a bizarre lack of shelter, so the trek from the train station to my hotel shared similarities with nomads pilgrimaging across the Sahara Desert in search of an oasis sanctuary; just like myself. For a megacity with over 10 million inhabitants, Jakarta displayed a distinct lack of colour and culture. The city itself reeked of capitalism; almost as if every business and person was fighting amongst themselves to make a profit and leaving behind staggering levels of uneven development, extreme poverty and pollution. Jakarta was just the residue of a frantic scramble by another Asian giant trying to compete in the global arena of commerce at the expense of its culture, heritage and people.
In truth it wasn’t until my final few hours in Jakarta, as I marched my way through the city towards my 4pm train to Yogyakarta and freedom, that I experienced something of which actually changed my perception of the place. I found myself wandering through a large open park in the centre of the city, at the epicentre of which stood a tall tower-like structure. It was again another sunny day in the city; many local peoples had found their way to the park and had taken refuge in the shade of large palm trees, planted rather decadently against the landscape status quo. With over an hour to spare until my train I too decided to conform and perched myself against a rock that had simply no place being there. I barely had time to stretch out my legs before I felt a firm and authoritative tap on my shoulder
“Hello mister, you photo”
I arched my back to see an older Indonesian lady dressed head to toe in vividly colourful abaya (dress) peering over me with a dinosaur aged iPhone extended in front of my face. Thinking as a tourist and from personal experience, I jumped to the conclusion that she must want me to take a picture of her in front of this clearly significant structure; naturally I obliged.
“No, no, photo you and me”
Oh. I had misjudged the situation, this sweet lady actually wanted a picture with me. Being British and obviously not a celebrity, I felt a flushed with embarrassment. Still I obliged although I could never had predicted the consequences of this decision or the events that ensued. Without hesitation this sweet little lady morphed into the principle conductor of the London philharmonic as she frantically waved her arms in different directions and summoned what can only be described as a small army of friends. I was swamped by around 15 women, all similarly draped head to toe in temple gear, with smartphones flashing all around me;
"With me, you take with me, selfie, selfie, selfie”.
This must be what it feels like to be a celebrity I pondered for a split second before succumbing myself to the attention and flashed poses in all directions. Keen to know my name and the story behind my presence in Jakarta, I was interviewed and we exchanged social media (I was actually quite taken aback by the power of social media – almost as if I was surprised that these random ladies in Indonesia has their own personal accounts). After a moderate 10 minute photo shoot with half the female population of Indonesia (I exaggerate of course, the country is absolutely massive) I excused myself and made for my train.
As I marched onward towards the train station, I reflected on what I had just experienced and the spontaneity of it all; I laughed to myself. To those ladies I must have been the most interesting thing they had seen that day and I found it humbling. I discovered later that evening the tower-like structure was in fact the national monument and that these women had chosen to share their experiences of the symbol of their home with me, a foreigner, with a frankly ignorant lack of knowledge and understanding about their culture. I realised at this moment that my negative experience with Jakarta to this point was actually self-inflicted, I had failed to interact with a single person during my stay and therefore felt nothing.
In the end, it was the people that saved Jakarta. The very people in which the city had seemingly forgotten and abandoned, yet still displaying unwavering happiness.
P.S: Check out the 'luxury' public toilet in Jakarta train station: