Our week in Indonesia was to be my first visit to a developing / third world country.
We spent 3 nights in Jakarta. It was undoubtedly the most chaotic, busy and intimidating place I have visited so far. I thought Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong were chaotic. I hadn’t seen anything until we came to Jakarta. Don’t get me wrong, the aforementioned cities are hugely busy and chaotic, but at least it’s organised chaos. Jakarta is a total free-for-all.
Crazy Roads and Perverted Middle Aged-Men
First impressions of Jakarta consisted of thoughts on how crazy the roads were and how disturbed I was at the large numbers of disgustingly unnattractive middle aged western men seemingly present. They were obviously here for the sole purpose of drinking and exploiting the local women / prostitutes. They seemed to form the majority of ex-pats. I can see why people in developing countries would be inclined to have a negative opinion of western countries if this is what we are exporting to them.
Anyway, back to Jakartas crazy roads. We couldn’t even cross the road half the time. Sometimes we just gave up trying, others we literally had to employ the tactic of running out in front of the traffic (on the 12 lane road) in the hope that it will slow down or stop for us. I’m not joking. At times it was even difficult to work out what side of the road they drive on, for so many cars would just drive into oncoming traffic. I will never EVER, complain about Turkish or Korean roads again after Indonesia. Given the choice between traffic over-regulation in Britain, or no laws what-so-ever in Indonesia, I know which one I’d choose. Everytime. I like my life.
Oh and another thing, they don’t cover manholes in Jakarta. Once you walk away from the main CBD (downtown) area, it was quite common to find entire streets with no manhole covers at all. You have to keep an eye out for the big holes in the pavement every 10 metres or so as you walk.
Feeling Like a Rockstar
Once you get away from the CBD (and it would seem – very few westerners do) everybody stares at you, everybody says ‘hello’ and you really are the absolute centre of attention. I had middle aged women ask to have their photo taken with me, everybody it seemed would ask us where we were from, and children would mob us either to practice their English or just because they wanted to shake a ‘foreigners’ hand. I’ve never experienced anything like it. We must have had our photo taken with 100 different people (maybe more) who had randomly approached us asking to either practice their English, or purely because they wanted a photo with the blonde haired blue eyed Englishman, and his ‘Chinese’ girlfriend.
Apparently the only westerners that the locals get to see are usually either staying in 5* hotels, visiting shopping malls or driving around in their chauffeur driven Mercedes. To see a westerner close up and be able to talk to and touch them is quite a novelty for them. Yes I really did have people come up to me, squeeze my arm or shoulder (as if to check I was real), smile, and then run away. It sounds ridiculous but we almost felt like ‘humanitarians’ at times, like when you see a clip of Bono going to Africa and meeting the kids. It was like that. We tried our best to reciprocate their friendliness and kindness.
The locals couldn’t seem to comprehend why we were visiting Jakarta. They told us to go to Bali or Lombok as they were of the opinion that we’d have a much better time there. The beauty in visiting Jakarta was not the tourist sights or monuments – it was about absorbing the place and just taking it all in. It was so wildly different to any place I have ever visited before. Besides, we had just spent a few days on a beautiful South-East Asian beach surrounded by westerners – and we wanted to escape. Bali or Lombok, as beautiful as I’m sure they are – they’re not on our list of places to visit for the time-being. To me, beaches are beaches wherever you go.
Lost in Jakarta
On the Sunday afternoon we hopped into a taxi and requested the driver take us to ‘Chinatown’, which we didn’t think was that far away. After maybe half an hour driving down a motorway we realised the driver obviously hadn’t understood what we meant by ‘Chinatown’. We tried to signal for him to turn-around and take us back but he merely laughed, said something in Indonesian, and carried on driving. This continued for another 25 minutes or so before we finally managed to get him to stop and drop us off at a McDonalds motorway service station somewhere outside of Jakarta. We literally had no idea where we were. It was quite comical, if not a little worrying as to how an earth we were going to get back. Luckily for us there was free internet in McDonalds so we asked a Policeman to show us where in the world we were, and how to get back. We managed to hop into another taxi and fortunately the driver understood a little English, so he did eventually take us to ‘Chinatown’. Except it wasn’t really a Chinatown. We now have first hand experience as to why Wikitravel should not always be trusted!
We have realised that nothing ever goes to plan for us whatever we do! Wherever we go, something will always go wrong – usually because of our own stupidity and naiveness. The total cost for our troubles though (for 2 hours riding in a taxi around Jakartas motorways) – a whole £12. It could have been a lot, lot worse. We will certainly be conducting more planning and research on future trips.
Call to Prayer
The call to prayer was infuriating at times. At 4:30am every morning we were awoken by the Islamic call to prayer. It didn’t just last for a minute or two. Sometimes it went on for 15-20 minutes and BOY! It was noisy. I’ve visited Turkey numerous times, and never had a problem. In Indonesia though – it’s so LOUD. It’s part and parcel of Indonesian culture, and we were guests in the country so we cannot complain to much. Saying that, it still didn’t stop us from cursing as we were awoken every night!
Insane Security and Moderate Muslims
The security was something else. Once again, I have never seen anything like it. All cars would be searched before approaching any shopping malls or major hotels everywhere. We got a taxi to the Hyatt Hotel as we wanted to check out the more affluent part of town. The level of security was insane. You’d think we were trying to get into the White House or something. They had barricades and armed guards searching our bags and the boot whilst we were still in the taxi. They let us through eventually and I had to visit the bathroom. To get into the hotel was like passing through Airport Security all over again. I didn’t mind, especially as the whole purpose is to keep tourists safe, but it was quite an eye-opener. Even in Yogyakarta, which is a small city – it was much the same.
Why you may ask?
There have been a whole 5 bombings in Indonesia in the last 10 years.
Many Indonesians asked if we were concerned for our safety. They seemed relatively surprised when we re-assured them that we were not. The Bali bombings have decimated Indonesian Tourism. We were informed that Yogyakarta has seen a 60% decline in foreign tourists since the attacks in 2002. I got the impression that the story is much the same across the whole country. Before travelling, we read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice for Indonesia warning of the ‘extreme risks’ and ‘impending likelihood of a terrorist attack’ etc… I can’t help but feel like 5 bombings in 10 years in a nation of 240 million people spread over 17,000 odd Islands with the worlds biggest Islamic population does not justify Indonesia being brandished a hot bed for extremists or terrorism. Of course that warning exists for a reason, but I never felt the danger was any greater than it would have been had we been in London or New York. In fact I’m pretty sure you’re probably more likely to find yourself in harm’s way in London or New York than you are in Indonesia (with the exception of the roads).
I can honestly tell you I see far more Burkhas walking around the streets of Leicester and the cities of England, than I did in my entire week in Indonesia. I could count the number of Burkhas I saw on one hand. Obviously a lot of women wore the traditional Islamic headscarves and dress, but not Burkhas. I found that very interesting.
Everybody seemed very eager to re-assure us that they were not fanatical extremists, they may be Muslim, but they are no different to you and me. Several people we met were particularly keen to express this. The issue certainly appears to be playing on the national conscience. Millions of Indonesians have suffered hardship as a result of the sharp decline in tourism in recent years due to the actions of a handful of mindless idiots.
It seemed to be a subject of great national shame and hurt that westerners may consider their country to be dangerous, and the people ‘extremist’. They really beamed at us when we re-assured them we felt perfectly safe and were well aware that 99% of the population are just ordinary people trying to make their way in life, just like you and I.
Poverty – The Biggest Issue
The biggest problem we encountered was the poverty. Being the only white people on the street means that people assume you are rich, and compared to them – we are. Unfortunately that meant it seemed like everybody wanted to sell us something. Most people were just trying to earn a living, but some would really try to guilt trip you into buying something. One rickshaw driver asked us;
“Please, please ride with me. I have no business for two weeks. I have no money to feed my family”
I mean, what can you say to that?
We were well aware that he was probably telling the truth and desperate. At the same time though, he was probably going to want £2 or so and we only needed to walk for another 400 odd metres to where we were going. We were already spending lot’s of money, and we had already paid above average prices for things or items that we didn’t even want purely out of guilt.
It raises the question of where do you draw the line?
We were spending money locally as it was. We couldn’t afford to give to everybody, we’re not a charity, and we don’t have the means to solve their problems. If we were to give money to everybody that makes us feel guilty, then it would only encourage them to continue playing on our consciences. After all, we were on holiday and I can’t imagine too many tourists enjoy being put in such a situation on a regular basis.
One moment in Jakarta remains etched in my memory. We needed a bottle of water, there was an old couple working as street vendors obviously earning very little money. The lady asked for 2000 Rupiah a bottle (25p). I thought I gave her a 2000 Rupiah note. When I passed her the note she paused for a second, and smiled very graciously towards us. We walked away and turned around a few seconds later to see her standing up and hugging her husband in absolute delight. We’d only given her a 20,000 Rupiah note by mistake (about £1.70). We could live without the money, but this old lady and her husband seemed so happy we were hardly going to ask for it back. So we walked off, feeling good about our unintentional good deed for the day.
We preferred Malaysia to Indonesia. Our reason? As awful as it sounds – purely because the people weren’t as poor. The poverty wasn’t so obvious and we didn’t have to worry about being hassled when walking down the street all the time. Despite this though, 95% of people took no for an answer straight away and were very gracious and courteous despite us declining their offers.
In contrast to most Europeans, Indonesians think very highly of English people. For some reason we have a particularly good reputation amongst them and they seemed to have a soft spot for our ‘great land’. As I mentioned before – they love to talk football so if you are an Englishman who loves football and are planning on visiting Java – you will make plenty of friends amongst the locals. We didn’t meet any other Brits during our stay, so I assume we are a rare breed outside of Bali.
Indonesia is a fascinating place. If you want to experience a totally different culture and country that isn’t over-run by tourists, then I would totally recommend it to you. It’s not for the faint hearted – it would seem infrastructure and tourist information are limited outside of Lombok and Bali. I can tell you now however, that Indonesians are wonderful people. They were lovely to us and incredibly grateful for us spending money and time in their country. Most of them went out of their way to make us feel welcome. The people we met, the conversations we had and the places we saw will remain on my mind for a long, long time. It was a memorable end to a fantastic holiday.
Will we be visiting again?