Jakarta — Not So Mangled After All
A long train ride and a few days in Jakarta.
Jakarta – the political, commercial, and pop-cultural capital of Indonesia. Until last week, Jakarta was a place that I had only seen on maps, on TV screens, and in my imaginations conjured up by others’ descriptions.
Most of the things I’d head about Jakarta were not flattering. It’s a bit tired to complain about a city’s traffic and congestion, but Jakarta has the antecdotes and statistics to suggest it’s really bad. Though I’m not sure what it means exactly, there is a projection floating around that by 2025 (or something), there will be so many cars in the city that there literally wont be room for them all. This is a mind-blowing prediction even if, and partially because, it’s a little unclear (the footprint area of vehicles will be greater than the area of paved roads, or what?). There’s also the occasional suggestion to move Indonesia’s government to Kalimantan to alleviate the crowdedness in Jakarta. And finally, there’s the rumor that Jakarta’s airport is so over trafficked that the control tower occasionally loses and mixes signal transmissions from departing and arriving aircraft. I heard this last assertion for the first time at a most disturbing point in my weekend trip to the city (keep reading). The most flattering sale of Jakarta I ever got was, “It’s like any other big city,” which may or may not be encouraging depending on your opinion of big cities.
Given all this, did I want to see Jakarta? Go to Jakarta? Despite the one-sided accounts, I didn’t feel strongly about an answer either way. I was curious to know how Indonesia’s biggest and baddest stacked up to the big cities of back home. In the back of my mind, I knew I would eventually end up in Jakarta for one reason or another, so I decided to wait for an opportunity to arise. I explained to one volunteer that I wanted to see Jakarta like I’d want to see a mangled arm after an accident. I wouldn’t really want to look, but I wouldn’t be able to help it either. When a group of Volunteers posted information on the Adidas King of the Road foot-race in Jakarta, I deemed it a good excuse to head across Java and take a peek at the capital.
The rest of this post is an account of my weekend in Jakarta. The intent is to tell you my brief experience with the city as well as a few other stories that convey a few aspects of my life in Indonesia. Here are the basics: The race was scheduled for Sunday September 16 at 5:30am. I left my site Thursday evening. I’ll tell you when I returned later.
Twenty Hours on a Train (Actually More, but I’m Trying To Forget That)
I decided to travel by train for my trip to Jakarta. Uninterested in spending money, desensitized to long travel times, and still enthralled by the magic of train rides, I booked a Friday afternoon economy class train ticket from Surabaya to Jakarta. Economy class. The train would roll along its rails for seventeen hours and put me into the city Saturday morning. After a day to see the city and relax, I could race Sunday morning, spend another afternoon in Jakarta, and take the train home on Monday morning to arrive back at site Tuesday afternoon. I planned to use another train to take me between my site and Surabaya.
The train was the only option I really considered for travel to Jakarta. The other options were bus or plane. In my opinion, you would have to be absolutely insane to choose the bus over the train for such a long haul. The bus is more time consuming and subject to more delays. It costs around Rp300.000, approximately equivalent with a business class train for less comfort. Flying would certainly be the easiest option, but it doesn’t possess the same romance for me as traveling by rail. When I looked into prices, the deal was sealed for the train. Economy train tickets from Surabaya to Jakarta were a mere Rp38.000 (IDR to USD) while plane tickets cost above Rp400.000. It is true that the plane would be fifteen and a half hours faster than rail, but the good ol’ American notion that ‘Time is Money’ sort of means nothing to me now. Because of this, I was not able to make a calculation to determine the real value of each option. The fact of the matter was that one option fit the constraints of my normal monthly budget, and the other did not. For further comparrison, the train that took me between my site and Surabaya was only six hours, but it’s Business Class and the cost is Rp85.000. By comparing the costs of the two legs, you have an idea for how cheap this Jakarta train ride is – it’s scary cheap. But I was not scared to take it.
I’d taken a thirteen hour economy class ride from Surabaya to Bandung, so I knew what to expect, and I knew that there was not too much to fear. ‘Economy train’ conjures up horrid images of suffering for most people, but Indonesia’s economy trains really aren’t that bad. Everyone must have a ticket, and everyone gets an assigned seat. The seats are rows of benches that alternate facing forwards and backwards so that they are grouped together to sort of form booths that fit four or six depending on what side of the aisle you are on. The bench-style seating means you might run thighs with your neighbor, but they’re spacious enough and padded. Sitting on a throne for seventeen hours wouldn’t be fun, so what’s the difference if you’re assigned to a bench instead? The benches also make sleeping arrangements a little more manageable as Indonesian trains do not have sleeper cars (per se). As I’ll explain in a few paragraphs, people get creative in their sleeping positions to make up for this fact.
Another common worry during extended travel is comfort in regards to temperature. Sometimes you actually get AC on the economy trains, and other times it’s only a fan. Often, however, you get stuck with neither, but the cabin temperature stays comfortable while the train whips through the countryside with the windows open. The only danger is that you get stuck next to a window facing the sun or if the train rests, immobile, at a station for an extended period of time. All concerns regarding temperature, however, are soon to be expelled as Kereta Api has promised that all Economy class trains will have AC starting January 2013. I’ve seen Kereta Api improve considerably in the eighteen months I’ve been here, so I expect their plans to be manifested on schedule.
The “It’s a Small World of Java”
Trains are like the “It’s A Small World” ride of Java. This is one of the reasons I like the train. There are always a wide variety of people parked in their seats. Most of them are relatively motionless and quiet, but their clothing and collection of items tell a small story. With seven cars times one-hundred-and-six passengers per car, there are a lot of stories to tell. I notice that a lot of people travel in groups, which makes the booth arrangments quite nice. Some groups and individuals travel light and are obviously traveling as visitors to or from their destination. Other groups have carts and carts of luggage with them suggesting their travel might be permanent. Amongst these groups and individuals, all varieties of dress are present from traditional Javanese kain and kopiahs, to conservative Muslim dress including the burqa, and down to the Westernized styles – the most popular of which, amongst teenagers, would probably fit into the ‘hipster’ category of North American fashion. There are other styles as well; the man sitting on the bench across from me was wearing a blue oxford shirt, pants, and sandles – which, coincidentally, is exactly what I was wearing.
As the hours got late, the train also turned into the world’s most compact exhibition of human sleeping positions. Nothing shocks me now, but a few of the positions I witnessed seemed improbable at the time. I had a hard time getting comfortable myself, and I envied the group travelers who could take more liberty in negotiating the full volume of the booth and their neighbor’s shoulder and lap. Since I couldn’t sleep myself, I decided to take note of the variety of sleepign positions that were being employed. Here are six common methods for getting comfortable on a train in Indonesia:
- Lie on the ground parrallel to your set of benches where people put their feet. Put down newspaper as a sort of tarp lying between you and the dirty floor. Your legs will likely stick out into the aisle but this is nothing to be concerned about.
- Lie on the ground perpendicular to your set of benches so that most of your body is under a bench. Put down newspaper as a sort of tarp lying between you and the dirty floor. (It took me a while to notice this one because only the passenger’s torso is visible from above).
- Simply lie down on your bench. This is only possible on empty trains or if your travel mates have deserted their bench in favor of one of the first two methods. It is perfectly acceptable to let your feet protrude into the aisle.3A – (I am too tall to pull off option #3 in its simplest form, but I could follow another lead, which is…) Put your feet and legs up on the window and lie down on the bench. This is a necessary strategy for tall passengers wishing to execute option #3.3B – (It is also acceptable to…) Lie down on your bench, extend your legs all the way across the aisle, and rest your calves and feet on the next bench. (I’ve hurdled numerous people employing this method).
- Sit in your seat with your legs out and resting on the bench opposite from you. This is easily accomplished if the bench across from you is empty, but it can still be pulled off in a full booth given the appropriate levels of cooperation. (I call this the LA-Z-BOY approach).
- Simply sit in your seat and pass out.
- Lie in the aisle. Put down newspaper as a sort of tarp lying between you and the dirty floor. Try to find a space near the door where the aisle is slightly wider to avoid being an inconvenience.
Creativity is a must for sound sleeping, and it is often necessary for one traveling group to weave together several methods in order to make everyone comfortable. Babies and children can often be squeezed in places like parts of a jigsaw puzzle. My favorite solution to the baby situation was the hammock crib. One family tied a sarong from the luggage rack hanging above their booth. The sarong made a hammock-like capsule, and it looked quite comfortable stuffed with a blanket and pillow. The baby inside had one leg dangling out of the hammock but looked sound asleep.
I didn’t sleep on the train. I attempted methods #4 and #5 for a few hours, but I was mostly awake. The only lasting memories are (1) sitting on the ground next to the rear door eating corn-on-the-cob at 2am, and (2) talking in the diner car with the train attendant who showed me how he records when the train arrives to and departs each station.
It’s Only Appropriate that I Delayed Finishing the Story About How the Train Ride was Really Long – Longer than it was Supposed to be or Had to be
Kereta Api, according to me, has an incredibly good track record for timeliness and reliability, but there was a small incident on this venture. Two hours outside of Jakarta, we seemed to be taking an extended stop at a smaller station. Nobody boarded, and nobody seemed to alight either. Business and Executive class trains whipped by. Fellow passengers told me, “Don’t worry; this is Indonesia. Things are late. We just need to let the Business class train pass us.” Though the first two statements were true, it was pretty clear to me that the later explanation was invalid. The trains are scheduled to run in order, so it would make no sense to let a number of Business class trains pass us. I hopped off the train after thirty minutes and discovered that our engine had broken down. After waiting three hours for a new locomotive, we were on our way to Jakarta. By the time I arrived in Jakarta, I had spent twenty hours – most of it awake – on the Gaya Baru and, previously, six hours on the Mutiara Malam. I was tired of the trains. When I exited the station, a hoard of becak, bajal, and ojek drivers offered me their services. “I’ve been on that train for twenty hours, I’d rather walk.” The final two kilometers to the hotel by foot were quite welcome.
BSD City Green Office Park
The race venue was the true puzzle of the weekend. The official host for the South East Asia Adidas King of the Road series in Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand were, respectively, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Bangkok – the recognizable choices. Indonesia was a bit difference. The host was BSD City, which was apparently located in Jakarta according to later text on the web page. The website had directions to BSD City but no further directions to the registration and race venue, BSD Green City Park. This led our group – Bart, Shane, Joey, and Liz – to assume that BSD City was a relatively small and navigable district of Jakarta. We had to pick up our registration packets the day before the race, so we left our hotel at noon on Saturday to do just that.
As it turns out BSD City is a suburban development complex an hour to the north west of Jakarta Raya (Central Jakarta). After an hour long train ride and an angkot ride, we were in BDS City – or at least what appeared to be the northern entrance to the city. The driver didn’t know Green Office Park, so he dropped us off at a collection of shopping centers next to a fancy “BSD City” sign in the median. None of the businesses near by knew Green Office Park either. It became apparent that finding Green Office Park would be like finding a specific business in a suburb like Farmers Branch or Adison. There were no other options than to start a wild goose chase, and we decided to make our way back to an Adidas outlet store we spotted from the angkot. We walked a kilometer back to the store.
The Adidas outlet store did not have the registration packets, but they pointed us in the general direction of Green City Park. We proceeded to walk over five kilometers in the direction we had come from. Along the way, only two people were able to help us with directions to Green Office Park. The venue turned out to be on the other side of a housing complex about a kilometer or two down from the main strip. There was no way we would have just found this place, and we wondered why the website provided no specific directions. By the time we got our packets picked up and were ready to leave, it was five o’clock. We were glad we had embarked on the ordeal that afternoon because the races started at five thirty the next morning. Had we waited until the morning of the race to pick up our packets, we wouldn’t have made it in time to start.
The Taxi Bargain
After finally getting registration taken care of, we hopped in a taxi to take us back to the train station. Someone through out the suggestion of biting the bullet and taking the taxi the full thirty eight kilometers back to our hotel in the Pasar Senen district of Jakarta. Earlier that morning, hotel staff told us a taxi straight to BSD City would cost around Rp200.000. We were weary to pay such a price, but we were also beat. We decided to at least entertain the idea and asked the driver how much he would estimate the price at. He replied Rp60-70.000 but that he was only guessing. We feared he was playing a shrewd game of lowballing the estimation to lure us into a Rp200.000+ metered fare. After discussing amongst ourselves quickly, we decided to offer Rp100.000 for a flat, unmetered rate back to the hotel. The driver went for the offer so long as we added Rp7.000 for the toll road, which passengers are responsible for on metered trips anyways.
It took an hour to get back by cab. The ride was full of emotional swings. We went from first thinking we had struck a golden deal to then feeling as if we had been played and that the driver had known a way all along to get us back for well under Rp100.000. He kept the meter running – presumably to justify hours and kilometers spent driving in-case his day was audited later – so were able to watch the progress of the deal we had struck. At one point, we ended up winding through small roads and alleys that seemed like unlikely routes back to our destination. I began to worry about how I would handle the situation if the driver re-negged on the deal and let the meter go over Rp100.000 – or if he just didn’t know where he was going.
As it turns out, the deal we had struck was right on. We pulled up to the hotel with Rp96.300 totalled on the meter. We paid our Rp100.000 and alighted. We laughed at our poor negotiating skills since the drivers initial estimate was Rp60-70.000. It was a clever move on our part to go ahead and offer more [sarcasm]. As a post note, we took a cab to and from the race complex the next morning. We opted for metered fares both times, and the total charge ended up being around Rp150.00 each. Our only conclusion was that our unlikely route from the previous day must have been the result of the driver’s challenge to find a cheaper way.
Mexican Independence Day
The evening before the race was also improbable. If there’s any food I miss from America, it’s Mexican food. I’m not the only Volunteer who feels that way, so we decided as a group to take advantage of Jakarta’s wider variety in cuisine. Shane looked up a place called Hacienda.
The place was pretty full when we got there. There were no tables, but the staff invited us to stand in the court yard as we waited. Soon afterwards, a bartender approached us if we’d like anything to drink. Hesitant to spend money on alcohol before we knew if we were going to stick around for dinner, we declined. To our surprise, he insisted the drinks were free in celebration of Independence Day. We could choose between Jose Cuervo or Bintang. That was not a tough decision and we were soon served five Jose Cuervo’s. These weren’t small sample glasses. They were regular, twelve ounce bottles of Jose Cuervo. The free drink offer extended to margaritas as well and lasted until nine p.m. We all agreed, considering the race the next day, it was a good thing we hadn’t arrived to the restaurant until eighty-thirty.
Hacienda’s real treat came after we were seated. Though I had joked it wouldn’t happen earlier in the cab, our waiter brought out complimentary chips and salsa. This is a requirement at U.S. Mexican restaurants, but I’ve noticed that the culture doesn’t usually transfer across borders. Hacienda, however, was certified legitimate American Mexican food. I couldn’t believe it. To top if off, my enchilades, beans, and rice exceeded expectations – they were flat out delicious. I really couldn’t believe it. It’s also only fair to mention that this might be the most expensive meal I’ve had in Indonesia. It cost me Rp150.00 – almost four times as much as the train ticket that brought me all the way across the island.
As our meal wound down, I challenged Bart to look around the restaurant and identify clues that we were in Indonesia. The only dead give-aways were the two Bintang bottles on the table next to ours. There was also a motorcycle helmet hooked around a railing behind a table, but that was only a reminder of Indonesia – not a dead give away. Other than that, evidence was scarce. The Javanese ‘ethnicity’ is very diverse physiologically. There are a wide variety of facial structures. Hair ranges from stick-straight to curly. Eye and skin tones range from tanned to deep chocolate browns. Psychologists say that even if you spend time in a culture that is not diverse ethnically, you will become more perceptive of differences, but the variation of Indonesian appearances struck me from my first moments in Indonesia. The history of the island shouldn’t make the variety a surprise either. Some Indonesian facial structures and hair textures remind me of Latino appearances from back home. For this reason, it was hard to tell whether the employees and customers were Indonesians or expatriates of Latino heritage. One man who I decided was definitely Indonesian surprised me by walking on to the dance floor and doing a salsa. He was wearing cowboy boots. Who knows?
BSD Green Office Park was already on our Radar when we rolled out of bed at 03.03h Sunday morning. We got in a cab and arrived at the venue with no problems. Over five thousand people were registered for this race, but it didn’t feel too crowded. It was well run and organized. The area around the start line was not like the Indonesia I knew in any respect, and I felt like I could have been at home. The 16.8km went off first, followed ten minutes later by the 10k, and sometime later by the 5k. The course was nice – all on city roads – with some small, rolling hills to keep things interesting. I paid little attention to things beyond the pavement and the people around me, but I think most of the surrounding land was undeveloped, still waiting contractors. One building project caught everyone’s attention: a castle or church like structure that had a fancy sign that read “MAIN GATE” (in English) over the driveway.
There’s not much else to say about the race. It was fun to run with a large group of people and have the motivation to run fast. There was also complimentary bananas and chocolate milk afterwards.
A Quick Change of Heart
I was not looking forward to the train rideof seventeen plus hours back home. I don’t think the romance of trains has been lost, but fourty hours in one week now seemed a bit much. Obviously, there was the length. But I also couldn’t leave until the next morning. Realizing I had nothing left to do in Jakarta and a basketball tournament to catch in Genteng, I verbally stated to the group I was thinking about joining their ranks and flying back to Surabaya. Bart helped me search for airfare online and found tickets as low as Rp370.000 for later that afternoon. Two other carriers had tickets for less than Rp420.000. Flying out that afternoon meant I would save Rp200.000 on the hotel, making the plane ticket even more affordable and attractive. I decided that I would swallow the Rp38.000 I had already spent on the return train ticket and fly back home.
The seating chart for the Citilink flight showed that only nine tickets had been sold. We all laughed and revelled in my fortune and the ease of flying in Indonesia. Since I was told online booking for several of the airlines is often spotty, I decided I’d just buy the ticket at the airport. I left the hotel with Joey, who had a 16.20h flight later that afternoon on Batavia Air. My plan was to check the schedule and prices for Batavia, Air Asia, Citilink, and Lion.
When we got to the airport, I realized that different carriers’ ticketing booths were in different wings of the airport and could not be travelled between easily. I should have known this, but air travel and airports are a world I had forgotten about. I got off at the Batavia terminal with Joey. Citilink was also there, and I walked to their counter first since they had the cheaper online fares. To my alarm, the price at the counter was marked up from Rp370.000 to Rp590.000. Somewhat panicked, I thanked the teller and walked over to the Batavia counter. Batavia’s tickets were not much cheaper – up from Rp415.000 to Rp555.000. I assume the increased price was because the airline had already trapped me at the airport. I doubt that the supply and demand curve had changed that much since I checked the internet listings. I began to regret the hubris of not even attempting to purchase a ticket online hours earlier.
I stepped outside and tried to get a hold of one of the Volunteers still in Jakarta, but I got no answer. Feeling burned, I resigned myself to the inflated price. I went back to the Batavia desk and sat down with an open teller, which happened to be different than the one I talked to before. Amazingly, this woman offered me a ticket for Rp425.000, and I agreed to the deal immediately.
High on my re-found fortune and rusty in the field of airport travel, I waltzed up to the terminal entrance with the fancy envelope that contained my ticket. The woman at the check-point asked if I had a boarding pass. “What?” “Did you already get your boarding pass?” “Boarding pass?” “Yes, this is a ticket. Where is your boarding pass?” “Oh ya.” I went back to the check in counter to get my boarding pass and returned to the check-point and then passed through security. There are worse mistakes to be made in terms of proper departure documents at airports, but I let myself chuckle at my own forgetfullness. (It should be noted that I didn’t show any identification once during this process).
While we waited for the plane, Joey enlightened me on the overload of flights into and out of Jakarta airports and that this led to communication occasionally being lost in the control tower. It was a good time to learn these things. Another thing could not escape my mind: How did I get the cheaper deal for that flight? I couldn’t come up with a single rational explanation, and I still can’t. I became even more confounded when Joey and I ended up chatting with an Indonesian man who was waiting for the same flight. He spoke decent English and worked on a ship. He had been to Houston and his ship left from Semarang – not a destination I imagine being popular for cruise liners – so I concluded he worked on a commercial vessel, probably a tanker. The real interesting part of my encounter with this man was that he lamented the price of his ticket. “The ticket is expensive. More than five hundred thousand Rupiah. I had to buy today. Ah man.” “You bought it here, at the airport?” “Ya. Ah man. Expensive.” I’m glad I went back in that second time.
The Trip Back Home
The rest of the way home was uneventful, which is to say good. The plane left an hour late, but we landed by 18.30h – this is Sunday evening, remember. After a taxi ride straight to the bus terminal, I was on a bus to Jember in no time. From there I caught another bus back to site. I got home around 02.15h on Monday morning – more than twenty four hours earlier than my original plans would have put me home.
I left Jakarta with a pretty good impression. It was, as people say, “just like any other big city,” but it still had the Indonesian flare – ojeks, bakso carts, etc. I kept looking for the horid traffic, but I couldn’t find it. People tell me about Jakarta is that many of its residents escape to Bandung and Gogor for the weekends. This must have been the case because I did not find Jakarta too crowded There were a few interesting statues around the city – the big bronze kinds that seemed to be about independence and nationalism. MONAS – the Monument Nasional that is a large white obelisk – also looked pretty neat lit up with different colors at night. The people were friendly enough as well and made navigating the city easy. It turns out I didn’t have to be so nervous about peeking at a mangled arm after all.