Jakarta probably defines the word "multicultural" as well as any city I've ever visited. The island Java alone has several different languages, cuisines, and architectures. Add to that the influences of Chinese and Japanese immigration, Arab influence (who brought Islam with them in the 15th century), and the various western colonists (particularly the Portuguese and Dutch), and you have a rich variety of world cultures all converging on one fast-growing capital. These manifest themselves in many ways, from the dining room table to the driving habits to the home lifestyle. I found these aspects so fascinating I felt it was worth devoting a subchapter on the sights and sounds (and food and parking) of this interesting city.
I begin with life at home. I stayed with a Jakarta family that lived in a typical neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. The first photo shows one of the streets -- laden on both sides with palm trees and loaded with push carts. Most of the homes were row-houses, single family with two floors, minimal facilities with a gated porch for the cars (car theft is a big problem in Jakarta).
The interior of the houses had some quirks that took getting used to. For example, the bathroom is a shower stall (literally a "water closet"). The shower head simply hangs in the middle of the bathroom, and to take a shower you merely close the door. Also, the Javanese do not do toilet paper. Instead, there is a bucket of water and a plastic ladle. I leave the rest to your imagination. Air conditioning is not uncommon, but usually restricted to just a few rooms. Older folks don't use it much at all, but the younger folk who tend to own more electronic gadgets rely on it more. Newer homes in the outer suburban reaches are being built with central air.
The streets are very narrow and often crammed with cars and mopeds (especially mopeds, more on that later), but the push carts were most fascinating to me. Throughout the day, especially the morning and evening, Javanese men will patrol the streets with their push carts selling food. Each cart had its own unique recorded jingle -- some innocuous, some annoying. Often times, my breakfast would come from the food sold from these carts.
Unlike western cultures, the Javanese do not differentiate much between foods eaten in the morning versus the evening. The second photo shows one of my breakfasts, for example. These dishes included (bottom left) deep-fried bananas dipped in rice-flour batter, (top) mixed vegetables with chicken, (bottom right) beef and beef liver chunks with snow peas, potatoes, and boiled bird eggs. Other common items were dried salted fish and "ramen"-style noodles fried with vegetables. Of course, this was all served with generous amounts of steamed rice.
Except for the bananas, everything tended to be spicy, and the Javanese typically use liberal amounts of chili sauces or chili-based condiments (such as the dish at upper left). Being of Irish descent, and therefore accustomed to bland diets, this took some getting used to. I also found that the Javanese tended to dry their meats in the process of preparing dishes. For example, the beef in most dishes I tried had the consistency of jerky. I believe that this ensured any unwanted bacteria in the meat was gone, that western-style juicy meats probably retained. Hence, I noted a significant difference in how my digestive system reacted between home-cooked Javanese meals and westernized restaurant fare.
Speaking of westernized restaurants, there are plenty of them. McDonald's and KFC are fairly common, and Jakarta has its own collection of pizzerias, etc. Shopping malls, such as the one shown in the third photo, have huge food courts that contain about a dozen different cuisines.
Shopping malls are not that new to Indonesia. As shown in the Golden Triangle subchapter, the shopping mall of Passer Baroe was founded originally by the Dutch a couple centuries ago. Markets like it have been around Jakarta long before. Unlike the photographed mall, most Jakarta malls resemble factory outlets, mazes of hallways passing by tiny stores, each specializing in one thing. Meanwhile, "traditional" Asian markets are scattered throughout the city. These were claustrophobic, crammed, and noisy -- and a lot of fun.
Religion is a very important aspect of Javanese life, and I found out first hand what it meant when it is said that the Indonesian variety of Islam is moderate and tolerant. As also reported in the Golden Triangle subchapter, Jakarta's grand Isqitlal Mosque and the Dutch Catholic Cathedral are across the street from each other in the city center. The city government decorated Jakarta with Javanese-style Christmas decorations (such as the one in the fourth photo). It is common for citizens of Jakarta to convert from Christianity to Islam, or Islam to Christianity, without a second thought. Intermarriages between Muslims and Christians are not uncommon, and usually don't present problems.
One thing I did notice was that Javanese Catholics were very passionate about their faith. The church where I attended Mass had not one, not two, but 21 different choirs that rotated among the Masses each three weeks! I watched how many of them prayed in front of the Madonna or Jesus after Mass, and it was clear to me that many of them identified with Him on a personal level. The strength and influence of the Catholic community was very strong, with lots of activities.
The next thing I'll present about Jakarta had to do with the subculture of the penny economy, and this is where "parking" came in. There were a large number of youths who patrolled the streets performing functions that were neither necessary nor perhaps even legal, collecting 100 Rupiah coins (roughly one US cent) as fees or tips. At busy intersections (as the Javanese are busy ignoring the road signs), these youths will block traffic for you and allow you to pass. The fee = 100 Rupiah. If you must park, which can be a chore, these youths will ground guide you in and ground guide you out. The fee = 100 Rupiah each time, but if in a parking lot the ground guides are uniformed hired hands and the fee is 1,000 Rupiah instead. At other intersections, youths will go from car to car singing and strumming a guitar. Well, I wouldn't call it singing or strumming, more like holding a guitar and wiping his hands across the strings to make noise while chanting a string of randomly selected syllables (usually la, di, or da) in various keys. Occasionally, the strummer will have a second youth who merely claps his hands to time and sings different random syllables about a half-note off. After five seconds, you donate 100 Rupiahs so he (or they) will leave.
Kidding aside, this is how a number of families subsist -- one penny at a time. In a typical day, these youths will make just enough to buy food and clothing to make it through the day. I suspected that territorial battles were not infrequent, as some intersections would have been quite lucrative.
Finally, I'll make a point about Jakarta's public transportation system. Don't!
Jakarta was a fun city to visit, especially because I loved the opportunity to immerse myself in the culture and see what living there was really like. The sights and sounds of the city were very different from just about anything I've experienced before, and the exposure to it made my trip much more rewarding.
Trip taken 29 December 2002 through 03 January 2003 -- Page last updated 28 October 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin