Jakarta, Indonesia. After ten minutes of waiting for the light to switch from red to green, I realize what everyone else already knows. This traffic light is a decoration, not a trailblazer. Because the locals walk into the street with no hesitation, firmly holding up their hand as a signal to the approaching vehicles that they need to slow down, all while I watch. Never before have I seen cars decelerate from 80 kph to stand still in such short distances, and this is the custom here… Once again I’m prompted that western mindsets you’ll have to check in along with your luggage at the airport and pick up on your way home if you want to get ahead in the outside world.
I’m standing in one of the many turmoiled streets of old town Jakarta. Walking around this historical area where greenery grows throughs cracks in the old edifices and broken windows form hollow-like eyes into the old houses is like walking through an outdoor museum. The torn off balcony doors and the palpable silence as you bypass some of these old landmarks are unnoticeably eerie, yet strikingly beautiful. The white-washed houses, the adobe rooftops; all remnants of the Dutch colonial era a few centuries back. A mesmerizing experience in a place like Jakarta, because there’s no point in trying to deny that this city is by far not the most exciting place on earth. However, in saying that, beauty and enchantment can be found in the most unexpected of places. If you just look up.
I learn this as I’m desperately trying to discern left from right on my phone when suddenly I feel a poke on my shoulder. When I look up, I see a tiny man standing in front of me, and with a friendly but almost toothless smile he says ”Jon”! I shake his hand, and we introduce ourselves. Jon claims to be 27 years old but doesn’t look a day older than 45, and wonders if I would like him to show me around? He explains how he’s witnessed me almost get run over in my attempts to cross the road, and eventhough I’m inclined to say no at first, I let myself persuade into getting on the back of his motorbike. Live a little; I think to myself.
It’s the same kind of chaos in traffic here as anywhere in developing Asia, although people here are rather polite behind the wheel. The deafening sound of car horns isn’t at all too bad here, and if you look closely at the moving vehicles, they’re not that dent. Regardless, having experienced the Southeast Asians traffic I would never have said yes to going by motorbike if I hadn’t realized that going by car, is not the way to get around this city. The constant traffic jam prohibits speeds above 50 kph, and it get’s tiresome a lot quicker. Motorcycles, on the other hand, can efficiently zigzag in between the slow moving vehicles, and save a lot of time. When in Rome, do as the Romans.
As we go, Jon tells me he’s an autodidact, having managed to learn not only English but also Italian and as he says it himself ”a little Japanese” without ever having been to school. He does speak decent English, but I soon realize that his translatable knowledge about the many attractions we pass by don’t go beyond me answering either yes or no. Occasional requests for elaboration are met with silence. But that’s alright; the information his stories comprise is fix enough for my curious mind as we speed through Jakarta. Factual stories about the buildings we pass by and the histories they hold, along with personal anecdotes related to them. He explains that regardless of his prominent language skills he will never get a real job without having been to school, and that’s how the system goes in Indonesia. Oh, bureaucracy.
Sitting on the bak of Jon’s motorbike it hits me that Jakarta is just a Muslim version of Bangkok. Indonesia is a Muslim country, and most of the people you see on the streets are wearing quite strait-laced attires, revealing next to nothing. No knees, no shoulders. But despite this Puritan way of life people are jovial and courteous, and that’s where the similarity can be found. You feel welcomed here, even though very few can communicate beyond hand gestures and facial expressions. Important to take note on.
We dash about the most obvious attractions. The National Monument Monas, a Pentagon-like tower built to commemorate Indonesia’s independence. The rustic antique market in Menteng, Jakarta’s most well-heeled area, where old junk is sold for five times their value. The statue of a young Barack Obama, in front of the school he attended as a young boy from 1969-1971. All of whom places I wouldn’t have cared to visit under my own steam, but who become pleasant experiences in a seasoned guide’s company.
As time is precious we slow down rather than stop in most places, but when we reach one of the highlights of the day I prompt Jon to pull over. The Istiqal Mosque, the largest one in Southeast Asia. An impressive construction I’m dying to get inside, but unfortunately, it is closed today. The gigantic dome and the high-raised minaret is sadly all you can see through the leafy enclosure. But luckily, Jakarta’s greatest Catholic church is located a stone’s throw away, and it’s open today. I’m strangely drawn to religious houses, despite not being religious myself. It’s something about the atmosphere in these rooms I relate so strongly to. The unvoiced respect, the smell of burning candles, the absence of words and presence of silence. I can sit in a place like this for hours, and not because of faith but because of quietude. Jon is a bit more restless than I am, but it’s good for him to look up as well, so we sit for a while.
When Jon drops me in front of my hotel, I’ve learned two things. Firstly, that being forced to stand still for a moment isn’t always a bad thing, and in this stressful world where most of us sometimes tend to have our eyes on the price we also forget to see what takes place around us, and we really shouldn’t. I thank Jon for that, and I make a mental note to remind myself of this now and then. Secondly, that using spf50 in your face doesn’t protect the rest of your body as I’ve taken on a prominent farmer’s tan, with lobster red arms and legs to an alabaster white body and face. Sigh. Well, it’s good to know that there’s always more to learn, even if it sometimes happen the hard way.
PS. Jon’s name is, in reality, something different.