(Wrote this for a Tourism Special Issue of India Today)
“If the tourist has heart disease, infection disease, psychosis disease, stupid diseases. Any disease is forbid to play in it.” Sign in a Jakarta shopping mall.
I tell you it’s not easy. It’s not easy being neighbours with more than forty live volcanoes. It’s not easy being the capital of a country that consists of 17,508 islands. (Okay, so only 6000 of them are inhabited but that’s still 5999 islands too many.) It’s not easy having to make room upwards of 9 million people, 300 ethnic groups (some say 600), 13 rivers, and ten percent of the entire population of humans and cars in Indonesia.
So, you can pardon Jakarta for not being a place that you would describe as pretty.
Overwhelming, maybe. (Jakarta’s population bloats to almost doubles on weekdays.) Extreme, perhaps. (Two million square meters of megamalls stuffed with every brand from Armani to Versace sit cheek-by-jowl with the appalling poverty of the kampungs.). Astonishing. (Jakarta is probably the only place in the world where cobra’s blood is considered a health drink.) Spectacular, even. (Jakarta’s most famous landmark, the National Monument or “Monas” is 450-foot high tower in the centre of the massive 250-acre Meredeka Square. Topped by a giant flame made from 35 kilograms of gold leaf, it was meant to commemorate Indonesian independence. But the locals irreverently call it "Sukarno's last erection," since it was the last monument commissioned by Sukarno, Indonesia's founding father.)
And ever so often, breathtaking. (The view from the top of Monas and from Jakarta’s over-a-hundred skyscrapers.)
But “pretty”? Nah
And that’s no reason to give Jakarta a miss.
To start with, how many places in the world do you know that can trace its history back to… Well, 1.7 million years if you consider the fact that the Java Man, our now extinct ancestor, Homo Erectus lived on the banks of the Bengawan Solo river about 500 hundred miles from Jakarta. But the first record of Jakarta’s existence dates to 397 AD and is the Sanskrit inscription on a memorial stone attributed to king Purnawarman. Except that it was called “Sunda Kelapa” then. Sunda means white, referring to the white ash from volcanic eruptions and kelapa means coconut. And for the almost 1000-year magnificent reign of Hindu kings in the Indonesian archipelago, Sunda Kelapa was important port of call for merchant ships all the way from Arabia, China and Vietnam who came to trade in spices, especially pepper.
The original harbour where those ships docked still stands and is still called Sunda Kelapa and this is where you can see the magnificent Makassar schooners or “pinisi”. The early morning sight of these schooners, some painted in incandescent blues and oranges, poking their long, elegant beak-like prows into the morning mist is one of Jakarta’s most beautiful sights.
The spice trade also brought Islam to Indonesia and by the time the Hindu kingdoms had made way for the Muslim sultanates in the 15th century, the heady scents of Indonesian spices had caught the attention of the Europeans. So, first the Portuguese arrived in 1513. But they didn’t last long, shooed away by the Dutch who made their colonial intentions very clear. To even things out, the local prince allowed in the English – also lurking in the area. Inevitably, the English and the Dutch fought it out, the Dutch won, razing the town – by then called “Jayakarta”- to the ground and building a new one, which they called Batavia (a corruption of Betawi, a local ethnic people). And Jakarta became part of the Dutch East Indies and remained so till the Japanese arrived in 1942.
In all fairness to the Dutch, after the initial hiccups of making it a city so pestilent that it was known as White Man’s Graveyard, Jakarta flourished under their rule, that terrible sobriquet changing to “Queen of the East”. And some of the splendour of that queen can still be seen in Kota, just a few kilometres from Sunda Kelapa, most of it around the once infamous Taman Fatahillah or Fatahillah Square. This is where the Dutch spectacularly flexed their might, publicly flogging, hanging and impaling people. Naturally, the square’s present day avatar is a much more benign – beautifully cobbled and with three of Jakarta’s many museums are around it. On the south side is Jakarta History Museum, a splendid example of Dutch colonial architecture. Its most curious exhibit is a huge bronze Portuguese cannon called Si Jagur, which has at one end a large clenched fist, with the thumb protruding between the index and middle fingers. This is a symbol for sexual intercourse in Indonesia and apparently, childless women rub their tummy on it and sit astride the cannon in the hope of getting pregnant!
West of the square is the Wayang Museum. Wayang is the ancient Javanese art of puppetry and is the Javanese word for shadow or imagination. Here you can see different collections of puppets including the intricately and delicately carved leather puppets used in “wayang kulit” or shadow pupperty, derived from ancient tholu bommalata of Andhra Pradesh. On the east side is the Museum of Fine Arts, once the Dutch Court where all those naughty people were sentenced to be hanged, flogged etc., but now has a collection over 2,000 ceramic pieces which include pottery the Ming and Yuan dynasties.
(Of course, the mama of Jakarta’s museums, the National Museum, is much further inside in Central Jakarta near that impressively phallic-shaped Monas. This is where you can meet the Java man - or least his thighbone and skull cap - and gaze awe-struck at a cache of thirty-five kilograms of 1000-year old silver and gold artefacts that farmers found in 1990 at the foot of Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most ferocious volcano.)
But what if you find museums and Ming vases about as exciting as a fruit fly’s sex life?
It is said that Jakarta’s nightlife is one of the best-kept secrets in Asia - a lavish, no-holds-barred, all-night buffet that goes all the way from sleaze to swish. With lots and lots of karoake bars in between. The throbbing nerve centre is said to be Blok M in South Jakarta and Jalan Jaksa in Central Jakarta has the slightly more sedate, expat-favoured joints. And if you can afford it, there are no dearth of posh hotspots - some in 5-star hotels like Burgundy at the Grand Hyatt where, according to the Lonely Planet guide, there are “more beautiful people than you can shake a lemon daiquiri at”. But two of the most swanky joints also have the most breathtaking views since they are perched atop skyscrapers - Blowfish on the 29th floor of the Menara Danamon building and Cilantro, on the 46th and 47th floor of the tallest building in Jakarta, Wisma46.
But wherever your night-out may begin, there is only one place where it must end. Where you can catch your breath, sit back and sip a Borneo Sunset and watch the sun rise in what is a Jakarta institution; some even go as far to dub it one of Asia’s greatest watering holes. Café Batavia. Some locals say its glory has faded somewhat since its Churchill bar was voted one of world’s best bars by Newsweek in 1996. But it’s still a “must-see” for the fabulous Dutch colonial interior, the ambience and the rather intriguing decor in the men’s loo. Apparently one entire wall – the one you face when you “tinkle” is a floor-to-ceiling mirror!
Which leaves the two other things that makes Jakarta’s mind numbing “macet” (traffic jams) worth it.
“Die, die, must try” Makansutra motto
In 1999, a Singaporean by the name of K. F. Seetoh, decided that Singapore’s famed street food merited its guide and so he complied the Makan Sutra. (Makan means food). It became an instant hit and since then, the annual release of guide is awaited with much licking of chops (or should I say chopsuey?) by gourmets and gourmands alike. In 2003, Seetoh launched his first guide outside Singapore – Makasutra Indonesia and all the top ten listings are in Jakarta!
They are called warungs or rumah makans. (The roaming ones are called “kaka lima” meaning ''five legs'' - three of the food cart and two of the vendor!) By late afternoon, hundreds of these roadside stalls open for business all over Jakarta. (And remain open through the night.) It’s like taking the lid off a massive sizzling, steaming, hissing, clattering, chattering hotpot, inside which Indonesia’s kaleidoscope cuisine busily stews, billowing out a million aromas all jostling each other to catch your attention.
Nasi goreng. Fried rice would be a poor translation of this fabulous all-in-one concoction of rice stir-fried with eggs, chicken, beef or shrimp and vegetables. According to many, nasi goreng is Indonesia's national dish, but Seetoh says it must share that hallowed place with satay - succulently smoky, bite-sized chunks of grilled meat on bamboo skewers, eaten smothered with the ubiquitous peanut sauce. Soto – literally meaning “soup” but actually an entire meal consisting of broth of every denomination from chicken to oxtail, accompanied by rice or noodles, veggies and krupuk – the Indonesian version of papad. Gorengan - the Indonesian take on pakoras. And Sumatra’s famous padang food, served in a rather ingenious version of the buffet. Everything on the menu – which can be as many as fourteen to eighteen dishes - is displayed or brought to you in bowls. You select, serve yourself, eat as much as you and then pay only for what you have eaten. Be warned – padang food takes its chilies very seriously.
But the pilgrimage of Jakarta’s street food is incomplete without sampling two local favourites. The first is martabak manis - an inch-thick spongy pancake, stuffed with condensed milk, cheese and - hold your breaths -chocolate sprinkles! And if your arteries just won’t put up with that assault, then there are the gorgeous Es Twins – es cendol and es campur. Incredible concoctions of shaved ice (“es” means ice), coconut milk, jelly, noodles, syrup and local fruit. There can’t be a better way to beat the sweltering Jakarta heat!
Jakarta has enough megamall acreage in which to window-shop in till your jaws drop. But when you’ve had your fill and actually want to buy stuff, then the place to head for is the massive six-part Mangga Dua (meaning two mangoes) complex. Go there only if you can survive bargaining your way through over one billion tiny stalls overflowing with everything from fake Prada to kretek, the inimitably Indonesian clove-scented cigarettes. Then there’s Jakarta’s very own Chor Bazar in Jalan Surabaya - where Bill Clinton bought a frog; a bronze one, I must hasten to add.
Jakarta has been called many things, most of it not very complimentary. Kota Kompor or the stove burner city. the Big Durian because like the smell of that fruit, the first impressions of Jakarta can be overpowering. But for me, it is Sunda Kelapa or the Coconut City - a large, tough, rough, unprepossessing hard nut on the outside but once you know how to crack it, sweet and utterly satisfying inside.