Notes from Jakarta

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This is my last night here in Kuningan, Jakarta: the new bustling and cosmopolitan center of the second largest metropolitan area in the world.  This is the urban cocoon of Indonesia’s capital, where foreign tourists and people on business trips are greeted with something familiar.  I spent most of my week-long “mission” of sorts in this area, so I couldn’t say that I have explored Jakarta, or that I know it like the back of my hand.  I’m not here on tour, but on a business trip: whatever exploring I wanted to do, I had to cram in a day.  No Bandung, no Kota, no Java Jazz Festival and Joss Stone, but enough of an authentic experience for me to miss it when I get back to Manila.

A week wouldn’t be enough to experience “authentic Jakarta,” much more so if work – not tourism – is the agenda here.  What Jakarta has offered me in a day, though, is something that I will never forget.

Jakarta is a city that is generous with its quirks and idiosyncrasies: taxi vouchers, coated peanuts, its own unique take on “Pinoy Henyo,” and Twitter links on just about every restaurant’s door sign.  Traffic in Jakarta, as messy as it is, is a good metaphor for the stark contrasts of it all: the old minibuses run alongside the luxurious Toyota Alphards, the ojek alongside the Mercedes-Benz Silver Bird taxis, and like in the Philippines, the occasional man on the street selling feather dusters.

Loewy’s at the Oakwood compound was where me and my boss Sebastien, and my colleagues Mathieu and Phil, had our after-work drinks and cheeses for the first few nights.  The busy watering hole gives you a glimpse of the modern, corporate, cosmopolitan Jakarta.  This is a city that has everything going for it: money, investments, and new business flow into places like Kuningan, transforming it into a rapidly growing center of commercial growth.  But the pains of a growing Jakarta are still there, despite the architectural marvels and the Mercedes-Benz Silver Bird taxis: if the squalid slums on the outskirts of Kuningan don’t hit you as real, the millions of rupiah spent on dinner and drinks for six will.  The lifeblood of the nation is undervalued enough that a 200-rupiah coin (roughly two pesos) feels like plastic in your hand.

But Jakarta’s great food is found in places less urban, like the hawkers at the back of Tempo Scan Tower.  In many ways, Jakarta can be evangelized on the word of its good food: venerated in the epistle of krupuk, and the gospel of all sorts of nasi.  The food of Indonesia is similar to ours, but very different in the manner by which it is approached.  Rice is the core of Indonesian fare, almost always served fried, savory, and with just a hint of spice.  The authentic nasi goreng, I am told, is an art of delicate and tenuous balancing act between the volume of rice, the viand mixed in, and the spices used to season the dish.  This is a place where pork is foregone in favor of duck, fresh fish, and the bounty of the sea.  This is a place where the most flat-tasting dish can be made absolutely stunning with just a hint of sambal.

And that can be said for Yusuf Adiwinata, where Kartika, Pat, Rifky, Putri, Thevi, and myself feasted on the best streetfood I had in Jakarta: a sumptuous meal of the best fried rice in the world, sate ayam that one would probably pay up to P400 in Manila, and that Indonesian staple, Tehbotol.

In a city where A&W and Carl’s Jr. still exist, where McDonald’s isn’t the big one, KFC is sold with chili sauce, Jollibee seeks redemption from the unfavorable view of Chowking, the kings of cuisine are the food carts and street stalls, where heaping plates of nasi goreng kambing and dozens of sticks of sate ayam are washed down with the obligatory bottle of Tehbotol, all for the price of a couple of rounds of beer in the Philippines.  There is no mistaking the epiphany that comes with eating perhaps the world’s best meat-on-a-stick product: the tenderness of the meat swathed in nutty and tangy peanut sauce can have you finishing off the entire plate before you even realize you’re full.

Cheap, and perhaps even reasonable, too: in Indonesia, apparently, there’s no such thing as “service water.”  The bottled mineral water business is enough for the players to create websites, applications, and even headquarters in towering office buildings.  And the taxi services can be Tweeted and called via phone apps: which sometimes leads me to question if the notion of a “social media capital” is a statistical or a functional one.  But that’s for another time.

The oxtail: perhaps the most revered part of the animal in this country, is always fork-tender and rendered to the very marrow of its bones.  Sambal, I am told, occupies such a respected place in the Indonesian palate that the traveller will never be caught leaving the Soekarno Airport without a small bottle in his or her luggage.  There is a certain love-hate affair with the rupiah: while the taxi drivers are polite enough to count the money from the thick bundle of cash you exchanged at the moneychanger, the voucher system has evolved enough to render it more or less an option for the tourist.

And then there are the idiosyncrasies, like tequila served with orange slices and without salt as standard.  Or that a drink at Lucy in the Sky forces you to look up and see a Jakarta that’s still growing: stunted in some places, but shows a lot of promise within.  That “awareness” in Jakarta’s advertising landscape must go through many filters that have little to do with class, but more to do with culture and faith and taste and time.  This is a country where the taxi driver is a Blackberry user, that no dog can be seen wandering about, that street children don’t tug on your trouser legs but instead offer you scented tissues for the smallest rupiah bill you have on you.  This is a country where the air is heavy with the smell of diesel and kretek, that the Kenneth Cole shirt is held in lower regard than handmade batik.  This is a country where in a bar, “Sweet Child of Mine” is played in the same set as Elvis.

And yeah, I took some pictures, too.  Not a lot, but hey.

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My hotel window shows a Kuningan that’s a lot like Makati on a Saturday night: the show still goes on, the cogs still keep the wheels spinning, traffic enough to make you thankful of EDSA rush hour at times.  This is Jakarta: it looks a lot like home, but looks betray you once the reality of being in a very different culture hits you.  It’s a charming city, a megapolis that still manages to keep its soul with streetfood vendors and street musicians in spite of the more Western, cosmopolitan image it presents with places like Kuningan.  They have experienced the same things as us, but they responded to it their way.  Their problems are theirs to solve, and in a city bustling with opportunity and new money and cocoons like Kuningan, it remains to be seen if the rewards are for them to reap.

Over breakfast at the Gran Melia yesterday, my colleague and friend Gretchen told me one important thing I had to know about Jakarta.  The similarities offered to me by the glass skyscrapers and broad avenues of Kuningan City are veneers to the differences and nuances of “the real Indonesia.”  It’s the same thing that my colleague and friend Crisela told me over authentic teh tarik – no Chatime here – over at Kopi Oey: that how things may look is not exactly how things are.  At least that’s one thing we have in common; that an Indonesian visiting the Philippines may feel the same thing.

I may never get to know “the real Indonesia,” much less “the real Jakarta.”  There’s too much living that you need to experience here before you can paint the best outsider’s perspective of the situation.  That reality – that authenticity – will always be clouded by my own preconceived notions of urban life and city living, with me and my Americanized preconceptions like left-hand-drive and rush hour traffic.  But that doesn’t mean I should deny myself a shot at that reality: not at all.

Somehow, this place will always be bizarre to me; and I mean that in a good way.  I don’t know when I’ll be back, but one thing is for certain: this may not be like the place I had in mind when I first saw it, and the similarities of the city where I came from, but I like it. I like Jakarta.  I like it enough that I think I should come back here again.

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