( Jakarta Lite ) Exhausted in the Big Smoke

By Amy Chavez
For The Bali Times

Sometimes you don’t want an organized, efficient, clean vacation like you’d find at a five-star hotel. Sometimes you might want something more spontaneous, more edgy, with a little more grit, and a lot more risk. I myself have times when I long for the chaos of a big South Asian city, where just crossing the street is a near-death experience. So where do I go for excitement? Jakarta!

When my Balinese friends warned me that Jakarta was a big, noisy, polluted city, I was hooked. Denpasar would pale in comparison with the bedlam of Jakarta.

When I came out of Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, the first thing I noticed was the airport road lined with palm trees reaching up to the sky — all plastic! And they never let up: Green ones and red ones are all over the city, and they even light up at night. The magic of Jakarta had begun.

Jakarta is a city with 10 million people and 20 million vehicles. For transportation enthusiasts such as myself, I was delighted to try new forms of getting from place to place. Jakarta offers an array of exhaust-spewing public transportation, from taxis, to busses, bemo, ojek and bajaj, neither any safer than the next. A bit of a Transportation Roulette, if you will.

Driving in Jakarta is a much more audible experience than visual. Like the Braille method allows people to read, the horn system in Jakarta allows people to drive. It’s a way of reminding other drivers that there are five motorbikes and two bajaj crammed into their “blind spot” or that you’re the 10th in a line of taxis that is going to squeeze in front of someone.

Have you ever taken a listening exam where every time you hear a beep, you have to raise your finger? I suspect the drivers license examination in Jakarta includes a listening exam, but one that uses horns rather than a beeps. You not only have to identify exactly where the honking vehicle is coming from, but you probably have to be able to identify the vehicle by its honk: car, truck, bus, bemo, ojek or bajaj. A “name that tune” of traffic. The skills test is when they blindfold you and put you in a car in Jakarta traffic.

The taxi is the cleanest form of transport, offering a protective bubble to move around in. Jakarta taxi drivers are the most proficient I’ve ever seen at tailgating. There is not an inch wasted between cars and the tendency to “race n’ break” ensures you’ll arrive at that last life-saving inch as soon as possible. Taxis are cheap and air-conditioned and are a good way to get around to the trendy cafes in Kemang, or for your late-night shopping at the malls, some of which are open until 3am.

For even more excitement, take the public bus where the driver constantly honks his horn at traffic while the Indo music blares inside. After all, music is a universal life need – why contain it to an iPod? Using an iPod in Indonesia is culturally insensitive if you ask me. It’s just not the Indonesian way; you’re supposed to share your music!

You must know where you’re going when you take the public bus, though, and learn to get on and off while it’s still moving.

But if you prefer to be out in the chaos, actually contributing to it, then I recommend travel around by bajaj, a covered 3-wheeled contraption borrowed from India that uses a small, but extremely loud, Vespa motor. Bajaj putter around in their very own exhaust clouds. Cruising through Jakarta’s neighborhoods by bajaj, past tropical houses and neighborhood mosques, is truly a delight.

Ojek are motorbike taxis. The drivers, always male, will take you anywhere you need to go on the back of their motorbike. This is especially good if you are a single girl who can’t find a date (if there is such a thing in Indonesia — all the men seem so, um, willing). You’ll likely get where you’re going on time by ojek since motorbikes can weave in and out of the gridlock. Ojek are a good way to get down narrow streets, such as Jl. Jaksa, which is full of small bars and restaurants, and is a popular hangout for foreigners.

I once took an ojek to Jaya Ancol Dreamland, a huge outdoor park, to see Indonesian folk singer and political activist Iwan Falls. It’s a great place to see a live concert because should the crowds get riotous, there’s plenty of room to run to safety. On the other hand, should the concert prove too dull, you can enjoy the beach inside the park, which is even lighted for nighttime use.

My Balinese friends were right. Jakarta is a big, noisy polluted city that will leave you feeling like a bajaj: exhausted. Hooray!

Now, as the Jakarta memories slowly fade away, gamelan music drifts in through the windows, songbirds sing in the garden and in the distance I can hear the rolling of the waves on the beach. Hooray – B

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