First Impressions of Jakarta and Bandung

I spent this past week in Jakarta for a work trip.  I figured my recent trip to Bali was probably a basic introduction to the culture there, but knowing that just the city of Jakarta has roughly the same population as the entire country of Australia meant it would be on a very different scale.  I knew that I should probably leave my jewellery at home, that the hotel we were staying at had metal detectors, and that an extra level of caution and awareness would be required on this trip.  But pretty much anything I thought I knew was useless because the trip became so completely unexpected that none of that even mattered.

We arrived Monday evening to the busy Jakarta airport, and right away I felt the humidity and smelled that hard to describe but distinct smell of Indonesia.  The sun was starting to set as our driver took us to the hotel, though you couldn't really see it through the solid layer of haze covering the sky.  The traffic was fine on the freeway, but once we exited I started to see a taste of how crazy it might get.  There were two lanes painted on the road, but the cars had created three lanes and in between the narrow gaps thousands of motor bikes squeezed by.  In order for our car to turn across traffic it had to slowly edge out and physically stop traffic in the other direction.  

Hazy sunset at the airport
When we pulled up to gates of the hotel, detector dogs circled the car and the inside was tested for explosives.  Then before we were allowed inside the building all of our bags were scanned and we walked through a metal detector.  Once inside, it was like any nice hotel in any old country, quit a contrast to the journey there.  I took it easy that night with room service and an early bedtime, knowing the week was going to be a long one.

When I woke up Tuesday I opened the curtains, eager to see what the surroundings looked like.  I saw the lush hotel grounds below, then just past that a large white Mosque.  Directly next to that was a neighbourhood of slums packed tightly together, and it was all surrounded by a ring of tall office buildings and a layer of haze.  It was an interesting contrast.

A city of contrasts
That morning a driver took me to my company's facility in Bandung.  With absolutely no traffic it's a two hour drive South of Jakarta.  That morning it took me almost three, though it can take as long as eight on really bad days.  It was interesting sitting in the back of the car by myself in a new place - nothing else to do but look around and take in the scenery.  We passed a train and I was amazed at how many people were crammed on board.  I was also fascinated by how people could look at their phones while on the back of a motor bike weaving through traffic.  Another thing that caught my attention were the cars - though the traffic was hectic, I saw surprisingly little damage on any of the vehicles.  I did see a lizard running around on one of the cars though, that was funny.

The scenery slowly changed from crazy big city to slightly less big city, then eventually turned to rice paddy fields and then lush mountains.  It started to get really pretty, but then I looked ahead down the mountains and saw the big heavy layer of pollution.  We arrived at the facility and the driver parked and waited for me.  All of the expats at my work have their own drivers, and I was fascinated how their days were spent either pushing along in crazy traffic or just waiting around.  

Tiny houses packed along the river
Rice terraces along the road
Mountains surrounded by haze
I met some coworkers I'll be working a lot with - I was glad their English was very good as my Indonesian is limited to Selamat Pagi (good morning).  For lunch they took me to a local place and I got to try some local dishes.  We had some fish, crab, vegetables, and rice of course, and they ordered me some sort of green fruit juice.  It was all very good, and while we were eating some crazy rain, thunder, and lightning entertained us.

After lunch they gave me a tour of the facility.  It reminded me of the 1950s style work shop in the US, sort of a step back in time with some modern technology thrown in.  After my introduction, it was time to head back to Jakarta before traffic got too bad.  I figured I better use the bathroom before I left, and went into the ladies' room.  Inside past the sinks there were two rooms, one had thin mattresses on the floor and the other had a closed door and I heard lots of water splashing about.  That's when my American brain started getting really confused - I realised the only toilet was in this room and from the sound of things it wasn't any kind of toilet that I was used to.  I got a little panicked and decided that I would just wait and hope that traffic wasn't too bad.  I didn't hold out much hope for anything that I would consider a normal toilet along the side of the road!

It was still raining lightly, and on the way back I saw a few trucks that had slid off the side of the road.  That didn't help the usual traffic, and the return trip took 3.25 hours.  Still much better than 8 though!  And yes, I was just barely able to hold out for the luxury of my hotel bathroom.

Interesting trees along the highway
That evening I went with some coworkers who were also in town to a local mall.  It was a lot like the malls in Singapore - about 8 floors and tricky to figure out where you were or wanted to go.  One major difference though was the metal detector we had to go through to get into the mall.  We saw four Starbucks and a few other American places.  I was happy to see a Banana Republic, but I was not happy to see the $189 AUD price tag for a pair of pants.  I still find it funny that there are so many American stores in both Jakarta and Singapore - I would have thought there would be more in Australia but there really aren't that many.  I guess there is a reasonable expat population living in Asia.

We had some dinner and then had the driver take us back to the hotel for the evening.  For just the first day there, there were sure a lot of new sights, smells, tastes, and sounds!


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