How much can a city change in ten years? If it’s physical appearance we’re talking about, unless it is Dubai, Singapore or places in China, the changes – notably the skyline – in most cities are usually not too palpable. But how much can a heart change in the same period of time? Based on my experience, quite a lot.
I grew up having a perception of Jakarta as a rough, crowded city whose schoolkids seemed to know how to get themselves into trouble. When my parents and I were still living in a small town three hours’ drive west from the Indonesian capital, every now and then we would take the inter-city bus to visit some of our relatives in the hot and humid metropolis. I remember being awed by multiple layers of flyovers passing over my head, the tall buildings in downtown Jakarta, and a mall in West Jakarta which at that time felt so big it took us a while to find the exit. For more than two decades of my life, Jakarta had always been such a transient place; I never stayed longer than two weeks.
One day during my college years in Bandung, Indonesia’s third most populous city, which at the time was still a calm and laid-back place with a temperate climate, I told a few friends over lunch, “I don’t want to work in Jakarta. It’s just too hot there.” Most of them agreed that it was not a city in which they wished to live.
Then reality hit. After running an unsuccessful culinary business with three other friends in Bandung, I decided to find a job, which led me to a job fair in the city and applying for one which would require me to spend at least one year in Jakarta for training. On the day I went for the interview, I took an old public bus from a district in East Jakarta that once had a reputation as a hotspot for student clashes. As soon as I took an empty seat, I was taken aback by how stressful and gloomy everyone looked. Before I got off near the company’s office in West Jakarta, I accidentally stepped on someone’s foot and quickly apologized. In Bandung, and other places that I had lived in, this would usually be met with the words “it’s okay” and a big grin. Apparently that was not the case in Jakarta.
Back in my aunt’s house where I stayed for a few days during the interview process, as I lay in bed beneath the ceiling fan, which churned the hot air inside my room instead of providing some desperately needed freshness, I pondered whether I could survive in this city if I got the job.
I did get the job, and thanks to the kindness of a friend from college who had been living in Jakarta for a few months, I managed to find a rented space with an air conditioner within walking distance from the training location. There were thirteen other people who were in the same training batch with me, eight of us hailing from outside Jakarta, so naturally we got very close with each other and in no time the fourteen of us became a family with the six Jakartans trying to make their outsider friends feel at home. Thanks to them, my first year in the city turned out not as tough as I had imagined; in fact it was probably the year when I played a lot. One night we went for karaoke in an affluent area in South Jakarta, then headed to a nice seafood restaurant far in the coastal north and only came home past midnight. The following night we hung out at a fancy mall in Central Jakarta, went to another part of the city to have fun, then came home late again. On Friday nights we always tried new places, with three of us, including me, staying at a friend’s house in northeastern Jakarta ahead of a four-hour Mandarin class the next morning (we gave up after two months, though). Nevertheless, it wasn’t all about playing hard. Within that one year we endured some of the toughest exams we’d ever had; at one point I felt my head heating up like never before when I confronted a very difficult question. A wrong answer would have sent me back to Bandung.
After a few years living in Jakarta I reached a point when I started to appreciate the joy of traveling. I began to spend less money on buying new clothes and eating out, and more on flight tickets and experiences. I dared myself to venture out to Jakarta’s old town district, an area I had never thought of visiting before; I made a spontaneous trip with a friend to one of the idyllic islands just north of the bustling metropolis; I made an effort to visit the museums; I walked more and took public transportation more often. Not only was this a period of time when I began to see the many faces of Jakarta – beyond its glitzy malls and fancy restaurants – but it was also when I began to see its appeal, beyond the perennial traffic congestion and flooding the Indonesian capital is notorious for.
Jakarta’s past governors had left their own marks on the city’s development. Among the most controversial figures was Ali Sadikin, who served as governor from 1966 to 1977. He is remembered for his iron-fist approach in clearing out slums, banning cycle rickshaws, and discouraged potential arrivals from coming to the city, among other things. On the other hand he was also an advocate for family planning to curb the population boom, as well as the person behind the city’s first advocacy group for transgenders and a legal aid organization for the poor.
I moved to Jakarta in 2008, a year after Sutiyoso stepped down as its governor. In 2004 he introduced TransJakarta, South and Southeast Asia’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) which was inspired by Bogotá’s TransMilenio. Over the years TransJakarta’s network, Indonesian capital’s first-ever decent mode of public transit, has been further expanded to reach far corners of the city, and it is now considered the largest BRT network in the world with more than 230 kilometers of so-called corridors.
From 2014 to 2017 under the governorship of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, more commonly known as Ahok, TransJakarta’s Chinese-made buses, of which many had problems in the past, were replaced by more reliable Japanese and Swedish buses. The ethnic Chinese Christian governor of majority Muslim Jakarta in fact carried out the most extensive infrastructure projects the city has seen in generations. Suddenly many parts of Jakarta were brimming with the construction of new flyovers, underpasses and light rail lines, as well as an underground metro system (begun under his former superior Joko Widodo who had been elected president) to alleviate some of the worst traffic of any city in the world. However, despite this and all the social programs rolled out under his administration, he was defeated in a deeply-divisive election last year.
Two months ago Jakarta turned 491. Some cities around the globe have experienced far greater progress within the same time span, although others have actually become worse than Jakarta. While a lot of problems persist in the Indonesian capital, there have been significant improvements, and many of them can’t be seen in just a short period of time. In the early 2000s, to an outsider like me Jakarta sounded like a very dangerous place with its high crime rate, including brazen daylight robbery and pickpocketing. However, as the Indonesian economy gradually recovered from the devastating impact of the 1997/98 Asian Financial Crisis and as more jobs were created, crime seems to have been significantly reduced, at least from my observation since moving to the city.
One of my cousins who has been living in Europe for more than two decades attested to how things were actually improving upon a visit to Jakarta in 2007, despite the usual pessimism that was once prevalent not only in the city, but also the the whole nation after the crippling financial crisis. “People are now actually wearing seat belts when they drive,” my impressed cousin told me. She remembered how no one cared about safety when she was still living in the city. A friend’s boss who is a Canadian and has been continuously living in Indonesia for 17 years told him about the improvements he has been witnessing in the Jakarta metropolitan area, although at a pace that is often behind people’s hopes and expectations.
This month marks my tenth year living in this ever busy capital of Indonesia. Its enormity still intimidates me from time to time, its political landscape remains frustrating, and the unsolved problems (such as the traffic) exhausting. But over the decade of my love-hate relationship with this city I gradually began to call home, I see how its energy keeps many of its residents from moving somewhere else. Other cities (like Singapore) may be a lot cleaner, more organized, and safer. But underneath the chaotic scenes that have become synonymous with Jakarta lies its true charm and beauty.
Behind my office in a tall glass building lies a densely packed neighborhood where locals and those who come from far corners of Indonesia live side by side, all driven by the same dream of finding better opportunities for themselves and their children. Every time I walk down its narrow streets I can’t help but feel nostalgic for the close-knit communities I was once part of in the small cities where I grew up. Despite having modern skyscrapers in their backyard, instead of verdant forests or towering volcanoes, these people still abide by a very Indonesian way of life where caring for their family and neighbors are of utmost importance in life. Neighborhoods like this are also a good place to look for authentic and cheap Indonesian dishes which would cost three to four times more at the nearby malls.
Jakarta’s boundless energy is often what drives people to come and stay for an extended period of time (some call them crazy). However, like its nickname the Big Durian, this energy is more of an acquired taste; it excites some, but exhausts others. In a heartfelt post, my perennial travel buddy James who has been living in the city for more than two years summed up his experience living a harder, but more exciting, life in Jakarta compared to his old life in Hong Kong. And he’s not the only one who finds the appeal of the megalopolis. Despite the series of terror attacks that have taken many innocent lives in the city since the early 2000s, which have now been significantly reduced in both frequency and intensity, more and more foreigners appear to have moved and settled in Jakarta for good, bringing their own cultural offerings to the city. While Japanese, Korean, Italian and Dutch restaurants have entered the Indonesian market for quite some time, those focusing on cuisines from other parts of the world are starting to pop up, adding delectable flavors to the already vibrant culinary scene of the city. Greek, Spanish, Brazilian and Nikkei (Japanese Peruvian) restaurants now provide tantalizing alternatives to sushi, bulgogi, pasta and bitterballen for Jakartans.
It is both encouraging and sad to see the construction of a light rail line near where I live; on the one hand Jakarta desperately needs to have an extensive railway network for its more than 10 million residents to encourage them to switch to public transport. However, on the other hand the lack of funds to build them underground means a number of tall, majestic trees that once lined an avenue in the city had to be cut down to make way for the elevated rail line. Deciding what’s best for Jakarta and its people really is a herculean task for whoever stands at the helm of the city’s administration. But when politics becomes too nauseating, fortunately Jakarta provides a growing number of venues to channel one’s talent, to excite one’s intellectual side, or just to wind down and relax with friends.
Dubbed as Indonesia’s first international modern art museum, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (MACAN – which also means leopard in Indonesian) is a cultural oasis in the western part of the city. Showcasing artworks by Indonesian painters and sculptors, as well as international names like Yayoi Kusama, the museum became an instant hit as soon as it opened its doors last year. Meanwhile, in Taman Ismail Marzuki – a decades-old cultural center at the heart of the city inaugurated by Ali Sadikin – aspiring young talents regularly perform, including a friend of mine and his boyfriend.
Jakarta used to be a transient place when I was a kid, but now it is only transient in the sense of how I feel toward it. Whenever my affection for the city grows, it knows how to let me down. But before I go too far down, it also knows how to lift me up and cast a ray of hope. During my ten years living in the city I have walked a good ten kilometers at night to get home after a heavy rainstorm, swam the turquoise water of the small islands off the city’s northern coast, waded through knee-high floodwaters on my bike going back from work at the height of rainy season, made friends with some of the kindest and most inspiring people in my life and learned how to keep a safe distance from toxic individuals, experienced two earthquakes while at the office, fallen in love, got stuck in the most frustrating traffic jam when I was forced to relieve myself with the aid of an empty bottle inside my car, become a more spontaneous person, expressed anger like I had never done before, and learned how far discipline and commitment can get me in life. My feelings toward this city have been and will always be a work in progress, but one thing seems to be more certain than anything: life in Jakarta is never boring.