Jakarta: The Big Durian: Can 10 Million People Be Wrong?

January 11, 2013 in Asia, Indonesia, Travelogue

We laughed when we heard that Jakarta has a nickname, “The Big Durian,” a nod to NYC’s “Big Apple” moniker. It seemed cute and funny. Until I remembered how much I hate durian.

Here are some fun facts about Jakarta:

  • It’s the 14th largest city, by population, in the world
  • Approximately 10,000,000 people live here
  • Just a bit less than a third of the entire population of Canada
  • There are, reportedly, 1.5 million cars
  • According to our driver there are an additional 3 million motorbikes

Like all big cities, Jakarta is full of contrasts. We saw a family living under a bridge, washing up in, quite literally, putrid water. We were agog at a Jaguar dealership in the mall.

Here are some of our initial observations:

  • Like durian, the whole city stinks, and not just a little.
  • The waterways are fetid, literally. They are actually bubbling with rot in some places
  • The air pollution defies description. Honestly, I have no words. We saw a fellow wearing a painter’s respirator on his bike to filter the air. No joke.
  • The filth is unparalleled, and for perspective, Mexico City is one of my favourites. I’m not opposed to a little good, old fashioned urban grime. My clothing is a shade darker just from spending the afternoon on the streets. I’m not exaggerating.
  • We read, of the older part of the city, a description of it as “post-apocalyptic east LA.” Pretty much.
  • Have I mentioned the sewer situation and the stench? Gaping holes in the sidewalk reveal stagnant pools with floating dead rats, a rainbow slick of oil and a cocktail of trash and god knows what else. If Elisha fell into one of these and scraped his leg hard like he did last week in Kota Kinabalu, I’d want IV antibiotics administered. Yes, really.
  • The streets are decorated with dead rats, dying cats, puddles of vomit, feces and more. For real.
  • As with every other city since we left Thailand, the whole place is littered with malls. Whoever said America had the corner on consumerism has clearly not been to a major Asian city (or any Asian city, perhaps.)
  • The mosques warble incessantly. Perhaps it’s because it’s Friday. Perhaps it’s because they’re a particularly devout form of Muslim here. Perhaps it’s just that my nerves are frayed, but I cannot escape the wail that I often find quaint and it’s making me want to do bodily damage.

We read that CNNGo rated Jakarta the world’s worst city for tourism. 24 hours in, I have to say that so far we agree with that analysis. It seems like the best thing “to do” in Jakarta, is get out.

I think this is the first place I’ve ever been that I am, literally, climbing the walls to escape. 

That being said, we’ve had a few good moments:

Over lunch today Hannah befriended a whole herd of girls who were eager to practice their English, compare music tastes and share their candy with her. An excerpt from their conversation, with big smiles and lots of laughter: “You are Christian? We are Islam!! YEAH ISLAM!!! YEAH ISLAM!!!”

We only got seriously lost once today. The other way to look at it is that we got an extra long bus ride for our thirty cent fare.

The street music is a hundred times better than elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The waitstaff actually seems to be aware that it is their job to be waitstaff. The same cannot be said everywhere else.

Perhaps tomorrow will be better. Perhaps Jakarta will redeem herself. I have marginal hopes for the National Museum. If you know something I don’t, or see a Jakarta I’m missing, for heaven’s sake speak up.

Can 10 million people be wrong? Apparently.