After over a month spent in either Malaysia or its affluent little sibling of Singapore, we depart Sabah in Malaysian Borneo to charter the unknown as we fly to Jakarta, Indonesia.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic state, and the island of Java the most crowded in an archipelago that stretches from the landmass of Sumatra off the Thai/Malaysian border in the North, to the territories of Timor and Papua some 500km off the coast of Australia in the far South East.
Add to this the state of Kalimantan which also covers the majority of the island of Borneo, and you have one of the most underestimated countries on the world in terms of both geography and population.
Of the people I’ve spoken with who have spent time travelling in Indonesia, everyone bar one said the best plan of action with regard to tackling the capital, Jakarta, was either to get out of the sprawling city as quickly as possible or better still avoid going there in the first place.
Being a particularly single minded individual who routinely gets accused of thinking he knows best regardless of the evidence at hand, it was only natural that I should ignore the general consensus and determine to uncover some overlooked nuggets of positivity in this megalopolis of an estimated 18 million souls.
Well, in retrospect, those who advise to avoid it certainly have a case. As it is located quite some distance from what I hope will be more alluring parts of the island, it would certainly made things easier to fly directly in to Yogyakarta, the geographical heart of Java and also it’s metaphorical soul.
Jakarta itself is a city of seemingly endless low-rise suburbs being slowly traversed by snaking queues of vehicles. The sights are colourful yet monotonous, the travel painful and sluggish.
From the ramshackle gullies and byroads fringed with snack carts and tarpaulin roofed roadside diners that reminded me of a slightly polished Mumbai, to the relatively clean and functional city centre areas with their occasional semi-oasis of parched public spaces and their pillars of glass, steel and concrete that house the commercial mights of the region, there was little of note architecturally nor even culturally from what I could gather.
Having said that, to by pass Jakarta would be to miss out on what I found to be a surprisingly friendly city.
Avoiding the downtown traveller’s ghetto of Jalan Jaksa in preference of a better standard of accommodation in the trendy suburb of Kemang, we traversed the inner suburbs by the cheapest means possible – public bus – and encountered a world and its inhabitants we would have neglected had we travelled by taxi or stayed centrally.
Apart from a hairy moment when I was forced to leap from the colourful confines of a moving No. 77 bus, “The Boy” in hand, as the driver impatiently drove off before I could disembark, I found the Jakartans approachable and helpful and not so much the mean, streetwise chancers of popular perception.
Architecturally, as the largest Mosque in SE Asia (capacity comfortably twice that of Wembley Stadium), the Mesjid Istiqlal cuts a striking pose on one side of the expansive grounds of Merdeka Square.
But beyond this icon and some scattered civic sculptures, it was left to the limited Dutch colonial charm of the Kota district and it’s overtly touristic faux olde worlde imagery to fight the pro-Jakarta corner.
On the upside though, the food we ate was surprisingly good and cost much less than expected.
Jakarta’s shopping opportunities were substantial (if one could afford it), and the Busway that cuts a North South route from Kota to Blok M was well organised, reliable and manned by exceptionally helpful staff that inevitably gave clear priority to a baby in a buggy.
My main gripe however sits with the whining drone of the Imam at the Kemang Mosque.
I once wrote in my blog about Mumbai (In search of the dogheads) of an incident towards the start of our stay when I was being rudely awoken by godly worship at a particularly ungodly hour.
I recalled how as a child I was the proud owner of a speaking Superman alarm clock, but never though that as a man in my 30’s I’d still be receiving novelty wake-up calls.
Well, three years later and my view of Islam’s inconsiderate early morning shout out to the masses remains unchanged.
This time however, it seems as though he’s wired together a series of powerful portable sound systems and placed them just the other side of the wall from where I am forcibly lying awake at 4.30am.
It’s rude. It’s just plain rude.
Many moons ago, I guess the local Imam fulfilled something like the role of a town crier, likely blessed as he was with a deep and powerful voice that carried over distances as equally well as the stench of untreated sewage.
I can appreciate how back in the day it would be useful, as a member of the Allah-fearing, downtrodden masses, to have a wake-up call in lieu of the fact one couldn’t afford a timepiece.
These days however, nearly every urban man owns a watch (not me though!), and if not a watch then his mobile phone will surely come to the rescue.
Technology provides an alternative solution.
Unfortunately, technology also provides the 10,000 Amp speaker systems that regularly boom badly sung prayer across vast distances for extended periods in the early morning.
Call me a luddite, but there are some things that should remain stuck in the past.