Lessons from Jakarta

Replacing Broad Expectations With Nuanced Realities


BootsnAll has been publishing Round the World Wednesday stories for about 2 years now. Many writers have offered their tips and input having to do with long term travel.  

Today we begin a new chapter for RTW Wednesdays, as Jenn Miller will be the main contributor for RTW Wednesday articles. Jenn has been on the road with her husband and four children for over five years now and is well versed in all aspects of long-term travel. Each week Jenn will bring a unique insight into extended travel, touching on topics ranging from inspirational articles to practical trip planning to family travel to education on the road to interviews with interesting people she’s met along the way.

I don’t know what I expected from Jakarta. I thought about it a lot in the days following our arrival and the weeks following our departure. We’d been in Southeast Asia for nearly 10 months when our plane touched down in the capital city of Indonesia. We’d spent time in Bangkok, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Singapore, Penang, and numerous others of the populous, chaotic cities that characterize that corner of the continent. So why was my reaction to Jakarta so visceral?

Within 24 hours of arrival I wanted to claw my way out of the city. I felt trapped. My chest was tight. I had a massive headache. I wanted to scream at everyone. I wanted… no, I needed… to escape. My instinct was to hide, to burrow down into my hotel bed and not emerge until my flight was ready to leave. But of course the traveler in me wouldn’t let that happen, the mother and the educator in me wouldn’t let that happen. It was an opportunity to examine and replace my broad expectations with the nuanced realities.

A few of Jakarta’s statistical realities

Jakarta slum 2

  • 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
  • The nuanced realities met me at the street level as we walked through the old colonial Dutch district, squeezed onto the busses with the press of humanity, and ate nasi goreng, elbow to elbow, with ten million of our brothers and sisters.
  • 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 favorites. I’m not opposed to a little good, old fashioned urban grime. My clothing was a shade darker just from spending the afternoon on the streets. I’m not exaggerating.
  • Gaping holes in the sidewalk reveal stagnant pools with floating bloated vermin, a rainbow slick of oil, and a cocktail of trash and God knows what else.
  • The streets are decorated with dead rats, dying cats, puddles of vomit, fece,s and more.

In a word, I was repulsed. The more of the city I saw, the less I liked it, the more my initial gut reaction was reinforced, the more uncomfortable I became.

The other reality, with layer upon layer of nuance to be pulled back and examined, was not found in the brick and mortar infrastructure of what can be seen of Jakarta, but lay in the living, breathing population that is Jakarta. The people.

I am a people watcher. I look for eyes that meet mine in the street. I observe relationships; the quiet, non-verbal communications between parent and child, husband and wife, officer and pedestrian.

Snapshots from Jakarta

Jakarta slum 3

A man and his wife, living under a bridge in the colonial Dutch district: Pots and pans lined up on make shift shelves of old milk crates and scavenged boards. A bamboo raft tied to a metal ring. The man washing his clothes, and then himself in the fetid water. The wife wringing and hanging the wash from pieces of metal reinforcement sticking out of the concrete. Two weeks later when the city floods, I wonder what became of these two, and all of their worldly goods.

A whole flock of giggling girls in sparkling white tunic uniforms from the Islamic school across the street. They giggle behind their hands and finally work up the courage to come and ask if our children will come and play. Their eyes are bright; they are clean and cared for. They remind me that childhood is universal and bridges all of the gaps between culture and religion if we will let it. When our noodle dishes arrive and our kids wave goodbye, the girls are chanting, “You are Christian, we are Islam, Yeah Islam! Yeah Islam!” and everyone is laughing.

Mothers begging in the street with filthy babies, sometimes walking between cars at intersections, empty hands, vacant eyes. We learn later that this is considered child exploitation and is an offense that the mothers can be fined severely for. On the one hand, I agree. On the other hand, I try to understand that level of desperation.

Shopping malls, ubiquitous in Asian cities. We arrive by tuk-tuk. Dirty and loud, tuk-tuks are not allowed into the entrance drop off zone where the line of sleek black cars picks up and delivers well-heeled patrons, who must pass through security and the dress code to enter. The one we wind up in is a haven of clean air and peaceful music, in stark contrast to the city outside it’s doors. There is a Jaguar store on the main floor. It feels like being transported to an alien planet. It feels like a refuge. It is the first place that I let my guard down a little and feel as though I can relax. I feel guilty about this and hate it about myself, as I detest mall culture, I rail against consumerism, and I pride myself on being the sort of traveler who is out on the street, with the “real people,” not in the mall. And yet, this is how I feel. I am forced to confront this corner of the ugly truth about myself.

Jakarta is the first place I’ve ever been that I truly hated. The first place that I couldn’t find something to love. The first place that I’ve wanted, increasingly desperately, to escape from.

It’s the first place that has stretched me to my mental and emotional breaking point.

And the thing is, I didn’t have any expectations of Jakarta. I went in completely blind. I hadn’t read a guidebook; we didn’t even have one. I hadn’t done much online research. We just hit the ground, as we are wont to do, and the city hit me like a brick wall.

What I discovered: I had expectations of myself


I expect to be stretched, but I expect to roll with the punches; I’ve been traveling for a long time, after all. I expect to be able to find something I like. I expect to be uncomfortable, but tough it out. I expect to be able to reach beyond the physical difficulties and the mental stresses and come out on top. I expect to be able to accept what I see, be where I am, and live in a moment, with an open mind.

What I discovered in the nuanced realities were things that, to be perfectly honest, I don’t love about myself. Things that I need to work on. Areas for growth and an increase in understanding of myself and others.

  • I discovered that I’m still full of prejudices I didn’t know I had.
  • I take for granted things I shouldn’t.
  • My own comfort still matters too much to me.
  • My instinct for self preservation still supersedes my desire to be a giver and a learner.
  • When I am tired and emotionally overwrought, my needs become disproportionately important.
  • There are areas of life where I’m more than willing to point out the problem, but still unwilling to be part of the solution.

It turns out, it’s not about Jakarta at all.

Jakarta has been there for generations, in all of her stinky, messy, Big Durian glory. I’m the newcomer. I’m the one who is just beginning the journey; she’s well into hers and merely a stopover in mine.

For me, Replacing Broad Expectations with Nuanced Realities is not so much about the places we go, but the people we are, the people we were, and the people we are becoming. We have to get beyond the blanket statements, beyond the marketed versions, of the places we go, and of who we are as individuals. It’s in those moments where we are stripped bare, naked, and alone with our own souls that we find out who we really are, where we’re really going, and the many ways that this great big world continues to be our mother, our teacher and the instrument of our continued evolution.

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Manifesto - replace broad expectations with nuanced realities

Photo credits: Thehero, Thehero, all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission

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