Jakarta is like a complex math problem. When you first look at it, it doesn't make any sense - a dense equation of garbled numbers and coefficients. But as you study it and work it over, the underlying logic and even beauty of the thing reveals itself.
Most people will tell you Jakarta is a mess, a sprawling hemorrhage of poorly planned urban expansion. The traffic is legendary. So is the pollution. It's hot. It's dirty. Too many people are crammed into too little space. The water is stagnant and rancid. There is nothing to see and nothing to do unless you like malls. The dilapidated Old Town, which in another city might be preserved and re-branded as a heritage area, just sort of exists, doddering on in an end-of-life stupor like an elderly parent. All of these things are true, as far as they go. But they are also superficial, something a tourist would say while passing through on their way to Bali. What they miss is that buried in the chaos is a depth and complexity to this hulking metropolis of 10 million people if you know where to look.
There really isn't any city like Jakarta in the West. It has the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, the population density of New York, the machinery of national government like Washington. It is probably the closest real-life example of what the city-planet of Coruscant, the galactic capital from Star Wars, must be like. And in its own way, once you dig past the obvious defects, a bigger and more interesting picture starts to take form.
Before I moved to Indonesia I did not fully appreciate how diverse this country is. And I don't mean superficially diverse. The differences in Indonesian society are not skin-deep, like how much twang a regional dialect has or whether you use the word "soda" or "pop." This nation spans a vast archipelago, and each island has its own roots - historical, cultural, linguistic - that run deep. Then again within each island the roots branch out further and divide, to the point where you can go from one side of Java to the other and every few hundred kilometers people will be speaking a completely different language.
Not interested in island-hopping across a dozen land masses to experience the diversity of the Indonesian archipelago? That's OK. You can find a pretty good snapshot of it right here in Jakarta, which is such a gargantuan vortex of urbanization that it creates its own gravitational pull, bringing people from every corner of the nation into its thick human soup. The layered complexity of Indonesian society, the richness, the variety - you can find it in the make-up of a typical hotel staff. The receptionist might be Batak, from the highlands of North Sumatra, where Islam never took root and they still stew pork meat in its own blood. The cook might be from Manado, a Christian city on one of Sulawesi's flower petals. The room cleaner might be a Javanese guy whose grandfather served in the sultan's palace in Jogjakarta. Maybe the security guard is descended from the sea-faring Buginese. The owner is as likely not an Indonesian-Chinese. People from all over the country come to Jakarta seeking work and opportunities, and the city is alive with the dialects and traditions and histories that they bring with them, drawn from all over the archipelago and squeezed together. But you'd never know that it if you're just passing through.
A knock-on benefit of this vibrant cosmopolitanism of course is that when people come to Jakarta from all over Indonesia, they bring their culinary tastes and traditions with them. You can get just about any Indonesian food in Jakarta: spicy rica-rica from Manado; Padang food from Sumatra, eaten family style from a constellation of dishes on the table; tender otak-otak steamed in banana leaves from Bangka; head to Glodok, Jakarta's Chinatown, to eat kwetiau, a noodle dish that is as much Indonesian as it is Chinese. You don't have to get it with pork intestines, but it does taste better.
Korean restaurants are mounting an invasion of South Jakarta. Sushi can be had in any mall. And Western food. Let me betray my bias for a moment and talk about Western food. Aside from Bali, you will be hard-pressed to find a good sandwich in Indonesia (and actually in Southeast Asia more generally). Indonesia doesn't even have a word for "sandwich" - it is instead called "roti lapis" which means "layered bread." This has always struck me as something of a tragedy, the sandwich being one of the most perfect and elegant food creations on Earth. Enter Jakarta, where a trip to Grand Indonesia can yield up some of the finest house-cured pastrami sandwiches and deli food you will find this side of New York. Top-notch deli food being turned out in a Muslim-majority country? You cannot tell me that globalization hasn't delivered on some of its promises.
Alright, so the people are nice and the food is good. You can get that in any big city. But what is there to love about this big city, specifically? Certainly not the traffic. It is also not doing itself any favors marketing itself as a tourist destination. I always stay in a hotel that is right next to the National Monument. People passing through will sometimes ask when they arrive "So what is there to do here?" before heading out on a walk. They usually return after passing a few piles of garbage looking befuddled and wondering what the hell they even came here for.
Nobody sitting down deciding how to design a city would have chosen to make it look or function like Jakarta. It is uniquely a creation of its own circumstances. Jakarta has grown haphazardly in fits and bursts, dictated by some hidden, incomprehensible internal logic and changing attitudes toward colonialism, nationalism and globalization. You've got the big gleaming skyscrapers built with oil money and foreign capital from the time when Suharto decided to experiment with capital markets without fully understanding them.
These are jammed in among structures from the post-independence heyday of the 1960s that sought to embrace and celebrate something uniquely Indonesian. You can see the history of Indonesia written in the urban landscape, see how city planners and politicians and architects struggled in the early post-independence period to wrestle with what Indonesia was, where it was going, how the Dutch and their colonial legacy figured into it all and how they wanted to incorporate that architectural legacy into their new nation. This period produced Monas, a giant golden scoop of ice cream holding up the hopes and dreams of 100 million people. But it's this very mishmashiness that has a certain appeal to me. It's interesting. It's not like the others.
And the city itself pulses with a rhythm, a pattern that starts to make itself clear after a while. You know to avoid Thamrin between 11:30 and 1 when the government offices disgorge their workers for lunch, how to slip through back alleys in the kampung in the evening to avoid the worst crush of traffic. Timing your Go-jek order right becomes something of a science - though, like all social sciences, it frequently turns out badly anyway.
And in all that chaos, certain things become clear. One is that we are all in this together. This is not a city of sanitized and detached nuclear families living in insulated bubbles and disconnected from one another. It's a city of bonds, where neighbors - probably because they are packed together so densely - chat with one another and hang out on the curb eating fried tempe with raw chilis. The city may not be perfectly planned, but everyone that lives here - minus the super rich - experience and share in those imperfections together.
And I think, besides the pastrami sandwich at Union Deli, that is one of the things I love most about Jakarta. Millions of people are squeezed together in this vast urban bigos, millions of different people, from different places, worshiping different gods and carrying their histories and traditions with them. But they all share this pressure cooker, carving out a life, and an existence against the headwinds of urban sprawl and over-population, figuring out a way for all of these millions of pieces to fit together some how. The result is the Jakarta you see. Frustrating, incomprehensible, crowded, polluted. But it is also a place where the largest mosque in Southeast Asia sits right across the street from an imposing Catholic Cathedral that houses the Archbishop, where you can have a Go-jek driver rock up and deliver everything from pecel lele to a Cuban sandwich. The call to prayer rings out in the afternoon all over the city, humming in tune to the honk of horns and the crack of oil from the street vendor frying tofu. Life finds a way to carry on here, to fill in the unused spaces and push on and push up this surging swell of humanity and in the end it leaves something that is kind of ugly, but also kind of special. And even with the hustle and the bustle, the daily frustrations and the jostling for a piece of a piece of an ever-shrinking yet ever-expanding pie, I always somehow find time to appreciate it.