There’s no place like home

Jakarta can be tough to love: its choking pollution, the unpleasant mix of smell of burned trash and diesel fumes, and sea of humanity overwhelm the senses. Add to that the horrible traffic and the hectic pace of life — this is a city only the bravest and most adventurous of travelers can love.

I doubt I’d be able to survive living here for long without my family showing me how things work.

This is a city where…
– everything from a bottled water to income tax is negotiable
– the phrase “It’s not what you know, but who you know” can’t be any truer
– the traffic is so horrendous it takes 2 hours to go 20 miles
– the sight and smell of poverty as such you’ve never seen before stares you right on your face

The list goes on. Oh it goes on… But Jakarta will always be ‘home’ for me. Whenever I land, I take a deep breath of Jakarta’s 90% humidity and 32 C degree air, choke on the dust a little bit, and proclaim “I’m home”.

We are departing for Jakarta tomorrow. And even though I’m dreading the long-flight home, here some things that I have to admit… I’m looking forward to:

1. The Shopping Malls

Ice Skating at Taman Anggrek Mall -- by d10n2000

Jakarta’s malls are huge. Huge. So huge. There’s one huge enough to have a roller coaster inside. So huge they provide you with a map at the entrance.

So huge they can (and did) put an ice skating ring inside (see pic).

And new ones keep popping up every year. Each one trying to be bigger, bolder, badder than the rests. They’re deliciously air conditioned and never fail to have superb food courts with food from all over the world.

2. The Food Courts

Food Court in Mal Ambassador -- UweBKK

Indonesians (at least the ones in my family) love to eat. Ask Jack. When they’re not asking him what he’d like to eat for his next meal, they’re trying to feed him something.

The mall establishment usually dedicates about the whole floor of the building for their customer’s dining experience. Sometimes two. See point #1 on how big these malls are. And imagine the whole floor lined with stalls selling food.

The differences between these food courts and the ones I’ve been to in the states are not only that they’re much bigger, but they are more varied. Yes of course you have the usual ‘standard’ things like McDonald’s or Wendy’s, but you also have the mom-and-pop stores selling unique dishes that can’t be found in other food courts.

Vegetarians? Don’t worry. Indonesian food happens to be very vegetarian friendly.

3. Cheap Software and Technical Books

Places selling pirated software and movies are everywhere in Jakarta. Some are being sold on collapsible stalls on pavements while others are more established.

I can’t think of any place in the US similar to these stores. Most of them are not much bigger than a walk in closet. Its walls covered floor-to-ceiling with plastic holders containing CD’s. The space in the middle is filled with rows of vertical racks with barely enough room for one person between the racks. These racks are holding even more CD’s.

They’re not discriminating. They have everything from Adobe CS to ‘1000 Most Popular Karaoke Songs’. It’s one stop place to learn about the latest products in the software or computer gaming industry (and apparently, the karaoke business).

4. Burgeoning Secondhand Game Console/Computer Parts Stores

There are places where a TechHead like Jack would gladly spend a whole day in: whole floors dedicated to games, computer parts, and gagdets for any brands and any gadgets imaginable.

Not sure why, but these places tend to look and smell like a dungeon. Think of Fry’s on steroids, minus the annoying salespeople. Take away the overhead lighting and the air conditioner. Add some cigarette smoke. And about 1000 people.

These places also often have in-house technicians who can soup up your game consoles or phones. You want to get bigger drives? Replace dying parts? Jailbreak your Iphones?

When our 3 yr old PlayStation 2 was having a hard time reading discs, we brought it all the way from to US to get the laser head replaced — for a whooping labor cost of $10.

5. The Street Food

Street food at nighttime -- by seth mazow

Jakarta has some of the best street food stalls selling the yummiest late-night meals I’ve ever been too.

And just like the malls, new comers keep popping up. Word-of-mouth is still the only way to keep up if you’re into the food scene here. I always need to hit up my friends for the latest ‘hot’ areas to get anything from ‘es doger’ (hot-pink slushy drink with syrup and jackfruit pieces) to ‘mie tek tek’ (stir fried noodles).

By the way, in case you’re curious, the stall in the pic above is selling seafood, street food style.

6. How The Place Takes On A Different Persona At Night

Jack and I live in place that goes to sleep around 10pm. Jakarta, on the other hand, does not only seem to be awake 24-7, but it seems to be a different place at night.

Actually, it IS a different place at night.

The temperature drops to a much more tolerable range. The air seems to approach breathability level. And what were previously sidewalks turn into cafes and stalls selling all sorts of food. With lights running on generators or kerosene, people cooking on the sidewalk, families with their kids out on dinner run, they lend a certain festive atmosphere to the place.

Just writing this I have this huge grin on my face. Yes, Jakarta is tough to love. It is not pretty. It doesn’t have any rice terraces, or bathing elephants in the river. No temples or snow-capped peaks. But it’s home, and there’s really, really no place like home.

What’s your favorite thing about your home town?