It was only whilst I was sorting through my photos in the last few weeks that it struck me just how incredibly beautiful Indonesia is. Sure it has some beautiful landscapes, but it’s more than that, its beauty radiates from everywhere - from its people, its architecture and from its natural areas, even from its slums. The more time I spent there the more I fell in love with this country.
Leaving Medan we took a cheap flight to Palembang, a sprawling city in the south of Sumatra. By this point, we had come to realise that the only way to see Sumatra properly was with our own transport, but neither time nor budget would allow us this luxury on this occasion, so we had decided to see as much as we reasonably could in the time we had left. Our plan was to make it to Java and see if we could perhaps rent bikes in Jakarta for a few weeks and ride a circular route from there. Getting to Jakarta was a challenge all of its own though.
Arriving in Palembang we took a bus into the city centre and feeling lazy, we stopped for some lunch at McDonald's where we were treated like royalty. It was clear that they didn’t see so many foreigners here. Our filet-o-fish meals were freshly cooked and brought over to us at our table by staff who smiled from ear to ear. Unfortunately, food in Indonesia proved to be one of the things that we frequently struggled with, Evan more so than me. Unlike other countries in Southeast Asia, food in Indonesia is mostly cooked first thing in the morning in bulk and it then sits, behind the glass doors of a cabinet if you’re lucky, for the rest of the day, usually in full sun and with no refrigeration. Street food makes up the majority of our meals when we’re on the road, but here it really is a game of Russian roulette every time you eat. Evan struggled a lot with the food, so every now and then we’d play it safe and give ourselves a day off by eating in the big international fast-food chains, but this was something we didn’t have the option to do very often.
After lunch we took a stroll down the main street warily weighing up our options for transport to the train station, which we had discovered was still about 6km away. Taxis slowed and offered us rides, but upon asking the price, which, like everywhere else in this country, was ten times what it should be, we turned them down and continued to walk. We hadn’t walked far when we were approached by a young Indonesian couple who spoke good English. They asked us where we wanted to go and then kindly pointed us in the direction of the yellow vans circling a roundabout shouting their destinations in Indonesian. Thanking them, we boarded one of the buses. As we got in, a girl already sitting on the bus smiled at us and quietly opened her hand to reveal in her palm the correct fare, another kind act to prevent us from being ripped off by the bus driver who already had dollar signs reflecting in his eyes upon sight of us. To cement this further, the couple who had pointed us in the direction of the bus in the first place also came over and told the driver in no uncertain terms how much he would charge us and not a penny more. At about 15 pence each for the journey, we couldn’t complain.
With several hours to kill before our train to Bandar Lampung left, we took some time to wander around the area surrounding the station. From a bridge over the river, we stood for some time watching the goings on in the river bank community below us. We drew much attention, with every other motorbike and car slowing to wave or shout a cheery hello to us. A couple of young lads on a scooter stopped to ask for a photo and to chat for a short while. People on boats below us smiled up at us with bemusement. Eventually, the time came for us to depart on an overnight train and we found ourselves sharing a carriage with a Danish girl with long dreadlocks, grubby (and inappropriate) clothes and the biggest backpack we’d ever seen. It turned out she was heading south with little idea of where she was going. When we said we were heading for Java, she looked at us blankly and asked ‘Where’s that, is it a festival?’
After a surprisingly reasonable journey given that it wasn’t a sleeper train, but standard seats, we arrived in Bandar Lampung where we found that we were still some distance from the ferry port to Java. We would need to take a minibus the rest of the way. This proved to be to the usual standards, moving at double the speed required to stay safe while weaving between other traffic, being thrown around as though we were on a fairground ride – well, as much as you can be with 18 people crammed into an 11 seater bus. As with most ferry trips in Indonesia, the crossing was smooth and the ticket cheap. We chose seats inside to start with but beat a hasty retreat when a man appeared and set up a large sound system and microphone in the main indoor area. Instead, we moved to the foredeck and sat amongst the worn coils of rope in the sunshine, drinking wedang uwuh, (a local ginger drink which Google amusingly translates as 'hot water with garbage'), enjoying the peace of quiet as everyone else was subjected to ear-splitting karaoke style cabaret.
I had looked up other people's accounts of how to get from Sumatra to Java and it seemed simple. The train station was right next door to the ferry terminal and all we had to do was jump on a direct train to Jakarta and we were good. Wrong. Due to a recent schedule change, there was no longer any direct train to Jakarta, despite there being a straight train track that runs along the coast to the capital city, a journey that should take under two hours. Instead, after much confusion at the ticket counter, as if we were the first people to ever want to get to Jakarta from there, we were advised to take a series of trains connecting in out of the way places. The journey would take us another five hours.
When you spend a lot of time on the road you’re constantly meeting people who have just come from the place you’re heading to next. Personal experiences and opinions form a large part of what you hear about places. One person will hate a place with a passion, another will love it. You learn quickly to take people’s opinions with a pinch of salt, but Jakarta is one of those cities that everyone seemed to agree on – everyone who has been there hates it. Still, we were determined to keep our minds open and form our own opinions. Our first impressions weren’t good.
Arriving late in the evening at one of the busiest train stations I’ve ever had the misfortune to pass through, we decided to walk the few blocks to the cheapest hotel room we had been able to find. It was cheap by western standards, but easily the most expensive room we’d stayed in on the entire trip. It was also the dirtiest. It was hot, full of mosquitos and had no fan or AC and no useable wifi, despite the fact we’d paid for it. When we flushed the toilet it discharged not down a pipe but through a hole in the side of the toilet base all over the floor. Needless to say, cockroaches were rife. The woman on the reception desk shot daggers at us when she discovered we’d booked through Agoda and that she wouldn’t have the pleasure of charging us the walk-in price which was three times more. Too tired to fight we sweltered under the dirty, hair covered blankets for the night in an attempt to fend off the mosquitos.
We’d decided to spend a few days in the city, determined to give it a fair chance and, unable to find any better accommodation for the price, we reluctantly booked another night in the flea pit. I was curious to see some of Jakarta as it was the place in which my Grandad was captured and became a Prisoner of War in WW2, known then as Batavia. We headed for the old historic part of town and spent a pleasant enough morning wandering around the square, stopping in Café Batavia long enough only to take a photo after looking at the prices on the menu and realising we would have to part with a month’s budget in exchange for a coffee!
In the main square, we discovered a vibrant scene, locals wandered and talked, stopping to sit on the kerb and eat rice based dishes. Teenagers on brightly coloured rental bikes cycled in circles wearing colourful hats that matched. The now customary groups of school kids with their notepads hounded us every time we dared to pause, desperate to ask us their stock questions and video their efforts on their phones. We visited the museums, possibly the poorest offerings we’d experienced in any capital city so far. The consisted of large, mostly empty rooms adorned with a few pieces of old, dusty furniture and nothing whatsoever in the way of any explanation as to their significance. All around us local people snapped photos of absolutely everything in their path, us included. Still, it was fascinating to see the buildings that my Grandad would have seen during his time in the city, for example, the Post Office building in the square was built in 1929 and still stands today.
That afternoon, on the advice of a local gentleman we’d talked to in the square, we decided to head to the port. Here we stepped back into another era, one where produce such as flour, grain and building supplies are transported by sea on old wooden vessels. Along half a mile or so of quayside, we watched as boats were unloaded by hand using primitive hoists on to waiting flatbed trucks, visibly bowing under the strain of their excessive load. It was truly like stepping back into an earlier age. We spent a good few hours wandering between the quayside and the maritime museum, another fascinating insight into Jakarta’s colourful past.
At this point I think we were both very much indifferent to the city itself. It was busy, the traffic was insane and it wore us out, but we didn’t dislike it particularly. In an attempt to make the most of our time there we decided to head across town a few kilometres to Merdeka Square to see the National Monument, a towering structure set in its own park. It looked easy, we’d simply jump on a train to the station next to the park. This is where our public transit ordeal began.
Arriving at the station we came upon a scene of sheer chaos. Queues to buy tickets from a dozen or so self-service machines were out of the door and down the street. We picked one and upon finally reaching the front we discovered we couldn’t buy a ticket to where we wanted to go. More than a little frustrated, we decided to change tack and headed for the bus instead. Or at least we tried to. In Jakarta, a degree in ‘finding the entrance to the bus platform’ is required. We could see it but we couldn’t for the life of us find out how to get to it. A good twenty minutes later we took a random path by chance which led through a little garden area and eventually popped out at the bus ticket desk where a stony-faced woman wanted not only the bus fare from us (about $1 each) but an additional, non-refundable $5 each for a special card to which she would credit our fare. Angrily, we declined to pay $12 for a one-way 2.5km bus ride in a place where a collectivo-style van costs a tenth of that.
As a last resort, refusing to be beaten, we retraced our steps to where the huddle of scruffy minibuses stood, the dollar signs spinning in their driver's eyes as we approached. A ‘fixer’ that we neither spoke to nor asked for help laid 10,000 rupiahs on the bus seat and gave us the thumbs up sign when we said ‘for TWO people’. A couple of kilometres down the road (which included a detour several times up and down the main highway as he picked up and dropped off other people) we alighted and handed the driver 10,000. He spluttered and his hands went into overdrive as he insisted we paid 10,000 each. Knowing that this was double the fare, we stood firm and eventually turned our backs and walked away while he no doubt swore at us in Indonesian, angry that we hadn’t contributed to him making his million.
By the time we reached the monument it was dark, so we made our way inside the park, hopeful that it was still possible to climb the tower. After a good half an hour of walking around the perimeter of a second inner fence around the tower, we had to admit defeat and shouted to some people inside to ask how the hell we were supposed to get inside. Obviously, the entrance was via a subway-like tunnel, the entrance to which was way out at the edge of the park where there sat a group of official looking men in uniforms who informed us the tower was closed and we couldn’t go up. Confused, as plenty of other people were heading down the tunnel, we ignored the guards and joined them. At the ticket counter, we again had to buy a card to which our ticket entry fee was credited. A sign in the window declared that tickets to ascend the tower were sold out for the day, yet when we reached the front though they sold us two tickets without batting an eyelid. We then joined the queue.
Queuing is something that Indonesians don’t do well. A queue is a very vague thing. It consists of a gathering of people, a crowd with no real order that gradually swells as more and more people join at the closest point to where everyone is trying to reach. Elbows are futile, your opponents have years of practice and they’re top of their game. If you are lucky enough to ever reach your goal there are usually a couple of officials there barking orders to stay in line, but until that point, it’s each man for himself. Or woman. Or child. Or granny. Everyone joins in.
Somehow we made it to the front an hour or so later. We were scanned in and whizzed up in the elevator to the top, where we discovered possibly the most boring scene we’d ever seen from the top of a tower. With floodlights that blinded you from every angle, the skyline was mostly dark, only a few odd lights on here and there. The most impressive sight was the giant mosque and cathedral that sit side by side, a rare sign of the religious tolerance that exists between these two communities in Indonesia. Wishing we hadn’t bothered, we descended.
Exiting the park and reaching the train station was like being stuck inside a puzzle game on the Crystal Maze. First we took the obvious route – directly towards the gate nearest to the station. We found it closed and locked. There was, however, a guard sitting in a chair on his phone just by the gate. We asked if we could please leave but he simply shook his head and pointed to his left. We spent the next hour walking gradually around the entire perimeter of the park trying to find the exit gate via which we had entered, with a growing sense of hatred for this city and its impossible infrastructure. When we finally found ourselves outside the park, with a huge sense of relief, we discovered that we were on exactly the opposite side of the park from the station. Wearily, we began our walk around the outside, dodging the rather menacing becak drivers plying their extortionately priced trade. Upon arrival at the station, we found, of course, that there were no trains from there that took us to anywhere near where we wanted to go. Admitting defeat, we began walking wearily in the direction of our hotel. We walked until our feet could take no more and after a second stop of the day at A&W for a burger, we gave in and took a becak the rest of the way.
It seems transport in Jakarta is a well-acknowledged problem. Ask Google for directions and ominously it gives you the same time estimates for taking the train, bus, driving and walking. Traffic is insane. We wanted so desperately to like the city, but trying to move around it was sheer hell and it was nigh on impossible not to be ripped off when we had no choice but to use transport. There’s an undeniable edge to Jakarta, an undercurrent you can’t quite put your finger on but can sense is ever present. At least the scammers are so prevalent that it’s impossible not to spot them. At our hotel on the second night I went out to the lobby to use the wifi that didn’t work in our room only to be approached by another ‘guest’ who asked me outright if I would please use my credit card to pay for something online for him that cost several hundred dollars if he gave me the cash as he had a problem with his card. No attempt at an introduction or conversation, just a straight ask. Naturally, I declined.
Jakarta wasn’t all bad though. Everywhere we went, as in most other places in Indonesia, the people we met randomly on the street were some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. At train stations, elderly ladies would enquire as to our destination so they could ensure we were on the correct train. Pause for even a second on the street to read a sign or street name and someone will immediately ask where you are trying to get to and offer help. In small towns we would be mobbed by selfie-takers and children would shout and wave excitedly from car windows. There is something undeniably endearing about the country and we were determined to make the most of our last few weeks there.