Monday, September 2, 2013

Jakarta, Indonesia: Where First Impressions Do Not Last

Reluctant. I was reluctant leaving the first-world comforts of Singapore and my growing familiarity with Singapore food delights that rainy morning. I was flying for the first time into a country I was unfamiliar with, even though its culture, language, and ethnic origins resembled mine the most. It did not help that I was flying into its capital Jakarta, which was notoriously congested and polluted, in many ways more than my hometown Manila. I crossed the equator for the first time, but did not realize it until I looked out the window and finally saw my home for the next three weeks—Indonesia.

Cikini-Menteng Area at Night, Central Jakarta, Indonesia
Chaotic streets of evening rush hour in Jakarta, Indonesia

Upon landing, I navigated Soekarno Hatta International Airport searching for the ATM center and the bus station. The airport was not exactly passenger-friendly, but I did find both.

Though the distance from here to Central Jakarta was just around 25 kilometers, traffic made travel difficult. It proved true as my evening ride to the city center, to the bus terminal beside Gambir Railway Station, stretched three hours. When I got off, I immediately made the mistake of dismissing the bajaj (autorickshaw) and ojek (motorbike taxi) making offers to take me to my hostel. An hour and a half would pass, lugging my two big backpacks through the busy, smog-filled, and pedestrian-unfriendly streets of the capital, before I would wallow in regret.

Jakarta first impressions, not good.

Stumbling into places

I managed to get out of my hostel by noon the next day. I had to buy a train ticket to my next destination after all. I made my way to the railway station but this time, stayed away from the main roads and walked through a quiet, nearly empty neighborhood. Houses were slightly more affluent here and numerous trees provided shade. It was only later when I learned that the current leader of the free world, Barrack Obama, lived for some years as a kid in that same neighborhood, Menteng. So that was that.

It was fairly quick purchasing a train ticket, so I took it easy on my way out. Outside the station, I suddenly noticed Indonesia's National Monument (Monumen Nasional, or simply Monas). At 130 meters high, the white marble tower was hard not to notice. It was built in the years following Indonesia's independence from the Dutch. The monument was impressive, sure, but it was what I found outside that got me excited.

National Monument, Merdeka Square, Jakarta, Indonesia
Built following Indonesia's independence from the Dutch, the National Monument stands 130 meters high.

Pancakes make things better

On the sidewalk by the gates of Monas sat a few hawkers. One sold kerak telor. It's a pancake. It's an omelet. However, it's not sweet, rather savory, like a samosa or roti. This very popular Jakarta snack is a Betawi invention. The Betawi are the people of Jakarta descended from a mix of ethnicity: Malay, Sunda, Java, and even foreign groups like the Dutch, Portuguese, and Chinese. They were the people who populated the Dutch colony of Jakarta, then called Batavia. Hence, the local name Betawi.

Kerak Telor (Betawi Omelette), Jakarta, Indonesia
The kerak telor hawker, a staple of Jakarta streets since forever

Kerak Telor (Betawi Omelette), Jakarta, Indonesia
Kerak telor, rice pancakes with savory coconut shavings, shallots, and shrimps

From his mobile kitchen, the hawker scooped up a few spoonfuls of soaked glutinous rice onto a pan, boiling them in a thin layer of water. When the water dried up, he added toasted coconut shavings on top. He then cracked an egg, spread it evenly on the pan, and let the entire thing cook for a minute. When the pancake was roasted brown, he topped it with shallots and dried shrimp.

I hurried to a quiet, concealed corner of the street before I went to town on the kerak telor. The pancake's savory flavor was a delightful and welcome surprise. I liked it so much that only a few minutes later, I had already finished half, tucking the other half inside my bag. It was just as well as I suddenly found myself in the premises of the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in the largest Muslim country in the world. Incidentally, it was also the largest mosque in Southeast Asia.

Grilled meat to end a good day

As it was Ramadan when I visited, streets got extra lively after the sun set. Noise, traffic, head lights, the works. People eager to break their fast were out and about buying food from hawkers. Some were in their cars parked by the sidewalks ordering food from street-side food stalls, locally known as warung. Performers paraded the streets, too, dressed as ondel-ondel puppets, not unlike the higantes of Rizal, Philippines or smaller versions of the Gayant family of Douai, France.

Central Jakarta Evening Rush Hour, Indonesia
Jakartans rush about eager to break the day's fast.

From the hostel, I set out to find dinner and noticed quite a collection of cars beside a warung. Moving closer, I noticed it was selling sate padang. Sate is char-grilled meat on a stick. Sate padang, meanwhile, is a variety of sate originating from one of the cultural capitals of Sumatra—Padang. This version used beef which was smothered with a spicy orange peanut sauce topped with roasted shallots. Eaten with pieces of steamed rice cakes called lontong, it was the perfect dinner.

Sate Padang and Teh Botol, Jakarta, Indonesia
Sate padang is a version of sate hailing from Padang, Sumatra.

The next morning on my way to the train station, as I hauled my bags onto the streets of Jakarta once more, I realized I had a better impression of the Indonesian capital. Maybe I had understood why it was chaotic as it was. Maybe I had gotten a glimpse of its quieter side. The city grew on me.

Pancakes and grilled meats helped, of course.

Which city have you traveled to defied your first impressions? How?

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