Field notes from Jakarta

photo credit: Unclosed door via photopin (license)
photo credit: Unclosed door via photopin (license)

Samantha North, Jakarta, Indonesia

After just a few minutes in Jakarta, one thing really stood out. The traffic.

It took over two hours for the taxi to make the relatively short trek from airport to the diplomatic district, where my hotel was located.

This unfortunate fact is well documented. According to a recent survey by Castrol, Jakarta has the world’s worst congestion. Istanbul comes a close second. I was keen to compare the two.

I went to Jakarta to attend the 2015 New Cities Summit, organised by the Paris-based think tank New Cities Foundation. Delegates included academics, tourism managers, journalists, businesspeople and social entrepreneurs of all kinds. I met an interesting man who told me the story of how he created his own city in the hill stations of India.

The event began with a speech by the governor of Jakarta, in which he talked about the city’s challenges and what the government is doing to tackle them. Then the keynote by Greg Lindsay, of the New Cities Foundation’s Mobility Initiative, talked of the ‘Urban Moment’, and was followed by a panel discussion delving into that theme in greater detail.

As a result of major demographic shifts towards city dwelling, i.e. the ‘urban moment’, many cities are focusing on investing to upgrade their infrastructure and services. Combined with the latest advances in technology, as seen in the latest crop of ‘smart cities’, it appears that the future belongs to cities.

However, as might be expected, significant shifts such as these are not without their challenges. Many cities are already struggling to cope with large influx of migrants. Jakarta is certainly one of these, with its crumbling infrastructure already straining under the weight of 28 million residents.

As a casual observer, brand-new to the city, I was surprised by the distinct lack of mass transit systems, although I noticed construction work underway to build a light rail system. There is also the Trans-Jakarta bus network, which runs around the city using dedicated lanes, similar to Istanbul’s Metrobus.

Unlike the Metrobus, the pathways of the Trans-Jakarta are less regulated. Cars often use them to sneak ahead of other traffic. This behaviour compromises the efficiency of the whole bus network and does not help the congestion problems.

To overcome traffic issues, many residents of Jakarta rely on two wheels to get around. Small motorbikes fill the streets in abundance. There are also a large number of unregulated motorbike taxis, known as ojeks, which hang out on street corners looking for passengers.

photo credit: Ojek via photopin (license)
photo credit: Ojek via photopin (license)

Every year, the city faces another severe problem: flooding. Located in a valley within a network of eight rivers, Jakarta is a prime target for floods. When the monsoons come, certain areas of the city just cannot cope and experience substantial damage and loss of livelihoods.

At the summit, I discovered Peta Jakarta, a research project that aims to mitigate the flood problems by harnessing a network of social media users to provide flood warnings and information using Twitter.

On the second day of the summit I was fortunate enough to hear a talk by Nobel Peace prize winner, Muhammad Yunus, famous for his founding of Grameen Bank and his subsequent work to support social entrepreneurship worldwide.

The summit featured a variety of social entrepreneurs and researchers who showcased their projects. Some of them, like Peta Jakarta and Go-Jek (Jakarta’s answer to Uber, but for motorbikes), have been designed to tackle Jakarta’s particular urban challenges.

Jakarta has plenty of good features too. I don’t know if I was simply lucky with the people I met on the streets, but I found them to be among the friendliest I’ve known in Southeast Asia. While exploring Jakarta’s central square, my small group of colleagues and I were approached many times by groups of giggling schoolgirls, hoping to get their picture taken among foreigners.

I’ve encountered this phenomenon before in other countries, such as China, where it tended to become somewhat overwhelming after a while. But these young girls were so genuine and enthusiastic that it was impossible not to oblige their request.

In the same square, at the historic Café Batavia, I encountered some of the most incredible desserts I’ve ever seen. It was also my first opportunity to taste the famous Kopi Luwak, otherwise known as ‘cat shit’ coffee. This stuff is made from coffee beans that remain undigested after being consumed by the civet cat.

It apparently sells for £60 a cup (or even more ridiculous prices at Harrods) in trendy areas of London. Now was the perfect chance to try it out in its natural habitat. Sadly, the experience was a complete anti-climax, tasting like a slightly more watery version of regular filter coffee. No discernible special properties at all, although Indonesians say it’s full of powerful antioxidants.

The trip ended with a quick visit to the Istiqlal Mosque, where the smiling attendant told us there was no need to cover our heads, although we did anyway. The inside of the mosque was impressive, but less ornate than the ones I’ve seen in Turkey.

Jakarta currently seems to be making a name for itself as a place with fearsome congestion levels. But it’s so much more than that and I hope it can move away from the negative. Once the city has managed to sort out its transport network, which may happen over the next couple of years, it will surely become a much more enticing destination.

Hopefully that will be the point where more people decide to come and actually discover Jakarta for themselves, without being discouraged by the difficulty of getting around.

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