Didn’t your mother tell you never to go with strangers? Well, sorry mum. I did just that. But on the plus side, I got to see a side of Jakarta that the average tourist will never set eyes on!
It was my second day in Jakarta, Indonesia’s massive, smoggy capital. My taxi had spent over an hour to grind through just a few kilometers of the gridlock of honking cars, tuk tuks, belching fumes and weaving motorbikes in the city centre, out to the old harbour of Sunda Kelpa. This area still has some old Portuguese colonial buildings, now rather dilapidated, and is also home of the Jakarta Maritime Museum, which I’d heard was worth checking out.
I took in the view of the museum, with its gleaming cream colonial buildings and red tile roof from the old watchtower. The complex rose like an island above a sea of rickety buildings with corrugated roofs jutting out like waves at every possible angle. This architectural chaos is typical Jakarta.
Back on true terra firma, I was approached by a local man who I will call Mr. Sukarno. He offered his services as a guide around the museum, and I politely declined. But I was travelling alone and happy to chat with him about the area, and the history of the old port. He seemed to know his stuff. There were no tourists here today, it was low season, so he offered to take me around the museum and I could pay him what I liked. If it was rubbish – then no charge. Normally I’d never go for a deal like this, but as he was local I thought it would be good to pick his brains on life in Jakarta anyway, and if I learned anything else, it would be a bonus.
It turned out Mr. Sukarno was actually a great guide. His English was good and he knew the museum well, as we wandered through the history of seafaring Indonesia and Jakarta, passing old ship hulls under the sloping wooden rafters of the building. Mr. Sukarno elaborated on a lot of the information of the rather sparse info boards and knew the answers to all my questions. After an hour I was all boated out and ready to head off. Mr. Sukarno asked if I would visit his neighbourhood and see around the port area, knowing already that I was interested in local culture and photography.
At this point I had to make a tricky judgement call. Mr. Sukarno seemed legit, he was clearly well educated, and he was on good terms with the museum staff who obviously knew him, and he’d also chatted with my taxi driver earlier. But I’d heard of and encountered first hand con artists who lure tourists into “home invites” or “local tours” in various countries I’d visited, in the hopes of involving them into a scam, or worse. But my time with Mr. Sukarno had been good, and I’d quizzed him about his life and seen how the others treated him. After all, I’d also learned in my travels that some people just want to be hospitable and are proud to show foreigners their culture.
Mr. Sukarno led me out of the museum into the port streets. Stalls selling everything from fruit to Tupperware lined the roads, roofed by tarpaulins. We passed clanging workshops, fishing industry outfitters strewn with nets, and people carrying heavy loads and pushing trolleys of goods. The masts of ships of all shapes and sizes poked above the low rooftops.
“Don’t come here alone, this is not a good area.” I recalled the warning from my taxi driver. We were clearly entering a poor part of the harbour (large chunks of the city are slums or impoverished). Entering a warren of quieter alleys where people and bicycles barely squeezed past each other, we ducked into the tight maze of a dark concrete indoor food market, lit only by the occasional hanging lightbulb.
Mr Sukarno obviously knew a few of the stall owners here and although none of them spoke English, they were happy to see me and listen to my murdering of simple Bahasa greetings. After Mr. Sukarno’s comment about safety, during this part of the tour I kept my camera mostly in my bag, even with a guide I didn’t want to advertise I was carrying an expensive bit of kit. My flip flops slid on blood on the floor – but it was just the classic Asian market where butchery happens right in front of you. Fresh food indeed! I often pity the people who work in these dark and smelly indoor markets, where the sun never shines.
We exited the market and continued through a confusing maze of narrow alleys and wooden houses, we were at the waterside now and tromping over planks rather than concrete. Doors opening directly onto the walkway revealed compact households inside. Kids and adults alike stared in surprise or smiled and waved at the foreigner touring around their neighbourhood.
We emerged from the covered residential pier into bright daylight on a rickety bridge crossing the dark and oily harbour waters. Fishing boats ranging from big metal trawlers to low wooden longtails chugged around the port and rows of them were moored on every inch of free harbour wall. Wrinkled yellow strips lay on nets and the corrugated roofs around us – Mr. Sukarno told me they were dried fish. He explained that most of the families in this part of the harbour were poor fishing folk, many living right next to their boats on this cobbled together, ever expanding pier of houses.
Across the bridge, passing running, playing children, we entered a more regular neighbourhood, where Mr. Sukarno lives. Here the streets became wider again, and houses were taller and made of stone. It was clearly a bit wealthier, with some parked cars, brightly painted walls and various shops and stalls – although hardly commercial or modern. We stopped frequently to chat with shop owners and families, Mr. Sukarno certainly seemed to be a popular guy!
At Mr. Sukarno’s small but pleasant house he offered me tea and we talked a bit about his life. He used to be an English teacher, hence his good language skills, and after various business endeavours had started offering his services as a guide down at the museum, convenient because it’s so close to his home. Although it’s quiet for punters at this time of year, in high season it can bring him a nice bit of extra income. He claimed I was the first person to actually visit his neighbourhood and house, and he was very happy to meet someone who was so interested in seeing the “real” Jakarta, and learning about their culture. I was flattered.
With late afternoon creeping in I decided it was time to head back to my hostel before the dreaded rush hour, when the drive (or crawl, more specifically) could take literally hours. I was going to call a taxi but Mr. Sukarno insisted he would take me on his motorbike instead. I had seen how the Jakartan’s drove motorbikes and so was a bit wary, but a free ride is a free ride, and I knew it would be fun. We raced along as I clung on for dear life to Mr. Sukaro, weaving through multi-lane traffic (both sides of the road), driving on and off pavements and dodging bollards, just as I suspected!
We drove through a small Chinatown and stopped off at one of Jakarta’s few Buddhist temples there. Incense filled the air and red candles and Buddhist decorations filled the interior. I watched as people threw patterned paper sheets into a fire – a custom which I hadn’t seen before, even in Nepal and Thailand. Essentially it’s a burnt offering, the paper is called “joss paper” or “ghost money”, and it’s usually burned to honour ancestors or the deceased. After getting my fill of photographs, I hopped back on the bike.
We navigated the traffic gridlock in style, motorbike is definitely the fastest and most fun way to get around in Jakarta, if not really the safest! We passed through the true slums, visible over a dirty, rubbish filled canal. The people may be poor here but they’re still friendly enough – men waved to me at a traffic light from a weird floating wooden platform that I was informed was the canal’s informal ferry! Half an hour later back at the hostel and with a saddle-sore bum, I thanked and paid Mr. Sukarno a generous tip and promised to promote his guide services in the hostel. He’d shown me a side of Jakarta I never would have experienced, as well as allowing me to meet the locals, and I wished him well.
It just goes to show that sometimes you need to get outside your comfort zone when travelling to really experience what a place has to offer. I took a chance on this occasion, and it paid off handsomely. I was a little nervous until we reached Mr Sukarno’s house that I might have made a mistake, given the areas we were going through, but it turned out alright. Of course I don’t suggest that you head off with random strangers in cities, especially ones you meet at tourist attractions, but in this case I had carefully observed and questioned my host, and seen how the staff and locals knew him, before agreeing to accompany him into the unknown in a dodgy area of town.
Often on the road you are put into situations where you have to make a gut call about trusting someone, and this gets easier with experience. It’s nice to know that not every person that approaches you is out to con you; some are just trying to make a living and are actually good at what they do. At the end of the day, an adventure with Mr. Sukarno taught me a lot more about Jakartan life than any museum!