Going off with Strangers – The Real Jakarta

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.


Welcome to gridlock city.

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.

Mr. Sukarno

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.

Inside the Maritime Museum

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.

Outside the museum.

“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.

Jakarta harbour longboats

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.

Jakarta street photography

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!





Day 69 – Location: Kiritipur, Nepal


Whilst I was having breakfast at the guest house Camille appeared. I met her and her sister Gersende afterwards. They’d been to Nargakot for the sunrise and sunset, near Bhaktapur. Although I’d been advised it’s one of the best views in Nepal, Camille wasn’t too impressed and said the visibility was poor. They’d had a good time walking around the area though.

Kirtipur sidestreet

Kirtipur sidestreet

They were off to Kirtipur today, a recommended town close to Kathmandu, and invited me to join them. I agreed and we caught a local mini bus from the bus station nearby. It was pretty big and comfy by Nepali standards. We drove through the sprawl of Kathmandu for about half an hour and wound our way through a short bit of countryside up a hill to Kirtipur. I was expecting some charming village but it was a typical, although very colourful town of stacked houses on the hillside. We were dropped off just outside town, where kids were playing football and a team of guys were stuffing blankets on the grass, beating the blankets with sticks to make the down more fluffy.



The terrible twosome!

Gersende and Camille



We walked uphill from the bus stop along the tall streets and came upon a big Thai-style Wat (temple) which we’d seen from the bus stop, decorated in red and gold with a large large golden stupa next to the main building. There was a memorial stone for a Thai airlines plane crash which had happened nearby. We saw two tourists inside, and for the rest of the day we didn’t see any more, which made a nice change!










We climbed up a steep path from the main road where the houses became more old and traditional, reminding me of Bhaktapur and Patan. We followed the sound of music to find a procession of people in black dress playing flutes and drums. We later learned they were promoting the opening of a new museum in the town.


As it was Saturday there was lots of activity as we wandered around the charming backstreets. The people here were really friendly and quite happy for us to take photos of them at work and play. Lots of women were drying rice on mats in the baking heat of the streets.






After a nice little stone temple we found a group of guys clustered around a piece of paper on which symbols were drawn. It was a dice gambling game. The participants dropped paper money from above to land randomly on one of the symbols. Then 6 dice were rolled, and you got a payout if your money was on the symbols which came up on the dice. The guy running it asked if we wanted to try. I gave it a go and got lucky – double my money back!


Shortly afterwards we passed a cute kid wearing a tiny bike helmet which was really funny, his mum let us take a photo.


Soon we found a collection of stupas at the top of the hill, with prayer flags fanning out like webs from each one. The central stupa was unusually painted blue around the top where the eyes were.








Down the other side of the hill we came to a small temple next to one of the big communal ponds that you can find in the old cities, which was covered in algae and had rubbish floating around in it. Cam had been chatting to a local guy who introduced himself. We’ll call him Kamal as I can’t remember his name, it was something like that! Kamal spoke good English and told us some history of the area, this was one of the five big city states of Nepal back in the day, and we were in the main square. I suspected that Kamal was a guide and was proved right later, but he wasn’t offering his services for money, just curious to get to know us and tell us a bit about the area. He explained that the green pond gets cleaned and filled with fresh water at certain times of the year for festivals.






Next to the pond was a very old and ornate wooden building with sloping windows. He said it was the old house for the king and queen of Kirtipur, back when it was a separate city-state. He offered to show us inside, it’s just a normal house now. The interior was quite dark and had low ceilings, with steep and simple wooden steps separating the floors – I had to bend on them to avoid bumping my head. We went into a simple bedroom where an old lady was sitting. After greeting her, Kamal insisted we sit in the windowsill seats overlooking the square, in the same spot that the king and the queen used to sit to watch their subjects.


We chatted about ourselves and found out about our guide. It turned out he is transgender, a devout Buddhist and does a variety of jobs including an unofficial tour guide. He was enlightened about his sexuality some years ago when a German couple was visiting him, they talked with him about his feelings and ultimately encouraged him to try women’s clothes and makeup! From that point he became open about his sexuality – not something to be sniffed at in this conservative country. He was already in an arranged marriage and actually sent his wife away, telling her he liked men, but romantically she kept coming back telling him she accepted him as he was. Eventually he took her back, and now they have a son and have been together for ten years. Luckily for him the locals are now very accepting of him and his sexuality. He’s now a gay and lesbian ambassador for Nepalese people, and goes to Kathmandu to meet other transgenders. It was pretty random to run into one of Nepal’s very few openly gay guys!

Tip lady

Tip lady

We left the house and I asked to photograph an old women in the courtyard who agreed via Kamal, as long as I paid her a tip. After giving her one small note she kept motioning for more until she had 3 and I wouldn’t give her any more!

Kamal in his home

Kamal in his home

Kamal invited us for tea at his house a few minutes away. He lives on the middle floor of one of the old street buildings. We took off our shoes at the living area/bedroom where his young wife was, and his two year old son was sleeping in the bed, despite it being about 2pm. It was a simple house, classic Nepali. We sat on cushions and his wife brought us some tasty local sweet tea which I hadn’t tried before. Kamal told us about his wife and his problems making money now he had a son to support. Other foreigners have visited him before and the German couple he’d met had even donated 400 euros to pay for his son’s medical checkups. Because of his sexuality and marital situation he used to have problems getting work, and had to do menial work like cleaning. Now he sometimes works as a guide amongst other better quality jobs. He obviously makes a bit of money from people like us who he invites to his house and shows around – who then pay him for the hospitality.


We were offered food, Kamal’s wife produced plates of beaten dry rice, which is hard and chewy, served with soy beans and pickled spinach. Although it was a simple meal, the flavour combinations were very tasty. Kamal’s son woke up and smiled to see the visitors in his house. Then Kamal did some prayers for us, sitting cross-legged and lighting incense. He prayed for our good luck and health one by one, sometimes murmuring under his breath. At two points he whipped his head sideways, which he told us afterwards was throwing bad premonitions he’d had away, about me and Cam. He’d also forseen a problem with Gersende’s arm and had put a protection charm on it. After this nice gesture we went outside, and he mentioned maybe we could give him something, which is as I’d expected, but it’s not often you get invited into a local house and shown around for nothing!


As we walked up the hill to see a temple we came to a political event in the street, with a big audience and a stage, with a large riot police presence, some carrying huge rifles. There are upcoming elections in Nepal and due to the very troubled political history there’s always the danger of trouble. It was a Maoist event judging by the flags, the party currently in government. First on stage there was traditional dancing by a woman in full Newari dress, twirling, running and swinging her long ponytail around to music. Then a guy came on stage to sing. A band with cymbals and drums marched past the proceedings, we’d seen this setup before, leading political marches around Kathmandu, presumably it was from another party sent to disrupt the occasion, as they were shadowed closely by the police keen to avoid trouble.


Our guide led us uphill to the biggest tiered temple of the town, another really old one with worn wooden carvings on the beams. The stone elephants guarding the steps had big spikes to stop people sitting on them! Kamal told me this was a temple where if you are single you should pray there to get a girlfriend. Of course he made me do it! There was a great view over Kathmandu from up here.


Around the yard there were some Nepali mountain bikers milling around and pulling wheelies. We got chatting to one of them who told us he and his friends go out riding every Saturday exploring the area around Kathmandu. He gave us some recommendations for places to visit too.

View from the temple

View from the temple

We left the temple and said goodbye to Kamal, we figured the cost of a normal lunch each plus a bit more was a fair price to pay him. He thanked us and invited us to visit him for the upcoming Diwali festival. We walked down the hill, passing the political event where an man was shouting animatedly, I guess they got to the meat of the proceedings. A line of riot police had blockaded one end of the street but let us pass. Blacked-out jeeps were waiting nearby, presumably to ferry off the politicians in a hurry afterwards before any trouble could start. The audience were clapping and nodding to the energetic speech.

Skipping game

Skipping game

We twisted our way down the hill through the old streets until the main road, passing some nice views of the Kathmandu valley, until we reached the bus stop. We hopped on a mini bus back to Kathmandu and on arrival tucked into some momos from a street stall. As is quite common here they were served in bowls made from leaves, an eco-friendly way to do fast food! They were really tasty and covered in a tomato and chili sauce. The girls were heading off to a Nepali friend’s house so I said goodbye and went down to the restaurant to write this diary entry, and chatted to Ashman who I’ve got to know the past few days, before turning in early.


Kirtipur “rest station”


Kathmandu Streets Photo Walk


Day 64 – Location: Kathmandu; Nepal


I woke up pretty late and found Camille, the Belgian girl I’d met yesterday was just getting up too. We decided to hang out. She had a few free days before her sister was arriving from Belgium for a holiday. Cam’s been travelling for a few years all around Asia, and this was her second time in Nepal. We went for breakfast and then walked up to check out a hostel Sophie had stayed at, which she’d recommended. We also popped into the nearby KEEP office, which offers independent trekking advice. Inside they have diaries with trekking accounts and advice from other travelers. A great resource. Out on the terrace we met some French guys and Camille chatted away to them whilst I kind of got the gist of their conversation. They were going trekking and had found the KEEP to be a great help.

Camille on the hotel rooftop

Camille on our hotel rooftop

I parted ways with Cam to walk up to the British Embassy nearby to find out what to do about my passport replacement. I got through some heavy duty security there into the office. The lady I’d spoken to on the phone was on the other side of the bullet-proof glass at the counter. There were two big buttons by the window on her side saying BOMB and PANIC. I guess if there’s a bomb you should hit them both? We discussed my options. A temporary emergency passport would let me leave Nepal immediately and enter other countries, but I’d have to specify dates and countries in advance and it expires in a few months. The other option was to apply for a full passport replacement, which is processed in Hong Kong and could be sent to the Nepal embassy. She advised me my next port of call would have to be the Nepal Immigration Office to see if they’d extend my Nepali visa long enough for me to receive the full replacement passport. Unfortunately that office was already closed today. I thanked her and left, pondering what to do about the situation.

Rooftop view of Kathmandu when the birds flock at dusk

Rooftop view of Kathmandu, the birds flocking at dusk

I spent some time on the internet at the hotel researching the replacement passport. The passport and embassy websites all linked to each other with contradicting information about what documents and procedures you have to follow in my situation, really confusing. Camille appeared and I gave up, hanging out with her for the rest of the afternoon. We went to the Yak Tibetan restaurant where I’d been before, to introduce her to the warm millet beer there. A Russian girl met us there who Cam knew from on earlier travels. As usual the place was packed and we ended up waiting for a while for a seat, whilst an annoying beggar boy shoved his hand in our face shouting “MONEY” – ignoring us telling him to get lost, clearly out of his mind on drugs.


We eventually got a table shared with an old German chap, who was a bit odd, but friendly enough. He’s a mountaineer and has climbed peaks all over the world. His latest trek in the Everest region had to be cut short due to altitude problems. A few years ago he’d got a condition when climbing where too much pressure had built in his brain due to the altitude, a problem which has plagued him since. He now has to acclimatize very slowly or it starts affecting him so badly he can’t continue. I felt sorry for him, unable to pursue his passion due to his health.


We stayed quite late and then went up to the hotel roof before bed, watching the stars and listening to music wafting over the rooftops. Its great chilling out above the city like this, everywhere should have rooftops you can relax on!


Day 65 – Location: Kathmandu; Nepal


After a terrible night’s sleep I packed up my stuff and joined Camille to move to a hotel she’d found south of the Durbar square. She wanted somewhere nice to share with her sister for her arrival later tonight. We walked down there with all our things and checked in, just off Freak Street, which is where all the hippies used to stay back in the 60s and 70s. You can tell that the longer term travelers frequent this area, lots of older travelers and vagabonds kicking around, with little cafes, restaurants, cheap guest houses and internet cafes lining the road.

Shrine door

Shrine door



An old street near Freak Street

We didn’t have anything to do so we set off for a photo walk – we both like photography and so we wandered the streets for most of the afternoon. Camille was quite inspiring with her inquisitive nature and interacted with the locals way more than me, especially with young children. We investigated a lot of little backstreets and hidden courtyards.










Dried fish. Yuk.

We had fun seeing how we each interpret the same scene in photos. We found a bustling food place hidden in a tiny courtyard where they serve samosas and other goodies, packed with locals eating their food out of bowls made from leaves. Pretty cool. Camille showed me a lassi (milk drink) stall she’d found before and I tried it out, it was tasty.


A popular snack found on vendor’s trolleys, different corns including popcorn are mixed with onions and sauce in a paper cone





Temple steps used as a stall





You’d occasionally see people sharpening tools, out of shot a guy is sitting pulling a chain to power the wheel, a bit like a rowing machine at a gym.

Later in the afternoon we returned to the hotel to chill out and I rested for a few hours or two. After a beer I walked Camille to the bus station, she was heading to the airport to meet her sister. It was dark now and Kathmandu has a lack of street lights. People bustle past each other to the lights of passing vehicles and stalls. The bus stops at the main road were chaos with loads of people milling around, mini buses and tuk tuks honking incessantly. Camille was asking people where the buses for the airport were and we kept getting different answers. We were getting sent in circles around the streets whilst time was running out for her. Eventually we got a solid answer for where the bus station was,  which revealed we’d been given the wrong information the whole rest of the evening! We finally found the right place, dodging racing traffic in the dark to cross the roads. You can’t even see the pavement here in many places. Luckily the first bus we found was going to the airport and I bid Cam goodbye. I walked back to the hotel and discovered a direct path cutting straight through the park to the bus park from the direction of the hotel. If we’d been given the right info we would have arrived in minutes, not half an hour. That’s travelling for you! I spent the rest of the evening chilling out.


View from a rooftop restaurant in the Durbar square











Camille’s favourite Lassi shop



Fresh momos (Tibetan dumplings)





Malla (flower garland) stall