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10 things I wish I'd known about Jakarta (before moving here)

Barry Dunning
Barry Dunning

Irish-Australian communications expert currently based in Jakarta

Jakarta  /  Mon, January 13, 2020  /  03:25 pm
10 things I wish I'd known about Jakarta (before moving here)

Motorists use the busway lane in an attempt to avoid traffic along Jl. MH Thamrin, Central Jakarta. (The Jakarta Post/PJ Leo )

When I moved to Jakarta from Sydney in 2017, I thought I knew what to expect: traffic jams, tropical weather, batik and bowls of nasi goreng.

I’d visited Bali and Yogyakarta before, so I presumed that Jakarta would just be a bigger version of those places. How little did I know…

Yes, Jakarta has lots of traffic, monsoon rainfall, colorful shirts and delicious fried rice – but it has so much more. And it's only when you live and work somewhere - commuting, getting to know your work colleagues and paying the electricity bills - that you get a true sense of the place and learn some key facts they don’t tell you in the welcome packs.

So without further ado, here are ten top tips I wish I had known before moving to Jakarta:

If there isn’t a group photo at the end of a work event or meeting, then it didn't happen

Before moving to Indonesia, I thought obsessive photo taking was for wannabe Insta-influencers or special occasions like a wedding. How wrong I was.

Multiple photos – formal shot and “freestyle!”, followed by a full review and inevitable reshoot - are essential to document that a meeting or event in Indonesia has taken place. And it’s not limited to millennials or Gen Z – many a photoshoot is marshaled by an older Bapak or Ibu.

Pro tip: No matter the occasion you should expect a photoshoot, so ensure you have a freestyle pose up your sleeve. 

Everything at work runs on WhatsApp 

In Indonesia it seems like no one sends work emails; instead, everything appears to run through WhatsApp, especially WhatsApp groups.

This takes some getting used to – the blurring of personal and professional lines, the invasion of privacy and the always-on nature of the medium – but once you’ve adapted you’ll never look back. After a couple of weeks, I’d moved from complaining about the avalanche of WhatsApp messages to being the person who says “let’s set up a chatroom for this”. 

Pro tip: Learn to stop worrying and love the workplace WhatsApp group!

Jakarta is really, really massive

I knew that Jakarta was big, but the scale and density of the place are truly mind-boggling. More people live in Jabodetabek or Greater Jakarta area (30 million) than in all of Australia (24.6 million).

This sheer mass of humans makes for a city where space is at a premium. The roads are jammed with traffic, and the sidewalks – where they exist – are littered with kaki lima (food cart) and other vendors jostling for space.

A small laneway entrance, barely a meter wide, can lead to a dense urban kampung where dozens, or even hundreds, of families are living – some in pristine and well-established houses, some in small rooms made from plywood and corrugated iron.

Pro tip: Aim to keep your triangle of happiness – between work, home and where you socialize, as small as possible.

Jakartans are unbelievably patient in traffic

I am in awe of how patient Jakartans – and all Indonesians – are on the roads. The traffic in Jakarta is always bad; when the rains come it becomes chaotically bad.

A single accident can shut down a major artery for hours. And to expat-eyes, there appear to be almost no road rules: Ojeks (motorcycle taxi) and motorbikes weave through moving and stopped traffic, often on the sidewalks. Bikes, cars and kaki lima frequently drive the wrong way on major highways so they can make their turns.

Yet despite this, in nearly three years I’ve never once witnessed an issue of road rage. The horn is used as an ancillary indicator, rather than as a sign of anger. Contrast this with a country like Australia where people frequently fly into a rage at the most minor of issues. 

Pro tip: Take a leaf out of Indonesian driver's books and stay calm on the roads – you’ll get there when you get there.

Read also: Popular vlogger Nas Daily starts Indonesian language Facebook page

But you take your life in your hands when you walk

If everyone else could learn some patience from Jakartans, then the Big Durian could certainly learn from others when it comes to the provision of pedestrian infrastructure.

While progress has been made since 2017 (when half the city was dug up for the Asian Games), there is still a massive deficit of sidewalks and road crossings.

And what little infrastructure does exist usually comes with its own challenges, whether that is with open drains and unexplained giant holes, kaki lima vendors selling tasty gorengan (fried snacks) while blocking walkways, or motorbikes seeking a shortcut. And in other cases the pavements that do exist appear to have been chosen for their visuals, not their practicality, frequently turning as slippery as the ice rink at Mall Taman Anggrek at the first drop of rain.

Pro tip: Avoid the footpaths in SCBD and Mega Kuningan, both in South Jakarta, when it rains.

You’ll spend half of your life in a mall

I’m not a shopaholic, but I’ve spent more time at the mall (any mall) in Indonesia than across the entirety of my life to date.

Of course, the air-con helps, but in the absence of walkable pavements and the traffic, walking from street to street to shop can become an impossible task.

And in Jakarta – like across Asia – the malls are set up to cater to all of your eating, drinking, shopping, socializing, exercise and entertainment needs. Some even have internal walking routes, with guidance on how many calories you can burn from doing a circuit.

Pro tip: Think of the mall as an all-in-one destination rather than somewhere for shopping alone.

The most important word in the dictionary: Belum

In English, “not yet” has a pretty rigid meaning. Its direct Bahasa Indonesia translation, belum, means so much more.

In a culture where giving a direct negative answer or losing face is to be avoided at all costs, belum is the perfect word to get you out of any situation. It can mean: “I haven’t done something, but I will”; “I haven’t done something and I don’t intend to”; or “I don't understand the question and I’m not going to lose face by trying to find out”. 

Pro tip: Belum is a perfect word to get you through almost any awkward situation in Indonesia.

Apps have made life incredibly simple

It may be as a result of the traffic and the heat, but Indonesia is set up to make life as easy as possible. Taxis and ojeks are only a swipe away. Food, coffee, boba or anything else you can think of can be delivered to your office through the same smartphone app. Massages, makeup artists and mechanics will come directly to your home.

And while it may be out of reach for the poorest Indonesians, it's not just for the elite; with hundreds of thousands of office workers in Jakarta choosing to Gojek their morning coffee or lunch every day.

Pro tip: Make sure that Gojek and Grab are downloaded onto your phone – and always tip the delivery driver.

Religion is everywhere – and not just Islam

Whether it’s the sound of the call to prayer in morning or prayer during work, religion is an essential thread in the fabric of everyday life in Indonesia. This is very different to Australia (or Catholic Ireland where I was born) where nowadays religion barely registers in daily life.

And it’s not just Islam – the Christians and Catholics I know here (and I’m sure the Hindus, Buddhists and Taoists) are just as religious, with churches packed at the weekend and inspirational bible verses dotting many an Instagram profile.

Pro tip: Don’t be startled when you are asked what your religion is (or for that matter about your marital status and the number of children you have).

The tastiest food is also the cheapest

It would be remiss to finish a top ten list without mentioning Indonesia’s true culinary highlight.

Rendang (slow-cooked meat in coconut milk and spices) is incredible, gorengan is delicious, and bubur ayam (chicken porridge) can be heart-warming, but there can be only one winner, which also happens to be the cheapest (although unfortunately not the healthiest). I’m talking of course about Indomie; namely the peerless Rasa Ayam Spesial (special chicken) flavor. Never has an instant noodle had the perfect combination of salt, spice and umami - just add some fried chicken and you are truly in heaven. 

Pro tip: Make sure to stock up on instant noodles for those sick days, rainy days or day-after-excess days.

What have I missed? What do you wish you had known before you have moved to Indonesia? (kes)

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Barry Dunning is an Irish-Australian communications expert currently based in Jakarta. He can be found tweeting at @barrydunning1

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.