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'Sambal' and selfie: What nobody tells you about being a 'bule' in Jakarta

Sophia Huber
Sophia Huber

Media management student and traveler

Jakarta  /  Tue, April 9, 2019  /  09:23 am
'Sambal' and selfie: What nobody tells you about being a 'bule' in Jakarta

Two children playing on the banks of a river along Jl. Pakembangan in Palmerah, West Jakarta. (JP/Sophia Huber)

You just have been to Bali and fallen in love with its friendly people, colorful rice fields, beaches and one-of-a-kind sunsets and now you are considering a trip to Jakarta, the city of millions of people that never sleeps?

Do it. Jakarta is a colorful city, full of smiling people, smells and stray cats. But be aware that Indonesia consists of more than 17,000 islands and each of them is different. Bali is not Java and Java is not Jakarta. Jakarta is a world of its own.

I moved from Vienna, a city with the highest quality of living for the 10th year in a row, to Jakarta, number 142 in the ranking of the Mercer index of most livable cities. Living in Jakarta is an everyday adventure and a great experience to broaden your horizons, but there are a few things nobody tells you when you are coming to Indonesia's capital. It might, especially when you do not speak the Indonesian language, feel like you have to learn all the fundamental basics again like a toddler: how to speak, eat, walk.

Eating might be challenging

You like spicy food? Forget it. Indonesian chili is different than Europe's. Explore the various red and green spices carefully. Otherwise you might start crying while eating and your hands will burn like fire for hours. Still, there is nothing better than a fresh, homemade delicious sambal (chili paste).

Why the hands? Usually you eat with your bare hands or, to be precise, with the right hand. Since the left one is considered to be unclean you should use your right hand for all daily tasks – paying, accepting or offering things and eating. I will never forget the shocked look on a girl´s face when I offered her an orange with my left hand.

By the way, eating with hands is not as easy as it looks. Dipping your fried chicken or tempeh into sambal is no big challenge, but have you ever tried eating noodles or rice or fish without any cutlery? Fortunately, rice in Indonesia has a quite sticky texture that makes it easier to form into small bites. Even though I am still struggling with fish and its bones, you will likely progress quickly and finish your food up to the last rice grain.

Do not forget to wash your hands before and after eating. Usually you will get a small bowl of water and sometimes there is even a piece of lemon inside it to make your hands smell super fresh afterward.

In case you fall sick with food poisoning or salmonella, your doctor might advise you to avoid spicy and greasy food. What sounds easy can be really challenging since it feels like all meals in Jakarta are served fried and with sambal – or at least cooked with too much oil as compared to Western food.

The Indonesian cuisine in general is very tasty, although not really versatile – soup, noodles, rice, chicken, fish and martabak (sweet or savory pancake). Nasi campur (rice with various side dishes) is a welcome and delicious change. Like a buffet, every restaurant serves different dishes to choose from, along with rice, sambal and tea. You can pick various kinds of fish and meat, tempeh, soups, vegetables and tofu. What is also really fascinating is Indonesia´s gusto for instant noodles. Existing in all kind of colors, flavors, and sizes, they are inexpensive and tasty. You can try them all.

Unfortunately, I could not find any good cheese during the 16 weeks I have so far spent in Indonesia. In general, there are very few dairy products compared to in Austria or Germany. Instead you will find countless coconuts and, honestly, is there anything better than enjoying a beautiful sunset with a fresh coconut after a long day?

Being bule – “Selfie?”

You walk along the street, motorbikes drive past, cats sleep in the shadows, kids play ball and colorful dresses dry in the sun. A man turns around, looks at you from head to toe. He whispers something in his friend´s ear, who jogs another guy's elbow. He is shouting something, but all you can understand is the word “bule” and suddenly all eyes are focused on you. “Hey babe,” says an old man without teeth, laughing in a friendly manner.

When in Jakarta, try to avoid the fancy malls and huge streets. Rather, escape the big city life for a few hours and stroll around the small alleys. This way you will get to know the other side of Jakarta. It takes no time until someone calls you bule, which is commonly used to describe white foreigners, and suddenly it feels like you hear it constantly everywhere.

Even though calling someone by his or her skin color would be perceived as disrespectful in Europe, it seems like people mean well. Having dark hair and fair skin, you become a "Katy Perry celebrity" easily. It might seem like you neither have a name nor nationality -- all you are is bule. Most people are deeply interested in white people and try to start a conversation by using body language. They will ask you for a selfie and try to take hundreds of pictures with you. It can be exhausting but also a lot of fun and a good way of meeting new people. Also, back home you can tell stories like: “My picture is on the wall of this Indonesian guy's living room, right next to his wedding photo.”

When one bule in Jakarta faces another bule, it gets interesting. Always being quite excited, I feel less alone and lost in this big city for a moment and wonder: Who are you? Where are you from? Do you speak my language? Some act uninterested and go on their way. Others smile conspiratorially and wave their hand before disappearing into the crowd.

Do not drop a clanger – eight things to consider

  1. Compared to touristic Bali, drinking alcohol in public places in Jakarta is prohibited. Also, a quite harsh drug law exists: On the flight to Jakarta, attendants would warn you that it's a serious crime and it has a death penalty.
  2. In Indonesia, people drive on the left. It can be difficult for European people to cross the streets of Jakarta that are always chock-full of motorbikes. Even though it seems like there are no traffic regulations and you feel like you are risking your life, do not run but put out your hand to show the drivers you want to cross.
  3. Kissing and hugging others in public is inappropriate. Also, in some Indonesian cities it can be difficult to book a room as an unmarried couple.
  4. Respect the culture and dress modestly, which means covering both shoulders and knees.
  5. Bring your mosquito repellent.
  6. Some hotels or public restrooms may not provide toilet paper. Instead they have some kind of water spray. What might be surprising and unusual initially turns out to be quite hygienic.
  7. When you are eating some street food, there might be people spitting on the ground. That´s normal. However, blowing your nose loudly is not appropriate, especially during eating.
  8. Indonesian people are very polite when greeting each other. With wide smiles, they tend to shake hands, give a slight bow and call each other brother or sister, depending on their gender and age. (wng)


Sophia Huber is a media management student and traveler. She likes telling stories through photography and writing.

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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.