School Kids in Jakarta

A Stranger in Jakarta with Lessons to Learn

In a becak lost in the dark in the middle of Jakarta - a strange city of 10 million people. Surrounded by 50 or more people all jabbering away in a language that I had not even begun to make sense of. Hardly any cash remaining in my wallet. How was I going to ever get to my destination?

Getting around Jakarta was more difficult than I’d ever expected. Daniel Burnham who had laid out Chicago on such a sensible grid would turn over in his grave if he saw a map of Jakarta's city streets. Supposedly, it was just a bunch of small villages that had grown together many years in the past.

Becak in Jakarta

If you look at a street map of Jakarta, you’ll see a few major streets that stretch across the city and then a handful of main streets that divide the city into neighborhoods. But the majority of streets are only the equivalent of a few blocks.

Have you read my previous post? To learn more about my adventure, take a moment to read My Move to Indonesia - Beginning the Adventure.

To get an idea of what a map of Jakarta looks like, just imagine that someone took some freshly boiled spaghetti, slashed a knife through it to cut the strands into small pieces, then threw everything up in the air and let it land on a flat surface. Put a few longer streets in strategic spots and you have what the street map of Jakarta looks like.

Learning how to get around Jakarta was not easy, even for locals. Every time I took a taxi somewhere, I took out the map when I returned home to trace the route. That's how I began to learn these crazy city streets.

Friday Night Date in Jakarta

It was a Friday night and I had a date with a guy from work. I'll call him Jim. I was sharing a company house with another female employee in a far eastern Jakarta suburb. Jim lived on the south side of the city.

Pulo Mas Jakarta house

In those days, there were very few apartment buildings. The only tall structures in Jakarta at that time were office buildings. Just about everyone lived in houses that rarely rose more than two stories. Can you imagine how spread out a city of 10 million would be with the overwhelming majority of the population living in independent houses?

So Jim and I lived a long way from each other. To me, it seemed like his house was on the other side of the planet. We planned to go to a restaurant near Jim’s, so I had volunteered to take a taxi to his place.

I didn't know my way around Jakarta yet, but that's what taxi drivers are for - right?? Well, I hadn’t learned yet just how puzzling the layout of Jakarta was and just what kind of mystifying scheme people had used to give names to streets and numbers to homes.

We had gotten to the general area easily enough because every taxi driver knows where Kemang is. But finding the exact street was another story. We ended up driving around and around. Stopping and asking locals didn’t seem to get us any closer to Jim’s.

Never Leave Home Without Plenty of Cash

And although taxis were and still are quite inexpensive in Jakarta, the meter was going higher and higher. I hadn’t gotten paid yet so was still very short of cash. And I hadn't brought much cash with me - Jim was going to pay for dinner, after all!

Empty pockets in Jakarta

Nothing looked familiar. I was still too new and had not yet gotten to know more than the route between my house and the office.

Was I even pronouncing the name of the street correctly? Who knew! I'd only arrived in Jakarta a couple of weeks earlier and had not taken any language lessons. It is a fairly phonetic language, but still . . .

Remember, this was early 1983. No ATMs to stop at for quick cash. Cell phones didn't exist so I couldn't text. And I'd never even heard of gps so I couldn't just put the destination into a computerized location finder. If anyone at that time had told me what technology would be available soon, I wouldn't have believed it.

In any case, since the meter was getting closer and closer to wiping out the amount of money I had in my wallet, I decided that I'd better get out of the taxi and into a cheaper form of transportation before my cash totally evaporated.

I walked over to a becak that was waiting along the side of the road. A becak is a three-wheeled bicycle that has a passenger seat behind the driver's seat. If you're not a big American, the passenger seat is big enough for two people. Becak drivers were local to neighborhoods. Since we'd already gotten to the correct neighborhood, surely he'd know how to find the right street.

Becaks Jakarta

Dekat Kerbau

Well, the becak driver wasn't sure where the street was either, but we took off. The only hint I could give was that the street was near a place that housed cows. I didn't know how to say anything that complicated. All I could say was dekat kerbau, which meant 'near the cow.'

The becak driver stopped somewhere in the pitch black darkness to try to find someone who would know where the street was. Within seconds, about 50 people surrounded me. I wasn’t fearful, but in hindsight, I think someone else might have felt threatened in that situation.

But no threats here. These were kind, smiling people. When I said, “Dekat kerbau,” they looked at me with puzzled expressions. I can’t explain how I knew, but it was obvious to me that all they wanted to do was help me.

They were talking away in Indonesian. People were running around. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to what they were saying or doing, but they were smiling in a friendly way that made me feel totally comfortable.

And then, lo and behold, a couple of them brought someone else to me. Someone who actually spoke English. What joy. Short-lived joy. This person didn't know that street either.

But we discussed the situation in English. I once again mentioned that the street was dekat kerbau. Then he talked and talked in Indonesian with the others who were standing around trying to help. I explained the few things that Jim had told me, and eventually someone realized exactly where I wanted to go. He explained to the becak driver and off we went.

Smiling Faces

I waved and thanked everyone, wondering what they thought of the crazy foreigner who couldn't find her way around. They all had big smiles and waved as my becak moved away.

Indonesians in Jakarta

I learned a very important lesson. Follow my own instincts – do not let others easily influence me. It was a very positive start to my Indonesian experience. I would learn over and over again that the magic word in Indonesia is 'help.' Whenever you indicate to an Indonesian that you need help, you may not get your problem solved, but you will usually have a very positive experience that reveals the brighter side of humanity.

My memories of that evening center only on the experience I had getting to Jim’s apartment. I don’t remember anything else about the evening – where we went to dinner, what I ate, whether we had a good time, or anything else. I just remember all those friendly faces.

There Are No Secrets in Jakarta

But the next morning, I would learn a new lesson. There are absolutely no secrets in Jakarta - or anywhere in Indonesia. Anyone who thinks that they can confine a secret to just a few people is deluding herself.

I spent the night at Jim’s. Whether or not we were intimate is totally irrelevant to the story, so don’t even wonder about that. What is relevant is that the next morning at 8 am, Vicky, the receptionist from our office, showed up at Jim's place and spoke with the satpam. A satpam is a man keeps watch at an office building or a home.

He told her that a blonde had come home with Jim the previous evening and had not left yet. She knew exactly who that blonde was. Vicky had designs on Jim and would eventually take revenge on me in a very Indonesian way that totally changed my future in Indonesia. More about that in a future post.

School Kids in Jakarta

School Kids in Jakarta

2 Responses to A Stranger in Jakarta with Lessons to Learn

  1. Marcy October 10, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

    Great article! I love your spaghetti description. I can’t wait to find out what happened next.

    • Kate Benzin October 16, 2016 at 5:00 am #

      Thanks, Marcy. I’ve got another article in the works.

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