Jakarta and a Road Trip through West Java

 I can smell it as soon as I step off the plane. How could I forget? The sweet humid air like a pungent jungle flower never seen. A friend would later tell me it’s the smell of dead fish and smog. 

I take the damri bus into the city. The blue sky makes way for thick, grey soup as we enter the bubble. The girl beside me wears a mask over her mouth and nose. From Gambir station I walk past the beckoning ojeks – motorcycle taxis- and wind my way down the potholed sidewalk that follows the surging, honking river of traffic. A clogged artery in the heart of what can only be described as: Jakarta.

Armed with a ukulele in one hand and an iPhone in the other, I GPS my way through the unlabeled streets, 2 kilometers to Six Degrees Hostel. I arrive to an air-conditioned oasis where young people from Ireland to Mozambique are soaking up the wifi and by dinnertime I’ve settled down in a beanbag chair with a beer to watch American Psycho. The world is small.


Jakarta. Rivers of trash and street-vendor clogged roadsides peddling anything that can be deep-fried. Pak nasi. With rice.

Jakarta. Chandeliered shopping malls where your face reflects in polished floors and a glittering mountain of escalators can deliver you any brand or designer for a pretty penny.

Jakarta, sprawling endlessly with its 28 million dwellers and all-day traffic jams, seething under the Javanese sun. That is, if you could see it through the smog.

Trying to cross the street? Don’t wait for a break, just step out into the chaos. A shooing flick of the hand. They’ll stop. Just don’t hesitate. Unless there’s a green light, in which case: RUN.

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One of many pet stores


At breakfast I meet a French girl living in Rome and a Duque student from Singapore; they were in Jakarta for a Forestry Summit. Marina, Yi Ying and I decide to check out a textile museum across town. Yi Ying, unlike me, had read the guidebook and thoroughly done her research.

We learn how to dye batik and there are swathes of school children on a field trip. When it’s time for them to leave, a small boy takes my hand and touches it to his forehead. Soon all 60+ are lining up to do this gesture, smiling shyly and saying hello. The only English word they seem to know. The teachers stand by chuckling.

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After an adventure in a dizzying electronics mall trying to buy a phone + Indonesian SIM card, I meet up with Yi Ying again to check out a flee market. Hoards of antique knick-knacks neatly shoved into stall after stall.


He played me some big band jazz.


Hoarder’s paradise


The day is rounded off with dinner at an organic restaurant where Yi Ying is stretched to the limits of her Bahasa trying to order us vegetarian food. They put anchovies in the rice.


Fermented rice, mango and coconut for dessert.

On my last day of freedom before the field school, I decide to check out Kota Tua, the original Dutch colony. After much confusion at the train station and conflicting broken English advice I find my way onto the city bus system. The standing room only clattering relics were surprisingly convenient once someone took pity on me and donated a map. On my last leg I befriended a group of schoolgirls on their way to the old city to practice their English with tourists. They were bashful and giggly 16 year olds in colourful hijabs, most too shy to speak a word.

Gita chatted me up and insisted we travel together. I told her I was from Canada and she asked if I knew Justin Beiber. Of course I did. We were buddies. She later sang me the entirety of “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful” by One Direction. I sang her “Blue Skies.” She liked it, but had never heard of Sinatra; did I know any Taylor Swift songs?

Gita and her friend Putri proceeded to act as my tour guides and publicity managers as we wandered the old city, stopping every few feet for me to get interviewed by a group of smart phone wielding students. They were all trying to reach a tourist quota for English class credit. 


Posed for dozens of photos that day, and (literally) hundreds throughout my time in Indonesia. Blonde hair makes for a tourist attraction.

We visited a Wayang puppetry museum and watched a street performance troupe’s magic show. My sunglasses slipped down my nose in the sweltering heat and I bought us a round of tubular strawberry ice creamy somethings from a bike-cart. When I decided it was time to go they walked me back to the bus stop and after exchanging emails, Gita asked if I would pay her. At first I was taken aback – (I thought we were friends!) but she refused to name a price, just whatever I felt. She’d been an attentive guide after all. I gave a 5000 rupiah note but they were far more excited about the last of my Canadian coins. 


Unil, the magician’s assistant


The purpose of my venture to Java was to participate in a field school through the Food and Resource Economics department of the University of British Columbia. We were to learn the METR method. Monitoring and Evaluation for Timely Response.

Monitoring and Evaluation is basically when a consultant comes and examines (monitors and evaluates) a development/conservation/etc. project for 2-3 weeks. The goal is to provide the organization (for example, the NGO) with constructive feedback about their intervention to see whether it is effective, and how it can be improved.

M&E is a vital tool for all respectable NGO and government aid programs.

How is the project succeeding or failing in regards to economic efficiency? Equity? Environment? You get it.

So 13 of us meet up in Jakarta (we finished with 11 …. But only 2 BRIEF hospitalizations so all in all a success!) and bus to Bogor- a 5 million person blip of a city 3 hours down the freeway from Jakarta. We meet up with our Professor, Chris Bennett, at Institut Pertanian Bogor, a large agricultural university on a jungly campus.


He played Frère Jacques on the bamboo. Depending how high you hit, the tone is higher or lower.


A lotus flower at Bogor Botanical Garden

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Class time was short lived due to a couple religious holidays (a theme in a country with 6 official religions) and our desire to go to Borobudur for Waisak, so we took a long weekend and rented 3 cars with drivers to venture 8 hours into Central Java.

Here came our first lesson of Indonesia. 8 hours Indonesian time= 14 hours. 

We learned the hard way, a few times over, to multiply estimated time and distances by 2 … then maybe you’ll arrive early.

So 14 hours of narrow, hairpin turns winding up through the jungle into the mountains. With a driver, Iaen, who thought he was playing Need for Speed.

Actually, more like Mario Cart. Because he clearly thought bumping other cars would have no consequences.

Pass 3 cars on a blind corner, come around to find a greyhound or petrol truck, slam on the GAS to pass 2 more cars, swerve back into our lane with inches to spare. 

Let out a “hehah!” fist pump after particularly close calls.

Repeat every 10-30 seconds. (No vehicle was left unpassed).

Blast Indonesian house music.

You got it. 14 hours.

Suck on ginger candies for motion sickness, throw your nerves out the window and you’ll be fine; but what would a West Java road trip be without a little rest stop food poisoning?

I really don’t mind squat toilets. No sarcasm. I’ve heard that squatting offers superior alignment for your business needs. But sometimes, after the 5th or 9th gas station, you start to fantasize about that pale of water being replaced by a fluffy roll of two-ply.

Toilet paper. The very word began to evoke looks of luxurious nostalgia. A coveted commodity to some and shunned by those preferring to make use of their left hand and do as locals do.

You get used to it. I swear. It’s like a little rinse every time.


Rice fermenting in the sun next to wheel wedges.




Java is endless, endless rice patties.

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We didn’t make it to Waisak.

We made it THERE but were turned away at the gate, being told by a group of loitering, official-looking men that we were too late. Between the language barrier and our weariness from the journey, we didn’t realize ‘til later it was a scam.

Waisak is a huge Buddhist holiday celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha that takes place at Borobudur- the largest Buddhist temple in the world, constructed in the 9th century.

Thousands of monks were to gather for ceremonies lasting all night, culminating in the release of thousands of lanterns.

But no. Not for us. On to the hotel. 

I spent the worst night of my life in Jogjakarta. Fluorescent lights on, plastic fan humming along and me glaring at the lime green walls in my last pair of clean shorts, desperately afraid to fall asleep again. 

The next day we attempted to salvage our trip and visited Prambanan Temple, an ancient Hindu complex, and did a bit of shopping; Jokja is known for its batik and silver. The day after, we woke at 4am to run up a mountain (I thought my head and stomach would explode) to see the sun rise over Borobudur. Magic.




Wayang shadow puppetry


Gotta love a big cock.


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IMG_4087Borobudur was an incredible structure, with detailed stone carvings depicting the story of Siddhārtha Gautama’s life. Thousands of school children were visiting that day on field trips. Every. Last. One. wanted a picture with us. My face hurt from smiling.   IMG_4093IMG_4081IMG_4070 And then 14 hours home. Except for those at wits end that bought train or plane tickets.

Wait, why didn’t we just fly there in the first place?

Excellent question. Let’s not talk about it.IMG_4091