Jakarta: More than a Traffic Jam

I’m writing from the third-floor Starbucks of a Jakarta mall. I can’t even remember which one. Was it Kota Kasablanka? Pacific Place? The Grand Indonesia? The air conditioning makes me shiver. The bright white lights illuminate an atrium spanning 13 levels. Each trendy shop is piping out a different song. If I were to describe Jakarta, I would call it one enormous mall, connected and divided by a maze of city streets.

Carved skulls decorating the base of an ancient Javan statue in Jakarta's Museum Nasional.

Actually, Jakarta is much more than a mall, as I discovered this past week. It is the world’s second-largest metropolitan area after Tokyo. It’s home to over 30 million human beings! Pause for a second to take that in.

Jakarta is also sinking faster than any other big city in the world. Carbon-induced sea level rise is projected to inundate coastal cities everywhere, but Jakarta is hit by a double whammy: it’s actively sinking. Personal wells drilled to access drinking water are drawing down the aquifer that supports much of the city’s land.

This toad hopped across the cracked sidewalk during a hard rain. Lawns turned into miniature lakes, and the canals (some of the most polluted in the world) bordering each street threatened to overflow their concrete banks. If it can thrive here, we reasoned, this toad species is going to be the amphibian that takes over the post-human world along with the cockroaches.

Whenever anyone has mentioned Jakarta to me in the past year, it’s always been a reference to traffic. 

“How about that traffic in Jakarta?”

“Have you ever been in a Jakarta traffic jam?”

“How far away is your house from central Jakarta – I mean, with traffic.”

The traffic was bad, yes, but once we learned how to take the public buses and trains, GoJek motorcycles and Grab cars, we got around okay.

But have you heard about the traffic in Jakarta?

The New York Times called Jakarta "the City Where Nobody Wants to Walk," and with that I completely agree. To get from our house to a mall for WiFi, we had to walk across six-lane highways with no stoplights or overpasses. It was a harrowing experience multiple times a day. Ultimately we learned by watching the Indonesians crossing: walk slowly, predictably, deliberately forward, making eye contact with as many drivers as possible and holding up your hand to say "stop." The motorcycles and cars will swerve around you. Buses, don't bet on it.

A night outside the historic Cafe Batavia.

When we weren't busy preparing for the Planetary Health Talks (Alam Sehat Lestari's events for International Forest Day—more on that in the next post), Collin and I got out of the malls and toured the city. We had the generous assistance of Pak Riduan, an Alam Sehat Lestari board member and unofficial mayor of the neighborhood.

We climbed Monas, short for Monumen Nasional or National Monument. Indonesians are masters of creative contractions.

Monas, the marble-and-gold centerpiece of Jakarta.

The view from the windy top of Monas.

We snaked through the Museum Nasional.

A water vessel in the form of a mythical creature, the Singabarong.

I've never seen such intense expressions on stone.

Collin takes in a map of Indonesia's 300 ethnic groups.

We took the train an hour south to Bogor, one of the five cities in Greater Jakarta, more commonly known as Jabodetabek. That's short for: Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang, Bekasi. Is your tongue in a knot yet?

A pedestrian bridge over a brown, plastic-clogged river in Bogor. "One of the places I don't want to be when the earthquake hits," as Collin put it.

A staghorn fern in the Bogor Botanical Garden's orchid house.

My old friends from the Pantanal of Brazil, Victoria water lilies. And an impressive ficus in the background.

The "Happy Couple Trees." On the left, a merenti (Shorea leprosula). On the right, a strangler fig (Ficus albipila).

A huge golden orb-weaver. It's only a slight optical illusion. She was as large as Collin's hand, not quite as wide as his thigh.

Monumen Kelapa Sawit, the Oil Palm Monument, dedicated in 2013 to commemorate "the mother oil palm trees in Southeast Asia which were planted in the Botanic Gardens in 1848. These oil palm trees were the source of thousands of oil palm descendants that have spread throughout Indonesia." Oil palms are native to West and Central Africa.

Domesticated orchids.

A wild orchid species.

Another wild species in the orchid house.

We climbed to the 24th floor of Perpusnas—that's short for Perpustakaan Nasional, the National Library.

Monas from Perpusnas.

Rainstorm over Jakarta.

In the next post, read about the Planetary Health Talks—the reason we ended up in the malls, streets, paths, bridges and platforms of Jakarta in the first place!