I saw one of those FB notices a while back that said “You are not in traffic, you are traffic”, which is nowhere more true than Jakarta. Its hard to talk about a visit to Jakarta without tackling the subject of traffic. In some ways it seems unfair to start there, but then again it colored everything we did while we visited and was the basis of many decisions made on where to go and when. To an extent, its the same game in Manila. By playing by certain rules, we avoid some of the Manila traffic, much of the time. In Jakarta, it wasn’t so easy, both because of the area where we were staying and the fact that we were looking to do some touristy things.
This was our last chance to visit friends who live in Indonesia, and Manila is just a few hours flight away. It was Easter, and another good reason to leave the Philippines where everything is booked up really early for the biggest holiday of the year. (Last year we booked a house on Palawan which was wonderful, but I only managed to secure it by booking all the way back in November.) What I didn’t expect in Jakarta was how much the Easter holiday would affect everything. I was surprised how many businesses were closed. Jakarta is more than 80% Muslim, with a Christian population of approximately 12%, which is clearly significant enough to have some affect, although I’m suspicious that it was also some kind of Indonesian holiday as well. I never quite got clear on that. The bottom line was the city was more jammed up than usual and getting around was a greater challenge still.
Comparing the traffic to Manila was a constant temptation. Honestly, it was pretty similar in a lot of ways. There seems to be more major arteries running through Jakarta, with more lanes, but they are equally jammed. More motorcyclists too, which were a real hazard. What I didn’t see there was the large number of SUVs that you see in Manila. Instead there were many smaller, more European-sized vehicles. There were buses, but somehow there didn’t seem to be as many as Manila, and I wondered if that explained why there were more bikes?
As hard as it is to sit in crawling, smelly traffic, you also can’t let it completely prevent you from seeing and doing things. Leaving early, or going against the main wave of traffic, can make it bearable. So with some strategy we set out early on Easter Saturday morning for a little trip out of the city. The destination was a popular pancake restaurant about 1.5-2 hrs out of Jakarta. An early morning breakfast on a hillside in the Indonesian countryside sounded like a really good idea, especially with an early start to avoid the usual weekend traffic. Especially at its quite cool up there and you needed to wear a sweater…an almost unbelievable concept in the summer heat. Coolness…view….delicious pancakes….let’s go, right?! We left around 6.30am, and drove out of the city for about an hour making traffic-free progress until we hit a certain point on the expressway. Then for about an hour we shuffled along, playing dodgems with other cars and trucks on both sides. The hard shoulder quickly became a fourth lane, with cars trying to butt in and more forward faster. But it made no real difference, we were at an almost standstill for the longest time. For a while it was ok, because as a new visitor, driving at a pedestrian pace gives you time to study the other cars, passengers, suitcases and vendors selling food and snacks to stranded cars. (It turns out deep fried tofu is a big roadside snack here.) But after a while the curiosity fades and you just need to keep moving…and you can’t. The hope was that traffic would open up once we cleared the toll booths. It took us at least 30 minutes to clear the 2kms between the toll booth sign and the actual booths. Once through, the traffic did open up a little, as some headed into the service station for gas and food. Our gas was low, and we joined them to fill up. Motorcyclists were parked at the service station entrance, wildly waving their arms at approaching vehicles. In fact, it was with done with the kind of alarm that someone might flag down vehicles to take their pregnant wife to the hospital. You were compelled to pay attention to them in the name of decency. But, as it turns out, for a fee, they were offering a motorcycle ride up the mountain to escape the traffic. I guess we were supposed to abandon our car at the service station and split up across several bikes…which was not even close to likely. We turned into the gas station, where I learnt my second word in Bahasa, kosong, or empty. Every single, damn pump. Now we were in bad traffic and low on gas, sitting in a traffic with no apparent end…we had to turn around. A short while further up, we took the opportunity to make a quick, illegal u-turn and, in moments, were moving normally on the other side of the highway. Two minutes later we were back at the service station on the northbound side, and headed to the gas pumps for fuel. An hour later we were back home, but spent most of the return drive looking at the other side of the road gawking at the stationary traffic which was now backed up all the way to the city center. That was it. A trip aborted.
This post was supposed to be about the charm of mountains outside of Jakarta, eating fluffy pancakes, enjoying the view and sipping some early morning Java…on Java…or at least one would hope…but instead its about the curse and reality that is traffic in mega Asian cities… Sometimes things just turn out that way. ;o(