Learning to be zen while motorcycle commuting in Jakarta
It has the worst traffic congestion in the world, but there’s much more to the Indonesian capital
Barry Dunning at rush hour in Jakarta. 'Traffic jams are known in Indonesian as macet, and macet defines your life here.'
It’s the world’s fourth most populous country, with over 260 million people, and the world’s largest Muslim population. Its estimated 17,500 islands (even the government doesn’t know exactly how many) stretch for 5,000km, the same distance as Ireland to Iran. Despite its size and scale however, most people know very little about Indonesia, the country that has recently become my home.
Everyone seems to have heard about tropical Bali. Most will remember the 2005 tsunami, which devastated the country’s western provinces, killing more than 230,000 Indonesians. Some will know about the orangutans and tigers that live on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo (an island shared with Malaysia), or Javanese coffee. Beyond this, however, Indonesia doesn’t tend to make the headlines, except for acts of terrorism or when westerners are caught smuggling drugs.
Moving to Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, known to locals as the Big Durian, my major concern wasn’t the tsunamis, terrorists or tigers, however. What really made me apprehensive was the traffic. I had good reason to be worried; Jakarta has the worst traffic congestion in the world, according to a Castor survey, or the third-worst according to the TomTom Traffic Index; Dublin doesn’t even make the top 125.
Zen and the art of motorcycle commuting
Having lived here for a couple of months now, I can confirm that the traffic congestion in greater Jakarta, with its population of 27 million, is horrendous. Traffic jams are known in Indonesian as macet, and macet defines your life here. Evening commute speeds of 8-10 kph are common - and that’s without a major crash or a rainy season downpour. Even on the back of a motorbike you don’t go much faster, despite the constant manoeuvring by drivers.
Jakartans have a number of coping mechanisms. People minimise the distance between work and home, and tend to socialise in these locations only. Locals also seem to have a sixth sense for when to leave the office to avoid the worst of the macet during rainy season. Indonesians are prolific social media users; you need something to do to when stuck in traffic, and not just while driving a car. Half the people you see on the back of a motorbike will be scrolling through social media on their phone, holding on with only one hand, or sometimes no hands at all.
The most important coping mechanism is the zen-like attitude that everyone approaches their daily commute with. As I look around the standstill traffic, drivers are calm, considerate of their fellow road users, and accepting of the situation. It’s rare you see a frustrated face, and horns are used to make others aware of your presence rather than to signal anger.
That’s not to say drivers aren’t alert though; traffic hazards - from the fried food cart working its way across a six-lane road, to the giant Hummer trying to do a 20-point u-turn - come at you from every direction. But there is no sense of entitlement to the road here, it’s a shared, constrained resource that everyone has to make the best use of.
Home away from home
Having first left Ireland at the end of 2010, I spent more than five years in Sydney, picking up an Australian partner and an Australian passport along the way. This year we decided to try our luck in Indonesia. After a few months of applications and negotiations, we both got lucky - me on an Australian government volunteer programme working for a paediatric palliative care NGO, and Larissa transferred through her existing employer. My job here is rewarding and confronting, working with children and families from some of the poorest parts of Jakarta with end-stage cancer and HIV/Aids.
There’s a small but vibrant Irish community of about 100 in Jakarta, mostly working in education, construction or the oil and gas sector. We have three Irish pubs and an active Irish association, the St Patrick’s Society. The Irish embassy, here since 2014, reflects the growing attention the Irish Government and business are paying to the country. I’m reliably informed the annual St Patrick’s Day charity ball is a great craic; tickets have already sold out.
Growing up in Kildare, I thought that fried chicken was an invention of the Macari family. Turns out Indonesians, and the rest of East and Southeast Asia, have been deep frying chicken since time immemorial. Ayam Goreng - fried chicken - is a deliciously unhealthy snack available on every street.
There is a whole host of other Indonesian specialities - Sate Ayam (BBQ chicken skewers in peanut sauce), Rendang (slow-cooked beef), Gado Gado (vegetable and potatoes with the aforementioned peanut sauce) and fish done hundreds of different ways.
There are tens of thousands of restaurants across Jakarta - from street-side, tent-kitchens known as warung, to fine dining from every corner of the world. You could eat at a different place for breakfast, lunch and dinner for 10 years and not visit the same place twice.
A city on the move
While there has been a dark turn in Jakarta politics recently (the former governor Ahok, who is ethnic Chinese and Christian, was jailed earlier this year for blasphemy), I’ve found the city very tolerant. Jakarta, like the rest of Indonesia, has six official religions (Islam, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist and Confucian) which coexist fairly peacefully. Many Islamic women wear the jilbab (headscarf), some with their skinny jeans; but many don’t. It’s a melting pot of a city, reflecting its strategic location on global trading routes for hundreds of years.
There is also large and fast-growing middle class who are outward looking and just as obsessed with avocados, Instagram and single origin coffee as any Stoneybatter or Sydney hipster.
I don’t want to give the impression that everything, apart from the traffic, is perfect however. Poverty and wealth inequality are widespread. While the Jakarta skyline is a mass of gleaming skyscrapers, filled with shopping malls, luxury apartments and hotels, most Jakartans live in the shadows of these high-rise developments, in densely packed urban shanty villages known as kampung. The rise of religious conservatism and nationalism are huge challenges. Rumour spreads like wildfire across social media and WhatsApp. Workers rights and workplace health and safety are seriously deficient. Corruption and byzantine bureaucracy are still commonplace.
Despite the chaos and corruption, however, there is real sense of progress, however fitful. The government is rolling out what will be the world’s largest health insurance system, allowing hundreds of millions to access affordable healthcare for the first time. More and more Indonesians, including women, are going to college and joining the middle class. There is even a promise that the Jakarta macet will be fixed in 2019, when the metro system is scheduled to open. I’ll believe that last one when I see it though.