The Big Durian

Jakarta. Backpackers warn you to get out as soon as possible, or better yet, avoid it all together. Traffic clogs the streets; smog fills your lungs; honking horns drive you mad. Cautionary flags that send the average traveler sprinting towards Bali, these side effects of a sprawling metropolis in the developing world are the very reasons I have come to Indonesia. For me, the “Big Durian,” the ignored capital of a much-traveled country, is more than a transit destination. While I will take advantage of its proximity to a few of Indonesia’s many volcanoes (and reconnect to my geological roots in igneous petrology), I will devote the majority of my time to exploring, and attempting to understand, challenges to the daily commuter in Jakarta.

Upon arrival, I find myself quickly thrust into Jakarta’s transportation classroom: three hours of traffic on a bus from the airport, followed by a zigzagging motorcycle taxi, to get to my host’s office in the middle of the afternoon. I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome by Zulfa, my host found via CouchSurfing.org, when I finally arrive. Another CouchSurfer, Jerome, who has been traveling the world for over two years, will soon join us.

My week in Jakarta sends me back a few steps in development. I am again taking bucket showers with cold water and traversing slums on my daily commute. Pair these next to the rising shopping malls – filled with designer store after designer store – and you begin to understand the dichotomy of the city. Classes diverging in opposite directions create an expansive gap, seemingly impossible to bridge. This gap is especially evident in modes of transportation. The personal car (SUV even better) is highly coveted and immediately purchased by those with available cash. Commuter rail and buses overflow with everyone else: Jakarta is the largest city in the world without any rail rapid transit.

Talks of building a metro have gone on for a couple decades now, yet no construction has begun. However, Jakarta has followed in the footsteps of Latin America by introducing bus rapid transit (BRT). BRT is defined as “a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective urban mobility through the provision of segregated right-of-way infrastructure, rapid and frequent operations, and excellence in marketing and operations” (Institute for Transport and Development Policy). But even with this, there are simply too many people for the current infrastructure and routes.

Each day in Jakarta begins by Jerome and me piling on the back of Zulfa’s motorbike. We ride about half an hour to get to the train station, where we then wait for a train with enough space for us to squeeze. After dropping Zulfa at the station closest to her work, we stay on a couple more stops and transfer trains to get closer to the city center. Typically, at least two hours has elapsed between the time we leave the house and the time we exit the train. During the day, we walk and use TransJakarta, the BRT system. In the evening, we meet Zulfa close to her work, have dinner, and stay in the city until later at night when the trains will have more space. Rush hour would double the already long commute. By the time we reach Zulfa’s house again, we collapse into bed, exhausted from the day’s activities. I cannot imagine the toll from taking such a commute each and every day.

On our last night together in the city, Zulfa, Jerome and I explore Central Jakarta, particularly the Monas National Monument and the surrounding nightlife at Lapangan Merdeka, the world’s largest city square. People are already flooding to the park when we arrive; vendors are selling everything from food and drinks to t-shirts and handicrafts. The public space allows for a free Saturday outing for families, couples and singles alike. Adjacent to the park is Istiqal Mosque, the national mosque of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country. We make a quick detour to visit.

For practicing Muslims, Salah (formal, obligatory worship) is prayed five times a day at periods measured according to the movement of the sun, which are dawn to sunrise (Fajr), noon (Zuhr), afternoon (Asr), after sunset until dusk (Maghrib), and nightfall (Isha). While these prayers can be completed wherever you are at that time of day – a bedroom, an office, prayer rooms at the mall, etc. – some Muslims choose to pray daily at a mosque. As Zulfa and I are sharing a bed this week, I have become very aware of the devotion, and sacrifice, required everyday for Salah (especially for Fajr).

In the mosque, Zulfa accompanies Jerome and me to the second floor balcony overlooking the main prayer hall, which serves as a viewing deck of sorts for visitors outside the faith. As she explains the five pillars of Islam and the respective architectural reflection in Istiqal, the mosque begins to fill: the time for sunset prayer is approaching. Zulfa quietly excuses herself and joins those gathering on the main prayer floor. Jerome and I watch from above.

After prayers, Zulfa rejoins our threesome. We are given a short tour before exiting Southeast Asia’s largest mosque. Once outside, we cross the street and enter Indonesia’s only Gothic Catholic cathedral. We have arrived just in time for the Vigil Mass. As we enter the church, Zulfa and I reverse roles: time for me to be the teacher. We slip into the last pew, and I spend the remainder of the Mass whispering explanations to Zulfa. This is her first time inside a Catholic church, her first time to attend a Christian service. In just a couple hours, we have been able to experience and exchange the cornerstone practices of our faiths.

To share, and to learn: this is the essence of CouchSurfing, the essence of travel.
This is my everyday.

Tet in the Mekong Delta

I am thoroughly convinced we will fall. I look down at the murky waters to my left and to my right, and then I grip the back handle tighter. I would like to believe that two months in Asia has made me a competent motorbike passenger, but my trust wavers. My apprehension – or rather prediction that I will soon be swimming – stems from a few unique conditions: I’m carrying two backpacks; we are going over a three-foot wide bridge without railings; and the Vietnamese driver is avidly texting God-knows-who (LET’S HOPE IT IS SOMEONE IMPORTANT, MAYBE THE PRESIDENT).

Our pace slows as we reach the peak of the bridge; he revs the engine. The sudden burst of speed brings us close to the edge; he drops his hand holding the phone just in time to straighten the handlebars. We survive the bridge, and he is able to finish typing his message as we navigate the remaining dirt paths leading to the guesthouse. With a newfound trust in his ability to text and drive, I am able to tear my eyes from his phone and soak in the new surroundings: the Mekong Delta.

For the past couple weeks, I have been able to align my travels with those of my friend Jacob, a Vanderbilt alumnus currently teaching English in China, and a few of his fellow teachers. After meeting in Bangkok, we traveled overland through Thailand and Cambodia. Today, we crossed into Vietnam, arriving first in Ho Chi Minh City by bus.

Even though we only spent a few hours there before catching another bus to Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta, we left with a very clear first impression: motorbikes. Droves of bikes zoomed in and around the few cars on the road, easily dominating transportation around the city. The bikes seemed to outnumber cars more than ten to one – a much clearer majority than in Thailand, Cambodia or India, particularly for a large city. After this glimpse of transportation preference, I should not have been surprised when the owners of the guesthouse collected Brian, Jacob, and me from the ferry on motorcycles.

Our night in the Delta is quiet and delicious – the guesthouse is somewhat appropriately labeled as a homestay and includes a most delightful dinner cooked by the women in the family. When we can eat no more, we lounge on hammocks, peering out into the quiet shadows of this steamy jungle, this ‘biological treasure trove’ pleading to be explored in the morning. After a long day of bus travel and border crossings, we sleep soundly in the cradle of village life.

In the morning, I am pulled out of bed by the wafting aroma of baguettes and Vietnamese coffee – both rare in Asia but wonderfully commonplace (and delicious) here courtesy of French imperialism. Our breakfast in crowned by candied coconut and other sweets, as today is the start of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Unfortunately, this also means that locals will be inside with their families instead of at the usual floating market we had anticipated. We shake off our disappointment and decide to explore the region by foot.

As we wander through the delta, following the meandering waters, my thoughts drift to my father. I have willingly and enthusiastically traveled to the country that he did everything to avoid. A trip to Vietnam was his worst nightmare at my age. Had he not been successful, he might have traversed these same paths (and, given the statistics, I might not have been born). I carry a camera over my shoulder; he would have carried a gun. I am greeted by smiles; he would have received bullets.

I find myself drifting to the past, to this very town on this very day 45 years ago. Villagers and Southern forces had found respite in the Lunar New Year holiday, believing there to be a ceasefire across the nation. The ceasefire proved the perfect ruse for coordinated surprise attacks by the Vietcong in over 100 Vietnamese towns and cities – a campaign collectively known as the Tet Offensive. It proved a tipping point in the American psyche, shocking both the government and the public, which had been led to believe the Communist forces incapable of launching such a massive effort.

I am suddenly brought back to the present – Brian and Jacob are calling my name. Consumed in my own thoughts, I had fallen behind them. As I shift back into reality, I realize they are no longer on the dirt path – they have been ushered into a Vietnamese home. I am beckoned to join. Nothing could be more of a contrast to my 1968 imaginings than the eager and smiling faces unexpectedly welcoming us into their home.

We spend the next three hours with this family, being dragged around to see everything in their house, their garden, their neighbor’s house, etc. We are motioned to photograph everything and everyone. We cook with them; we eat with them. We try to communicate with them. We don’t speak Vietnamese; they don’t speak English.

But a smile goes a long way.