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.

2 thoughts on “The Big Durian

  1. You are so incredibly lucky to share and to learn as part of your everyday! I did a lot of community service in the Nashville Muslim Community last year and I had no idea that Indonesia was the largest Muslim country. But your piece on their devotion to their prayers… man, that is pure dedication to one’s religion. I respect them so much for their daily sacrifices, especially Muslims in the US, where it is extremely difficult to find time (and a discreet location!) to practice their religion in a fast-paced 9-to-5 culture. Good luck in Japan and Happy Easter Kath!

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