Category Archives: India

Local Guide to Jakarta

Navigating Jakarta is a daunting proposition for any traveller. As an expat living in the city, I’ve witnessed countless backpackers trudging along the side of the road through the thick pollution and endless traffic that has come to define the city. Invariably, these weary travellers bear the look of utter bewilderment, as if asking themselves “what the hell am I doing here??”

You see, there are few sidewalks in Jakarta and most are crammed with street vendors, making getting around by foot unfeasible. Complicating matters more, it’s a mall city, meaning that aside from a few neighborhoods, there is virtually nothing of interest in walking distance, not even the refuge of the cozy coffee shop. And on top of allt that, Jakarta is complete smog-filled tropically heated gridlock from 7-11 am, and again from 3-9 pm.

This hot simmering mess of humanity is difficult to appreciate from the perspective of a backpacker, but the city does have charm and character. The key to unraveling it is overcoming the traffic. Here are my suggestions:

1. Get out at night, Jakarta never sleeps

This is the best time to see the city. Its cooler, the pollution has blown off, the grime is hidden, the city shimmers with light and most importantly, the traffic is manageable.

Jakarta Traffic

2. Take an Ojek (motorcycle taxi)

If you have to go out during rush hour, hop on an Ojek, it will cut your transit time by at least half. Be sure to bargain hard for the price, they usually ask 30-40% more than the going rate. Also, wear a pollution mask (your lungs and brain will thank you) – you can pick one up for 4-5 USD at any mall in Jakarta. Ojek drivers can be found at almost any corner, usually sittin in the shade, shirts rolled up, hands rubbing their fat bellies.

Ojek

3. Use Blue Bird Taxi

Of all the taxi services in the city, Bluebird is the most reliable. At least its drivers seem to have a general sense of the layout of the city. The others, not so much. You can spot bluebird cabs by their distinctly blue paint job and the bird logo on their door and light. Other less reliable options include Express and Taksiku. Taxis are quite cheap: an hour and a half taxi ride through traffic will cost you 5-6 USD.

Blue Bird Taxi

4. Take advantage of public transit

TransJakarta is the official public bus system in the city and has been steadily improving over the past five years, adding more busses and routs. Dedicated bus lanes mean this is quicker way to get through rush hour traffic than taxies, but at times the lanes are overwhelmed with private vehicles and it grinds to a half. Fares run Rp. 3,500 (0.35 USD) per journey. Private bus companies also run routs all around the city. Kopaja and Metro Mini run proper sized buses from the early sixties, while a whole range of companies operate “microlets” small vans that run shorter routs. Single journey fairs on these private buses cost Rp. 2,000 (0.20 USD).

TransJakarta

Once you’ve mastered the ebb and flow of Jakarta traffic, you’ll be well placed to get out an experience the city on your own terms, rather than suffer the frustration of traffic hell on earth.

Napping in Dharmasala

A man dozes off in his small shop in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India.

Dharamsala, which means “spiritual dwelling” or “sanctuary”, is a town at the foot of the Himalayas. At 1457m altitude, it is fresh in the summer, attracting foreign and Indian tourists alike escaping the stuffiness of Delhi or the South.

Historically, Dharamsala was ruled by the Katosh dynasty, the oldest serving royal family in the world. The people of Dharamsala and the surrounding areas were the Gaddi, a hindu nomadic or semi-nomadic tribe that moved with their herds. But the British annexed the area and created a base for the famous Nepalese Ghurkas there. Later, with the invasion of Tibet by China in 1950, thousands of Tibetans fled to Dharamsala. The Dalai-Lama is now based in the Dharamsala suburb of MacLeod Ganj. The changes the town and the area have undergone mean the Gaddi are now struggling to maintain their lifestyle and language.

The Art of Dharamsala

It’s early morning and the beginning of November in Dharamsala, Northern India, and I shiver as I watch the clouds in the valley below me. The cup of hot chai is nicely warming my fingers, as I peer through the rising steam. At this time of year, it’s getting cold in MacLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamsala. After all, we are at the foot of the Himalayas, 2000 meters above sea level. But despite the cold, I think the winter months is the best time to be here. All the tourists have left for the South, and many shopkeepers and restaurant owners with them, leaving a quiet town behind, and just a few Indian tourists.

Mac Leod Ganj is home to a huge community of Tibetan refugees, as well as the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile. When the 14th Dalai Lama fled the Chinese invasion in 1959, he was offered refuge in Dharamsala by the Indian government. Since then, thousands of tibetan refugees have followed and established a thriving community in MacLeod Ganj. The Tibetans have brought with them their food, their medecine, their music and their art.

India

One of these art forms is the sacred art of Thangka. Thangka painting is typically Himalayan and has been around for centuries. Thangka painting is essentially centered around Buddhism, and is said to originate in Indian Buddhist art. They depict Buddhas or buddhist deities, cosmological images or subjects from traditional medicine. These paintings are therefore objects of devotion, are meditated upon and help spiritual practice.

I was lucky enough, during my time in Dharamsala, to visit a school which teaches the sacred art of Thagka, and whose mission is to save this dying art form. It was amazing to see the apprentices, sitting cross-legged for hours, paint these figures in such great detail, with brushes as thin as eyelashes. Walking around the gallery, you could spend hours getting lost into the waves and grasses and caves painted on the canvases. And always another detail appears. It was a beautifully meditative afternoon, silent like in a library, watching these young painters learn an learn a centuries old art form.

Busy Jakarta

Jakarta is a megalopolis, an octopus-city that spreads its tentacles across dozens of miles. At first, it can be daunting and intimidating, with its noises, smells and garbage. But the best way to discover Jakarta is to just go for it, dive right in.

It’s not the first time I come here, but it’s the first time I’ve really taken the time to discover it. For most tourists, Jakarta is just a transit point, a stop-off before hopping to the next island or city. But there is actually so much to see here!

I decided to discover the city on foot. In such a big city, this could be considered madness. But it’s only on foot you can really catch the details, those small things that give a place its soul and character. Jakarta is known for its unfathomable traffic, and you can easily spend a couple of hours in a taxi, just to get to that restaurant you read about in your guidebook. And things get worse when the floods hit!

So I set off on foot, ready to tackle any traffic coming my way. And it was a ball! So many cars, motorbikes, bicycles, trucks, buses and taxis, and they always seem to be coming for you…

When you need to cross the road, that’s when things get serious. Whether it’s a main thoroughfare or a small side road, forget about all those road safety rules your parents taught you: look both ways, yes, but also look behind, in front, and never forget to look down, there might just be a gaping hole that’ll take you straight to the sewers. Next, don’t wait for the to be no cars coming, you might still be there tomorrow. Oh, and the traffic light, forget about it. Even if it does work, no one on wheels will give a damn…

So, to cross, you just have to jump right into that flow of moving vehicles, and extend your hand out towards the oncoming traffic, signalling them to slow down. And, above all, do not stop walking. Just keep going, flapping your hand, and cars, bikes, buses and other unrecognisable-wheeled machines will just drive around you. If that seems like a suicidal technique, just keep an eye out for any locals trying to cross, follow them and watch and learn.

If you don’t really feel like walking around (it does get hot), you can always take a taxi, but this can be very time consuming, particularly at rush hour. You can also take the bus, the Transjakarta network being very useful. For more fun, but sometimes more nail biting, try the bajaï, the Indonesian tuk-tuk. Before jumping in, don’t forget to bargain! And I hope yours doesn’t break down!!!

The Unseen Beauty of Raja Ampat

Raja Ampat off the Eastern coast of the island of Papua is a really special place. It is one of those holiday destinations that everyone who has passed through Indonesia will have heard about.

Raja-Ampat-sunset

The high cost of getting there and the even higher cost of staying there means that few tourists will ever make the journey, but as soon as you arrive you will understand the hype. There are literally hundreds of beautiful islands with unspoiled golden sandy beaches looking over pristine turquoise waters that ripple through every shade of blue.

Raja-Ampat-dolphins

Underneath the waves are some of the best coral reefs and diving to be experienced anywhere in the world, let alone Indonesia. If you arrive in December through to February you might have the opportunity to swim with whale sharks. Still, even if you don’t see a whale shark, there are dolphins and manta rays, turtles and other sharks to swim with, along with the smaller friendlier nemo’s.

Raja-Ampat-resorts

As I said before, staying at a hotel in Raja Ampat will be expensive. At the top end resorts can cost anywhere upwards of $3,000 per person per week, but it is still possible to do Raja Ampat on the cheap. Week long tours will cost somewhere in the region of $1,000 plus flights, but you will need to arrange things with local tour operators or backpacking groups.

Raja-Ampat-views

For good or bad, I know it is only a matter of time before Raja Ampat will be covered in hundreds of resorts and holiday homes. The changes are already happening and year on year the number of tourists are increasing. If you do want to experience this quiet outpost of Indonesia then you will have to be quick.