What I learned in Jakarta

Last Thursday I flew to Jakarta to meet up with a business school friend whose family is in the palm oil business. Ever since I began exploring southeast Asia a year ago, I had been curious about the region’s most populous nation’s capital. It came at me like a ton of bricks, a massive urban sprawl, modern towers and shanties crammed together between streets so jam packed with vehicles they looked almost to crawl on top of one another.

Immediately I realized that the language barrier would be more significant here than anywhere else I had been in SE Asia, where everyone seems to speak at least a little English. Bills with endless zeros make it hard to get a sense that you know what you’re paying for things and people look and approach in a way that made me wish I had not come alone.

I arrived at my hotel, which was quite decent for the rate, although curiously placed outside of the normal thoroughfare, down an alley, in a neighborhood I would guess less frequented by traveling western businessmen. That night I stared out of my window and couldn’t help but wonder how I had gotten here, and if I hadn’t perhaps made a wrong turn somewhere along the road. It’s not being an expat or an entrepreneur that scares me, but the sum totality of all of it, the shoe string budget, the uncertainty, the sheer alienness of my surroundings, not knowing the customs, the ways, the rules. Having no guidance but that which I can pick up along the way, figuring it all out as I go along.

In that moment, the night burst into a cacophony of moaning and chanting, as the prayer calls came in from a thousand speakers through the city, praising Allah in low, deep whines from every direction as if to punctuate my thoughts of being out of place. “Go home.” they seemed to say. “This place is not for you, American.”

I thought of my recently graduated peers, with their generous salaries and long established companies, their medical benefits and retirement plans, their Monday nights at the local sports bar, their Sunday afternoon barbecues and their frequent visits home to see friends and family. I could feel resentment and regret build up inside me and I knew that if I was not careful I would decide then that it was over, and while I may not act on that decision immediately once the decision was made it would only be a matter of time and circumstance.

I drew the fear into myself from all the corners of my body where fear hides and sucked it into my abdomen like a thick poisonous mucous. When I had gathered it all up I pushed it out of my solar plexus and extruded from me like a thick snake and dripped out onto the floor before my feet. I watched it slither out under the door of my humble room and went to sleep.

If every trip were a good one, the good ones couldn’t possibly be that good, right? Yet I am forced to admit that my trip to Jakarta was hardly all bad. After an uneventful Friday trying unsuccessfully to find the local branch of my gym, I met up with my colleague for dinner. His presence was immediately reassuring and a great source of comfort. Not having spent much time together prior to this trip, I was pleased to find that we were quite comfortable in each others company and immediately fell into the roles of clueless tourist and seasoned guide, humble guest and perfect host. We ate some brilliant Indonesian food, brought out in the traditional way, plates upon plates stacked high, take whatever you like.

After dinner we met with a friend of his enjoyed a few drinks in a swanky lounge before heading out to a rather unique establishment where we sang karaoke in a private room whilst sipping iced capuccinos. Crooning and teasing, we bonded as I’d hoped we would.

Before heading home, we walked by a durian stall and selected one of the ubiquitous SE Asian fruits as a final snack. My comrades remarked with surprise at my appreciation for the strong smelling durian, famously despised by foreigners of all kinds.

As I sucked the creamy flesh off the nut like seeds, i thought about the durian as a metaphor for many of my experiences in Asia, and elsewhere in the world. Now a confirmed durian lover, it’s almost difficult to remember my association to the smell of the fruit when I first encountered it. You see, I think what happens when we’re presented with something powerfully different than what we’re accustomed to is a process of comparison and shuffling of the boxes in our mind that help us understand things. New sights, smells, ideas and people all challenge us in ways that make us uncomfortable and we are compelled to relate them to something we do understand, a lazy and fearful process.

The most satisfying breakthroughs and opportunities to gain new appreciations in life come when we allow something totally foreign to take root in us and carve out a place of its very own. So durian does not actually, I promise you, smell like socks or rotten eggs, but rather it smells quite exactly like durian, a smell you will never know until you smell a durian.

In the eyes of my friend I see a deep appreciation and love for the capital city of his people. It is an understanding I am not satisfied not to possess. I have already decided I will return to Jakarta at some point, and many of the things I saw and experienced there come back to me quietly now that I am back in the perfect order and harmony of Singapore.

I remember, in particular, a look shared with a woman. It was Saturday and my friend and I were having lunch with some of his work colleagues at a very upscale mall restaurant. It was very easy to forget the Jakarta I had experienced in my short survey so far, in this environment, and perhaps because I would be leaving so soon, my interest to experience more was at a peak.

I turned to see a couple dining at a table beside ours, the man engrossed in his meal, the woman leaned back in her chair, thinking those thoughts only women know. She looked at me with lion like disdain as I took in her mane of jet black hair, her impossibly long lashes, cat-like eyes and cheeks, dark, full lips and skin the color of dried bamboo. Unspoken, we both knew she was one of the most exquisite examples or the female species I had seen, and I would remember her long after she had forgotten me.

Her looks were, as far as I could tell, quite uniquely Indonesian. So return i must, for Man is not equipped to argue with such evidence as that.