Jakarta, Indonesia

September 21 / 23 – 24, 2010

There were more Muslims in Indonesia than in the entire Arabian Peninsula. I just learned that Indonesia had the largest Muslim population in the world. At Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, I was initially confused to see men washing their feet in a public restroom. Then I realized right beside the washroom was a musholla, an Islamic prayer room; and the act was part of their ritual ablution. Indeed, I had landed in a Muslim country.

Plaza Indonesia @ Jakarta

Other than the ubiquitous musholla, there were not as many mosques and Arabesque architecture as I had expected, especially in Central Java where massive Hindu and Buddhist monuments were the major attractions. Flying back to Jakarta, I expected to witness more of the austere and conservative society that I had vaguely associated with Muslim culture. Instead, I found Dubai.

Just to kill time before our flight out, Donna and I asked the cabbie to drop us at the best mall in town. That turned out to be Plaza Indonesia, a high-end shopping complex that houses big-ticket international brands: Prada, Gucci, Jimmy Choo to name a few – a mall after Carrie Bradshaw’s fashion-victim heart. Like Carrie, women here did not cover their hair with veils; they wore them styled and free. They worked their outfits in similar fashion. The place was a posh and modern oasis – Dubai, if you will – in the capital city of this developing country. Even the parking area was rather snooty and nouveau riche.

Posh Parking at Plaza Indonesia @ Jakarta
Grand Indonesia from Plaza Indonesia; Starbucks overlooking Zara
Mall Wall

We hopped over to Grand Indonesia, its similarly posh twin across the street. Donna, a veritable mallrat, checked out Seibu, a Japanese department store I didn’t even know about, while I made a beeline for Batik Keris, a traditional-product chain store. Granted, their batik pieces were a tad overpriced, but rummaging through the racks revealed some good deals. I found a green gossamer batik scarf perfect for my equally dainty mother. Indonesian fashion designer, Priyo Octaviano, hinted that green would be the color of 2011. Mom would be Indonesian chic for a full year! Down at the basement supermarket, I bought packs of Java coffee and tea to the tune of Java Jive, which I was singing under my breath (“I love coffee, I love tea, I love the Java jive and it loves me….”).

Mom Modeling a Chic Scarf from Batil Keris
Durian Mooncake for Dad

The sweetest discovery I had made in souvenir-shopping, though, was not at the mall, but at a convenience store near Hotel Menteng, my stale-smelling but reasonably-priced and conveniently-located digs. It was a box of durian mooncake for my Dad, who had a sweet tooth (he managed a bite despite the loss of appetite from chemotherapy). Durian as filling tempered the sweetness of mooncake.

Selamat Datang Monument @ Jakarta
Jalan (Street) in Jakarta

Malls and their globalized air could get stuffy; I had to come up for local air. Outside, I only bargained for some of Jakarta’s pollution (the smell of smog stuck on my clothes after that short promenade), but I also got a warm tropical welcome from Tugu Selamat Datang (Welcome Monument) at the Hotel Indonesia Roundabout. The monument’s two bronze figures – male and female with arms outstretched in the wind – were built by Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, in the early 60s, probably as part of a campaign to depict his country’s openness to foreign visitors and modernization. The efforts had paid off on both counts; the rotunda was now surrounded by five-star hotels, corporate high-rises, and sprawling high-end malls. Jakarta was keeping up with the Joneses in the ASEAN.

Later in the evening, I met Ahlyn, my Jakarta-based friend, and husband Joe for dinner despite the hour-long drive through city traffic. She more than made up for another friend who originally offered to host us but moved to Singapore without prior notice. Donna and I were actually jettisoned in Jakarta, but that would be another story.

Ahlyn and Family @ Jakarta
Minaret near Menteng @ Jakarta

There was hardly any indication I was in a Muslim country – not while touring temples in Jogjakarta and milling at the mall in Jakarta. However, one morning I was roused from sleep at 4:00 by a chant, the Islamic call to prayer. It was not particularly loud, more like a consistent drone. Considering that I was a deep sleeper, it was an effective wake-up call. More significantly, it was a solemn reminder that despite Indonesia’s Hindu and Buddhist heritage and its increasingly modernized (read: Westernized) capital city, it was at its soul a Muslim country – the largest one at that.


Now a warning: I had an unfortunate experience at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport – which was, for the most part, my fault. Despite my OC self, I fumbled for my missing departure card. Apparently, the Indonesian immigration officer had not stapled it on my passport upon my arrival, as was the practice in other countries I had visited. I turned my suitcase inside out, and searched all nooks and crannies – nada.

I had to eat humble pie and do a sheepish mea culpa. How embarrassing – the Transcendental Tourist had lost his departure card! A sign at the departure lounge said it all: pariwara. I didn’t know what it was in Bahasa Indonesia, but in Tagalog it meant “misguided” or “up to no good”, exactly how I felt at that time. Long story short, I ended up paying IDR150,000 (about $17) to the grim-faced immigration officer without receipt just to get out of the country. The amount was almost equal to my round-trip (Jakarta-Jogjakarta) Air Asia ticket! Perhaps this was my karma for getting a student discount at Prambanan by showing my school ID, not as a student but as a teacher. Anyhow, a measly stapler could’ve saved me all the drama. That burst the Jakarta bubble I was in.

Pariwara (in Tagalog – “misguided”) @ Soekarno-Hatta International Airport