Three weeks ago, Steve and I set sail (I mean, flew over) for the island of Java, also known to the rest of the world as the most populated island in the nation of Indonesia. While we’ve been pretty active in visiting places in East Asia, Indonesia’s actually the first new country in Southeast Asia that we’ve been able to go to. I had been pushing for this for a while, so it was with a lot of excitement that we made our way onto the flight. In the days prior to our flight, there was a lot of wrestling with baggage (stupid 7 KG in-cabin allowance) and trying to pin down last minute details for each of our four destinations. Stella watched us pack with trepidation, and then we packed her off before we went to the airport, dropping her off at our preferred dog hotel near Taipei Main! Despite swearing them off, we took Air Asia on Saturday afternoon from Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport (TPE) to Kuala Lumpur (KUL)’s low-cost airline terminal, KLIA2.
Our first stop was actually KL! We didn’t leave the airport, but after landing in the evening around 9 pm, we headed to another exciting first: a capsule hotel! Capsule Transit is the name of the container-based capsule hotel that is situated in the airport here. It was a fairly cheap way to spend the night (~$50 USD), and as we found, fairly roomy too. We booked a queen-bed two-person capsule, and the entire space was subdivided into different male only or female only or mixed sections. Our capsule was on the ground, but some were on a second level that needed a short climb up the ladder. We spent so much time exploring the airport to find an ATM and a decent place to have dinner that we just collapsed into our capsule and fell asleep for six hours.
The next morning, we woke up very early for our 7 am flight to Jakarta. We landed for the first time south of the equator, slightly winded but also excited! Jakarta is Indonesia’s biggest city and the capital, also home to two of my very good friends from grad school, Adi and Matt. Matt had given us a lot of pointers about our first trip to Indonesia, and I just felt better about the whole trip, knowing that they were going to help us out on our first day! We caught an airport taxi from Blue Bird, one of the more reputable operators in town, and it took about an hour to drive in, even though it was not peak rush hour. This was to be expected, because we had heard that Jakarta’s traffic was right up there in misery with Manila, Shanghai, and Beijing! We finally arrived at Matt’s apartment to be greeted by Adi and Matt, and dropped our things off there. Despite it being early in the day, it was already incredibly humid and hot. That was to prove a theme for the rest of our stay… For our first foray, Matt took us to Thamrin City Mall (also where our Airbnb for the night was), and we found someone to sell us a SIM card for the trip. For the low price of 100.000 Indonesian rupiah (IDR), which is less than $10 USD (at 13.000 rupiah to the dollar), we got 10G of data, which would come in handy as some of the places we stayed at had poor wifi connections.
Next, we set off for the National Mosque. Situated downtown in Central Jakarta, the National Mosque was a lovely, huge area for worship. It was my first time in a mosque, and though not sure what to expect, it was quite interesting. We were led on a tour by an English-speaking guide, sprinkled with more stories from Matt who had been before and also speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesia. First, we dropped off our shoes in a special location for foreign visitors; many locals were out front selling plastic bags since everyone has to take off our shoes. They waved them at us, but Matt noted we had a location inside and not to fall for the trick – when she heard us, a local lady nearly fell down bemoaning how Matt was ruining her business and why couldn’t he cut hardworking locals a break? It was a good laugh for everyone, and I was really impressed by how great her English was! Several people in our foreign group (we were also joined by about four French families with kids) had to don these mummahs, which are long robes, since I think you need to cover your shoulders and your legs. I was wearing jeans and a three-quarter sleeve, and that proved to be enough, but Steve donned a mummah, which was an excellent sight. We walked around barefoot for the duration of the tour, checking out the amazingly huge space inside on the second floor. It was divided into left and right for women and men respectively, on both floors, and filled with many people who were praying but also just sitting and talking with friends. There were thousands gathered, and I think it could have fit tens of thousands without a problem. Outside in the courtyard, the guide showed us how the tiled floor actually delineated prayer spots which would all be filled up during the holy month of Ramadan, which is happening right now, actually. He also guided us to a huge drum which was used to signal the time for prayer to the faithful around the city before loudspeakers came into use. Muslims pray five times a day, from predawn to sundown, and the muzzeins where Arabic prayer was chanted and sung was a beautiful, haunting accompaniment throughout our entire trip. Afterwards, Matt also took us to the National Cathedral across the street. Though Indonesia is a Muslim-majority faith, there are five state religions, and it takes that dedication very seriously. As a result, the National Mosque and Cathedral are deliberately constructed close together. The cathedral was dedicated to the assumption of Mary, and it was also very beautiful. We lit a candle for Steve’s mother, and also brought one back for her.
Afterwards, we were pretty wiped out already and needed some good lunch. Walking around Jakarta (even though we were in a relatively small area) took a lot of energy – the heat and humidity was overbearing, and we often had to stop to buy iced water (2.000 or 5.000 IDR, which was like 15 or 30 cents) from roadside vendors. We ended up at lunch at an Indian restaurant nearby, and Matt took the chance to teach us some elementary Bahasa Indonesia, which is based on Malaysian, interestingly enough. (Some backstory is apparently that after its second independence, Indonesia deliberately took another country’s language as a national language so as not to elevate any local language like Javanese or Balinese above all the other ones. As a huge island nation with hundreds of local languages, that would have been a polarizing decision, so an interesting solution to that.) We tried to visit the National Monument (a Washington Monument-like obelisk nearby), but I think we were suffering a touch of heatstroke, so Matt brought us back to the apartment, where our Airbnb was finally open for check-in. One final interesting note about walking around Jakarta – Matt taught us the hand. To cross traffic (because crosswalks were nonexistent and usually not honored), you just hold up your hand at waist height while you walk calmly and steadily between cars and scooters. Though traffic looks chaotic, it almost always works out fine. It was a little nervewracking to get used to, but now I have an even higher tolerance for what happens in Taiwanese traffic! Amazing.
We had a relatively brief break even though it felt like we’d been going the whole day, however, and that was because Adi and Matt had an amazing way to close our first day in Indonesia. We were going to… crash an Indonesian wedding! Adi’s girlfriend Risty had a friend who was getting married on Sunday, and instead of skipping her friend’s wedding, she ingeniously suggested that we simply attend the wedding and have food there as a part of the many guests! Steve and I decided it was best to go with the flow, and I pulled out the one and only dress I had brought on this trip. Matt even rose to the occasion and loaned Steve a dark red patterned batik shirt which fit him admirably. Thusly, we were attired for the wedding. Although nothing could change the fact that we had only brought our Chacos for footwear on this trip, and so showed up looking like the most underdressed people ever! Matt and May, his wife, were dressed beautifully, and Risty and Adi also showed up in their finery! For this wedding, we were gathered at a hotel in South Jakarta, and from the first moment, Steve and I were overawed by the scale and splendor of the wedding. Apparently the bride and groom’s families were both well-to-do in Indonesian society, so our taxi dropped us off in front of the hotel amid huge festooned boards which spelled out good wishes in flowers from many companies and friends. We had to walk past the wedding party because we arrived right before a ceremonial procession, which was pretty embarrassing. Almost everyone wore gorgeously patterned batik clothing, I saw hijabs glittering with sequins and gold and silver embroidery, someone actually had on a tiara, and we were most definitely the most underdressed people. We nervously joked about the black-suited staff hustling us out because we so did not belong, but fortunately, all ended up well. We watched as the bride, escorted by her parents made her way in first, preceded by dancers in blue and gold costumes. Once they were seated on a dais, the groom’s family came in next, all in matching batik outfits of grey and silver. There was an elaborate ceremony where they had some actors/ fighters who fought ceremonially for the right to ask the bride’s hand in marriage, which we watched and had nearly no understanding. Finally, he walked up, and he and his family sat down as well on the dais. We watched as some people made announcements, and then, a huge number of guests started lining up for the privilege of congratulating them first.
At the same time, an equally huge number of guests descended on the buffet stations scattered across the huge ballroom floor. We sampled any number of dishes, like butter beef seared by a hand torch, Japanese udon with shrimp tempura, seared salmon and asparagus, Indian biryani and butter chicken, and dessert in too many cuisines to name. The six of us ate while standing, and kept leaving and coming back with new plates of things I couldn’t even name, and it was all delicious. We even found stations with dim sum and Belgian waffles, covered with dark fudge. I was most definitely stuffed by the end. There was also a band with singers who provided music the whole evening, and though I would not have predicted I’d be able to sing along with every tune at an Indonesian wedding, it turned out to be mostly covers of popular songs, like Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” and “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas. Unfortunately, people don’t really dance at Muslim weddings, but it was vastly entertaining to watch the live band. After some deliberation, we capped off the evening by also going up to be a part of the line of well-wishers – it seemed like the least we could do, after all! Steve and I simply followed the lead of our friends – for the bride and groom and their parents, we bowed low from the waist and held our hands palm to palm to our foreheads, and tried to remember the Indonesian for thank you (terima kasih!). At least the bride knew one of our party, so we made our way down the line of bemused parents and relatives amid relatively tampered down hilarity before we finally left the wedding. It was an incredibly memorable evening, and we left with a huge impression of the hospitality and kindness of Indonesians!
We made our way back to the apartment, where we said goodbye to our friends. Steve and I ended up enjoying a quiet drink on the balcony of our 26th floor Airbnb, where we looked out at Jakarta by night before heading to an early bedtime. We had another early day ahead of us, with a 6 am departure to the airport, and a 9 am flight to our next destination, Yogyakarta, which I’ll cover in the next post. Huge, huge thanks to Adi and Risty and Matt and May, who were incredibly kind and helpful. Aside from a cozy grad school reunion, it made a huge difference for us to see friendly familiar faces on our first day in a new country. We’ll get to return the favor in Taipei, hopefully!