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Arrival in Jakarta

Arriving in Jakarta I realize that I don’t know what to expect.

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These recent posts from Indonesia actually took place in January. In the intervening months not much was published on Vagabond Journey due to being occupied with the release of a new book and subsequent book tours in China and the UK, as well as a restructuring of the site. We are now getting back into regular publishing.

My flight was descending into Jakarta and I suddenly became aware of the fact that I knew absolutely nothing about the place. Nothing except for random anecdotes of legitimately insane events that had transpired there throughout the 80s and 90s — things like government backed assassins summarily executing thousands of suspected criminals and putting their corpses on display in the streets, ninjas assassinating witches, a purge that resulted in the disappearance of dozens of pro-democracy student activists, and a string of other medieval pogroms.

I looked down at the lights blaring up from the city below in the clear dark night and had no idea if Jakarta was currently a global shit hole like Manila, a tourist epicenter like Bangkok, or an expat wasteland like Kuala Lumpur. The capital cities of Southeast Asia are changing fast — many are now renewing themselves as rising economic hubs donning shining new business districts and sprawling luxury housing developments and shopping malls for their ballooning middle and upper classes. What was I going to find down there? I knew nothing about Jakarta and liked it.

I was ripped off 10,000 Rupiah — 80 cents — for my visa on arrival, but I let the immigration department have its measly tip without complaint. I was rapidly stamped in, and pride wasn’t worth complicating that.

Jakarta International isn’t a place to dwell in. It’s the type of airport that’s merely a transition hub — you get in and get out, there are no movie theaters here. After clearing customs you are spat outside of the airport, awash in a wave of other humans. Not good if your plan is to sleep there for the night — like mine was.

Arriving by air in an unfamiliar country is one of the prime experiences of travel. It’s always a jolt, like running smack into a glass door that you thought was open, but this is part of the appeal. Air travel feels unhealthy, like you just did something purposefully grievous to it, but it also feels as if you accomplished something for the sacrifice — like the morning after getting drunk with new friends or biking for far too far to a good place or getting in a good fight. This type of travel is a privilege of our time.

In some countries airports are civil, orderly, and calm white collar places; in other countries they are raucous cauldrons of all ingredients of humanity. Jakarta was the later.

It was the clothing here that initially commanded my attention. A huge amount of the people were dressed up in their cultural uniforms, but it wasn’t all the same one. The people here dressed very differently than me, but they also dressed very differently than each other. Each group had its own style robes, head wear, and shoes; many of which were color coordinated like teams. To my left would be a mass of twenty people in green robes and hats, to my right would be a dozen wearing blue, in front of me would be a group made distinct by their brown garb. Beards, hair, and jewelry were also styled according to cultural sub-sect. It was clear from the start that this place was mixed, really mixed — but not mixed together.

I stepped onto the shuttle and rode between all of the terminals. It was nearly midnight and I was looking for the best place to sleep. Going into a new city at this time — while not an extremely difficult move — can be a chore. Also, how could I pay for a hotel for a full night when I’d just be sleeping in it for a few hours? Why would I pay for a hotel when I could just sleep at the airport for free? It wasn’t really a matter of money — I had money — it was a position of rhetoric.

None of the terminals looked any better than any other. I didn’t want to sleep outside on a bench, so I figured that I’d just find a closed down restaurant or coffee stall near the core of the busiest terminal, slip inside, and crash in a chair. I found a closed donut stall and did just that in their seating area. The lights were off and it was dark, but not too dark; removed from the ebb and flow of the terminal, but not desolate.

Keeping my bag in my lap I sat in a chair, rested my head on my arms, which were folded on a table, and went to sleep. I woke up a little while later to find a guy massaging another guy’s feet on the floor in front of me. What the fuck? Noticing me being jolted awake they looked up and smiled. I smiled. I went back asleep. I woke up a while later to find two guys massaging the feet of two other guys on the floor in front of me. What the fuck? I went back asleep. I woke up a while later to find a guy with a bamboo mat and a grungy bottle of body oil standing above me asking if I’d like my feet massaged. No thanks. It was time to get out of there. It was five or so in the morning — good enough to be go time.


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Filed under: Air Travel, Indonesia, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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