The Big Durian – Jakarta

We arrived in Jakarta last night to a heavy rainfall and humidity so high that every piece of glass in sight continuously fogged when exposed to the outside world. I was wondering what Jakarta would be like, particularly in the light of the fact that pretty much everyone I know who has been to Indonesia on holiday has completely skipped Jakarta; instead, they use the city as a transfer point to get to the much hyped up island of Bali (thanks so much, Australians and Eat, Pray, Love). Jakarta has a bad wrap for its congested traffic, pollution, and crowds. It made me wonder…. Ummm, aren’t those the same reasons people hate on cities like LA or New York? Yet people continue to visit those cities. Are people just pre-judging too much and straight up being assholes about what they don’t even know? 

Jakarta is also known affectionately (or not) as “the Big Durian.” It’s debated why this is Jakarta’s nickname, but some plausible theories include: like the polarizing and stinky durian fruit originating in Southeast Asia, you either love Jakarta or you hate it. For some, it’s an exciting and delicious city. For others, they simply cannot stand any part of it and want to avoid it like the plague. Another theory: durian is smelly, and so is Jakarta (I don’t agree that Jakarta is smelly, but yes, as a city with a high population and poor and rich areas, of course the poorer areas are going to have worse sewage systems, so….). 

After exploring the city for two days, I would argue that Jakarta is certainly worth a visit. Yes, it doesn’t have a lot of “tourist” sights the way a city like Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi, or New York would, but it has interesting and quirky neighborhoods, crazy large malls, and an eclectic assortment of food due to its extremely diverse population representing many surrounding countries, its 17,000+ islands, and previous colonization by the Portuguese and the Dutch. From a culture perspective, there’s plenty to learn and soak in from this capital city. And from a foodie perspective, it’s kind of like a dreamy paradise. Who would have thought to put jerky-like beef into a coconut and cow milk-based broth, or to make coffee from coffee berries defecated from a civet / luwak cat because going through its digestive track would result in a more rich and chocolatey flavor? Also, I’d never before visited a country with SO many different types of sambals (spicy chili pastes) ranging in level of heat, sweetness, sourness, saltiness. Indonesian cuisine is vast, rich, and diverse, so heavily influenced by Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian cuisines, just to name a few. I cannot imagine anyone who enjoys trying new foods to find this city even remotely boring. 

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