How Jakarta Defeated The Travel Optimist

I’m a travel optimist. Someone who tries to love everything on the road. When I travel, especially in Asia, I try to look past negative aspects like pollution and poverty and fall in love with children playing and interesting graffiti.

In my experience, it’s the first couple of days in a city that forge your overall impression of a destination and while some redeem themselves eventually, sometimes it’s hard to let go of those initial smells, interactions and events- especially if you’re only there for a short time. So what happens when you can’t overcome those first impressions? What happens when those depressing sights and sounds become overwhelming and end up being all you tell your friends at home about?

I experienced this recently when I went to Jakarta. I came away feeling apprehensive towards the whole trip and I uttered the words no travel organisation wants to hear.

“I don’t think I’ll be back.”

It wasn’t because I was robbed or conned in any way. In fact, my trip ran smoothly and no bookings were cancelled or lost. There were no terrorist attacks or natural disasters. So why was I feeling so uninspired?

I think it’s because Jakarta is completely bipolar. By day, I found myself blinded by the fires, rubbish and clogged waterways. But at night, behind my four star curtains, the lights sparkled into the distance in every direction. In the darkness, I felt like I could be in any metropolis in the world.

 While researching Indonesia’s capital city, I noticed a pattern. Authors wrote of hours wasted in passenger seats, twiddling thumbs and watching exhaust pipes. Apparently, the traffic was bad, terrible in fact. I had experienced bad traffic in India and in Europe- surely I could handle a bit of intercity congestion. Right?


I realised this during hour eight of sitting in the back seat of a minivan with four other people. We moved intermittently through the streets, bumper to bumper and jarring so much that the clutch failed and our blue van broke down. This isn’t anything unusual; in fact, it’s so common to spend hours in traffic that people make a living off selling supplies to stagnant motorists. Armed with water bottles, deep fried snacks and magazines, they walk the aisles of gridlock traffic, trying to catch your eye through the windows. Even musicians make an appearance; you can get an impromptu ukulele performance while you wait for the lights to turn green, which will be a while, trust me.

See, there I go again. Where’s my optimism? Is it because I spent my birthday in the back seat of that van? Is it because it seemed like everything that could go wrong, went wrong? Well, yes.

The truth is, sometimes travel can be disappointing.

No matter how much research you put into a trip beforehand, you may come out feeling totally uninformed and unprepared. I wasn’t prepared for the scale of traffic and pollution in Jakarta and in hindsight, I probably should have been. A city with a day time population of 12 million isn’t going to be squeaky clean or run like clockwork. Jakarta is noisy, smoggy and full of scooters and developing like crazy. A collision of religions and social classes, it seems like the whole city is trying to keep up with expansion. And as a tourist, it certainly is a varied experience.

Now, it’s not all bad. Shopping in Jakarta is one of the city’s saviours and the view from the shopping malls is almost worth the horrendous traffic. The variety and quality of goods is great and the prices are even better. Thankfully, after visiting a few malls and markets, my outlook softened and I was willing to put up with the relentless traffic. (Kind of.)

As with any travelling, a destination is what you make it. You can focus on the pile of rubbish burning next to you or close your eyes and focus on how good that food really tastes. As soon as you accept there are things you can’t change, the more time you have to concentrate on the things that bring people back for more. And although my opinion of Jakarta probably won’t change, my preparation before a trip certainly will.

Now that I’m home, my memory of Jakarta focuses on the smog blanket that discoloured the sun, the fractures in the pavement and the rubbish that clogs the canals. Sometimes, no matter how much optimism you have, you can’t change a city like Jakarta. Not yet anyway.

, (yes it’s her real name and no it’s not short for anything) is a travel writer, op shop fanatic and lover of all creatures. You can read more of her work here, or see what she’s up to here.

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