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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11 thoughts on “How Jakarta Defeated The Travel Optimist”

  1. I stupidly thought I could handle any third-world city/country, having been to Phenom-Penh, Seoul, Bangkok, etc. but Jakarta defeated me completely.

    The traffic, the noise, the smog, the pollution, the flooding, the health hazards….add to that a general indifference on the part of passers-by, and I’d had enough by day two.

    To say that shopping is reason enough to visit Jakarta, or that it grows on you–like mould grows on bread, perhaps–is patently insane.

  2. I live in Jakarta and yes, sadly, I have to agree with you. The city is driving us crazy, we even forget how it means to have a smooth traffic on the streets! Your article inspires me, really this should be changed to welcome more travel optimists like you. Thanks Mitzi!


  3. I appreciate your candidness! Not every traveler is going to love every trip. I’ve been disappointed by two destinations and that has mainly been because I had unreasonably high expectations going in. Now I try to maintain a realistic perspective so that even if it’s not my dream destination, I can still enjoy it for what it is.

  4. I’m so sorry you had an awful time here. Granted, yes, it’s even hard for me sometimes to live in the city I grew up in. But there is a different way to look at Jakarta besides just the traffic, pollution, shopping malls or food.
    If you enjoy social work, you will see a different side this city has to offer from an experience with street children or orphans. I think you can really experience the true joy of really interacting with the locals and what they can give to you.
    If you ever do give Jakarta a chance again, I hope you can take the time to find out the hidden parts of this bi-polar city. It might not be charming in appearance, but it’s charming at heart.
    I would also recommend visiting an entrepreneurship high school for orphans located here in Jakarta (Yayasan Prima Unggul). The students come from all over Indonesia, so it will be a chance for you to experience the different cultures from different parts of Indonesia all in one place. I’ve been volunteering with them for one year and each one of them has touched my heart immeasurably.

  5. Crazy to see this article today…this is my last day of a week in Jakarta, and I feel EXACTLY the same way. I’m usually so easy to please when it comes to travel – just being somewhere foreign makes me happy – but Jakarta is the first place I think I’ll walk away from being perfectly content to never, ever come back.

    If I had had more time (because Mitzi’s right, it takes AGES to get anywhere) it would have been really interesting to learn more about the creative scene here, the street artists and musicians, but outside of that…this place wears you down, man. It wears you down!

  6. Oh I agree with you! I was living and working in Jakarta for 2.5 yrs and the impression of traffic, pollution, creepy under the bridge crossing remain in my head. Working in the capital seems to be the promising choice for many Indonesians like me, but I try to keep my promise to never go back to the capital for living again.

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