I’m two weeks into the Jakarta experience, and I’ve noticed there are no fourth floors. No fourth, no fourteenth, no twenty-fourth—you get the picture. Take a look at the elevator keypad to our apartment—not a four to be found. The explanation I was given is that the Chinese syllable for “four” rings eerily similar to their word for “death.” Hence, in order to prevent massive four-floor casualties and sustain the massive overpopulation of the city, builders have stricken the numeral from all their buildings. It remains to be determined if they have been as successful at banishing the bane the man’s existence.
Perhaps they have—there is that massive overcrowding of the city to consider.
And arriving in Jakarta from a small town in rural Missouri, it’s hard to notice much besides the crowding. I was in Manhattan just last month and didn’t feel so claustrophobic. I’ve made the trip to Chicago on many a summer and a winter day, and always breathed easy, even in the downtown. I’ve shuttled around El Salvador—eight times smaller than Missouri with twice as populated—and didn’t think twice. I’ve stepped my feet through more than a few European capitals—the old-world crookedness and narrowness of streets that grew up before cars—and didn’t feel confined. No, I haven’t sweated through a city so overcrowded since Shanghai, since the dizzy rush and blistering lights and the constant shouting in your ears that you are not and never alone. Jakarta’s crowding reminds me of this—minus the media blitz to the senses.
What Jakarta may lack to Shanghai’s bling is more than made up for in its malls: Every day is black Friday in Jakarta. It’s a city obsessed with malls—with giant conglomerations of storefronts blitzkrieging the eyes and ears and wallets of the populous. Brave the traffic jams to get yourself to one of the many shopping megaliths; step inside to bristle and bustle your way through youngsters clad in Hello Kitty and Angry Bird apparel fighting for a place in line to get yet another bubble tea or another cell phone accessory or another Carrefour discount.
By the way, it may sound funny, but no Jakarta mall is ever raised without a solid foundation on a Carrefour.
An ill-planned Saturday evening found my wife and I stuck in one of these: it left me feeling a lot like a termite from a National Geographic special—myself now one of many crawling over and around all the many others in a buzzing hive of motion in which the individual is absorbed into the crowd.
If you’re planning a visit, just get used to waiting—waiting on (four-deprived) elevators, waiting on public transportation, waiting in traffic, waiting to take a few steps to next aisle, waiting to check out, and, the cake-topping cherry of them all, the wait for a taxi home. Taxis are cheap and essential, it seems, as the lines to grab a cab stretch dozens of patrons long. After fighting through the malls and planting yourself in the queue for a half-hour, each glimpse of the taxi-topping blue light sparks gasps of joy and amazement in a world-weary population of line-dwellers. One appears once every five or ten minutes. It’s like waiting on an angel at the pool of Bethesda, if you know what I mean. The bright side is you have plenty of co-miserables alongside you to share your pain.
I think a person gets used to the crowding, though. I think you have to. I’m already soaking it in—at least a little. For example, I remember our first night in town: a rain-soaked, jet-lagged, deep-seated fatigue kind of night. It was six, and we wanted to sleep. Nonono, I said, we’re not doing this—we’re not setting ourselves up to be isolated from the start. We’re getting out to see what’s here; we’re walking out that door to vast city that waits, and we’re going to taste the tip of what our new life offers.
We went to a seafood place.
Before sitting—before evening crossing the threshold—no less than three smiling teens accosted us for our drink requests. How about a table, we said. So they paraded us to a fine private table and gathered around to watch us peruse the menu and offer suggestions. They called a few friends over. They got a buddy who spoke a little more English. The rain pounded the roof and my eyes sagged in weariness and my wife and I looked at one another and wondered whether we should have stayed inside after all. Try the coconut. The pudding? The drink? The papaya is good too. We sighed.
But they were right—the papaya was good. Better than good, actually. I’m just sorry I had to shoo the over-zealous wait staff away to get in a sip in peace.
But the point is this: while I’m used to escaping away to peace and quiet and personal space, the thinking here seems to be a bit contrary. Here, escape from the stresses is predicated not on physically removing yourself from the crowd, but rather on immersing yourself in the swirling mass of humanity. Relaxation is not necessarily away from others, but in releasing yourself among them.
If I had thought like that from the start, I may have found all the assistance in ordering a drink flattering and fun rather than annoying. If I would buy into that philosophy, maybe I would smile more in the traffic jams of carts at Carrefour or make more clumsy small talk while suffering through a wait for a cab.
I can’t say the city isn’t overpopulated, but I’d be a fool to mistake the wonder of so many lives and so many talents and so many loves and desires and existences pooled so tightly together for merely an annoyance to my singular preferences. When I start to see the overcrowding as a miracle of life and a triumph of human ingenuity rather than an affront to my personal prerogatives, then I know I’ll know I’m really arriving in Jakarta.