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Saturday, May 7, 2005

JAPAN LITE

A golden week of Jakarta traffic chaos


I admit, I fled. I wanted to go somewhere for Golden Week but I didn't want an organized, efficient, clean vacation like I'd have traveling around Japan. I wanted something more spontaneous, more edgy, with a little more risk. I longed for the chaos of a big South Asian city, and people with big natural smiles and pearly whites. So where did I go? Jakarta!

When my foreign friends warned that Jakarta was a big, noisy polluted city, I was hooked. Tokyo would pale in comparison with the chaos of Jakarta.

When I came out of the Soekarno-Hatta airport, the first thing I noticed was the airport road lined with tall palm trees reaching up to the sky -- all plastic! And they never let up: Green and red plastic palms are all over the city, and they even light up at night. The magic of Jakarta had begun.

Jakarta is a city with 10 million people and 20 million vehicles. For transportation enthusiasts such as myself, I was delighted to try new forms of getting from place to place. Jakarta offers an array of exhaust-spewing public transportation from taxis to buses, "ojeck" and "bajay," none any safer than the next. A bit of a transportation roulette, if you will.

Driving in Jakarta is a much more audible experience than visual. Like the Braille method allows people to read, the horn system in Jakarta allows people to drive. It's a way of reminding other drivers that there are five motorbikes and two bajays crammed into their "blind spot" or that you're the 10th in a line of taxis that is going to squeeze in front of someone.

Have you ever taken a listening exam where every time you hear a beep, you have to raise your finger? I suspect the driver's license examination in Jakarta includes a listening exam, but one that uses horns rather than beeps. You not only have to identify exactly where the honking vehicle is coming from, but you probably have to be able to identify the vehicle by its honk: car, truck, bus, ojeck or bajay -- a "Name That Tune" of traffic. The skills test is when they blindfold you and put you in a car in Jakarta traffic.

The taxi is the cleanest form of transport, offering a protective bubble to move around in. Jakarta taxi drivers are the most proficient I've ever seen at tailgating. There is not an inch wasted between cars, and the tendency to "race 'n' brake" ensures you'll arrive at the last life-saving inch as soon as possible. Taxis are cheap and air-conditioned, and are a good way to get around to the trendy cafes in the Kemang district or for your late night shopping at the malls, some of which are open until 3 in the morning.

For the most excitement, take the public bus, where the driver constantly honks his horn at traffic while the Indo music blares inside. After all, music is a universal life need; why contain it to an iPod? You must know where you're going when you take the public bus, though, and get on and off while the bus is still moving.

But I prefer to be out in the chaos, actually contributing to it rather than being a victim of it. I much preferred to travel around by bajay, a covered three-wheeled contraption borrowed from India that uses a small, but extremely loud, Vespa motor. Bajays putter around in their very own exhaust clouds. Cruising through Jakarta's neighborhoods by bajay, past tropical houses and neighborhood mosques, is truly a delight.

Ojecks are motorbike taxis. The drivers, always male, will take you anywhere you need to go on the back of their motorbike. This is especially good if you are a single girl who can't find a date. You'll likely get where you're going on time by ojeck, since motorbikes can weave in and out of the gridlock. I took an ojeck to Jaya Ancol Dreamland, a huge outdoor park, to see Indonesian folk singer and political activist Iwan Falls. The park even has a beach that is lighted for nighttime use. Ojeck is also a good way to get to Jalan Jaksa, a narrow street full of small bars and restaurants, and a popular hangout for foreigners.

My foreign friends were right. Jakarta is a big, noisy polluted city. That's what makes it so exciting.

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