Echoes Of Jakarta

From its historical roots to its skyscraper-studded skyline, this city captivates with its contrasts Words
The Jakarta skyline
The Jakarta skylineShutterstock

From my room at Jakarta's Le Meridien hotel, I gazed out onto a city alive with lights. After wrestling with the decision to stay in or step out, curiosity won. And I embarked on a visual escapade.

I ascended an overhead bridge and it dawned on me that much like in India, they serve as the meeting points for lovers—some amidst disagreements and a select few anticipating the inaugural skirmishes within their blooming relationships. On the same bridge, many also sought refuge, their gazes fixed on the abyss of their mobile screens.

After spending less than an hour on the bridge looking at life passing by, it was time to return. And as I turned around, I heard a man singing to his wife in Indonesian as she blushed, her face taking on a rosy hue.

Bustling Roads, Busy Lives

I had arrived in Jakarta the day before on the first-ever direct flight from Mumbai to Jakarta by IndiGo. Within a few minutes of exiting the airport, I realised navigating the city’s roads was an adventure in itself. It also meant immersing myself in its diverse cultures. The vibrant markets of Menteng, home to live-music venues and cocktail lounges, and the landmark Selamat Datang (welcome monument), offered a kaleidoscope of colours and flavours, while the historical district of Kota Tua narrated tales of a bygone era.

Clockwise: Hawkers at Mangga Besar night market; Jakarta Cathedral; an array of street food
Clockwise: Hawkers at Mangga Besar night market; Jakarta Cathedral; an array of street foodPhotos: Shuterstock

Dutch All The Way

The Dutch ruled Indonesia from 1816 to 1941, during which they set up Fatahillah Square, the historical centre of old Batavia, a meticulously designed Dutch fortified city. The open space that later transformed into Fatahillah Square around 1627 was known as the "Nieuwe Markt," which translates to "New Marketplace."

Today, the square is home to the Jakarta History Museum, Wayang Museum and the Fine Art and Ceramics Museum.

“Together with the Kota Tua Jakarta, Fatahillah Square is a car-free area,” Heru, our guide from Ina Leisure Tour Operator, said.

The Fatahillah Square is also home to Café Batavia, housed within the second oldest structure of the square. The café's ambience was reminiscent of the 1930s, with vintage photographs of celebrities and royalty adorning the main dining area. The ground floor housed a bar, a performance stage, and a lounge section.

"The 'Grand Salon' on the upper floor is the main dining hall, accommodating 150 guests. It is constructed of wood and the large shuttered windows provides a gorgeous view of the Square," explained Heru.

But outside, the lives of ordinary Indonesians unfolded differently. The Square was where tired employees sought respite after a long workday, where young mothers gathered to escape the daily demands, and where aspiring performance artists strived to keep their dreams alive.

D For Dapur

On our second evening in the city, we found ourselves at “Dapur Babah Elite”—an over-80-year-old restaurant serving Dutch, Chinese, and Javanese food. Nestled amidst restored 1940s shophouses near Jakarta's Merdeka Square, Dapur Babah's front houses a vintage tea and coffee bar, echoing the Babah tradition, while at its rear is the kitchen, guarded by a deity.

The grand highlight was the Indiesche-Babah de Rijsttafel Van Tugu, an opulent family-style feast featuring 12 dishes harmonising Chinese, Javanese, and Dutch flavours. The cultural tapestry unfolded from starters like loempia goreng Semarang (fried spring rolls, Semarang-style), bitterballetjes (Dutch croquettes) to desserts like es tjampoer Babah paling seger (shaved ice speciality) and wedang ronde (sweet ginger drink dessert).

Not Just Street Food

But it is street food that never fails to fascinate me. While strolling through the market, I indulged in a unique assortment of dishes—satay (grilled skewers with peanut sauce), gado-gado (vegetable salad with peanut sauce), martabak (stuffed pancake in sweet and savoury versions), and pisang goreng (deep-fried banana fritters). The best part was hearing from the stall owners stories of how each dish represents the fusion of the past and present.

As I savoured the last bite of martabak and nasi goreng and took in the sights and sounds around me, I knew this was a chapter of my journey that would remain etched in my memory.

With a smile, I left the market, carrying with me the taste of the dishes I had tried and the warmth and hospitality of the Indonesian people.

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