Exploring Jakarta Made Easy With Trail-Blazing Travel Guide
“I love Jakarta,” says author Andrew Whitmarsh. “It’s one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been in my entire life.”
While other visitors balk at Jakarta’s congested motorways, polluted skies and urban sprawl, Whitmarsh finds plenty to love about the city he has now called home for almost eight years. But he doesn’t want to keep his discoveries all to himself — along with his photographer, adventuring partner and now wife, Melanie Wood, Whitmarsh released a travel book earlier this week, titled “Jakarta: 25 Excursions in and around the Indonesian capital.”
The book breaks the city down into 20 manageable chunks with a walking tour carved through each, passing major points of interest. A handful of the tours step outside the city limits, but the rest guide visitors through the labyrinthine streets of the capital’s suburbs, parks and marketplaces.
These tours aim to do more than point out historical buildings and monuments. The idea of creating walking tours, Wood says, is to provide an interactive approach to exploring the city.
“It’s when you’re walking that you get to have the personal experiences,” she says. “I think the beauty in Jakarta is chatting to the goods sellers, the people along the way, market women. That’s where you’re going to get your anecdotes and your stories.”
Whitmarsh and Wood have walked every trail in the book. After meeting in the Republic of Georgia in 2004, the US-UK couple moved to Jakarta together in 2005.
Two years in, they decided their adventures in the capital were too good not to share, and began collecting material for a book. Both working full-time jobs, this meant spending countless weekends putting together the walking tours, with Wood capturing snapshots and Whitmarsh writing it all down. Some of the material also came from Whitmarsh’s monthly column in Jakarta Java Kini magazine, while Wood was simultaneously working on her blog, www.gangs-of-indonesia.com.
To avoid the heat and traffic, they generally set out around 7 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday morning, a time when Whitmarsh says Jakarta is at its finest.
The tours trace through the mangroves and fishing settlements of the north, through temples and reptile markets in Chinatown, via the up-market central shopping district, and south to cemeteries, kampungs and suburban playgrounds.
One of the more personal tours is a circuit through Bendungan Hilir, a diverse and buzzing neighborhood where the couple, who married in 2011, now live. Whitmarsh gives his tips on where to shop for fresh produce, where to find a blind masseur and how to cast a line at the neighborhood fishing hole.
He also includes a chapter on how to be streetwise when exploring the capital, such as staying hydrated, respecting cultural norms and watching for holes in the pavement that drop into the sewers. A section on “Cultural Do’s and Don’ts” gives tips on fitting in, such as dressing modestly, showing patience and courtesy and dealing with the sometimes overwhelming attention from locals.
Aside from infrastructural hazards, Whitmarsh and Wood say that Jakarta is a safe place for foreign visitors to explore, even while hauling around an expensive-looking camera.
Wood says she was shy at first to take photos of people she didn’t know, and used to hide her camera in her bag. These days, she carries it boldly displayed around her neck and finds the city is full of willing portrait subjects.
“You get more opportunities to shoot by displaying the fact that you have a camera with you,” she says. “[Now] everybody says, ‘Hey, Miss! Come and take my photo!’ ”
Meeting with locals this way and stopping for a chat on her repeat visits to certain neighborhoods, Wood says she now feels more connected to the city.
“I see some of the same characters, some of them recognize me. So it’s a nice sense of community,” she says.
For Whitmarsh, one of the biggest challenges in documenting the tours was the pace of change in the capital.
In the time it took to write the book, markets closed and reopened again, neighborhoods burned and roads were built. He would find that an area he had already written about had totally changed six months later, forcing him to go back and change all his drafts.
“Jakarta is a living beast; it does not sit still,” he says.
The tours marked in the book and the map tucked inside its back cover are up to date at the moment, though Whitmarsh admits it would be best to check for updated information online before hitting the streets.
While certain elements of the tours are bound to change, the important thing that the book offers is the chance to go to a neighborhood knowing what’s there and be able to choose your own adventure, he says.
Whitmarsh hopes his book opens new experiences for those willing to explore the streets and see a different side of the capital beyond the clogged main streets, expanses of concrete and ostentatious malls.
“Jakarta is one big mystery,” he says. “You have to be brave, that’s all there is to it.”
Jakarta: 25 Excursions in and around the Indonesian capital
Written by Andrew Whitmarsh, photographs by Melanie Wood
Published by Tuttle Publishing