A whirlwind #workation in Indonesia: Is travel planning overrated?
One of the interesting contradictions in my life is how little I research my travel before I set off, despite being a researcher by profession. This trip to Indonesia, which Greg and I had planned as a recce visit to explore collaborations and case sites for a new project, was one of those in which I literally landed up at the airport with a lets-see-how-this-goes attitude. Part of this was related to how much we had riding on this trip work-wise, the nature of the visit was exploratory. We didn’t even have a fixed itinerary- except for the knowing when we arrived in and departed from Jakarta, we were literally making this up as we went along!
Far from being apprehensive, I was enormously excited about this trip. It felt like a true adventure, which would entail seeing a bunch of places I had never imagined going to and a couple that I didn’t even know the existence of! There were a few comforts though. One, Greg speaks Bahasa Indonesia and had spent enough time there to act as guide and interpreter (he did a fantastic job of that!). And I had been to Bali and Surabaya earlier this year (yes, this is my 3rd trip in a span of 3 months!), gained an initial understanding of Indonesian people and had a few reliable contacts there.
My expectations about how much I would be able to “see” on this trip were low from a touristic perspective and because I really enjoy the urban wandering as much, if not more than straight-jacketed tourism experiences, this wasn’t much of a concern.
And so I land up seeing four Indonesian cities and some of its countryside in eleven days. First: Jakarta, the sprawling capital and primary city, where the country’s economic and political power concentrates, where young people dream of living and working, where life is buzzing and traffic is painful. Second: Yogyakarya, fondly called Jogja, city of universities and students, a special region where the Sultan still rules, once laid back and pretty, now seeing new wealth. Third: Kupang, out there in eastern Indonesia, capital of the province of Nusa Tengarra Timor (NTT), a sleepy city with hilly outcrops and stunning beaches. Surrounding by hinterland that is arid and poor. Fourth: Semarang, a large industrial port city in Central Java, a city that celebrates its colonial history even as the part-rural counties around it pulsate with the excitement of promised new industrial investments.
We do this by buying tickets hours before we fly out, sometimes even deciding on the go! We use Whatsapp shamelessly to contact NGOs, academics and government officials wherever we go. We end up working long stretched in cafes, using their free Wi-Fi connections to take Skype calls, write emails, consult collaborators and download data, all for the price of a few cups of coffee! We try budget hotels and budget-budget hotels and laugh at the Spartan decor and not-really-there breakfasts. We meet people who go out of the way to help us (some of them were meeting us for the first time!), giving us their time, inviting us into their homes on weekends, finding us contacts and even accompanying us to difficult meetings. Everything works out and we accomplish nearly everything we had hoped we would, with minimal pre-planning, mostly by being able to take reasonably quick decisions, by keeping our wits around us and by listening carefully to what our Indonesian contacts had to say to us. In my opinion, the Indonesian cultural traits of respect for outsiders, gentleness of manner and inordinate helpfulness were our biggest assets on our trip. And since we weren’t overthinking the trip before we started, I think we got a lot of the ‘pleasant surprise’ factor out of it than if we had had everything perfectly lined up!
Watch out for more posts about our experiences in beautiful Indonesia!
Already published: Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua
Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua
When we found a slice of our Friday free in Jakarta, we seized the chance to walk around Kota Tua, the old city. Located in the northern part of the city, generally considered the poorer part, Kota Tua had a run down but distinctly historic feel to it.
Most predominant here is the old town of Batavia built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the early 17th century around what is called the Fatahillah Square. Over the next decades, the Dutch expanded the city to swallow the old Hindu settlement of Jayakarta (the origin of the modern city’s name). From what I could see, they followed the planning style of the cities back home in The Netherlands and built a town square, public buildings, canals and tree-lined streets.
Standing in that town square, I was instantly transported to the many historic city centers I have visited in The Netherlands – Haarlem in particular, because I am more familiar with it. The clean rectangular geometry and scale of the town square and the arrangement of buildings around it were very similar, but while inner city areas in Holland have been carefully preserved even as modern activities fill them, erstwhile Batavia felt neglected and even desolate, with a smattering of touristy activities.
Disappointed, we moved on quickly, briefly glimpsing the interiors of Cafe Batavia that offered a peek into what colonial life might have been and then moving out from the square to explore a bit more of the neighborhood. The Kota Tua area has had its ups and downs through history, especially because of posher developments in the southern areas of the city even within the colonial period. Independent Indonesia was not quick to recognize the historic value of this neighborhood, giving it an official heritage status only in 1972. Revitalization plans did start up in 2004 and have received particular momentum in 2014 under Jokowi’s governorship of Jakarta, when a public-private partnership called ‘Jakarta Old Town Reborn’ (JOTR- Indonesian’s LOVE abbreviations) was set up. A section of Kota Tua was cordoned off for restoration work under this project, but to my eyes the scope of the intervention seemed very small.
Greg and I walked along the neglected and dirty canal (Kali Besar), ruing the deterioration of the buildings on either side of it, structures that must have been rather magnificent at one time. Even a building like Toko Merah that have been through successive iterations of renovation and has a rich history stood locked and empty.
In the lanes behind the mainstreet, we found small factories and godowns, many hawkers and warungs, a quietly bustling working class neighborhood. Walking further westward, we crossed underneath the railway tracks, sensing we were closer to the sea while we were surrounded by dense kampungs on either side. My radar for colonial architecture led me to a set of relatively well maintained structures that had once been part of the VOC shipyard. The shipyard had been shut in 1809, but recently this small group of buildings seem to have been revitalized, housing a cafe, restaurant and a music school (which had intelligently played with the historic acronym to name itself ‘Voice of Indonesia’!). Stepping inside, I felt a distinct vibe. The building felt like a grand old dame, with polished woodwork and manicured landscaping combined with a sleepy old world charm. We sat down and grabbed a beer, taking it all in and gathering our breath before the stressful dash to the airport in Jakarta’s legendary messed up traffic!
We did make it to our plane in time and we’re in Jogjakarta now. Look out for upcoming posts on Borubudur and the special hipster vibe of Jogja!
Exploring Javanese cuisine in Surabaya
Indian cuisine is an explosion of flavors. It is perhaps possible to live an entire year without repeating dishes if one had unlimited access to cuisines from across my country. I’ve been lucky to have reasonable exposure to food from many parts of India. And so, even though I’m not a foodie and that is something I must emphasize, I found myself looking out for the food I ate in these two back-to-back trips to Indonesia I’ve made.
Javanese cuisine, I realized, is incredibly diverse with a mix of influences- Arab, Chinese, Indian and European. Friends I made on my recent trip to Surabaya in Eastern Java told me I’m lucky to be Indian and tolerant to spices so I could enjoy this diversity. And enjoy I did!
My first meal in Surabaya, had with French and Indian colleagues, was a tentative exploration. To my delight, I tasted tamarind in the Sayur Asem curry we ate which tasted remarkably similar to the rasam my grandmother used to rustle up! I later realised that asem (tamarind) is a popular taste to look out for in this part of the world. We also sampled lontong, or rice cake, made out of steaming rice pressed into banana leaves, though we clearly were not aware of the right combinations as yet. Fruit juices are a big deal in Java and I tasted soursap (jus sirsak) for the first time, opting for the unsweetened version since a generous dollop of sugar is normal in these parts!
At the grand dinner that the Mayor of Surabaya threw for the delegates of the Habitat III Prepcom3 conference, I was urged by my friend Ashok who is intimately familiar with Surabaya’s secrets, to try rawon, a delicately flavoured beef broth with moong dal sprouts, sambal and kluwak nuts topped with pieces of roast beef. My friend Ashok graciously took it upon himself to be our guide in Surabaya, having the known the city for a long time, and this was the first of his many culinary recommendations.
At lunch on Day 2, I tried the lontong lodeh, that had rice cakes in a vegetarian curry with jackfruit and beans in coconut milk broth. This signature dish, commonly eaten during Id-ul-Fitri celebrations I later realized, became a hit with the vegetarians in the group, though us non-vegetarians added on a sprinkling of meat on top.
Dinner on Day 2 was simply out of this world, with Ashok (he had taken on the grand role of food guide by now for a bunch of us) introducing me to the famous Padang cuisine. Now, this is not just about taste, but also about the style! In a padang style restaurant, you would be confronted with a mountain of dishes being placed in front of you. Each dish is only a small bowl and you are given a larger plate with some boiled rice. You eat what you want and leave the rest and you’re charged for what you dig into only. It’s a fascinating practice, allowing you to intake the sight and smells of a larger variety while eating what you prefer. The spread included boiled greens including the tasty cassava leaves, chicken, fish, squid, the slow-cooked and really tasty beef redang and dishes with hooves and internal organs as well. Spicy and coconut milk based, padang food hit the sweet spot as far as I was concerned! I was one happy girl that night and a post dinner stroll through the city to spend a few hours in a homely little pub with live music only added to the appeal!
Day 3 was spent on the streets of Surabaya visiting traditional neighbourhoods called kampungs (more on this later). We ended up at ANDA Fit, a well-known establishment that boasts of authentic Javenese cuisine. Here, we were introduced to another defining flavour, the tomato and chilli based penyet that is eaten in vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions. We had it with the signature tempe, made of fermented soy beans. The gule kambing, or mutton in coconut milk, accompanied by a ginger-based warm drink (wedang jahe) was definitely something to write home about!