I expected a few things prior to our arrival in Indonesia: balmy weather, palm trees, sacred temples, kindhearted people and spicy food. What I did not expect was to feel like a celebrity. As soon as I landed at Jakarta’s international airport, I could sense dozens of eyes on me. My white skin and blonde hair was something of an anomaly in this part of the country and wherever I went I’d be approached by shy locals asking me to pose for photographs with them. When I agreed, they called their friends and shrieked with delight.
I was accompanied by Ega von Wielligh, co- founder of Afronesia Tours, who had arranged my eight-day tour of Java. Ega is originally from Indonesia, but she married a South African and now lives in Wellington in the Western Cape. She was as excited to return home as I was to discover the exotic and fascinating island of Java. Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelagic country comprising of over 17 000 islands and in the heart of it all lies Java, home to 60% of Indonesia’s 258 million citizens.
JAKARTA – Our first stop, Jakarta, is a mindbogglingly busy capital city situated in the northwest of Java. Over seven million motorbikes and cars pass through it on a daily basis, skyscrapers stand next to sprawling slums and almost everyone seems to be working, even if that means playing the guitar for the city’s many picnickers. Beggars are nowhere to be seen. Harry Sukhartono, our guide, expertly navigates the way to Jakarta’s Old Flarbour.
Between the 17th and 19th Centuries the harbour served as the centre of trade for the Dutch colonists who ruled Indonesia for three centuries. From here, pepper, nutmeg and gold were shipped to foreign lands, making the Dutch increasingly wealthy. Today visitors can walk past traditional wooden ships lined up along the pier to get a glimpse of yesteryear. The Dutch colonists also left behind a rich architectural legacy and there’s no better place to see original verandahs, stately buildings and wrought-iron twirls than at Fatahillah Square.
Housed around the square are the Fine Art and Ceramics Museum, the Jakarta History Museum and the famous Batavia Cafe. Over weekends the square is packed with street performers, families and entrepreneurs pushing food carts from which delicacies such as cat fish, doughy meatballs and blue ducks’ eggs are served. From the square we’re driven to central Jakarta to see the National Monument (a symbol of Indonesia’s independence) and Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia with capacity for 120, 000 people! Opposite the mosque stands Jakarta Cathedral and on big religious occasions, the members of the respective congregations happily share one another’s parking lots. Religious and cultural tolerance is a way of life in Indonesia.