After spending a few days in Borobudur and Prambanan, we’ve moved to the Maliboro district in the heart of Yogyakarta (Jogja) proper. We’re here to eat food, rest a bit, and people watch. And on a street lined with multi-story malls housing American fast food brands, traditional batik clothing outlets, and pop-up vendors cramming the streets with cheap souvenirs and delicious food, we couldn’t ask for better. Maliboro is an artery for the city’s commuters that thickens to a crawl during rush hour. It’s also where the newly affluent middle class comes to shop, where a panoply of shopkeepers flood onto the streets to sell their wares, where everyone mixes and mingles. There’s always something to see.
Stoytcho and I roam the streets, ducking between people and capturing what we can on a camera with reflexes too slow for life here. On one occasion, I’m staring out into the flow of traffic and watch in awe as a man with a dozen sacks of rice and a crate of fruit on his scooter deftly weaves between cars. I shout to Stoytcho, “WHOA, did you see that?” “No,” Stoytcho replies, “I was distracted by a chainsmoking ten-year-old shopping for a lighter.”
Jakarta is a sprawling megacity, with 10 million people crammed into an area smaller than New York City. The people here come from a kaleidoscope of cultures and faiths; dozens of Indonesian ethnic groups rub elbows and the majority Muslim community lives alongside communities of Buddhists, Christians, Catholics, and Hindus. It’s business as usual for the thousand year-old seaport, which has seen waves of nearly all the world’s religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity) carried on the tides of trade routes.
Indonesia’s wealth has increased in the past decade, but with it has come rising income inequality that is etched into Jakarta’s cityscape. We’re staying in Glodok, an industrial area near the seaport characterized by corrugated aluminum roofing, wooden market stalls, and open sewers in the streets. But take a bus thirty minutes south and you’ll find yourself in Central Jakarta neighborhoods like Menteng, surrounded by walled mansions and multi-story malls with marble floors pushing the latest luxury brands, where doors are opened for you by bellhops who speak perfectly unaccented English. The economic disparity in the city is jarring—residents of Glodok and Menteng may share a city, but they live in different worlds.
In spite of the wealth gap, nearly everyone we meet in Jakarta is happy to see us. Any smile from us is immediately returned by a passing person. On the bus and around town, people who speak English ask us about our travels and translate our responses for excited relatives. Gaggles of schoolchildren approach you at tourist attractions, tasked by their teachers to interview tourists as English homework, and in nervous giggles ask about your favorite Indonesian food. I’ve never felt more welcome in a country where I don’t speak the language. It’s as if the entire country is excitedly curious about you, reaching out to embrace you in every act.