Escaping Jakarta, Like a Jakartan

Every year, a uniquely Indonesian occurs around Idul Fitri, the end of Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting), which is the cultural equivalent of Christmas or Thanksgiving in the United States. Most people, and certainly almost every Muslim, return home to their parents and extended families. For Indonesians, this means pulang kampung, ‘returning to the village,’ or, ‘returning home.’ Pulang kampung is a product of Indonesia’s rapid development and urbanization, combined with close extended family ties and an enduring respect for tradition. Indonesians who might have moved to the city to find work and stayed to raise their families return to their parents’ or grandparents’ villages in the countryside.

Idul Fitri therefore drains Indonesia’s major cities, including Jakarta, of noise, traffic, and people. The smog lingers, however, so those who remain—expats, non-Muslims, multi-generational Jakartans, or those who did not travel home—might still feel the urge to escape the city and its dry-season heat. The hilly outlying district of Bogor offers city-dwellers cooler mountain temperatures, fresher air, and plenty of green. Thus, the road to Bogor is packed with weekenders on the Saturday morning after Idul Fitri, as it is every other Saturday of the year.

Vehicles move briskly on the multi-lane highway out of Jakarta. After exiting the toll road, however, the bottlenecking begins. Several miles of stalled, intermittently-moving lines of traffic ensue. Unlike in the United States, travelers don’t bother to exit the highway in search of refreshment: vendors walk up and down between lanes of unmoving cars, offering cheap plastic toys, trays of roasted peanuts, packets of instant drink mix, deep-fried morsels of all kinds sweating in plastic baggies, and even pizza by the slice. The occasional mascot will dance through hoping for tips: Winnie the Pooh, a mouse, a Russian cartoon character, all undoubtedly sweltering in their heavy felt costumes not designed for the Jakarta heat. Blind beggars are also a familiar sight (suspiciously so). They weave boldly between cars, led from behind by friends (or business partners), who guide their steps and their outstretched hands.

As the road narrows and begins to climb, the walking vendors are replaced by more permanent establishments. Rows of stalls sell near-identical heaps of green avocados, cassava root, potatoes, and fruit, while others boast a stunningly diverse array of rice crackers and chips. Still others sell bananas in a collection of shapes, colors and sizes that puts the sterile, Western-supermarket, one-size-fits-all fruit to shame. For much of the trip, banana trees are visible on the slopes above or below.

Despite the buka/tutup (‘open/close’) policy, which makes the road one-way up or one-way down at the most popular coming and going hours, progress is slow. Motorcyclists happily ignore the policy entirely, speeding past forlorn cars in whatever direction they please in the margins of the two-lane road. Inevitably, Jakartans bring some of the city with them: the ill-behaved motorcycles and traffic, obviously, but also the crowds and trash, which decorate the roadside throughout the journey.

When people return, the traffic isn’t much better, and could even be worse. Until the road becomes one-way out of Bogor at 5pm, a solid line of cars winds down from the hilltops, through Puncak Pass, and who-knows-how-far towards the city. The line does not move—not an inch—for three hours, as the sun dips lower and a near-constant stream of motorcycles flowspast. Many drivers and passengers abandon their cars, as the scent of charcoal and freshly-grilled corn overpower the smell of exhaust and roadside garbage. Some climb a staircase through hedges of tea bushes for a better view of the rolling, tea-covered hills (and the fixed line of traffic) below. Others linger in identical rows of small restaurants, as similar to each other as the snack and fruit stalls, all offering plastic chairs or carpets and low tables, stunning vistas of the valleys below, and standard Indonesian fare—fried rice and noodles, soup and sate of various kinds, hot tea, fried or grilled bananas and fish. Many also offer puffy, round, sugar-dusted pancakes called proffedges, a vestige of the Dutch colonial era.

Take a seat and order some food, perhaps pisang bakar (grilled bananas), which come warm, beautifully caramelized, and with a generous blanket of chocolate sprinkles and grated cheese—an acquired taste, but a Jakarta favorite, it would seem. As the late afternoon air starts to chill, pair them with teh susu, hot tea with an absurd amount of condensed milk, echoing the overly-sweet bottled iced teas intended for warmer days. Eat, relax, enjoy the golden light of the sinking sun on the hills, and periodically peek down the slope to ensure that the traffic is still absolutely stationary. When 5pm hits and you rush back to your car, try to remember this: sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination.