Discovering the world, one bite at a time!

No Groping, Miss Bintang – Jakarta Pt 2

The spatial awareness of the taxi driver in Jakarta is unparalleled. Any driver from another city across the globe would break out into hives navigating some of the conditions that these heroes take in their stride. Somehow they can defy physics and squeeze a bus through a gap that would rip the mirrors off a Toyota Corolla. What’s even more impressive is that they can do all this whilst engaging giving you free life advice. Every single interaction with a taxi driver went exactly the same, you could set your watch to it:

Opening with, “Hi Mister. What nationality are you?”


“Oh, Staylia….. I see, nice. Business?”

“No, not on business. Holiday… Food holiday”

“I see Mister. Wife?…. Kids?”

“No. No wife or kids.” It’s about now the conversation turns from general chat to life advice.

“You want Indonesian woman? Boootiful.”

Both laughing, “I come for the food.”

“Indonesian women, great cook, great food. Make you fat and happy.”

“I’m already fat and happy”

“You get fatter and happier. What is your age?”

Lying, I reply, “Forty”

Bursts out laughing and shakes his head, “You are doing something wrong. I have a sister….”

One thing my many taxi trips taught me was the best method of navigating the omnipresent traffic congestion is by using the bus. In this jungle it is the lion, making use of its size and louder roar (horn) to work through the congestion. The largest beast on the streets, capable of mowing down any motorcyclist in its path. What better way than to get acquainted with the city than a trip to Chinatown on the bus?

The bus stops are built on raised platforms in the middle of the road and thankfully it is the only time I experienced road users adhering to both traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. My theory is that while you are waiting to cross at the traffic lights they play a little earworm that seeps into your head and you can’t help but tap your feet. In the same way you cannot lick your elbow, science has proven that you cannot cross the road and tap your feet at the same time.

At the bus stop if you look puzzled for long enough a staff member will come and help. There is another way to get their attention, walk into the turnstile after scanning an invalid card. This is the catalyst for an alarm which is loud enough to cause a nosebleed. There was no excuse to have a card with no credit, ticket prices are a budget friendly $1.50AUD for any trip in the city. And because you do not get charged until you leave the bus stop you can as many times as you want on a single ticket if you get off at the wrong stop (the things you learn from your mistakes).

The platform is well signed and there were gates to stop anybody falling onto the road and getting splattered by the stream of oncoming traffic. Unfortunately the gates had motion sensors that would incorrectly fling open time a vehicle passed by so best to stand well clear. If you were trusting the technology there is a fair chance you would end up a pedestrian pancake on the bitumen. At least the thought was there.

In Australia we have the campaign “Mind The Gap”, in Jakarta the safety takeaway is “Good Luck Breaking the Triple Jump World Record”. When the bus pulls in you need to instantly transform into a world class parkour enthusiast just to board. It’s good to know that there are guards on the bus to untangle whatever limbs didn’t make it into the interior of the bus. That job is harder than trying to put an octopus into a plastic bag while on the run.

If safely inside, network maps and a pictorial list of dos and donts to give you the lay of the land. Most of the pictures are easy enough to decipher – no smoking, no food or drink, max speed 50km/hour and priority seating but it was the last one that was a tad unusual. No groping? Didn’t realise that some commuters on the bus network get all handsy. The taxi drivers could have mentioned this when they were doling out relationship advice, as my pasty white skin is a rarity within this mobile meat market. I know how the white rhino feels.

* * *

Chinatown in Jakarta is a disorientating maze of side streets and laneways which straddles both cultures. You have as much chance of getting a Chinese favourite as you have a local touchstone. Soup was the first place I came across, time for some bakso (ball) soup. A combination of fish balls, tofu, egg and some greens for a bit of colour. By then it was around 11am and it felt as if it was 35C in the shade with maximum humidity. Whose idea was it to order a bowl of boiling hot broth? My personal favourite was ketoprak, a mixture of noodles, chunks of tofu as well as pieces of compressed rice (ricecake = lontong) which is covered in a chilli and peanut sauce which they make from scratch. The cart owner has been doing this for probably thirty years but refuses to cook one pot of sauce so he can regulate the chilli to everybody’s taste. And it wouldn’t be an Indonesian dish if it didn’t have a couple of handfuls of crackers.

The only time I ran into an Australian was when I heard the unmistakable accent order a drink from an old lady. He was fluent in Indonesian so I quickly befriended him so he could order me one too. Like me he was happy to hear a familiar accent – turns out he was a retired detective who specialised in the kind of police work back home that they base movies on, dramas involving classified information, espionage, cash and USB sticks. He didn’t actually give me his name (honestly), only an initial so I introduced myself as “B” and thanked him from staving off my dehydration. After trading national security secrets in the back blocks the lady gave me a plastic cup with sweetened riceballs in the bottom, filled with coconut cream, flavouring and something the texture of mashed potato (young coconut?). Believe it is called wedang ronde (roughly translated to drink riceballs”). Fortunately the old lady had limited English, otherwise my new friend and I may have had to kill her in the interest of national security.

Cart owners do not apply too much pressure to get sales, usually limited to a friendly “Mister” or “Friend”, much more polite than the “Godzilla” or “King Kong” that I have received in other parts of South East Asia. The smell of the fried food was sending me subliminal messages so I had to succumb. Some were sweet, some were spicy and some were bland (tofu). Filled with chicken, beef, tofu and vegetables they tied me over until the stall next door.

There isn’t a coconut dish that I have yet to dislike – rendang, coconut water, curries with coconut milk or cream in it – I can’t get enough… until now. These half discs of coconut were that dry and bland that customers after me were gasping for air. They came with a sachet of granulated sugar but that did little to make them digestible. Not one to waste food I had no choice than to methodically work my way through them. To make the task easier I offered some that hadn’t been polluted with my sweaty hands but they put their head down and pretended not to notice me. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation do not think that another drink is the solution. This made the bits that I had managed to eat swell in my stomach, with bemused locals contemplating planning a baby shower. Defeated, the last two met the bottom of a bin.

Even though I didn’t have room to fit it in I had to try some Indonesian fruit. Mixed trays are $1.50AUD and come with bags of salt and chilli. Fruit was fresh but the chilli was that hot it made me breath through my tear ducts momentarily. The sun was increasing in temperature and I knew that it was time for me to get out before I collapse against a post which is probably holding up fifteen families livelihoods.

Normally these recollections have a healthy dose of hyperbole folded into the mix. This time, hand on heart, I would have given anything to escape the unforgiving sun. I was feeling foggy and just couldn’t get my bearings, each street looking the same as the others. My walking had taken on the appearance of a shopping trolley with a dodgy wheel. A line of tuk tuks were where I thought the bus stop should have been, the price to escape was $9AUD with the instructions, “Yello Harmoni”. Included in the bargain was a free (and unopened) cold bottle of water. The Philippine Airlines inflight catering team could learn a thing or two from this man. He sensed I was struggling with the heat because there was no questions about wives, kids or nationalities. I didn’t have the energy to respond, not because of the heat, it was because I was in awe of his ability behind the wheel.

When you watch the video below don’t count the number of road rules broken, you would need an extra set of hands and feet. All you need to know is that I arrived at the desired location in one piece and breathing.

* * *

A high five with Mr Tuk Tuk and with my heartrate returning to a range considered acceptable I dragged my feet in the direction of the hotel only to see a scrum of media near the entrance. The absence of any police (polisi) or fire engines meant that my power bank hadn’t caused a headache either. What could it be?

I was in no state to talk to the local journalists but fortunately they weren’t after a sweaty mess with hat hair, pale skin and questionable facial hair. Their focus was on a number of buses carrying the contestants for Miss Bintang 2024, Jakarta’s answer to Miss Universe. Bintang is the most popular beer in Indonesia and is synonymous with drunken Australian tourists. It’s owned by the company behind the multinational brand Heineken who are trying to change the brand’s perception by sponsoring some “culture”. Nothing says health and beauty than a belly full of Indonesian paint stripper.

In my mind the term Miss Bintang conjures up an image of Sharon/Karen from the western suburbs of an Australian capital city, on her first trip overseas, parading around in the lobby of a 5 star resort in Bali. The swimsuit section is replaced by her in a ubiquitous Bintang singlet and crocs, enough skin visible that you can make out her freshly inked tattoo of “inspirational” Taylor Swift lyrics. The “talent” portion would be the belting out the second verse and chorus of The Horses by Darryl Braithwaite all while working on a bit of PK chewing gum to mask her Winnie Red breath. The reality could not have been further than my imaginings, maybe the heat was really messing with my head?

One by one these Indonesian glamourzons strutted down the stairs of the luxury bus in their high heels and into the unforgiving media pack. It was about then that I considered going into the lobby and cooling down with a couple of soft serves but I needed to do some research to get a better understanding of the cultural significance of this occasion. Each women that exited the bus looked as if they have been made in a lab by a geneticist – standing at least my height, limbs elongated, skin that doesn’t wrinkle and hair that would never get dirty. The fact that they were not even sweating and could remain smiling in the heat was a wonder of modern medicine. Turns out that the big night of nights isn’t for another week, fingers crossed that my invitation comes to Room 2011, I packed a collared football jersey that would be a red carpet statement.

Image – taken from Vertu Harmoni’s instagram page

* * *

Nasi padang is a dish of steamed rice with various accompaniments that is found all through Jakarta in specialised restaurants. Some deliver all the dishes (between twenty and thirty) to your table and then you pay for only the ones you eat, but this approach is losing traction. These days it is more common just to order what you want and they will bring it to you, reducing the frustration and legwork of all involved. You’ll know that nasi padang is on the menu as all the dishes are stacked on top of each other in the front shop window, showing their wares to all suitors like a frisky bird during mating season. It’s worth noting that a Norwegian man fell in love with this cuisine so hard that he wrote a song that went viral throughout the country and led to a documentary. The first time I tried this type of dining was near Chinatown and I only knew how to pronounce a single dish, rendang. You too may have heard of the beef curry which is cooked in coconut milk for what seems like a lifetime, voted the most popular dish in the world.

I’m confronted by the above dish plonked on my table. Because rendang is cooked for so long it breaks down into a fine slop (in the nicest possible way). If you had been sitting in warm coconut milk for six hours your skin would follow suit. It’s oily, spicy, super tender and tasty. Here it is always a splash of curry over the rice for a reason I couldn’t understand, and some greens that are destined to get tangled up in your throat regardless of how long you sit there and chew them. For those paying attention to the picture, I have no idea what the thing is between the meat and the greens but it must have been edible.

The nasi padang experience was a success so I was happy to discover a similar restaurant near the Hotel which was open 24 hours. On my third visit I decided that man cannot live on beef rendang alone, there are twenty-odd other dishes to help me expand my horizons. Pointed to what I thought was some kind of rissole or fried thing and an egg contraption to add to my usual order. Turns out that my two selections were fish cake and omelette. This left me at ease so I decided to double down and splash out on some weird drink in celebration of my daredevil behaviour.

Now I don’t know which of the newcomers on the plate made me a prisoner of the hotel bathroom for the following two days? Much time was spent rocking back and forwards on the toilet and then shuffling to the shower in my hotel issued rubber thongs that were designed with children in mind. The technical term is “Bali Belly” but I called my version the “Jakarta Jiggle”. After a couple of hours I swear that my stomach started to mimic the low pitched grumbling noise of the cistern filling with water. The challenging part was replenishing lost fluids as you can’t drink the tap water. Doing so would prolong my current ailment with my probable cause of death being either dehydration, a fall in the shower or blood flow getting cut off to my feet due to the ill fitting thongs.

There were moments of respite after chewing some pills, though the bottled water should have been rationed better. These brief windows of normality meant I did not have to be tethered to the toilet. These were spent ditching the shower footwear for clothes and visiting the convenience store. Litres of water, coconut water, root beer (sarsaparilla), chocolate bars and icecreams were the prescription.

For the record I blame the egg and my stupidity.

Next time we cross paths I promise no more lavatory details. We will have more food pictures than are socially acceptable in what will be an emptying of the camera roll before head for the Philippines.


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This blog started life as a series of emails with poor quality photography to family and friends whilst overseas to let them know I was still breathing.  It has since grown into it’s own little part of the internet.  A place where I ramble on about my love of travel and food.  Hopefully you find some enjoyment and inspiration out of it for future travel plans.  I have got a buzz from seeing it evolve into this flurry of pixels. 

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