I was looking forward to the heat. I grew up in the Philippines, and heat reminds me of where my roots will always be. I am also a native trees nerd, so was excited at the prospect of being around familiar trees again. Jakarta has delivered on both fronts, giving me my heat and my trees. I keep seeing rosewood, narra in Tagalog, the Philippines’ national tree. Here they call it angsana (I’ll post a photo when I take a nice one). It seems, ironically, that Jakarta has more of them than Manila does. There are also strangler figs, balete in Tagalog, which I think are commonly known as banyan trees here.

Balete/Banyan of monstrous proportions at the Bogor Botanical Gardens. Largest one I’ve ever seen.

If you asked me before I left what my life in Jakarta was going to be like, I would not have said that motorbikes are my go-to form of transport, after walking (walking!). I never thought I’d ride motorbikes, let alone frequently ride them. In all my years in Manila, I never did because of safety concerns and the pollution.

Getting to the office on a hot day, connecting to transit, going to the barbershop. These are quick and affordable trips via Gojek or Grab motorbikes. The ride is smooth and stable too, which I did not expect. The apparent wind (from the movement) is quite refreshing, minus the smell of combusted gasoline.

On that note, I recently found myself Gojek-ing behind a smoke-belching bus. I’ve witnessed this happen countless times in the Philippines- the poor biker getting a faceful of the disgusting black smoke. It never happened to me because I would always be in a car. Not this time! Luckily, my helmet visor was already down, keeping the worst of it out, and I held my breath until my driver managed to get around the bus.

More aligned with my initial expectations was taking transit, though I haven’t done this in Manila either. The surprising part here was how extensive Jakarta’s transit network is, for a developing country. Specifically, it has the most extensive bus rapid transit (BRT) system in the world, an MRT, an LRT, an airport line, and three commuter lines (which use secondhand Japanese trains- you can still see the Japan Railways logo on them!). I’m told that the long-haul railway connecting basically all of Java is quite good also; it’s on my bucket list for some point in the future (long weekends are few and far between).

MRT train at Stasiun Fatmawati, our stop on the route.

So far, we have used the BRT, the MRT and the KRL Commuter to Bogor. My reloadable transit card works for all of these, which is really convenient. I’ve been quite impressed with it all.

KRL Commuter Line at Stasiun Bogor.

At the Center for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS; pronounced chips), the reason we are here, Ana and I have been helping the fundraising team find grants and grant-making organizations. I am also going to be working with the research team on a background report on the current state of innovation in agrifood systems, globally. It’s an international collaboration with several other think tanks- a pretty big undertaking it seems; I take it I’m fortunate to be a part. The project will officially begin at the end of May, and there has not been much to do yet besides reading up and sharing what we find interesting. Overall, it’s been quite a slow start in terms of workload, but that’s gradually changing.

I’ll be talking more about CIPS later on. For now, know that they research policy impacting the livelihoods of farmers and everyday Indonesians, and make welfare-improving recommendations guided by free-market economics. I think this is pretty interesting and important work, and am looking forward to working with them more.

Gema, a co-worker, invited me to play badminton with several other “CIPSies”. I was ready for this. Jake, a CAPI intern from last year, told me Indonesians are big on badminton, so I packed my racket. The courts were on top of a market! Three floors up a public market. We took turns being “ref”, and I got to practice counting in Indonesian. It certainly helps that some numbers sound Tagalog, such as ribu (thousand; libo in Tagalog) and lima (five, lima in Tagalog).

Our co-workers are a great group! They are kind, sociable, funny and have been a big help in our getting to know the food and the area. I can say the same about Arby and Gina, our friends at the kost.

(From left) Rear: Alejandro, Gema; Middle: Bulan, Ancella; Front: Ernest (after his first win!).

There’s so much I could talk about on this first blog post, but the food has to have a moment. My favorite dish so far is probably satay, barbequed chicken skewers in a sweet peanut sauce, eaten with rice and sambal (the addictive chili sauce that goes with everything). We already have a regular satay stand, conveniently located next to a nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) stand, conveniently two-minutes walking from our kost.

Freshly grilled satay and a tub of sambal.

Something that really surprised me is that when you eat street food, there is food, good food, everywhere. This realization was pretty sudden, like how a physics student might start noticing the physics in all things. Forget 15-minute cities, our neighborhood in Jakarta is a two-minute city, not only with food but also with laundromats and convenience stores. As far as I’ve seen, most of Jakarta (and Bogor) is like this.

It’s not been all cool things though. Getting sick twice in three weeks has not been very encouraging. The air quality is not great either, especially walking home from work during rush hour. Even if I wanted to (and I don’t really want to), I can’t escape street food and its potential risks. It’s yummy, affordable and convenient. Air pollution is unavoidable most of the time. The language barrier has been quite frustrating also- it’s a new type of challenge for me. Thankfully, everyone I’ve encountered has been kind and helpful, even as I struggle to communicate or make sense of something.

Before I wrap this up, I need to tell you about the clay tile roofs. They are beautiful and are almost as common as corrugated metal. Apparently, Central Java- about six hours east of Jakarta by train- has a tradition of brickmaking, so the rest of Java has easy access to bricks and roof tiles. This lends a distinctiveness to the skyline, particularly the low-rise areas (like Cilandak, our neighborhood). Acknowledging the poverty and hardship experienced beneath many of those roofs (like in other Global South cities, it’s impossible not to notice), I haven’t stopped admiring the thick, scale-like tiles. Besides looking good, they are the perfect insulator against the tropical sun.

This skyline.

While Jakarta feels familiar in many ways, I have never been immersed in these spaces, smells and sights like I am now. The smokey satay stands, street eateries (warungs), motorcycle rides, narrow streets. It’s not necessarily easy for those who’s lives this has always been, but Indonesians are happy people. It’s also my life now, and I’m happily surprised at familiarity and newness taking turns tapping my shoulder.