I only had one night in Jakarta. How could I make the most of it, I wondered? In most cities, a cab can take you anywhere your hotel concierge recommends. But not in Jakarta. Twenty-eight million people live in the city, many of whom spend hours commuting short distances. The Indonesian capital has some of the worst traffic in the world.
I wandered from my hotel near the famed Sudirman Street, then took a turn onto a side street lined with food carts. I’d start with some local cuisine. Smiles filled the rustic, tarp-covered picnic table of one small food vendor. The chef and I exchanged nods and I received a steaming bowl of mie ayam, a chicken and noodle dish, just as it started to rain.
At that moment I met Muhammad Andy, a smiling young guy with an unbuttoned shirt. We started talking about the food, especially the spicy sauce. I told him I wanted to see the city, but couldn’t get around. “The traffic here is crazy, seems like a scooter is the best way to go,” I said.
“Wait here,” he said through his cigarette smoke, as he got up from the table.
Two minutes later I was on the back of his motor scooter, zipping through rainy Jakarta. We squeezed through the streets, leaving inches between passing cars and my legs. He took me by the main sights: the national monument of Indonesia called the Monas Tower and the old Dutch city known as Kota Tua.
Jakarta is beautiful, but it’s hard to be in awe when on the back of a stranger’s bike completely unoriented in a foreign city. On one back street, he cut the motor. I tensed, until he said, “I want to introduce you to my family.” In a small building nearby I met his uncle and his brother. They served me coffee and asked me about what I was looking for in Jakarta. A few minutes later, I thanked them and hopped back on Muhammad’s bike. In the misty rain, he took me home. In front of my hotel, he cut the engine again and turned around to face me. “You’re my brother now,” he said. “Til next time” I said as I shook his hand, moments before he sped away.