Diamonds In Jakarta’s Rough

Mopeds Swarm Jakarta
Mopeds Swarm Jakarta

JAKARTA, Indonesia — If you’re seeking beauty amid chaos, biking across Jakarta might just be the way to go.

Dodging 12-year-old scooter daredevils, three-wheeled Bajaj taksis and hulking, rickety buses carrying passengers packed like sardines, we biked from the city’s south side, up its middle and to the edge of the Java Sea.

Our friend and former colleague, Craig, came to mind during much of the ride. Having mountain biked with Craig throughout New Mexico when we all lived and worked in Santa Fe, N.M., I experienced several moments of zen on trails in Nambé Pueblo and down the exquisite Winsor Trail.

Those moments in nature — without getting too hippie about it — represented slivers of perfection. All you could hear was your bicycle chain whirling through the gears, the wind rustling through the aspens and pines and your own breath and heartbeat. You were present because it was beautiful — and because a wayward log stump or rocky outcropping could mean you’d go tumbling along the forest floor.

Jakarta is nothing like this.

While I appreciate beauty and quiet as much as the next person, this city is in many ways the complete opposite of my New Mexico experience. It’s cacophony at ear-splitting levels. It’s a special blend of vehicular exhaust and wood smoke so pervasive you hardly want to speak for fear of lining your respiratory system with soot. It’s an occasional obstacle course of potholes big enough to swallow your front bike wheel and surely hurl into the path of nonstop traffic.

I found myself hoping it would be a motorbike or a subcompact car rather than a bus or delivery truck, were I to encounter such a mishap. (That’s not even counting the dangers of open sewers that border many of Jakarta’s streets.)

Yet I loved it.

At one point, having outrun the storm clouds that loomed to the southeast and watching motorists ebb and flow around my borrowed bike, I felt a perfect sense of calm. For all the dangers looming around me, I was alive. Like life, this traffic was messy and unpredictable, yet ever-present and unstoppable.

The feeling reminded me of dipping my hands into the Amazon almost 11 years ago and recognizing the uniqueness of that moment. Now, at 38 years old, I was riding my bike with my old friend Josh through the streets of Jakarta and loving it.

For all its imperfections and difficulties, the city ultimately charmed me, and somehow I knew I would never again be the same.

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