The thick air with distinct flavours of petrol is filling my lungs. The virgin sidewalks of an old city rarely used by a human being are accompanying the streets. Walking them is like rapid parkour training for newbies. The adjacent concrete streets are filled with a constant influx of roaring cars, motorbikes and scooters branded with Honda, Toyota, Yamaha or Daihatsu logos. Running throughout the smog are voices of muezzins singing from surrounding mosques. Jakarta is blossoming on a sunny, hot day. Each corner that I cross looks the same for me, and each sidewalk goes nowhere. Their role is purely symbolic. As if they were ornaments to the roads going through the capital. Here sidewalks are being used for planting trees, parking your bike taking a glimpse of the street before you enter with your vehicle. 

I find a shadow in the concrete desert filled with the sun. With me, in the shade, are TukTuk and Grab drivers. The adjacent park is closed, which kills the intention with which I went for a walk. I find a spot (a local port) on the map, enter a TukTuk and show it to the driver. It seems not to be an easy task.  A 10-minute conversation starts joined by all Grab and TukTuk drivers trying to help out their fellow man to decipher what is meant. Probably that’s not a typical direction to go or a myriad of other possibilities. I take he wants to be precise and not fail the mission bestowed upon him. Having everyone given their suggestions and words of encouragement we were ready for the journey. The motorbike engine of the metal capsule roared. We were on our way.

It was to be a 5-7 km ride yet the more we were closer the less hope there was for getting to the point on the map due to the twists and turns of flyovers, highways and roads. We pointed fingers, turned another way and asked locals. Finally, trying to find our way under an overpass I decided to stop and walk the remaining distance which felt a few hundred meters at most. 

When I walked out, I noticed a micro-city spread out under the pillars beginning with a small bazaar of sellers and their various personalities. I stopped for coconut for 10 000 rupiahs, sat there and looked. I was quickly recognized as an outsider and got the impression that not many people wondered here as I did. By the looks I was given I’d say none. Especially that Indonesia has just started the hardest lockdown in Jakarta, Java and Bali since the beginning of the pandemic. Few meters from me there was a group of three. One man was particularly outstanding with walking topless (which locals rarely do) with a shaggy face, unpredictable and rapid movements as well as the behaviour of a 10-year-old. Around were sellers in their mobile spots on two wheels. In the further distance a myriad of self-built houses, some of them never finished while others looking like nobody authorised their existence. 

It seemed I was not in the right place and some events might unfold that I was not expecting to go through today. I finished my drink and went towards the azimuth where the port was to be. This strategy worked for me fine (usually). This time it took me on a journey I would remember.

20 meters away I saw a bunch of narrow streets. Each gave some hope of salvation yet not much vision of what’s on their end. An elder gentleman who seemed as he was living in this mini-city all his life. He pointed his finger at one particular route. Trusting he knows what I’m looking for without saying a word. “Terima kasih” - I thanked in Indonesian and smiled turning the corner. Spoiler alert - I don’t think he really knew. Since that turn, I found myself inside the city on the left being restricted with railway and high fence and on the right with shops, tiny apartments, barbers, mechanics, you name it. 

In the very beginning when landing in this space I felt a strong smell. Not of the pleasant sort. At the end of this 2-meter wide alley filled with people who all were confused with my presence, I saw some light. I tried to smile a lot, thankfully with reciprocity. 

In two minutes I got to the end and saw the river. The smell was at its highest. ‘River’ is perhaps an overstatement.  Sewage full of excrements is another way to put it. This ‘waterway’ was dividing one community from the other yet with the same characteristics and low buildings. I noticed I was in the middle of local slums. My pace got faster, smile and bows did not stop showing respect to the local people. I was not going next to the river, observing and being observed. People were kind, pointing the way somewhere. They were going about their daily business supporting their communities and trying to make ends meet.

In the middle of the alley, I saw a bamboo bridge going through to the other side of the sewage. After it a regular one built for cars (not many present). The whole experience seemed to me as I was visiting Venice with buildings surrounded by water, yet I saw it, so perhaps it does not count. I found myself next to the last bridge. On the left-hand-side, the city in a city was continuing, and on the right, I saw some blocks of flats. Trusting my azimuth strategy, I went for the latter. They say that even a clock that is not working is right two times a day. 

Along the way, I met a group of children. Two of them holding buckets—one pulling a cart with a loudspeaker playing something of a local tune, melody. One was dressed as one of the Ondel-Ondel characters, a large puppet figure featured in Betawi folk performance endemic to Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. 

At the end of the road, I fund myself next to a flyover. I ordered a Grab and drove off. The smell of the place would long resist abandoning my nostrils although I was many kilometres apart. On the other hand, the politeness and smiles of people would long stay in my mind. When I got back to the hotel, I sat down and looked at the city from above. The views have gained a new understanding for me and stopped being anonymous. The poor and struggling were surrounded by rich and always on the move. The fully equipped SUVs gliding next to 20-year-old scooters. The micro-communities and the big business. Muezzin started singing again. The city is taking yet another breath. I sharpen my eyes. 

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