JAKARTA is not a dangerous city. That sinking feeling you get when arriving here isn’t a sensation of dread, it’s the city subsiding by up to 15cm a year, with over half of it now sitting below sea level.
Nor is all that blood soaking the streets a sign of criminal carnage. You’ve probably arrived during the Muslim holy day of Idul Adha, when large animals are ritually slaughtered outside mosques all over the city. Here is my pick of the genuine hazards faced by Jakarta citizens and visitors. You’ll be pleased to see there are only three.
You may be sitting peacefully in a kerbside café and enjoying a coffee when workmen carrying fogging machines as loud as chainsaws come down the road. Suddenly you find yourself engulfed in a cloud of dry-tasting white fumes, forcing you to hold your napkin over your nose and mouth and barge through tables and chairs to the exit to escape suffocation. You’ve just been caught up in Jakarta’s front-line defence against mosquitoes.
This fogging of the city’s gutters with insecticide is carried out during the rainy season, when the mosquito population is most active. These insects are more than just an irritation; the striped ones that abound in the afternoon cause outbreaks of dengue fever, a viral illness which kills hundreds of Indonesians each year, with 1,598 fatalities in 2016, most of them the old and infirm.
You can protect yourself from a lot of pain (dengue fever is also known as breakbone fever because it feels like the mosquitoes have attacked you with a crowbar) by smearing your exposed skin with insect repellent, spraying your rooms with pesticide – Baygon is the most popular brand – and draining any stagnant bodies of water outside your house since this is where mosquitoes breed, and hanging netting around your bed.
Lastly, you can take aim with both hands and swat the mosquitoes that buzz around you. If there are several of them, your repeated clapping will feel satisfyingly like anti-aircraft artillery fire. However, nothing is more satisfying than the crackle and sparks emitted from a mosquito that you’ve swiped with a paddle; on some websites they’re pleasingly called an Electric Mosquito Killer Racket.
You may have noticed your desktop computer beginning to whine like a World War II dive bomber every time it carries out an intensive task. If not seen to, the machine will overheat and switch off when this happens. Opening up the case will reveal vents caked with black gunky dust that prevents cooling air blowing onto the processor, hence the whine as the CPU fan goes like the clappers. This thick cake of grime will have accumulated over time due to Jakarta’s air. Your next horrified thought will be, “My God, I breath this stuff!”
Jakarta regularly tops the list of the world’s most polluted cities. It’s worse than Bangkok – that’s like saying your city is hotter than Hell. It’s estimated that 60 percent of Jakarta’s residents suffer breathing problems associated with low air quality levels. In 2015, the Indeks Standar Pencemaran Udara (ISPU), an index used by the environmental group Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia, broke the limits. Under those circumstances, people shouldn’t have been allowed to go outside.
Some citizens wear masks, but these are usually skimpy and ineffective. The only certain protection is to walk around Jakarta’s streets wearing industrial breathing apparatus. Realistic help would come from reductions in fuel combustion and industrial activities. Certainly, a change of attitude is needed. It’s easy to forget the natural beauty that surrounds Jakarta when you live your life at street level. Go up a tall building, look to the north, and there it is; the sea. And so close too. On some days you also notice the hills that border the city, a ghostly jagged skyline barely visible through the miasma.
It’s not hard to avoid E.coli and other potentially harmful bacteria in Indonesia; just be sensible. Whatever you do, don’t emulate the behaviour of a British man on a trip to India. On his last day in the country, he and his drunken fellow students thought it would be a lark to do everything they had been warned not to do. They drank the water, ate uncooked vegetables and unpeeled fruit, and swallowed drinks full of ice. Determined to outdo his pals, the man got down on his hands and knees and licked the dirty pathway. Unfortunately, he became gravely ill within hours. He spent five months in a Bombay hospital, returned to Britain hardly registering on a set of weighing scales, and all his life since has suffered recurrent gastrointestinal problems.
You can minimise your risk of getting sick in Jakarta by not only keeping your tongue off the pavement but also eating in five-star establishments where kitchen health and safety is assumed to be of international standards. Go further down the star chain and standards decline. When you’ve bottomed out at the roadside padang restaurant, and you’ve eaten your unhygienically handled ayam bakar, you should consider that your next bowel movement might well be a colonic Charge of the Light Brigade. Avoid long bus journeys.
Drink only bottled water, although this unfortunately clashes with any intention to avoid using disposable plastic. Water contamination is a problem in Jakarta. Waterways are little better than sewers. People say the water is safe enough to brush your teeth with, but I’ve seen running tap water turn brown. I’ve bathed in water that’s brown. I’ve bathed in water of every colour.
Finally, don’t forget about personal hygiene. Wash your hands regularly. Avoid spreading germs. If you walk around in flip-flops, don’t handle your own feet – they’ll likely be covered in what made the British man in India sick. Take a worming tablet every six months. Most parasites don’t cause any major symptoms, but you don’t want to be pulling a six-foot long python of a tapeworm out of your anus during a bowel movement. I know someone who did that. He kept the worm in a large jar of pickling vinegar as a kind of trophy, and used to show it off at his local bar.