As soon as you step inside Terminal 3 of the Soekarno Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, you notice that the airport is newly constructed. It boasts of modern amenities, a suave design and world class architecture. It is also starkly different from two other terminals at the airport which wear a rather worn out look and lack enough facilities.
The international airport in Jakarta is a representation of the two contrasting sides that Indonesia has. The country carries typical traits of a developing economy. While one part of the capital city has some of the biggest malls in the entire South East Asia, the other part houses some of the biggest slums. While wealthy Indonesians cruise in their BMWs and Audis in the sprawling wide roads of Jakarta; three wheeler auto-rickshaws, driven by shabbily dressed drivers, drive alongside them. Fine dines and Western restaurants are jam-packed, but many still rely on the road side stalls for their daily meals.
According to the World Bank, close to 30 million Indonesians (almost the entire population of Nepal) live in slums. The country even has a The National Slum Upgrading Program. But the underlying poverty hasn’t stopped the country’s economy from rocketing up. The country has steadily risen up after the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and is now the largest economy of the region. A recent study by one of the globe’s largest professional services firms, PwC, predicted that Indonesia will boast the world’s fourth most powerful economy, only behind the US, China and India, by 2050.
Rare encounters with English speakers
Communicating in English is a herculean task in the Indonesia capital. Asking for directions, prices of goods or simply conversing becomes painfully difficult as most of the people hardly understand or speak English – be it drivers, salespersons, the police or the locals. The reason for this (as we later found out) was that majority of Indonesians studied in public schools – which had very poor English education. In fact, the Indonesian public schooling system has often been criticized as being one of the worst in the world for its poor teaching. The ones who could speak English were mostly those who had studied in private schools; an expensive option for many people.
A second reason was because of the national policy taken by its leader. Indonesia’s longest standing authoritarian President Suharto, enforced teaching of Indonesian and curbed use of English during his entire three decade of rule. This meant that many people did not make an effort in learning or speaking English.
The fact that the country was Dutch colony earlier wasn’t of much help. Unlike in India, where the British established many educational institutes during their colonial rule, the Dutch made such efforts only in the last years of their rule. Despite the fact that literacy has shot up now (90% of the population is now literate as compared to a meager 4% in the 1940s) majority still struggle with the global language.
Notes worth 100,000!
Thanks to the weak value of the Indonesian Rupiah, the country prints notes of even 50,000 and 100,000. For any foreigner in the country (like us), it is painfully difficult to keep a track of spending. Beers come at a price of 25,000 Rupiah and a short taxi ride might cost you 50,000. A meal at a restaurant might even get you a bill of 200,000 Rupiah. When we first landed, we were rather uncomfortable paying such huge amounts. But after converting the amount to our very own Nepali rupees, we were relieved!
The Rupiah has been subject to high inflation for most of its existence. A single USD yields you somewhere around 13,000 Rupiah. One of the major reasons for the devaluation of the Indonesian currency was the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The Rupiah had traded at about 2000–3000 Rupiah per 1 USD before the crisis; after the crisis hit the country, it reached a low of 16,800 Rupiah per USD in June 1998. The 100,000 Rupiah note printed in 1990 as a result of this, is thus, still used and the country’s currency still appears weak.
Carrying the Dutch legacy
Even almost after more than seventy decades of its independence, Indonesia has still preserved many of the aspects of the Dutch Colony, most notably – old Jakarta. Old Jakarta houses some of the oldest buildings in Jakarta built during the Dutch era. The architecture give Dutch colonial vibes. While of the buildings have been turned into museums, some are restaurants. The place is a major tourist attraction now and thousands of local as well as domestic tourist visit the place to witness the beautiful architecture. We stepped into one of the oldest buildings in the place, now turned into a café (a famous one called Café Batavia) and ordered two beers. We left after paying Rupiah 100,000 thinking not every day that one gets to have beer worth 100,000!