5 Quirks About Living in Jakarta

When I say I’m obsessed with all things travel, I mean it.  I’m the type of person who will watch any movie or any TV show as long as it has something to do with travel.  A bad horror movie that’s set in Colombia?  Count me in.  Andrew Zimmern is eating something bizarre in Peru?  Hell yes!  The Bachelorette is going to the Dominican Republic for a romantic getaway?  Why not?

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that I’ve watched, like, every episode of House Hunters International.  Maybe it’s because my mom is a real estate agent and I have an odd affinity for house hunting.  Or maybe it’s because I’ve always dreamed of living in another country.  Whatever it is, I just can’t get enough of that show.  So as Aaron and I were apartment hunting in Jakarta a few weeks ago, I kind of felt like I was living an episode of HHI.  We were shown a few downright scary-looking apartments – think tiny, musty and dirty – but we finally found a cute little apartment where we’ll set up shop for the next year.

Home sweet home!


Yes, we still need decorations.

But even though we’re settling into our new place nicely, it’s becoming increasingly clear that nothing  fully prepared me for actually living in another country – not all the traveling I’ve done or all the TV shows I’ve watched.  As I’m quickly starting to realize, there are so many little differences between life in the US and life in a foreign country.

5 quirky things about expat life in Jakarta:

1. Hearing the call to prayer – Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world.  With a population of over 205 million, roughly 88 percent of Indonesians identify as Muslim.  And during my strolls around the city, this fact is not lost on me.  It honestly seems as if there’s a mosque located on every corner.

How many mosques can you spot in this picture?

The call to prayer typically occurs five times a day – the first is just before sunrise and the last is around sunset.  It can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour depending on the day or if it’s a holiday.  The hypnotic sound is something I learned to love during my time on Indonesia’s Gili Islands earlier this year.  But if you’ve never heard it before it can be a little jarring at first, especially if your hotel room or apartment is located right next door to a mosque.  The first night I spent in Jakarta I was jet lagged and exhausted, and I was not happy when I was startled awake by the blaring call to prayer at 5:30am!

sunset from balcony
The view from my balcony at sunset.

Luckily my apartment is facing away from the mosques that pepper the streets of my neighborhood.  But every evening at sunset I can stand on my little balcony and listen to the city echo with the melodic sound.  Every time I hear it it’s a reminder that I’m actually living in Indonesia!

2. Unsafe tap water – Sadly, the majority of ground water is contaminated in Jakarta.  This means that drinking water straight from the tap is not an option.  It also means that I have to consciously remember to brush my teeth and rinse my veggies with bottled water, which definitely takes some getting used to.  It’s stuff like this that I take for granted back home in the US.  And it honestly saddens me that Indonesians don’t have access to clean drinking water.

water bottle
It’s not the most attractive thing – but if it helps reduce my plastic water bottle usage it’s fine by me.

Nothing irks me more than using plastic water bottles.  After backpacking for over a year, I feel incredibly guilty for the hundreds of plastic water bottles I contributed to local landfills.  Whenever possible I try to reuse and refill my water bottles, but as any traveler knows this isn’t always possible – especially in Indonesia.  Since Jakarta is a hot and humid place, I find myself drinking tons of water.  So in an effort to reduce my waste, I brought my Nalgene from back home and I refill it from my 5-gallon reusable water bottle (which costs $1.50!).  Indonesia has little to no infrastructure for dealing with waste, so a lot of trash is either burned or thrown in the rivers and streets.  So, now that I’m living here I feel it’s important to decrease my waste and do my part to help Indonesia’s growing trash problem.

3. The modest dress code – When I told my friends and family back home that I was moving to Indonesia the first question they asked was, “Do you have to wear a headscarf?”  The answer is no.  But I do have to be conscious about the way I dress.  Most tourists who come to Indonesia travel to Bali.  Bali is a primarily Hindu island which means it is culturally very different from neighboring Java, and it’s common to see tourists walking around in short dresses and bikinis.  But Java is predominantly Muslim and very culturally conservative.  The area I live in is popular with expats, so foreign women aren’t expected to cover their entire bodies.  Actually, I’ve seen a few women wearing shorts, short dresses and tank tops – but that’s definitely not the norm.  Luckily, I typically wear jeans anyway, but there’s one reason this modest dress code really bothers me.

The view from my balcony. Look at those pools!

My apartment complex has three beautiful and enormous pools.  Not only is this great because it’s unbearably hot outside but it’s a wonderful way to get exercise.  There’s just one problem – I’m too self-conscious to put on a bathing suit.  And, no, it’s not because I’m insecure about my body.  Since a lot of women cover their shoulders and knees – if not their full arms and legs – I’m not sure how cool it would be to sport a bikini at the pool.  I’ve seen a few women wear one-pieces but a lot of women go swimming in their full clothes or what look like wetsuits.  Perhaps I should invest in a one-piece…

4. Security checks – There are security checkpoints everywhere in my neighborhood.  Cars are required to open their trunks when entering malls.  I’m constantly walking through metal detectors, getting wands waved at me and having my bags rifled through.  Sometimes I feel like I’m at an Oakland Raiders game or at an airport.  Honestly, I don’t know whether to feel safe or concerned about the overabundance of security.  And, from my experience, I’m not sure how effective these  checkpoints actually are (read more here).

high rises
A view of the modern mall and high rises in my neighborhood.

But given Jakarta’s history, the hyped-up security makes sense.  Sadly, terrorism is a real threat in Indonesia.  Most people are familiar with the Bali bombings that killed 202 people in 2002.  But in 2009 Jakarta was victim to twin suicide bomb attacks – coordinated bombs exploded almost simultaneously at the prestigious JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels claiming eight lives and over 50 victims.  Considering my apartment is located a quick stroll away from one of Jakarta’s major malls, it’s no surprise that there’s heightened security in the area.

5. Exotic fruits & veggies – On a more positive note, seeing all of these strange and exotic fruits and vegetables will never get old.  I love that I can walk to the grocery store or venture to the local outdoor market to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables I’ve never seen or heard of before.  Sweet mangosteens are my current favorite fruit and dragon fruit is a close second.  But there are so many odd-looking fruits I have yet to try.

Those things that look like plums are actually mangosteens. And that crazy pink fruit is called dragon fruit.

Durian is a fruit that I’m half excited, half terrified to try.  It smells like the strongest garbage imaginable, but I’ve heard the sweet custard-like filling is actually quite delicious.  Despite the fact that I’ve been to Southeast Asia four times now, I still haven’t had the courage to try it.

The smells is seriously overpowering — it’s kind of like sweet garbage.

I’m also really enjoying picking up random veggies and cooking the best stir-fries and curries I’ve ever made.  Cooking in Indonesia has been a true joy for this vegetarian!

Have you ever lived in another country?  What are some of the quirky things you’ve noticed about being abroad? 

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

20 thoughts on “5 Quirks About Living in Jakarta

  1. I LOOOOOVE watching House Hunters International too! I both love to use it as a way of seeing new parts of the world AND for revisiting places I’ve actually been and I try to see if I can spot any places that I do recognize. I also love to get angry when we easily found a place in Vietnam to live for less than $300/month but they make it seem like if you have a budget of less than $1000/month you will never find anything…

    Anyway, I can only imagine what an adventure it must be settling into life in Jakarta! I definitely came to treasure potable drinking water, and I get SO MAD when people in parts of the world where the tap water is perfectly fine (ahem, France, Italy, Spain…) insist on bottled water. They don’t know how good they’ve got it!

    Also, durian… good luck. In our Singapore archives, we did a photo essay of our attempts at eating that vile fruit. It doesn’t actually taste better than it smells, at least not the version in Singapore & Malaysia. I would suspect that Indonesian durian is a similar strain (Thai durian is much milder, I will say that), but I can’t say either of us felt overly motivated to give it a shot!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Sweet As Kandy

    1. Yay, I love that I’m not the only HHI nerd! When we walked into the first two apartments I was totally that spoiled American girl who was like, I cannot live here! But, in all seriousness, those apartments would have sucked to live in! They were that bad.

      I’ve been doing a bunch of research on the drinking water thing and families have to spend a large portion of their income just on boiling water so it’s safe to drink! It’s sad. I was just in Colombia where the tap water was safe to drink and tasted amazing…so I was a little spoiled there.

      Ha, thanks for the durian luck. And I’m going to go look up that photo essay right now! Aaron actually had a durian dessert the other day and said it was kinda good. I think my courage is slowly building 🙂 I have to try it while I’m here!

  2. Great round-up! I loved the call to prayer the first time I heard it in Morocco. I found it so haunting and beautiful, but then I heard it in other countries that sang it in a much harsher way, and then I didn’t love it so much anymore. The one in Cappadocia Turkey was full volume with crackling microphone and a guy that really couldn’t sing at all, though he really put a lot of energy into it. Lol…it would really be something to consider when renting an apartment in a Muslim country! Nice that you face AWAY! 😉

    We’ve tried durian in a few places. The smell didn’t get to me so much (maybe I have bad nostrils?) but hubby could not get over it! He did actually love the taste though. He thought like custard!
    Shelley recently posted…Travelin’ Toronto: Friends and Food

    1. The call to prayer is definitely hit or miss. I loved it when I was on the Gilis because my hotel was located far away from the mosque. So the sound kind of floated through the air to reach us and it was really soothing. But when we were anywhere close to the mosque the sound was SO loud. Ha, and it’s so true that some men sing way better than others. I’ve heard some pretty bad call to prayers in my time!

      Oh no, that crackling microphone in Turkey sounds awful! I actually had a horrible experience with the Hindu mantra in Bali. I wrote a whole post on my anniversary from hell there. It was a Hindu holiday and the guy sang (really loudly) from sunset until midnight without stopping. AND the speaker was right next to our bungalow. It taught me the valuable lesson to never live next to any sort of amplification system in a Muslim or Hindu country!

      How does the smell not bother you?! Ugh, I can’t get used to it. It’s so weird that it can smell so badly and actually taste good. I just have to take the plunge!

  3. I had totally forgotten about House Hunters International. I can’t say I miss the show since I really haven’t missed American TV since I’ve been in the UK. But I did enjoy watching that show when I was in the U.S.

    Interesting tidbit about what to wear at the swimming pool. I was once told to leave a French public swimming pool because my boxer-like swimming trunks were “prohibited.” As soon as I was told that, I noticed all the other guys at the pool were wearing Speedos.
    Rashaad recently posted…A Caribbean and 日本-flavoured weekend

    1. Yay, another House Hunters enthusiast! It’s so weird how little TV I watch when I’m abroad. I guess it’s because all of the channels are in Bahasa here …

      Wait, boxer trunks weren’t allowed but Speedos were? That’s like the opposite of what I’m experiencing! Ha, that’s hilarious 🙂 In Colombia I was kicked out of a pool for not wearing a swim cap. The pool etiquette in other countries can be bizarre.

  4. This was a great post Justine! Really interesting points about living in Jakarta! I only got round to trying Durian a month or two ago- I thought it tasted fine! I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to eat it but it certainly wasn’t disgusting like I’d been led to believe. I also didn’t really think the smell was that bad (I know most other people do). I think you should just go for it in the bikini. I’m all for cultural sensitivity and everything but when the pool is in your apartment complex I don’t see why you can’t wear a bikini. It’s not like you’re walking round the street in one.. 🙂 Looking forward to hearing more about Jakarta!
    Joella J in Beijing recently posted…Xiàhé (Labrang): A place I’ll Never Forget

    1. You’re too funny Joella. I wish I had the guts to go in the pool in a bikini! But seriously people already stare at me all the time. I would feel SO self-conscious, especially when all the women are swimming around in their clothes. Hmm, I must get in that pool somehow. I think I’ve just gotta go buy me a one-piece. That will still shock some people but I’m not doing the fully-clothed thing!

      And, I think you’re right. I’ve just gotta try durian. And jackfruit, which I hear is equally as scary. I’ll report back to you 😉

  5. Wonderful post! and I can completely relate to everything in it!(from the photos you’ve posted, you’re actually living in the same apartment complex as I used until a few months ago!)Especially the tap water part of things, this is my third year here now and I’m still having Homer Simpson style d’oh moments when I accidentally use the tap water for something! And as for durians, I was very apprehensive at first but it’s not as bad as you think it might be. I’d suggest maybe trying some durian ice cream first!

    1. Thanks Saira! That’s crazy that you lived in my same apartment complex. Yeah, the tap water thing’s is a bummer. Ha, I’m sure I’ll being having those same d’oh moments a lot while I’m here! You’ve been in Jakarta for three years? I’m so glad to find a blogger who’s actually lived here for awhile. Well, I think I need to go peruse your blog now 🙂

      I’ve been giving the durian thing a lot of thought today. And with everyone’s comments, I think I’m just going to suck it up and try one this weekend!

  6. The security checks and the water also threw me off because this is not something I encounter in singapore..but then again..they don’t seem to be putting much effort in doing their checks either…haha

    About the pool, I would suggest that you don’t wear a bikini because they are not used to it but you can try one piece suit or tank top and swim shorts as an alternative…I do that sometimes and well, I get the stare even in malaysia but I think of this as an accepted alternative for me…:)
    sha recently posted…Coping with Jakarta’s Traffic Jams

    1. Ha, the water at my apartment has been brown all day long today. I mean I knew it wasn’t safe for drinking but this is the first time it’s actually been brown!

      Yeah, I agree that wearing a bikini is not cool. I definitely need to shop for something that’s more conservative. Little swim shorts aren’t a bad idea! Thanks for the tip 🙂

  7. Justine, I have yet to get to Jakarta, but it’s on my list. I know they sell water-proof full body swimsuits there, because a friend bought one. I don’t think it’s necessary for you to buy one, though. A one piece should suffice, and like you said, people are going to stare anyway. I usually love the sound of the call to prayer, but as you said, it’s definitely hit or miss. One of my favorites was in the jungle outside of KL. It was so remote, but that call made it there and it sounded so hauntingly beautiful. I loved it. I think your apartment looks very comfortable! Have fun!
    Corinne recently posted…Weekend Travel Inspiration – Hans Christian Anderson

    1. Well hopefully I’ll be able to learn all about the great things Jakarta has to offer while I’m living here. That way I can pass along all of my information when you finally do get here! It’s a pretty crazy city!!

      I think I would feel even more uncomfortable swimming in a full bodysuit. And, I totally agree that it’s probably not necessary. A one-piece or little shorts like Sha suggested above should be just fine 🙂 People are totally going to stare no matter what I do!

      I feel like the call to prayer will never get old for me. Well, if I were living right next to a mosque it would get real old, real fast!

    1. I’m still horrible at putting the water bottle on the dispenser. I’ve spilled so many bottles! Yeah, the dress code takes a little getting used to. But the second I think it’s inappropriate to wear skimpy clothes I see some girl wearing super short shorts and a tank top. So I really don’t know what’s culturally acceptable in this area…I love learning about weird cultural things too. I guess that’s part of why I love traveling so much 🙂

    1. I’m too self-conscious to wear a bikini so I just wear a one piece or I cover myself with a tank top 🙂 I find that both are common in the complex I live in.

  8. been there and it is so true about the bikini. but I also been places where bikini is quite common in jakarta. it was ritz carlton pool, ibis hotel cikini and taman rasuna apartment, i guess. dont really remember.

    1. Hi Kim 🙂 I imagine that bikinis are pretty acceptable in international hotels, but I definitely didn’t feel comfortable wearing one at my apartment complex.

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