Jakarta: The last frontier
Rental bikes in Fatahillah Square come with lacy hats instead of helmets. (Julia Simon)
Most intrepid travellers who come to Indonesia are looking for a volcano to climb or a coral reef to dive around or a piece of pristine virgin rainforest to trek.
But if you are willing to get some fish scales on your boots, bike grease on your hands and stay up until the wee hours of the morning in the northern part of Indonesia's capital, the streets are ripe for an urban adventure and for a few dollars you can have a modern Javanese feast.
The first stop, to the city's waterfront, on this self-guided tour is worth the apparent unseemliness. In most coastal cities you might describe the sea air as "fresh". Not in Jakarta. In North Jakarta the oil-coloured Java Sea gives off a fetid smell of solid waste; combined with the large rats and cockroaches, the coastline feels like something out of a Dickens novel. But Dickens never ate seafood like you will find here.
The fish market Muara Angke (also called Pasar Ikan) gets busy starting around midnight when the fishermen and fishmongers come to sell their catch to restaurant owners downtown. Inside the market there is fresh flounder, mussels, clams, squid, shrimp and crab from across Indonesia's archipelago. Wear shoes that you do not care about; it is difficult to walk through the puddles of the market without finding one foot fully submerged in a murky mass of fish scales.
If you do not want to bargain for and cook the fish yourself, go to one of the restaurants just behind the market, closer to the Java Sea, and order the seafood for them to cook for you. Dishes are served with rice, vegetables, sauces and, should you so desire, Indonesian beer. Bring your own hand sanitizer if you hope to break open some of the crabs for the inside meat, marinated in a spicy red sauce.
After the fish market, the best desserts for the best prices are at the cake market (Pasar Kue or Pasar Senen), whose peak hours are from 3 to 6 in the morning. The cake market is in a more central area called Senen, named for the market's busiest day of the week, Monday.
There are rows and rows of cakes, some small and gelatinous with bright pink and green stripes, others stuffed with bananas or coconut, and thinly sliced pound cakes. There are also tiny chocolate tarts and large lavish birthday cakes. The cakes are incredibly inexpensive: a large plate of sliced pound cake is about two dollars and a bag of eight smaller cakes is about 50 cents.
A bicycle built for two
After a night full of fish and cake, take a nap before you head back north to Kota, also known as Old Batavia, the colonial-era neighbourhood that was once the centre of the Dutch empire in Indonesia.
Kota is best explored on a bicycle built for two. The bikes are in Fatahillah Square, a colonial throwback lined with beautiful old white buildings and palm trees. The square is the site of the Jakarta History Museum, a Wayang (Indonesian shadow puppet) museum, and the stylish and historic Café Batavia, but the bikes are the real stars of the neighbourhood. A ride on a bicycle built for two is perhaps the most romantic urban adventure of all.
There are about seven bike rental outfits and for 20,000 Indonesian rupiah (about two dollars) you can rent a bicycle for an hour. The bikes have a back seat so that two can ride comfortably. You choose from rows and rows of brightly coloured bikes and while there are no helmets, each bike comes with a colour-coordinated floppy lacy hat or a colonial style topee. The bike rental men are not the best meteorologists, but, as they will tell you, it is best to go riding in the morning or at midday since for half of the year, in the late afternoons, the Jakarta skies often turn dark and it begins to pour.