Book Review: Culture Shock! Jakarta

Most seasoned travellers will be aware of the term “culture shock“, which is an all-encompassing expression to cover the feeling of disorientation that often affects people thrust into new surroundings outside their own comfort zone explains Andrew Charles.

Culture Shock! Jakarta is published by Marshall Cavendish Editions and is available from most good bookstores in Indonesia at a recommended price of Rp.110,000.
ISBN: 9 780761 454076

From the fact that over 3 million books in the Culture Shock! series have been sold it is obvious that these guides are well known so I was happy to be asked to review the long-awaited update of Culture Shock! Jakarta.

One important point to make about this series of publications, which now covers almost 80 locations, is that they are not intended as guide books for tourists — although tourists will also find them very useful. They give good information on local culture and traditions, together with some very helpful guides to the language. Essentially, they assist travellers in adapting to their new environment and obtaining the most benefit from their experience.

The authors of Culture Shock! Jakarta, Derek Bacon and Terry Collins, are both highly qualified to advise newcomers to this hot, lively and often rather sleazy city; having spent many years living here.

They certainly aren’t set out to “sell” Jakarta to the visitor as they are vociferous in their criticisms. Their very dry British sense of humor comes across in various ways but despite what could be construed as cynicism, irony and sarcasm, this is an extremely informative book.

The frustrations caused by the poor Internet connections receive a number of comments: they make the point that Broadband is confined primarily to hotels and offices and as there are only two main portals linking Indonesia to the web, all other ISPs are secondary subscribers, resulting in a high cost for a minimal service.

Another topic on which no punches are pulled is the inadequacy of Jakarta’s drainage system. The city is subject to frequent flooding and the major cause of this is that the floodplain has been built over so, in the rainy season, streets can quickly become rivers. The current floods in North Jakarta are caused not only by the moon’s gravitational pull but also by the silting up of Jakarta Bay through reclamation schemes and the cutting down of the mangroves in order to build golf courses and other recreational facilities.

No guide to living in Jakarta would be complete without a reference to the transportation system and some 20 pages are devoted to this. How to get a driving license, how to deal with taxi drivers and how to own a vehicle are just a few of the items covered in this very comprehensive section.

One inclusion in the book that new arrivals to Jakarta will find invaluable is the list of Web sites and blogspots; despite the earlier comments on the difficulty in obtaining fast Internet service, patience will bring its rewards. One of the authors, Terry Collins, has his own blogspot and this is well worth a visit at

Good coverage is given to the real advantages of living in Jakarta such as the relatively affluent lifestyle which could be more difficult to find elsewhere. The authors give a warning to newcomers not to let this affect them negatively. They say that some people become “virtually famous” even though they are totally anonymous in their own countries. There are make-believe sugar-daddies, would be white boy gigolos, pretend gangsters and desperadoes. Beware of people acting out these fantasies!

On a more positive note, there is a lot of good advice on eating and the novice is warned that the word pedas is vital; it means the spicy and pungent hotness that burns the beginner’s mouth.

Many pages are devoted to food and entertaining and this section provides a great deal of information on not only what to eat but how to eat it as there are customs and traditions that are best adhered to in order to avoid giving offense. The explanation of the different stages and styles of cooking rice are extensive and

Culture Shock! Jakarta will tell you all you ever need to know about this most fundamental of staple foods. We learn that there are 24 varieties of banana but are recommended to try the large, classic pisang Ambon or the short, sweet pisang emas.

Other suggested fruits include apples from Malang in East Java and jeruk Bali, which is described as a “user-friendly grapefruit”.

We are encouraged to start the day with an entire liquidized mango and this can be a very inexpensive breakfast. People renting a house in Jakarta could find themselves in possession of a star-fruit (belimbing) tree as these grow well in the city and the fruit is packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants.

The contents of this very reasonably priced book are far too numerous to mention in a short review but subjects covered include weather, a good outline of the history, geography and politics of the city, a substantial section on how to adapt to living with Jakartans and how to settle in, plus some very good advice on culture and travel. How to do business in Jakarta is also dealt with and, most importantly, there are some excellent tips on the language.

Once you have read all the advice and information, there is a light-hearted quiz for you to check on whether or not you have learned anything.

For a new arrival in Jakarta, this book is essential reading but it will appeal also to veteran residents who will recognize all the stages through which they have already passed — and probably have a good laugh in the process.