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The Largest Mosque in all of Asia

After another fitful night of sleep at the compound, we indulged in our now standard breakfast of Paraherbs, corn flakes topped with nuts and berries, and extra-crispy toast.

Paraherbs and Flakes

Our first stop for the day was to be the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in Asia and the headquarters for the entire Indonesian mosque system. The building loomed in a most majestic and brutal way.

Masjid Istiqlal

At the door we were scanned by a metal detector and asked to remove our shoes. We were met soon after entering by a woman of ambiguous age dressed in a flowing and completely unrevealing outfit of matching brown silk garments, including an elaborate head scarf. She showed us to a room  with a large wooden desk where I signed the guest book. “You are students of Islam,” Jackson explained, and so we were.

After signing the guest book, the four of us left together, strolling barefoot on the cool marble floors. The entire mosque was well ventilated and ornate. With both gentle breeze and plenty of natural light pouring though the perforated walls of the building, it was cool and pleasant inside. As we strolled, the muezzin was warming up to sing the call to prayer. As we strolled, our guide kept a running narrative and invited questions. “This is one of the hardest passages of the Quran to sing,” Jackson translated. “Today the mosque will get about 10,000 visitors. On Indonesian Independence day, that number rises to 200,000.

The building was huge, but with 200,000 people it must be a madhouse. We strolled past a giant cart full of welded steel donation boxes, toward the ancillary praying areas. These were tiled with hundreds and hundreds of little plots cordoned off and facing Mecca, for the use of people during prayer times. We also visited a great wooden drum, a gift from the president of Indonesia, and used for certain, more conspicuous calls to prayer.  The drum is carved out of a single tree and stretched on both sides with cow hide.  Javanese script adorns its side, and it hangs in a frame covered in intricate woodworking.

Masjid Istiqlal Drum

On our way out of the Mosque, we were ushered into the office once again, to retrieve the shoes and to make a donation. After some inner calculus, Jackson determined the appropriate donation to be 5,000 rupiah (about 50 cents each). It seemed she was expecting more, since she had been for much of the tour explaining to us how hip her daughter was, bragging about the number of facebook and twitter relationships she held, and explaining how her daughter would enjoy socially networking with us. But upon receipt of the donation, she became silent, and merely motioned us toward the door.

On our way back to the car, we took a detour across the street to a large Catholic church which stood dwarfed by the mosque. Our time in the church was short, and much less pleasant. The large stone building full of smokey candles seemed to amplify the sticky Jakarta heat and the dimly lit place felt somehow simultaneously claustrophobic and deserted. The courtyard outside was quite nice though with a number of fountains and plenty of the lush tropical vegetation which Jakarta seems unable to pave over, try as it may.

Jakarta Skyscrapers

We hopped back in Jackson’s car and proceeded to a nearby hotel and spa for a 10-dollar massage. This is likely one of the most expensive massages in the city, but well worth the investment. An hour later we walked away from the building feeling supremely relaxed and rather starving. To deal with the starving situation, we piled once again into Jackson’s car. By now it was threatening to rain, and in the time it took us to exit the lot, the threat was mad good. A hammering torrent and large raindrops drummed on the roof of our Kijang, drowning out the Indonesian pop music on the radio.

For lunch, we visited a Padang restaurant. Padang is an interesting style of food service. In lieu of the normal menu and ordering process, the entire menu is simply served to you right then and there in a delightful steaming tower of dishes. The customer is invited to eat what he or she will of those dishes and is charged only for the plates that were sampled. We sampled quite a few, and were rather surprised at the bill, which by Indonesian standards was gargantuan, and by western standards was, well, standard.

Padang Fare

Below, a special piece of fried beef lung.


Refueled and refreshed, we headed back to the residence after a cup of coffee in a small cafe tucked away in the Benhil neighborhood.  The rain was just letting up.

Jackson and Woody at Cafe

In Jakarta it is a common phenomenon to find it raining in one part of the city and merely just humid in another. “It is very likely,” explained Jackson, “that it is still raining at the Padang restaurant.”


Cool, we thought, and mounted the cycles.

Mario Cart

The wheel was short but fantastic. We went in search of the terrible traffic jam that had been promised the first day, and find it we did.

By now we were all getting very good at wheeling in Jakarta. We wove confidently through the streams of vehicles and found it very easy to communicate with fellow travelers to gain access to streams of traffic we were interested in.

As we approached the financial district the sun began to set and the sky blazed with a tremendous orange and red sunset, which reflected off the many skyscrapers which pierced the skyline. As the sunset blossomed into full effect, we found ourselves in very lightly trafficed set of roads encircling a large central stadium. We executed long slaloms through the warm air, enjoying the freedom of the open road and the glorious colors which were slowing fading into the many palms that lined the stadium road.


Feeling like men who had discovered a deck filled only with aces, we wheeled around and through the stadium, by children playing soccer, and athletes who were executing a peculiar training technique, involving climbing up the ticket booths and hanging from the walls in bizarrely splayed positions.

Jackson took bishop and brought us to a golf course which somehow had found its way into the city center. He called a waypoint, and we strolled into the clubhouse and purchased some water. We strolled the course and drank our water as the last bits of sunlight left the sky, replaced by silhouettes and the faint clapping sound of hundreds of bats in flight.

That evening we feasted with Jackson’s extended family at a fantastic Chinese seafood restaurant in a  local shopping mall. The journey to the mall would have been a 15-minute wheel, but we chose to take the car and driver, since Jackson’s sister was accompanying us. This turned out to be the wrong move, as the recent rain had induced a horrific traffic jam or simply “jam” as they refer to it in Jakarta. The journey of only a few miles took us nearly an hour, and by the time we arrived the entire family appeared to be preparing to gnaw on their own arms.

Fu Family

I must take a break here to comment on shopping malls in Jakarta. They play a huge role, as gathering places for the more affluent citizens, and are to be found in great abundance all over the city. Jakartian malls dwarf all but the more gargantuan American malls, and sport many floors with luxury goods, expensive restaurants, and playgrounds for children.  As air-conditioned panopticons, they provide refuge from the sweltering humidity of the city in a see-and-be-seen world of look-alike strangers.

This one we were dining in was no exception, and after dinner we took a stroll. It seemed almost incomprehensible that this level of luxury and consumerism could coexist with the boiling overcrowded streets, 10-cent meals, and poverty-stricken slums which were to be found right outside.

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  1. Kate | January 11th, 2010 | 12:30 pm

    I found the malls in El Salvador similarly off-putting. Inside we were ushered to try on Gucci and Prada by our hosts who, I’m sure, assumed that this is what North Americans do. and directly outside the mall grew a great shanty town with thousands of struggling illegal squatters. Crazy how the two can coexist.

  2. Mark/Dad | January 11th, 2010 | 12:45 pm

    How was the lung? And are you going to tell us about Hari and the Anklung?

  3. Nate | January 11th, 2010 | 2:11 pm

    I’m loving that sublime skyline sunset!
    Man, I know how hard it is to do quality weblogging while traveling—thanks so much for putting in the time and effort, and allowing us to share in your adventures. Best of luck to you guys and Godspeed.

  4. Christi | January 11th, 2010 | 4:30 pm

    This message is form second graders, section 3.
    Do you feel safe around all the people there?
    How far do you ride on the cool bikes every day?
    Do you like the food?
    Have you met anyone new(not a part of Asia Wheeling or their families) there? How did you meet them?

    Have you seen any other people that you knew before (like the plane trip)?
    Where are you sleeping and how long do you stay at each place?

    Glad to see you made Michael’s a partner! Cool the way the bike folds up!!
    Take care. Christi

  5. Alisa Greenbacher | January 11th, 2010 | 7:35 pm

    Wow you guys–looks totally amazing. I am inspired!!

    As a mom and wife of an adventurous and bike-loving ER doc, I want to know where your helmets are??????????

  6. Barbara | January 11th, 2010 | 9:36 pm

    It’s great seeing your encounters on this journey as well as reading your blog. You’re such a good descriptive writer it’s interesting, thought provoking and enjoyable to read.

    Happy trails…

    Barbara G

  7. Scott | January 12th, 2010 | 10:58 am

    Great audio inside the mosque. What a nice surprise to get email regarding new posts. I can now travel vicariously with Asiawheeling!

    Your photos make me hungry.

    Planning any wildlife safaris? Singapore has a “Night Safari” which is actually a very nice zoo. They have a top notch Botanical garden with a world class orchid collection.

    Be safe and enjoy!

  8. Woody | January 13th, 2010 | 6:07 am

    @ Mark/Dad
    I’ll be honest, the lung as not so good. Maybe it had laid out a bit too long? Anyways, don’t think they charged us for it.

    @ Nate
    Thanks for reading. It is our humble duty, and our pleasure.

    @ Alisa
    Helmets are forthcoming. Dahon, claims they will give us their newest experimental folding helmets, so we are holding out. I know I know, not a great excuse. But the truth.

    @ Barbara
    Thank you. I am quite flattered.

    @ Scott
    Glad you dig. A safari would be cool. We will look into it.

  9. aili | April 6th, 2010 | 11:05 am

    great post and good preview for me of things to come in jakarta. i’ll likely be living in the financial district and was told that around the stadium is the only green i will find nearby. i’m trying not to think so much of the traffic. so what happens to the rest of the padang dishes that you leave on the table? presumably they get recycled for other customers??

  10. Woody | April 7th, 2010 | 5:08 am

    @ Aili
    Yep. The rest of the Padang food is taken back and given to the next customers. Not super sanitary; that’s why the Illustrious Mr. Fu always told us to go to Padang restaurants early in the day; that way the food is not just the rejections of other customers 😉

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