Jakarta is a city full of collisions; collisions of culture, collisions of classes, collisions of religion, collisions of cars, it’s a wonder that it doesn’t descend into chaos more often. The city is so multi layered, it can be almost as though you live on a different planet than someone who lives 50 metres from you in your own neighbourhood. Tucked in just behind the White House sized one family houses can be a maze like kampung area with entire extended families living in a tiny box-like structure. There are hierarchies within hierarchies that hurt your head (and your soul) if you try and understand them too much.
I was thinking about this yesterday as I left one of my favourite eateries. Inside it was the wintery climate of an over air-conditioned restaurant, there was the tinkling of the cutlery and the din of quiet conversation, obsequious waiters running to their patrons on the call “mas” or “mbak”. Step outside and life changes and it changes fast. From the dusty basement carpark where we had parked our mighty steed (ok, a rusty Scoopy) where the satpams and kitchen staff congregated with people from god knows where to nongkrong and share a cigarette and meal in the darkness, to the dodging and weaving of rubbish collectors and food carts being slogged up the main road with the sound of car horns and masjid announcements. It’s a dirty, sweaty world out there, and it is alive.
One of the topics at our school was an investigation of poverty and kids in my class who had lived here several years told me they didn’t know there was so much poverty in Jakarta, I thought, “How the hell could you miss it?”. Actually, it’s easy for them and easy for those who want to shield their eyes from it. All you need is a big shiny car (and there are many of them in Jakarta – one with money wouldn’t be caught without one and the bigger the better) and a driver. This way your driver can take you directly to the gate of wherever you want to go whether it is to another friend’s large abode or one of the many shiny and air conditioned malls where you can find a range of eateries. Many parents are afraid for the safety of their children so they keep them inside their houses, apartments and malls so they never get to see what really is at the heart of this city. They miss out on all of the life right at their fingertips.
Really it doesn’t take much. All you need to do is arrive to one of those same shiny malls by motorbike. The motorbike parking sends a big signal to the riders; “You mostly are just workers here with little money to spend so we ain’t gonna spend any money making this easy for you”. They are overcrowded and dusty and dirty and sometimes you have to walk a maze to get from the carpark to the main building. On the way through though you can get a glimpse of where the workers of the mall (who could never afford to eat at the places they work, let alone in any of the restaurants inside the mall) get their meals; it could be a tiny hole cut in the concrete where if you stick your head you will see a little shop inside that can serve you a bowl or 2 of indomie or a packet of cigarettes. Usually surrounding malls there are a whole range of food carts with their patrons in the uniforms of the shops they work at, standing around slurping a bowl of bakso or lontong sayur. If you go in reverse and enter the mall after standing on the streets haggling for a bit of sop buah and enter into the world of consumption of over-priced goods, you feel the lifelessness of the overindulged. It is comfortable, but there is little life there except that can be found from the adrenaline rush from buying something you hope will change your life a little (even if experience tells you it is gonna be more stuff to add to the pile).
Sometimes, as an expat, I know that I am missing out on where the real life is at, cause when I have a taste of it, I know why I am still in Jakarta after all these years. Malls and big shiny cars can be found anywhere, but the chaos of the streets of Jakarta are unique – it takes the collisions and the chaos and the ridiculous hierarchies alongside the uniqueness of the scrambles of all of this happening side by side. And it doesn’t feel dangerous, but it does send a little message into my consciousness every day. Something like, “Hey wake up, you are alive, keep your eyes open and enjoy”.