Monday, January 25, 2010

Jakarta: Early Impressions

I wrote this a few weeks after arriving but never got around to posting it, enjoy!
Jakarta is a city of contrasts. As cliché as that sounds, it is completely true of Jakarta. Sometimes, HK is seen as a city of contrasts, but in fact, the contrasts found in HK are slim by comparison. In Jakarta, the rich areas are rigorously defended from any encroachment by the poor. It is striking as a Canadian to see such disparities in one city. One neighbourhood is absolutely poverty stricken, with half-clothed children using the gutter as a toilet and shack after shack lining a narrow alley up and down which motorbikes zoom at intervals. I definitely want to tour one of these warrens more extensively, although I will most likely need to go during the day. It is difficult to say how unsafe they would be at night, as some blocks are defended by a crew of dozy security officers; when I was with Oncida dropping off her friend, I saw three guards, one sprawled out and napping on what might have been a table or bench, another resting as well, and the third, who was awake, had to be summoned from an office somewhere in the back, clearly not really watching who was coming and going). I am pretty sure I could tour them alone during the day, and I can’t wait to do that, I feel like that is the real Jakarta, not the glitzy globalization found in the malls.
As for the malls, I feel I sadly need to step in and defend their ubiquity in Jakarta. On a purely practical level, they are just highly functional. They are sheltered from the rain, the heat, and most importantly perhaps, the pollution. In a tropical country, these first two factors are quite substantial in considering your daily activities, and the third factor is of absolutely vital concern. Secondly, and unfortunately, they serve to insulate the well to do from the not so well to do. It is difficult to wrap your head around this as an idealistic and naïve western kid (me) and at the same time I don’t wish to justify it, but this separation is simply a part of reality. For me, it is shocking, disturbing and tragic. But, for one who is constantly surrounded by it, it becomes merely a nuisance to be excised from your reality with as little fuss as possible. I also have come to the realization (and hopefully I can avoid this trap) that experiencing something does not further enhance our sympathy, nor our drive to take action. Instead what it does is desensitize us to it. Humans can only handle so many stresses simultaneously and we are obviously geared towards self-preservation. Can’t fully articulate this argument here, but I posit that extensive exposure to something, in this case poverty, makes it that much easier to ignore, it doesn’t gradually grate on our conscience until we simply MUST take action. That being said, do I feel that a sheltered upbringing is better? No, I think it is our duty as outsiders who do not share this background to observe and push the indigenous to make changes. Because we are better? No, no morally bankrupt white man’s burden here, instead due simply to the fact that we are not desensitized and thus can identify more easily and perhaps bring attention to a problem than those immersed in it. The fish are the last to discover water. Raising awareness? No, it must go beyond that, but at the same time, we cannot rescue another people from their problems we can simply set as positive example and share knowledge. Is it our Western exploitation of globalization and trade imbalance? Yes, to a degree, but that is to undermine the role-played by local corruption. Note that I do not lay the blame at the door of “ineptitude”. That would imply that where we are capable, they are incapable. I utterly reject this notion as racist and more importantly absurd. As if out of 245 million people, no one with the appropriate skills could be found to solve the problem.
On the topic of skills, a vast majority of the labour force here falls into the unfortunate category of unskilled labour. A striking example of this lies quite literally under my very nose, in my apartment. Contractors rarely distinguish themselves by their craftsmanship, but I have to confess the job done in my building really sets a bar for poor, slap-dash job. The sink seems to have been crazy glued into place in the kitchen counter, not caulked. The dap around the door frames has not been sanded AT ALL, so basically someone slapped it on and literally walked away. Maybe, and this is a big maybe, they went over it with a finger once at MOST. The emergency stairwell in my building, which I have tragically resorted to in order to burn off some of the excess sugar found in every drink in Indonesia, is another great example of this. Each step is a slightly different size, shape and distance from every other step. The ravages of a poor education system are patently clear at every turn in Jakarta. One is really left wondering how many things could be improved if everyone had a decent elementary school education, let alone high school. One thing we tend to forget in Toronto is that even our labourers and service personnel often have high school or university educations, and in some cases are the most skilled people from their own countries, yet drive a taxi in Canada (my uncles as a case in point). To illustrate this point, I will share a story from a co-worker. He got on an ojek(a motorcycle taxi) during the rainy season. He asked the driver if there was flooding. In the neighbourhood they were in at that moment there was no flood and so the driver looked around and said “Do you see a flood? There’s no flood.” So, they started driving. My friend started getting nervous as they approached an enormous and deep puddle. He was thinking “ok, so what’s the trick here? How are we getting around this puddle?” The trick turned out to be on him as the driver simply barreled through the puddle. My friend got soaked up to the knee, pants, shoes and socks completely Sadly, some of the Westerners here have become quite jaded at this, and often either make disparaging comments about the Indonesians, assuming they are just inherently incompetent. Despicable, but just another facet of neo-colonialism at work. More on that later.

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