Jakarta: What’s not to love?
Wimar Witoelar | Thu, 06/23/2011 11:13 AM |
The past month has brought the usual juicy stories for the media to present in acrimonious interviews on television. But if you choose to ignore them and download Metallica songs instead, nothing is lost. Because life goes on in this city of 14 million.
People say that big cities breed stress because of traffic congestion, air pollution, a competitive job market and loss of identity. In those categories, Jakarta reigns supreme. Jobs are scarce, and those that are available offer low wages and an almost complete lack of social insurance. Arguments run the public discourse and street demonstrations are a familiar scene. Yet people stay and complain in traffic jams, then join friends in fun and laughter whether at malls or more modest meeting places. And suicide rates are not as high as in some Scandinavian cities, which are pristine yet depressing during long winters.
When I was a child I played on the street every day. Not because I was a tough street kid, but because my Mom didn’t want my chatter around the house while the adults were taking their afternoon naps. Combining personal impressions with stories heard later, I conclude that Jakarta in the early 1950s was a city in transition. Houses were left empty and people were hauling furniture around as the Dutch left town in droves, taking home stories of the good life in “the Indies”.
I could always sense the days of glory in the ice cream parlors my mother used to bribe me to be good, and the few luxury hotels where people danced in Western dress to Western music bands. I had a sense of the day-to-day uncertainty as our family moved from a garage to a large warehouse that we shared with several families. With the rosy tint of nostalgia, it was not such a bad time – especially since we miraculously ended up in a comfortable house in Menteng deserted by its Dutch owners.
That, for me, is Jakarta, but that Jakarta doesn’t exist anymore. Even if it did, it would no longer be mine. When I was working overseas, I wailed in my heart like music legend Neil Diamond: Melbourne is fine, but it ain’t home. Jakarta’s home, but it ain’t mine no more. Well, I was raised in Jakarta but nowadays, I’m lost between two shores.
Jakarta is a city you can love. Or at least have a love-and-hate relationship with. It’s the kind of bond you can never shake off. So despite my basic fondness for places (every town is my favorite one), some places have receded into memory and others stay at the front of my mind, but Jakarta is part of my Operating System.
The street where I was raised is now known as the place to buy dubiously certified thoroughbred dogs. My family bought two collies in short succession but they both died of distemper. The third collie, Inka, bought for 10 times the price from an “official” pet dealer, looked like Steffi Graf and lived to be 14 years old, or 98 years in human life. Dogs are a part of middle-class life in Jakarta, but much like bread and cheese and dance parties, they are not really for the whole middle class.
It wasn’t until years later I discovered there are larger subcultures such as Rural Indonesia, Muslim Indonesia and various ethnic communities such as Chinese, Arab and Indian. There was no friction in those days. People were just different, no problem there. Pluralism was the soul of society long before it became part of being politically correct.
Jakarta reflected the melting pot of regional origins, ethnic cultures and religions. My family was never concerned. When I went out to play my mother just told me never to venture out further than Taman Sunda Kelapa, an empty space where people sold iced drinks and food, and that I should be home before dark. I never knew where my street friends went after I left, but they seemed to just be starting their day.
It was a drowsy place, Jakarta in the ’50s, all heat, dust and shady spots under the urban trees. The Dutch were gone, the new society was not yet in place, and nobody seemed to be in control. It was drastically different when I returned from four years in Europe with my family.
My father was a diplomat in the newly created foreign service and we had grown to be proud nationalists under president Sukarno, who had started to be famous even in Europe. I never understood why, but I enjoyed finding out about his life and getting some inspirational phrases. That was in Bonn, West Germany, when he was on tour and called on the diplomats’ families. I never saw him again. We went home by ship, a 42-day journey from Rotterdam to Tanjung Priok by way of the Cape of Good Hope, because the Suez Canal had been destroyed during an Arab–Israeli War.
As Barack Obama described in his book Dreams from my Father, the first thing you notice about Indonesia is the smell, a complex mix of heat and dust, different foods, refuse and clove cigarettes. For me, it was a comfortable smell, the only constant in late-1950s Indonesia, those years of living dangerously. A smell you can rely on through the congestion, political mayhem and corrupt practices. I guess that is why Jakarta is my emotional home.