The rhythm of the city throbs incessantly, seemingly not following any order or demand. But Jakarta is just like any other city, with its rules, norms and patterns, even if they are uniquely Jakartan and not readily understood by those who land in its midst. And just like any other city, it has a veneer, a façade for first impressions and a multi-layered underbelly keen to be uncovered, for it knows that its seductive powers won’t let it come second best.
Two weeks in, and despite the limitations imposed by the oppressiveness of traffic, my feelers are out. And with a if I can I will attitude, I’m ready to venture into the alley ways that will lead to no answers, but more questions, because any fool can see that there is more to Jakarta than the rabid opulence of its shopping malls.
Unwisely or otherwise, I was hosted for a week in Menteng, too close to the Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, the Hyatt and other symbols of lavishness and decadence—malls with marble, glass and steel that would put to shame most five-star hotels any where in the world. But don’t be fooled by Indonesian status as a middle income and developing country, there is some serious money here folks, brought by resources and manufacture.
The patrons of these sumptuous shopping malls are… well, locals, as my foray into this world of affluence revealed that the only other bule, or white person in the local vernacular, was my own reflection in the spotless and extravagant lavatories, where poorly paid cleaners will promptly follow your use of the facilities as to leave no trace of your passage. Yet, it begs the question, serious money or not: how do these places survive, given that the prices of the luxury goods on display reach vertiginous heights by any measure of wealth?
In another part of the world, which would be indiscreet for me to mention (Italy), such over supply of monuments to consumerism serves no purpose at all other than to launder money for the underworld. There, this fact is the world’s worst kept secret, but it remains mainly unchallenged because mafia money contributes so much to the local economy that it is irreplaceable. Here, I don’t know, but stay tuned as the bee is now in my bonnet, and my curiosity is tickled enough to rummage around for any reasonable explanation.
Cohabiting with the immoderate, if not immoral, dozens of opulent shopping malls, there is an array of alley ways, wide enough to prevent any mechanised traffic to interrupt the daily grind of poverty becoming destitution. An extensive network of aisles filled with the invisible and informal sector that ekes out a living by any conceivable, orthodox or otherwise, legal or illegitimate means, as long as it works.
Here, help thy self assumes a real and practical meaning—children are schooled by volunteers; places of worship are led by dedicated community leaders whose affiliation to their preferred school of (Islamic) thought would send shivers down the spine of racially prejudiced and fearful people; every piece of trash is examined for its potential to be recycled, rebuilt, reheated or reused in any way, shape of form; and health care is provided by good willing doctors who have not replaced their Hippocratic Oath with a golf club membership.