Jakarta has 22 million inhabitants. Ten million of which are actually documented. The sound of the city is nothing short of explosive – as it has known to have the worst traffic in the world. Five times a day, a choir of mosques reaches from the ocean of slums and clash with each other to create a sound that I can only describe as a hornets nest. I watch the children play in a trash filled river, black with oil and rotting with the bodies of dead animals. I live in a tower, surrounded by slums – sheet metal houses, no bathrooms, open sewage lines running along deep ditches on the side of the road. The air is thick with exhaust and cigarettes (1 in 3 men smoke in Indonesia.) There are no mountains to be seen, in fact – there is nothing but sky scrapers and old broken down homes as far as the eye can see; but it has its moments. On a windy day after a fresh rain (which is too acidic to stand in) you can watch the sun fall behind the smog and the glow is not of this world.
At night, after the 4th prayer – the streets fill with Warungs (food carts) and hundreds of different foods are made right in front of your face. You can’t imagine the variety – the saute, ayam goreng, martabak, the gado-gado. All of it being prepared at breakneck speed; it has the finesse of a circus. Families of four on a single motorbike – kids on mom and dad’s shoulders, infants, toddlers, piled on. They weave in and out of traffic with incredible confidence. Really, it makes what we find dangerous look like a joke. But what makes one feel more alive than the threat of harm? I get around on “Ojeks” – just dudes on the side of the road with a motorcycle and you hop on the back. Sometimes they know where you want them to go – other times you just have to point. If you have never had the experience of being a minority and being a spectacle everywhere you go, this is the place to do it. Thousands of eyes study me with blank expressions, some smile – most don’t. It’s not always the safest thing to be friendly in this city – have to put on an unimpressed mask to ward off troublemakers. Groups of kids will harass you for money relentlessly, shouting insults and pulling on your backpack. For the most part you just ignore them, but this is not easy on the empathy. Just yesterday, en route to a part of the city, a man with a mangled foot just sat in one of the busiest intersections (one of the few that have a light) and drug himself around asking for money. I kid you not, you would have thought him suicidal – the sheer speed and amount of traffic. I see my fair share of these things in a day, and it never gets any easier.
Life here in the city, is not for the faint of heart – I found this out the hard way. It plays with your nerves, your morality, your health, and your optimism. And then, you become a part of it and navigate it with ease – which is no ease at all, but this is relative. And you start to see something beautiful at work. An unimaginable web of lives bouncing off one another in what can only be described as exciting. Everyday faced with new challenges and lessons that are simply not found elsewhere. You develop skills that make you a veteran of the overwhelming. There is no escape, and so you must compensate.
But this is Jakarta, and it says so little about Indonesia as a whole. The countryside is unparalleled and full of secrets and ancient beauty. The islands are the stuff of dreams. The volcanoes rise thousands of meters into the sky and dance with the clouds. I was lucky enough to climb Mt. Merapi – one of the largest in Indonesia. You begin the hike at 12:00 a.m. and reach the final plateau somewhere around 6:00 a.m. to watch the sun rise. The final 2 hours is spent climbing the caldera which requires a great deal of confidence. Ancient temples litter Indonesia – monuments to a vibrant history. The markets are alive and bustling with hecklers, bargainers, and merchants. Monkeys break into homes and eat food and scale the power lines to escape. I can’t help but smile at the beautiful anarchy of this country. I have never felt so human.
I will be back,
I will, be back.