Jakarta is one of the world’s most heavily populated cities, its kampongs swelled by migrants from the overcrowded Javanese countryside and from the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. The city took a hit in 1997 and its people had to find ways to survive … not all of them pleasant or, for that matter, legal. I wrote this when I visited in 1999.
A lot of Jakarta’s buildings are having a bad hair day. Their sexy steel-and-glass bodies soar up to a mess of girders and concrete pillars. Others haven’t even got the glass and cladding. As in the rest of south-east Asia, building stopped when the crisis hit.
Jakarta is hot and humid. Millions of lorries, buses, cars, motorbikes, mopeds, tuk-tuks fart into the atmosphere and what doesn’t go straight into your lungs rises to hang in a greyish pall above the city, for consumption at a later date.
For all the business boulevards, Jakarta’s people ensure that it remains an Asian city at street level: street-stalls crowd virtually all available pavement space, selling fried rice, boiled rice, fried noodles, boiled noodles, fried chicken, chicken soup, meatball soup, fried catfish, fried tofu, smoked tofu, fried bananas, fried tapioca, sate, tripes in sauce, cow’s stomach in sauce, cow’s skin, won ton, durian, papaya, pineapple, coca-cola, tea, coffee, fanta, a strange luminous green liquid served with another brown liquid and white noodles that look like worms… and more, if you dare to try.
The crisis means an increase in the number of beggars and street-hawkers. Some literally grovel in the gutter as traffic rushes past them; being as wretched as possible is their professional qualification. Boys play guitars at the crossroads. Others appoint themselves unoffical traffic-police at the many points where motorists make U-turns, occasionally picking up a tip for their pains. A sign that they are aware of the years that they’re knocking off their lives is the fact that some wear bandanas across their mouths in an ineffectual attempt to keep out the fumes from a thousand exhausts.
A city official says that the number of street-children has swollen from 12,636 in August 1998 to 68,688 in June 1999. Parents who’ve been laid off from building sites and factories apparently send their children out on the streeets to beg.
Meanwhile, we foreigners lock the taxi doors and tell each other the story of the woman who was stabbed in the leg by a man who jumped in her cab demanding money.
Some people find Jakarta peaceful at night. I find it sinister. Perhaps it’s just the bad street-lighting and the looming trees. Drive around town after dark and you whisk by the skeleton of unbuilt or burnt buildings, a crossroads peopled by about a hundred hookers, turned to caricature by make-up and headlights, gangs of men or boys loitering, people who sleep under overhead roads and railways, and the flames of the last of the street-vendors frying the last of the street-food.