You are hereBecoming a Jakartan
Becoming a Jakartan
by Fatema Nakhuda
How do you summarize six months of Indonesian life in a few paragraphs?
I returned to Toronto after spending six months in Jakarta, Indonesia, where I was working for the International Labour Organization (ILO). In hindsight, six months was not nearly enough time to experience Indonesia, though the opportunities afforded, both work and travel related, were, simply put, moments of life.
The move to Jakarta began in May 2012, when I luckily snagged a CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) funded internship, sponsored by the University of Winnipeg’s Global College in conjunction with the International Youth Employment Network (IYEN) programme based at ILO headquarters. As a “Youth Employment Network Associate”, my main functions were to support the implementation of youth employment programmes. This basically translated into doing anything and everything required in the creation and implementation of youth employment projects. I researched potential youth training projects, compiled statistics on youth employment indicators, prepared promotional materials (more about this further on), drafted all the necessary project tidbits, i.e. terms of references, project briefs, budget plans etc, and perhaps most enjoyably, attended numerous meetings with government ministries and private enterprises all in Bahasa Indonesia (literally translates into ‘language of Indonesia’). Admittedly, my beginner Indonesian language classes enabled me to understand “I” (Saya) and ‘like’ (Suka), and that was about it.
The Indonesian workday is an hour longer, but aside from this, working at the ILO-Jakarta office was similar to working in a North American setting. My most defining work output was when I was given the task of creating a special edition newsletter for an ILO Youth training program for Mentawai youths affected by a 2010 earthquake and tsunami. I flew out to Padang, Sumatra and observed these youths being trained on motorbike repair, woodworking, and small meals skills training. It’s a tad cliché, but when you are able to witness the culmination of the work in the implementation phase of a project whose mandate is to improve the livelihoods of youths and their families, the genuine satisfaction that is felt is harder to replicate in most paper pushing jobs in North America.
Work was not always unproblematic, and frustrations arose when attempting to establish a productive working relationship with an Indonesian ministry. This is not a generalization with regards to all Indonesian ministries, but unsurprisingly many of them suffered from a lack of resources and tools, along with poor management.
Aside from work, Jakarta itself is a hot mess of a city. The “downtown”, located in the Golden Triangle (Central Business District) is comprised of two up-scale malls, and a slew of office buildings and hotel chains. While restaurants and bars (yes, they have bars) are cooped up in malls or dispersed randomly through the central part of town, the beauty of Jakarta is the harmonization of modern urban planning with the lower-middle class populace. Traditional warungs (food carts) surrounded ritzy malls, and high rise apartments (common housing for professional expats, but over-priced for interns) stood across from urban slums. For a professional people watcher like myself, it was absorbing to watch these two worlds share the same space; the milieu of incredibly wealthy Indonesians, their over-pampered (and often overweight) toddlers, and their train of nannies, while across the street the road was lined with women and youth hoping to make a few rupiahs “jockeying” – drivers often hire a “jockey” as an extra passenger in the car to skirt the three person per vehicle rule imposed on major roads in peak hours (a regulation which has since been abandoned).
Without undermining the quandaries of the lower-class, it was the best of both lifestyles, being able to grab that American burger (at an American price) and buy dessert from the streets, fried banana with chocolate for 10 cents. There were pangs of guilt that would follow purchases of overpriced European clothing as one left the mall and entered the “real world”; that shirt from Zara could buy dinner for a month or an all-inclusive weekend snorkelling trip on a private island. Dissociating that need for consumerism became easier, as near the end of my work term my financial mindset was in tune with that of a local Indonesian. I balked at paying 50,000 Rupiahs (five dollars) for a t-shirt, 30,000 rupiah for lunch was a treat, and I’d forgo that morning coffee because heck, why would you pay 3 dollars for that caffeine boost when you can get that overtly sweet, diabetic, “fake” coffee packets that abound in Indonesia for a few cents.
The acclimatization to the Indonesian mindset ingratiated general attitudes in all facets of daily life. Macet (traffic) was a given, and what food hygiene? Vegetable chopping on the floor and cockroaches in the prep area no longer fazed my appetite for cheap street grub. Unconsciously, a deeper connection was evolving.
While it took a while to develop a gratitude for Jakarta as it was, the adoration for the rest of Indonesia was instantaneous. Indonesia, in my biased opinion, has the most stunning landscapes; rolling hills of rice paddy fields and tea plantations, white beaches and crystal blue water, coral reefs encompassing the thousands of islands, and copious amounts of volcanoes. While the geography is similar to other nearby Asian countries, the advantage of Indonesia is the feeling of exclusiveness within the regions, and the rustic authenticity that the more “touristy” areas have attained.
Indonesia (besides Bali) is not as popular of a destination for the European/North American backpacker scene as is Thailand or Vietnam, which is absolutely great. A good contrast are the Gili islands (with a young European party scene) and neighbouring Lombok island (rustic and vacant) – islands which have decent tourist attractions, though both catering to different types of people. Gili island is over-developed, and while there are no cars or big establishments, there’s too much catering to the European expectation of a beach holiday – lounge chairs and servers at the snap of your fingers, non-stop music, quinoa salad and fat free yoghurt. It’s all nice, but that sense of disillusionment with your surroundings creeps in. Then there’s Kuta, Lombok, with an equally decent number of homestays (but with a lower occupancy rate). Kuta beach, lined with restaurants and on par with the beaches of Gilis, was deserted. Travel books and blogs have yet to glorify Kuta as the new exclusive destination, hence the traditional charm remains steadfast; lunch took an hour to arrive, local children were running naked in the water, and herds of buffalos strolled by. This is how island tourism should be developed and promoted.
The culturally deteriorating effects of the standard method for development is a concern for potential tourist hotspots and the modernization of Jakarta. Aspects of Indonesian life that I came to appreciate and enjoy have the potential to dissipate with the development of infrastructure and regulation. This, however, is a selfish position. The notion that development could lead to cultural erosion is not necessarily true, but it is present in the new development areas of Jakarta. Concrete jungles replicating the Chinese formula in Jakarta have that isolated North American suburbia feel. I am afraid that my former neighbourhood, with its myriad of crisscrossing alleyways and informal economy (i.e. food carts, tailors, laundry services) supported by the low-income populace, will be driven out with the creation of roads, apartment complexes, and higher rent. This is not to dissent against modernization, but to advocate for a form of culturally sensitive development.
Saying goodbye to Jakarta was not easy, though more difficult was the re-entry process into home life. I, like many other previous expats, experienced “reverse culture shock”; the feeling of disillusionment when returning to your home environment, and “homesickness” for the people, places, and life abroad. The beauty of the Indonesian landscape, the cheery locals, the simple lifestyle, and of course, affordability, created a strong bond with Indonesia, and an association with East Asia, whereby a year ago I held a mere passing interest in this region.