the other side of Jakarta

The Other Side of Jakarta

It was on a trip to Jakarta that I was first introduced to the true Kampung. Otherwise known as the “other” side of Jakarta.

“Kampung” is the Indonesian word for Village, although it encompasses so much more than that. The word is used widely to describe a lower class of society. Traditionally, that would be a village. In larger urban environments such as Jakarta, however, it is used liberally to describe the lower level of life, that in western society might be referred to more as a slum, or the back blocks. Generally, it is a place that not many outsiders get to see, or ever want to.

the other side of Jakarta so close
Kampung is so close to high-rise in Jakarta

In Indonesia, Kampung is everywhere. It is in the villages you pass by in Bali while you sit in your air conditioned tourist buses. It is the next street over, behind the restaurant at your resort. It is on the other side of the fence as you take a photo of that wonderful sunset.

It is everywhere. We just choose to ignore it, or pretend it doesn’t exist.

Kampung is everywhere

In Jakarta, it is even closer than you think. I often visit relatives in South Jakarta, and regularly walk down the street to a couple of restaurants, or to the local Hero supermarket. Along the way we pass by some “dodgy” places, but unless you turn off the main street, it’s all generally “normal” Indonesian housing.

At one point, the walk takes you down a couple of streets with large mansions. The sort of places that you would expect in upper class neighborhoods of Los Angeles, or on the Sydney North Shore. Certainly not here in Jakarta, where they are so out of place that you catch yourself staring a lot longer than you normally would.

Shelter is made from anything they can find
Shelter is made from anything they can find

Just don’t take a wrong turn. Because the sad reality is that these places really ARE out of place in Jakarta. So far out of place, in fact, that not a single street away, locals are living in plywood shelters the size of the average dog kennel. They huddle together wearing the same clothing day after day, and the total of their belongings wouldn’t even fit into a shopping trolley. They live an eked out existence, staving off disease as they simply try to survive, while on the other side of a pretty vine covered wall the occupants feast on steak, and drink French wine.

This, unfortunately, is the other side of Jakarta.

On this particular day, I found myself awake early. I had been in the city for only a day, and we had planned to catch an early train to nearby Bogor. But those plans were put on temporary hold when the dogs escaped.

I’m not too sure if it was planned, but the getaway was as swift as it was successful. They were like Bonny and Clyde, bursting out the front doors of the bank without a getaway car. Down the street they went, with people running behind yelling and screaming for someone, anyone, to stop them.

Dog or Wolf?
Dog or Wolf?

Now, at this point it is worth noting that while one of the dogs is a Mini Pomeranian, the second dog is a large, well groomed Malamute. One that can be easily mistaken for a wolf. And often is.

Especially by people who live with little television, and have never experienced the outside world.

The maids were in pursuit, as was the driver. This is the reality of life in Indonesia, that can be very foreign to a westerner. Anyone who earns a half decent living has a maid. Not just the rich. In this case, the house I was staying in had two full time maids, plus a full time driver.

Jakarta can be a hot, humid and stinky place at times. Today, it was hitting the trifecta.

Today, they were earning their keep as the maids followed the dogs on foot, and the driver roared off in pursuit, following the usual routes. This was not the first time they had escaped, after all. Usually, they would be rounded up and brought back within 10 minutes. Today was different.

A hot day in Jakarta

The normal 10 minutes passed, and the Mini Pom returned. To hear his side of the story, (going by his gasping and wheezing) the Malamute was enjoying freedom just a bit too much. The Pom’s poor little legs couldn’t keep up, and he had opted to trade his brief stint of freedom for a quick return and a bowl of cold water. Jakarta can be a hot, humid and stinky place at times. Today, it was hitting the trifecta.

Which made my next decision even harder. Donning my running shoes, I set off down the street, just as the maids returned empty handed. The driver and I were the last hope of finding the errant canine. Surely, he wouldn’t be too hard to track.

I was right. As I made my way out of our street and into the local Kampung, I was met with many wide eyes and looks of horror. I only speak a few words of Indonesian, but I didn’t need a translator to tell me what those looks meant. A wolf had passed by, and they had barely survived.

The other side of jakarta slums
The side of Jakarta we don’t want to see

The fact that I was a Bule, or foreigner, meant that the wolf was mine. No one else in this neighborhood would own one. In fact, just seeing a Bule in their Kampung was even rarer than seeing a wolf. It simply doesn’t happen. Bule are stories to many of the locals here. They see them on Netflix, or catch a glimpse of them when they pass in their large cars. IF the window is down, or the tinting isn’t too dark.

I remember a past visit to Jakarta, when I first came to this neighborhood. We were only here for a couple of days, before leaving on the long road trip back to Bali. Before we left, I stopped by in a local store to pick up a ball as a gift. Nothing special. Just a simple child’s ball that I had seen hanging by the door as I passed.

It was one of those places that you wouldn’t give a second glance. Small, dirty and untidy, crammed in between a local phone shop, and a place that sold instant coffee and dry biscuits. Outside was piled cases of water bottles. To one side was displayed cheap brooms and other cleaning equipment. From the roof hung school backpacks. One wall inside seemed lined with knock off shoes and plastic sandals.

The owner of the store looked at me like I had just alighted from my UFO which I had landed in the street outside his shop. The ball was cheap, and as I handed over the money, I suddenly understood how the Queen must feel when she is meeting people in those greeting lines at the Palace. Confused, I turned to my partner with raised eyebrow as we left.

She laughed. I was the very first Bule that the man had ever had in his store. It was something that he had never expected to experience in his lifetime, and he would be telling everyone about it for days and weeks to come.

I took stock of that. Such a simple thing, but something that most visitors to a place like Indonesia just would not think of. As I traveled around Indonesia after that day, I began to notice it happen time after time. In fact, I actually began to seek it out. My thinking was that if I could go into a small warung, or store, to get the exact same product I would normally go three doors down to the established chain store to get, then why not? Maybe, just maybe, I could make the difference in someone’s day.

It happens all the time

Another such occasion occurred more recently in Central Java, not too far from Yogyakarta. We were on a daytrip, seeking out a beautiful waterfall in the area. It had been a long ride, into the middle of nowhere, when we had decided to stop and find a fresh bottle of water and some shade.

There was a town coming up, but instead we stopped at a small warung beside the road. We sat on the plastic stools, drank water and downed a couple of chocolate bars as we rested. All the while, the young girl who ran the shop stared. Eventually, she gathered the courage to ask me for a photo. As it turned out, this was another occasion where I was the first Bule to patronize a shop.

She was so proud. Immediately her photo with me went viral amongst her group of friends, and instantly became her profile photo on Facebook.

These are the moments that you live for when traveling. They are very common in Indonesia, especially if you are aware, and keep your eyes open.

This was the case today. As I ran through the Kampung I could feel the eyes on me. Today, they had seen a wolf, and now a Bule! They would be talking about this for months.

The local Jakarta life
The local Jakarta life

As I ran, I called out one of the only words I knew.

“Anjing?” (dog) I would enquire as I ran toward an intersection. Two older men, squatting in a gutter replied with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, before pointing down an impossibly narrow Gang, or alleyway.

“Terima Kasih” I thanked them, as I wondered how I would fit down the Gang, let alone how a galloping Malamute had managed it.

The alley was narrow, very narrow. A small strip of water snaked its way down the middle. On one side was a cold concrete wall. The other was slum central. Somewhere up ahead I could see daylight, and as I ran I passed by entire families that were huddled together in small, damp alcoves that they called home. Every time I repeated my enquiry, I was met with the same response, as they simply pointed awkward fingers down the Gang.

The other side of Jakarta

This was the other side of Jakarta. This was NOT what I had been expecting to see and experience today, but in a way, I was glad that I was. It was hot, so very hot and humid. I was sweating through my new Quicksilver shirt, but I didn’t care. In a way, I felt embarrassed. Here I was dressed in clothes that cost more than this family of four spent on food in 6 months. I was chasing a dog that cost enough to buy them a new scooter.

This was a different world. The other side of Jakarta IS a different world. One that I had unwittingly stepped into without a second thought. In the back of my mind, I knew that maybe I should be worried. Maybe I should be a little more aware of the danger I might be in.

But these people were helpful. They were going about their lives, and looked more curious than anything else. To be honest, I think most of them were still stunned from seeing the wolf run past a few seconds earlier. Maybe that was making my own passage seem not quite so strange.

It was only after I had passed from the narrow confines of the Gang, back into daylight, that I began to see perspective. These people were probably just as curious about me, as I was about them. They may have been just as worried about why I was there, as I was about BEING there. After all, it was ME that was the trespasser in the story.

a lift home
We didn’t all get a lift home that day

Two blocks later I still had not caught up to the wolf. The streets had opened up now, and I found myself running in the sunshine, which is rare in Jakarta. The oppressive humidity of the enclosed gang had given way to the blazing hot sun beating down onto my bare head. Somewhere in the back of my mind I realized that I had left the house with no water, and no means of buying any. I had my phone. That was it.

It was then that it rang. The wolf had been located. As it turned out the driver had found him just around the corner from where I currently stood, talking on the phone in the middle of the street. The wolf had received an air conditioned ride home in a Mercedes. It was a different story for me.

I was lost on the other side of Jakarta.

Google maps helped me a little, but I had been there for only a day, and it was all guesswork. Did I want to back track down those narrow gangs again? Would the locals be as receptive to my intrusion the second time around?

I opted for safety, and took the long way home. In a way I felt ashamed, and was forced to analyze my decision. These people lived in squalor. They had no choice, and for them it was all they had. I could not even begin to imagine what that life was like.

Why then, was I so keen to avoid the other side of Jakarta? Was it embarrassment? Or was it simply a wise decision, entirely based on pure common sense?

This is why I travel

Either way, today I had seen and briefly experienced the other side of Jakarta. I had glimpsed a life that not many get to see, and even though I would not be in a hurry to return, I would never forget.

I passed by the two old men squatting in the gutter. They smiled as I passed. The Bule had not found his dog. I smiled back, and wondered how they would spend the rest of their day. Lives here were so different, and it is days like today that make me remember why I travel.

It’s not all about the selfies

It’s not about taking Instagram selfies. It’s not about checking in on Facebook so your friends back home are jealous. Travel is about appreciating who you are. It’s about learning, and seeing what happens in the rest of the world.

Each and every one of us was born and raised in a different corner of the planet from each other. We all have our stories. If you stay in one place, you will only hear a fraction of those stories, and the ones that you hear will be very similar to yours.

You have to travel to expand your mind. You will hear stories so different to your own that they seem like Fiction. Travel far enough, and you will discover other genres, written by Authors that you have never heard of.

It is when you find an entirely different bookstore, that you really begin to appreciate life. It is then that you realize what travel truly is about. It is then that you can begin to appreciate it to its fullest.

The other side of Jakarta came to me when I least expected it, and so too did the lessons that I learnt that day.

And it was all thanks to that bloody wolf.

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