Upon arriving in Jakarta, all I could see was chaos. Hot, sticky, polluted air. Cars everywhere. No sidewalks. Just people along the sides of the road and cars parked right up against shop doors.
It turns out that past those crowded streets, peaceful oases are tucked down little alleyways and behind walls. I have begun hunting for a place to live, and thus exploring the nooks and crannies of Jakarta. I have now actually walked around in the city, which is not as difficult as it looks. And I have found lovely gardens and little peaceful retreats amid the burning garbage and car exhaust. I have also found that Indonesians themselves are incredibly nice and kind, whether you meet them amid turmoil, or in peace and quiet.
Jakarta’s chaotic appearance comes from, well, the lack of order or structure. Nobody has invested in any public goods, including urban planning. The only investments have been in shoddy highway overpasses, not sewer or water systems, nor trash pick-up or much else. So you can find a sort of tent city next to a glassy high-rise both directly on a highway.
This mishmash betrays the massive population and the severe inequality in here. Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous country. Java — the Island that Jakarta is on — beats out Japan’s Honshu as the world’s most populous island, though Java is much smaller. Across the country 32 million people live below the poverty line, on less than $22 a month.
Layered atop the economics is a hodgepodge of cultures. As the nation’s capital, Jakarta has drawn dwellers from many of its 17,000 islands (OK, only about 900 of the islands are inhabited), as well as from neighbors like China, Japan and Australia.
I have a feeling this complex country is about to provide many interesting stories for this blog. So welcome to Chapter 2: Indonesia.