We have moved into our new house recently. We were lucky to find a gated community with good security and quiet streets that we could afford, but as Bruno and I peeked over the concrete wall that surrounds our neighborhood, we saw the vast swampy slum that lies just outside. Sadly, we, like many expats living in Jakarta, have built a wall between ourselves and the rough, dirty Jakarta known to the most residents of this city.
The gap between Jakarta’s rich and its poor is so stark that most people must learn to ignore it. I recently visited a mall that is attached to one of the chic-est high-rise apartment complexes in the city. I did something very unconventional when I opted to walk to the mall along its access road and peer through the gaps in the concrete walls along the roadside. What I saw was a vast slum of shacks made from plywood and cardboard where clean water is hard to come by and sanitation barely exists. The very people who live in the shadows of the high-rise may well work in it every day, perhaps cleaning or cooking for wealthy residents. They go home to eat rice and the bananas that grow around their shacks. They share their living space and their scraps with chickens and ducks to have eggs to eat. But visitors cannot see the slum as they drive in; the view is carefully blocked by a high conrete wall toped with razor wire. Billboards of beautiful apartments and fancy clothing help distract potential shoppers.
To understand Jakarta, one must note that it is the second-most populous city in the world (when accounting for metropolitan areas). With more than 28 million residents, it has more people than the entire state of New York, and more people than Texas. Those residents include Indonesians from all of the thousands of the country’s islands, as well as expatriates from around the world. Sadly, the population is largely divided along economic lines.
The Indonesian government will tell you that around 13 percent of Indonesians are poor, living on less than US$1.10 a day. However, around 50 percent of Indonesians remain clustered along that line, earning no more than US$2.50 a day, according to the World Bank. (The international poverty line is actually set at US$2 a day, but Indonesia uses its own standard.) The statistic is slightly lower in Jakarta, but the cost of living in this city is relatively very high. Regardless of exact statistics, the point remains that millions of people live in pockets of Jakarta under extremely poor living conditions. There are more than 100 such pockets in the city, where slums lie hidden in the shadows of high-rises or gated communities.
The causes and effects of this poverty divide are so numerous that I will have to cover them in future posts. This gap is a feature that truly defines life in this city.