If you have noticed the long lull between posts on this blog, you are simply watching what happens after about a year of living in a foreign country. What was once a surprising and obvious topic for a blog has become so expected and commonplace that sometimes I nearly forget it is worth writing about. The call of the mosques at 6 p.m.; a family of 6 packed onto a motorcycle; and co-workers eating rice with their fingers in the office lunchroom are all just everyday experiences. But as we have become more accustomed to the peculiarities of Jakarta life, we have also gotten a more in-depth view, and we hope that means we can share a deeper look at Indonesian culture from our perspective.
One of the features of Jakarta that most irked me when I arrived was the near non-existence of public spaces. What this means is that public life has to happen in some very awkward places. For example, if there is no sidewalk, waiting for the buss just happens on the road. If there are no parks, then meeting up after work just happens on the sidewalk, where there is one.
When I first arrived I found these gatherings rather irritating. I felt like there must have been a more appropriate place for them. After over a year, they have become one of my favorite elements of Indonesian culture.
Like many of Indonesia’s problems the lack of public space is the result of a history of dictatorship, where a very small few benefited most from the countries riches. In a deliberate bid to eliminate gathering spaces for public dissent, Suharto eliminated public spaces. This was doubly beneficial to the dictator and his cronies who profited from selling would-be public land to developers who built malls, hotels or office towers that could turn a profit. Construction in the city was allowed to proceed with little consideration for those who could not pay. For example, buildings all have drive-up entrances but lack a walkway to the entrance (as though only those who travel by car should bother arriving at all). In addition, sidewalks are few, and those that exist are either too narrow for the volume of foot traffic they receive or they are blocked by numerous obstacles, like poles, stairways, overpasses, or treacherous holes right into open sewers.
The lack of public space is a tragedy. For 99.9 percent of Indonesians who don’t have a car and can’t afford to meet friends to eat in a mall, the city is unaccommodating by design.
What is beautiful is that Indonesians don’t let this get in their way. They gather wherever they can. At the end of the work day, food carts take over the sidewalks; customers stand, or sit on plastic stools. One popular type of lunch-time food court simply takes over a full lane of a road for the legth of about a block. The nickname for such places – “amigos,” an abbreviation of agak mingir got sedikit – means “just next to the sewer a bit.” In the midst of the heat and the smog, the street, the sidewalk, or the roadside become the spaces of public life.
Here, in a city of more than 20 million people with little public space to speak of, you have to take what space you can get.