With my Indonesian trip coming to a close, I began to look towards my last stop – Jakarta. I really wasn’t sure what to make of this sprawling metropolis, but I had heard from multiple other travelers that it is best skipped. It was just too large; too polluted; too crowded. One big concrete jungle really with little to no redeemable qualities for your average visitor.
Still, I had a few days there before my flight departed. There just had to be some kind of hidden Jakarta that would scratch my wander-itch… right?
Considered one of the fastest expanding economies in the world, with a rapidly growing population of well over 10 million people, Jakarta just doesn’t stop. With an influx of new global business and luxury housing complexes, the country has fully embraced both its status as a true global city, along with a more westernized consumerist culture. As part of this, shopping malls seem to be a HUGE deal here. Expect to find at least one of these multi-leveled complexes in each neighborhood, where you can do everything from catch a movie, pick-up your groceries, or even go for a spin around an indoor ice skating ring.
With so much visible opulence, I was shocked to learn that over half of Jakarta is living below the poverty line (i.e. under $138 USD per month). Many live in small impoverished encampments, known as kampungs, which are interspersed throughout various parts of the city. However, because the government views these communities as illegal squatters, the larger kampungs are forced behind the scenes, often completely hidden from view.
The more I read about this, the more interested I became. Searching for more information, I eventually came across Yayasan Interkultur, one of the city’s more prominent NGOs set-up by arts and culture volunteers. Their focus for these hidden Jakarta communities are around Emergency (providing health supplies and support, especially towards mothers with infants), Education (building schools and providing supplies), and Empowerment (basic entrepreneurship skills). They also offer guided walk-arounds of some of these kampungs for a small donation fee.
So, a bit unsure of what exactly I’d experience, I sent over an email and signed up for one of my free days.
When the day finally arrived, I flagged down a taxi and took the long, congested drive up to Northern Jakarta. I soon met Parlin, a former Indonesian actor and one of Yayasan Interkultur’s primary volunteers. Traffic had delayed my arrival, so introductions were kept all too brief before getting started.
Our first stop was a busy street in Northern Jakarta, directly under a train overpass.
Parlin explained that trains pass overhead about every 10-15 minutes, day and night. As if on cue, a large commuter came roaring across, no more than 20 feet over our heads. The sound was absolutely deafening.
I sat there for a second, wondering why I had potentially damaged my eardrums. Eventually Parlin pointed to what seemed like a large dark hole in the wall that was just barely big enough to fit a full sized adult.
“300 people live in here.”
As we ducked inside, I quickly realized that this hole was actually a long dark narrow alleyway with doorways leading to makeshift homes on either side. Loosely wired light bulbs had been strung up to provide the only source of light.
Eventually we stopped at a small home so that Parlin could check in with one of the families and ensure that the provided food and supplies were being properly distributed amongst the community here.
After they had finished, I asked the mother if I could take a look at her home. To my surprise, she flashed me a big smile and, without hesitation, welcomed me in.
“Her family of five people all live in this single room and she runs a restaurant in the back,” Parlin informed me as I slowly took in the entire scene.
Not knowing quite what to say or how to react, I thanked the woman for allowing me this glimpse into her home and we continued on our way.
Reaching the end of the alleyway, we soon found ourselves back outdoors on a riverside path. As my eyes slowly adjusted to the bright light, I soon noticed that the river was heavily polluted with everything from trash, to human waste, to rotting animals. We were back under that railway overpass and, as luck would have it, just in time for next train to rumble through.
Completely unfazed by this, the people in the area once again smiled as soon as they saw us and gave a large warm welcome.
Exiting back onto the crowded street, we hopped into a nearby empty rickshaw and began to weave our way through honking cars, wayward pedestrians, and the occasional feral animal.
Parlin reiterated that each of these communities were seen as illegal and that it was a question of when, not if, the government would relocate everyone.
I prodded for a bit more information about this.
“Everyone is temporarily moved into government housing for a period of time while the illegal settlements are demolished.”
What happens after that period of time is up and they have to move out?
“Some are able to save enough to get a loan and find low-income housing. Others, many others, are not so lucky and end up back in a kampung. For them it’s a cycle.”
After careening through narrow streets, our rickshaw pulled up along another alleyway. This one was much wider than the previous hole in the wall, though filled with significantly more clutter.
As we continued further, local children clearly familiar with Parlin would see us and happily begin to follow behind. Each would look up at me with a large smile and say the exact same string of questions.
“Hello Mister! What is your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“How old are you?”
Parlin chuckled and turned to me.
“We have been teaching them a little english.”
Our ever growing group eventually reached the end of the long alley, which opened up to a large body of water. A cluster of splintering wooden boats were haphazardly docked, and it’s now apparent that the kampung ahead has been built completely over water.
Moving over the creaky floorboards, we eventually arrive at one of the many small shacks, which Parlin ducks his head into. After a quick minute, he emerges and ushers me in, where I’m introduced to a middle aged woman who lives in what can best be described as a wooden room.
Just as everyone else I’ve encountered thus far, she’s extremely warm and has a smile that never faded. With the help of Parlin, I learn that she’s been living here for over 20 years and that this single room has been home for 3 generations (herself, her 2 children who live elsewhere in this same kampung, and now her granddaughter).
Her smile then became wider as she pointed to a wide heavily airbrushed picture of a girl in her early 20’s on the wall behind her. She began speaking to Parlin, who once again helped to translate.
“She says that you are very handsome and that her daughter would like you. That is a picture of her up there. If you give her your email address, she will pass it along.”
It was quite an offer, but not really my style. I thanked her and explained that I’d be leaving soon anyway, so it would never work out. Undeterred, she instead scribbled down her daughter’s email on a scrap of paper and handed it to me as we walked out the door.
We now moved back towards the makeshift dock, where Parlin quickly chatted with one of the nearby locals and then hopped in the nearest boat. As if the Pied Piper of hidden Jakarta, the line of children still trailing behind us hopped right in, with me squeezing into the last available space.
We were soon puttering along a wide murky canal, with an a seemingly endless line of docked ships to our right. Brand new luxury condos were under construction overhead – an ever present sight throughout all of Jakarta.
“This is the old harbor, where all of the fishing used to happen.”
Old harbor? Fishing used to happen?
“No more fish here. There is too much pollution. The water is too toxic.”
Just as Parlin said this, a large booming splash went off over my right shoulder, followed by the sound of giddy laughter. I turned around to see a group of boys taking turns jumping off the side of one of the larger ships. One of the workers quickly stuck his head out a window and began shouting down at the group, who all just continued to laugh as they swam away.
Coming to the end of the old harbor, Parlin once again flagged down public transportation for both us and our entourage. Instead of a motorized vehicle though, we ended up riding through the streets on three-wheeled becaks.
We arrived at our third and final destination – a sturdy concrete bridge along yet another crowded intersection. As we began down one of the embankments, Parlin explained that this small kampung had recently been raided by the police. Rather than be placed in temporary government housing, the individuals were thrown in jail, only to be released a short time later. Because they had nowhere else to go, everyone returned to their original encampment.
Even after being down here for only a short period of time, you could see the tension behind everyone’s eyes as they shifted back and forth to examine me. Nobody was interested in answering any questions and they certainly didn’t care for pictures being taken. They just really wanted to be left alone. Totally fair, so we quickly departed.
It was beginning to get late and was about time that we headed back to the initial meet-up spot. Before I left though, Parlin made it clear that the children would want to say goodbye. Who am I to argue?
We made our way back to the overwater kampung, where many of the children who had been following us around for much of the day were gathered with Ronny, the founder of Yayasan Interkultur.
“Hello Mister! We have a song for you!”
Led by Ronny, the group of children then began to slowly work their way through Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, followed by plenty of applause and laughter. I said my goodbyes to each and every one and then thanked both Parlin and Ronny for sharing their work.
Before I left though, there was one more surprise waiting for me. In preparation for my departure, they had already arranged a bike taxi and urged me to hop on.
As we peddled back, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that laughter and warmth were the two most consistent emotions in each of the kampungs we visited. Just about all conversations I either had or observed involved lots of smiles, laughter, and just a general welcoming spirt. Not something I would have expected given how tough the living conditions are.
This was even more the case for just about all of the children I ran into, many of which greeted me with an ear to ear grin and plenty of giggles.
Despite the fact that they all lived in absolute poverty, these were some of the happiest children I’ve ever seen. I still struggle with how to emotionally react to this stark contrast, but it was heartening that all these kids could still just enjoy being… well, kids.