Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.
As I walked in the sticky heat from FX mall to the main atrium at the centre of Senayan Plaza, the sharpness of contrast between the lives out on the street and the aspiring lifestyles presented in the mall was startling. Passing the sweating vagrants and exhausted hawkers pitched up along the road desperately trying to earn a living whilst those who had broken through, those who had gained employment, those who had gained a uniform, those who were shielded from the unsightly poverty grazed in the shop windows inside, cut through to the poor inner city kid at my core. I just couldn’t help but feel socially disconnected from the air of superiority in the place.
Walking through Senayan Plaza felt like walking through a hologram; none of it felt real. Irrespective of the fact that it wasn’t very busy, it felt empty. Devoid of any soul. There was a very attractive, smartly-dressed Indonesian woman travelling up on an escalator. She carried an air of importance about her, but for no reason that I knew. I saw an Indonesian man in a sharp suit sat at his laptop in a stylish coffee shop. He looked focussed and aspirational. In fact, as I looked around, I noticed that everyone in there looked as if they were of a superior, aspiring class. Particularly the Indonesians. I imagined none of them had any reservations about turning their backs on the life of indigenous poverty outside. Their goal was being achieved, if it hadn’t been already. I wondered if they even cared about those left behind on the streets and those doing the shit jobs for shit money. They probably didn’t. Like many people who have escaped the poverty trap, they are likely to have been hardened by the idea of never returning to it. For those who were never there, there is seldom empathy for those who are. Despite being all too aware that this was simply the way of the world and I should accept it, my thoughts wound me up.
In 1965, Britain and the USA backed a violent coup in Indonesia to oust the then President, Sukarno, from power. Sukarno wanted to implement a socialist style of economic reform in Indonesia and redistribute the wealth of the country amongst its people. He had already rejected the edicts of the IMF and World Bank, infuriating the rich western nations who knew the huge financial potential of exploiting the economy of Indonesia and gaining control of its natural assets. They knew that if they could impose their version of western democracy and thrust a brutal Milton Freidmann style of capitalism onto this nation, it could be transformed into a rich cash cow for generations to come. So with the support of western commercial interests and information provided by the CIA, a military coup led by General Suharto took over the Indonesian government. This violent coup led to the imprisonment, torture and brutal murders of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians. In fact, it is believed that in a little over a month, Suharto’s brutal regime massacred around a million people. Witnesses at the time said that the small rivers and streams in Java ran red with blood and were clogged with bodies for weeks. And for what? so that one day someone could drive to a fancy mall in an air-conditioned luxury car, buy a Gucci handbag or a pair of Nikes and stop for a fucking Starbucks before going home!? It’s insane. Senayan Plaza was insane. The clinging humidity of the outside world glued me to those who were relegated to the streets and the commercial opulence of Senayan Plaza disgusted me.
I got a sense that Indonesia – Jakarta in particular – had been forcefully nudged toward a commercial culture in the mould of western society. South East Asian pegs being forced into western consumerist holes; holes that quickly become bottomless pits of emptiness that can only be filled by purchases of unnecessary shit. Pits filled with snakes that want you to spend all your money. Pits that lure you in with advertiser’s lies about improving your lives and seductive marketing promising you happiness if you spend. These pits have little room for ethics or culture unless they can be rebranded and used to sell more shit. These pits use spin to make you dizzy and forget who you are and where you were going. Like the proverbial crab in a barrel, once you’re in this pit you forget everything as you try to crawl to the top to get the latest, newest, most improved stuff to fill the hole in your life that those seductive corporate marketers have convinced you that you must have. Wants become needs and as you pursue those imaginary needs you no longer want to hear about what is beyond your aspirational consumerism because it gets in the way of the dizzying dream of the shopping pit and its promise of a better lifestyle. Fuck pollution and the environment, fuck culture and tradition, fuck your friends, neighbours and countrymen over if it makes you rich. Fuck an expat if he can help you be that badass bitch with the Gucci handbag and Manolo Blahniks. It’s a well-worn path in the industrialised west, but it doesn’t seem to fit here. No more than those naturally broad flat Indonesian feet fit into those narrow high-heeled shoes. Having taken a glimpse of the rural life on Java, Jakarta’s culture feels as ill-fitting and unsteady as the beautiful Indonesian girls painfully hobbling through the malls and nightclubs in six-inch heels and tight mini-skirts. It feels as odd as those young, aspiring go-getters in their shiny, pointy-toed shoes, tight pants and long-sleeved shirts sat at their laptops in 30° heat. It just feels wrong.
I was going to take a taxi back to Taman Anggrek because it was rush hour and the bus was likely to be packed, but I didn’t want to. It felt somehow hypocritical. As ridiculous as it sounds being British Expat with all the privilege that it affords, I just felt like I wanted to be with the regular people. I didn’t want to be in the air-conditioned bubble that many of the expats spend their lives in as they travel from office block to apartment block in taxis. I think I maybe just wanted to readjust my social compass and brush alongside reality for a while. Or perhaps I was just having another rush of extreme culture shock.