In 1997, Jakarta was in the throes of economic expansion. Our view from our apartment on the 16th floor of the Ascott presented a remarkable array of skyscrapers and shopping malls. The Japanese-funded malls were spectacular multi-level affairs, each of them rivaling Houston’s Galleria. The skyscrapers were modern and sleek. But, my young kids were fascinated by a contrasting view, of the open field directly below – a family living in a tin-roof shack right next to a fetid green canal. Living without electricity and water, our kids would watch them in the morning, as someone would walk out to an empty spot in the field with bucket in hand to take a sponge bath or relieve themselves. These folks, though, were at least surrounded by a lot of open air – just another block away was a squatter kampung, a crowded, tangled arrangement of shacks, handmade concrete-brick buildings, and dark alleyways.
Walking down Jalan Thamrin or visiting Blok M, local Indonesians hardly paid us any attention -they were middle-class Indonesians, office and service workers just like any other city. But, a mile off the beaten path, a visit to an open market or the nearby Textile Museum, suddenly were were noticed by everyone. Hellos (“halo” or “selamat”) and smiles greeted us – the more daring would want to touch our pale skin or take photos with our children. We often went out with our neighbor Alaude, a young red-hair Dutch woman, and she was even more exotic to the locals. Much to Connie’s chagrin, they assumed Alaude was my wife and Connie the nanny; they would stop us to get a picture together, or surreptitiously line up a photo of themselves with us in the background.
Most Indonesians worked 6 days a week, so Saturday night, the “long night”, was the time to party. Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, was also home to nightclubs and all-night raves. Energized by light shows, stage dancers, and EDM, Jakartans hit the dance floor in large numbers. Among the dancers, though, there would be a few young men huddled on the floor, rocking to their own beat – they were strung out on Ecstasy. Clearly enough disposable cash among the middle-class to waste their life away on drugs. Leaving the club, though, some granny would would call out to the passersby – “young girl, young girl, you want young girl?”, with their forlorn grandchild (?) standing nearby, head cast down.
The sky was never blue in Jakarta – leaded gas, two-stroke engines, and burning garbage took care of that. We almost forgot the sky until we took a trip to Yogyakarta to be greeted by bright blue skies and a real horizon of mountains and volcanoes. Yogyakarta’s architecture was low-slung, no skyscrapers, the streets wide, the pace of life slow.
Indonesia is mostly Muslim by religion, but in the small towns, villagers still enjoyed Wayang - traditional shadow puppet plays – drawn from Hindu sources. There’s a deep history to Java Island, with majestic Buddhist monuments and Hindu temples still preserved in the jungles.
We never saw a child cry in public in Indonesia – people were uniformly friendly, polite, and happy. But, just a few months later, riots rocked the Glodok area, Chinese businesses and people targeted for attack, rape, and murder. Fortunately, we were back in the U.S. by that time, scheduled for vacation before continuing on another Indonesian project. As we were both American and Chinese, likely we would have not been safe if we had stayed. Sadly, we never returned to Indonesia – with troubles continuing, we decided to take a project in Venezuela instead, and in fact all Lotus Consulting projects in Indonesia were ultimately canceled, never to be restarted.
We would go back to Indonesia in a heartbeat, though.