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.