July 14th and 15th, 2016; Jakarta
It is July in Indonesia—we were warned about the heat. It’s my job as a writer to describe things with as much attention to detail as possible; how things feel on the skin, taste on the tongue, sound in the ear. But I am at a loss to describe such heat. Oppressive is not quite word enough.
Jakarta proper has a population of over ten million, but the city flowing beyond swells that number to thirty. The city contains enough concrete and asphalt to support the numbers, but it also serves to intensify the sun’s determined work.
The heat in Jakarta is a living thing. Weighted by both humidity and pollution, the air stings our eyes and forms a sheen on our skin the instant we step outside our air conditioned guest house. But it is soon evident this is not sweat—that will most definitely come—but is instead the air attaching itself, the ethereal made heavy enough to reside there on the arms and neck and face. Mostly it steals your breath, is hard to exhale as though you are constantly trying to blow up a balloon, returning hot and heavy to burn your lungs on the inhale.
It doesn’t help that, near the canals, the smell of effluent assaults the nose, the detritus of this streaming humanity making its way into the rivers to spill into the ocean ports and drift into the world, or to stagnate exactly where it is.
You might think the air and water pollution a function of poverty, but that’s only partially the case. Indonesia is rich in oil reserves, coffee, tea, rubber, silver and the list goes on. It’s why first the Portuguese and then the Dutch colonized it over centuries, taking the resources first to line the pockets of merchants and governments, and then to rebuild after the war. The economy of post-colonial Indonesia has fared much better than most newly independent states.
But like all countries, Indonesia is as complicated as its history, everything about it incongruous. On one side of an oily canal are sky-scraping high rises and Gucci malls that sneer over the corrugated tin shacks and street vendors on the other where men and women hawk wares from stalls no bigger than the length of their bodies.
In the Kota Tua area of old Batavia we climb galam wood staircases, sit at gorgeous single- slab teak tables and gawk at multi-tiered chandeliers, remnants of colonial grandeur in the buildings and shops. But we also watch a man up to his waist in the sludge of a nearby canal haul himself atop a flotilla of whatever his grapple can bring aboard, the flotsam of plastic and discarded junk he will sell as recycling to make money to feed his children.
Not quite comprehending, I snap a picture before recognizing how rude that is. But he smiles and waves and carries on. And why would he care what I think? There is a living to be made; always a living. A momentary shame at my judgment of such entrepreneurial and hard work. And yet…. I can’t help remark about the waste of good ideas and infrastructure this whole abandoned and filthy canal system represents.
The Dutch colonial architecture is crumbling and old, much like memory of that period. Independence in 1950 rightfully created an “Indonesia for the Indonesians”, the motto of the Pemuda guerrilla fighters. And while a display of ancient penis-holders of the Papuans reflect a certain virile vision of a lost culture, the history of Dutch rule is pretty much erased in the museums that now grace the Kota, as if by the stroke of Sukarno’s pen, or by bloodshed, or both, 300 years of colonialism has nothing to do with the current history of this nation.
Maybe it doesn’t. Our guest house host, Jordi, tells me that the past is the past. “Tell your dad we are happy for our independence, but we hold no grudges.” Maybe it’s true. So much of their post-indpendence history has been marred by internal violence and blood-shed. Maybe it’s easier to lump it all together and put it in the past in order to move forward.
We walk through a bustling square, eat at a restaurant where we are served by a woman with the brightest of smiles and a lovely Javanese lilt in her voice, pass by flower and fish markets that exist alongside cell-phone and tech shops. Learn to breathe.
These are a people now in and of their own country and culture just as we are in and of Canada. They smile and are helpful and gracious to these middle-aged, blue- eyed Belanda melting into puddles on the pavement and asking after the whereabouts of the bus station. Of course they are. Why would I expect them to be otherwise?
The tiny hand of a child grasps and caresses mine, wondering at such white skin, such blue eyes. “Who are you?” the tiny hand asks. Surely you don’t mean to be here? This foreign thing. This colonial daughter. Surely you are lost.
Maybe I am.
I apologize for the delay in posting; after two and a half years of working to avoid it, covid has swept our home in the past two weeks. I alone remained standing:)