Complexity and contradiction: uncovering the “real” Jakarta

By Kate Taggart Indonesia’s relationship with Australia can be described as tumultuous at best, with past allegations of spying against the Australian government, embassy bombings, terrorist attacks, the “turning back the boats” saga and sadly, the recent execution of two Australians on death row. But beyond the headlines and the beaches and bars of Bali, what do most Australians really know about our neighbour, its people and their culture?

I must admit, that prior to taking my first trip to Jakarta last year, I like many others, knew very little. These are my personal reflections on what is, undeniably, a complex country. In 2014 I spent a week in the heart of Indonesia, on the island of Java, which was aptly described in my Lonely Planet Guide as the most “culturally compelling island in Indonesia”. My business trip took me to Jakarta, the country’s bustling capital and coincided with not one, but two, mid-week public holidays – one honouring Jesus Christ, the other honouring the Prophet Muhammad – incidentally, at a time when the country’s Minister for Religious Affairs was under considerable pressure to resign amid public allegations of corruption. These were just some of the interesting contrasts that I encountered during my short stay. Knowing very little about the city of Jakarta, other than the safety and security risks for Western travellers (which my father reminded me of repeatedly prior to my departure), I booked myself on a day tour of the city on one of the public holidays. Trip Advisor recommended a small, privately run tour group that promised to provide travellers with an authentic insight into the history, culture, religion and people of the “real” Jakarta. IMG_0680

A city of paradoxes and extremes

Having spent the first 4 days of my trip travelling to and from meetings in the highly congested traffic, my initial impression of Jakarta was that it was a city of paradoxes and extremes. Towering skyscrapers and luxurious shopping malls, such as Kota Kasablanca, are scattered throughout the megacity, stocked with high-end, designer brands – Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton – you name it, they’ve got it. Armed guards, bag checks and metal detectors are just a normal part of daily life for the Indonesian adolescents who congregate at these malls en masse, dressed in the latest designer threads. But as I made my way through the busy streets, I couldn’t help but notice the piles of rubbish, the polluted waterways and numerous shanty villages that sat juxtaposed alongside these pristine megamalls. The seas of lean-tos and makeshift huts constructed out of blue tarpoleons and rusted old tin seemed so completely at odds with the opulence and fine dining that I had witnessed just metres away. What I didn’t realise then was that  my tour would take me right into the heart of these villages the very next day. DSC03070


I met my tour group early in the morning, oddly enough, at the entrance to yet another of Jakarta’s luxury malls. There were five of us in the tour group: a middle-aged American couple, a Polish girl, an attractive Danish guy and me, and we were accompanied by three local guides. We started our day with a tour of the more traditional tourist attractions starting with the national monument and the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in South East Asia, followed by a visit to Old Batavia. The historic buildings of the old city were dilapidated and largely left in ruins, however the old square was filled with thriving, colourful, pop-up market stalls. Jakarta is by no means a tourist hot-spot for Westerners and we were instantly mobbed in the square by Indonesian school children asking to take photos and videos with us on their smart phones, and eager to practice their English with the “bulai” (Indonesian for white person). We were happy to oblige of course. Following lunch in a small café, I took a cosy tuk-tuk ride with handsome Mr Denmark to the first of the three villages that we would visit that afternoon. Now when I say villages, what I mean is shanty towns. The Americans on our tour group likened them to the favelas of Brazil, but in their words, the conditions were far worse. What I saw over the next 5 hours is something that will stay with me forever. It was confronting, to say the least. DSC03157 Most of the villages we visited were constructed alongside the train tracks where busy freight trains passed through frequently at high speed – in some cases no more than a metre away from the dwellings. My motherly instincts really went into overdrive as I watched small children, no more than 4 or 5 years of age, kicking a soccer ball beside the tracks, pausing briefly whenever a train sped by. Our guides informed us that it was not unheard of for children to get hit by passing trains. DSC03076 In one village we spoke to a mother who was nursing a small boy on her hip. I estimated, based on the size of my then 3 year old, that he was about 18 months of age. He was thin for his age and had what looked like eczema in patches all over his body. His eyes were sunken and an unmistakeable shade of yellow. His mother told us (through the help of our guide who very capably translated from Bahasa to English) that her son had been in and out of hospital for the past few months due to various health complications associated with malnutrition. I asked the young mother how old her son was and she told me that he was 3 years of age. The same age as my daughter. He was less than half her size and it was unclear to me whether he could even walk or talk. By this point I was struggling to fight back tears from the wave of complete and utter helplessness that had flooded over me. By the end of the day the mood of our group was incredibly sombre. I left the tour feeling physically and emotionally drained with an indescribable mix of emotions. I had gone on the tour hoping to find out more about Jakarta and its people, but walked away with far more questions than answers.


The term “slum tourism” is one that has been thrown around in the media. Tours, such as the one I went on, at times attract criticism for being exploitative and intrusive. Our guides openly acknowledged this criticism. The government had reportedly made numerous attempts in the past to shutdown these village tours due to claims that they treat villagers like zoo animals. Whilst there are many possible explanations as to why a government might not want people to see the underbelly of their capital, there are also some very real moral and ethical questions that arise about the nature of such tours. I will openly admit that I left the tour feeling a little dirty about the experience. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally – it was an uneasy mix of guilt, helplessness and compassion. Like the city itself, my mind was full of contradicting thoughts and feelings.


Had I unintentionally indulged in the ultimate and most vile form of voyeurism? Was it selfish to intrude on other peoples’ lives purely for the sake of a satisfying a curiosity to see how the “other half” lived? Conversely, was that not the essence of travel – to seek the truth behind the flashy, touristy façade and try to understand the people by being immersed in their culture? DSC03162 My honest impression from that that day was that the people in these villages seemed genuinely happy to have us as their guests for the afternoon and that was the way we were treated. In all three of the villages we visited, people dragged out stools from their huts and asked us to sit down with them for a conversation.Our guides later explained to us that it was a sign of status in their culture to have a bulai (white person) as a friend because it was a widely held belief that all bulai were rich and beautiful, and this would be something they would be able to tell their friends about. Our guides were respectful and clearly had strong connections with the villages and the people who inhabited them. Their passion and willingness to try to make a difference was undeniable. To that end, our guides repeatedly assured us throughout the tour that proceeds were donated back to the people and used to support education and other assistance programs (such as rubbish removal). But at what cost to the people themselves? I wondered then, as I do now, how the villagers really felt when the tourists and cameras had gone for the day. How did they feel about having strangers peering into their homes (as there were often no doors), their lives and looking upon them with pity? Do tours such as this serve a genuine humanitarian purpose or are they nothing more than an opportunity for relatively privileged, middle-classed bulai to feel smug about what they’re going home to? Were the assurances we received about charitable donations to the community genuine? Or were they merely intended to appease our middle-classed guilt? These are just some of the questions that have plagued me since that day and for which I still don’t have any clear answers.


What struck me most about that day was that not once did anyone ask for anything more than a photo or a handshake. The hospitality and generosity of the communities in these villages and their willingness to offer complete strangers a chair to sit on, some shade and a warm smile, is something that I will never forget.

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