Dave Gullett

a miscellanea

Life in Jakarta, pt. 2

Disclaimer: If you’re looking for a short, encouraging update that has consistent grammar and an uplifting point, you might want to skip this one. If you prefer honesty, keep reading. There is something inherently dignified about a violinist. Maybe it is their particular posture or facial expression. Maybe it is the craftsmanship of the violin itself. Or perhaps the dignity comes from the convergence of the artist and their instrument, the experience of the created creating together. Whatever the reason a violinist exudes dignity. One does not mock a violinist. Not if one has any since of beauty at all. One does not ignore a violinist. Even a novice demands attention from her audience. Rather the sometimes haunting strains that come from its strings, twining beauty and sadness and grace and sorrow into continuous melodies enrapt us, move our souls, even bringing tears to our eyes. Such raw emotion is brought forth not only by the master, highly practiced and perfected… But also by the beggar playing whatever he knows to earn change to feed himself as he serenades a cross town bus. The children who step on board singing folk songs or tapping rattles, you give them a few rupiah out of compassion or guilt. The teenage guitarists entertain with their renditions of Bob Dylan and John Denver; you give them change because the show was at least worth that. The ranting poets and storytellers might get change, if they don’t smell too bad, yell too loud or harass the other passengers. But for me all this was done with a bit of emotional detachment, a bit of reflex rather than response. Until that violinist broke my heart. I’m not sure why it took him to do it and I’m not sure how I got so calloused so quickly. It has only been two weeks since I started commuting from across town to the office here in Jakarta. It’s a time consuming trip to say the least. In order to be in by eight, I get up at four and hit the road by five or five-thirty at the latest. The first leg of the journey is made in an “ancot” Basically, its an old Toyota minivan of sorts with two sideways bench seats in the back. Fully loaded (and they rarely move when they are not) they seat at least 13, and sometimes more. There are thousands of ancots and they run routes in neighborhoods all around the city, each one color coded according to the beginning and ending of the route. In the morning ours is green and white. They belch diesel smoke and travel slowly through the early morning haze and congestion then speed recklessly when the traffic flows. On a good day the ancot gets us to the bus station in 45 minutes to an hour. Our alternating sprint and meander takes us through dusty city streets crowded with “becaks” (three wheeled bike taxis), “bajai” (three wheeled motorized taxis that look lie a cartoon golf cart), more “sepeda motor” than one could count (scooters and motorcycles), buses, trucks, and any other “mobile” you can probably imagine. Add to that countless pedestrians, many pushing or pulling carts, carrying loads or rolling “kaki lima” (roadside vending carts) all along roads hopelessly out of date and all too narrow. We pass shops and open markets, houses in varying states of disrepair and countless abandoned structures along the way. Things change, though, when we get to the bus station. The TransJakarta busway is the new ultra modern mass transit system being built to replace the old, decrepit “metro minis”. These are small diesel buses that seat about 20 and are not even regarded as safe by those who live here. They are neglected mechanically and are a haven for pickpockets and the like. In most areas of the city, though, there is no other way to get around that is affordable by most since it costs only 2000 rupiah (about 2 dollars). In contrast, the TransJakarta is new, modern, computerized and air conditioned. The buses are far nicer than those of most US cities. There are attendants (guards) on every bus and at most stations keeping order and ensuring safety. Its no coincidence that the TransJakarta line goes straight into the center of the government and financial district of Jakarta. As we ride on the scenery progressively becomes more and more modern and less and less decrepit. From the tiny shops and road side vendors we move on to shopping centers, supermarkets and malls. We pass several hotels, many banks and at least four Starbucks coffee shops as the bus rolls steadily on. When we reach downtown after about an hour we transfer to a second TransJakarta for the next leg of the trip. By now the sun is fully rises and throngs are making their way to their jobs. The bus is packed and often we end up standing most of the way. The route of the second bus takes us through the rest of the business district and into what I suppose would be called a depressed area of the city. Once the main area for shopping and trade, the Blok M area is still popular but is overshadowed by newer shopping areas around the city. It’s a good place for deals, though, as most vendors will bargain with you and since some sections while not quite black market, are certainly on the edge. The trip to blok M takes about 45 minutes, so generally we’re there by 7:30. Here the TrasnJakarta ends its route and we transfer to “taksi” to finish up the trip. Not all taksi are created equal and we stick with Blue Bird. They actually use the meter and are very reliable, and the drivers usually know where they are going. Other companies tend to be sketchy and unreliable. The taksi ride takes about 30 minutes and passes quickly. Usually the whole process takes 3 hours in the morning, and up to 4 hours in the evening to get back home. It’s been a long two weeks to say the least. And maybe the exhaustion is what made me calloused. Or maybe that between Indonesian lessons, commuting, eating and a little bit of sleep there just hasn’t been much time for reflection at all. So when the violinist woke me from my fitful nap on the way home Thursday night, I suppose I was ready to have my eyes reopened. To actually see what is around me again. And it’s about time too. Last night was our last night with our Indonesian hosts, and this morning was my last three hour commute through Jakarta. And thanks to that violinist I remembered to look at what matters most. Not the traffic, not the shops and buildings, not the statues and scenery, but instead I saw the people. People just like the violinist. People just trying to survive. People trying to find security and hope in a culture that offers little of either. Factory workers, security guards, bankers, bureaucrats, students, executives, salesmen, beggars and thieves all breathing but not all living. All hearing, but not all listening to the sounds.. All looking, but not all seeing what is around them. Closing their eyes, trying to sleep, trying to shut out the world for just a few minutes Just like I was. Until God used the violinist to wake me up. I think I gave him 750 rupiah for his trouble.