Saturday, May 31

A Month in Jakarta: The poverty

I think it is a failing of mine that I rarely create adequate expectations for whatever lies before me, much less make expectations in the first place. I just kind of make a decision and stumble into it with only the vaguest ideas of what lies ahead. On the one hand, this does tend to mitigate the inevitable let down when the experience fails to live up to the expectation. On the other, the experiences just wash over me, and I never drive for anything in particular, opting to just take suggestions and options as they arise.

In the case of Indonesia, I really only had one expectation. I would be working at an orphanage, serving there "the poorest of the poor" and "the marginalized of society." I was expecting something Dickensian, inadequate lighting, an irremovable dampness and an unusually drab assortment of grays everywhere. Rough types would probably prowl just outside the nine-foot stone walls topped with barbwire. For this middle-class kid attending a private university, it would be his first experience of poverty.

That expectation was wrong. Except for the barbed wire, but everyone uses it here. The orphanage is a decent place, lacking a number of Western conveniences but nothing intolerable and really quite nice. It is even in a decent part of town, and a private security force makes it feel safe enough that women freely walk alone at night.

Thus, the first exposure to poverty did not come until maybe a week after arrival, when I tagged along with a veteran member of the organization as she and one of the kids visited his parents. Turns out orphanage is a bit of a misnomer. Corruption at high levels has produced death certificates for parents in order that officials and criminals might benefit from otherwise well-meaning grants and charities.

It was strange. From this neighborhood where every third mailbox has the title 'Doctor' on it to what can rightly be called the slums, it was only a ten minute, fifteen at the most, walk. Literally, we crossed a road and went from two- and three-story opulence with small yards to cement brick, two room homes which were barely larger than my room at university. With a step we went from asphalt-paved roads to dirt tracks better suited for off-road biking enthusiasts than real transport. Occasionally there was a motorbike but the cars had disappeared along with any suggestion of a disposable income. And the place was filthy. Do not get me wrong, Jakarta in general is a filthy city, but the presence of a nearby dump and a slum population which undoubtedly routinely goes through it, do not help matters in the least.

I wrote earlier this was strange. That is not quite precise. The transition was incomprehensible. The only way to make it was to stop thinking, stop paying attention for a while and only consciously realize you were in the slums by the time the middle-class neighborhood was out of sight.

It took another five minutes of walking through it all to arrive at the kid's house, and this was no case of a prostitute with a heart of gold, of an ugly exterior hiding a beautiful inside. There was no such thing as glass windows. Protection from the elements came in the form of sheet plywood shutters and covered the square hole in the wall which offered the only light besides the door. The floor was a cold cement slab with a mere layer of floral print paper between it and myself. There was no furniture but for a single end table, and the only decorations were paper posters with religious imagery. If they had not been scavenged from the dump, they had almost certainly been on those walls for years, they were so tattered and faded.

It was mortifying, the visit that is. Soon after we arrived, the mother slipped out and came back minutes later with iced tea for us guests. It was my first iced drink since arriving in Jakarta. Not only did this family make less money all day than I did in a single hour of work back in the States but also that money supported five people while I provided only for myself and still received help from my family, and they gave me this gift. I sipped it and sat quietly for a half hour as they all spoke in Indonesian. When our time was up, I offered the greatest thanks I could. Twenty minutes later, we were back at the orphanage and had running water and air conditioning available once again.

So that is what poverty looks like. There is more to it than that: the hope for even a single, simple meal each day; the crime; the begging and indignity, but that is all I could understand by myself in my short time there.

I fear that fetishizing it after this briefest of encounters is all too possible. There is a lot to be disgusted with in American culture, and it is all too easy to see its antithesis in the slums. By Western standards, I saw the most severe material deprivation possible, but I saw easy smiles too. In the streets, they did not look bitterly at me so far as I could tell, and the family even gave me the gift of a cool drink for being nothing more than a guest. The people who lived there obviously did not have club memberships or wallets full of credit cards, and they seemed okay with that, still capable of generosity. Does that not sound idyllic? I was probably there for less than an hour. What do I know?

The founder of the charity I am with here arrived a few days ago, and tomorrow she wants to take us volunteers through through the slums. We will just have to see what happens then, what is revealed and understood.

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