Tuesday, July 8

A Month in Jakarta: The development

Early on I thought a blog post which imagined what Jakarta would look like as a fully developed First World nation might be worthwhile. But there is a problem with that. It assumes Indonesia is not already developed. Granted, once outside of Jakarta and Bali (an opportunity I never really took advantage of), one might discover more animals pressed into transportation roles and find Internet access a mite rarer, but that does not preclude the existence of neighborhoods which the cosmopolitan would be completely comfortable in within Jakarta. Internet caf├ęs and the like do not look like some shiny refugee from the future but blend easily into their neighborhoods. Even the slums are dotted by TV antennas, at times resembling a porcupine with how thickly they cover the buildings. While basic services like sanitation and public transportation have a ways to come yet, the basic trappings of a material, Western life are all there. Digital cable is a long way off, but we certainly are not talking about grass huts with dirt floors and wood fires for heat.

While I became most clearly aware of this in my final week in Jakarta, another discovery ran parallel. By and large, these places were not for the Indonesians. They were not developed and implemented by the locals but dropped in wholesale by their Western owners. The clientele and staff at the Starbucks we visited was entirely of a northern Asian persuasion, and the menu was listed in all its faux-Italian English glamour. Besides the fact the prices were typically around 30 (and that is after the last three zeroes were dropped because, even with the dollar's recent economic troubles, it still trades for a little less than 1000 rupiah), there was little to distinguish it from a Starbucks anywhere in the United States.

Consider this second case. During the last week, I also visited Sarinah, the purported oldest mall in Jakarta. Even before entering, the sense of displacement was already severe. Jakarta's Hard Rock Cafe was in the same complex, and customers of a nearby French restaurant with a French name used the same parking lot. Coming in only heightened it. Yes, we were there for souvenirs and completely bypassed the Muslim fashion and bookstore floors, but the absence of any feeling of being in Indonesia was unsettling. Everything was English. The coffee listed its qualities as "rich and earthy," the clerks did not even try to speak Indonesian to me (understandable as I am so white), and the cash register read "Thank you" when the last of my postcards were slipped into their bag. In the statue section, they gave up entirely on any pretense of being an Indonesian place. Statues of a white golfer immediately post-stroke sat alongside laughing Buddhas which looked suspiciously similar to those I had seen in San Francisco years earlier. At least Indonesians worked in Sarihna, and some conceivably shopped there.

Maybe ethnic Indonesians are not Starbucks' core market because they prefer their own coffee, its Javan and Sumatran varieties so highly regarded by the rest of the world, Starbucks included. Probably native Jakartans have little interest in buying shirts and postcards with "Bali" on them, especially in their home city. Still, it is more than a little unnerving to find such unabashedly non-Indonesian environments in the capital city. Of course it is possible to find the same sort of thing in the United States. Ethnic restaurants try their hardest to recreate the feeling of being in another place, and America is home to Chinatown and Little Havanna. What I found in Jakarta felt different, though. Not introduced by immigrants trying to maintain their heritage, these came in packages from global corporations.

I make no predictions of an imminent, multi-national homogenity where we all eat at McDonald's and wear United Colors of Benetton and shop at Wal-Mart. It was no problem to avoid Starbucks and Sarihna, my late discovery of them convincing evidence. I came to Jakarta expecting something completely different. Far and away, I did, but this feeling of placelessness, even in a city so unlike those I have known, does depress me some.

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