The Surreal World of Jakarta Malls: A Photo Essay

Jakarta malls are strange places. They’re islands of air conditioning in a town of near-slums. They’re the only thing to do if you have any money in this deeply unequal town. They have laughing Santas and Starbucks and skin whitening cream. I find them deeply disturbing.

24 Starbucks

At Christmas, all the malls had decorations in them. It was a big thing. Little Muslim children lined up to sit on Santa’s lap. Whenever I asked, people shrugged and told me that Christmas wasn’t really about religion in Jakarta.

Jakarta Santa

On Friday nights, the malls are packed. The fashionable kids, speaking a mixture of English and Indonesian, flood the white marble floors. The malls have very loud music, and sometimes DJs.

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A Two Block Walk on New Year’s Eve in Jakarta

I saw the blue sky today for the first time in weeks, though the smog is even thicker than usual this afternoon. There’s something tense on the street, something more than the usual noise. I can feel it instantly when I step out of the restaurant air conditioning.

Indonesia’s first democratically elected president died last night. It’s been a turbulent decade.

The air smells like exhaust, food, people, and kerosene from cooking stoves. Bright orange three-wheeled bajaj taxis are lined up on the street, many more than usual. The sidewalk vendors are thick today, everywhere selling cheap cardboard horns. Their nasal wail pierces the traffic every minute or so. Some people are dressed up and obviously on their way out, though it’s early yet. The street is bustling. I walk as best I can down the sidewalk which is crowded by vendors and food stalls and motorbikes taking shortcuts.

It’s 30 degrees and oppressively humid. It’s always 30 degrees and humid.

Nobody stops at the crosswalk so as usual I have to time my crossing to miss the turning motorbikes. The trick is not to stop. Try to dodge them and they’ll hit you as they aim for where you wouldn’t have been. The haggard prostitute on opposite side gives me a little nod. At night she sometimes grabs me as I walk past. I pass her and make my way through a series of street restaurants built out of carts and plastic tables and awnings over the sidewalk, then turn.

The little alley twists through the innards of a huge block, and it quieter here. It’s lined with small houses, and open sewers a meter deep. On bigger streets the sewer trenches are covered with slabs of concrete, but not here. It smells bad. Children play. A fruit vendor prepares his cart for the evening, arranging bags of cut mangoes around blocks of ice. This is a pretty nice neighborhood, actually. The houses are concrete and right in the center of town. A man casually throws a piece of litter into an empty lot filled with garbage. Skinny cats wander.

I step out of the alley into Jalan Jaksa, the restless and slightly scummy packbacker district. The blowdart seller is talking to two pale young Europeans. He’s been working the street for 28 years. The old drunk guy is sitting on his usual corner in his usual clothes, nodding off. The local fixer nods at me, smiles his best, and thankfully doesn’t ask me again if I want a massage. It doesn’t smell as much here. A man sorts through a pile of trash on the street. From a story in the newspaper, I know that scavenged bottle caps go for about 50 cents per kilo, when sorted. I’m paying $25 US dollars a night for a clean room with air conditioning. A poor expat, a rich Indonesian.

And out of the chaos comes the evening call to prayer, the muezzin’s clear voice ringing out from the little neighborhood mosque. In the fading light it seems a moment of peace.

A motorbike with no muffler shatters it. Traffic resumes. I walk through several more food stalls, including my favorite juice place. In the evenings after work I like to order a fresh starfruit juice.

There’s going to be a big party tonight. Hundreds of thousands of people. It used to be at the center of town around the huge phallic monument but the police have moved it this year, saying that the revelers always trash the place. You can feel the surge of millions toward the center, you can already hear the odd firecracker popping out the last few hours of the decade. There’s nothing to do but make noise in this noisy city, to press ever closer together and celebrate.

Night begins to fall, fast.

A thirty-something woman in a very short skirt saunters down the sidewalk with nonchalant confidence.

I’m almost at the door of my hotel, where I will shower and change.

The proprietor of the coffee stall across the street sits at his one table reading a newspaper, waiting.

The city draws a breath–

Thinking Globally, and a bit on Air Conditioners

Yes it’s just fashion advice, but that sort of makes it worse. I’m saddened to see such not-thinking-globally by snappy dressers. From an online (and therefore worldwide-readable) article claiming to be about  how to select a men’s suit:

The mid-weights are best overall, especially with the usual “air-conditioned-car-ride-into-the-air-conditioned-office” venture that most people have in summer.

The Bangladeshi businessman wears a suit but does not have air-con anywhere. The middle-class Indian cannot afford the gas to have it in his car. The Chinese businessman will certainly be using air conditioning if he can in the next few years, and you wonder why climate change needs to be addressed quickly.

Also on the subject of air-conditioners and development, Lee Kwan-Yew, the infamous former near-dictator of Singapore, once named air-conditioning as the most important invention of the millennium:

The humble air-conditioner has changed the lives of people in the tropical regions. Before air-con, mental concentration and with it the quality of work deteriorated as the day got hotter and more humid. … Historically, advanced civilizations have flourished in the cooler climates.

This choice snippet from the fascinating book, “Singapore the Air-Conditioned Nation: essays on the politics of comfort and control, 1990-2000“.

Where is Istanbul?

After a week in Istanbul it all seemed terribly glamorous, a city of marble palaces and cosmopolitan streets. But I’d read that 400,000 people arrived every year, hoping for work or a better life.  There was a ten-million person slum somewhere nearby, but where? In a city that had to be mostly struggling migrants, the poor were completely invisible.

My guidebook mentioned the strife of an immigrant sprawl, but only in a sidebar, never really saying where these people actually lived. Googling “Istanbul slums” gave almost nothing substantial, at least in English. Millions of people simply don’t exist in the infosphere of a Western tourist. Eventually I began to find references to the Gaziosmanpaşa district northwest of the center, with a population of a million or so. With a reported population increase of 79% in the decade 1990-2000, this is an immigrant city risen whole from the fields: migrants from all over the country and sometimes further, speaking Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, and Arabic, refugees from rural poverty and violence and the war in neighboring Iraq. Gaziosmanpaşa was on my maps, but just barely, a name on the corner of the page.

“Why do you want to go there?” asked my English teacher acquaintance. She was pretty and professional, clearly as much on the fast track as she could get. “There’s nothing there!” she said. Nonetheless she directed me to a tram line; I took it to the end, a stop named Mescid-i-Selam, approximately 20km from the city center (map).


(click for larger)

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What Internet Censorship Looks Like, Part 2

The Turkish Government censors internet access from within the country, as I discovered yesterday when attempting to access YouTube from the Turkish town of Selçuk, as this screenshot shows (click to enlarge):


The English text on this page reads: “Access to this web site is banned by ‘TELEKOMÜNİKASYON İLETİŞİM BAŞKANLIĞI’ according to the order of: Ankara 1. Sulh Ceza Mahkemesi, 05.05.2008 of 2008/402″

Just to complete the irony, I was looking for a video of the Oscar Grant shooting when I first discovered this “blocked site” page.

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Afghanistan is a Complex Place

Afghan local points something out to Western soldiers

(photo from Ghosts of Alexander)

Actually, all places are complex. It’s hard to understand what this means if you’ve only spent time in your own culture, especially if it’s a reasonbly functional first-world democracy. The developing world in particular can be phenomally fluid and mystifying, and one of the feelings I associate most intensely with travel there is the sense that not all is as it seems, that I can’t quite grasp the true motivations and power relations of the people around me. In my more paranoic moments I even suspect that my interactions are, to some extent, stage-managed by the locals so as to give me a particular impression.

If a recent article by a sociologist studying Afghanistan is any indication, I was right about all of this: the local socio-political scene is very complex, and it is deliberately hidden from “outsiders” of various types. The implications are dire for any sort of foreigner who wants to try to come in and “help.”

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How the Internet Can Fail

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

FCC Chairman Newton Minow gave this speech in 1961, decrying the state of the medium that many had hoped would bring new light to humanity. What is to say that the Internet will not sink into the same mediocrity?

There are differences, of course. The internet is (currently) very much an active, two-way medium; the internet is (currently) a very democratic place, where anyone can espouse their worldview to the whole world for only the effort of typing. And the internet is (currently) far too large and diverse to be effectively controlled by any particular corporate or goverment interest.

But I have a morbid interest in dystopia; and already I see signs that not everyone realizes what freedoms we could lose. Like bad science fiction, here are a few scenarios where the internet fails to live up to its almost obscene promise, where it becomes just another “vast wasteland.”

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World Toilet Day

One of my friends has helpfully pointed out that today is World Toilet Day. According to the World Toilet Organization, fully 40% of the world’s people do not have access to proper sanitation facilities.

World Toilet Day \'08

We do deserve better; I for one don’t particularly enjoy squatting in the bushes. The World Toilet Organization agrees, and sponsors World Toilet Summits and World Toilet Expos, “wherein all toilet and sanitation organizations can learn from one another and leverage on media and global support that in turn can influence governments to promote sound sanitation and public health policies.” They also started the first World Toilet College, providing training in toilet design, maintenance, school sanitation, disaster sanitation, and implementation of sustainable sanitation systems.

Okay, you can snicker now. I know I am.

This would be even funnier if it wasn’t actually serious — human waste is a major disease carrier if not handled correctly, and an awful lot of people are still just pooping on the ground or in the river. But let’s not dwell on negatives; in the carefree spirit of World Toilet Day, I thought I’d briefly discuss, and show some pictures, of the types of toilets I’ve encountered in various parts of the world. Travel yields many surprises, and, astonishingly, there were places where I had to learn to wipe my ass all over again. (“Don’t you know how to use the three seashells?” indeed.)

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A Dozen Things You Notice About The Developing World

It’s very hard to understand the world in the abstract, without walking its cracked pavement or trying to have a conversation with someone impossibly different from you. Wikipedia defines a “developing country” as a nation “that has not reached Western-style standards of democratic government, free market economy, industrialization, social programs, and human rights guarantees for their citizens.” But this glossy language never prepared me for the things I saw almost immediately that first time I landed somewhere poor. This list is a primer for those who have not yet had the mind-blowing experience of stepping outside the castle walls.

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We Are Not All One

At first I didn’t think much about other people.

I was doing very well for myself. It was not until my early twenties that I really failed at something I wanted. I had no friends who weren’t much like myself — white, well educated, happy childhoods, culturally Western.

A woman named Crazy Kim disabused me. She runs a bar in the seaside town of Nha Trang, but that’s now. One night she told me about her student days in communist Vietnam, the way she used to get out of mine clearing duties by pretending to be sick. On the day before she was to graduate, she set out to sea in a small wooden boat. She was lucky; she got picked up by a passing freighter bound for Holland. Twenty years later, she had to apply for a Vietnamese passport to return home, so thoroughly had her birth country forgotten her. Now she uses the revenue from the bar to fight pedophile tourists who come for the young girls.

She was the first person I’d ever met with real problems — not problems like getting a job or wishing someone would call you back, but problems like surviving on a boat at sea and starting a new life in a new country. She’d overcome all of this, and talked about it like it was normal. It was normal to her, the only life she’d ever known, and after all that she’d decided that what she really wanted to do with her days was help other people out. I felt like she was living more life than me. My heart went out to her. After a few more shots, my heart went out to everyone in her little bar, tourists, locals, all of them. I leaned into my neighbor and told him that I loved everyone I’d ever met.

The epiphany outlasted the hangover. Why shouldn’t everyone in the world be happy? Why shouldn’t I extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone I meet? Hell, we all want the same things, right? I began to see that peaceful people before me had scratched “LOVE” into wooden surfaces everywhere. The guest-house guest-books were filled with “all we have in this world is each other” and “live life today!” and “We are One!”

It’s the basic realization of compassion.

What astounds me is that I’ve heard it over and over again from people of all cultures. A stoic Ethiopian on a bus told me about his principle that all humanity is united. A passionate journalist from Dakar has expounded to me that we cannot afford to see ourselves as different. Over tea on the streets of St. Louis, a young mullah explained to me patiently that all are equal in the eyes of Allah. And of course I’ve been on the other stool so many times now, with a drunken Thai or Nigerian or Russian all but drooling on me in their eagerness to explain that they’ve realized something amazing: we are all merely human!

And you can look into their eyes, the eyes the person across the table from you, across that gulf of experience and education and culture and attitude that you just can’t bridge, and you know you’re supposed to feel a deep human connection somehow.

Then the bastard shatters it by asking you for money to beat his wife. Or something.

Because I don’t really know what to say to that Lebanese guy who talks about his African servants as “idiots.” I was astounded at how often the Hong Kong Chinese wouldn’t take my order if I couldn’t speak Cantonese, and more than one Moroccan man once told me to “go back to your hell!” For every beautiful soul I met along my way, there was an asshole who wanted nothing more from me than whatever he could get.

The stereotypes are what killed me most. I wanted to keep an open mind; I was enlightened and I knew that the terrible things I’d heard were the rantings of bigots; they couldn’t possibly have any truth to them. So it was with some dismay that I began to see that Germans really are uptight, that Indian merchants would lie to my face if it made them a buck, that Africans would heap scorn on Africans just one shade darker then them. (Also, the Chinese really are atrocious drivers.) These aren’t universal principles, of course. Like all stereotypes they are no substitute for looking at the person in front of you. Yet I found myself with opinions–

And you discover you’re wrong about what’s important. My mother always told me that everyone in the world wants the same things: family, food, shelter. No. It’s not true. The things that drive us differ. Depending where you live, the most important thing in your world might be allegiance to your father, or Allah, or ridding the province of Pakistanis, or making enough money to buy an air conditioner. We are not all one.

The first step is always to ask, why can’t we all just get along? This the is the moment where you take to heart the idea that everyone is deserving, at least in principle, of your love, compassion, and good will. You suddenly see that this is what peace and cooperation are, that civilization itself is built upon extending humanity and generosity to others. I am with the sages and the hippies in shouting from the rooftops that this is a Good Thing. But it’s not enough, because not everyone wants what you want. In fact, a great many people aren’t even remotely similar to you, and in ways that will probably upset you.

There has to be a form of compassion that embraces the world as it is, not as we wish it was.