Bittersweet life in Jakarta

I was heading to Terminal 3 at the Soekarno-Hatta airport about to head “back to the village” of Ngepas, Sleman, 15 kilometers north of the center of Yogyakarta, after 25 years in Jakarta. I arrived in Jakarta from my home near Purwokerto in August 1990, and this morning a mix of thoughts filled my mind.

Politics in Jakarta is heated at the moment. The election campaign for the governor post has started and there are already demonstrations planned against at least one candidate.

Jakarta has often been at the center of political action. I remember the 1990s. The reformasi movement, led by students, the common people and women took to the streets to push the dictator out. Students were shot, abducted and disappeared. Indonesian Chinese women were raped as a terror tactic.

Demonstrations were dispersed with bullets and tear gas and cane sticks. The violence spurred on the movement until Soeharto was forced to resign. I was a participant, as part of the women’s movement demanding freedom and equality.

There has been an expansion in freedom of expression in Jakarta since then. This is especially for those with access to social media – although there have been cases of harassment of dissenting voices through the courts.

Every kind of viewpoint, polite and vulgar, supporting one elite politician or another, circulates. It is not an exhibition of ideological differences but of stylistic preferences: a fight between “lovers or haters”.

While those with less money have to be satisfied with TV soap operas, for the middle class and above, there are more lifestyle choices and artistic entertainment options.

There are international literary, jazz, dance, theater and film festivals. As a theater producer, I have been able to present my works on Jakarta’s main stages.

There is indeed more networking in the political and socio-cultural arenas as café culture has mushroomed since 1998. But wait a minute. There is more to Jakarta than its middle-class café life.

Jakarta is the home and place of work of millions of people and where a big proportion of the nation’s wealth circulates.

More people, more vehicles and all kinds of building: malls and apartments, and gleaming office buildings, surrounded by densely packed slums.

Jakarta is infamous for its evictions of the poor from their homes with all the consequent hostilities between the state and people.

I inhabit that social layer whose income is between Rp 4 million (US$305) and Rp 40 million rupiah per month. Everybody yearns for a decent home: with windows that open to the sky and space.

Usually all that is affordable are windows that open directly onto the neighbor’s wall or with views of a hanging mess of cables crisscrossing between roofs.

And for those who want to be close to their workplace and avoid hours on the road, they have no choice but to rent a claustrophobic “studio” for Rp 4-7 million a month.

Or they pay Rp 2-3 million for an even smaller boarding room with noisy aircon to stop them dying of dehydration. Many spend their little disposable income in cafés — paying international prices for a coffee — because they can’t face spending the evening in their tiny home.

Meanwhile for the millions earning the minimum wage of Rp 3.5 million per month, they are stuck in almost slum housing. Many families will try to buy on credit little “houses” on the city’s outskirts in Cibubur, Depok, Citayam or Tangerang, spending four to five hours every day commuting.

So who lives in the apartments above the malls or in Pondok Indah? Those earning way over Rp 50
million a month or expats on dollar incomes.

Meanwhile, getting to and from work is now a disaster. You can be stuck for three hours. Literally millions of motorbikes and cars jam the roads because there is no proper public transport. They sit for hours on little motorbikes, breathing vehicular fumes, their backs aching, to reach their destination. The rich bring their luxury vehicles to the most sparkling malls, like Grand Indonesia, Senayan City and others.

The population in 1990 was 8,259,266. The number of people busy in the Jakarta area is, however, much more than that.

The number of people in Jakarta coming in from around the city can be as high as 21 million.

Most Jakartans are like me, migrants from small towns and villages. Some come for schooling, others for work. There is not enough work in the towns and villages for the growing population, expected to be 450 million by 2050. They are there to “struggle for their fate”, hoping to send money back to the village, showing that they have been successful.

It is a “success” bought at the cost of claustrophobia, exhaustion and sometimes hours on the road going nowhere.

Because money is so concentrated in the capital so too are work opportunities. Many people have no choice but to come to Jakarta.

But now I am living in Sleman. Jakarta’s unaffordability of housing, and especially of space and sky, of infrastructure connected to theater work, is beyond us now in Jakarta. And the time and energy spent getting from one place to another has become too exhausting.

The new abode will bring with it new challenges. We will have to find a rhythm to our productive work. Jakarta, with all its tensions and energy and its stories, does provide a momentum pushing us to create.

Jakarta can be like a country unto itself with its own cultural dynamic and energies. But even so it is only a country of 21 million: there are another 230 million living in another reality, which should also provoke us to create.

In Ngepas, with access to the open air and blue sky and green surrounds, the challenge is to stay a part of this messy, often dark, reality and a make a contribution to changing it for the better.

The writer is a playwright, theater producer and director. She now lives in Yogyakarta.