Vacation in My Mind

If you’ve noticed, I’ve strayed from the world of prose lately, posting only photos. Reason: We had a 9 day break for the Muslim holiday, Idul Fitri. Only, um, I didn’t go a.n.y.w.h.e.r.e. ADUH!

I did manage to really concentrate on ways to improve my photography. Am I a geek? Probably. I lived on the ‘net self-educating as much as I could. More about that later (tomorrow maybe).

A few days I went around taking pics in the kampung (village) area of Tanah Merah near Kelapa Gading. It’s an area in extreme poverty, built on a landfill. The stench of rotting garbage and burning tires is pervasive. That’s where I managed to get those photos on this page – the power line photos and “warhol” shots were taken there, and more are on the way.

It’s always interesting to see the reaction to some bule walking around with a camera in an area which I highly doubt has seen a foreigner in a decade. “Halo Mister” is, of course, the most creative and varied announcement shouted from the guys my age. But, I suppose they weren’t aware that the other dude 10 meters away just said it, so they thought they were the first.

I’d much rather talk with the elders. Many older men will approach me and simply speak to me as another human, not with surprise or with hesitation, but more with curiosity at why I would want to photograph their environment. What do I find interesting in this landfill? At this point, it’s tough not to feel condescending, but to resolve this, I simply show them the LCD on my camera and explain that the colors are so much more vibrant than the guarded complex I live in. I go on to tell them that I’ve lived here for over four years and think it’s a shame that so many of my friends will work here for years and never see this side of life. Jakarta is the kind of place where an expat can be sheltered from the poverty. The 5 star hotels, flights to Bali, maids, drivers, fitness clubs, bars, restaurants; they all cater to that facade.

I explain that in their area, people are out doing all sorts of interesting things. Encountering children in these kampungs is always a delight. Many will run up to me, uninhibited, and ask me to take their photo. As expected, they can barely stand still long enough for me to snap away before pouncing on my back to see the photo on the LCD. Walking down the street, it’s not long before an army of a dozen children snakes behind me announcing the arrival of a bule to the rest of the street. Hard to remain inconspicuous, even after half a decade.

In my affluent neighborhood, people lock themselves indoors and rarely even take a stroll in the evenings. They live in air conditioning with maids and drivers to cater to their every whim. The people of Tanah Merah and most other kampung dwellers, welcome their home to visitors. They have the doors opened, the chairs are out in front of the house, kids are playing in the street (there aren’t really any yards unfortunately), and overall it seems as if most people are more friendly than the Benz crowd. No, I shouldn’t generalize like that, as I’m sure most of my wealthy neighbors are as kind once you get to know them – but that’s just it – they don’t offer that chance when barred in their homes. Me? I hang out in the park across the street from my home almost on a daily basis. No joke. I string up a hammock between two trees and either take a nap in the setting sun or read a book in the last minutes of daylight. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen my next door neighbor’s 16 year old kid step foot in the park. Not once in 4 years. Damn shame.

I won’t go on to say that money can’t buy happiness, or pretend to think that these smiling kampung children are living a better life than those locked in their air conditioning with a playstation glued to their hands, scarfing down McD’s. Why bother. The truth is that there’s so much disparity here, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

I won’t bother trying to be poetic about all this; I’m just trying to convey what I observe while on my walks through this fascinating land.

  • “Jakarta is the kind of place where an expat can be sheltered from the poverty. The 5 star hotels, flights to Bali, maids, drivers, fitness clubs, bars, restaurants; they all cater to that facade.”

    Most expats stay in RI, /because/ of rather than in spite of the poverty. (what a troll i am ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Nice post.

  • L2

    Just to add to your observations. The first thing my grandmother observe in the states when she visited me, was she didn’t see anyone outside the house–not even food vendors. Maybe the wealthier neighborhood has become Americanize? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Anyway, another point of view from someone who used to live in Jakarta–how about staying inside because of fear? Is it safer now that a “bule” could hang out in a park? I know I didn’t like walking down the street when I was there. I want to hear from females’ point of view who have lived there. I didn’t mean I preferred having a driver who drive me around. Don’t take me wrong I enjoy outdoor as well. But when I was there, and lived in kampung with a lot of guys your age mentioned above hanging outside often, staying inside was less stressful.

  • I always enjoy your insights into the ‘real’ Jakarta, Brandon. Thanks for sharing – and I’m looking forward to seeing more of these photos you took over the holiday period.

  • Brandon

    John: I’ve done all that, been there. Lived the isolated expat style of comfort. I won’t be a hypocrite here, I have two maids, a fitness membership, went to Bali 3 of the past 12 months. I’m definitely not removing myself from inclusion in that facade. I guess my point is that I would hope expats and even the wealthier Indonesians can reflect on the reality of where we live; what life is like for most of this country’s population. I have Indonesian students whose wealth has never allowed them to comprehend anything close to poverty. They’ve remained even more untouched than expats in that regard. Sheltered, protected, and isolated with their family’s wealth.

    I may be the biggest hypocrite of all, because when I’m walking around, taking photos, the camera equipment I’m using would equal 10 years or more of most of these peoples’ salary. Maybe in some regards, they feel as if I’m ‘rubbing it in’ by capturing their lives; knowing very well that I’ll return home in a few hours to the comfort and safety of my own bubble.

  • Brandon

    L2: Surely things have become more Westernized all throughout Asia. And you see it everywhere here; yet it’s a surreal reflection of Western culture. As if they’ve observed the American lifestyle via MTV and think that’s how everyone lives: flash and glam. Novita and I constantly have conversations and comparisons in this regard.

    Your grandmother wouldn’t see many food vendors strolling through any neighborhood in the States – it’s just not something we do. I think it’s great to be able to step out of my house and get some dinner from the street (but then again, that’s why I got an amoeba in August!). However, I have fond memories of a child playing ANYTHING outside: sledding down hills in the winter snow, baseball in the backyard, ‘exploring’ the depth of my father’s land, etc, etc. Certainly most Indonesians outside of Jakarta do live like that; children playing everywhere. BUT in Jakarta it’s not so. We live in a place where every spot of green is soon plastered over with concrete, parking spaces, or the latest Donut chain. Kids have no option but to resort to living in the malls or their bedrooms.

    Regarding safety. I’m not sure what you mean, as I don’t know where you grew up. I’d say my area is quite safe. There have been isolated incidents of violence and theft of course, but just as much as anywhere else in the world. However, being a female you definitely have a different perspective. I do find that many of the lower class young men tend to be exceedingly obnoxious in their stares and comments. I’ve had a few run-ins with the young construction workers after they’ve said things to Novita. I guess my answer to this is that even in the States, men are men. We can be pricks at times. Especially in youth.

    I would say that if you were here in 1998, you have a completely valid argument for not feeling safe. I definitely feel safer walking around any part of Jakarta at 3am than I would in many areas of downtown Detroit at any time of day. I’ve only had a handful of run-ins in Jakarta, and it usually involves stupid drivers, drunk bule, or impolite security guards; not blatant danger.
    It’s just a shame that Jakarta doesn’t have green space or at least a walkable downtown area. There was a recent article comparing Kelapa Gading to Singapore – now THAT’S hilarious.

  • >I do find that many of the lower class young men tend to be exceedingly obnoxious in their stares and comments. Iโ€™ve had a few run-ins with the young construction workers after theyโ€™ve said things to Novita.

    Although I generally like Indonesia, one of the worst things is that you cannot – as an expat – walk around with your Indonesian wife without hearing very nasty comments. If you can’t understand Indonesian it’s not too bad, but if you can it becomes a very dangerous situation.

    Bitch. Slut. Is it true bule have big cocks? What’s wrong with Indonesian men? etc etc.

    One of my mates was stabbed in Surabaya after he reacted to an incident in which an Indonesian taxi driver called his wife a perek (slut).

    Stay safe and don’t even think about taking your girl into a kampung brandon.


  • Sam

    Brandon, you seem to know the nice places to go for taking good pictures. I would like to go out an evening and shoot the scenery on the streets around dinner time, but I have no clue where to go, and if it is safe everywhere. Could you help me out? Maybe we could join doing so. You seem to have quite an idea about how to take the way the rich spend their lives with a grain of salt, even after staying here for 4 years. Most bule I know will not eat in a warung any more after such a long time here.

  • Felix Tanjono

    It is nice that a westerner would take such an interesting of the poverty in this country.
    Me being born in this country and living in the same house (almost) for 14 years, have seen this phase of Jakarta. I live on the upper west side of Jakarta, pretty far away from Kelapa Gading.
    I usual feel that my surrounding is pretty safe, around once a week I would go to the local grocery store (Hero) to shop for food and things my maid need, the fresh air is always nice even when it is only a 10 minutes walk. So I can relate this to your experience Brandon.
    I don’t think I can ever leave Indonesia, their food, their culture, it is just a heaven. I am always being reminded of their hardship when I see small children begging on the roadside for money, and the smile they give when a coin was given to them.
    I will always look forward to your beautiful photograph of this unique city.
    Thank you

  • L2

    I guess you really are sheltered by your environments/surroundings, since you don’t know what I am talking about. Maybe, Novita had done that to you too, for protection. But it could also be that she grew up in different area where I used to live. Don’t get me wrong I like your photographies. They reflected the positive sides of Indonesian cultures and the people there. Moreover, that’s “how the world should be” more of pictures theme, where worldly materials should not control your happiness. I also agree that guy can be the same more or less anywhere.

    I didn’t want to decribe in details of those obnoxious guys–I’m not just talking about construction guys’ comments, I’m talking about guys who just hang out at the corner, passer by in motorcycles, or another commuter in a public transportation. What I had written was just a nice way to put in PG-13 perspective. But that would be hard for you to understand, since you haven’t seen one or heard from someone. I will tell you now, but I’ll try to describe in a nice way. Well, as you know, no one will enforce anything illegal there, unless money talks. Have you heard about “groping” there? Guys in motorcycle went by from behind and just sped away after. You would feel helpless, because there is no way to report the incident, nothing you can do. When you fight back, like “indcoup” said, you get hurt yourself. Oh yeah, all this things happened during day time. It would help a little, if at least you could report the incident, and someone would actually investigate it. However, over there?…And there is also hate crime that also often happens unnotice…And maybe? Jakarta that I knew had changed in that sense, what do you think Brandon? What do you think “indcoup”? What do you think Felix Tanjono?

  • I’ve only been in RI twice. The first time last year I was struck by the incredible wealth in malls like senyasen etc…, and the poverty. I suppose everyone asks themselves at first, how such inequality is possible.

    I thought to myself, these wealthy Indonesians must really be fucking idiots, living in their bubbles (guarded from the masses 24/7 in their luxurious compounds, or whatever you call them).

    But actually, I came to the conclusion, that the contrast is just more obvious in RI.

    In Europe we have a whole continent protected from the poor masses of the world. At any one time there are holocausts going on around the world (either through human or natural actions). And we do fuck all for them – or maybe we do enough to make us feel better — but never enough to make a lasting difference.

    Most of us westerners are ignorant hypocrites – a lucky few of us are just hypocrites.

  • Brandon

    Indcoup: Stabbed? That’s f*ckin crazy! Yeah, street justice definitely takes on a whole new meaning here. I have already gone through many kampungs with Novita. And I generally do understand what’s being said, but fortunately nothing as vulgar has been said – yet. I did have security guards in my own complex say some stuff a few years ago. I confronted them, reminded them that their salaries are paid by the residents in this complex, and told them that I’d throw them in the festering canal if I ever heard anything of that nature again.

    Not saying that’s the correct way to deal with those guys, as L2 and you have mentioned, I could get myself into a lot of trouble, but it’s tough to keep a cool head when it happens to you, and I seem to have a hard time holding back when people get in my face.

    If all else fails, I’ll just sick Puma on them. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Brandon

    Sam: I’d be happy to introduce you to some new places. Hopefully I can show you some things you’ve never experienced. I enjoy going around with other people, as so much of my work is done solo. Just email me and let me know what days work best for you (sundays?). I’ll show you around K.G.

  • ian

    Hi Brandon,

    All so true. I rarely get out in my community simply because it is not all that pleasant – it often smells, is hot, dirty, and so on. But every time I do get out and about – even for a walk into a part of my neighborhood I have not been in a while – it is an enjoyable experience.

    One of the tough things about the disparity here is that we can go out and observe the reality that makes up life for most Indonesians but always retreat to our very comfortable lifestyles – they obviously don’t and most never will have that option.

  • Brandon

    Felix: Thanks for the response. I’m glad you enjoy my photographs.


    “I guess you really are sheltered by your environments/surroundings, since you donโ€™t know what I am talking about.”

    L2 – I didn’t say that I don’t know what you’re talking about. Of course after 4 years here I realize how volatile things can be here. The Bali bombings in 2002 broke any sense of naivety I may have had. I’ve had my share of experiences here that I don’t care to share on this blog – I’ve seen more than you may think. I’m only as ‘sheltered’ as I choose to be. I certainly live as an expat, and am not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes about that, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen the underbelly of Jakarta.

    What’s the point in me writing a blog full of the negative aspects of living here? Or capturing the tragic side of Jakarta? There are enough people who cover those. I used to go off about certain things in my earlier writings, and got a lot of backlash from people who thought I shouldn’t express my frustrations like that. Also, I think age and time has mellowed me out a bit; I still get worked up about some things, but realize often it has nothing to do with Indonesia, but just certain individuals.

    Additionally, do you feel those crimes aren’t prevalent in the States? Don’t fool yourself that the police in America can solve all crimes and keep you safe. Knowing that police here are often extremely inadequate, I’d still say it’s much safer in Jakarta than many streets in L.A., Miami, Chicago, NYC, or Detroit.

  • L2

    I did not say that police in America can solve ALL crimes and ALWAYS keep me safe. However, I did say that “It would help a little, if AT LEAST you could report the incident,…”. Can you tell me that you have been able to report at least one incident and one of the police in Jakarta really do something without paying him or know him in person? If you have then I really like to meet with that police and thank him/her for being compassionate.

    Anyway, I’m going away from my original point. What I was trying to say is just to add to your observations about Jakarta. Some people rather stay inside because of FEAR.

  • Felix Tanjono

    L2, when you say that some people would rater syat inside because of fear, I think that also depends in which of Jakarta you live in. Some parts is pretty safe to walk in the night time (what I mean by night is around 8-9 PM), needless to say don’t wear anything flasy that will attract attention. Some parts might be notorious for its crime, for that part of Jakarta, fear is understandable.


  • L2

    To Felix Tanjono,

    I think you are just assuming (prasangka) that when a female is being targeted because they wore flashy clothes. Well, the incidents (not one) that I have witnessed, were happened to student wearing uniform in white and blue (so that makes the student in Junior High or SMP, during the day on the way from school). And they both wore a very loose top and longer than knee skirt according to the school’s rule (and you still think that’s flashy?). I think you should question the country leaderships dan jangan diam saja sambil berkata santai sajalah, itu kan understandable. I think change for the better is good.

  • Felix Tanjono

    you make your point L2.
    peace man…

    it is true that I have never seen any crime with my own eyes at Jakarta (which is pretty weird, when taking into account I am always out for a walk in the afternoon 2-3 times a week).
    So therefore I might be wrong.
    Indonesia’s leadership I agree is pretty corrupt and in need of major turn-over (is that the term?).
    I still hope that will happend one day, so this country, which is so diverse in culture (and very tasty food!!!), will not lay in ruin in the near future.
    (feeling nationalistic there…)