Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fighting for Space

An afternoon walk on Jalan Setia Budi, the main street in our Medan neighborhood, can turn into a struggle for survival.

Many offices close around 3 p.m. in Indonesia, which means rush hour starts on the early side. At 3:30 today, columns of cars idled in the heat as drivers leaned on their horns. Motorcycles darted like dragonflies around the automobiles, squeezing along the shoulder and occasionally climbing up on the sidewalk to create their own express lane.

Of course, two-wheeled transportation on a sidewalk requires a contiguous stretch of uninterrupted concrete, which does not always exist in Indonesian cities. Fruit sellers set up their stands wherever they see fit, converting sidewalks into obstacle courses. And today, half the concrete squares on large stretches of sidewalk were pried open and removed, exposing fetid sewage canals below. Moments like these demonstrate why typhoid and Hepatitis A vaccines are mandatory for travel in Indonesia.

When they were accessible, sidewalks proved a tempting transportation option today since the curbside shoulders motorcycles usually favor along Jalan Setia Budi were strewn with mountains of trash. It had all the appearances of a garbage pick-up day, but these piles have lain dormant (or perhaps even grown) during the last 36 hours. With a mayor and vice-mayor thrown in prison for corruption earlier this year, and an interim mayor only designated recently after months of leaderless city government, Medan’s public services have seen better days. Some of Danielle’s interview respondents have reported not having trash picked up in their neighborhoods since last August.

And where are the pedestrians in this labyrinth? Most Indonesians don’t walk very far under these conditions. Between the constant obstructions and the blistering heat, people either avoid afternoon trips or hire a motorcycle cab, further congesting narrow roadway arteries. Those of us brave or foolish enough to attempt a quarter-mile journey on foot end up gingerly navigating our way through occasional seams between vendors’ pushcarts and parked motorcycles. (Even when they’ve stopped moving, the motorcycles can be a nuisance.) It’s also important to steer clear of the cats, chickens or occasional goats that cross your path.

With Indonesia’s 322 people per square mile (to say nothing of its chickens and goats), you often feel like your cheek is brushing up against someone else’s jowl. The country is not as densely populated as Vietnam or Bangladesh, but it’s three times more crowded than the United States on average. What’s worse, poor infrastructure and lack of urban planning exacerbates overcrowding problems considerably. Streets feel twice as crowded when motorcycles are on sidewalks and pedestrians are out in the road.

Sometimes, the space crunch has auditory in addition to physical implications. We enjoy peace and quiet in our more expensive home stay, but in most parts of town motorcycle drivers rev engines just meters away from people’s windows. Those windows don’t have glass, either, so any separation from the street proves impossible.

Attempts to find quiet retreats face interruptions from unexpected sources. In search of such a respite from noise pollution, Danielle and I succumbed to the temptation of an upscale Western-style coffee place today. The drinks are three times more expensive than in the curbside cafes, but the air-conditioning makes the price seem like a bargain when you never have to fight flies or ants for a seat.

But just as we were settling in for two hours of quiet contemplation, a loud buzzing noise like a welding torch emanated from the back of the store where a few staff members were gathered. We assumed someone was making repairs, but it seemed odd they would set a silversmith loose in the cafe. When the buzzing persisted for about an hour, we decided our search for silence had failed. On the way out, we learned that they hadn’t set up a foundry after all; the place had become an impromptu tattoo parlor for the day. In a country where no one seems to have enough room, spaces sometimes have to serve dual purposes.

With these kinds of close quarters, Indonesians don’t seem to expect much privacy. One sign of this blurring of public and private is that small talk touches on what we consider personal topics very quickly. For instance, most people ask Danielle within five minutes of meeting her whether she’s married and has any children. When she answers yes and no, respectively, the following question is always how long she’s been married. For an Indonesian, a marriage of four years that has yielded no offspring inevitably evokes concern about fertility. They don’t seem to fathom the idea that a couple might be waiting for the right time to start a family.

One Chinese woman with her own traditional medicine practice expressed concerns about Danielle’s childlessness and insisted on examining Danielle’s pulse to discern the source of her infertility. This woman’s first diagnosis was that Danielle’s husband might not be fat enough for conception. When Danielle assured this woman that I was taller and heavier than most Indonesian men, the woman replied, “You’re just too tired. You’re working too hard.” There might be something to that last point.


Four days after the Jakarta hotel bombings, the country remains on edge. Security has tightened around our neighborhood, and TV news programs have shown creepy footage of a suspected Jemaah Islamiyah bomber entering the Marriott Hotel two days before the attack. Several Jakarta hotels and offices have faced bomb threats over the last few days, and the Jakarta Post reported today that hotels here in Medan have also received threats.

Even so, day-to-day life still feels more or less safe. One unsettling exception came when someone shouted English-language obscenities at Danielle and me from an automobile window earlier today. After three months of Indonesians greeting us with “Hello, Mister,” the two-word salutation we received today was far less welcome. In all likelihood, the outburst probably came from an Indonesian teenager who has watched too many American movies and doesn’t understand what vulgar English words really mean.

The episode surely doesn’t reflect most Indonesians’ attitudes toward foreigners, and our mood improved considerably ten minutes later when members of a boys’ soccer team called us over to talk to them. Several were wearing jerseys from Manchester United, the English premier league team that cancelled its exhibition match in Jakarta against Indonesian all-stars after Friday’s bombings. One of the boys even playfully recited the Indonesian language taglines he’d seen MU players like Wayne Rooney saying in the soccer commercial that has been running on Indonesian TV during the last few weeks.

It was sad to be face-to-face with Indonesians who would have loved to watch their favorite international soccer team play against their nation’s best players. A Manchester United visit would have meant so much to these kids, but for the time being, terrorism has derailed cultural diplomacy and soft power.

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