"What do you think of Jakarta so far?"
I've been here for almost a week now, but I'm still no closer to being able to answer that question than I was when the city first enveloped me in its warm, sweaty hug after disembarking my delayed flight from Tokyo. The only thing I know for certain is that I must tread carefully when I answer.
My friends graciously pick me up despite the late hour and take me back to the three-bedroom apartment we are sharing. We pause at a traffic light near the Fairmont Hotel, and a trio of children selling roses comes and presses their faces up against the vehicle's tinted windows. They are two boys and a girl, dark-skinned, and I cannot resist thinking of Slumdog Millionnaire. I wonder who keeps the money they earn.
Shortly after, we arrive home. A door from the kitchen leads to a small outdoor patio where the washing machine and dryer are located. I notice two other doors opposite the machines and ask what they're for.
"The live-in maid, if we had one."
She opens them. One leads to a squat toilet. The other - windowless, lacking an AC unit - is a bedroom smaller than the closet in the master suite that is my quarters for the month.
Our fifteenth floor unit would have a nice view if it weren't for the perpetual haze that clings to the skyline and ensures that daytime is always bright but never sunny. I imagine the layer of grime stuck to the outsides of our windows coating my lungs and wonder if I should be wearing a mask. Noise from below echoes upward, and in another time and place I'd think the building were being swarmed by cicadas. But, no, the source is the neverending, slow-crawling traffic that makes the Bay Area rush hour seem tame; the dull hum of hundreds of engines and throttles punctuated by honking.
Each morning we head down to the lobby around 7am and hail a taxi to take us to the bakery kitchen. Sometimes it can take up to an hour to secure one, but luckily the distance is not so great. My other friend, who lives in north Jakarta, has the worst commute. Depending on the weather and time of day, she could fly to Singapore and back in the time it takes to get between home and work.
We visit one of the coffee shops that our bakery fills wholesale orders for. Inside it's chic, trendy and would not feel out of place in SoMa. Outside, drivers wait with their cars while their employers eat and drink their fill. I think again of the pitiful maid's quarters, and of Downton Abbey; instead of upstairs and downstairs people like they have on the show, here society seems to be divided into inside and outside people.
My middle class upbringing makes me hypersensitive to such blatant socioeconomic disparity, which is perhaps why I find it jarring to be in a place where everyone is either ultra-rich or super-poor. In other words, having grown up without maids, nannies and chauffeurs, it's strange to be in a place where having a full household staff is the norm. As for what it's like outside the home, only in India have I seen such similar juxtaposition of abject poverty with luxury apartment buildings and hotels. The powers that be appear to prioritize feeding the beast of consumerism rather than locking down the infrastructure necessary to get Indonesia off the developing countries list.
Being a pedestrian in Jakarta is like playing a live-action hybrid of Frogger and Super Mario. Crosswalks are virtually nonexistent and the lanes amorphous, such that you must constantly check in both directions. Sidewalks, also a rarity, are uneven, unlit and often missing paving stones. And in addition to keeping your wits about you, you must hold tight to your belongings - speeding motos have been known to snatch bags just as vans may be used for kidnapping.
There is no regulated trash collection. Many burn it themselves on the street (a big contributor to the air pollution), or simply leave it for enterprising individuals to root through and re-sell what they can. (Fun fact: street vendors rely on pre-used oil, generally from KFC).
As a foreigner, as much as I am privy to the class differences, I am also complicit in them. The US dollar is so strong here that I can get manicures, massages and spa treatments - frivolous things that I never do at home for financial reasons - for cheap. I can afford to be driven everywhere and dine out or order in for every meal. It's nice being pampered, to be sure, but it leaves a dull ache in the back of my mind because I know that I'm not experiencing the "real" Indonesia.
But what is the real Indonesia? Corruption, homophobia, discrimination - CVs must include headshots, height, weight and religion. The people that I've met so far, though, are nice.
The default social activity here is going to one of the city's many shopping centers. In fact, locals get dressed up for it. Trendy restaurants open in malls like they're rolling out the red carpet down Valencia Street. But when you compare what's outside, the smog, scammers and traffic jams, to the brightly lit, immaculate interiors and cool filtered air, it makes sense. For a few hours, it's nice check your problems at the door and be surrounded by all that is bright and shiny and new in a safe, sterile evironment.