Thursday, June 30, 2005

In Jakarta

It's a Friday. I normally take Friday off while I was working, and today is no exception. I've been in Jakarta one week now, and I wanted to use today to review what I've been doing, and find a place to read emails. I guess I am doing alright, and I've managed to venture alone to track down a internet café in the area, and to call home to report that I am safe and sound.

The first days were difficult. I was really ill, coughing and running a high fever. As I lay in bed, I thought maybe this illness is a manifestation of me being 'home sick'. And I really was. The strangeness and new-ness of the surroundings and people feels at times alienating. There were often times I thought it is so surreal that I've arrived in a completely foreign place, and will stay here for a month. It's not uncommon for travelers to fall ill at the beginning of their journeys.

It is a country of rich heritages, histories and contrasts. On the broad avenues of central Jakarta, you can be bedazzled with shining malls, hotels and business buildings…but the streets crawl with beggars, ragged children, and sordid looking homeless cats. Once while on a bus, I was almost brought to tears by a homeless man who sang his pain and life in a melancholy melody. I looked at him, looked at the glimmering foreign cars, looked at the towering modern high-rises, remembered the countless children and empty out-stretched palms at road junctions, and thought of the irony of it all…

I'm living in Jakarta Timur, deep in the heart of a kampung (residential area). The only (cheap) way and to travel is to use the light blue Mikrolets (basically Toyota mini-vans converted into small buses) that criss-cross the area. Other than that, there is also the red-orange three-wheeled Indian-import, the bajaj. Here locals call them 'angles', because only God and the driver knows where the bajaj is going. Having no lights to signal when the motorised tricyle will turn, the bajaj is a fiercesome monster to reckon with on the alleys and lanes of this bustling and noisy city. And then there are the Metro Mini-s, basically luliputian buses that roar on the streets of Jakarta and pick-up and drop-off passengers wherever they may be, wherever they may want to be. Despite repeated warnings about theft and the dangers of falling out off, because of the 'open-door' policies of these buses and mini-buses, there is no better way the way the locals live and travel than on these hideous and lung-choking machines.

Fortunately, my host family is extremely kind, and I'm living with three working professionals who are not too much older. Next door, is a masjid (mosque), which regularly blares incomprehensible Arabic songs and prayers and reminders to people to pray. The morning prayer reminder at 4am needs some time to get used to. I was taken to Taman Mini on the second day. We had an accident on the way, as a TransJakarta bus collided with the car. Luckily, we all escaped unhurt. In the evenings, we would have dinner together, converse in a mixture of English, bahasa Indonesia and play-acting. I've learnt much from talking to them, and they have also learnt much about life abroad from me. The people I've encountered so-far are friendly, welcoming, and will at any stuff you with any food, fruits and drinks they have to offer. The stereotypes of the gun-wielding Muslim madman, the extremist religious fanatic are but sad and misleading hypes in the media.

I'm still trying to get used to the food. So far, I've had Masakan Padang (rice with various dishes of own choosing), soto ayam (chicken soup with rice), mie ayam (chicken soup with noodles), sate medan (sate from Medan), nasi udek (rice with coconut juice), and a variety of nasi goereng (fried rice). At any time of the day, you can hear light tapping of pots and pans, as street vendors tour the alleyways of the kampung, hawking their foods and drink. Fried foods seem to be a favourite here, and fried chicken (also known here as exactly that) can be found everywhere. It's difficult to find food that is light in colour and flavour, and being ill and with a sore throat the last few days, has made eating no less easier.

I've made first contact with FOBMI, the organisation I've contacted to take me deeper into the field of migrant workers of Indonesia. The organisation is situated in the same kampung, and is a run-down house, with two computers and a fax machine. But in the cramped and dark space, around fifteen returnees are currently being sheltered. The majority have returned from Malaysia, where in recent months the amnesty on illegal workers has prompted many Indonesians to return. Now, they await their work documents to be processed. Some have waited for many months, and many suffer from depression. Imagine living in cramped conditions with so many others, and not knowing whether you are able to go work. Even if you are willing, the bureaucracy and uncaring attitude of the government towards migrants stops them from going legally. So many go illegally, only to face a host of abuses and problems, not to mention the occassional disappearances and deaths.

I've met and interviewed other migrant worker NGOs, as well as Komnas Ham (Indonesian Commission for Human Rights). It is only recently, in the light of terrible tragedies and stories from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan and Saudi Arabia that migrant workers are receiving renewed attention. Basically, the whole process of going abroad to work is in the hands of many unscrupulous private agencies, and the government only has nominal supervision of the whole process. The perception of migrant workers is more as an economic commodity than as human beings. Poor education, lack of knowledge and trafficking means that Indonesian workers are subject to exploitation, abuse and unpaid work in inadequate working and living conditions. I've also visited 'training camps', where migrant workers go for pre-departure training in language, and whatever skills they may need (eg. Cooking, welding, child-minding etc). In one, the workers are herded into crowded sheds like cattle, and share a small cubicle to shower and defecate in together with around a dozen others. In the other camp, migrant workers are given much more freedom and room to move in, are given the necessary psychological and physical training and of the many I spoke to, most are extremely happy to be at the centre. If only all migrant workers could be given the same humane and dignified treatment as in the latter camp…

Monday I will be going to Malang to meet other contacts and NGOs at a migrant worker congress. From there, I will travel to Blitar, a town where many young women come from who go on to work in Taiwan. There, I hope also to meet the young girl who was terribly beaten and abuses and sent home without 15months of pay. My hope is to collect evidence (medical documents, testimonials and written statements) for an eventual trial. Then, I will go to Yogyakarta, hope to visit the Borbordur Temple, and go to Semarang, before returning to Jakarta.

It all seems very far and exciting. I imagine there is a bigger and more beautiful world away from Jakarta's constant deafening racket, foul air and games of life-and-death on the roads. Hopefully, there are many more places and people which will continue to fascinate, amaze and refresh.