It’s great to be back in Jakarta, a city that many foreigners avoid. It is also called “The Big Durian” and the pollution does sometimes stink. Jakarta is Indonesia’s capital, largest city, and probably its most dynamic urban area. It has at least ten million people and is one of the largest cities in the world, number 12, at last count.
Jakarta is also the city of dreams. This is where Java’s rural poor come to earn a living, students come to get an education, and entrepeneurs to start or expand their businesses. This is where people come to make their dreams come true.
Jakarta is the center of government power for the unitary state of Indonesia. With regional autonomy, the provinces and regions gained some power but in the end, much depends on Jakarta. About five or so years ago, OFI decided to establish an office in Jakarta. We are a small foundation so it was a risk for us financially. But it was well worth it. Previously, with our one office in Pangkalan Bun, we were relatively isolated from the decision-makers both in Jakarta and the provincial capital of Palangka Raya. Under Ms. Renie’s guidance, the OFI office improved our communication and relations with government agencies. Even now communication with Pangkalan Bun in Central Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan Tengah) can be a problem.
In particular, there is a tendency in Indonesia to call meetings a day or so before they actually take place. It’s helpful to have someone in Jakarta who is dedicated to communications and gets told about the meeting as soon as possible. Otherwise, in Pangkalan Bun we get notified of the meeting days after it has occurred!
Ms. Renie was my first female Indonesian student and did her undergraduate honors thesis on orangutan parasites in Kalimantan. She went on to study a wild orangutan population in Sumatra. This served as the basis of her Master’s degree in ecology at the University of Indonesia. In some ways, she is a pioneer, having studied the southernmost of all Sumatran orangutan populations. One of her life ambitions was to be a working primatologist and she is grateful to OFI and its supporters for allowing her to fulfill this dream. For her, Jakarta is where her dream was fulfilled – in its fullest.
Mr. Edy Hendras is another one of my former students from Universitas Nasional, Jakarta. He, too, found a successful career in conservation. He works primarily in conservation and environmental education, having set up conservation education and training programs throughout Indonesia. I sometimes call him on his cell phone and when he answers, he’s often in the Indonesian portion of New Guinea or in Sulawesi working with local people, training them in such practical enterprises as composting or making gas fuel for cooking stoves from the manure of farm animals. When he worked for OFI in Pangkalan Bun, he set up field training trips for hundreds of local high school students where they went into the wilderness for several days at a time and learned about conservation and nature. But he has long been based in the Jakarta area and Jakarta is where his dream to work in conservation was fulfilled.
Jakarta also helped my dream of studying wild orangutans come true 38 years ago. This is where I received the first permits to do my orangutan study. I still come to Jakarta several times a year: to buy supplies, to attend meetings, and to catch international flights in and out of Indonesia.
Thirty-eight years ago I heartily disliked Jakarta. It was a noisy, polluted city where you could barely breathe and where you could hardly hear yourself think because the roar of traffic was so loud. Air quality was dismal. My eyes watered. I had a constant headache. I coughed incessantly. Traffic was insufferable. Drivers honked their horns seemingly non-stop. Bejaks, bicycle cabs, were everywhere and obstructed traffic.
In time the municipal government banned the bejaks. I think they should have banned the motorized traffic! What an avant-garde city Jakarta would have been then! They also cleaned up the air quality somewhat and instituted “busways” so that commuters could get around Jakarta remarkably quickly with high speed (by Jakarta standards) buses on dedicated lanes.
During the first twenty years of my stay in Indonesia one of the great things about coming to Jakarta was that I could actually make phone calls to my family back in Los Angeles. It took some effort but it was do-able. I could taste ice cream and western food such as spaghetti. Over the years I have lost my taste for ice cream but not spaghetti. But we can now get a version of spaghetti with tomato sauce even in Pangkalan Bun. About seven years ago we even got cell phone service in Pangkalan Bun!
I like Jakarta better now than I did when I first arrived. I think it’s because Jakarta changed and I changed. I learned Indonesian and became used to the rhythmn of life common here.
Jakarta has changed in a number of ways inconceivable forty years ago. It now has shopping malls to rival New York and Singapore. All the prestige brands are here. My favourite shopping malls are in Jakarta. I cannot even afford to think about the three thousand dollar bags and three hundred thousand dollar champagne diamond bracelets but I can browse, take a look, and move on, content that my meagre cash assets are going to save species and individual animals, a pleasure that no mere material trinket will ever provide. I can buy office and field supplies, most types of food, and even books and magazines in the English language, all impossible to do when I first arrived in 1971.
Another marked change is the dress of women. Forty years ago women wore Western clothing or a modified version of traditional Sundanese (West Java) or Javanese clothing. Now, increasingly, they wear Islamic head dresses and sometimes flowing robes. Once or twice, I have even noticed full facial veils on local women. In some places near Jakarta, a tipping point has been reached with signs from the local government saying “Respectable women wear head coverings.”
Clearly, a dichotomy has been reached with one part of Jakarta racing into the future and another striving to hold on or to find a comfort zone that perhaps is difficult to attain in this modern world.
I stayed in Jakarta one and a half weeks, attending government meetings, working on our Indonesian newsletter with Ms. Renie and Mr. Edy, buying watches and backpacks and other supplies for our field staff, and doing a variety of other tasks that needed to get done.
I spent much time (literally hours) in Jakarta’s notorious traffic (worse now than the traffic in Los Angeles or Bangkok) just trying to get from one appointment to the next. And dreaming, paradoxically, of the days when I could spend more time in Jakarta, enjoying it, instead of rushing through it, and of the days when I would spend none here at all.