Category Archives: Indonesia

East-to-West in Flores, Indonesia

Flores. A place most people have probably never heard of. 1,000km east of Bali, a thin and incredibly long island which stretches 600km from west to east along the eastern part of the vast Indonesian archipelago.

We spent twelve days traversing the island, from the eastern town of Maumere, to the gateway of Komodo Island, Labuan Bajo, in the west.

Looking back, several months later, I smile at our time there. We saw some pretty spectacular things, from the volcanic lakes of Kelimutu, to the beaches of Riung, to the animal sacrifices of Bajawa, to the greatest sunsets I have ever seen, in Labuan Bajo, to the windiest roads I have ever travelled on!

Flores was a delight. It’s far from undiscovered, yet it remains almost completely undeveloped for tourism (with the exception of Labuan), and off the mainstream beaten path. The island is lush, green, mountainous, volcanic and remote. A steady stream of backpackers / flashpackers such as ourselves hopped between towns, travelling east-to-west, or vice-versa. Nobody it seemed, really fancied riding the trans-Flores highway more than once.

We spent our first couple of days in the small village of Moni, where we encountered miserable and cold weather, before heading up to the summit of Kelimutu to check out its multi-coloured volcanic lakes.

kelimutu

We then had a bit of a mare in our route-planning, and headed to Bajawa. Bajawa was a stunning little place, one of our favourite places in Indonesia. It had unique culture, volcanoes, hot springs, ancient villages and a super relaxed, friendly, and at times, stoner vibe.

This was a place where I even dared to eat the local meat, in the town’s designated tourist restaurant. The grilled pork steak I had our first two nights, was fantastic. The third night, the pork steak had sold out – and as I hadn’t gotten ill from meat here, I thought I’d have a bit of chicken. It’s always a bit of a risk in remote, third-word places eating a bit of meat, but I was craving it, so gave into temptation and abandoned my no-chicken rule for a night. I will never be doing that again.

The next day was pretty much spent on the toilet, stomach cramps, the works. I don’t think I’ve ever been to the toilet so much in one day. It was awful. I fell ill about two hours before we had a three-hour journey to Riung, a beach-town north on another joke of a road. I managed to take a couple of anti-diarrhea tablets to keep me sealed for the journey, and just about managed to hold it in for a few more hours of misery until we got to Riung.

Arriving in Riung, my first thought was, “Oh dear god, why did I come here feeling like this?”, there was just nothing there, apart from one or two guesthouses. At least in Bajawa there would have been some kind of doctor / hospital. Not here.

Fortunately, my initial panic was unnecessary and verging on melodramatic (Amelia describes me as being the world’s most pathetic ill person), as I had a surprisingly good nights sleep, and woke up not needing the toilet the next morning. We got up early, feeling drained, yet alive, and walked down to the “sea front”, to rent a boat and visit the 17 Island National Marine Park. I’m not going to say anymore about that, I don’t need to. Just look at these pictures:

Needless to say, I soon perked up and even managed to eat a bit of bread in the afternoon. What’s more, we had the entire island to ourselves. So, what do you when you find paradise?

Well, after the previous days misery, we bathed in the crystal-clear turquoise waters, awe-struck at how lucky we considered ourselves, thinking “Life is pretty good right now”.

Our day in Riung certainly ended up becoming a bit of a trip highlight, as we flick through the photographs now.

After Riung, it was back to Bajawa and onwards to Ruteng, another small town west on the trans-Flores. Unfortunately, by this time, Amelia had come down with a fever, and was feeling appropriately miserable. We stayed a night in a convent, which was actually the best room we’d had in Flores by far, and one of the more bizarre places we’ve slept during our travels, before taking a bus onto Labuan Bajo, the gateway to Komodo Island.

Having lived off little more than fried-rice and dried cereal bars for well over a week, it was nice to arrive in Labuan, and stay in a ‘proper’ hotel, where we could eat ‘proper’ food of substance, and be reasonably confident we wouldn’t get food poisoning.

The next day we visited Rinca Island, home of the Komodo Dragons. I have to say, after the orangutans in Sumatra and our time in Borneo, this was a real disappointment. Poorly run, poorly organised and ridiculously underwhelming, I ended up writing a scathing review on Trip Advisor – which I had never done before, I thought it was that bad.

komodo dragon rinca island

It turned out we’d also just missed Tony Blair, for he had been to see the Komodo Dragons two days before for a family holiday. So whilst Israel was bombing Gaza back to the stone age, and ISIS was starting to wreak absolute havoc in the Middle East, the Middle East Peace Envoy, Tony Blair, was here with us, on holiday in Flores.

Anyway, as luck would have it, I then caught Amelia’s fever, and proceeded to be quite ill for a couple of days. Luckily, we had a nice hotel with these views to help us relax and get better for our final day or two.

And that folks, was twelve days in Flores.

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The Volcanic Wonders of East Java

Indonesia is pretty famous for its volcanoes.

As some readers may have noticed in my previous posts, I like a good volcano (except for when they are unleashing mass terror and devastation upon local populations, of course).

A couple of hours east of Surabaya, Indonesia’s traffic choked and just generally unpleasant 2nd city, lies Mount Bromo. On our first trip to Indonesia, in January 2011, Bromo was erupting. I remember being blown away by two Dutch guys we met in Yogyakarta and the images they captured of a truly amazing spectacle of nature. When we visited in July 2014, Bromo remained active, spewing out gas, but it was safe enough for us to stand on the rim of its crater. This was our coolest volcanic experience yet, as the morning sun rose to reveal other worldly views of the National Park.

After Bromo, we headed to Kawah Ijen. We first learned of this fascinating place on David Attenborough’s Human Planet Series in 2010. From the moment we first saw it, we told ourselves “We have to go there one day”, and so we did. It was a long, hot and bumpy journey from Bromo, and we were less than impressed when we arrived at our guesthouse, if you can call it that. It was grim, and there was nothing in the surrounding area. It was back to basics!

Ijen is famed for its sulphur miners, local men who make the arduous trek up, down, back up, and then down the side of the crater every day, carrying 70-80kg of Sulphur on their backs, at presumably great cost to their health, for a few dollars a day, and have done so for generations. We were under no illusions, life out here was tough and brutal, despite the stunning surroundings. Workers from surrounding coffee plantations were trucked around as if they were cattle on the back of lorries. We thanked our lucky stars that we were born British.

We woke up at 12:30am for our hike to the summit, and then down into the crater to see first-hand the blue sulphur flames that burn brightly at night. It was a tough slog up, and waking at such a ridiculous hour wasn’t exactly our favourite thing ever, but fortunately the hike up to the crater was better than we could ever have expected. There was a full-moon, which illuminated the surrounding valleys and mountain tops, like nothing I’ve ever seen before, it was utterly stunning. It made the wholly inappropriate start time, awful “guesthouse” room, dinner, and exhausting trek up seem that bit more worth it.

As we walked into the crater, the smell of the toxic sulphur became noxious, and burned our throats and lungs. By the time we’d walked down, we wanted to get out again! We then waited for the sun to rise over the ocean and Bali to the east, and looked down to the west, and the turquoise lake and surrounding countryside that was now visible below us. And then we walked down and back to Surabaya to extend our visa. All before 8am. Productive hey?!

In search of Sumatra’s Orangutans

Orangutans. They’re well ginger, well smart and their babies are well cute.

There are without doubt many other animals which are equally as magnificent, some perhaps more so, which we would dearly love to see in the wild one day, but most of these – Lions, Tigers, Rhinos, African Mountain Gorillas – well, they’re all a bit dangerous.

Whilst you would never want to get too close to an Orangutan, at least you know it’s not ever going to eat you. So not only are they amazing, incredible, magnificent wild animals, but they’re also relatively friendly. Which is always a bonus.

We’ve loved them ever since we first set eyes on them three and a half years ago in Borneo. This summer it was time to go back and see them, this time in the “wilds” of the Sumatran rainforest.

The “wilds” of the Sumatran rainforest would perhaps be an over exaggeration on our part, for we stayed in a small backpacker village, well established on the tourist trail, called “Bukit Lawang”. This village, situated a two and a half hour drive outside of Medan, is the gateway to the Gunung Leusser National Park, which is over 100km long, and 150km wide. It is one of the last relative safe-havens for Orangutans in Indonesia.

Bukit Lawang had an extremely rustic feel to it, there was a lot of basic development geared towards western backpackers, but there were very few tourists it seemed. We couldn’t, and still can’t quite work out, if Bukit Lawang has had its heyday, or if it’s always been like that.

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Anyway, the main attraction here is a trip into the jungle to see the Orangutans and other wildlife. Having just completed a busy term at work, and having been stricken down by a cold on our first day in Indonesia, we didn’t fancy undertaking a two or three-day jungle trek, sleeping rough in the jungle. We’ve done that before, and whilst it was an amazing experience, we’re getting a little older now, and are starting to enjoy some of our creature comforts a little more.

In the end, we settled on a one day trek, with a local guide named Wisnu. Every guide we met was at pains to state that there was absolutely no guarantee we’d see any Orangutans, and warned us there was a decent chance we wouldn’t. Fortunately for us, two (plus one baby) came down for the morning feeding. We then trudged up and down hillsides and dense jungle for several hours, until we stumbled across Mina, the most famous, and apparently most aggressive of the local Orangutans. She was just hanging out in a tree with her teenage daughter. After thirty minutes or so of “Orangutan watching”, which consisted of us watch Orangutans sit on a branch, munching leaves, (it was far more exciting than that) we decided to head back to the village.

As we started to walk away, Mina climbed down to ground level, and started walking towards us. When Orangutans are high up in the trees, they don’t look so big. When they’re walking towards you on all fours, mere metres away, they’re bloody massive. I’d certainly never want to fight one (besides, why would anyone?!). Anyhow, Mina, her teenage daughter, and then some more of her friends came to join us, and we ended up spending close to an hour having this amazing Orangutan love-in; just Amelia, myself and Wisnu – all alone in the jungle, hanging out with the kings of the Sumatran jungle.

What a fabulous start to our five and a half weeks in Indonesia.

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Indonesia – There are so many things to say…..

Our week in Indonesia was to be my first visit to a developing / third world country.

We spent 3 nights in Jakarta. It was undoubtedly the most chaotic, busy and intimidating place I have visited so far. I thought Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong were chaotic. I hadn’t seen anything until we came to Jakarta. Don’t get me wrong, the aforementioned cities are hugely busy and chaotic, but at least it’s organised chaos. Jakarta is a total free-for-all.

Crazy Roads and Perverted Middle Aged-Men

First impressions of Jakarta consisted of thoughts on how crazy the roads were and how disturbed I was at the large numbers of disgustingly unnattractive middle aged western men seemingly present. They were obviously here for the sole purpose of drinking and exploiting the local women / prostitutes. They seemed to form the majority of ex-pats. I can see why people in developing countries would be inclined to have a negative opinion of western countries if this is what we are exporting to them.

Anyway, back to Jakartas crazy roads. We couldn’t even cross the road half the time. Sometimes we just gave up trying, others we literally had to employ the tactic of running out in front of the traffic (on the 12 lane road) in the hope that it will slow down or stop for us. I’m not joking. At times it was even difficult to work out what side of the road they drive on, for so many cars would just drive into oncoming traffic. I will never EVER, complain about Turkish or Korean roads again after Indonesia. Given the choice between traffic over-regulation in Britain, or no laws what-so-ever in Indonesia, I know which one I’d choose. Everytime. I like my life.

Your average street scene

Oh and another thing, they don’t cover manholes in Jakarta. Once you walk away from the main CBD (downtown) area, it was quite common to find entire streets with no manhole covers at all. You have to keep an eye out for the big holes in the pavement every 10 metres or so as you walk.

Feeling Like a Rockstar

Once you get away from the CBD (and it would seem – very few westerners do) everybody stares at you, everybody says ‘hello’ and you really are the absolute centre of attention. I had middle aged women ask to have their photo taken with me, everybody it seemed would ask us where we were from, and children would mob us either to practice their English or just because they wanted to shake a ‘foreigners’ hand. I’ve never experienced anything like it. We must have had our photo taken with 100 different people (maybe more) who had randomly approached us asking to either practice their English, or purely because they wanted a photo with the blonde haired blue eyed Englishman, and his ‘Chinese’ girlfriend.

They were queuing up to shake her hand

Apparently the only westerners that the locals get to see are usually either staying in 5* hotels, visiting shopping malls or driving around in their chauffeur driven Mercedes. To see a westerner close up and be able to talk to and touch them is quite a novelty for them. Yes I really did have people come up to me, squeeze my arm or shoulder (as if to check I was real), smile, and then run away. It sounds ridiculous but we almost felt like ‘humanitarians’ at times, like when you see a clip of Bono going to Africa and meeting the kids. It was like that. We tried our best to reciprocate their friendliness and kindness.

The locals couldn’t seem to comprehend why we were visiting Jakarta. They told us to go to Bali or Lombok as they were of the opinion that we’d have a much better time there. The beauty in visiting Jakarta was not the tourist sights or monuments – it was about absorbing the place and just taking it all in. It was so wildly different to any place I have ever visited before. Besides, we had just spent a few days on a beautiful South-East Asian beach surrounded by westerners – and we wanted to escape. Bali or Lombok, as beautiful as I’m sure they are – they’re not on our list of places to visit for the time-being. To me, beaches are beaches wherever you go.

Lost in Jakarta

On the Sunday afternoon we hopped into a taxi and requested the driver take us to ‘Chinatown’, which we didn’t think was that far away. After maybe half an hour driving down a motorway we realised the driver obviously hadn’t understood what we meant by ‘Chinatown’. We tried to signal for him to turn-around and take us back but he merely laughed, said something in Indonesian, and carried on driving. This continued for another 25 minutes or so before we finally managed to get him to stop and drop us off at a McDonalds motorway service station somewhere outside of Jakarta. We literally had no idea where we were. It was quite comical, if not a little worrying as to how an earth we were going to get back. Luckily for us there was free internet in McDonalds so we asked a Policeman to show us where in the world we were, and how to get back. We managed to hop into another taxi and fortunately the driver understood a little English, so he did eventually take us to ‘Chinatown’. Except it wasn’t really a Chinatown. We now have first hand experience as to why Wikitravel should not always be trusted!

We have realised that nothing ever goes to plan for us whatever we do! Wherever we go, something will always go wrong – usually because of our own stupidity and naiveness. The total cost for our troubles though (for 2 hours riding in a taxi around Jakartas motorways) – a whole £12. It could have been a lot, lot worse. We will certainly be conducting more planning and research on future trips.

Call to Prayer

The call to prayer was infuriating at times. At 4:30am every morning we were awoken by the Islamic call to prayer. It didn’t just last for a minute or two. Sometimes it went on for 15-20 minutes and BOY! It was noisy. I’ve visited Turkey numerous times, and never had a problem. In Indonesia though – it’s so LOUD. It’s part and parcel of Indonesian culture, and we were guests in the country so we cannot complain to much. Saying that, it still didn’t stop us from cursing as we were awoken every night!

We were staying close to the Worlds 2nd largest Mosque

Insane Security and Moderate Muslims

The security was something else. Once again, I have never seen anything like it. All cars would be searched before approaching any shopping malls or major hotels everywhere. We got a taxi to the Hyatt Hotel as we wanted to check out the more affluent part of town. The level of security was insane. You’d think we were trying to get into the White House or something. They had barricades and armed guards searching our bags and the boot whilst we were still in the taxi. They let us through eventually and I had to visit the bathroom. To get into the hotel was like passing through Airport Security all over again. I didn’t mind, especially as the whole purpose is to keep tourists safe, but it was quite an eye-opener. Even in Yogyakarta, which is a small city – it was much the same.

Searching all cars

Why you may ask?

There have been a whole 5 bombings in Indonesia in the last 10 years.

Many Indonesians asked if we were concerned for our safety. They seemed relatively surprised when we re-assured them that we were not. The Bali bombings have decimated Indonesian Tourism. We were informed that Yogyakarta has seen a 60% decline in foreign tourists since the attacks in 2002. I got the impression that the story is much the same across the whole country. Before travelling, we read the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice for Indonesia warning of the ‘extreme risks’ and ‘impending likelihood of a terrorist attack’ etc… I can’t help but feel like 5 bombings in 10 years in a nation of 240 million people spread over 17,000 odd Islands with the worlds biggest Islamic population does not justify Indonesia being brandished a hot bed for extremists or terrorism. Of course that warning exists for a reason, but I never felt the danger was any greater than it would have been had we been in London or New York. In fact I’m pretty sure you’re probably more likely to find yourself in harm’s way in London or New York than you are in Indonesia (with the exception of the roads).

The scene outside all hotels and shopping malls

I can honestly tell you I see far more Burkhas walking around the streets of Leicester and the cities of England, than I did in my entire week in Indonesia. I could count the number of Burkhas I saw on one hand. Obviously a lot of women wore the traditional Islamic headscarves and dress, but not Burkhas. I found that very interesting.

Everybody seemed very eager to re-assure us that they were not fanatical extremists, they may be Muslim, but they are no different to you and me. Several people we met were particularly keen to express this. The issue certainly appears to be playing on the national conscience. Millions of Indonesians have suffered hardship as a result of the sharp decline in tourism in recent years due to the actions of a handful of mindless idiots.

It seemed to be a subject of great national shame and hurt that westerners may consider their country to be dangerous, and the people ‘extremist’. They really beamed at us when we re-assured them we felt perfectly safe and were well aware that 99% of the population are just ordinary people trying to make their way in life, just like you and I.

Poverty – The Biggest Issue

The biggest problem we encountered was the poverty. Being the only white people on the street means that people assume you are rich, and compared to them – we are. Unfortunately that meant it seemed like everybody wanted to sell us something. Most people were just trying to earn a living, but some would really try to guilt trip you into buying something. One rickshaw driver asked us;

Please, please ride with me. I have no business for two weeks. I have no money to feed my family

I mean, what can you say to that?

We were well aware that he was probably telling the truth and desperate. At the same time though, he was probably going to want £2 or so and we only needed to walk for another 400 odd metres to where we were going. We were already spending lot’s of money, and we had already paid above average prices for things or items that we didn’t even want purely out of guilt.

It raises the question of where do you draw the line?

We were spending money locally as it was. We couldn’t afford to give to everybody, we’re not a charity, and we don’t have the means to solve their problems. If we were to give money to everybody that makes us feel guilty, then it would only encourage them to continue playing on our consciences. After all, we were on holiday and I can’t imagine too many tourists enjoy being put in such a situation on a regular basis.

One moment in Jakarta remains etched in my memory. We needed a bottle of water, there was an old couple working as street vendors obviously earning very little money. The lady asked for 2000 Rupiah a bottle (25p). I thought I gave her a 2000 Rupiah note. When I passed her the note she paused for a second, and smiled very graciously towards us. We walked away and turned around a few seconds later to see her standing up and hugging her husband in absolute delight. We’d only given her a 20,000 Rupiah note by mistake (about £1.70). We could live without the money, but this old lady and her husband seemed so happy we were hardly going to ask for it back. So we walked off, feeling good about our unintentional good deed for the day.

In Reflection

We preferred Malaysia to Indonesia. Our reason? As awful as it sounds – purely because the people weren’t as poor. The poverty wasn’t so obvious and we didn’t have to worry about being hassled when walking down the street all the time. Despite this though, 95% of people took no for an answer straight away and were very gracious and courteous despite us declining their offers.

In contrast to most Europeans, Indonesians think very highly of English people. For some reason we have a particularly good reputation amongst them and they seemed to have a soft spot for our ‘great land’. As I mentioned before – they love to talk football so if you are an Englishman who loves football and are planning on visiting Java – you will make plenty of friends amongst the locals. We didn’t meet any other Brits during our stay, so I assume we are a rare breed outside of Bali.

Indonesia is a fascinating place. If you want to experience a totally different culture and country that isn’t over-run by tourists, then I would totally recommend it to you. It’s not for the faint hearted – it would seem infrastructure and tourist information are limited outside of Lombok and Bali. I can tell you now however, that Indonesians are wonderful people. They were lovely to us and incredibly grateful for us spending money and time in their country. Most of them went out of their way to make us feel welcome. The people we met, the conversations we had and the places we saw will remain on my mind for a long, long time. It was a memorable end to a fantastic holiday.

Will we be visiting again?

We very much hope so.

Football – Doing more for International Relations than any Diplomat or Politician could dream of.

What has particularly stuck in my mind about Indonesia, is how crazy they are about football. It was something else. Every open space had children and men playing football on it, usually bare foot. I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody had football shirts on, everywhere. This is how I imagined Brazil to be, not Indonesia. As soon as anybody found out I was English – they wanted to talk football with me. It was great. They’d ask me who I supported, who my favourite player was and then tell me who they liked. What surprised me even more was how much they knew. I met Everton, West Ham and even Sunderland fans. A lot of them even knew my beloved Leicester City, how we hate Nottingham Forest and that we had just signed Yakubu. I couldn’t get my head around it. The majority of these people were so poor they couldn’t even afford shoes, yet they knew all about a mid-table 2nd division English football club. I still can’t comprehend it. It was pretty much the same story in Malaysia.

I was told that the Indonesian branch of the Manchester United fans club has 12 MILLION members. Yes you did indeed read that right. 12 MILLION. Staggering. A lot of people don’t even support Manchester United in Indonesia, at least not the one’s I met anyway.

There are 12 MILLION Red Devils in Indonesia alone

People think Koreans love football, and yes they like it – but compared to Indonesia, there’s no comparison. As a nation Korea loves computer games and kimchi a lot more than football. In Korea they like football primarily because 2 Koreans play in the Premier League and it’s a source of great national pride. Park Ji Sung is an absolute superstar over here. The most famous and revered man in Korea – by a mile. But that said, you try to speak to a Korean about football outside of Manchester United (Park Ji Sung), Bolton (Chong Yong Lee) and Korea in the World Cup, and they’re generally clueless.

In contrast, there has never been an Indonesian player to play in England, or Europe I don’t think for that matter – but they are absolutely bonkers about football. I would even suggest they are more fanatical about it than we are.

If a Premier League Club, or any European Club managed to unearth an Indonesian (or any South-East Asian player coming to think about it) you could expect them to make an absolute killing financially. In addition to probably gaining an extra 200 million fans or so. I imagine the player would become an almost god-like figure, and quite possibly be considered the greatest South-East Asian to have ever lived by tens of millions in the region. It’s more than believable. Trust me.

One of the many Indonesians that wanted to talk football with me

When we were in Yogyakarta, (a relatively small city in Central Java) I got chatting to a middle-aged lady wearing traditional Islamic dress and a veil etc… who was sat next to me. We ended up having an in-depth conversation about Leeds United, the ‘glory days’ of the late 90’s, their subsequent decline in the last few years, and her hopes of a revival under Simon Grayson. It was mind-blowing. Reasonable logic would suggest that I have nothing in common with this lady, as we couldn’t possibly be more different in terms of background, age, gender, nationality, religion etc… but here we were, socialising together and thoroughly enjoying a discussion about Leeds United, whilst sat on public transport on the opposite side of the world. The irony was not lost on Amelia, she is not a football lover in the slightest – but even she was taken aback by it all. This was just one example of many I could have used.

What do we have in common? FOOTBALL.

One of the things I love most about football, is how it brings people together. Everything else is forgotten. Race, religion and politics are irrelevant. It would seem that wherever you go in the world (except for bloody America) the majority of people love the ‘beautiful game’ with a passion.

Even if there is nothing else to talk about, you can talk football.

Rumour has it that Osama Bin Laden is an Arsenal fan.

I would go as far as to say, it unites us all. I honestly don’t believe that anything unites the world and it’s people as much as football does. From my personal experiences, both in England and Asia alike, I have befriended so many people due to our shared love of football, even though every other sociological indicator may suggest we would probably never be friends otherwise. That for me, is one of the beauties of the sport.

It doesn't matter whether we are Black, White, Muslim, Atheist, Rich, Poor, Old or Young. Football brings us together like nothing else can.

Sport of course, and the Olympics are magnificent spectacles in their own right. They also do wonders for bringing people together and uniting them. But football is on a whole new level. It’s in a league of its own.

After all, what else could the British and Germans have played together on the Western Front in the Christmas Day Truce of 1914?

Even then, and even now. It could only ever have been football. Or ‘soccer’ as our ‘dear’ friends across the pond insist on calling it.

Jakarta – The side that you don’t get to see…

For our first day in Indonesia we had decided we wanted to see some of the ‘real’ Jakarta. We’d heard that Jakarta was lacking actual tourist sights, so we thought it would be interesting to see what makes Jakarta the humongous metropolis that it is today.We’d read about taking a day trip into the slums / shanty towns. Initially we felt highly sceptical as to the ethics of visiting a shanty town and paying money to a company / organisation profiting from poverty. A little further reading about one organisation soon helped to allay those concerns.

The organisation is called ‘Jakarta Hidden Tours’. It is run by a man named Ronny and his wife Anneka. Ronny is a former film director turned sociopolitical activist. The organisations purpose is to help raise awareness of the plight of the millions of people living in absolute poverty in Jakarta. Ronny started running tours in 2008, they have since attracted news coverage domestically and internationally.

The majority of the tour fee charged goes towards community projects (e.g. helping locals start-up a small shop to earn a living for example) the rest covers our costs for the day (public transport etc…) and Ronny and Anneka take a small percentage as tour guides. I’ve forgotten the exact figures but it was explained to me and seemed very reasonable and ethical. In addition, their motives for operating the tour seemed very well-intentioned and upon meeting them we found them to be truly passionate, inspiring people. They certainly weren’t exploiting the local people or profiting from poverty. I don’t think they had a great deal of money themselves, but they were educated, caring and genuinely hugely frustrated with the inequalities of wealth and corruption in Jakarta.

So Saturday morning we travelled around the areas of Jakarta that we were told westerners never normally see. We travelled using local transport (buses, Indonesian rickshaws etc…). The roads in Jakarta are insane, seeing is believing. My words cannot do them justice.

Amelia climbing into an Indonesia Rickshaw... (I forgot the name)

To start with, we were taken to a square in the west of the city, I cannot remember the name. The area was built by the Dutch during colonialism with the intention of creating a South-East Asian Amsterdam. Unfortunately the area, like most of Jakarta had fallen into a state of dereliction and was in dire need of renovation. We visited one of the national museums in the square and were mobbed by the locals. Children wanted their photos taken with us, some wanted to practice their english, and others just wanted to say hello. I even had numerous middle-aged Indonesian women ask for a photo with me. It was very amusing yet very surreal, I felt like a celebrity. Eventually after posing for a silly amount of photographs and shaking people’s hands we headed for our next destination.

Practising their english...

We ventured into a community of what can only be described as ‘shacks, built on stilts’. It was built illegally during the 1970’s by local people who had moved to the city in an effort to find work, an all to familiar story. The conditions were as expected, shocking. The ‘shacks’ themselves were falling apart, there was no privacy, limited access to electricity and worst of all – no running water. There was no active waste collection service or provision, rubbish and litter was strewn everywhere. The land beneath was flooded by sea and canal water. People defecate and urinate in this water, and some of them even use it to shower. Fortunately, they don’t drink it.

This is supposed to be a canal that people use as their primary water source

Particularly striking to me was the situation of one local woman and her family whom we were introduced too. I cannot remember her name, but she had six children aged between 1 – 16 years. This is where herself, six children, and husband lived…

That is it. The picture is not very clear but the floor was flooded with water and consisted of pebbles and stones. The mother had to give birth to her youngest child (within the last year) in this very room as she could not afford to see a doctor or go to a hospital. She had to cut her own umbilical cord. I’m sure you can all appreciate the dangers of this. Especially given that the room was anything but sterile. That said, this lady was very keen to emphasise to us that her children were clean, and that their clothes were not dirty. They were proud, dignified people.

Ronny told me he considered the majority of people in Jakarta to be either; poor, very poor, or extremely poor. These people were only considered by him to be poor. After all, they did have a roof on their heads, access to electricity (albeit very limited) and although malnourished – they weren’t starving either. The kids also got to go to school for 2 hours 5 days a week. Still, most of them lived off less than US$2 a day.

Next we visited a community built on the railway lines. I’m not joking, these people literally LIVED between the tracks. Ronny considered them to be ‘very poor’. It turns out this was one of the 3 main train lines running out of Jakarta, and there were hundreds of people living next to it. Trains sped through every 5-10 minutes. They were relentless. Huge passenger and freight trains. I couldn’t imagine having to endure that every day and night. The locals told us they had got used to it. I suppose they had no choice. The whole area was covered in piles of rubbish, nobody seemed to own shoes but yet they were walking along broken glass, twisted metal and many other unsavoury objects that I did not choose / want to investigate further. There were so many children, everywhere just living and playing on the tracks. This was day-to-day life for them.

Life on the tracks
Father, 3 kids, and the place they call home

We asked how they earn money to live. As they lived on an illegal settlement (there is nowhere else for them to go) the government classifies them as having no fixed address, so they are ineligible for an ID card.

No ID card = you can’t get a job.

This despite some of the residents having lived here since as early as 1970. No job makes it virtually impossible to escape the cycle of poverty. They told us the only way they could earn money was by collecting glass and plastic bottles etc… 1kg of plastic fetches 5,000 Rupiah (about 32 pence), 1kg of glass 6,000 Rupiah (around 40 pence). They told me they were able to collect a kilogram of each every 2-3 days. Unimaginable. We wondered why they didn’t move, but they had no-where else to go and this was their home. A large number were born here.

I asked Ronny if the government was doing anything to help these people, or better their cause. We were told that the government (in the eyes of the world) is making great efforts to resolve poverty in Jakarta. That is because officially 900,000 people live below the poverty line, living off less than US$2 a day. The government is investing in initiatives to help these people. I asked if the people we were meeting were due to receive anything from the government programmes to aid poverty. I was told very bluntly, no.

International NGO’s and Charities do work in Jakarta, but their resources are being directed towards the 900,000 or so people who the government favours for whatever reason. I was told but have since forgotten! Ronny told me that the 900,000 being given aid and supported enjoyed far better circumstances and living conditions than the people we were meeting. As the people we were meeting lived on illegal settlements, and had done for decades – they were not included in government records or statistics. In the eyes of the government, they did not exist. None of the people we met received any help or assistance from any NGO’s or the government.

Ronny told me it’s estimated that approximately 65% of Jakartans’ are living below the poverty line. Amelia and I would have to agree with Ronny. There are 19 million people estimated to live in Jakarta – there is no way that only 900,000 are living in poverty. Outside of the CBD and downtown area – it’s pretty much slums and shacks as far as the eye can see except for a few tower blocks here and there for the middle class to live in.

We heard countless tales of hardship and poverty from the local people, who were all incredibly dignified, friendly and welcoming.  We almost felt shame as we walked around, chatting with people, hearing their stories. Of course it is not our personal fault that there are so many inequalities in the world, but we couldn’t help but feel immense guilt that we had so much, and they had so little. In material terms they had nothing, but they did not want our pity or sympathy. They wanted us to come and see how they lived in the hope that we can raise awareness and maybe try to do something to make this wretched situation better for them. They did not complain, they just got on with things, got on with life and the daily struggle. I was amazed at how happy, friendly and excitable the children were. They were the cutest, most adorable kids. They are no different to any other children in developed countries, the tragedy is they will never have the opportunities that most of us have always taken for granted.

The children were so exciteable!

The adults we met, although friendly and welcoming were tired and fed-up of living in such conditions, you could see it in their eyes. They looked very worn and weary.

We ended the day feeling frustrated that we are just English teachers in Korea, and that we possess very little power and resources to actually make a difference.

That said, I’m going to enquire about running some charitable activities in my school in the hope that it will encourage a social conscience to blossom in my students, as I get the impression that is lacking in Korea on the whole. Apart from a few fundraising activities there is very little I can do. This blogs scope is limited to a few dozen facebook friends that read it. The only people who can really make a  big difference are the Indonesian Government and NGO’s.

In the mean time, Ronny and Anneka are doing splendid work. Their organisation is attempting to help individuals support themselves by giving them resources and materials to start-up a business, a small shop for example. This is something that the NGO’s and government are currently not doing. $200 is how much it costs to enable a family to start-up a shop within their community. They’re also trying to support local people by providing rice, clean water, recycling / waste disposal services, and children’s education. Ronny and Anneka are devoted to the cause of Jakarta’s poor, they volunteer for long hours in the communities and do as much as they possibly can to help. Unfortunately, they are just normal people trying to make a difference. As wonderful as that is, it means their resources and influence are limited. They need help. $20 in Jakarta is a hell of a lot of money and can make a difference.

Ronny and Annekas spoken english is very good, but their website and written english is not so good. If any of you would like to speak to them or wish to make a contribution then please e-mail them – jaktour@gmail.com

They have two websites:

http://inter-kultur.blogspot.com/2008/08/communities.html

http://realjakarta.blogspot.com/

After all of this, check out how the rich live – on the doorsteps of the poor…

Just your average shopping mall (The photos don't do it justice!)
Pretty nice interior to a shopping mall
Fairly standard car park in Jakarta - 2 Ferraris, 2 Porsches, a Lamorghini and some other flash yellow thing I don't recognise