When Saturday morning rolled around, quite a few hungover faces accompanied the tired and sick faces of the rest of the group. By this point in the study tour everybody was either a little bit sleep deprived, a little bit ill or trying to drink through a combination of the two. No matter how anyone felt though, the experiences of the afternoon to come would soon wipe away all feelings of self-remorse.
The day started off rather slowly. After a briefing of the cultural activity we were going to undertake everybody was stuffed into vans and we made our way to some of the cultural hot spots of Jakarta. We visited the national monument, but due to time constraints we sadly could not go inside. We then went to the Masjid Istiqlal mosque. This is the biggest mosque in Jakarta, as it provides a place to pray for 200,000 people at any given time. When necessary, it’s also possible to stuff another 200,000 people in the corridors and plaza’s outside of the main hall.
An interesting fact to note about the mosque is that the architect is actually a Christian. In fact, there is also a cathedral opposite to the mosque. During Christmas, the Christians are allowed to use the parking spaces of the mosque, and during Muslim holidays, it is the other way around. These facts highlight the high degree of tolerance the religions have for each other in Indonesia, which was a very nice thing to see.
After visiting the cathedral and the mosque, we made our way towards Batavia. This is the region of Jakarta where the Dutch lived during their time in colonized Indonesia. There is a large square where the Dutch influences are very apparent. You could even rent a bicycle!
The buildings in Batavia are seen as a symbol of the period of Dutch colonization and as such, one political party has been trying to get the buildings demolished. On the other hand, cultural experts are campaigning to keep the buildings intact as they were built by the Indonesians and are a part of the history of Jakarta. The fact that this discussion is actually happening shows that the wounds of the Dutch period in Indonesia have not healed entirely, yet.
The general public on the square did not seem to care about that at all though, as our group of tall white men quickly became the biggest tourist attraction around. The local people were literally queueing to take a picture with us. We were told they don’t often see ‘Boule’, white people, and consider us as very attractive. After fending off the locals, who did not really ever stop taking pictures, we took some local public transport to the next destination on our journey through Jakarta.
That destination turned out to be extremely impressive. We were guided into the very poor parts of the city. There is a very sharp contrast between the business district with its skyscrapers and busy streets where we usually go for our company visits, and what we experienced here. If you imagine the slums of a city, it’s natural to think about the favelas in Rio. As a matter of fact, the favelas are very spacious compared to the housing we saw in the Jakarta slums.
As we were guided through the slums, we met the inhabitants, who were all genuinely happy to see us and engaged in conversations with us. We learnt that the people there live together in a small community. Most of them have day jobs, but they don’t earn much more than €5 a day, which is just enough to rent their place and keep them alive. The ones who don’t have a job in the outside world do small jobs for the others, such as cooking or washing clothes.
We slowly made our way to the second level of housing, which was right beside a train track. Every ten minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, a train bellows past the houses of the people living there. In the ten minutes in between though, their children play on the train tracks and people move items and merchandise over the tracks.
After this confronting experience, we moved on to the harbour district. The people here were living in similar conditions, with very small houses with leaky roofs, no running water and no electricity by day, only by night. The government does provide them with an opportunity for social housing, but it is generally too expensive. Furthermore, it is pretty far away from the harbour district, where many of them work as fishermen.
Their children do receive free education until the age of 18. The degree to which they speak English is astonishing. It was easy to hold a decent conversation with a 10-year-old about their lives, where they came from and what they did. We sat with the children for quite some time, singing songs and playing games. Once again it became clear that these were some of the happiest people we ever met. The education they receive will hopefully provide them with a chance to break out of their poverty. One of the women in the slums invited us to her home and told us about her children. Her 16-year-old son had landed a job at a coffee bar and was making a decent pay check. The smile and pride on her face when she told us that was very inspiring.
The children accompanied us for dinner, after which we parted ways again. The experiences we had and the people we met provided a lot of food for thought and were the main topic of conversation for the rest of the night. The drinks at the bar that night felt and tasted a little different. We’re 100% sure nobody will forget this experience. Being born where and how we were born is basically like winning the lottery, which everybody appreciates more after today.