An excerpt from The Rainy Season, by Tucker Elliot:
In my mind I’d placed rings around the hotel. The high-end shopping, restaurants and other luxury hotels were in the first ring—Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and dozens of other brand names fit for Fifth Avenue. Not that downtown Jakarta would ever be confused with Manhattan, but persons with substantial means could certainly pass time in Jakarta without any major inconveniences. In the second ring were places like Chili’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, 7-Eleven, Circle K and Dunkin’ Donuts.
We’d left the first and second rings behind after five minutes of driving … in traffic.
In the third ring the streets were narrow and dark, almost sinister. People lit fires on sidewalks to burn trash or cook food, or both. There were steel barricades with heavy padlocks in front of every doorway, and they made every residence look like a prison. They probably felt that way, too. The motorbikes that weren’t playing Frogger on the streets were chained to the same barricades that fortified the houses. Half-naked kids were panhandling in traffic. The first ring glowed in the distance, lit up by consumerism that was brought to Jakarta courtesy of western cultures and Christian nations, and it influenced impoverished Muslims in the third ring, who wore Manchester United tee shirts with “Rooney” on the back, twisting further the attitudes and perceptions of those who were bent already toward radicalism.
Maybe we should build a McDonald’s on every corner and declare victory. Or did we try that already?
The traffic got worse and soon we were at a complete standstill. There were four or five local men in various states of undress standing in the road, but the only police officers in sight were sitting off to the side and seemingly unconcerned about the situation. The locals were ostensibly directing traffic to alleviate the jam, but it was pretty clear they were in fact causing it to further the panhandling efforts of the kids.
Indira said, “Soukpa, close your window.”
Soukpa had barely registered what Indira had said when a hand slammed loudly against the van. Soukpa cried out in surprise and nearly fell from her seat, but it was only a boy, maybe eight or nine years old.
The boy cried through the window in English, “I hungry!”
Soukpa quickly reached into her tote bag.
Indira grabbed Soukpa’s arm. “No,” she said. “You must not give the boy money. You see the men? The boy work for the men. The men will take anything you give the boy.”
Soukpa was horrified. “Who give boy food?”
Will said, “It’s difficult to say no, but Indira’s right.”
Soukpa’s hand came out of the bag with a banana. She had no money to give the boy, but she was prepared to give away the food she had pinched from the breakfast buffet.
Indira shook her head sadly. “I am sorry.”
The boy banged his hand repeatedly on the side of the van. Soukpa was obviously torn, but she put the banana back into her bag. I’d never seen a face with such a pained expression. The boy just banged away, again and again, and his antics drew unwanted attention to our van from the people on the street, sidewalks, and other cars. He screamed, “I hungry! I hungry!” It was uncomfortable, to say the least. Indira spoke Bahasa to our driver, who then climbed out of the van and chased the boy away with a few harsh words.
“I am sorry,” Indira said again.
The city assaulted us with its hellacious cacophony, but inside the van it was eerily quiet.
Indira finally gave everyone a big smile, and then she asked, “How many Indonesian men does it take to direct traffic?” I didn’t say anything because I had no idea if she was being serious. No one else said anything either. Indira laughed and told us, “All of them. The women work and cook and clean and make babies and pray five times a day, but the men have nothing better to do.”
“How long are they going to keep us here?” I asked.
“You do not like my joke?”
“It’ll be funnier after they let us go.”
“They let us go soon, I think.”
The police officers finally stood up. They blew whistles and chased the men and kids from the street. Our van began moving again and a short moment later I saw firsthand how completely the filth and squalor of the third ring had enveloped the train station. Wallach had the right idea, avoiding this place. The van had barely slowed when a crowd of men descended on it, waving and motioning our driver to park in twenty different places.
Indira said, “How many Indonesian men does it take to park a van?”
There was a chorus of “all of them,” and this time it probably would have been funny if not for the women, children and street vendors waiting for us in all twenty different places we were being directed. It was a relief when finally we parked and climbed out of the van, but immediately there were countless people staring at us—specifically at me, Will and Martin—and while most were simply curious, others were outright hostile. My ideal for blending in would be for no one to see or hear me, ever. Good luck with that. Not here, not in this scenario. Sometimes blending in means acute situational awareness and the right attitude. Act as if you belong. Which is why I approached the ticket office the same way I’d left the airport the other night: no big deal.
Being with Indira obviously helped. She made all our arrangements. On that account, Wallach had been right on target. The listed price was 7,000 rupiah per ticket. Indira haggled and finally agreed on 5,000 rupiah. Our group of sixteen would travel for less than ten dollars. Indira had knocked a buck-fifty off the total, which I found incredibly amusing at the time.
I don’t have a lot of experience with trains, but the “train station” picture I had in mind had been formed by Seoul Station and London Liverpool Street. My picture was off just a bit. Well, in truth, I wasn’t even on the right canvas. In Seoul and London the train stations have concourses with high-end shopping and fancy restaurants. The train station we departed from that morning had a dirty 7-Eleven with about half of its shelves stocked.
I bought a bottle of water and sat quietly on the platform.
There were only two tracks, but after a few minutes Indira realized we were sitting on the wrong side. We climbed an escalator that didn’t work, crossed over to the other side, and found benches dirtier than the ones we’d just left.
I decided to walk around the platform. It was elevated and I could see a long line of people standing outside a small grocer across the street from the station.
Indira walked over and said, “It is really sad.”
She pointed at a sign I hadn’t noticed: Western Union. “It is the same in every city in my country, a long line every morning to get money family member send from overseas. It comes from your country, Dubai, Europe, but not from my country. The people will not even take the money in rupiah because they no longer trust it. They will take U.S. dollars from the Western Union.”
“I had no idea things were this bad. If all I had seen of your country was the area around the hotel then I would think everyone in Indonesia is rich.”
“Indonesians believe all Americans are rich.”
“Trust me, they’re not.”
“Indonesians believe American schools are the best in the world.”
“American schools have eight hundred million problems. At least.”
“You can see Central Jakarta from here. See how tall my city is?”
She was right. The skyscrapers and luxury hotels could easily be seen in the distance.
“It is very easy for the people to see, but almost impossible for them to afford. We believe every American is rich because every American that come to my city can afford Central Jakarta.”
“The ones who can’t afford it don’t come. You know it’s that simple.”
Indira nodded. “I know. But here the only truth that matters is what the people can see. The city grows taller, the people here live in the shadow, foreigners shop in stores that are not Indonesian so your money will not stay in my country, but your money will make life more expensive for every Indonesian with no choice but to stay.”
“You’re not going to self-detonate now, are you?”
Indira smiled wryly. “My sister is secretary in Central Jakarta.”
“Is that a good job?”
“If you work for foreign company. My sister is secretary for Indonesian company.”
“What’s the difference?”
“She has not been paid her salary in six months.”
“She hasn’t been paid in six months, but she’s still working there?”
“What about you?” I asked.
“I get half my salary in U.S. dollars. I am very lucky because I can help my sister and my parents.” She thought for a second, and then added, “The only time I think to self-detonate is when I have to work with people like Wallach.”
“He has that effect on people.”
“You are lucky to be American. Do you know why I work so hard for this conference? I will help Indonesian teachers. The teachers will help Indonesian children. The children will help my country.”
“Then I came along and said nobody you invited to the conference had any answers. Sorry about that.”
Indira let loose her outrageous laugh. “Oh come on, Mr. Strange. I tell you many times already that I am not blind. I can see you do not trust easy. I also think you forgot how to trust yourself. But I trust you, and I know today you will help Chyka.”
I really had no idea how to respond.
“You wish to change the topic. I can tell.”
“No, we can talk about Chyka. Is it a good job to be a teacher here?”
Indira shrugged. “A government school is not good. I think maybe four hundred U.S. dollars a month is normal salary. Better than my loners, but still not good. Private teacher is good, and international teacher is rich, but only if you are foreigner.”
The train to Bogor finally pulled into the station.
“Thank you for doing this,” Indira said.
“I need one more favor.” Indira reached into her purse and came out with a nametag identical to the two she’d given me already. “Please wear your nametag all the time,” she said, struggling mightily to keep a straight face. She clipped it to my shirt before I could protest.
“Did you at least get me a first class seat?”
Indira laughed so hard, she could barely catch her breath. I saw why when I got on the train. It didn’t have any seats.