Indonesia Through My Eyes: Introduction

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I’m officially a transplant in Indonesia now. I can’t believe it’s been a month. It’s the longest I’ve ever been in this country. Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming and realize that I’m not in LA anymore. It’s not everyday you uproot your life to move to another country to follow your passion. So, I’ve decided to create a series to document my journey in my parents’ homeland. Not only will it serve as a way for me to record my adventures, but I hope friends and readers will get to see Indonesia through my lens.

Setting foot 

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I broke my finger before I left LA in a basketball tournament. My parents were concerned for my well-being, as they should be, but I was insistent upon leaving as soon as possible. Being a very driven individual, I didn’t want my injury to stop me. However, it was only when I got on the plane to Korea that I realize it was going to be rather difficult having my hand in a cast. Lifting my bag into the overhead compartment, acting quickly to disrobe for the TSA , etc. posed some challenges. I just sucked it up throughout the trip.

I reached Jakarta passed midnight. I went through immigration with no problem. It was here where I found my injury to be a great icebreaker as the immigration officer was intrigued by it and we talked about it while he processed my entry. My cousin and nephew picked me up and the Jakarta I remembered came back to me: hot, humid and polluted.

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Despite the notorious reputation of unhygienic conditions at street food stands and warungs (mom & pop shops), I ignored my family’s warnings. We got some late night food on the way to my aunt’s house. My cousin drove us to get bubur ayam (chicken porridge) at Bubur Ayam Sukabumi.  After all, I’m a firm believer in supporting local businesses as well as food from these establishments represents the real Indonesian cuisine. The stomach aches and possibility of contracting food poisoning are worth the gamble.

While we exchanged words with each other and caught up with events since my last trip to Indonesia 4 years ago, I witnessed the Jakarta that some people talked about: privileged folks bossing around employees at the warung like second class citizens. I felt very uneasy sitting across from them. I could empathize with the workers because before I came to Indonesia, I worked at a cafe as a busboy and would never want to be given such treatment. It was late, so there’s a possibility, too, alcohol and other libations may have been a factor.

The next day I woke up to my aunt’s perfect breakfast – tofu, tempe, veggies, eggs and rice. Seriously, simple Indonesian food like this is what I appreciate and dreamed of when I first embarked on my journey.

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My aunt is the widow of my dad’s oldest brother. She is deaf but what she lacks in hearing is made up with her big heart. No matter how far apart we were and how long time has separated us, she never showed me any less love.

My family is still somewhat traditional. So, during my first few days, I practiced a traditional Indonesian custom of sowan, where I visit elder family members to let them know I am in their presence and ask for their blessings. It is a way for paying my respects being the youngest grandchild in my dad’s side of the family. It was during this time I realized Jakarta’s terrible condition. The infrastructure, poverty and cleanliness are worse than what I read in the news.

Initial Culture Shocks

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One of the reasons why I studied city planning was to help infrastructure issues in Indonesia. We talk about the pictures of children crossing treacherous bridges in outlying areas in Indonesia. Yet, we forget that even in the the capital city there are problems,too. I’m not saying the rural areas shouldn’t be helped as they do need support from the government asap. Though, how can we help those far away when issues within the immediate area where the country officials reside in aren’t addressed? Forget the smell, how can kids avoid falling into unstable or missing sidewalks that may have steel rebars and other dangerous construction hazards waiting underneath?  I’ve compiled my initial shocks which I’ve experienced, thus far, in my first several weeks and by no means is it a complete list.

Smoking & Trash

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These two are my biggest pet peeves. I have managed to contract asthma somehow in my early 20s. So most type of smoke aren’t good for my lungs. Because I love to support local coffee shops back home (check out Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley), my cousin and friends have introduced me to some spots in the neighborhood. Upon sitting at these establishments, the sight of people smoking indoor is such a distasteful sight. It makes me want to tell them to stop because of my condition. But smoking indoor is still allowed and telling them to stop can possibly offend them. Honestly I’m not sure what I can do to prevent my respiratory cells from deteriorating. While this is happening, I find it scarier that from several folks I met on the street that smoking ads are just scare tactics. In fact smoking does not kill according to them. One said that smoking may further hurt someone if they are already sick but the smoking itself is not bad. Being a non-smoker, I feel like I’m the one in the straitjacket.

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My heart breaks when I see people throw trash wherever they please. Indonesia is such a beautiful country with its abundant natural assets. The waste just contaminates this allure. Unfortunately, the infrastructure does not support it either, so attempting to change people’s behavior is a monumental task. There are folks who benefit from the this rubbish but it’s not like all of it will be picked up. Only the bottles and recyclable materials will be taken. As for plastic bags, ziplocs and wrappers, they will just lay among the sumptuous banana groves and already sad riverbanks. I was fortunate enough to walk in solidarity with the laborers of Java on May Day. While it was great to march with these folks to advocate for labor rights, my attention was slowly being distracted by the sound not of their cheers but their feet kicking bottles on the ground. It was amazing that after the walk, the streets were clean. Still, what if the cleaners or opportunists weren’t there? What happens then?

Water

Whenever I go out to eat back home, a majority of the time I just drink the water served at the table. I know it’s from the tap and maybe it’s not as clean as the bottled ones, but hey it tastes good to me. Plus, I find it more quenching and wallet-friendly than anything else (aside from coconut water). Arriving here, I realized that asking for water (aka Aqua for the brand by Danone) comes in a bottle. Only one time was I served water straight and that was at a restaurant I have come to like in Bintaro called Burgreens.

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I understand that water in general in Indonesian is not clean but I really wonder if the tap water is safe to drink? It’s just hard to believe that ordering tea or something else can be cheaper than water. It will take time to adjust but maybe I should look into it or ask the managers why they don’t serve water from the tap.

Conclusion

Jakarta isn’t like any other city I have ever lived in. Everywhere I have moved previously was still in California, so the culture was still the same. Thankfully, I moved during the presidential election, thus it will give me insight on that aspect of the culture. Transportation is a bit difficult since there isn’t really a place to look up for public transit information. It’s all by asking friends, family and those on the street. Maybe in the next post I’ll get into it more. I’m still trying to figure out how to best document my experience. We’ll see what adventures I share next.

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Lombok Fisherman

Al Jazeera: Indonesia relocates families to build resorts? (Link to Article)

So I decided to take my opinions to a more appropriate space in the interwebs, having understood that maybe Facebook isn’t really the best place to offer food for thought to my friends. With that said, hopefully my two cents are appreciated and will improve my writing skills to prepare me for grad school. I hope none of my comments offend anyone and allow a space for folks to engage in calm, direct critical discussions.

Summary

Al Jazeera recently featured an article discussing a phenomenon that started a few years ago in Indonesia where “100 islands have been effectively sold to investors… in bid to boost tourism.” In the article, the writer, focused on Gili Sunut Island located near the Eastern side of Lombok where 109 families used to live there but have been relocated as Ocean Blue Resorts, a Singaporean development firm, is planning to build a “six-star resort“. The families were against the idea of relocation but had no choice in the end.

The People’s Coalition for Fisheries Justice in Indonesia (KIARA), a sea and land rights advocacy group, says many more islands will effectively be sold to foreign buyers, trampling the rights of fishermen and threatening traditional livelihoods.”

As compensation for the relocation, Ocean Blue Resorts has built new bungalows for the families in their new living site and given each household between 3 – 5M Rupiah or $246 to $411. The article also says that tourism is booming on the island of Lombok and that development “promises to bring new wealth to the region, but for many villagers the pace of change has been disruptive.” In addition, despite the benefits of jobs and roads, it’s apparently against the Indonesian Constitution as it is illegal to sell the islands. According to KIARA, the government has bypassed the Constitution with an “Island Adoption Programme” where the owners/investors manage the island for 30-50 years. Gufrin Udin, an official from the Lombok regional government has “downplayed” the complaints and believed that these projects will create job opportunities and the rise in tourism will improve the locals’ livelihood.

Response

There are many things that are wrong with the events described in the article but I will focus it into three ideas. Firstly, it is alarming that islands could be bought for a monetary value when there are folks living on it for hundreds of years or more for the sake of tourism demand and view it as a project of development. Second, the compensation for relocation is not enough because  money and housing is a shortsighted gesture not capable for sustaining life. Lastly, it is shocking that an “Island Adoption Programme” is used to dodge the Constitution, which is nostalgic to Freeport’s rental agreement with Indonesia for exclusive mining rights on West Papua’s copper and gold reserves.

The expression “out with the Old and in with the New” seems to epitomize the development rhetoric utilized since the mid-20th Century. This is very true in Indonesia as it is struggling to transition to become a “modern” country that is largely famed for its unique, rich and diverse traditional culture. With its beautiful environmental features, Indonesia offers a paradise-like atmosphere that people around the world would pay top dollars to experience it. As a result, it becomes a double-edged sword. It is, then, difficult for a country who has been recently labeled a “rising-economy” and member of the ever-prestigious G20 to compete to get ahead.Thus, Indonesia’s agricultural lands and forests have been one of the cornerstone for the development projects as found in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Now through the lens of tourism, islands are the next marketable space to engage in development projects.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the beauty of a country’s natural and built assets; however, to reclaim land from people in order to convert them into a cash and leaving those residents out is problematic. This would be a different story if the locals were able to stay as they have a better chance to participate in the wealth creation than to be relocated. Just because the local government has the authority to move the people, it doesn’t mean it is right. Development is suppose to be benefited by all members of those impacted by it. However, the Jamaica would disagree as it has become dependent on foreign aid, despite a thriving tourist industry as seen in the documentary Life and Debt. Only the resort areas will see investment and areas outside will be neglected. The fact is that benefits of development are unequal as those investing or directly connected will receive them. In this case, the former residents will be left out when the resort will be finish and the environment that these people have acted as stewards of will also suffer.

Although compensation has been distributed by Ocean Blue Resorts, housing and some money for repayment is inadequate. Relocation has been done to many groups of people throughout history from the Native Americans to the Jews, which has and will still be unlawful. Frankly, how do you determine compensation to a group of people whose livelihood is majority depended from the land or water and not in sales? These are the same people who produce the very rituals and “culture” that Indonesians are proud to show off when they go abroad. Economic models cannot and WILL NOT quantify in monetary value the worth of practices found in traditional way of life, unless ticket sales for a culture show counts. The Lombok official, Gufrin, suggested that jobs and the tourism demand will increase their livelihood. Those jobs that he claims will appear are not guaranteed and without the proper education these folks cannot utilize the burgeoning market to become entrepreneurs if in fact tourism is booming. The article does not mention it but like any site offering labor with paid compensation will attract folks outside of the area, thus, possibly squeezing out the locals, or in West Papua’s case, migrant workers are brought in by the employer to fill the labor need. The issue of transportation is not addressed too and what if they can’t manage the daily commute? What will possibly happen is that as folks do not have skills or way to cover costs to adapt in their new “home”, poverty and the potential for crime will develop. If the government actually did their job, services and oversight would be organized with the influx of revenue so that folks can adjust to their new surroundings and have a chance to thrive instead of leaving these locals’ welfare at the hands to the market’s mercy. In the end, government officials are then the real beneficiaries of the so-called “new wealth” as they reap the tax revenues and/or kickbacks.

With respect to this new flow of capital, it seems that such an “Island Adoption Programme” is a crime as it not only jumps over the Indonesian Constitution but it also denies the rights of the people living on the land that is proposed to be bought. In city planning, I’ve learned that “imminent domain” is a useful tool utilized by planning and zoning commissions across the US to take land. However, such tactic is the last resort if residents are unwilling to sell or move after the vested parties have gone through the necessary steps in reappropriating the land which includes in compensating residents. In this situation, it does not say what the stakeholders have done to work with the locals. It only says that the residents have sought for many “consultations” but it was inevitable for the move. Such compensation is not enough because the value of the land will be worth far more than their payment and that is literally stealing from these people. It is basically what happened in West Papua when Soeharto gave the exclusive rights to Freeport to mine for gold and copper for 100 years denying the local people’s voice to object it. The communities on the mountain were relocated to a place where they have no knowledge of surviving as their way of life was tied to the mountain. Many if not all of them did not see a single drop of the ridiculous amount of wealth excavated from their mountain as migrants from other islands took the jobs with the company. Now this part of the country is ravaged by poverty and in constant uproar for justice as they know they were cheated out of their own land. This is what I predict would happen in many of the islands that have been bought up by “investors”.

Today’s society values money, consumerism and innovation as the defining tenets of culture. It is frightening that the livelihood of some are worth more than others in order to accomplish these items. With every island bought, more cultures and traditions are lost as the attachment these folks have to the land and water are severed. To add insult to injuries, these officials’ claims for “new wealth” and jobs are just empty promises. They are unsupported until the benefits of the projects do reach the locals. One factor for China’s quick jolt in economic growth was largely in part to it’s government’s brilliant negotiation victory for technical training is mandatory by the companies for its workers. Many of these individuals were able to use their knowledge to get a formal education and become successful. If the government want to save some headache and potential public relations nightmare, they can do their due diligence and provide social services for the folks they have displaced or negotiate a clause with the new anchor tenants of the islands in guaranteeing jobs or some social mobility opportunity for the people. If not, the infamous mid-20th Century public housing project in St Louis called Pruitt-Igoe is clear cut example of what happens when low-income folks are given housing but do not have access to services to increase their mobility and prevent the cycle of poverty, which can happen to these folks. Indonesia wants to be like its Global North peers but it shouldn’t have to sacrifice its traditional ways and people’s welfare to be  modern or global. With that respect, if these investors are really investing instead of buying the land, why can’t the people stay on land that is still public?