Sunday, June 08, 2008

Walk the Line

The oil price spike is, of course, hurting not only this country but the entire world at the moment. This week we learned that the CEO of PT.Indonesia, Mr.SBY has, in his desperation, invested about $1 million of government money in the bogus claims made by some bloke called Joko who he ran into at his local KFC once.

The mysterious stranger's assertion that he could turn water into fuel, a process dubbed Blue Energy by the credulous Mr.Y, has oddly enough proved to be the utterly unscientific load of hokum that I think most of us could have guessed that it was from the word go. However, if Mr SBY is reading this, my mate Dave has perfected a cold fusion process in his Mandi and is quite keen to secure a bit of funding in order to retile it.

The energy crisis, global warming, spiraling food costs; the human race is waltzing ever closer to the precipice it would seem. Now more than ever it is time to green our lives and societies and reduce our carbon footprints. Jakarta's streets are jammed ever tighter with cars and the busway has turned out to be a pretty clunky and inadequate attempt at a solution. Furthermore, all that remains of the putative monorail are the slowly ossifying concrete stumps that pointlessly dot the city's main thoroughfares like so many monolithic monuments to incompetence.

It’s in this context that I’d like to say a few words about Jakarta's oft neglected pedestrians and their 100% bio-organic use of leg power. The humble pavement could be the wave of the city's future (I refuse to use the word sidewalk in this week's MM despite the Jakarta Post's institutionalized use of American English).

When I return home to see my family in London I think nothing of enjoying a 20 minute stroll to the shops or to the tube station. This is largely due to the fact that it's possible to do so without tripping over, being forced into the road to play chicken with endless motorcycles or otherwise being asphyxiated, shouted at, tapped up by primary school age beggars or scolded by flying fried rice.

Similarly, in Java's lush countryside, school kids think nothing of cycling or walking a few kilometers through beautifully verdant palm trees and paddy fields to their schools. In Jakarta's urban jungle though, attempting this every day would be seriously hazardous to one's health.

Walking on Jakarta's pavements is often like walking down a more organized city's pavements having had five bottles of Anker. This is a situation that becomes all the more hazardous if you've actually had five bottles of Anker. Keeping one eye ahead and one eye on the jagged street below requires a bit of ocular gymnastics but it's worth the effort in the end.

All of this has led to a reluctance by many to indulge in the odd bit of Jakarta pavement pounding. Such reluctance only adds to the population's general unfitness and also serves to further socially alienate rich car owners from the city's vibrant but impoverished street life. A bit of serious pedestrianisation of certain areas of town would be a positive step forward and perhaps even act as a balm on the deep wound of the city's huge class chasm.

Overpopulation is part of the problem of course. The streets here are simply teeming with people trying to earn an honest or not so honest living. So far, the city administration's only solutions to urban migration from the poor countryside have been to turn people away from bus stations as they arrive and to crack the skulls of low income city residents who hold non-Jakarta ID cards.

The city's pavements do, however, also contain many great pleasures within the boundaries of their dusty (or more often than not completely nonexistent) kerb stones. Great food is never more than a stone's throw away and the (usually) friendly "Hello Mr."s flow thick and fast if you’re a pale face. The streets are also generally safe at night and local chaps largely seem too busy squatting in the toilet position smoking cigarettes to mug you at knifepoint.

My five-minute walk from the house out to the main road for a taxi or bus is a typically Jakartan stroll. Firstly I have to negotiate the local satpam security guards who spend their lives pacing up and down the cul-de-sac outside my window. If I'm really lucky they'll be playing street badminton or pumping some hot Dangdut grooves. Then it's a quick pace up the hill avoiding swerving Bajajs and scooters. From there I plunge into one of the city's millions of alleyways where local kids subject me to the full white Negro "Mr Mr!" assault before I reach my good friend, a seemingly octogenarian fruit seller who sits all day at the front, and purchase a few slices of melon and papaya to take with me.

Finally I emerge blinking onto the cauldron of the main road and the full frontal assault of Jakarta's chaotic Brownian motion. Then I merely have to open a taxi door without knocking a motorcyclist to the ground or being knocked to the ground myself. Sharp exhalation of breath, meter running, newspaper out, shirt wringing with sweat, sorted. “Where are you going Mr?” “Nowhere Pak, nowhere at all”.