Jakarta Life

Writing from my new apartment- or ‘kost’ as they’re called here in Indonesia- which is actually more like a room. A nice room though…new, with a personal bathroom and study area, AC, wooden ceiling, tiled floors and most importantly, security guards. It only costs about $220 per month, and is a mere 2 to 3 minute walk from my office building, a divine gift from heaven considering the atrocious traffic here in Jakarta. One can make a wrong turn and need an hour to correct it by circling just one block, especially in rush hour. This of course makes for fresh, clean city air and remarkable respiratory health for locals.

Before I found the place- which involved a pretty painless process of walking around the neighborhood one afternoon knocking on doors with an Indonesian coworker- I stayed for a few days with the family of my Indonesian classmate from Paris whose mother works in the democracy, governance & anti-corruption unit for USAID. It was nice to have that comfort upon arrival, and I learned much about the current political climate here, including the July 9 presidential election (more on that to come).

The kost building is owned and managed by two young Indonesian-Chinese entrepreneurs whose families must be in the upper echelon here since they studied at private university in the US and buy and sell properties like candy. They’re cool and they’re Christian (a rarity here among the Muslim majority) and understand America and so we bond and they show me around. To. All. The. Malls.

Jakarta is plastic. Really, there are malls upon malls. It’s risen to a middle-income country (though the income inequality is absurdely stark…modern office buildings stand alongside dilapidated shacks), and luxury brands ubiquitous. It is an inside culture- exercising in gyms instead of parks. Eating in chain restaurants instead of sidewalk cafes. Shopping in malls instead of street markets. Using car taxis instead of cycling. It’s a respite from the hot air and pollution but it’s artificial and it’s suffocating. Malls mimic real life where strolling inside them is like strolling outside- hallways meant to look like streetways with their fake trees, lanterns, brick and even iron bridges. The nightlife, though, seems enticing and I am excited to explore it- lots of fancy sky bars. Only trouble is they overlook a city so polluted with a government so capable of building malls yet incapable of installing public transit.

The two landlords guzzle down drinks as I sip my green veggie juice, and when I compliment their young success, let down their guard. “It’s a lot of pressure, from our families. We can’t take a year to backpack or volunteer as many Americans or Europeans do. ” They’re right. Asians typically don’t that…not considered a productive use of time in a culture where familial pressure for business dominates over exploration and learning.

The people I’ve encountered here so far have been friendly and welcoming. They smile and say hello on the streets, are helpful and excited to meet foreigners. Except whatever jerk stole my camera and cash on the bus my first day. Yeah, except him.

It’s OK; the experience led me to meet a lovely friend. Sarah and I bonded during the mandatory UN security briefing held on the second day of our internship. Sarah was also robbed on her first day, on the train. Turns out getting screwed on day #1 was not all we had in common: She is the same age as I; studied in Paris; is eager; in the international development field on the grassroots side- and also struggling a bit with working in an office. “I just don’t think humans are supposed to live like that, much of their lives sitting in one spot. Why do we do this to ourselves,” she said during our first lunch break together. Instant connection.

It’s always reassuring to meet people with similar interests, and going to grad school and meeting expats while working abroad definitely helped in this journey of pursuing this line of work. A rarity at my college, where there was not even an international affairs major, it’s so nice to know there are others I can relate to- particularly girls- who face many of the same questions, decisions and experiences in this field.

The majority of my coworkers at the ILO are Indonesian, which is good to see since it’s their country. They are very intelligent, hardworking and friendly all at once, and it’s fascinating to learn about their projects- everything from hunger alleviation to better factory conditions, advancing small enterprises to scoring social protection for workers.

The ILO is working closely with the government to develop a social security and injury protection scheme for workers, and will present it in a conference this month. Such a plan is long overdue, my supervisor says; given the government heavily subsidizes gasoline (for the tax revenue cars provide) it should be able to provide insurance to workers. We visited the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration today to organize the conference, for which I’m helping to prepare the program and speakers.

I’m also helping in the enterprise development department, looking at technical business guidelines given to restaurants, guesthouses and market vendors and simplifying them for these owners to understand. I’ll then create guidelines for small stores on how to start a business- how to market, access credit and build a model. I’ve never done this before and am relying on Google and what I’ve learned from classes so far for guidance. This ‘toolbox’ be piloted and monitored in Jakarta, and hopefully will have some impact.

^^(Just realized that sentence is very NGO-ish. In journalism terms: the guidelines will be handed out to small store owners in Jakarta for the first time, and ILO reps will poll the entrepreneurs to ask if they think the recommendations have helped them create businesses or improve sales for existing ones.)

The last project is writing op-eds linking the ILO conference in Geneva to predominant labor issues in Indonesia, the first being formalizing the informal economy (informal economy accounts for more than 60% of Indonesia’s labor force).

Other than that, I’m looking forward to getting out on the weekends. Indonesia is a big country of which seemingly 99% lies outside what’s dubbed The Big Durian, i.e. Jakarta (Durian is a notoriously foul smelling Southeast Asian fruit). Might hike a volcano with a fellow ILO intern my age from New York this weekend. And my good friend from Scotland will be living in Bali for July, which presents quite the perfect opportunity to visit 🙂



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