Here Thar Be Monsters!

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13.6.10

Livin' In Da 'Hood Yo

For the most part, I try to bring you, dear reader, a taste of Indonesia that you, as a casual tourist, would never experience. The average traveler here would never visit an urban neighborhood or chat idly with the folks next door. Therefore, as your intrepid reporter, it is my job to give you a taste of real life here amongst the unwashed masses of Indonesia. Fortunately for you, I have spent considerable time and effort to master the language and to meet people so I can bring you a fairly accurate taste of real life here on The Far Side.

I am currently living in a neighborhood, or kampung, on the near west side of Jakarta, called Tanjung Duren. Tanjung means 'cape,' as in the geological feature, not the article of clothing. Duren is a particularly curious fruit with forbidding spines and an obnoxious smell, but with a delightful flavor and texture. My kampung is one of several that surround a pasar, or traditional market. Typically, the pasar is a two- to three-story building with a great number of outdoor stalls in the immediate area. Inside, you can usually find clothing, furnishings, apothecary, and other dry goods. In the outdoor area, the vendors hawk fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish of every description. Most people do their daily shopping in the pasar, with the occasional trip to one of the large supermarkets for imported items, frozen foods and other non-traditional needs. The pasar is rediculously cheap by western standards, even if you haven't mastered the art of negotiation, or 'nego.'

The pasars are spread around so that the majority of the local people are within reasonable walking distance from the kampungs. Typically, but not always, the pasars are frequented by the domesitc servants and a large, white foreigner walking through one is almost unheard of. If you are the large, white foreigner, you can expect prices to jump about 100-200% when you walk up. It is at this point that it becomes critical to know the language and the 'harga biasa,' or regular price.

An afternoon spent watching people at the pasar can be quite amusing and instructive. Indonesians have no concept of the value of time, so it is not unusual to see a maid or housewife spend hours haggling with several vendors to save 10-cents on a hand of bananas. Another interesting phenomenon is that folks will appear to be nigh on blows while haggling, only to smile and shake hands after the deal is consummated. Nego is the rule. No one ever pays first price for anything. I will typically make a show of disgust and offer 48% of first price. I can usually get within striking distance of harga biasa. It helps to know a little Javanese, too. Mostly is completely takes them by surprise when a foreigner uses the 'kampung language,' and by my third or fourth visit, they have stopped jacking the price on me.

Back in the 'hood, things are radically different from your typical American neighborhood. First of all, houses are abutted on three sides by other houses. The only opening into the house is the front, which usually includes a small fenced forecourt facing onto a 'gang,' or alleyway. There is no yard or garden, and the gangs are just wide enough for three people to walk abreast.

The gangs open at each end onto a narrow street or 'jalan.' Parking, for those who have cars, is allowed down one side, so there is only room for one car to pass. Both sides of the jalan are lined with ditches, so there is little room for error. Where the jalan connect with the 'jalan raya' (literally, free way), there is a formidable gate, usually with a small pedestrian entrance on the side. The gates are closed by 10pm every night, and the neighborhood is patrolled by hoodies who are given a stipend to watch TV and gossip about the comings and goings of the neighbors. The neighborhood patrol is run by the Bapak RT (pah-er-tay). When you move into a neighborhood, you are expected to register with the Pak RT and pay a nominal fee while leaving copies of your ID, no exceptions.

The day begins around 4am, with the call to prayer from the mosque. Every kampung has its own. Not long after that, the long parade begins. The opening salvo is the bread vendors. They typically ride motorcycles with boxes on the back carrying fresh bread. Almost all use an electronic call that typically says 'roti-roti' and gives the name of the bakery, as well as an obnoxious and repetitive jingle.

Close on the heels of the bread men are the food vendors. Here, you can get anything, from ingredients with the green grocer to fully cooked meals from the army of cook carts: soup, fried rice or noodles, tempe, tahu, fish...you name it. The meals come complete in a bowl with fork and spoon. You can transfer it to your own inside, or put the dirty dishes out and he'll be along later to collect them. Each one has their own call sign, from a sing-songy jingle to clanking bowls or wood blocks. From inside, you can hear who's going by and run out should the need hit you.

By 7am, you should have your trash bags hung on the fence. The trash man will be along shortly with a push cart to collect them and take them to a central location for burning. The 'barang-barang' man comes through several times a day and will buy junk and old clothing for recycling. Later, the shoe repairman, the rug vendor, the handiman, the clothes cart, and a whole host of others will pass by offering goods and services of every description.

One of my favorites is the Indonesian equivalent of the Fuller brush man, but instead of selling a selection of manufactured brooms and brushes, this guy carries all the raw materials and makes your item on the spot. You can custom order brooms and brushes of any kind, and he will cobble it together on your doorstep while you watch. I've even followed this guy for a while just to watch him do his thing. You can select your handle type and length, what bristle you want and what density. If you have a very specific need, you can show him what you need to do and he will design just the right brush for you.

This flotilla sets out seven days a week, every day of the year. If you had to, you could exist solely on the things that are brought directly to your door, including ice cream for dessert.

This doesn't include what you can get delivered. Here, not just pizza, but McDonald's, KFC and even the local restaurants will deliver piping hot meals to your door.

Almost no one keeps pets here. There are a few birders and children sometimes have turtles, but dogs and cats are virtually unheard of. Cats roam the neighborhood freely, not as pets but as vermin control. Dogs are considered 'haram,' or unclean, so you see very few of them. Mostly Chinese Buddhists or Christians will have them, if you find dogs at all. In some cases, they are raised for food, as there are several tribes in Indonesia that eat dog regularly.

There is nothing even remotely resembling zoning here. You can have a dirt floor shack next to an upscale multi-story. It is also not unusual for housewives to run a home business, such as a small store, laundry or other service. During the day, the men are off working, so the women rule the neighborhood from sun up to sun down.

The schools run pretty much year-round and kids go from around 6:30am until around 1pm. For the most part, there are no school buses, so kids walk or use an ojek or bajaj. Richer families will have the driver drop them and pick them up with the car. Most neighborhoods have at least one small playground near the center, but kids run freely throughout the streets and alleys, even after dark. Everyone watches out for everyone else. Strangers are watched very closely.

Most homes are multi-generational, with at least two living together. Another reason why a neighborhood will have such a mix of upscale and dirt houses is because once purchased, the lot is likely to stay in the hands of the family, and each generation will add to it, or even rebuild, if they are successful. If you know someone in the kampung, you are just as likely to know their children, parent and even grandparents, as they live in the same house or very near-by.

In a later installment, I'll describe more of daily life and what people do everyday, such as gathering to play games or just to chat. There's always some fun in the kampung!

As an aside, the English word, 'compound' referring to dwellings comes directly from the Indonesian word kampung. So now you know...

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