This year Sarah, Cian and I pass up our school’s shuttle and walk to NJIS, while Áine heads to her preschool with our nanny a bit later. It’s about ten minutes from the apartment complex to our school along Jalan Gading Kirana (jalan is street in Indonesian). At the halfway point we cross the treacherous Jalan Raya Boulevard Barat, a major Kelapa Gading artery connecting the toll road and the rest of the Jakartan megalopolis to our three shopping malls. It’s a Frogger game of speeding vehicles heavily spiced with motorcycles and mopeds haphazardly weaving between cars. In now unspoken ritual, I hand over the lunch bag to Sarah and pick up Cian, who holds out his hand in an attempt to stop the oncoming cars. The crossing is part strategy, part “step off the curb with our breath held”, trusting someone will let us through. There seems to be no Indonesian consensus for pedestrian rights. Some cars stop, others swerve around you without slowing. Some flash their lights to let you pass, others flash to let you know they’re not stopping. Add the driver-distracting variable that we are a bule (white) family doing the crossing, and it can get interesting. Fortunately, the return home in the afternoon is less thrilling, as the traffic by that time is so congested we can walk right through the gridlock.
The beauty of Jalan Gading Kirana is found in its normalcy; our street exhibits many of the typical Jakarta phenomena you might encounter elsewhere in the city. In our daily commute to work, our search for a taxi, or our way to a local restaurant, its easy to become desensitized to the color and bustle. After submerging for a few days in the rural Kei Islands, I was reminded of the energetic, urban side of Indonesian culture just outside our home. This past week I kept my phone at the ready to capture some of our street’s activity.
Across the road from Paladian Park, running parallel to Jalan Gading Kirana is a canal, part of the labyrinth of open waterways throughout the city bringing runoff, sewage and litter north to the Java Sea. Despite the foul condition of the water, the canals teem with life, and you can see supernaturally resistant fish jumping at the surface (maybe trying to escape) and swarms of dragonflies overhead. My biology classes, researching the biodiversity in samples of the canal’s bottom debris, found an uncountable number of microscopic organisms. It’s not uncommon for folks to spend some quiet time leaning over the rails of the regularly spaced bridges or sitting on the canal’s stone bank with a fishing pole lazily throwing in a line, but its unimaginable to put anything coming from that cesspool into your mouth.
Many Jarkatan streets specialise in a particular retail- there’s an aquarium and fish street nearby and a caged bird street after that. Along the curb on Jalan Gading Kirana, just in front of the canal, are stand after stand of plant sellers, shaded by the large trees overhead with roots deep into the waterway sucking up the nutrient-rich decomposition. During the flooding season, the canals overflow their banks and pour out onto the streets of Kelapa Gading, engulfing everything in their watery filth and setting the potted plants adrift. One flood this year was particularly deep, and after evacuating the school and waiting for the last student’s ride home, I walked back to Paladian Park up to the tops of my thighs in the street flooding, garbage wrapping around my legs and mopeds floating by on their sides.
In the morning on our way to school, Jalan Gading Kirana is still waking up. Our side of the road across from the plant sellers is spotted with small, quasi-permanent wooden stands called warung where you can purchase a cup of flavored instant coffee, cigarettes and small snacks, all of which are staples for the average Indonesian. Rickety wooden benches are available, but there is never enough seating for every patron to sit and sip their morning coffee in thin plastic cups which warp from the hot water. Vibrantly colored drinks are poured into plastic baggies with a straw coming out of the cinched top. There are also wheeled food carts (grobak) selling Indonesian favorites like nasi goreng (fried rice), mie goreng (fried noodles), gado-gado (vegetables in peanut sauce) and bakso (soup with meatballs) for breakfast or are wrapped in brown butcher paper for lunch later. Bikes and motorcycles ride by with a huge array of goods, often kitchen items, precariously stacked onto a handcrafted frame.
As the sun sets, especially on weekends, the roadside becomes overrun by small, temporary restaurants called warung makan (warung for food). Tarps are erected using metal rings embedded in the street asphalt and rigged to nearby trees. A large, plastic banner usually serves as both an advertisement for the specific meals found inside and a screen from the street. Tables and chairs are unfolded, and food is prepared over propane tank stoves or open fire. At the end of dinnertime the gypsy-like restaurants are broken down and within an hour the side of the street reappears just as quickly as the waring makan assembled. In my previous visits to Indonesia, when a rip-roaring stomach virus was the inevitable result of warung-eating, it came with the frugal backpacker territory and shrugged off. This time, I don’t attempt street food, as I’m unwilling to put my family or coworkers through the consequences of my violent illness. Watching the warung owners wash their dishes in the water drainage trough behind them that leads to the canal would thin anyone’s appetite.
We twist through this obstacle course of peddlers, stopped cars and oncoming traffic each day back and forth from school. Sarah, Cian and I have become a daily feature as we walk, and many of the regular sellers on our street, in typical warm Indonesian fashion, make sure to wish us a selamat pagi (good morning) and courteously ask if we’re returning home (sudah pulang?) each afternoon, even if we never buy any of their wares. The running joke with my overly affluent students is that the only people who walk around the city are the poor and the occasional neighborhood bule, and that’s true. But the underprivileged are the vast majority and the fabric of the city. If you’re searching for the soul of Jakarta, walk its streets.