in the thick of it

Some of you may already know, but….I am in the Philippines!

….but more on that later. I haven’t mentioned it yet because I feel like there’s still so much I want to say about Indonesia, and I want to say it in the right order. I don’t want to talk about Manila and its crazy buses and its cheap fluorescent glitz until I’ve talked about Jakarta and its traffic and its loveable chaos and its music…but it’s been so hard to write about it. Actually, I’ve been trying to write about Jakarta for months, but nothing ever seems to come close to encompassing everything I see, everything I want to describe that goes flying by my car window every day.

…It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I have seen all of Jakarta through the window of our van.

I feel like everything I have seen there has been just slightly blurred and usually accompanied by an exclamation of, “Hey, look at- ” as whatever has caught my attention rushes by, disappearing behind the curve of a narrow, nameless alley that I will never be able to find again.

But, still, I feel like I have also seen Jakarta up close, as we’d maneuver our Toyota minivan through alleys barely big enough for motorbikes, with two precarious ditches on either side where sewage flows by, and we have to scrape by kaki lima food stands, and get close enough to bus bumpers to see the layers of chipped red-and-blue paint and the metal that is rusting away under the corners.

On Jakarta’s harried highways, I have seen things carried on the ubiquitous motorbikes that require an amount of innovation in modes of transport (not to mention good balance) that I would never have imagined possible. Cases in point: motorbikes with any or all of the following:

-three full-size adults
-three full-size adults accompanied by eighteen shopping bags and five purses
-seven small children (okay, I’m exaggerating, but I have seen FIVE kids on a motorbike)
-bundles of grass so high that it’s almost impossible to tell there’s a motorbike in front of it
-gas canisters (hanging precariously close to the searing-hot muffler and dangling by nothing more than twine…)
-people driving AND carrying surfboards, ladders, bamboo reeds, or anything that looks as if it could be used as a javelin
-live chickens (yes), strung by their necks in bundles from the backseat
-live goldfish, like the kind you buy at the carnival in plastic bags full of water
-a bakery…a little glass cabinet full of pastries and little breads…

Oh, and I have even seen a little machine with a motorcycle on the front and a mini carousel on the back, like those little car rides for children that cost a quarter outside Wal-Mart. And this guy just pedals this carousel around all day, and like a Midwestern ice cream truck, kids come chasing after him for a ride.

…and the buses, always full, always crowded, always old, usually weaving in and out of traffic with one guy who hangs out the back and motions for the cars behind to let the driver in as the thing leaves behind a cloud of black smoke so thick that the bus actually disappears from view. The funniest thing is that each bus has a name, usually something slightly dirty in English (despite the conservative Muslim culture) like “Sensual Lips” and “Love Me Tender”, scrawled in chipped fluorescent paint on the back window.

…but still, my favorite part of Jakarta traffic jams is watching the world go by. Despite the fact that there are really no sidewalks in the city and the pollution is unbearable after just a few minutes outside, Jakarta has a constant rhythm of people, food stands, snack sellers, peddlers, children, hubcap shops, palm trees, potted plants, corrugated tin roofs and bright painted tarpaulins advertising gado-gado and soto ayam. I love its mismatched, thrown-together style and faded colors. I love its piles of rice cakes and nasi goreng and bottles of sweet black tea. I love its plastic shine and marble sparkle and even its muddy sluggishness. Jakarta is not afraid to get dirty and not afraid to show its raw side, but it smiles all the same and tries its best with truly good intentions, and for that I have to admire it.

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