I think it’s interesting that we do things when we travel that we wouldn’t normally do in our home environments. Well, let me speak for myself. I do that; I don’t know if you do.
From Monday to Friday of the week after Idul Fitri, we did recruitment for classes at our centre. What this means is that we went out for an hour or so each afternoon, walking through the low-income neighbourhoods around our centre, handing out fliers and inviting parents to come and register their children for our free classes.
This wasn’t a new concept to me. I had gone recruiting with A once while we were still in Aceh. At that time, I found recruiting stressful because I spoke absolutely no Bahasa Indonesia and had no idea what to say. Plus, anything that smacks of trying to make a sale stresses me out. That particular recruitment effort was futile because students from the schools and neighbourhoods near to the centre had already been recruited and the farther out we went, the less interested people were since it would take more effort (gas and time) to bring their children to classes. Still we had a nice jalan-jalan (which in Aceh basically means a relaxing ride around on the bike; in Jakarta the same term just means hanging out) for our trouble.
Jakarta is very different from Aceh in that houses are very close together so neighbourhoods are dense. This makes it very easy to find unexplored low-income areas close to the centre.
We had 3 short-term international university student volunteers in residence during the week after Idul Fitri. As a part of their duties, we had them going out to do recruitment everyday, with 1 of us long-term staff leading the charge each day. Of the 5 recruitment days, I went out twice with the volunteers. We went off into nearby low-income communities handing out our fliers to any and everyone who would accept them.
At that point, I had been in Jakarta for almost 4 months but I wasn’t familiar with most of the neighbourhoods around the centre, except for those within a fairly small circumference. As much as I knew before that Jakarta houses are built close together, I never realised how on top of each other low-income dwellings can be. But considering that just under 10 million people live in this city, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
We wandered down narrow alleyways, saying, “Permisi, Pak” or “Permisi, Bu” to respectfully interrupt conversations and let people know about our free classes for their children. The alleys were so narrow that there were a couple of times when I felt like I was in an action movie; I kept expecting Jason Bourne to dramatically burst around a corner, trying to outrun a CIA hitman chasing him on a bike down the narrow alley.
I was surprised to find myself not at all bashful or uncomfortable about approaching strangers, the way I had been in Aceh. Maybe it was the fact that I felt responsible for the 3 young women with me and felt I had to show confidence in my approach so they would feel comfortable in their own approach. Maybe I felt more comfortable approaching people because my language skills are much better than they used to be (still not good but not as awful as before). Maybe it was the fact that 1 of the volunteers spoke some Bahasa Indonesia (she’s from Malaysia and the Indonesian language derives from Malay) so I knew that I had backup with me if anyone said anything I couldn’t understand. Maybe I just wanted to get the job done and knew that we needed to hand out a certain number of fliers before we could return to the centre each day. Whatever it was, I approached recruitment like a total boss, if I do say so myself.
The thing that struck me forcefully, though, was my fearlessness as I wandered through what are really ghetto areas. The alleyways were narrow and dark but I stepped with purpose, approaching and speaking with strangers with no fear or hesitation, with absolutely no concern that anyone would try to harm us. This is something that I don’t do in my home city of Kingston, Jamaica. I don’t walk through slum areas and if I must go through, it’s in my car with the windows tightly rolled up to minimise the risk of someone trying to rob or hurt me in some way.
It was on the last day of recruitment that I realised this. It was just me and 1 of the volunteers recruiting that day because the other 2 had returned home the day before. She asked me if I wasn’t scared to walk through these neighbourhoods and I told her no. It was the truth, I wasn’t afraid. I find that I feel protected by my colour – people see me as a curiosity and most of them don’t approach me because of that. Also, I have never felt a sense of malice or menace from anyone in the areas I visit in Jakarta.
I should feel like a total hypocrite doing my slum-walk in Jakarta but not in Jamaica. But I don’t because the truth is, I would be a fool to do it in Jamaica. I don’t mean to be harsh but that’s the reality. The sad reality is that I don’ trust my average countrymen the way I wish I could. I don’t go around Jakarta inviting attention, although I tend to get it anyway in most places, but I have never felt physically threatened when I go out in this city.
I wish I could say the same about my home city.