Insight: Loving Jakarta
A. Lin Neumann
There was a bit of rancor over at City Hall this week. The source of the irritation was one of those perennial lists of cities that are either proclaimed to be wonderful or awful. In this case, the website CNNGo.com had Jakarta nestled between New Delhi and Lima, Peru, at No. 7 on a subjective list of the world’s most hated cites.
That such lovely urban areas as Paris (No. 3) and Australia’s Sydney & Melbourne (tied for No. 2) were on the list for reasons having nothing to do with traffic or squalor could not ease the sting. There we are, ahead of Timbuktu, Mali, (No. 4) and Tijuana, Mexico, (No. 1) but behind Cairo (No. 9) and Belize City (No. 10). Belize City? My goodness, what did Jakarta do to be compared unfavorably to such a nowhere place?
“Just because one person commented, it doesn’t mean he represents hundreds of millions of tourists around the world. Read the article carefully; don’t manipulate information,” Jakarta Tourism and Culture Agency head Arie Budhiman snapped when asked about the rankings.
Of course, these things are all in good fun, after a fashion, and the fact that CNNGo called Jakarta a “sprawling city choked with traffic, pollution, poverty and tourist ‘draws’ largely revolving around random street adventures and an epidemic of malls” could hardly be disputed by anyone who has lived here for any length of time.
But this got me to thinking. What really makes a city loved or hated?
Various squeaky-clean Nordic cities routinely show up on “most livable” lists and Singapore is almost always the only Asian city on such Eurocentric listings. But for me, Singapore is my least favorite Asian city precisely because it is so orderly and “livable.” And my idea of a sentence in hell would be a long stretch in Geneva or some other equally picturesque postcard of order and rules.
I have lived in a number of Asian capitals and found all of them interesting and challenging in equal measure. Foreigners here are often asked if we “like” Jakarta. It would be hard by any objective measure to answer that question in the affirmative — I like to take walks, go to a park, breathe fresh air, drive without having to wait for hours in traffic. You can’t do that in Jakarta.
But I also like to take a walk down a side street in Glodok at 2 a.m. after visiting some shady pub or listen to the amplified howl of the masjid or marvel at the extent of gang control over street-level life in Jakarta. In short, there are odd wonders to be seen daily in Jakarta that have been legislated out of existence in places like Zurich or Aspen.
I like surprises, and Jakarta and its ilk deliver plenty of surprises. Every day I meet people who have found creative ways to make a living, from shady DVD dealers to entrepreneurs on the edge of invention to tycoons running conglomerates.
It is the same in most chaotic cities, I should think. Chaos and disorder breed opportunity, and those who succeed in these environments are usually bright, creative, maybe a shade crooked but always interesting.
I recall sitting on the balcony of a friend of mine in Lagos, Nigeria, a few years ago as the sun was going down. It was a howling wasp’s nest of a neighborhood in a city that is often fairly judged to be one of the most dangerous on earth. “Ha, ha, ha,” he laughed when I asked him why he returned to Lagos after living for so many years away from home in London and New York. “There is nothing like Lagos,” he said. “This is a town for survivors.”
Jakarta is not as “bad” as Lagos, but it is also a town for survivors. You have to get through each trying day, wondering if gridlock will bring everything to a halt or if a flood will send filthy water oozing into the neighborhood or if the electricity supply will just conk out or if an earthquake will flatten the place.
And when the cataclysm does not occur and you gather with your friends for a drink and conversation in some fine bar, you know you are living in one of the world’s truly interesting cities. I don’t like Jakarta, but I kind of love it all the same.
A. Lin Neumann, founding editor of the Jakarta Globe, is the host of the “Insight Indonesia” talk show on BeritaSatu TV.