Alan Nisan was only seven years old when he left his parents’ house in Jatiasih, Bekasi.
After a short stay with adoptive parents, he struck out again to make his living in the streets of Jakarta, finding his independence in ways that he says would have been unlikely anywhere else in the country.
Today the 64-year-old sells ice cream from a bicycle cart at Ragunan Zoo and says he’s grateful for the life the capital has given him.
You were only seven when you left home. Why?
I couldn’t bear living there anymore. My stepmother only fed me a handful of rice once a day, at 11 a.m. The next meal would be the next day. Sometimes I had to steal food from the kitchen because I was starving.
Did your father know about it?
No. It was like in sinetron [soap operas]. My stepmother would treat me nicely when my father was around. When he wasn’t, she was mean to me.
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
I have three biological siblings and two from my stepmother.
Where did you go?
I took the train to go to Bandung, but on the way a passenger approached me. He thought I was a beggar because I looked really dirty. He asked if I was willing to be adopted by a married couple who had no child in Sukabumi [West Java]. The man rented a house from the couple. I said OK.
Were you not scared?
No. I thought they might be good people. So I met the couple. The husband turned out to be a shaman.
Did you tell them why you ran away from home?
I didn’t. I told him I was an orphan and lived alone. The shaman said, “No, you are not. You don’t have a mother, it’s true, but you still have your father who married a woman who hates you. And that’s why you are here.” I couldn’t say anything.
So you lived with them. Did they love you?
Yes, they were very kind to me and treated me like I was their own child. I helped them with the household chores.
How long did you live with them?
I don’t remember. My adoptive father wanted to send me to school, and for that, the school required him to submit a letter from my biological father stating that he had given permission to send me to school. So he asked me to go to Bekasi to meet my father. I did go, but on my way there I changed my mind. I was too scared to meet my father and his wife. And I was scared, too, to go back to my adoptive father’s house. So I just wandered around and lived on the streets.
How did you survive?
I sold most of my clothes to buy meals. Then I met several people randomly on my journey and lived with them. I learned to be independent for several years on the streets. At age 20, I got a job working in a hansip [civilian security unit that patrols neighborhoods].
Are you married?
Yes, but I have been divorced three times. I now live with my fourth wife. I have 11 children from all of them.
How long have you lived in Jakarta?
I moved to Jakarta in 1968 because I wanted to start a business, and I have lived here since. I sold vegetables from a cart from 1968 to 1977. Then I switched to selling fish, but it didn’t work out. Then I tried selling fruits and that failed too.
When did you start selling ice cream at Ragunan Zoo?
In 1995. My boss really trusts me so I have been able to keep the job up to now. I would love to do something else but I’m too old now.
How much do you make a day?
It depends. It can be Rp 5,000 (43 cents) or Rp 20,000 or nothing at all. Weekends are the best time. On Saturdays I can make Rp 50,000 and twice that on Sundays. But it also depends on the weather. No one buys ice cream on a rainy day.
I still feel grateful that our family can eat. Since I married my wife in 1989, I have never, not once, bought her a dress. I’ve really wanted to, but I don’t have money.
What do you like about living in Jakarta?
No matter how tough life is in Jakarta, people can still eat, drink, smoke. If we live in rural areas, when life is difficult, it is really difficult.
And what don’t you like about living here?
Nothing. I feel grateful that I can live here.
What would you do if elected the governor of Jakarta?
Astaghfirullah al azim! [“God please forgive me for all my sins,” an exclamation of surprise.] No, I wouldn’t want to be! It’s hard to lead a family, let alone a province. But whoever is elected, I just hope for a safer and more prosperous Jakarta.
What are your hopes?
That my children can have a better life. As for me, I feel grateful for what I have now.
Alan Nisan was talking to Ade Mardiyati.