Voyeurism or Philanthropy? Jakarta Poverty Tours Spark Debate
Wati is 23 years old and already a mother of five. She carries her youngest child in her arms, a 5-month-old girl who has a slight fever. Wati’s husband works at the port, where he earns about Rp 20,000 ($2) a day, or sometimes, when he’s lucky, up to Rp 30,000. The family of seven lives in a single windowless room so tiny it barely fits one bunk bed, a plastic chair, a gas cooker and several boxes in which they store their clothes.
“There are days when I can’t even afford to buy rice,” Wati says. “I don’t know how to feed my children.”
Most residents of Luar Batang, an old fishing village in the north of Jakarta, are as poor as Wati’s family and also struggle to make ends meet. They live in shacks and run-down houses in narrow lanes that are often flooded at high tide.
“This is the real Jakarta,” said Ronny Poluan, the founder of Interkultur, a nongovernmental organization that runs what it calls Hidden Jakarta Tours of the city’s poorest areas.
On Friday, Melinda Standish, an Australian writer and filmmaker, and her 12-year-old daughter, Holly, joined Ronny to see the “real” Jakarta. Having spent five days in Bali, the pair had come to the capital to visit a friend, and decided to take the tour instead of sightseeing on their own.
“I had heard about this tour from a colleague in Australia,” Melinda said, “and I think it’s a good way to show my daughter that there are also poor people in this world who didn’t grow up as privileged as she did. I think it’s fantastic what Ronny does.”
The Luar Batang tour, one of several that Interkulur offers, started at noon from the Hotel Borobudur, a luxuriously elegant hotel in the heart of Jakarta, where Melinda and Holly were staying. It felt a little awkward to sit in the five-star lobby on cushioned sofas while listening to Ronny’s introduction, in which he explained how and why Hidden Jakarta Tours started.
“In the beginning, I used to take my friends to those areas,” he said. “Then I thought, why not make it formal, offer it to tourists who want to experience something different.”
The Interkultur Foundation has operated since February 2008. In addition to Ronny and his wife, Anneke Rompas, Rob Finlayson, an adviser with Volunteering for International Development from Australia, also takes part in the tours.
“It has been difficult to promote this program,” Finlayson said. “Things have only been starting to get busy in the last couple of weeks, after a local TV station followed us and showed what we do.”
The foundation currently offers the tours to order.
For the Luar Batang tour, Melinda paid a fee of Rp 700,000 — Rp 350,000 each. The price covers administrative costs, a fee for the guides, donations for the poor, transportation and food and drinks. Melinda also voluntarily gave extra to be given as donations to the people she would encounter.
Our small group began the journey by taking the busway to Kota, where we boarded an angkot (minibus), then eventually a bajaj (three-wheeled motorized becak). We passed Fatahillah Square with its museums and the famous Cafe Batavia, the usual stops on most sightseeing tours, and stopped at Sunda Kelapa harbor’s Old Watchtower, built in the 17th century and a reminder of Batavia’s past importance as a port.
From there, we continued on foot to Luar Batang. Before we entered the labyrinth of small streets and lanes, Holly announced that she was hungry.
“Sure, we can have something to eat first,” Ronny said, before leading the way to a roadside warung serving mie ayam. The young man serving us seemed astonished to have foreign customers. “Many tourists pass by here,” he said, “but hardly any of them sit down to eat.”
Holly seemed perfectly at ease eating mie ayam and sipping Teh botol while dangdut music played in the background, but Melinda admitted she was somewhat apprehensive.
“I am fascinated, for sure,” she said, “but at the same time, I don’t really know how to behave. Can I just look at the people? Shall I smile at them? I don’t really know how to behave.”
Having sated our hunger with the local fare, we continued our tour.
Ronny, Anneke and Finlayson were obviously well known within the community. After wandering through the busy and crowded alleys for a while, followed by children, teenagers and women who tirelessly called “Hello, mister” and greeted us with friendly smiles, we arrived at Wati’s room. Though she was welcoming and invited us inside, it felt awkward, like we were invading her privacy.
The tours have been criticized as exploitation of Jakarta’s poor and a Kompas article in late May linked them to reality television shows that give a melodramatic depiction of life in the slums. Finlayson disagreed, saying the tours operate from the basic assumption that all people are the same.
“The way I see it,” he said, “we are not taking people there to look at poverty, but to introduce them to ordinary people. Most of the tourists who come here are also ordinary people in their home countries who are just privileged enough to come from a wealthy country.”
Anneke talked with Wati a while, then handed her an envelope containing money, before taking us to visit another struggling mother, Enny.
“I had to take my 12-year-old son out of school,” Enny said. “I couldn’t afford to pay for it. My husband ran away, and I don’t get any support from the government.”
Her son didn’t speak any English but took an instant liking to Holly — they were, after all, close in age — and, taking her by the hand, pulled her into the small room where he lives with his family. Even though they could only communicate with gestures, they clearly got along, as proved by their smiles and laughter.
“It is hard to decide who should get the money,” Anneke said. “There are so many people who need it. But normally, we let them decide among themselves who needs it the most at the moment.” Enny was also given an envelope containing cash. “Now he can go back to school, thank you,” she said, putting her arm around her son.
It was already late afternoon, and Ronny decided to head back after making a final stop. Our hostess this time was a 90-year-old woman living in a similar tiny, windowless room. Her home was dark and damp and had no furniture except one table, where she sits, eats and even sleeps. To support herself, the woman collects and sells empty bottles for Rp 2,000 each. “I don’t have any family, there is nobody to support me,” she said. Anneke gave her a last envelope.
As we waited for a bus at Kota station to take us back to our own reality, we were all a little subdued.
“It was definitely a great experience,” Melinda said. “But I felt very uncomfortable to just enter people’s homes like that, it feels so voyeuristic. But then again, I think the voyeurism goes both ways.”
Looking at her daughter, she said, “When I was about Holly’s age, my parents took me to Turkey. I remember that somehow we got lost and suddenly were in the back alleys of a traditional bazaar. It was such a great adventure, and for me, that was one of the most memorable moments of the trip.
“I hope Holly feels the same.”