Did you spend time by the pool? A snapshot of an inner-city kampung

We regularly return to Yogyakarta in Indonesia to brush up on language and culture; connect with family and friends and escape our every day lives. Whenever I tell someone I’ve spent a month in Indonesia – they picture a resort, a pool and nice bar. Reality is a little different. 

Ten years after our Javanese wedding, we were back in Yogyakarta for another holiday. It has become a place of comfort. I relax as I head down the road away from the airport now. I know what to expect when I hit the city. I walk in to “our” room, with a cupboard full of clothes that I have left behind since last time and check the cupboard for coffee beans. It has become a second home. It is relaxing, but not in the way many would think.

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Ten years ago – looking as serious as possible at all times

Yogyakarta is a really interesting city. It is a big university town with lots of interesting art and culture. Street art is very popular in the town – officially, in the form the changing of sculptures down the main street; and unofficially in the form of graffiti murals and paste-ups. One of my favourite pass-times has always been exploring the new works around the city, in the alleyways and on wrecked buildings. The most impressive on the ruins of a small village destroyed by the erupting Mount Merapi volcano in 2010.

 

While we are in Yogyakarta we stay in an kampung, less than 10 minutes walk from the main drag. It is the epitome of low-socio economic inner-city settlement. These are my personal thoughts after a month there this year – and shouldn’t be extrapolated across the country – this represents my experience of the inner city kampungs I’ve walked, jogged, cycled and stumbled through.

Kampung dwellings are very close together, if not sharing common walls. Accessing these areas involves walking down a one-car wide “gang” or alleyway, before turning in to the community itself – a crammed, squashed together place of screaming humanity.

There is a river just behind the kampung. Choked with rubbish and used by some for their daily ablutions. It runs fast, having had sand continually dug out of it for nearby construction. If someone could figure out a way of combining rubbish with concrete, the river might run clear. People catch fish from the river to eat. Small, sad looking things that live off of the rubbish and such floating by.

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Our river – it actually looks ok in this picture

The totality of kampung living is quiet challenging to someone coming for such a mobile society such as Australia. Some have lived in this kampung their whole life – living in houses owned by their parents or grandparents. Admittedly, some have recently moved in to the area, taking over someone else’s foxhole or building something new. People do move out and up; but many will remain here – some by choice, others by lack of alternative.

The houses are simple. A family may have a sizable dwelling, or they may use a room inside of a dwelling shared with others. We stay in a simple and by Australian standards, small four bedroom house. It dwarfs many others nearby and offers a structural integrity and vermin-proof existence not afforded to everyone.

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Tight living

Staying inside the kampung for an extended period is equal parts comforting and claustrophobic. Its safe and secure. Its close-nit. It is close living. So close you can hear your neighbour clear their throat pre-dawn. Every morning. Everyone knows when you’ve come home late. Everyone knows. Everything. Always.

I was once naive to believe that there wasn’t much gossip in the kampung. I was told that people are happy. They don’t worry. The longer I’ve stayed and the more about the culture I’ve learnt, the more I’ve challenged this.

Staying inside a community and a culture like this fast-tracks understandings about the world around you, and fast tracks your language. Over the past ten years of kampung stays – particularly a six month period in 2011; I have had the opportunity to learn so much about the way of life for inner-city people in Yogyakarta.

It can be easy to say people are happy. They have smiles on their faces. Yes, there is a certain level of day-to-day happiness in these places, but in my opinion, it is less to do with contentment and more to do with reservation. Sure, they aren’t stressing about the incidentals in life. They are too busy working out how things are going to work out for the rest of the day.

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Yogya street art – love your neighbour

Things are pretty close to the bone in these sort of places. The average yearly salary in Indonesia is around $10,000 AUD. The average wage in the inner-city kampungs is well below that. That is if you have a job. Many don’t.

Staying regularly inside this kind of environment gives you a sense of perspective. It highlights your sense of and your ACTUAL entitlement. I can choose to holiday in this environment and check out the way of life before safely returning to my real world and my country. The people I interact with do not have that option. It is a massive of entitlement.

I’ve had to check myself when I’ve wanted to get all “white-knight” and look for programs or things I could do to “improve” life in the kampung. I’ve had to assess whether those things were actually necessary, feasible and wanted in a world where day-to-day life is about existing. Was I doing something for the people of the kampung that the people of the kampung actually wanted and needed – or was I going to do it to make myself feel good – or even look good back home?

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A becak in the alleyways

Staying regularly reinforces how easy things are in Australia. From the basics like clean drinking water, warm water that comes out of a tap and refuse removal – to more complicated things like recylcing, planning for the future and healthcare.

Life expectancy is low (69 years). Survival rates of non-communicable disease are low. Risk factors, such as cigarette smoking (over 60% of the male population), high cholesterol diets and excessive sugar consumption teamed with low physical exercise are major issues.

People live day to day; making it most days. They don’t have time jog. They are too busy surviving. Food is an essential source of energy – unfortunately a lot of that energy comes in the form of rice and sugar. People can’t access a salad – if there was even the refrigerated option to have one, they need affordable energy.

Same goes for meat – people talk about exporting frozen carcasses to Indonesia rather than live export. I get the animal cruelty aspect, but in the inner-city there are no freezers. Cows are slaughtered on a needs based system. There is an abattoir near our kampung. The cows seemed ok, but they were not getting slaughtered quickly (as in number, not style). Honestly – the protein intake in our kampung is low. A lot of tofu and tempe is eaten. And rice. And sugar. And rice.

Food is a thing that you buy in the morning, convert in to meals and eat. You don’t keep it for later. Food safety and food security are major issues day to day.

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Urban poultry farming

Quality of life is low. Strokes account for over 20% of deaths in the country. People live difficult lives and die young. Every time we return, we are greeted by another “space” in the kampung that used to be filled with a life. A human with a great personality. That can be confronting. It is almost reported with a nihilistic manner when we arrive. Everyone is dying, it was just someone’s turn.

Over my time of coming to the city – I’ve learnt so much and seen so many interesting things. I’ve witnessed the election of Jokowi, while deep in his party’s supporter base. I’ve spoken to villagers returning after their homes were destroyed by a volcanic eruption. I’ve learnt so much about Javanese culture – its intricacies and its contradictions. I’ve been hassled by street hustlers and avoided what have felt at times to be set-ups.

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The Jokowi stickers were EVERYWHERE – as were flags, graffiti and posters

I’ve watched the evolution of the city and Indonesia. There are things that are obvious, confusing and at times concerning. Almost all of the young Muslim women I meet now wear a jilbab/hijab.  The older women are wearing them more and more too. What, ten years ago was something you wore to and from the mosque, is becoming all day every day wear. And they are bright, blinged up numbers. There are also big shiny Muhammadiyah schools all about the place. The lurch of Muhammadiyah towards a more conservative way of thought in recent years may have been a factor in the proliferation of head-wear for women – I wonder what else is being impacted.

There also seems to be a new mosque being built on every corner. Given there was almost one on every corner already, I find it incredible that there is a) enough money and b) enough demand to build these new buildings. I know part of this is almost a colonialist action, to over-saturate the area and drown out similar strands of Islam that you are in competition with, but it still seems staggering. What happens next with Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism is Indonesia will be interesting to watch.

Despite these leans towards conservatism – there are some other things that really interest me developing in Yogyakarta. There are far more bars and nightclubs than when we first started going to the city – and they are well attended by Indonesian s – not just bules. Sure, they are full of cigarette advertising and your attendance is life-reducing, but they are well patronised and full of people (male and female) having a good time in ways that would make conservatives a little upset.

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Local bar – on a quiet night

There is also been an explosion of coffee culture in downtown Yogyakarta. When we lived there, there was literally no espresso-serving cafes in the city beyond the tepid offerings from the large hotels. Suddenly, there are espresso machines, aeropress cafes, pour-over single origin speciality joints and speciality coffee roasters. The real life implications for this and any public health impacts aren’t known – but I can tell you now, I would have loved a bloody coffee when I lived there.

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Speciality coffee roasters

Holidaying in this environment has moments of challenge. There are risks – from exposing ourselves and our family to tropical diseases and food-borne disease relating to poor food handling. Oh, and the cats. And rats. There are bats too, but they seem pretty low key. There is car and motorbike based pollution. Pollution for the seemingly typical South-East Asian rubbish disposal technique of setting it on fire.

You hope for the best and know that through a position of absolute privilege, we can come, observe, immerse and learn – then leave for the safety of our real world – leaving friends and family to live the reality of inner-city kampung life. I will always keep coming back to Yogya – it is in my blood now.

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