I arrived back in Jakarta to catch my flight back to Hong Kong the following morning. I was to be picked up by some of the Indonesian People’s Movement people I met at the wedding. After a few minutes of searching through the crowds, I saw their familiar faces. They helped me with my luggage, and while I walked toward a taxi, they laughed and said, “No Lisza – we have a ride.” So we walked through parking lot after parking lot, past all of the vans and the compact cars, until we were in the dirt lot reserved for motorbikes. Really? I looked to Indra…really? They just laughed and told me to hop on. “What about my suitcase?” I asked. Andy assured me it was taken care of. Indra and I eased out of the over-crowded lot to the street, where we waited for Indri and Andy to join us. I couldn’t help but laugh as they came around the curve, my 21kilo suitcase nestled between them. I’m pretty sure Indri could have fit IN my luggage!
Suddenly, we were pulling in to traffic, and the excitement began – there was so much to take in as we wove through Jakarta traffic. We passed office buildings and hotels before heading into what appeared to be a neighborhood. The streets were lined with ditches that were filled more with trash than water. Children and chickens were everywhere. There is a unique kind of poverty in Jakarta. I’ve seen a lot of township and bush poverty in my time – but never really city poverty. Shanties lined with tin and drying clothes; children playing half naked next to the road; every free space is a mini-landfill; the river is grey with pollution and trash; smog clings to the air; bajajs and motorbikes weave between trucks carrying drums of oil, waste and god-knows what else; women shrouded in their Muslim faith under their bike helmets hold rags over their mouths to keep out the exhaust; dirt covers literally everything and flies make up half of the population. It was quite the jolt from beautiful environment-saving Bali. I wanted so badly to take pictures of everything I was seeing, but I was afraid to use my camera. Not for fear of losing it on this bumpy bike ride, but fear of blatantly displaying my whiteness in a brown country. But then I realized, between the burnt red-white skin, the huge pack on my back or the massive piece of luggage following behind, using my camera was not was going to give away my nationality.
As we wove between trucks, BMWs and bajajs, I was amazed at the talent every driver seemed to posses in handling this life-threatening traffic. Everything was a traffic jam, and yet, everyone on two (or three) wheels kept moving. There were no lanes, you drove on whichever side of the road was free until something bigger was coming your way. In which case you beep your horn in smaller-than-you frustration and slide over between the stand-still trucks. I saw a bajaj with American flag stickers plastered all over the back and attempted to take a picture – instead I came away with a bloody souvenir on my knee. Note to self: keep all body parts as tucked in as possible at all times, otherwise, you will lose them.
<—Obviously not the bajaj I was trying to get a picture of, but this one didn’t threaten to take my leg off either….
About an hour into the drive, we got stopped – ID check. The overweight policeman threatened our halts with a baton that looked suspiciously like a pipe. Maybe it was. Andy and Indra, the bike drivers, got called off to the side where a group of policemen were congregated. A finger was placed over Andy’s cycle sticker on his ID – no registration equals a fine – payable upfront, cash only. The overweight officer walked over to question Indri and I. She shot me a look and was quick to tell him I was American and I worked with them via email from America – just here to visit their office. The officer nodded his acknowledgment to not mess with the blue passport. I looked to the other side of the road as Indra opened his wallet for Andy. Their passports are green. We were on our way again shortly. The fines surely must line the policemen’s pockets, because they sure don’t pave the roads.
Just around the curve we were met with a flooded roadway. But that didn’t stop the motorbikes and cars from easing their way through. On the other side of the pond that had appeared after the last great rain, there were hills of rocks that made up the road way. I half expected us to hop off the bikes and walk them and the luggage over the rocky territory, and yet was not totally surprised when we didn’t. By this point in the ride, over an hour into it, the motorbike had more than lost its appeal. My butt was beyond asleep, my right hip was becoming more and more dislocated with every third pothole. Soon, I was overwhelmed with sickness. Maybe it was the exhaust filing my lungs, maybe it was the 100+ degree sun draining me, maybe it was the fact that it was 2pm and I had only had coffee and toast that day, maybe it was the weaving in and out of traffic – or maybe it was all of the above. But whatever it was, I prayed to either throw up or die – either would be better. Or maybe I was dying – a slow Jakarta death. Not to mention the delirium from the pain of my 20 pound backpack rubbing against my freshly sun-burnt back. I had to ask them to stop. We pulled over to the sidewalk and I practically fell off the bike. Indri bought me a water and Andy added my pack to his bike, and while I was embarrassed, I felt a little better.
Twenty minutes later, we finally made it to where we were staying that night – a Rooma-Cascas – literally translated “stacked houses,” or an apartment building. As par to the course, everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming, and everyone wanted me to eat. The neighbors came out to meet the white girl, and Andy and Indri translated their questions for me. After dinner that night, I had the chance to sit and talk with Andy and Indra for awhile. We talked about religion: Andy told me that he used to be Christian Protestant. “Used to be?” I asked. He solemly replied, “When you are around so much poor, hunger and death – you got no time to think about God. Now, I don’t know, I guess I just not care.” We talked about politics: “Are you afraid of the Revolution? Because the kind of change that will bring about justice and hope can only happen one way. Revolution. Its ok to be afraid. We can be too. But its the only way.” I fell asleep that night to the sound of motorbikes and the call to prayer, the smell of grease and goats and thoughts of lasting change and fear and hope.
3:30am came way too soon and early for my taste. But by 4am we (and by we I mean Indra, Indri, Andy, the woman whose house I stayed in, her 16 year old nephew, their neighbor and myself) were all piled in a van headed back to the airport to catch my 7:30am flight. I got to the ticket counter and handed over my ticket and passport only to be told that I had been “wait-listed.” I had been warned about that the night before when I had called to confirm my ticket. But I was also told that since I had an actual ticket in my possession that when I got there in the morning I should be fine. Fine I was not. I was being told there was no seat for me. The stand-by list was already 15 people deep. I asked if there was an afternoon flight they could bump me to. I had a ticket in my hand – with a seat number and everything! But they were telling me that the next available flight was January 4th!!! They suggested I try the other two airlines that fly to Hong Kong. So I raced from counter to counter, begging for a seat, any seat, today, tomorrow – just get me outta here!! No luck. I hurried back to the original counter and begrudgingly listened their only other offer – buy a business class ticket. I gaffed. “You mean to tell me that even though I have an actual for real, physical ticket IN MY HAND, that you do not have a seat for me, but yet are OH SO WILLING to allow me to BUY a whole other ticket at nearly 4 times the original price I paid? Certainly you are crazy!” I didn’t shout, but I was not happy. And maybe I didn’t say that last line, but I wanted to. Oh how I wanted to. I asked to speak to his manager. I told him my story. I pressed the fact that I’m an American, living in Hong Kong, I make so very little money, and buying a first class ticket would cost almost a whole paycheck for me – something I was not willing to part with. Surely, because you have wait-listed me WITHOUT my consent I am owed some sort of courtesy from your airline. “I’m sorry ma’am – we have a flight January 4th if you would like us to go ahead and book you that – no extra charge for the change of date.” OH REALLY? So kind of you to offer. Its a shame that I only wanted the seat my ticket told me that I had! After a bit of haggling, with 15 minutes before they stopped boarding, the manager “upgraded” my ticket, saving me about $300, costing me about $600. And while first class was lovely, what with the unlimited orange juice in a real glass, fully reclining seat, American newspapers and choice of magazines at my disposal, slippers in case your feet got cold (which I totally stuffed in my carry-on) and a crew that called me by name (seriously), I was too exhausted from the last three weeks, the last 24 hours, to really enjoy it.
Still fuming over the thought of an upgrade that I couldn’t afford I realized, I could. It might make the next few months a struggle. But ultimately, the guy behind the counter was right, I could afford it. And that made me feel even worse. In the training that I received in New York before coming to Hong Kong, one of our leaders shared something that has not rung true until that moment. “No matter how much you work, and how hard you try, you will never be able to stand in complete solidarity with the people you are working with. You will want to, but the color of your skin, the privilege of your nationality will always hold a little something back. Best you understand that now, so you can work through that when you face it.” I can spend three weeks in Indonesia, I can spend three months in Hong Kong. I can listen to stories, read articles, stand in at rallies, and offer any support needed. But its true – there will always be something that separates me from those I want so deeply to stand next to. And I think that maybe that is the most important lesson I could have learned from this trip. The experiences I had were powerful. I was often overwhelmed by the hospitality of the families and friends that I stayed with. I was moved by the power of people joined together to work for justice. But at the end of the day, I get to go home. When there are those that remain on the picket line, when the merchant rises another day to sell their wares, when the children face another day of hunger and boredom, I need to remember, I’m not there, but that doesn’t mean that I forget. I cannot be like them, but neither can I deny the experiences that I have had. I have seen the need for justice, for hope, for freedom. Now its about learning what I can do to help bring that along, even here in Hong Kong.