The Big City

There are many Indonesians, born in the rural countrysides, who chose to depart from their homes to live in the great big cities. Their reasons are various, from thrill-seeking, to simply look for a better-paying job, and a few wish to realize better futures for themselves. Whatever their original motivations an overarching theme remains hovering over them: that of needing and wanting to find more money than what is available back home. Oddly enough, these peoples do not need to have reached adulthood to make a decision as heavy as leaving one’s home, merely willing enough—the youngest I’ve met was a thirteen year-old girl who worked as a stay-at-home housekeeper. But are their visions of wealth and prosperity possible? Is stepping away from one’s doorstep enough to propels one’s self to a better life and future? The answer to this question is a mixed and gloomy bag.

I’ve met and am friends with a lot of the migrant workers. I’ve heard plenty of their tales, both those that bring laughter and cheers all across the rickety dinner table, to the ones that would silence the murmurs of the crowd. I am not an expert on this specific category of individuals, by any means, but having spent time simply talking, eating, breathing side-by-side with them gave me a perspective I could not find in the books I scoured. To put it simply, for one to truly understand what living on the road, surrounded by poverty is like, one has to a certain degree involve himself into the lives of these unfortunate individuals.

The most accessible pathway for me to gain access to the lives of the workers is through my own employees. Very few of them hold a high-school diploma, all of them have left their villages looking for a better life—often at a time nearing adolescence—and each with strikingly different moral compasses. I’ll try to summarize their stories, the most important words they have told me, in this document. I am sure that I’ll miss out on a lot of crucial details, but for the sake of a clear narrative, some things have to be sacrificed. Not unlike leaving everything you’ve ever known all your life for a place you’ve only heard of in stories and seen in televisions: a sacrifice for an unknown outcome.

There’s a teenaged boy who works at my boarding house. He took a bus at the age of fifteen and has for a year never laid foot on his old front porch. First, when he had just reached the outskirts of Jakarta, he immediately found work, as a janitor slash cashier for a small bakery. The pay was well under the minimum wage designated by the Indonesian government, but the boy did not protest. He was nervous, afraid that nobody else would take on a frail, short person such as himself as an employee. With the added worry of not knowing anyone in the city, he immediately said yes to his future employer and began six months of twelve-hour long shifts.

The boy’s time at the bakery was, in his works, “unenjoyable.” His manager was strict, there were no bonuses for over-time, and though his tasks might seem untaxing to most, their sheer repetition made them “unbearable.” Then a friend came by, asking him if he was interested in another line of work, and the boy replied in the affirmative. That’s how he found himself working in my boarding house: cooking, cleaning, washing and ironing the residents’ laundry, acting as the occasional night-watch, and whatever other job is demanded of him. These jobs include and are not limited to limited construction work—fixing doors and faulty wiring—plumbing, and tending to the house owner’s chickens.

The boy claims that he enjoys performing his current duties. The benefits, he said, include having no formal work hours, having plenty of friends and acquaintances at all times, as well as free board and meals. “Not a lot of my friends have the freedoms I do. I mean, I still get to play soccer and stuff,” said the sixteen year-old. He hopes to one day save enough to open up a small business. “A street vendor, maybe selling food, or shirts, I still don’t know.”

But what of those who have went through the phases the boy is currently experiencing? The older men and women who own their very own shops, selling whatever it is they think the market demands? Are they as successful as the boy sees them to be? Sadly, the answer is a nearly absolute no. Reality often plays a cruel trick to trample the hopes of the young, and in this case it does the same thing as well.

Right outside of my boarding house’s parking lot is a small, dusty, roach-infested dive. The eatery serves nothing but instant noodles, porridge, and toast. Their drink selection is plentiful, yet each concoction is composed by instantly-prepared powders in individual sachets. The place is no five-star restaurant by any means, but I frequent it quite regularly for late-night dinners, thanks to my freshman budget.

Each night I went there, I would meet either one of the two owners: the quiet middle-aged wife, and the somewhat older and chattier husband. When I first took residence at the house right across from their hideaway, they barely said a thing; simply asking “what will you have?” preparing and serving my order, wait for the payment, then their eyes away to someplace I cannot see as they sat in the corner. If they were younger, I would’ve assumed that some illegal substances had been running through their systems. Yet this stasis between the three of us fortunately did not last for long.

As the eatery stays open for twenty-four hours, I would come and visit anytime I could not sleep or simply needed to write. The husband would be up at night-time until dawn, and he noticed the patronages I made in ungodly hours. To give a better picture, usually the people who would hang out until the sun rose in his place are wild, drunk teenagers. Not some nerdy-looking fellow with a laptop he could not take his eyes off of. If memory serves me well, I think the first non-transactional question he asked me was, “Alone again, Neth?” to which I said yes. Then we began to chat bit by bit. As I typed away, a quip or two would escape from either one of our mouths, bridging the gap between us.

With the days passing by, he and I grew to be friends of sorts. We do not hang out on our off times, but we would regularly talk whenever we meet up. Just the occasional “How is so and so?” and “The rain’s been really pouring down lately.” The smallest of stuffs, really. But from there we began divulging our life stories with one another, sparked by our mutual occupation of nearly-broke business owners.

The man, nearing the fifty-year mark, has never had any child. He feels that he and his wife are not “ready.” When I poked around and asked for an explanation, he said something in the tone of a truth, “We don’t have enough money.” I can’t say for certain whether or not economics is the only barrier between him and his wife having sons or daughters, though the sight of him often playing enthusiastically with the local children—those from the boarding house or the nearby school—suggests otherwise.

Does the man hope for something different in the future? A change in the financial sector perhaps? One which would lead him and his wife to a better life? When I inquired all these and more he somberly said “No. I’d like to hope. But this is all we’ve ever had. I’ll probably be running places like this one until I can’t walk.” Then why did he not look for better prospects elsewhere, maybe even somewhere closer to home. “Honestly, it’s all really the same. I don’t have the money to start up new, bigger shops—not even another eatery like this one. And back home there wouldn’t be any pay anyway.” At that I clammed my mouth shut. There is no point to rub salt on another’s wounds.

We have seen so far the story of young and hopeful boy, of a man and his who is content with poverty, but what those who have a family? Can a man and woman subject their own blood to the same discomforts and pains they’ve felt throughout their lives? To anyone with even the slightest bit of conscience, the answer would be plainly negatory. Yet is it possible to push upwards our sons and daughters? Letting them free from the hole the poor have found themselves in? To this, I can only offer a maybe.

There’s another pair of husband and wife who lives near me. These two live right next door to my flat. The wife is the housekeeper of our building, whilst the husband carries a trolley of Siomay (a type of dim sum) throughout the nearby grounds in search of hungry university students. The wife and I do not talk much, perhaps because she has seen the most vile abominations birthed by my dirty clothes, but the husband and I get along rather well. He and I share a cigarette or two every once in a while, have a little chat when he’s finished with his rounds, and has even played futsal (a smaller version of football) with me. He acts quite spry for his age of more than forty, and has a pleasant, cheerful disposition all day long.

With this man, I traded life-tidbits far faster than with the one from the eatery. He’s told me various stories, from where he grew up, what his hobbies are, and—most relevant to this article—how he came to find himself in Jakarta.

“I’ve been to Aceh, Medan, Padang,” he began, “actually, I can’t remember where I haven’t been. All I remember was that I was always looking for some type of work.” Few jobs paid in cash back at his village, as wages were paid in the form of crops and other goods. “I was bored at home, so I’ve been out and about since I was fifteen or sixteen.” Yet each trip came with their own costs. This man was not born into a family of wealth, that much is certain, and thus he brought along friends who could accompany him and tend to his needs, alongside working with him when the opportunity arises.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, really. Just wanted to see the world, I guess. I was not a very good person back then. I got into fights a lot, drank the nights away, you know the things kids do.” Unfortunately I do. “But then I met my wife. And I had to settle down, live steadily. I stopped fighting and drinking. One day we found out we were going to have our own baby. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know if I was supposed to jump up and down in joy, or piss myself with fear. Finally, I calmed down and tried to think things through. So many questions. How can I send him to school? What if he gets sick? What if he’s one of those ‘challenged’ [this part may have been slightly edited] kids you see so much on TV?” As he said these words, his face grew visibly worried, as if the mere memory of the announcement sent him back to that exact moment.

And the thought of having a child should worry any sane person: an extra mouth to feed, complete with extra social responsibility of having to always tend to the needs of your offspring. I personally can’t fathom such a responsibility. Yet this man, with his very limited pool of resources—financially and otherwise—has to bear such a weight. I had to ask him, “What did you do?” He pondered the question for a minute, processing it. “I just went on with my life. I have a son now, he’s three. We haven’t gotten him to school yet but we’re saving little by little. I’m hoping he’ll be in first grade by the time he’s seven.” Thankfully, his son had never been plagued by any ailments expensive to cure, and is currently being taken care of by the man’s grandmother in a remote village far from Jakarta.

“We’ll see what the future brings. I’ve been doing everything by the book, so everything should be all right.” Yet even at this he seemed uncertain, and I could only reassure him with a weak, “Yes. Everything should be.”

Those are the stories of the few peoples I’ve met, who went to the big cities expecting a much better, more luxurious life. What they received, instead, were ones that can only be deemed as run-of-the-mill. Their savings are little or nonexistent, their careers unsteady, or if they can hold on to it, unsatisfying. They themselves along with their children, did not find what they were looking for when they first embarked to the outskirts of their towns. I hope to see that one day things would be better for them. Well-paying jobs, less nomadic lifestyles, and so on. But for now, the sights I see before me are as bleak as they come.

Those unfortunate enough to be born in the rural municipalities of Indonesia are almost certainly destined to a life of poverty. Even when they escape the grasps of their home’s borders, their families’ legacies of having next to nothing clings to their shoulders. There aren’t enough decent jobs in Indonesia, be it in the fields or between the towering skyscrapers. Amongst a populace of Bachelor’s and Master’s degree holders, what hope do those with no education have? Few, if any.

Rags to riches stories are a dime a dozen. They are repeated constantly on television, newspapers, radios, et cetera. All to remind us of the naive notion that as long as we keep on trying, we will succeed. Yet for each of those uplifting tales, there exist hundreds perhaps even thousands of humans cast aside in the shadows, wallowing in the misery of having to live with the tiniest scraps of food; people continuously hoping that they could be in one of those broadcasts or articles, as those who found hidden ways for success against all odds.

The purpose of this writing is to give us all a glimpse and a reminder of how reality is, how grim and hidden the ugly truths are, and how it really is like to keep waiting for a train that will never come.

The author of this article would like to apologize for the rather excessive use of pseudonyms and other ambiguities. They are done for the sake of the privacy of the subjects, as all of them wish to remain unnamed.


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