The Road to Tanah Tinggi, Jakarta

In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom!
>J.G. Ballard

Nothing better encapsulates the American Dream than a sleek automobile cruising on an open highway.

But here in Jakarta things have gone pretty much pear shaped, and instead of any such eye-pleasing image what we get is a dystopian nightmare unfolding in front of our very own eyes as the traffic monster grows exponentially before it finally runs out of space to grow and, then, looking inward, surely devours itself (I’d give it another 2 or 3 years at most before Jakarta is total gridlock).

The breakdown of any semblance of order on the roads is already well into the advanced stage – and even those charged with enforcing what passes as “the law” seem to have given up the ghost (vehicles swarming the bus lanes, virtually all traffic regulations being violated, dangerously unroadworthy vehicles etc etc)

It was 7.00am at the Pancoran intersection and whilst waiting for the lights to turn green – some others didn’t even bother, they just rushed the red light anyway (Kamikaze on a Kawasaki!)– I looked to my left and there on the tarmac about 20 meters away was the crumpled body of some hapless chap who had come off second best to one of those large, ubiquitous killing machines (oft-referred to as “cars”).

For what seemed like an age – but was actually just a few seconds – cars continued to go past the prone figure as if noone was lying on the ground. It was then, of course, that the realization of what had happened sank in and a number of people rushed over to help the poor sod – one even dragging him by the feet to get him out of (further) danger. Ouch.

Then the lights turn green where I am and it’s like the start of the Grand National at Aintree and every nutter’s tearing away from the starting line as fast as they possibly can, the lightweight motorcycles having a big advantage over their heavy four-wheel brethren who are left far behind in a proverbial cloud of filthy exhaust smoke.

This increasing passion for road mayhem is bad enough but God help us all if we go the whole hog and end up with the roads dominated by symphorophilia incidents - as was the case in The Master’s great book Crash.

 J.G. Ballard crash
… but on the other hand it might be fun I guess

Later in the day and I’m in less than salubrious East Jakarta, heading back to the city center along Jalan Letnan Jenderal Suprapto when I notice a sign for the turnoff to Tanah Tinggi in Jakarta’s infamous Johar Baru subdistrict.

Most people would give this area a wide berth, but having run through some stats a while back which revealed that Tanah Tinngi is the most densely populated area in the whole of South East Asia – and possibly the world - I think what the hell, and take the turning to see what its like.

So how densely populated is it? Well let’s just say we are looking at a mind boggling 38,000 people living in a space of only 62 hectares! (1 square km = 100 hectares)

To put it in perspective, that’s nearly 13 times the population density of London or even nearly 6 times the population density of Jakarta itself!

Yep it’s tightly packed in here alright – and shockingly poor as well - but I don’t even think about venturing into the impossibly narrow side alleys where “complete” homes are typically around 3 square meters in size – that’s so small that the occupants have to take it in turns to sleep (kids during the night, parents during the day) as there is not enough space for them to all sleep together at the same time.

Tanah Tinggi slums, Jakarta

Many of the adults who live here are either unemployed or work in the informal sector and are of little consequence to the nation’s notoriously inept and corrupt politicians, so conditions here are unlikely to ever improve.

Yet despite the poverty, Jakarta’s slums are nowhere as dangerous or threatening as, say, those in Rio, Jamaica, or Cape Town (why is that?), and in stereotypical fashion most of the kids playing on the streets appear to be happy enough - laughing and joking - albeit without the fancy clothing or Ipads of the kids of the
nouveau riche living in places like Kemang and Pondok Indah.

Getting out of Tanah Tinngi and it’s onto the main road again and before too long I’m at Senen, waiting at the traffic lights across from one of Jakarta’s most decrepit and dingy cinemas where, it seems, the American hardcore actress Sasha Grey is still titillating the masses in her latest film…

 Sasha Grey in pocong mandi goyang pinggul

A barely dressed Sasha Grey makes it known that the best things in life are still free. And you can bet those in Tanah Tinggi are bloody glad to hear that!


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