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A Question of Balance

There are many fascinating things you will encounter when you come to Jakarta, and many questions will go through your mind for which you can think of no answer. Examples of these may be "how do the children all fly kites in the dry season when the wind speed is zero?", "how come your plane flies through clouds of them when landing at Soekarno-Hatta airport and never crashes?", "where do the ever-diligent meat-ball-and-noodle soup trolley owners go to make their delicious wares?", and "how come there are 50 million cars in Jakarta, but only three gasoline stations?" The answer to the last one may have something to do with the fact that gasoline is widely available for purchase from used coke bottles on every street, but generally there is only one answer that can answer questions of this type, "This is Indonesia!"

But the most fascinating thing about Jakarta, once you've got used to using the statutory answer above, is its people. After being here for quite a while, I have grown to love them, and I'm aware that many individuals (who are often polite but wary at first if not used to mixing with westerners) that have got to know me have grown to love me too. And one of the most fascinating things about these crazy, inquisitive, gentle people is their uncanny sense of balance.

Indonesians don't need a chair to sit down, they can sit on their heels for hours, and frequently do. I've tried it, and I get cramp in 3 seconds, and that is on the ground. In Jakarta, they do it on any flat, rounded, pointed or irregular surface, especially the men. They do it on the kerb, on walls, poles, crane jibs, bridges, train roofs, bits of homemade wooden scaffolding, anything. I've seen them do it with their toes hanging off the edge of a 30-storey building, just watching the world go by.

I guess it's the strong sense of balance that makes them fearless of heights- at home, it takes nerves of steel to be a steeplejack or a tower crane driver. Here, anyone could do it.

Consequently, sissy things like handrails are as redundant as the car heater. The footbridges over the freeways have them, but no one ever uses them. Most shopping malls and offices that have banks of steps up to the entrance don't bother to install them. I've even seen a 30 feet high diving board with 18-inch wide concrete stairs and no handrail. The unfortunate thing for a westerner, with his/her underdeveloped ability to stand on anything not flat, is that Indonesians tend to have smaller feet, so the steps are proportionately smaller too. It is always amusing to see the giant westerner with his size 14 feet hanging over the edge of the steps, gingerly picking his way down from the mall whilst ready to grab at the nearest passer-by on the first sign of toppling.

But the most awesome display of balance comes from the girls travelling to work. In Jakarta, there are about eleven motor bikes to every car, which swarm around the cars like flies around a dead rabbit during the rush hour (actually, there is only one rush hour a week in Jakarta, which lasts from 4.30 am on Monday until 10.15 pm on the following Sunday). Many of the motor bikes are actually taxis, which office workers use as a more comfortable alternative to the crowded city buses, and a cheaper alternative to the 4-wheeled taxis.

For reasons of modesty, many of the girls ride the back of these bikes side-saddle, facing completely perpendicular to the direction of travel. Their feet dangle freely, supported only by fresh air, and they nonchalantly clutch at nothing more substantial than their handbags. Crash helmets are rare, being detrimental to the hair-do, and I could swear I've even seen some asleep. The sight of a pretty girl in smart office clothes, sitting sideways and holding nothing on the back of a bike at full throttle, swerving furiously in and out of the standstill cars whilst seemingly asleep, is a sight which seems to defy all the laws of physics. But then, this is Indonesia!

© David Cook