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The Drain People

Living in Jakarta one all the time sees examples of the worst sides of human behavior and existence. We see the, the lung-destroying pollution, the filth, the poverty, the theft and the constant corruption. We also see chaotic traffic and the inability, or is it the unwillingness of the police, to do anything about it because there’re no direct cash benefits in it for them? Lots and lots of not very nice stuff. We can easily forget there are nice things to be found in our environment.

Just near where I live lives a family that by their example, helps give one the tolerance to continue on here and to take a less jaded view of life. They are church-mouse poor. Their house is an old kaki lima that they’ve propped up on scrounged old boards spanning a filthy open drain, that a few meters away drains into an even filthier (if this is possible) canal. They sleep inside in shifts. The house is also a tiny warung from which minute quantities of everyday consumer goods are sold for a miniscule profit. Next to this tiny “shophouse”, the senior man in the extended family has set up a small open air bengkel to repair punctures in motorcycle tyres. He and his helpers work hard and are available 24/7 to sell their services.

Someone has to be awake and on the alert at all times or their equipment and tools would disappear – at least those that remain after plundering by “public order” officials.

The surroundings are filthy, the work is dirty work and hard in all seasons – even more so in the rainy season. The road they front is noisy, busy and dangerous. Dilapidated diesel buses spew their filth over them all day and half the night. Their toilet is the drain - where they wash I can’t bring myself to think about. They are surrounded and preyed upon by sundry relatives, who seem to visit from the home kampung on rotation to take without contributing.

Premen extort them for a slice of their miniscule earnings and take goods from the store without paying. Public order officials likewise extort them and abuse them. These relatives, premen and officials don’t care about their poverty, the babies and the young kids’ deprivation, or their parents’ massive efforts to drag themselves out of the mire. They just want cash for no effort at all.

When I first encountered these people, their appearance had me clutching my bag tightly and hurrying past, eyes averted, but as time moved along I came to know the family a little, and along with this came to deplore their position and to respect their efforts. They were always polite and friendly towards me when I passed.

Their just-started-school-age daughter, a bright and pretty little kid who, in the mornings at least is always presented as clean and shining as a new pin, once – only once – asked me for money. She was immediately scolded for being rude to me, and in front of me was told that if she wants money she must earn it, just as her parents do. Chastened, she immediately apologized to me with a sincere charm that melted me.

I’ve taken to occasionally carrying shiny red apples to give this little girl. She accepts them with one of the world’s nicest smiles and a very big “Thanks you Misterrr!” - but only if I’ll accept a glass of teh (tea) from her Ibu’s warung.

She and her family are about the nicest people I know.

© MR