This afternoon I leaned against a tree with the sun upon my face. It was such a nice sensation just to be still in the middle of a busy street with the feel of the tree trunk against my back. Around me office workers on their lunch break wandered in shirtsleeves or sprawled on the grass in the park nearby eating their sandwiches, reading a book or just enjoying an afternoon snooze.
It’s only when I leave Jakarta that I’m reminded of how deprived my life is of the ordinary simple pleasures that constitute so-called normal life — a life where the best things are free and you don’t have to go to the mall to find them. Such as on a balmy summer’s day in Sydney, which is where I am at the moment. Only somewhere other than Jakarta could I enjoy the feel of the outdoors and fresh air in my lungs.
Here walking is what you do because you’re blessed with a pair of legs that benefit from being used and because it’s enjoyable navigating the pavement and being part of an anonymous crowd that also takes pleasure in the same thing: strolling on a beautiful summer’s day, just catching the breeze.
An exhibition at a nearby museum catches my eye. I hesitate between going in and following the hypnotic sound of a didgeridoo coming from somewhere near the wharf. The day is too sunny to be spent indoors so I walk toward the waterfront.
Along the way a bookshop with titles like “A Doodle Book for Wasting Your Time at the Office” beckons teasingly. I make a mental note to visit it later. But for the moment I want to see the Aborigine blowing on the didgeridoo and watch the boats and ferries ply the waters in Sydney Harbor. The sky is the type of blue that you find in children’s coloring books with little fluffy clouds. It’s almost as if you’re in heaven.
And then I think what an inhumane city my hometown is.
In Jakarta things are constructed not for the joy and pleasure of living but just to go through the motions of existence. Where are the nice wide sidewalks, the handsome buildings that speak of history and well-designed architecture? Where are the public parks with leafy trees and the even streets that are free from human detritus?
Jakarta is indeed a city that suffers from poverty — not so much of the economic kind but rather a poverty of the imagination, a paucity of vision and a deficiency in concept. That’s because the city is built for buildings and not human beings, to cloister objects and people and not promote natural human activities. And the streets are not made for walking. There is little pleasure to be had from walking on Jakarta’s streets. They have to be negotiated like an obstacle course. They weren’t built with people in mind but as potholed and polluted afterthoughts that fill the spaces in between.
In Hanoi there is a lake in the middle of a park. The majority of the people there are still poor and no doubt live in tiny cramped houses. Yet come the afternoon when the sun is gentler, the local denizens like to picnic on the grass. Young lovers sit on the benches that circle the lake, finding privacy in a public place. Young men hit shuttlecocks on badminton courts fashioned with chalk on the spacious grounds.
By sundown, women in tracksuits gather and perform aerobics to the sound of music from an out-of-tune tape recorder. When night falls grandmothers take toddlers out in their pajamas to play before retiring for the evening. The public space becomes their playground and source of safe comfort: A creative place of self-expression or simply pure enjoyment. A space to breathe.
When I was younger and living in England, every day the on the walk back and forth to school a mile from where I lived, I would pass a park. My greatest joy in the summer was to fill my pockets with horse chestnuts that had fallen to the ground or kick the dead leaves that dropped from the trees in autumn.
But in Jakarta the outdoors is the enemy of the well-off and the trap of the poor. Those who can afford it choose all manner of means to cloister themselves from it — behind glass walls and thick buildings — while those who can’t, suffer its menacing cruelty.