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New Bule in Town


I’m a new arrival in the least-known major city in the world, the capital of the least-known major country in the world.

I’m full of first impressions and ignorance, which I hope might just result in an interesting column.

I could already fill pages with Jakartan hyperbole, much of it negative, and statistics, most of them unreliable.

I’m full of first impressions and ignorance, which I hope might just result in an interesting column. I could already fill pages with Jakartan hyperbole, much of it negatives and statistics; most of them unreliable.

Jakarta is the world’s most polluted city. Jakarta is sinking. Jakarta has the world’s worst traffic jams. There are twenty million mobile phones in Jakarta. Jakarta will soon be the world’s biggest city and Infinium.

Some of these may be true.

However, I have one important claim of my own: the statistics about Jakarta, at least those that are available in English, are the world’s most unreliable.

There’s no agreement on the population, the size of the economy, the rate of growth of anything, the number of cars and motorbikes, or the quality of the air. The lack of reliable statistics about the city is emblematic: their absence speaks both to the city’s immensity, its anarchy, and its strange invisibility.

Reliable facts are elusive, but there is general agreement on the most important issues. Climate change is going to bite hard: Jakarta is already too big and it’s getting bigger. The air is unbreathable. Transport is a nightmare. The city is sinking and oceans are rising; floods will be longer and worse. Drinkable water is scarce. There are massive problems with waste. The disparity between rich and poor is extreme.

Many coastal cities around the world share many of these issues, but they are immediate and pressing for Jakarta. They’re not hypothetical. They’re right here, right now.

Jakarta’s successes and failures will give this bule, and the world, a glimpse of the future for many of the planet’s burgeoning cities.

Understanding the word ‘Bule’

I’m not the only one who is new to this city. According to one unreliable statistic, less than 30 percent of Jakartans are natives. The rest of us are from somewhere else.

We all come for the same reason: economic opportunity. Despite the immediacy of the problems facing Jakarta, for the vast majority of Jakartans, including this bule, it is not a question of how to change the city, but how to adapt so you can survive.

At one extreme, for millions, survival in Jakarta is as clear and simple as putting food on your family’s table. At the other extreme, survival means finding ever-more-complex ways to insulate your family’s wealth from outside threats.

The inventive tricks and the technologies Jakartans have developed in order to survive are what make this city unique. We are like frogs in a pot of water that is gradually heating. We choose to ignore the fact that it will, sure enough, come to the boil.

Anyway, most of us came from somewhere else so when it all becomes intolerable, we can just jump out, can’t we?

With your help, this columnist will try to learn about Jakarta and Indonesia, and talk about how frogs and bules adapt to reality.

Tell me your favourite Jakartan survival trick at [email protected]

The best contribution will win a free ticket to the next Indonesian Expat Mixer.

See: Bringing the Community Together: Indonesia Expat Mixer July

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