Indonesia Expat
Faces of Indonesia

Erdin the Pemulung

It’s midday in Jakarta, and an unforgivingly hot sun is beating down on the pavement.

The city’s voice is roaring. Cement trucks rumble by kicking up dust.  The call to prayer sounds in the distance.  A jackhammer coughs and sputters.  A parking attendant’s whistle shrills through the melting heat.

Meanwhile, the city’s office workers, in heels and collared shirts are off to lunch, ducking into shiny blue taxis, briefly escaping their elevators and e-mails, desks and deadlines. And then there is Erdin, right in the heart of it all.

In a city of 20 million, Erdin sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s because he is pushing a garbage cart full of plastic bottles, rebar and electrical cords. Maybe it’s because he’s barefoot. Or maybe because it’s 36 degrees Celsius outside and he’s smiling.

“I love my line of work,” the 31-year-old, says shading his eyes from the bright sun. “I’m from Kendari, Sulawesi. There is nothing going on there. I live in Jakarta. I have a wife, a house. I have everything I need.”

Each day Erdin pushes and pulls his cart through the heart of Jakarta, along Mega Kuningan, up into Menteng, then down Sudirman and back into Mega Kuningan. He collects everything of value, from cardboard and glass bottles to copper wiring and old paint buckets.

Once every two days he takes his cart to a recycles weigh station and cashes in. Some days he walks away with just enough money for him and his wife to eat dinner. It’s not an easy life, but Erdin is proud of what he does to put food on the table.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years,” he says confidently. “I have a system. I know the route and the people along the route know me.”

Erdin’s existence is a source of confusion for most of us. How could this guy be happy picking up garbage with his bare hands day after day. How could he spend the workday out in the sun, dodging traffic and stressing out about finding enough to eat.

But he thinks the same thing about us. He sees his life as one of freedom. The day starts when he says it does. It ends whenever he feels like it is quitting time. No e-mails. No deadlines. No KPIs.

But what about when it comes to paying the bills and having a little extra money on the side to take his wife out for dinner?

“I’m not like other people,” he says with a shrug of his broad shoulders. “Sure, I don’t have a hand phone or an e-mail address. But I don’t want those things…. I don’t know what I want, but I know I don’t want that.”

Erdin does, however, understand why people who sit in traffic for two hours every day and work for a boss they hate so they can buy things they don’t need, would feel sorry for him.

“I can understand how people see me, and they might look down on me, or feel sorry for me, but I like who I am and I like what I do.”

Erdin doesn’t want your sympathy, he wants your respect and empathy.

Now, what about when we throw trash out the window or just leave junk on the side of the road. Or what about when citizen take to the streets cleaning up rubbish and putting it in the right place, setting an example for others.

“I like the idea of that. It would save me time. I would know right where to go to get things and I wouldn’t have to sift through so much to find the things I need.”

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