In December of last year, shortly after successfully finishing my Doctoral Thesis Defense, I teamed up with a friend to journey the Indonesian Island of Jawa. Along our trip, which we wisely chose to do in the off-season and during which we were fortunate enough to be spared by bad weather, we’d also meet a lot of interesting people; travelers, rather than tourists, and locals with hearths of gold (shout-out to Kenia!), always pointing us towards the right direction and where to head next.
Throughout the ensuing three weeks, we were often asked, how and why we chose to travel together to such a remote place on this planet. Sometimes we had to even ask ourselves. In all fairness, I have to admit that I can’t remember. It certainly involved beers. Probably the daring presumption that neither one of us would find and or take the time to travel with the other one further pushed us, given that we were both busy just months before eventually heading to South East Asia on then very short notice. The journey itself would lastly deliver all the right answers: “We just had to!”
For different reasons, we were initially both mesmerized by the idea of going to Indonesia. For my friend it was a part of the world, he hadn’t been to yet, for me on the other hand, it signified a back and forth of good and bad experiences. In 2012 I had been to Bali on a two week University excursion, which had shown me the Hindu heart of this country. Back then I’d already heard about Indonesia being much more diverse and interesting and to most parts also less touristic than this island, which already had managed to twist me around its finger. I knew that I had to come back. In 2018 however, visiting a friend in Malaysia, I would drop by the Island of Batam, which initially seemed like a good idea to revisit Indonesia, but turned out to be the complete opposite of what I had experienced in Bali. Situated just 40 minutes by boat from the shores of Singapore, it was a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. A practically a Muslim enclave, however stuffed with golf courts, nightclubs, bars and roamed by hustlers, petty crime and prostitution, where the usual Western traveler, you’d meet would be committed to having fun, at the expense of all ethics, morale and values be they cultural or religious. I left the island the first chance I got, but ever since would struggle to accept that these two journeys, should complete my Indonesian experience.
Flashback to December of 2019, I found myself in a very different situation. Jakarta, where we landed, already greeted us with some of the nicest folk, I’ve ever met while traveling, and soon made the 1000page Lonely Planet, we had brought with us, very much expendable. We would go on to visit beautiful sights that were pointed out to us by our new found friends in the weeks to come, like Borobudur, Prambanan, Karimun, Tumpak Sewu and Mount Bromo, but even more so indulge our passion to visit Kampungs, meaning “villages”, in every city we came across.
I am a city guy. Originally coming from the countryside, I always cherished the small details and culturally distinct features cities have to offer and would always strive to visit and stay in cities while traveling. On the other hand the intersection of the countryside with the urban has always been a particular interest of mine. I had already come across similar “villages in the city” in Shanghai before coming to Jawa. The Indonesian Kampungs however were special in thus far, as they would vary vastly in their location, shape and color and also posed a distinct feature to most Javanese cities that we’ve been to. For one, there were so called “Rainbow Villages”, the likes of Malang or Semarang, painted on governmental initiative to attract tourists and invigorate the cityscape. On the other hand, you’d find Kampungs as makeshift housing along rivers and rail tracks, as we did in Jakarta, telling the story of a vibrant city that was inhabited into nearly every of its corners. More often than not you’d find built-in infrastructure like stores and Mosques as well, in any case you’d find cheerful people to share a word and spend some time with.
Then there were the Kampungs within Bantar Gebang. Pointed out to us by one of our new found friends in Jakarta, Cynthia, a local, who had done some teaching as part of a NGO project south east of Jakarta, and for us gladly did some bar-keeping that day (yes, I’m kind of a hypocrite in this regard), rather jokingly suggested that – if we were looking for something special – we could pay that place a visit. What she referred to, was the biggest dumpsite in the world just a 40 minute drive from the Indonesian capital. Little did she know that we were really that crazy and would go the very next day.
Making our way through to Bantar Gebang, first by Metro then motorcycle, we would arrive there around 4 pm in the afternoon. Fortunately for us the driver, we just approached at the railway station in Jakarta, had some local contact in one of the Kampungs of Bantar Gebang, who on the other hand had family, friends even a whole community to show for amidst the hills of trash that were suddenly looming in front of us. It was breath-taking. Being shown around by our local associate, we would pass by houses made of carpets, wooden, plastic and metal debris and walk along narrow tracks bordered by rubbish, while adults were recycling brooms and plastic bottles and children playing ball.
After a short conversation we managed to organize two other scooters to drive around the dumpsite. It was then, when its real dimensions became evident to us. Piles becoming hills of trash, with sometimes five excavators at once compiling pyramid-shaped structures, layered with plastic canvas between and atop were finally buried under layers of earth to supposedly help decomposing what remained underneath. A river had become a fluid mass of dirt, trash and plastic debris. Still the whole place carried a sense of majesty as well as urgency, showcasing both our present day state of global over-pollution, as well as the efforts to not succumb to but cope with it locally.
With the ensuing sunset we got back to our starting point within the dumpsite, and were greeted by the guy, who had shown us around. Sitting on a wooden plank outside of the Kampung. We tried to communicate to the best of our abilities, and while I was showing him photos of my home and family, he had both right sitting right next to him. Which brings me to the most valuable variable to this tale and journey in Jawa 2019, the people. Seldom traveling through a country had such a lasting and positive effect on me. That said it was only the third time I had been to Indonesia and there is so much more to see, as well as people to meet and talk with.