Because when it rains it pours, and in Jakarta when it rains it floods…
They say Jakarta has a significant flood once every five years. The last big one was in 2007, killing around 50 people and displacing 200,000 residents. With our timely relocation to the city, and my bloated track record of flirting dangerously with natural disasters – this one was always going to come pretty much bang on schedule, three times as bad as usual. And it did.
With the exception of the 2007 flood (the worst in three centuries) by word of the locals, it seemed that this kind of flooding wasn’t normal.
The usual scenario started off as usual – deafening thunder that wakes you in the middle of the night, blinding strobe light-esque lightning, torrential rain – the difference being that in the 30 minutes that we sat outside and watched the downpour, deciding whether to brave the deluge for class or no (wasn’t a hard one to argue), much of the road was under water.
Needless to say, we’d decided to stay put in the dry before the text came through telling us class was cancelled. In the next half an hour, the water level rose at least 30 centimetres, and in the next hour the power was out and our neighbours were clambering out of their windows as the brown river approached a metre high.
Realization dawned at that point that we might be in for the long haul, as we uncertainly eyed our food supplies: a single packet of water crackers that was barely half-full, and a jar of cheap peanut butter. For an hour, we sat in my friend’s dark, humid, room on her bed, sparingly nibbling on crackers and peanut butter, barely talking – probably looking each other over to see who would make the fattest meal, if it got to that. At that point it was likely me, too. The holiday weight meant I would be the first to go after the crackers.
Just when it looked like we might actually have to turn to cannibalism, there came a knock at my door from my dear neighbour, wielding two full bags of groceries. Aside from thanking her for my life, we were each beside ourselves with happiness that we no longer had to ration our cardboard crackers and plastic peanut butter.
Being isolated without power or internet – and relying on texts on one lone phone with battery – had us soon sheepishly realising how we actually had no idea how to function without electricity. By lunchtime we were enjoying the break from it. By mid-afternoon it was an inconvenience. By the time night fell it was beyond a novelty. We’d all but run out of conversation. I’d have given my left arm for a pack of cards (particularly if we were as hungry as we were before).
Jakarta had ground to a complete halt – the only sounds were that of wailing animals and far-off sirens. But we never had to look far for the reminder that we were still living in luxury compared to many on the rest on our street – the house across the road was all but completely submerged, boats were constantly drifting past evacuating people, and a group of military trucks were hard at work just around the corner.
The worst part of this whole situation was that while my two friends’ parents were seeing this on the news in New Zealand and frantically calling them asking if they were okay, mine were nowhere to be found. I tried calling them several times, convinced they couldn’t just not care less, but I couldn’t get through. When someone finally did pick up, it was my grandmother telling me my family was away on holiday and perhaps I should try Dad’s cellphone, and also – what flood? When I finally got through to them, far from being concerned from my welfare – they were pissed off their tree and irked I’d interrupted a drinking game. The fact they’d had to stand on a bench, hold their arm at a right angle and stand on tip-toes to get reception only added to their sense of inconvenience. Apparently, going bush and not having heard of a major natural disaster occurring in the place your daughter lives means has it even happened? Fancy that.
The next day, it had stopped raining, but the water remained at over a metre-high. We took our chances, and waded out into it in search of food. A few days after that, we read an article about sightings of 2-metre long pythons and lizards being found in the water once it subsided. Luckily, this seemingly crucial PSA was unbeknownst to us before we took our lives in our hands for a Snickers bar, and I’m sure the children fishing in the street were also blissfully unaware.
We took that as our queue to go stay in a hotel for a few nights.
But poisonous reptiles aside, what I find the hardest to comprehend – is that this is normal for Jakarta. The floods come, causing millions of dollars worth of damage, loss of life, the city shudders to a temporary standstill, and then the clean-up begins and life gets on as it always did. Over 50 people died in these floods. It wasn’t just us whining about surviving on complex carbohydrates for a day. People actually lost their lives because of a drainage problem.
I went out to volunteer in East Jakarta in the days that followed, with two days off university – and knowing full well I couldn’t cope with my own company for that long. It seemed bizarre that we hadn’t ventured out of our Central Jakarta bubble since we arrived. At that point, we were blissfully unaware that malls elsewhere might not consist solely of Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Not to say that we’d ever actually entertained the idea of buying anything of that calibre; we were certainly not their market clientele – I felt like if I tried to step foot in the door I might spontaneously combust.
The result of venturing east was, honestly, terrifying. Jakarta is like Tokyo plonked in the middle of New Delhi. It’s shiny and dripping with wealth from the outset, but once you venture out into the suburbs you see a completely new side to the city. Slums, roads that two motorcycles side-by-side struggle to navigate their way down, and rubbish. Everywhere.
Seeing flood-ravaged Kampung Melayu was especially heart-breaking. Thousands of people were desperately attempting to get back on their feet, despite the fact their district had morphed into a sewage-infested swamp. And by sewage, I really do mean floating turds passing by front door steps – there were even “poo lines” on the walls. Hundreds of people filled the streets, shovelling muck out of their living room as if it were a weekly occurrence. Schools were filled with silt. Sports grounds were a mud pit. Thousands were evacuated. Hundreds were crammed into every hall, large building and mosque that could be found. And they stayed there for months. But no-one complained.
However, the worst thing I heard while I was out there was that the piles of rubbish lining the streets would be tipped straight back into the river because the government won’t collect it. Did we not learn from the last flood?
And then there’s the lack of diversity out there. Whilst the central Jakarta expat community is more than alive and well, in the suburbs, a white face is a tourist attraction all on its own. The “Hello Mister”s could be heard before I’d even stepped out of the car, and one guy spent the entire time just waving his arms frantically at me. I can only assume I was standing in poo.
This is all just part of Indonesian life. We spent two days stranded in our kos (apartment) without power or food and as soon as the water levels came down we were out of there like a shot – I don’t know how anyone does that periodically as part of a five-year cycle.
Lastly, the only thing I was left with to ponder was how much of a magnetism I seemed to have from something that’s actually never going to be of any use to me: natural disasters. I’ve certainly seen my fair share – avoiding three earthquakes, a tsunami and a flash flood within days was something I was quite proud of. To put it bluntly, I could’ve/ would’ve/ should’ve been subjected to possible death multiple times.
From earthquake reporting in Christchurch to flood reporting in Jakarta – it’s a transferable skill, but one I’d rather like to shake.
This twisted turn of events could have been Jakarta’s way of revealing its jealousy toward my perverse relationship with natural disasters. Seems like you can only flirt with Mother Nature for so long before she catches up with you for retribution.