Road work


Insect MaskThere’s a strand of psychology that believes there’s a link between our modern urbanized existences and the high rates of depression and suicide around the world.

Eco-psychology does attract more than its fair share of hippies, who use this theory as an excuse to hold workshops where one makes symbolic love to trees.*

Even so, I do personally get what the more reputable eco-psychologists are on about. I feel a flicker of anxiety after a day in an air-conditioned office. Shopping centers make me cagey- as though I’m in one. Yet- at the risk of sounding like a complete wanker- the comfortable euphoria gained at the top of a mountain, swimming in the sea or hiking in the bush feels something akin to returning home. And I mostly think running in gyms defies logic.

ombak4Running in Jakarta, however, is paradoxical. Running outside in this city isn’t so a way to connect with nature so much as an guided tour of what happens when rubbish is left to its own devices. Rancid smells happen. People fishing in hepatitis-infected water happens. Dead rats happen.

And yet running outside has become a mandatory task in my survival of this city.

Being a certified Bule, I’d have another option if I was rich enough (I’m not). I could have my very own driver to take me from Plaza Indonesia to Senayan City, to Kemang and back again in an air-conditioned cube. I wouldn’t even have to shop, I could have my maid fetch me organic groceries from the nearest Bule-mart, imported from my native Australia, and cook me dishes from home. I could work in an office with a marbled lobby and English-speaking security guards. On the weekend I could eat in hotels and ritzy restaurants without my feet ever touching one of the many cracked and questionable footpaths of this city. Theoretically, I could spend years in this country without ever suffering the inconvenience of developing a personal relationship with an Indonesian.

When I run outside, I see market sellers and street sweepers. I see puffed-out, puffy Ibus doing rounds of the tiny park near my house. I see children swimming in a brown river, and their parents living in makeshift shacks underneath the bridge nearby. The vegetable seller man makes toot-toot sounds like a stressed bird as he drags his cart through the streets, and the taxi drivers nongkrong (hang out) at the nearby pasar, reluctantly leaving their friends to take the occasional passenger.

As I go, it’s necessary to take short breaks from breathing, lest I inhale the carcinogenic smoke from the back of a bajaj or ojek. I risk twisted ankles and broken legs, dodging abysses in the steaming-hot concrete, or jumping over planks I’m convinced will cave in. A permanent hole in my foot just from walking in Jakarta had me hallucinating conspiracy theories about it all.

And yet my favorite time to run in Jakarta is at night. Perhaps its the eco-psychological effect of this city giving me a subconscious death wish. After working the night shift I get home and put on my sneakers. I hide my keys in the pot plant because everyone else in the house will be too distracted with sleep to let me back in, and I jump my fence. I start running into the dark.

This is how I came to make my discovery of the night men. But they, my friends, are for next week’s post.

* I wish I was joking but its true. I went on an eco-psychology workshop (to write a story about it!) where we made masks and had to pretend to be insects involved in amorous relationships with trees in the nearby park. In everlasting gratefulness to my self-control, I managed not to cry with laughter.

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4 Responses to “Road work”

  1. jemise Says:

    Belle’s obsession with running has turned into Om’bak’s obsession with running — see enlarged RUNNING tag.

  2. nyscha Says:

    You run the dodgy streets of Jakarta at night and dry-hump trees wearing a praying mantis mask without dying from convulsive laughter. I salute you, dear Belle.

    I once wrote about how I felt living in Jakarta, and I’ve concluded that what makes this city so damn special is the love-hate relationship it has created deep in my bosom. As I once said, I’m married to the city but the city’s a wife-beater. I will always hate this cramped metropolitan shit-hole, but I will always love floating around in its shit. It makes me feel alive.

  3. Laurene Says:

    Running outside in Jakarta. It’s something most of people (especially those who never touch the asphalt with their feet) regard as total madness. Yet something I love about Jakarta, is that this city makes you do crazy things. I started doing these things to try to excuse myself for being a certified bule formerly driven everywhere by my (not exactly own) driver: taking public buses, having walks in the streets, going to sleazy clubs… then I got fascinated by what I experienced. As Nyscha wrote, I felt alive.
    Going back to running, it’s more than a way to exercise. It is also a special moment when one gets rid of all stress, get away, think. And feel alive.
    I’m looking forward to reading about the night men.

  4. The Night Men « Om’bak Says:

    […] of the city’s streets, the detached observers of their surroundings. I found them on my night runs. Dozens of middle-aged men with their hands grasped at the smalls of their backs, wandering […]

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