In nineteenth century Paris, Charles Baudelaire would have called them flaneurs, the gentlemen strollers 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 Jakarta’s streets quietly in the dark.
How is it that a place so infused with smog and mess could have produced such beautiful specimens of the city philosopher?
It’s been months, they know me now, my flaneurs. They mime wave to me as I run past. It’s just the “wanita bule gila” (the crazy bule woman) tripping the cracked pavement fantastic, a clumsy interruption to their quiet musings of the star-less sky.
It has been widely observed that there is no English word for flaneur. But if I was to stop and ask these men what they were doing, they could answer me with the direct Indonesian equivalent.
Jalan-jalan: To stroll, to walk around, no specific direction offered or known.
I am the ultimate jalan-jalaner.
There is, of course, little chance of being a legitimate flaneur as a bule woman in this city. My desire to stroll the streets, whimsically observing the city without being noticed is usually ruined by my five feet, nine inch frame and my tendency to fall over.
Serves you right, most other bules here would say. Catch a taxi.
Jakarta’s city administration would agree. I attended a lunch with foreign journalists earlier this year that had Jakarta governor Fauzi Bowo as the headlining act. He was asked what he thought about closing up the notoriously traffic-jammed Kemang, where restaurants and clubs abound. Why not, one of the journalists suggested, shut the main strip off to cars and create an open boulevard where people could stroll around?
“Hmmm,” said Bowo. An excellent suggestion. Except the government had a better plan: a nine level stacked highway running through the middle of Kemang so that the cars could keep flowing.
That nobody walks around in this city is a middle-class myth. Actually, it’s a middle class fantasy land that’s materialised in the carpeted hallways of Grand Indonesia, the most extravagant shopping mall in Jakarta, or that I’ve ever seen, for that matter. Having made a lasting contribution to the smog levels of this city, big business has moved nature indoors for your convenience, if you can afford it. You too can take a gentle stroll down a New York, Paris or “Asian” inspired walkway lined with designer shops. The artificial trees and grass are just like the real thing.
Though there are many people that walk the street, being a flaneur is almost privilege based on class. The other type of night men- the warias, the lady boys, pacing the river’s edge near my house at night – will vouch for this. Like the beggars pouring in from country areas to capitalise on the generosity of Jakartans that accompanies the fasting month, or the prepubescent boys busking on buses, their presence on the street is illegal under Jakarta’s city laws. These flaneurs are not detached observers of the street. They are connected to it- inextricably, unauthorised, yes, and yet it serves as their lifeblood, the means of their survival.
And they don’t have the luxury of writing Marxist-flavoured nonsense about Jakarta’s streets in a blog. But oh, the stories they could tell about the city. Somebody should write them down.