As They Rob Us Of Our Simplest Grip On Life

As a kid I loved the raining season. Coming home from school I’d happily curl up on the couch by the front window, sometimes accompanied by the tabby cat I kept behind Mom’s back, and we both would watch the world go by under the rain. Into my rebellious teenage years and freewheeling years overseas, rain became a living backdrop to splashing around on the street with pals, romantic handholding with beaus, or quiet riding on trains and buses when I had a heavy mind.

And I think it was precisely because the rain stayed in the background, as I went about my life. I had the control, not the rain.

But it hasn’t been the case anymore for the past few years in Jakarta. This is not Seattle or British Isles where rain is a daily fixture by default, but when it starts to drop, like this time of the year, it quickly floods over the city’s trash-clogged sewers into the city’s private-vehicle-jammed streets. An hour downpour is strong enough to wrestle power off any traffic controllers or commuting citizens. Much beyond logical city zoning factor, daily appointments of the country’s supposedly 15 million most metropolitan citizens are scheduled around the degree of gridlock and duration of rain as they know that once they dare to step into any transportation vehicle, public or private, they almost have zero control on how long the ride will take. Even the city’s most reliable mode of mass transport so far, the commuter line trains, have been halted by rain-induced power outage and landslide. And we haven’t even factored in street rallies around the city’s downtown, with its own dynamics that sometimes include closing a critical major thoroughfare. How powerless. How pathetic.

It has gradually been eating me up inside and lately, I acknowledge, it has turned dangerously poisonous. I get frustrated whenever I have to schedule an appointment, I swing between anger and disappointment whenever an appointment is yet to be rescheduled or postponed due to the impassability of the streets, and recently, as the cab I took got stuck on a tollroad under the rain at the end of what had been a very long day, only years of pranayama helped me from sliding into a panic attack.

I’ve thought of relocating and, as soon as able to secure a worthy employment, may just do so—even if means leaving behind the small sanctuary I’d spent my lifetime savings buying and decorating. But I miss holding a control to something as humanly simple as mobilizing myself around.

I’ve got due respect for duo Jokowi-Ahok who have sternly tried to return some order into this rapidly chaotic metropolitan, from raiding illegal parking, relocating unruly street vendors and slapping penalties to vehicles entering TransJakarta’s special lanes. But it’s still a very long and uphill road to an orderly Jakarta with adequate, functioning mass transportation and sewage systems. So until that happens, or I can orchestrate my fleeing, I’ve got to find some ways to keep afloat. In no way or manner whatsoever that I am advising anybody to copy or take cues from whatever I am going to dispense next. I just want to spill what I do these days to instill some chill.

1. Find some beauty

In the midst of intense ugliness, one simply must find some beauty to balance it off. I thank the fashion and art scenes for providing me with constant stream of eye-pleasing, soul-replenishing visuals to momentarily forget all the trash-clogged streams outside.

2. Change scenery

Whenever I can angle for a business trip or scrape off enough dough, I travel to places where I can physically flex my muscles and breathe better. I just returned from Hong Kong where I spent my days enjoying their pedestrian walks, MTRs, buses and island-hopping ferries—only taking taxis when my legs completely lost energy. I had a cheap noodle lunch quietly by the pier and ironically laughed at the fact that for all the mainland China’s industrial pollution blowing from across the blue waterfront I felt like breathing better than while flagging a cab in Semanggi.

3. Wrestle back control over something

I’ve rarely driven in the past few years, either relying on cabs or Mom’s driver. But on Sundays, or very late evenings if must, I take my little baby out for a spin. She’s neither a sports car nor new, but she’s got a good engine that can run up to 140km/hour without quivering. I don’t do drag races and never take anybody with me—it’s just me, my baby, and the road ahead. Well, sometimes with Springsteen or Tyler (Bonnie and Steven) blasting off in the background. And for those few moments—eyes front, feet alternating gears, hands gripping the wheel—I can feel some semblance of control over my life.

4. Tools of last resort

Gotta have it, for when all else fails. Yoga, kickboxing, special Tahajjud prayer– whatever gets you through another day of the city’s most debilitating season. A foreign journalist recently tweeted that after enduring a few hours of rain-soaked gridlock he felt he had to enter a decompression chamber. At least he was honest about it. Most of us would shrug it off as another typical Jakartan day, building up anxiety inside that’s just waiting to detonate destructively one day.

So there, I said it. Phew. Now, what’s your survival tricks?

As published:

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