Class and Caste in Jogjakarta

As a well-known religious leader once said, “the poor of the earth will always be with us.” Given the size of Jogja, it is not surprising that the disparities of class and even caste are more apparent than Bali. I may have heightened the likelihood of sudden encounters by inadvertently choosing a hotel located in the city center (more or less) that is adjacent to a large warren of houses, shacks, apartments, and compounds beside the “Kali Code” river. Walking beside the main four-lane road in front of the hotel and then turning into the side streets of these neighborhoods was like leaving the 21st century and entering the 19th. That probably sounds a bit exaggerated, but the lack of electricity, running water (in parts), wheeled transport, and predominance of marginally functional dwellings located in a ravine that surely floods on a regular basis all made me think that perhaps 60% of the world’s human population lives in places like this.


My first walk into a neighborhood far outside my psychological comfort zone was on a sunny Friday morning, the hour before prayers at local mosques. For much of the time, loudspeakers transmitted pre-recorded male voices chanting parts of the Qu’ran, some of which was quite splendid to hear. The elegance of the chanting was in sharp contrast with the simple, even rudimentary structures that people called home. In walking down little alleys and lanes, I could look into houses and rooms and see mattresses on the floor, clothes scattered around, a radio or tv (always with static on the screen) turned to low volume, and sometimes people sleeping or simply lounging about in the darkness. I can’t remember seeing any interiors with lights on, but perhaps the darkness at mid-day was normal. Most of the dwellings were quite close to the brown water of the fast-moving river, which served as garbage disposal, a place to bathe, a fishing spot, a laundromat, and place to play.

A photo I did not take but which is engraved in my mind is of a pretty young woman, a sarong wrapped around her midriff, squatting by an eddy in the river (staying close to the concrete wall that protects the foundations of houses), scrubbing her body w/ great vigor and lots of soapy foam. She could have been 14 or 34, and I honored her privacy by not slowing down to gaze in admiration.

But what should I admire about a poor woman having no place to wash herself except in the filthy waters of a city’s river? According to my host at Sanata Dharma university, improving the infrastructure for these neighborhoods is regularly part of the promises made by aspiring politicians. And yet nothing gets done and the inhabitants votes are are frequently encouraged by small payoffs.



Two areas in particular stood out. At the northern boundary of the riverside community, marked by a road and a bridge, I turned up the hill to follow signs to a mosque. The further I walked into this community, the clearer it became that the houses were larger, the infrastructure better, the streets and alleys much cleaner, and, to further enhance its distinctness, many homes and walls were painted in bright colors. Some even had murals on them, dispatching some kind of civic message that was aimed to improve or safeguard the lives of local people.


On the main road in, which could accommodate a single car (barely), the wall was decorated with large claayy  heads that held plants. Each of these was unique and expressively humorous in some way. Even the entrance to this neighborhood had a colorful gateway and little flags that reminded me of Tibetan prayer flags. Number 7, Jetisharo, beside the yellow bridge







At the other end some 1.5 kilometers south, the neighborhoods there run into a couple roads and a trestle for train tracks heading out of town to the east. A local artist has used the concrete foundations for the trestle as a huge canvas to critique capitalism. A picture says it all, but whether local people find some solidarity with these images remains to be seen.





They reference global financial flows and institutions, which seems somewhat removed from the struggle facing these communities by the river. Perhaps here we could find rooms in which the pedicab bechak drivers sleep, or the women at the grungy neighborhood market, or the parking attendants who spend their days by noisy, exhaust-fume’d streets, or kitchen help for small warung restaurants, or simply families with few financial resources, limited education, and too many kids.


And yes I’m keenly aware that after seeing and sweating my way through these neighborhoods, I have the luxury of returning to my hotel for a swim if I so choose. Some people would have me feel guilty about being a tourist in a developing country. I’d rather pay homage to the struggle of the economically-marginal neighborhoods where somehow, life goes on and no doubt there is laughter and love and pride and hope that tomorrow will be better than today…all the elements that make life worth living.


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