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Not the typical sights of Jakarta

Indonesia, July 1, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Travis Penn for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A child in one of Jakarta's poorest neighborhoods takes time to wash his hands at latrine that was built by the community with help from Mercy Corps. Photo: Travis Penn for Mercy Corps

Today was an exhausting day. Our little group of Mercy Corps staff and supporters left the hotel early to drive out to West Jakarta where we toured an urban village, for lack of a better description.

It was about a three- or four-square block area crammed with little one- or two-room houses. We were told by Mercy Corps Indonesia staff that between 10,000 and 15,000 people live there, eight to ten people to a room. It was a labyrinth of tight little paths to get into it.

Our objective was to see the latrines that were built in the community so raw sewage no longer flows directly into the canal. Mercy Corps has coordinated with the community so that they have to pay for part of the construction and the maintenance. This keeps the community involved and invested in the on-going success of the project.

Each household pays the equivalent of US$1 a month for the use of the latrines. We walked around and visited three different latrines. They each had three or four stalls with squat toilets hooked up to a biodegradable septic system.

At each latrine, scores of families and little kids came out to greet us. There were homemade posters on the walls of the latrines with drawings of how to use them and the benefits of washing hands frequently. The kids were adorable and excited to show us their hand-washing skills.

We were treated to songs, food and drink. It all sounds so strange as I write it down, but it was a big deal for the residents of these poor neighborhoods and they were very proud that this was something they had done for themselves. And it was a very real and remarkable improvement in their lives.

It was blazing hot and the air sometimes just stopped moving. I thought I was gonna faint at one point from the heat. But the little kids would take my hand and then press their foreheads against it as a sign of respect. It was a touching distraction from the heat.

I am sure they had been working for weeks in preparation of our visit, but this "urban village" was very clean and tidy and the kids all looked happy and pretty healthy. They had a "green contest" within the different sections of the community so all of the walkways and houses were lined with pots of plants. Most of them were just for beauty since the living spaces are so small — most people never cook at home. They get their food from roving food carts. Mercy Corps is coordinating a program for healthy food for children. That is what we are visiting tomorrow in a different part of town.

The community leaders are also rather entrepreneurial and are now trying to get the funds to create a hand cart that will pump the scum out of the septic systems. We saw the "concept model." Big trucks can't get into these warrens of foot paths so an alternative method will be necessary. We later visited a small "bank" that gave loans to people to install indoor toilets with septic systems in their homes. It improves the environment, the family's hygiene gets better, home values increase and the overall standard of living goes way up.

When we got back to the hotel ,a big, fancy wedding was taking place. I rode in the elevator with an Indonesian married couple in formal, traditional costumes. The woman had an elaborate garland of jasmine flowers in her hair and her husband wore a turban. Her husband also had a large curved dagger tucked into his belt and placed in his back.

The bride and groom must have come from important families, since suddenly there were a lot of police and security people rushing into the lobby and we were told that the President of Indonesia was arriving. We sat in the corner and watched all of the comings and goings The dresses on some of the women were incredibly elegant. The President only stayed for ten minutes, but it was a big deal. Outside the hotel, the fences were covered with garlands of flowers with messages of congratulations — mostly from corporate and business sponsors who had connections to the bride and groom.

This was in contrast to a simple wedding we saw taking place in the urban village today. The couple sat under a tree while the imam said prayers. They had a lace shawl that draped over the two of them. I felt a little awkward walking past their ceremony, but that was the only path.

There you have it. A full day in some Jakarta neighborhoods that tourists don't usually see.