If Manhattan’s Lower East Side had a village chief, it might be considered a kelurahan. Like Jakarta’s Setiabudi, the neighborhood I’ve stayed in while in Jakarta, a kelurahan is Indonesia’s lowest level of political administration, below subdistricts. Even in Jakarta, the world’s second largest metropolitan area, these kelurahan are, effectively, villages within the city. Setiabudi is named for a Javanese-born Indo-European man who fought for Indonesia’s independence. He changed his name from Ernest Douwes Dekker to Danudirja Setiabudi, meaning “powerful force, faithful spirit,” just before the Dutch handed the 7,000 island archipelago over in 1949, creating Indonesia.
Setiabudi is also a subdistrict, and is where a pair of suicide bombers struck the Ritz-Carlton in 2009, killing seven foreigners. Setiabudi, the village within Setiabudi the subdistrict, is rimmed with the country’s tallest towers, biggest international banks, and ritziest hotels set on broad, choked boulevards. From a distance, this area appears the closest to a distinct, modern skyline that Jakarta has. But in the shadows of these structures, it’s still a village. In the streets ice peddlers, soup peddlers, and motorbike-taxi drivers serve many blue, and some white-collar, workers who work in those buildings and live here.
About 50 steps from my three story, stark-white guesthouse, two older women responded to my selamat pagi—good morning—last week with an offering of some tea and breakfast. But I don’t have any money with me, I protested, I couldn’t possibly sit down at their tiny, grungy stall for a bite. Tidak apa-apa, they said several times as they waved me over. It means no worries, it doesn’t matter, whatever. It seemed rude to refuse, so I sipped some sweet tea and nibbled on a slice of deep-fried tempe for a few minutes at the counter. A young guy next to me was doing their books on a notepad. The oldest woman was peeling potatoes on top of a cardboard box on the ground.
Across the street, the Four Seasons Residence towers blotted out the sun. Inside that barricaded compound, next to the Four Seasons Hotel, a two bedroom goes for about $4,000 a month. They didn’t seem especially interested in asking me questions about my country, my job, or my family, as is common chitchat among strangers here. They just went about their business in the closet-sized shop, preparing meals for the nearby construction workers. So I peppered them with questions instead. Do you live nearby, I asked. Oh, we don’t have a house, the women chuckled. We sleep in here. They gestured behind the counter. Though I only ate about 30 cents worth from their stall, I still wonder if I should return to pay them.
Photographs taken around Setiabudi, Jakarta, February 2013.