Train-Wreck Rebirth: My Slummings in Grogol.

We’re newborn, to the cosmos. Floating about in our puffy white suits with umbilical cords, we then learn how to walk, how to eat soft foods…

To space we’re newborns, to travel we’re children. We try to speak and no one understands. We are alive in the ‘eye mind’. We can’t eat what many adults do. Time zones might encourage nap time. We’re likely to make mistakes with money or navigation, resulting in a dependency on others – and are they dependable? If we’re not careful, we could end up with a whole new family.

Not overflowing with moments to look back on with pride, this is how I grew up again in Indonesia.

A film-school grad., I spent all of my Rupiah on a swanky new Sony HDV camera – and I certainly got a lot of use out of it, in the end. Humble up then! I settled down in a two-story shack near the train tracks on Jalan Sosial, Grogol regency, Jakarta. Smoke of burning garbage washed over this collage of wood and corrugated sheet metal, encased in cement. Laundry, flowers and bird cages hung above. I bought the community leaders over with a pack of cigarettes. It was refreshingly easy-going, though disparity made a few cameos.

Waking to her screams before dawn, I joined the curious undead in the slum corridors – and a short boy named Boncel in flip-flops – peering up at a cluttered balcony where a young girl in a white nightie was tearing things apart – throwing fists at her sobbing family members. She spoke in a language nobody could understand, according to Boncel. This was the first of four pedestrian possessions I’ve encountered thus far, in Indonesia. Was this kesurupan what you’d call a panic attack in the West? I’m still confused.

And my family? Well I’d met Bezoe in South Korea the year before, so though I was close friends with the youngest son of the family, depending on them didn’t come naturally to me. A year later, after a family feud, the oldest son lost his mind and filled the entire house with plastic bottles floor-to-ceiling. I doubt I’ll ever be able to achieve such an exclusive post again – in the heart of a foreign milieu sinewy with social cohesion of paternal Islam, and squalor.

In Grogol, my mother prepared the dead for open caskets. A bad day for Sophie was when corpses weren’t yet ten years old.

In the start, the elderly woman was the only working member of the household. She and her daughters Shanty and Aini slept width-wise across a single mattress on the second floor while we the men had our own mattresses and mosquito nets in the attic. I was reluctant to receive coffee and food from the women as they hobbled up and down the two wooden ladders each day, so I kept the fridge stocked and took them out to dinner, in return.

Stray cats and rats often wandered in and out through holes in the brickwork and scurried over my legs. Five times a day, starting around 4:30 A.M., spines chilled to the sounds of the Azan Muslim call to prayer. The corner of each alley was rigged with loudspeakers. One hot afternoon these conic mouths were hijacked and used to play Nirvana’s ‘Man Who Sold the World’, unplugged; and children rocked out in the corridors with their flat soccer ball.

Then I landed a job teaching English with Berlitz. Traffic was the hell that had me up before the sun. I made my way down the ladders to a living-room full of brown water. Bezoe and I set in with buckets – then I had to run. Shoes in hand, I waded out into the alley and took a short cut to the main-road, turning my torso like a key to fit through the alley’s bottlenecks. Passing Mr. Johnson’s corner store (everyone gave themselves English names for me), I then hopped a cab, cleaning the water off my legs (having once spent 6 days in the hospital for streptococcal infection). My driver that morning had prayer beads hanging from the rear view, long fingernails, lipstick, a hairy mole, and wore eye shadow. The picture on his license looked clean-cut and Muslim – at least.

All of this was how you made good documentary films, I’d hoped.

Immaculately sexy, tanned girls in high-heels and cocktail dresses opened the doors and greeted me into a polished marble lobby full of neck ties at The Interkon. Had I time to brush my teeth? That morning my student would be the Japanese CEO of an insurance agency – after which I hoped to shower.

Sitting across from Fuji San, plastic flowers duping me only when peripheral, I knew my students could never know where I came from each day (nor that I’d hitch hiked for nine days across Canada to get to Vancouver to then arrive in front of them with a textbook in my hand).

Tired of tempting typhoid, I took my first pay and rented a single room near the office for twice the average monthly wage of my working friends in Grogol. I left Jalan Sosial behind and embraced an entitlement that favoured me without reason. Throughout a year-long contract, the divide grew larger. It grew so large that one night, when the conductor on a bus shouted ‘Grogol Grogol Grogol!’ in smart attire, I embarked. Leaving my apartment on the 45th floor of Sudirman Residence, my two swimming pools and cul de sac, I went back for a few nights of cheap booze and cigarettes and we the boys sang our way through the same repetitive roster of songs on the train tracks where I grew up again, in Grogol.

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