It’s stinking hot outside as we set off to walk around Semarang’s Old Town. We have no idea what to expect. Last year when I was here, I rode on the back of my cousin’s motorbike to check everything out. So this gave me a certain impression of the city. One in which places were discrete entities and the gaps in between were invisible. But walking doesn’t allow you the luxury of tuning out from your surrounds. Especially not when you take a turn down into the less wealthy parts of a city. And this brought home to me a harsh reality of life for so many people in the world (not just in Indonesia). A reality I want to share. This is not the usual travel blog post. This is a harsh post with graphic images. Don’t read if you are easily offended or want to pretend that our wealthy Western governments shouldn’t send aid money abroad.
Let’s start with those who are more fortunate. At least becak riders have some source of income. They can take passengers around the city’s narrow and congested streets to earn a crust. But their life is not so easy. I have done some reading about becak drivers. Many are homeless, living in their becak. The bike costs about 1,000,000IDR ($AU100), which is a small fortune here. And most have to pay their becak off at a rate of about 3,000IDR ($AU0.30) a day) The average wage for a becak driver is between 5,000 – 25,000IDR ($AU5-25) a day in Jakarta but earn less in other cities. So the difference between renting the becak and earnings is very low. Especially given the harsh working conditions of having to pedal a 120kg (264lbs) bike plus passengers through congested and polluted streets.
The next “lucky” guy we saw was this water carrier. Or at least, I think he had water in the square metal tins. It didn’t look like cooking oil. I can’t imagine he earns much either for the effort of pushing the cart around. I saw lots of empty cans in piles outside houses, so he must sell to them to the houses (I can’t find anything online about water sellers). Obtaining fresh drinking water in Indonesia is something of a luxury. Bottled water costs about 2,500IDR ($AU0.25) for 600ml. That’s a big proportion of a becak driver’s wage. It is cheaper when you buy it in bulk. But still, many people do not have ready access to clean drinking water (as can be attested by any foreigner who has eaten street food and had the nasty side effects of the various forms of gastro that tourists frequently catch).
Further down the chain of fortune are homeless people who collect rubbish and plastic bottles in the hope of selling them for a small income. They often push these huge carts through the streets desperately collecting and crushing plastic bottles. I’m not sure but they must get some money back for these because otherwise they wouldn’t be collecting them. But I can’t imagine they get much.
Beggars can be seen everywhere in Indonesia. Sometimes they play music with plastic children’s tamborines or small guitars. Other times they sell newspapers or dance at the traffic lights. But more often than not, they sit on the street like they do everywhere in the world. It’s sad to see and difficult to know how to respond.
Homelessness looks like a fact of life here. It’s a reality everywhere. My home city of Brisbane has a relatively high homeless population for Australia due to the warm weather. But here it’s more visible. In one street we walked down, I counted about 15 people sleeping like this man was.
At least the person living in this crumbling building had a home to sleep in.
As did the person living in the shack across the creek. A shack with dirt floor and that unlikely had any power or running water.
And, as for this creek, do not let yourself come into contact with it. Two days in a row we saw men pooping into it. So I can only imagine how desperate the men you can vaguely see in this photo must be to earn some sort of income because they are standing in the sewer.
I don’t share these stories and images to depress anyone. I just want to show what I experienced on yesterday’s walk. Balance is important. And balance includes showing the darker side of life that we often try to ignore.