Pictures are often manipulated to exaggerate the beautiful. We crop out the ugly and enfold the beautiful.  While Indonesia certainly does have beauty unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my travels before, I’m also concerned that other landscapes and problems that don’t get the same attention. So I’d like to counter all of the wonderful sunsets and rice fields with a dose of the other side. I’m not sure what we’re trying to accomplish here, except to create a more complete picture of what we’re exploring. I want to expose and show both the beauty and the beast, the villas of beautiful tourists and the slums that reek especially after a fresh wave of rain. I want to show Indonesia for it’s complexity and various prisms of life.

This idea isn’t original. A few months ago Rio and I went to a dinner hosted by AMINEF, the Indonesian agency that manages Fulbright scholars. We heard from a few guests who have lived in and out of both Indonesia and the U.S. One man’s comments particularly stuck with me: “Don’t just talk about how Indonesia is so great. Remain skeptical, not pessimistic. Be candid in the perspective of what you both love, and the problems with the nation.” He considered it a disservice to tout the horn of the nation when in fact, we should be lending our voices to both good and bad. I felt like a guest being told that next time, I should just eat straight out of the cupboard instead of politely waiting to be served. So I did just that when a few days later my grandfather asked me on Whatsapp, “Gee it really is beautiful over there isn’t it?” I immediately sent him back a picture of a landfill cascading like a river flow around someone’s home. “No, not always.”

Landfills are over capacity, there is very limited recycling, and while Jakarta is currently starting to charge 200 rupiah (¢ 0.015 USD) for each plastic bag in major shopping outlets, it’s too small a price to really ignite change. Luckily, my granola ways after living in hipster Brooklyn and upstate NY meant I’d come to Indonesia prepared with my shopping bags.

These bags always give me the warm fuzzies. Two great stores back in the US, although Pearl River is now closed for business 🙁
Neighborhood local landfill in Gresik, East Java. When neighborhoods have enough space, especially in rural communities, the people just collectively dump waste and let it do its thing. The other popular way to get rid of waste is to burn it.
A set of homes against one of the rivers in the city of Jakarta. This is found a 5 minute walk away from one of the most upscale malls in the city which no doubt contributes to a larger amount of pollution more downstream. The amount of trash here is a typical amount and was shot in the morning. After the rains come, water carries an increased assortment of industrial and domestic waste than what is pictured here.
A beach site on the island of Bali. After visiting this beach both myself and the group of native Indonesian friends were too disgusted to go into the sea. One of us was able to identify a beer can from Japan, implying that not all of the trash ending up on the shores are domestic in nature. What is a shame is that there is often little incentive for locals to clean up the beaches. It leads to poor sanitation for locals and decreased tourism.

While this may be disheartening, there are a lot of efforts being led on local levels to reduce and manage waste. I’ve tried to take an interest and understanding in what is going on. For instance, Hamidi, a young entrepreneur based on the outskirts of Jakarta, has begun burning plastic waste and distilling it into liquid to fuel his motor! Not unlike those who have built cars that run off of old cooking oil. Hamidi is looking to expand his production so he can make a small business and has been experimenting with burning different kinds of plastic in order to generate different grades of fuel.

In a truly inspiring turn of events, Dr. Gamal Albinsaid has started a local program to provide healthcare for low income communities. Dr. Albinsaid’s organization collects both inorganic and organic materials from the community. The profits from the recycled materials and fertilizer produced from the organic waste are used to purchase healthcare for those who turn in their waste! What is particularly fascinating about this system is that the people who are aiming for healthcare also contribute to a more clean, less polluted community. The health benefits are two fold! I hope more communities and branches can use this system to increase health and well being through reduced pollution and accessible health care.

So there you have it. This is Indonesia, the good the bad, and the smelly. Pollution is a huge problem particularly in the ways of water sanitation. But there is tons of room for improvement. What Indonesia has to it’s advantage is a largely unregulated market for services so there is plenty of room for people to experiment and discover reductions of waste. Local communities are finding ways to reduce and transform pollution for the better. I am excited in some ways to see how Indonesians will learn to manage the problems here before NGOs and big government step in.

I’m still Puzzled however at how I can help reduce the problem. Recycling in my building is null, and food is cheap so often my husband and I eat out. Should we use our own dishes and tupper ware when we order take away? Can we start our own compost? Let’s see.

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