How the hell did we get here?

Jakarta, Translation, and the Heterotopics of a Traffic Jam

Sometimes translation becomes a matter of calling something what you want, rather than what it is. Lacking a coherence or a way to make the unfamiliar familiar, rather than define things as they are, the tendency is to come up with things as they could or may be. In the absence of direct translation, what becomes of the role of language in getting a message across.

If you grew up with Sky Cable in the 90’s, you’d probably remember when MTV was (deliberately or otherwise) a platform for regional sound. There was a time when the VJs, being from different parts of Southeast Asia and converging onscreen, peppered their introductions with the vernacular of the different points they were calling from. Without fully understanding what they were saying, it was still easy to spot how and where languages intersect. Kind of like how it would be for an American to listen to Taglish (*mlamlamlamla–Denny’s—plupluplu–okay, good* and so on); certain words in Bahasa Indonesia call out at you, like “mahal” or “kanan”, showing how even bastards carry similar traits. Isn’t that what Southeast Asia is though, a nation of Asia’s bastards? Moreover, MTV wasn’t just a means of finding common ground. The words we heard through music were not a confirmation that Jakarta is closer than it actually is, but that it is as close as it actually is.

While the tendency of transnational media outlets is to assert that borders are only as porous as they are made out to be, there is still the undeniable fact that even transnational media is a politicized entity. Media can dislocate or relocate the consumer, it can deterritorialize the message, but travel can still confirm its subjectivity, showing how the collective imagination of a space can never outweigh the actual experience of it. Looking at where the Philippines and Indonesia fall within this system gives you an idea of how deeply divided or how wide the cultural and ideological rifts between the two actually are–despite the geographical proximity of the two.

Coming together at gigs or through emailed mp3s and tape trading (which they still do here) shows how music is another language altogether, and it’s the common ground of “hating” on Jakarta that allows me to escape from having to explain the cheesy, precious truth that “I’m just here to check out your local music scene, people.”

In Jakarta, it’s actually easier to communicate with people about how much you hate this place. You can get so much more across with a headshake and an eyeroll or a disapproving look. Enthusiastic nodding, followed by an incoherent ramble about what brought you here in the first place, seems to confuse the locals. Just as it’s not easy to love a place like Manila, it’s not easy to love a place like Jakarta. And like Manila, given a choice, I would never live here. Also like the Philippines, Indonesia offers little in terms of opting out.

The enormity of a city like Jakarta makes it easy to dismiss as an empty and anonymous landscape. A city that cannot be experienced on the ground by those who live to record that experience is as good as dead. Dead in its failure to provide not only avenues for transport, but avenues where all classes can intersect. There is a reason why so much has been written about places like New York, thus making New York a production not only of the built environment but of the mind.


One of the things that fascinates me so much about Jakarta is a phenomenon that is replicated in Manila, albeit on a different scale with its own set of subjectivities, and these are the romance of spectacle and isolation in urban development (I’d insert something something my thesis here, but that would make me want to brick myself). I met a guy from ADB just now who was asking what living in Metro Manila is like, because he would have to be based here/there at some point. This is actually a more difficult question to answer than we give it credit for. First of all, is there any sense of consistency to living in Metro Manila?

It’s interesting how a hallmark of modernity comes with measuring distance in time. When you tell people where something is, you don’t say how long it takes to get there, but this is a habit when the logistics are unclear and the journey cannot be described and executed in concrete and consistent terms. I have never lived anywhere outside of Metro Manila and I consider myself lucky to have lived in Quezon City all my life. Quezon City is not only fairly central, but it is, as a friend and neighbor once raved, a place where “everything is 20 mins. away.”

But to say that something is X minutes away is also to push aside the city as space or as a built environment, in favor of the city as a temporal entity, which requires a different way of thinking about infrastructure. when traveling is a matter of time and not of the things that occupy the distance between here and there, space becomes invisible; the actual experience of occupying the built environment turns into an option rather than a given. If you had to describe what Metro Manila is like, as a middle-class dweller, you’d might as well describe the inside of your car.

Being able to describe the space you live in as a time-bound entity does not always account for traffic, and this is where it gets a little tricky to describe what living in Metro Manila is like. To describe distance using time is a consistency we take for granted until we lose it, and we lose it due to so many arbitrary roadblocks that pepper the metropolis. It’s only when there’s something in your way that space becomes an interference, whether this thing is a car, a person, or in the case of Metro Manila, a border. Going from city to city means re-estimating the value of time: distance that would take 20 minutes or less to cover in Quezon City could take over an hour in Manila, thus the whole notion of space complicates commonly held ideas of distance and what it means to traverse it.

While spending time on the road, sitting in the city’s ridiculous traffic jams may be a way to immerse oneself in the reality of living in this city, but it is also an escape from the realities of being on the ground. This is true whether we’re talking about Jakarta or Manila. It’s too easy to complain about traffic, but traffic does something more than inconvenience the traveler. The thing is, we are all traveling. The romance that is collectively inscribed upon the activity is immediately debunked by the actual logistics of executing it, especially when this means allowing the things that characterize a space to become invisible.

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Author: alicesarmiento

San Juan, Metro Manila

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