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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Travel(back)logue 2012, pt. 3

“Here’s how this works,”

A friend and I were standing in front of a Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation consisting of two mirrors. We each had a frame to ourselves.

“Now go over there to where I can’t see you anymore,” he said, gesturing for me to step aside, emptying the adjacent reflection. “Then it becomes the saddest thing you’ve ever seen.”

I hadn’t been familiar with Gonzalez-Torres’s work prior to this, but from what I’d already seen that afternoon at Plateau, he dealt with themes of proximity and isolation, stemming from the void created by a loved one’s absence. These are themes that can destroy you, depending on how you deal with extended solitary confinement or the palpability of loss. A lacuna that would later open every postcard and every declaration of “Wish you were here!” to overanalysis. When you’re traveling, you’re always meeting people, but the inevitability of leaving could weigh just as heavily. Continue reading “Travel(back)logue 2012, pt. 3”

To someone and for someone

Love to me was being a responsible person. To someone and for someone.

from “An Oral History of Love in Contemporary America: Selections from Us #3

There’s a picture of me on a friend’s camera (Or there was? I’m not sure if it’s still there) from last summer. I was getting ready to leave his apartment, tossing things into a handbag as quickly as I could and making other things small enough to fit into another tote without having to hassle myself with folding, all the while trying to make sure I didn’t forget anything (I still managed to forget my toothbrush), as the drill usually goes when you’re moving from one place to another over the course of a few weeks. There was a train to catch and a few blocks to walk before that. And he said, “Alice,” and as soon as I turned around I heard a click.

“Deer in the headlights. I love it.”

Before that we were talking about breakfast, about the agenda for the day while relishing the lack of an agenda. I just had to catch the train back, he was enjoying the last of the weekend. I was enjoying not knowing what we were or what I was doing there or what I would be doing next.

“You’re welcome to stay longer,” he said. Still, I didn’t. I don’t know what part of sticking to a plan while not really having one factors into our responsibility to other people. The best part of being on vacation is usually that commitment to myself and to what I know I want to do. And even before he asked, I had already quietly promised myself that I would leave by noon and play the rest of the day by ear without him.

A lot has been written about love, but I just happened to start reading about it with Raymond Carver, and grown to appreciate the dynamics expressed about relationships in his stories – two people, claustrophobic tension coupled with a comfortable inertia, alcohol – these are just some of the things that regularly figure into Carver’s work. Two people together create a separate identity from the individual selves they regularly present to the world, and this in itself is a responsibility. How do you sustain that identity, enjoy living in its skin, and building on it until it eventually takes over what you previously wore? I wrote that summer about having no use for an identity I’d eventually leave behind the minute I packed up and said my goodbyes, but while transience poses these kinds of conflicts, they add to you, too. Those pictures on other people’s cameras are just part of the equation.

Being three months on the side of a mountain with somebody twenty-four/seven, you better get along. When you live in a truck… I mean, we’d go to bed and one turn over, the other turn[s] over. That’s the way it was. Because the bed was only so wide.

I didn’t know what I was doing there. I mean, I did, and I didn’t. I just knew I was there for myself with someone else. I liked who I was with him, but I usually like who I am with other people. I didn’t know who I’d be for him, or for anyone. I’m used to being a teacher or any other job title I’ve adopted over the past couple of years. I’m used to work. I date, I have fun, I go home and work some more. It’s nowhere near as melodramatic as it sounds here, it is what it is: and what it is is just another way to live. When we only have one life to live, the people we give our time to become as much of an investment as our careers and our education. They are part of our education and pictures can testify to what we learned.

The Horizon of Our Concerns

Rendering of the swimming pool at the Trump Tower in Manila

This problem of the human site or living space is not simply that of knowing whether there will be enough space for men in the world -a problem that is certainly quite important – but also that of knowing what relations of propinquity, what type of storage, circulation, marking, and classification of human elements should be adopted in a given situation in order to achieve a given end. Our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites.

Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias”. 1967.

Before leaving New York, I was talking about visas with Dan and Julie. Dan said he didn’t get the whole visa thing, in his words, “How do you not realize that if you keep moving in one direction, you will eventually end up somewhere else?” Leaving out the social, economic, and political ramifications of the porousness of borders, Dan’s explanation is, essentially, what travel is. Then again, Dan’s American; of Puerto Rican descent, but no less American. He don’t need no visa.

Travel, while it comes loaded with expectations and arrivals at a new concept of self, is basically moving in one direction to arrive somewhere else (unless you’re a drug mule). And you can make of that very basic, very simple fact whatever you wish. And then there are restrictions: there are restrictions, and there are “restrictions”.

I started writing this entry on the day my U.S. visa expired, but then things got busy. I went to Jakarta for a week, and now things have indefinitely slowed down. I say indefinitely, because it depends on whether you think sitting in bed, in your pajamas, “chasing” a Wednesday evening deadline with another one on its heels as “slowing down”.

Continue reading “The Horizon of Our Concerns”

Lists: May 2012

Recap in Bullets

  • Waiting at airport
  • Waiting at airport
  • Giving up on waiting at airport and
  • Going home for the LAST FUCKING TIME before
  • Booking a ticket from Hong Kong then
  • Booking a ticket to Hong Kong, where I
  • Meet Cesca and Amber
  • And drink
  • And drink some more
  • What’s the name of this bar again?
  • POUBELLE INTERNATIONALE!
  • I have no idea what this song is, but I don’t think I care.
  • I’m throwing up on the side of this building
  • Continue reading “Lists: May 2012”