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Slumdogging in Jakarta

Slumdogging in Jakarta

by , July 1, 2014

A bag that’s tough enough to handle the slums, floods and downpours of Jakarta but simultaneously sleek and understated enough to cut it in the United Nations Global Pulse Lab – this is a tall order for any piece of carry but nevertheless exactly what researcher and photographer Frank Sedlar required…

Some people point their cameras at people. Others at nature. Me? At garbage floating past in a river so filled with human, animal and industrial waste the water flows more like oil. And when I can’t take staring at garbage anymore I haul myself and my gear down roads flooded with this same water up to my knees. I stroll past islands of rubble where yesterday an entire group of houses stood, their residents evicted by the government. As I near my flat I exchange pleasantries with my neighbors, most of whom live on less than $2 per day. When I reach my street I take care to duck my head to avoid all manner of garbage dangling from the top of the tree – remnants of the last major flood. The water currently up to my knees? The locals laugh if you refer to it as a banjir (flood). It’s not even as deep as it was last week.


Welcome to the slums of Jakarta, Indonesia. I’m Frank Sedlar, graduate student, engineer, photographer, and for the next few months a slumdog. I’m in Jakarta to research the technical and humanitarian sides of the city’s chronic flooding in very unconventional ways. From working deep in the slums one day to the United Nations Global Pulse Lab the next, I’m investigating how non-traditional approaches to flooding can help keep Jakarta’s 28 million residents dry. And just for you fine lot I’ll be reporting back on how I’m keeping my gear dry, safe, and discreet as I navigate the everyday adventure that is Jakarta.


The situation on the ground is a beautifully complex but brutally serious interplay between infrastructure, water, and people. Flooding has been a thorn in Jakarta’s side since the days of Dutch Colonialism. Spurred on by rising sea levels, an unprecedented rate of urbanization, and a teeming population the proverbial thorn is only getting pushed deeper. Billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure is in the works that will increase the capacity of Jakarta’s ailing hydraulic infrastructure ability – more pumps, wider canals, deeper reservoirs and kilometers of sea walls. Unfortunately these plans are often drawn disproportionately through the slum areas. Through understanding the hydrology of Jakarta I’m attempting to nudge the crosshairs of construction off these poor communities and instead onto other areas where the required water capacity can be found. The trigger is going to be pulled. It’s just a question of what gets hit.


Developing this understanding means piecing together the conflicting perspectives of infrastructure, water, and people. To do so I find myself literally changing shirts multiple times a day to fit in with the very blue collar and very white collar work this requires.

For example, I had recently talked with the operator of one of the many pumps that dot Jakarta’s landscape. Usually the conversation is one that would only excite an engineer; the capacity of their pumps, the area they are responsible for pumping, or why their pumps fail. But that day I got lucky. The man I met only moments ago got up, removed the grate over the pumps, and said ‘follow me.’ I knew I was in for a treat.


Soon I found myself following his fading voice while squeezing through a black, dizzying, obscure maze of tunnels with a really funky smell deep beneath the city to see a pump whose failure was partly responsible for Jakarta’s worst flood on record.


And only hours earlier, I was visiting the United Nations Global Pulse Lab, one of many recently created around the world to study how big data can be applied to humanitarian issues – meetings at their Pulse Lab Jakarta headquarters to discuss our approaches was inevitable. Judging by the fact that their offices have a fancy boardroom suitable for press announcements, etched glass for walls, and the fastest Wi-Fi in the city, you realize that your collar is getting pretty white and your bag – which only hours ago was ducking into a spider-infested tunnel – has to now fit in under the glittering bright lights of the United Nations office.


The gear that I’m asking my bag to keep discreet, dry, and secure throughout all of this, and many more adventures than I can list here, is as follows. Cameras: Six of them – DSLR’s, Go Pro’s, special time lapse cameras that I can leave for days at a time in the slums. Tripods and mics. Laptop. Numerous hard drives loaded with all manner of data for Jakarta – historical, hydrological, hydraulic, humanitarian (if you need data for Jakarta that begins with an H, I’m your man). Maps – the paper kind.

Next time you find yourself in a slum, note that it is much easier for someone to take a big fat marker to a map to show you the location of an illegal garbage dump than it is to indicate on a big fancy retina display. Some nice bulky books – key reference material which attempts to explain how water flows in Jakarta. And finally a fat stack of Field Notes. I swear by these badboys and would be utterly lost without them – Aaron James Draplin if you’re reading this, thank you.


When I first stepped off the plane in Jakarta, shell shocked from 30 hours of travel, my spirits were instantly lifted when I was greeted by my luggage. I’ll start with the big boy, a MUJI 60-liter hard case trolley. This thing is sleek, sturdy and just oozing with Japanese design. Next up is this new travel wallet courtesy of Bellroy. I can’t say too much about it yet other than it’s been a pleasure having this thing as a travel companion halfway around the world – always there, never complains, and keeps out the wet.

Then there are the sub-cases. A removable camera cube from Ape Case for the DSLR. Cheap and utilitarian AmazonBasics cases to tuck away hard drives. And plenty of MUJI PET containers for anything and everything else. Some people may be outfitted with swanky waxed canvas bags. Me? I prefer plastic rectangles. And the ringer, which if you’ve been following closely you will have already recognized, is the Mission Workshop R6 decked out with the Folio, Utility Pocket, Vertical Zippered Pocket x2, Laptop Case, and Shoulder Strap. 


Now the R6 has without a doubt passed with high marks the aforementioned carry gauntlet. It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with. However, my main reason for choosing the R6 for this work was not so much what it had but what it didn’t.


When working in the slums there is a certain level of trust between you and the people you are talking with. You want to blend in as much as possible in your mannerisms and equipment. Unnecessary attention draws suspicion and suspicion kills trust. However, I tend to stick out wherever I go – I am two meters tall with occasional references to Thor by Abuelas in South America or Bu‘s in Indonesia. On more than one occasion I have heard Belanda Kembali! (‘The Dutch have returned!’) Not surprisingly I have found that I tend to stick out even more when showing up in the slums touting a backpack full of cameras. So perhaps the only possible way to stick out any more than this would be to arrive with a backpack armed to the teeth with MOLLE webbing.


From my experience in Indonesia, when you dress or look (even subtly so) military, there’s a very good chance that you could indeed be mistaken for military, which is the last thing I need. I won’t elaborate much but for an excellent account of what I am talking about check out the recent film The Act of Killing. Furthermore, many of these slum areas facing eviction often find sides drawn between the government/military and themselves. The less that I can remotely be associated with the military, the better. MOLLE webbing on my pack was out of the question but I still wanted the functionality that MOLLE webbing offered. 


The Arkiv system on the R6 has provided just that. Need your cameras installed by someone else since you have a meeting across town? No problem, simply hand the two Vertical Zippered Pockets loaded with cameras off to your assistants. A light day in the slums? Strip the R6 down to just the base pack and you’re rocking. On the weekends the base pack also works great for scaling the side of a smoking volcano.

The Utility Pocket? Fantastic for holding that always-getting-lost multi-tool and those odd parts for mics and tripods. The rail system is also sleek enough to be used in some of the formerly mentioned white collar settings, something I would find uncomfortable with MOLLE webbing. Need just a laptop and some documents for a meeting with the UN? Roll up with the Laptop Case and Folio and you’re ready to talk shop. Working white collar to blue collar and back again is amazingly simple with this bag. MOLLE webbing-esque but without the military association. 


But talk of fancy rail systems and sharp-looking packs aside, this pack is straight up tough. As far as I’m concerned it can take a beating from anything  – mobs included. When traveling throughout the slums, and really all of Indonesia as a foreigner, you need to be extra vigilant for these mobs. They form suddenly, engulf you, and threaten to trample you to death. This process happens instantly and without warning. You can be walking along and suddenly hear the words, ‘Bule, photo Bule!’ If you’re not quick enough the process can look something like this. Note the R6 keeping the gear and yours truly safe from the ferocious mob.


I’ve also found the R6 to be well versed not just along but also on the rivers. In an effort to map the locations of illegal garbage dumping into the rivers (pumps, I can tell you, don’t pump garbage well), taking a boat down one of the most polluted rivers in the world sounded like a good idea. As I pushed off upstream into this literal cesspool, the laughs of the kids onshore ringing sharp in my ears at this ludicrous sight, I caught myself reminiscing to earlier that day when I was sipping some exquisite coffee in the comfort of air conditioning – I’m on the island of Java, after all. I’m hoping that the bag holding all my gear which looked so good in that trendy coffee shop has made this transition to brown water rafting better than I have. It’s not all bad however. Actually it’s much like any other river float but instead of a cooler full of beer on your left and some friends on your right, you’ve got a dead rat on one side and a neon green chemical plume on the other. And you’re doing your best not to let the water touch you. But other than that the two are quite similar. 

Midway through the float I come across a man floating by on an oil barrel, one hand clutching a cigarette and the other holding a catfish he caught one-handed. Now I hail from a small town in upper Michigan well-versed in these kinds of fishing pursuits and let me tell you, that’s pure skill. Much to his pleasure he informed me that the last guy to go brown water rafting ended up swimming to shore. His cameras instead of photographing the trash were now part of it. I silently mouthed ‘I love you’ to the R6 for not just being water-resistant but waterproof.


Speaking of waterproof bags, any good hydrologist will tell you the reason for the flooding is rain. Lots of it. So when studying banjir in Indonesia, even during the dry season (dry here being a very relative term), you can expect to get wet. Real wet. I breathe slightly easier when walking down the road amidst the billowing exhaust and black smoke from numerous fires stoked by Styrofoam knowing that my gear is dry in the generous 40 liters of the R6.


And with that, fellow Carryologists, I bring my first report from the slums of Jakarta to a close. For the time being I’m leaving the sights, sounds, and smells of Jakarta behind as I travel to a small town in central Java to touch up on my Bahasa Indonesian (Indonesian language). But fear not, it’s then back to Jakarta to really get into the thick of this work. Without saying too much just know there are cameras waiting to be sent airborne, new gear begging to be carried, catfish to be caught, and of course adventures waiting to be had. Lots to report I’m sure but until then Carryology, stay dry.

*Photos by Frank Sedlar and members of the Inundation 2 and 3 Research Studios.

*Follow Frank’s adventures on Instagram!


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