Jakarta's sensory overload

You don’t need to be in Jakarta for long to experience sensory overload.

Take the near-deafening noise that acts as the soundtrack to the city. Wander through the streets of Jakarta, and it’s not uncommon to hear people shouting in conversation despite being within a metre or two of one another. Many older vehicles have long discarded their mufflers, and trundle along the street inducing headaches in anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot. Head to a cinema, and the soundtrack is pumped out at a significantly louder volume than theatres in other parts of the world.

Or consider the street food that constitutes the diet of many Indonesians. A popular snack stand is simply labelled gorengan, which translates as fried. On offer are half-a-dozen different things – tofu, tempeh, banana, cassava and more – battered and deep-fried in cheap oil to the point where the ingredient at the core of the greasy delight is sometimes hard to locate. An essential condiment to gorengan is whole green chillies, which are liberally added. Salt, chilli and oil are the mainstays of Indonesian popular cuisine, and people embrace it.

Or look at the forms of entertainment that keep people enraptured. The Indonesian film industry exists largely of horror films. Most are needlessly and gorily bloody, with extended scenes of torture a common feature. Where horror films elsewhere rely on developing characters in whom the audience invest their sympathies and use the power of inferred terror to reach the dark side of viewers, such techniques are eschewed by Indonesian film makers. Instead, the characters are thinly drawn and the violence is bloody, graphic, and always front and centre.

On one level, you can treat these things as discrete, separate idiosyncrasies. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that.

On a social and cultural level, the Indonesia of today is not too different to the Indonesia of recent decades, the very place and time when today’s Indonesians were growing up. So people here grew up with thumping noise, palate-burning cuisine and graphic violence, and have over time developed a resistance to it. Adding to the phenomena is the frequent thuggery of Indonesia’s not-so-distant past. The norm for most people, therefore, is a high level of sensory input, so that on a sociological and even physical level, they become unfazed by it. This, for many people, is life as it always has been.

For any new sensation to make an impact, therefore, it must reach a level of intensity greater than that with which people are already familiar. Or looked at another way, people become far more tolerant of unpleasant environmental factors, so that the urge to object (say, to quagmire traffic jams that steal hours of your time each day) is less.

When I ride the Kopaja minibus, one thing often surprises me. The standard process for paying your Rp 2,000 fare is to wait for the bus jockey to wander up the aisle, his (and occasionally her) presence heralded by him shaking a handful of coins to create a tell-tale tinkle. It’s a distinctive sound, though a relatively soft one, and I always hear them coming behind me. But I’ve noticed that many Indonesian passengers seem oblivious to it, even as the sound is being made right behind them, and rely on being physically tapped on the shoulder before apparently noticing the presence of the jockey.

The prospect that the passenger is deliberately playing dumb (or in this case, deaf) to avoid paying their fare appears unlikely: everyone pretty swiftly is asked to pay up, and fare-evasion is virtually zero. More likely is that people have weaker hearing, either in a physical sense or in the social sense, that they are less attentive to the sounds around them and so block them out. Both are possible, and reflect the consequence of growing up in a noisy environment – it dulls your hearing.

Replicate that across all five senses, and you can appreciate that Jakarta can have a remarkable effect on those who grow up in it.

But I suspect the phenomenon reaches the sensory organs, and also affects people’s psyche.

Scandal after scandal has rocked the Indonesian political establishment, with each allegation of corruption and impropriety more tawdry than the one that came before it: lawmakers failing to attend sessions of parliament, bureaucrats signing off on resources contracts that undervalue national assets by billions of dollars, legislators brazenly accepting kickbacks to support the funding of certain projects at the expense of others, dozens dying as a bridge collapses after inferior materials were likely used in its construction.

The sense of outrage, however, is muted. Little of this is new, and decades of disappointment have meant that the standards the public expects their leaders to uphold are so low as to be negligible. Only the very rare scandal that can cut through the public’s collective thick hide – like the Muhammad Nazaruddin saga, in which a government legislator allegedly sought kickbacks for a construction project before running off to Colombia when he was found out – manages the inspire genuine anger.

Of course, there is an upside to this sensory and psychic overload for people who have grown up among it. It breeds a hardy resilience, meaning that no matter how long the odds of success might be, people persist and persist, and upon each setback, dust themselves off and try again. People are also forced to be more creative and entrepreneurial, finding something new and inventive to rise above the ordinary – thankfully, not everyone simply becomes louder, spicier or more visceral.

People are ultimately a product of their environment, and that has never been more evident than in the bustling metropolis of Jakarta. My entire thesis, I admit, is based on anecdotal evidence, but the unrelenting sights, sounds and smells of the city – let alone those things than affect the mind as well as the sense organs – surely have some underlying explanation. From my vantage point, this is it.


saratishler said…

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