Bandung was once called “Paris on Java,” primarily because of its many parks and gardens, but whatever resemblance it once had to the City of Light is now fleeting at best. Today Bandung better reflects that old country saying, “Rode hard and put away wet.”
The wet comes from the almost daily rains that fall here. When we arrived, we were told it has rained every day for the past three years. While we have had a few dry days since, such days are few and far between the regular deluges. Many expats complain of a constant presence of mold in their homes from all the rain. Our home seems blessed with good air circulation, so we’ve escaped this particular problem, at least for now, but it’s easy to see how it would be difficult to avoid here.
The “rode hard” part of the saying meanwhile comes from the town’s overall appearance. Bandung is a city of three million people or more, depending on which estimate you accept. Someone born and raised here, who returned after a decade away, says during the time they were gone the population here had doubled. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, our Indonesian guidebook, published in 2000, indicates that the city size back then was two million, so the city has at least increased by more than 50% in 10 years, and it shows.
Frankly, Bandung appears to be busting at the seams. While you can find neighborhoods such as ours where it is possible to momentarily escape the noise and clutter, the vast majority of Bandung seems constantly in motion. Except, of course, when you’re trying to get somewhere. Traffic is a nightmare. Not long ago Adam and I were returning home after dropping Elana off for a play date. A trip that might normally take 15 minutes ended up lasting two hours as traffic on the narrow streets often sat at a standstill for no apparent reason. Even the motorcyclists, generally able to weave their way around blockages, seemed to be momentarily stumped.
Public transit as we know it is almost non-existent in Bandung. No subways, and no municipal buses. A decent train service moves people mostly efficiently, if slowly, between bigger towns. But inside Bandung transit is at the mercy of the free marketers. That means small minibuses, called Angkots, plying the streets day and night, stopping every few feet to either pick someone up, drop someone off, or simply block traffic for no apparent reason other than they can. Cars try to pass the Angkots on the mostly narrow roads causing traffic snarls, but oddly enough few frayed nerves.
Taxis are everywhere, but their presence only adds to the macet, or traffic, clogging the streets. An engineer friend, who while Irish has lived here more than 15 years, has devised a plan to move people around the downtown area by a sky way system (similar to an enclosed ski lift). He says it would be easy and relatively inexpensive to build, and it would markedly reduce congestion in the area. He has actually done a preliminary design, but cannot get anyone in the local government to take such a project seriously.
So that leaves driving as the main way of getting around. It’s a blessing of sorts that residents have been endowed with the patience of a mother with newborn triplets and a lazy husband. Little seems to bother them. Acts of motoring madness that in Washington D.C. would be cause for violent conflict of some sort ends here at worst with a shrug of shoulders.
The other day Aris, our driver, actually exchanged a few words with the driver of a bus that blocked traffic for a couple of minutes because of a stupid decision to swerve around a car parked on the road – a normal occurrence here. I found myself a bit excited that Aris had finally lost his temper. Or so I thought. I asked him what he told the guy, and he said he “Called him a brand new driver who doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Tough words from a native Bandunger. I’m sure the bus driver was properly chastened.
Perhaps because of the traffic, people seem to be walking just about everywhere. A lack of functioning sidewalks brings pedestrians dangerously close to traffic, but somehow no one seems to get killed. However our cook’s father, who lives in another city, was recently hit by a bus and seriously injured, so the danger for pedestrians is clearly real.
One reason traffic is so bad, and pedestrians have difficulty getting around, is because the transportation infrastructure is literally crumbling. Roads are filled with potholes – and those are the good roads. Others are at times almost impassable.
This comes in part from the way many road repairs are conducted. When a pothole first appears, it is often flagged by placing a pile of rocks in front of it, or bricks, or sometimes even a large potted tree or shrub in order to alert drivers to its presence. This usually sits there for days or weeks, until crews finally get ready for repairs.
When repairs begin, a pile of rocks are first dumped on the side of the road near several large holes. A day or two later someone shows up, and begins putting the rocks into the hole, then breaking them up with a hammer until they are smashed into small pieces. Once that is done, they allow cars to drive on it, presumably to allow the small rocks to be compacted. But what really happens is some of the rock is pulled out of the hole. Days later, they finally arrive with equipment to place a layer of tar over the rocks. The layer is usually quite thin – thin enough to break through in a matter of days, so the process of pothole formation can begin once again.
A few months ago, a major road leading to the airport had a large portion in the center of its four lanes dissolved by a giant sinkhole. Workers rather quickly put a temporary metal bridge over the hole, but didn’t allow traffic to go over it – rather, cars moved around on both sides. A few days later we were driving by to pick up a friend at the airport, and saw that there was a very large hole next to the make-shift bridge. I wondered why they didn’t actually put the bridge over the hole. It turns out they had – what we saw was a second sinkhole that had just appeared. The whole road, it seemed, was collapsing.
Then there’s the noise. If someone were to write a symphony about Bandung, it would be more Philip Glass than Mozart. It’s impossible to completely escape the sounds of motorcycles with mufflers removed roaring by, cars blaring horns and the general clatter of a busy city.
The city’s architecture has also been rode hard. The central area still has some beautiful old Dutch architecture, and some art deco buildings can also be found. But as you move away from the center the elegance fades, replaced by a mash-up of cheesy office space and dilapidated housing stock. Many buildings seem held together by twine and pieces of metal.
People across Indonesia seem quite ingenious at finding ways to hold something together – they are the MacGyvers of the cityscape with pieces of tin patching roofs, metal cables keeping support beams from sagging, and telephone cabling used to bring electricity to houses. But this skill at making things last leaves a look of impermanence and gives you the impression that much of the city would unravel if only you tugged on the right piece of string.
It’s sad to think about what Bandung has become. The city was founded 200 years ago, and became a Dutch garrison in the late 19th century, filled with 90,000 Sundanese, Chinese and Europeans.
People settled here in part because of the weather. Bandung sits at an elevation of 750 meters (2,460 feet) above sea level, which gives it a climate much cooler than Jakarta. It’s surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, with soil conducive to the growing of strawberries, rice, tea and coffee. At one point, the Dutch actually planned to make Bandung the capital of their colony, and after independence Bandung was again considered for the national capital.
After its founding Bandung quickly became a center for commerce, and that in turn attracted academic institutions. By at least some accounts, Bandung is the Boston of Indonesia, supporting dozens of institutions of higher learning. In addition to the Universitas Padjadjaran where I am teaching, Bandung is home to the nation’s top technology school, comparable to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even the Christians are represented – there’s a Catholic University, the more fundamentalist Maranatha University just down the street from the kid’s school, and a Seventh Day Adventist college on the northwestern edge of town.
So why aren’t we depressed being here? While the infrastructure of the city is literally crumbling, its human capital is immense, and growing. The large number of schools means the city is filled with young people – young people full of energy, demanding to be entertained. Bandung is the cultural center for Jawa Barat, or western Java. So much so that people from Jakarta, 3 hours away (or much more during Sunday night traffic jams) come here on the weekends for entertainment and food.
The music scene is healthy, with venues found across the city. The arts also do well, including traditional arts. We recently visited Angklung Udjo. This is a famous factory. It’s a compound where once you pay a small admittance you are allowed to wander from building to building, watching craftsmen bring to life traditional bamboo instruments, made as they were centuries ago. There is even a performance that includes music, a puppet show and traditional dancing.
Food is also important in Bandung, where it’s an Indonesian culinary heaven. Despite a particular fondness for Dunkin Donuts, residents of Bandung love to eat out, and they demand good food. The streets are lined with warungs (food shops) that serve all manner of food, from bubur ayam (chicken porridge) to nasi and mie goreng (fried rice and fried noodles). Baso (meatballs) stands on wheels glide around street corners, passing vendors who balance a pole on their shoulders containing a hotbox of goodies on one end of the stick and condiments on the other. Restaurants are everywhere, tucked into the oddest of places. Our favorite, Gambrinas, sits next to the kids’ school. It serves incredible Indian food, and yet we are told there are several Indian restaurants in town that are much better.
So despite the horrible infrastructure of the city, there remains a great deal of pride among the residents of Bandung.
More than anything, the people of Bandung are the city’s strength. Their warm and generous nature is at once open and welcoming. This is why we are happy here. Our friends, and people we have yet to meet.
But the state of the city cannot be ignored either.
A weekend celebration in honor of Bandung’s 200th birthday took place back in mid-October. It was well-attended, with what seemed like thousands of people turning out on a sunny day for the parade of floats and oddly decorated motorcycles. Booths set up in a downtown park sold t-shirts, tacky gifts and great food, just like a street carnival in the U.S. But at some point in recent years, this city seems to have lost at least a portion of its identity, despite this momentary outpouring of pride. And when we left downtown that day, the celebratory mood quickly left us as we once again found ourselves stalled in the traffic that so defines this city.
At least one attempt has been made to try and recapture the city’s past glory, if even just in a small way. The landmark most people seem to point to with pride is the Paris Von Java Mall. And it is indeed a lovely place to visit, where you can window-shop while strolling along an outdoor promenade, or purchase something at Esprit or similar high-end clothing shops. We frequent the movie theatres at the mall, and have our favorite restaurant among the many from which to choose. But just outside this manufactured shopping experience there runs five lanes of traffic packed with clamoring cars and motorcycles.
Wandering the mall’s three floors of stores, it’s easy to be swept away for a moment by the quaint style upstairs, and the rampant commercialism on the underground levels that do little to actually recapture the spirit of old Bandung. But not far away the rest of the city awaits your return, ready to welcome you once again to the traffic and noise that is modern Bandung.