Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Above the Stilts

In part three of a four-part series on Seeing the Poor, I visit an area where a recent fire destroyed some 200 homes. I was surprised at what I learned.

I hold my little girl in the cloth sling that keeps her close and try to figure out where to be. We walk on a path that is the only thing standing from a fire that destroyed some 200 houses. The path is concrete, propped up by stilts and I’m amazed it is strong enough to hold me and the motorcycles motoring slowly past us.

Even in the untouched areas, the path is precarious with gaps and drop-offs in this neighborhood built entirely on stilts over the ocean. You walk too near to the edges and you might end up in the trash-filled marsh below. Too close to the middle and you could be sideswiped by a motorcycle. It doesn’t seem wide enough for both pedestrians and bikes, but this is the only way into this place.

Every couple of years, someone’s kerosene stove lights a fire that consumes hundreds of homes. All that’s left in this most recent fire’s path are the charred stumps of the stilts, surrounded by the houses that somehow survived. To my western eyes, the houses that weren’t burnt look barely better off.

This neighborhood has always represented Tarakan’s worst-off to me.

But this time I come with questions instead of letting my eyes judge. Yes, many of the city’s poorest live here and they lost everything they had—which wasn’t much—in the fire.

But interestingly, rich people, or people considered to be rich here, live here.
One lady, Haji Ida (her name shows she has been on the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) owns a house on the rubble’s edge. She’s lived there for 10 years, and actually owns a house “on land,” as she puts it, in town.

But she prefers to live here above the trash.
Her husband has a business close by on stilts, and they’ve filled their decent-looking house with nice furniture and a flat screen TV. She’s seen three fires, but doesn’t want to move.

I nod as she talks, but I don’t get it.

Another neighbor, on the other rim of the debris, has less. And though this time his house was just barely spared, he has lost another house in this spot in a fire a few years ago. He’s a fisherman and he lives there because it’s close to his boat, and because the license to live there is still cheaper than the land in town. However, that is changing as business booms on the stilts and more and more people move there.

People don’t want to leave, and will be back, building their simple wooden houses on top of the burnt stilts, he assures me. And they build, not with anger over the neighbor who let their cooking burn down the neighborhood, but with acceptance.

This just happens, they say. And everyone—even the poorest—chip in to give rice and oil and food to the survivors.

I hate to romanticize it because I know there must be spousal abuse and drug use and other societal ills above the stilts. But I see people working and smiling and living. And they tell me this is their community. For better or worse, this is their home.

The government doesn’t want them there, in this neighborhood that is a blight to the town. Some say the government is the one who has set some of those fires over the years, hoping to wipe out the place.

I wonder how much money it would take to give all of these people homes on land where fire couldn’t spread on the wooden connections. It would be doable, I’m sure. And I hope, wishing to end poverty here.

But if neither the government nor the fires push them out, then buying them homes somewhere else probably wouldn’t do the trick either. As in so many other aspects of poverty and living conditions, choices, not just bad fate, often plan a part.

The concrete path runs out onto a rickety, all-wooden one, and diverges, spreading out over the water until the outermost edges have a beautiful ocean view.

I walk, peering down the paths, taking in these intersections of rich and poor and of acceptance and defeat.

This place represents that tension between western hearts that want to solve poverty and the community’s choices that put them here. I yearn to meet needs that aren’t even wants.

I remember the advice of my Indonesian friend who understands both my culture and hers, and who used to live here, though she wasn’t poor.

You have to know people to help them, she said. And if you don’t know them, then you give to the guy who does.

In this case, it would be the elected head of the neighborhood, Pak R.T. He knows the stories and understands the whys and can best distribute the money.

So, I ask these people who live above the stilts and try to understand situations that I will never completely get. The answers surprise me, leaving me unsure where to be, afraid of drop-offs and sideswipes. But I watch carefully as I tread, hoping I get it right.

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