Visiting Bandung, Indonesia

Singapore is known for its large migrant population, of which about 170,000 are domestic workers. According to the terms of their contract, they are entitled to a return trip to their home country once every two years. My domestic worker is only 2 years older than me and has been working for my family for nearly 10 years. She has two teenage children and a deceased husband. She is the sole breadwinner for her family, including her parents. She was my tour guide and interpretator. I visited her when she was back in her country in Sep 09. Below is a recorded impression of my trip.
Bandung is a city of 9 million people and growing. It is a sprawling urban mass spread across a huge mountain plateau 750m above sea level and surrounded by mountains. The buildings are low in height by developed country standards, and you will seldom see a building more than 3 or 4 storeys high. I'm not sure if it lies in the earthquake zone, but that would explain the lack of towering skyscrapers. The first visual impression I had of Bandung was when my plane was about to land. The ubiquitous orange clay roof-tops were very distinctive. Sporadic patches of cropland dotted the urban landscape

Aerial view of part of Bandung

My domestic worker and I having Sudanese food

From what I read from the internet, Bandung is one of Indonesia's intellectual capitals, with many universities and schools. It is also known internationally for its cheap fake branded goods as well as authentic local fashion design brands not found elsewhere. Many tourists come specially to shop for shoes, jeans and jackets produced in factories around Bandung. Jarkarta residents are also known to drive 2 hours to spend the weekend shopping and eating there. While many people are poor, the streets are not filled with beggars like what you see in India and a few other developing countries. From fly-by observations from my rented taxi, the people seem contented with their lot, and get by with simple trading of goods and services. Bandung feels like one of the most peaceful places I've been to. The people seem happy.

Tea plantation 2000m above sea level

One of the many roadside stalls. Delicious fried beancurd, banana, and vegetables in flour. Served fresh and piping hot.

Bandung is blessed with rich natural resources, such as plenty of clean fresh water from the mountains, fertile land for growing crops from volcanic soil and just plenty and plenty of space. Not to mention hot springs, natural scenery and volcanic geographical features. I visited during the fasting month of Ramadan, so the city was much less busy then usual, because many of the city residents have returned to their home villages and towns to fast and spend time with their families. On the day of Hari Raya Puasa, there would be festivities on the streets, people would dress up in their finest clothes and visit their relatives. Her family lived in Garut, a small city an hour’s drive from Bandung. When I arrived at her house, I was surprised to find that it has all the modern amenities such as a television, a fridge, fresh water from the tap and electricity. The cost of living there is so low that a Singaporean domestic worker's wages is comparable to that of a public school teacher, which is the second highest paying profession after being in the police force. Speaking of which, the police force demands at least a S$1000 bribe to just secure an interview with the police force, after which if accepted, the candidate is set for life, with monthly wages of more than S$1000 that is a cause for envy and pride locally.

The centre yard of the family compound

Rice field in Garut

A resthouse in Garut, my domestic worker's home town an hour's drive from Bandung. The wall is made of handwoven bamboo.

House in Garut belonging to a 'haji' family. 'Haji' is a derogatory term for rich people, as they can afford the pilgrimage to Mecca. The house belongs to someone in the teaching profession and took a number of years to build.

My domestic worker's family stays in a compound that included several houses that accommodated members of her extended family, including aunties, uncles and cousins. I really envied their communal way of living, a luxury ill afforded in Singapore with its lack of space. The back of her compound gives way to a stunning vista of rice fields and cropland that extends all the way to the distant mountains.

Deepak, her adopted son, 18 months old, and devilishly adorable.

From left - my domestic worker's mum, son and aunt

Deepak and I at the backyard.

Deepak. He cried when we left the house to return to the hotel.

Her family was very hospitable and courteous towards me. The little two year-old son of hers was adorable, precocious and charming. They were both surprised and honoured that an employer of their family breadwinner would come and pay a visit. I on the other hand was inspired by their warmth and communal way of living. While there is no basis of comparison between my life in Singapore and theirs in Garut, it seems believable to me that the grass is greener on the other side.

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