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The Shape of Water: Watermarks in Jakarta A first impressions piece

"Don't drink the water."

Prior to my arrival in Jakarta, I was instructed to not drink any water other than bottled water. Again during the initial two days I was reminded to not let a droplet fall beyond my lips. I admittedly was confused over the fuss about something so simple such as this.

After all, how powerful was the water of Indonesia?

A day after my arrival, I decided to visit the slum, Kali Ciliwung Manggarai, located in the suburb of West Java. It is a highly flood-prone area, with the land constantly under dispute due to its ownership by the state and all personal usage of the land is prohibited. The slum is situated right next to the Ciliwung River, which often rises well above the two meter shacks the residents reside in.

To its people, the river is to be feared - a source of wilderness which comes and goes in a fashion of structural damage that only fire could imitate.

"To its people, the river is to be feared."

In turn, the ground meeting the water has no breath.

Covered in rubbish, wildlife are non-existent among the banks and a chance of health and luck is gambled whenever desperation overcomes rationality and someone wades into its depths to drink, bathe or play.

The water takes more than just homes, but also - parents.

It has been three months since the Indonesian government has answered the calls from people of Kali Ciliwung Manggara, their calls of help to be relocated into the former governor “Ahok”s plan to resettle into temporary public housing.

For one of its inhabitants, Pandi, his only hope for the future is to garner more attention from the government or any private sector willing to listen their plea for help.

"I've lived here until I [have] grandchildren. Until now, there has been no improvement from the government. Maybe our place is the last place to get repair. We've been flooded three times this month. Light, heavy, and light flood."

"Look at our feet: wet and sodden, muddied and bare. They remind us all we cannot swim [in the] water. Even though water is source of life, we are afraid of it. Afraid of its power."

"Look at our feet: wet and sodden, muddied and bare."

Two days after my visit to the slums, I was given a tour north into the historic heart of Jakarta, an old port harbour of the city - Sunda Kelapa.

Connected to the Ciliwung River, the water is just as dirty and undrinkable. And I was reminded not to fall into the waters when jumping to a small boat for a river tour.

As the boat moved and water rushed past, I was greeted with children who jumped into the rapids, smiling yet cautious of the rapids. Unafraid, but mindful of the sudden changes in the currents.

I ask Nompo, our boatman, "Why do you choose the water?" It is polluted, not greatly chartered and a force that you can never predict, after all.

"Because it [is] all I know. Water - no matter what form is majestic."

"Because it is all I know."

"When you look out the boat, all you see is the water. Only water. Like you're in front of royalty, so you feel awe. But like royal people, [it also stays] distant. You admire but you can't get too close with a giant. It is too wild for a human ever to befriend."

As the river began to reach the sea, colourful Phinisi ships took the waves like toy boats a child could throw on an adventure. Faces popped out of the taller ships, peering down below and reminded me of my own smallness in the vastness of the water.

Whilst the water of Indonesia is still best not to be drunk, it is still a symbol of a source that may one day enrich the country's ecosystems and citizens. If cleaned out well in the future, it may herald a great sphere of influence for river sailing and sea merchant trading.

We mustn't forget however, that water leaves as fast as it comes, departing quickly from ruined villages, economies and terrain - its watermarks.

Most of the time, a current of water in the river or sea will be intimate and inviting, yet its endless reach into the horizon tells us that there are forces beneath the surface and its changing shape - yet to ever be dominated.

Created By
Chantelle Bringas
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