Should we walk?

If the city is a language spoken by walkers, then a post pedestrian city not only has fallen silent but risks becoming a dead language. Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Should we walk? Ask no one in Jakarta, ever. The answer will be replied with a gasp, a jolt, a furious face, a standing applause of some sort as if walking is a rare activity we do. But isn’t it?

For most of my life (that is, from a baby till high school), walking is an act reserved only to those who can’t obtain a car or a motorbike. It’s savage, dirty, tiring, sweaty. To walk from my home to a nearby mini market under the sun is to waste your time while laughing at yourself really. So I practically never walked from point A to point B all the way until high school.

That is, until I went to San Francisco and spent hundreds of hours on the streets that it becomes an extension of my home. 

Is it the wide pavement walk, the crisp air, the culture? Little things make a city walkable and others not. Los Angeles is definitely not a walk-friendly cities. So are the majority of other American cities. But San Francisco is an outpouring of human lives coloring the streets. If seen from above, San Francisco will look like one bustling city, always moving, always creating, always being.

But there’s one important thing here – you began to really see. First, you meet your neighbor. Her hair is pink, but her face is wrinkly and she’s perhaps in her 50s. Drugs? Could be. But she has a small dog and she’s a very sweet lady. And then you began to notice that same black woman who stops at the same bus stop with you every morning. She looks stern with her black coat, eyes piercing to the front, an overall too serious face for a morning. Does she lament going to work? But her coat is too good for that. Family issues?

On Mission Street, a then-central area for Mexican immigrants turned into the hipster-est hipster spot of San Francisco, you’ll walk into a group of young ladies dressed in their edgiest second-hand clothes, musing on music and boys. These ladies perhaps just arrived to San Francisco two or three months ago, still looking for any creative gigs that can afford them to do their hobbies, while enjoying San Francisco’s mystique artistic air.

These people are strangers. Yet their lives enrich my life. Not in a way that interrupts mine, but in a way that sparkles, colors, electrifies. It is here on the street that you learn about those people who you would never have talked to. And it’s here on the street that you are being known, and knowing people you would have never intersected with.

When in San Francisco, make sure you’re nice to strangers. That was my motto. Not just in your words, but also in your mind. No judgment, no discrimination, just learning and absorbing. San Francisco’s street is a concrete design to take the first step towards tolerance, or at least, understanding. Who’s in San Francisco not happy with the last-night puke of a homeless man? Nobody. Because there’s a profound understanding of pity and empathy.

So I grew up mostly in the cars. I absorb the experience of being inside a concrete mobile, traffic around me, bikes’ drivers getting agitated, and I’m inside watching this under chilled AC. I fell asleep, most of the times. And it was nice. But 25 years living inside the car, naturally, makes you feel a little bit lonely. You don’t get to see who’s that person driving the motorbike with a big frown on his face. I mean, you know. But the only engagement, the only thing happening in your and his mind, is how the fuck can I get out of this traffic. There’s no realness, there’s only a facade of day-to-day routines.

Jakarta is a city that encourages people to stay in their own bubble because outside that bubble is dangerous. That is, outside the malls, the condos, the “smart city.” It excludes, discriminates, segregates people by their ethnicity and economic power. And deep in our heart, we’re actually happy to have our bubble popped, but are we ready to face the street? To walk, to see the reality and be seen by strangers, be examined, learned, and observed.

Rebecca Solnit said, “The street is democracy’s greatest arena, the place where ordinary people can speak.”* The walking campaigns are popular because they disrupt the daily routine, from the worldwide AIDS walk to the walks against Ahok. Walking is powerful. When people walk together, they’re pushing for a change. When we walk alone, we’re pushing for a change within us.

And so, should we walk?

*Wanderlust, chapter Citizens of the Streets

P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase.


rebecca solnit 2
Rebecca Solnit


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