Indonesia still mired in wreckage of Asia’s financial crisis of 1997
By Alan Sipress: The Washington Post; April 25, 2004

  JAKARTA, Indonesia - At first, Inah remembers lying awake at night, terrified, listening to the roar of traffic passing barely 15 feet above her head. She said she imagined the toll bridge buckling and cars plummeting through the flimsy wood ceiling of her room, burying her and her family beneath a heap of metal.
  The fear passed after a few weeks, but the reality of her difficult life remains. Inah, her husband and five children live crammed into a cell-like dwelling deep in the muddy catacombs of a Jakarta slum dubbed "Gembel Tol" or "Poor People of the Toll" by its 3,000 denizens.
  The full extent of the slum, which was built on swampland underneath the highway, is concealed from the surrounding Jakarta streets. Only its outermost fare of plank and boards, cement blocks, corrugated metal and tarp is visible from the outside.
  But a small break between two shanties opens up into a dark, cramped labyrinth of packed mud alleys. The passageways weave between claustrophobic hovels, some stacked, one atop another, upper rooms reached by crooked wooden ladders. In places, the alleys turn to fetid marsh, which is almost impassable.
  In the faint glow of a small neon light, fastened to a plank running alongside a bridge-support pylon, Inah, 34, stirred eggplant and cabbage for her family's lunch.
  "Though I live under a toll road, I try to cook properly. Once a month I try to have chicken." she said, tugging an old, pink knit cap down over her brow to keep her dark hair from getting in the food.
  She spends most of the morning preparing the makings for bakso, or meatball soup, that her husband peddles for a living,
  Inah's eyes are lively and her smile alternates between merry and mischievous Her husband, Sohidin, 39, is a slight, soft-spoken man with a thin mustache and stringy beard. He has become one of Jakarta's ubiquitous kaki limas, hawking food for pennies from a pushcart, taking home up to $8 a day after he has paid for supplies and handed over protection money to local soldiers.
  For generations, both of their families had been farmers, planting tobacco that climbed the slopes of Sindoro volcano on Java, Indonesia's main island. They lived in a quiet town nestled high up on the mountain. In 1995, Sohidin borrowed 10 million rupiah - worth about $1,100 today - from a local businessman to rent 2 acres and purchase farming equipment.
  He built a house with a living room, two bedrooms and a kitchen. It was simple, but they had a television, a radio and living-room furniture.
  When the 1997 Asian financial crisis struck, the cost of fertilizer and other farm supplies skyrocketed. Sohidin could not make ends meet. He held on until 2000, but then gave up the tobacco farm and sold off a small family rice paddy to pay the debt, which had grown by half with interest.
  He took his family to Jakarta to look for a job. At first, he worked loading and unloading boxes on trucks, but he earned too little to support his family. He rummaged through trash for cardboard to resell and settled his family under the highway, located near a large garbage dump.
  A neighbor taught the couple how to make meatball soup. But Sohidin needed cash for the initial purchase of meat and vegetables. He turned to his oldest son, Hendro, 12, for a loan.
  Each day, Sohidin had given him about 10 cents for lunch and the boy had spent less than half of it. He managed to stash away just the amount his father needed: six dollars.
  “My son is very clever. … He knew his parents were in a very difficult financial situation," Sohidin said.
  Inah and Sohidin moved to a better room under the toll road, one with electricity, for 12 dollars a month in rent.
  They began to convert the hovel into a home. They hung a pair of calendars - gifts from rival political parties - and an electric clock on the concrete-block walls.
  They fashioned a makeshift birdcage from a discarded screen and some cardboard, held it together by rubber bands and suspended it from the low ceiling. The twittering of three little sparrows, dyed bright green to make them cheerier, carried into the alley.
  At night, the sole bed is shared by Inah, two daughters, an infant son, a stuffed bear and a stuffed dog. Sohidin and two boys claim the floor, including the space under the bed. When it rains and the swamp floods, they said, the floor soaks up water like a sponge.
  Their, youngest son was born here six months ago.
  Hendro, the oldest son, dreams of speaking English. He has al-ready taught himself the English names for vegetables. He asked his parents for language lessons but they cost 60 cents per session. His parents said they can barely pay the school fees for their three oldest children totaling nine dollars a month. They cannot afford schoolbooks
  “I hope they can go beyond elementary school, do better than me," Sobidin said.