Fribble Friday, January 21, 2000

A Reason to Smile

By Jacques Bourque (

Some of the material I've been reading over the past few days leaves me thinking of how easy it is to start feeling sorry for ourselves when we suffer various setbacks. Hey, don't get me wrong, I'm no different from all you Fools -- to see Amazon go up by 10 % would leave me more upbeat than to see it take a whack of 15%, but I always try to remind myself that there are worse things than this happening somewhere on Earth. And that there are certainly several million people who would be willing to trade places with me any day. But this is quite easy to forget, so now and again it is important to recalibrate oneself to the realities of life.

I got my last reality checkup a few weeks ago after getting up at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday to go to the Jakarta landfill site (I live and work in Indonesia). Why would a well-balanced person pass an opportunity to sleep in to go to the local dump? Because it's there? Unfortunately my motives were not that profound. I got up early to avoid the traffic and went to the landfill site because I was curious to see what was happening to all the trash that I see getting collected daily on the city streets. Indeed, there are dozens of people collecting garbage in Jakarta, and this is such sprawling city that I had a hard time imagining what the central dump would look like. And indeed there was no way to imagine what I actually saw.

The Jakarta landfill covers more than 400 acres and receives 10,000 cubic meters of trash daily. That's probably no different from several other large cities, so what's the big deal? All over the landfill area, there are hundreds of people picking through the garbage in search of wood, plastic, metal, etc. There are actually dozens of families who are living right on the trash. No, not on the side but right on top of it, with makeshift shelters made up of sticks and tarps and various crates to sit on.

The smallest children are hanging around these shelters, in some cases breast feeding, while those old enough to work are helping their parents pick through the garbage. The children pick plastic, which they sell for 250 Roupiah per pound (at the time of writing, 1 U.S. dollar = 7000 Roupiah). I'll let you imagine how many plastic bags and cups it takes to make a pound! Amongst many others, I met a man collecting wood in a long, slim wooden wagon mounted on two bicycles wheels. It takes him about three days to fill his wagon, the contents of which can be resold for 10,000 Roupiah just outside the dump. He can offload within minutes and then he starts all over again.

One of the first people to approach me was a man selling picks to search through the garbage. These are pointy steel rods with a 90-degree bend at one end and a wood handle at the other end. He sells these to all the people picking garbage at a unit price of 3000 Roupiah. His manufacturing unit cost is 2000 Roupiah and he manages to make and sell about 15 a day. He thinks he could sell more than that so his dream is to build a pick factory at the entrance to the dump. I suggested that it would be better to build a recycling plant that would keep people off the garbage, but he looked at me as if I came from Mars. What for? What would I do with my picks? I did not argue, but I did buy a pick to remind me of this encounter.

On the way out I met the man selling ice. Not ice cream but ice blocks about 3 feet long and 10 inches by 10 inches square, which he straps to the back of his bike. He was delivering to the various food hawkers who provide food and drinks to the workers in the middle of the dump. He needs to peddle fast because the ice is not shielded and the sun is red hot. I could provide details of his daily cashflow but by now you've probably got the picture that these people are extremely poor. Most are dressed in rags, some have no shoes, some have a different worn-out shoe on each foot, and they have little chance to tend to their personal hygiene.

Yet, there was one thing all these people had in common -- their smiles. I guess this is the trademark of the Javanese (Jakarta is on the island of Java). No matter who I met or waived at, I was left with the image of a warm smile. I can't remember any locals smiling at me when I walked around the streets of Paris, New York, or London -- this does not necessarily mean that they are bad people, but it does command respect for the state of mind of the garbage pickers.

Before I left, I asked a man offloading his wood wagon what he was expecting from the turn of the millennium. "Not much," he replied. He did not figure that things would change. I insisted and asked if he could make a wish, what would it be? This brought a glowing smile -- "a better job!"

That's enough two-finger typing for me. My hope is not that you will drive to your local dump the next time your favorite stock takes a dive or you have no hot water. But if at least once in the next few weeks, a setback makes some of you think about the people surviving on the Jakarta landfill, and that this brings you to smile about your problem, I won't have wasted my time writing this Fribble.