Indonesia Makes Its Mark in a Monument

I'm a reporter who likes to run. And I believe it's best done in more chaotic, infrastructurally insufficient cities, where the sound of one's feet hitting crumbled pavement mixes with cacophony - the noise of traffic, construction, the cries of food vendors - and becomes hypnotizing.

Each time I arrive in a new locale I tie on my pink and black Brooks with their biodegradable midsole and take to the street. This time it's Jakarta, the smoggy, traffic-choked capital of Indonesia, a nation analysts hail for its successful drive toward democracy ten years after the fall of dictator Suharto.

My runs are my time to see all the sides of multi-faceted Jakarta. The early morning light guides my way as I traverse the narrow alleyways of the city's many kampungs (neighborhoods). Yet my destination is always the same, Merdeka Square - site of political protests, family picnics and Suharto-era extravagance.

It is here that the 422-foot national monument, or Monas, rises high above the Jakarta skyline. Capped with a flame coated in gold foil, the marble-encrusted obelisk defines persistence. Despite the cost to the country's already unstable economy, President Sukarno, who commissioned it in 1961, would not back down on his plans for a grand tower.

Monas remains significant for many reasons, but increasingly because of the lessons it provides about Indonesia, a country caught between tradition and modernization, terrorist extremism and religious moderation.

The monument also marks a crossroads between the past and the present. To the north of the square on which it sits is the old, Dutch section of the city, to the south is modern Jakarta, with its glassed-in air-conditioned malls and fancy entertainment districts.

Along the western perimeter extends the TransJakarta bus line, the government's oft-criticized attempt at creating a working public transportation infrastructure. To the east, an older, elevated train line runs. Beneath these tracks trash collectors deposit their goods and women and children beg for money and food. They clutch the thin green fence posts that bar them from the monument, a symbol of Indonesia's fight for independence and a poignant reminder of the ever-widening gap between poor and rich.

Merdeka Square also stands out in a city that suffers from a gross lack of green space. Like Thailand, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries, group exercise is a morning ritual, and the land surrounding the monument is one of the few enclosed places where people can exercise in public.

In the hours between sunrise and the beginning of the work day men and women wearing orange and cream sweat suits walk around the square. It is here that civil servants with their regulation uniforms mix with men from the national military, old Chinese couples performing Tai Chi and top-level politicians, such as Parliament's secretary general. The police, clad in navy jumpsuits with white armbands, watch over their activities.

In the afternoon tourists flock to the monument. Some wait in line for the elevator ride to the top, where on a rare clear day one can get a descent view of the sprawling metropolis and the giant dome of the Istiqlal Mosque. School children come to visit the historical museum housed beneath the tower, and on weekends Jakartans come out to fly kites, picnic and socialize.

In an interesting move last week, Jakarta's Public Order Agency announced it would close the monument's park for four hours each night to crack down on teenagers engaging in sexual activity and crime.

Monas has also been the staging ground for protests, and it was here more than a year ago that a religious clash occurred between conservative Muslims and an Islamic sect they consider heretical. Indonesia is a secular country, but Islamist politics and the introduction of stringent Sharia laws by local governments have raised concerns of creeping radicalization in a country where 87 percent of the 240 million people are Muslim.

These are the lessons I've learned by visiting Monas. I continue to think about the people I see there throughout the day. An image of the woman with a red kerchief will appear to me while I'm browsing for produce, or a man on the bus will remind me of a young police officer chatting on his cell phone.

Every journalist has her way of adapting to a new posting. A friend now based in Bishkek got to know the bar scene. In his book War Reporter, Richard Engle said he liked drawing maps to orient himself to a new city. I like running to Monas, a site where the city's schizophrenic frenzy collides in one sensory-filled lesson on modern-day Indonesia.