1. Jakarta Bound

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.20140829_132619

Emigration to a new country is a big step for anyone to take – even if it’s just for a year. Emigrating to a completely new continent and culture is a huge leap. You don’t realise how much so until people tell you how brave you are and your friends say things like, “I take my hat off to you mate” and you wonder what they mean and start to feel a bit worried. What else you don’t realise is just how much you are tied to ‘home’. Not just personally and emotionally, but contractually! Closing up accounts with utility companies, ending insurances and ensuring everything else has been settled up and signed off is surprisingly stressful. Early cancellation fees, administration charges, penalties for failing to give enough notice – they all want any little extra drop of pecuniary blood they can drain from you before you’re gone. It’s as if they want to penalise you for daring to escape. And just when you think you’ve done everything, you get another Columbo moment as you realise there’s “just one more thing” – it’s been an exhausting couple of months of exit preparation! But after weeks of experiencing the internal chemical concoction of uncertainty, trepidation, expectation, anxiety and excitement – and almost 24 hrs of economy long haul travel courtesy of Etihad Airways – I finally arrived in Jakarta to begin my working adventure.

As the plane came in to land at Soekarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta, I was exhausted. I’d given up on trying to pretend that curling up into the foetal position and squeezing myself between two seats with my eyes closed was actually sleep and had decided to watch the Godzilla reboot on the in-flight entertainment screen. It probably wasn’t the best choice of movie to watch on a twelve inch LCD monitor, but it passed the time before I received the bizarre rehydrated scrambled egg and chicken sausage breakfast. But I was still really tired, so I decided to open up the window shutter and bleach my eyes with daylight to give me a wake up hit. It worked.

After flying through the night, over the equator and into the morning with the shutter down, that sudden beam of bright in-the-middle-of-the-sky light hit me like I was a vampire. But once my eyes adjusted, the view of the Indian Ocean was a wonderful sight to behold. It’s deep, blue, calmly undulating silver sheen surface was peppered with boats, tiny islands and a grid pattern of floating palettes leading up to the shore. We were still 20 minutes to the airport when I remembered what somebody told me about the food in Indonesia – “I hope you like fish.” I do like fish and seeing all those little fishing boats and jetties floating on the surface of the sea, looking like an oil painting on canvas, I started to feel very excited.

First impressions don’t count after almost a day of travel. My welcome meeting of two missed me at the arrivals exit, so I had to fend off the usual barrage of native offers of taxis for half an hour whilst I contacted my contact at the English First Jakarta head office to find out where my pick-up was. The sweltering Jakarta heat was hot. It was nothing compared to the suffocating heat when I’d landed in Abu Dhabi to wait for my connecting flight, but I was starting to get a sweat on.

I eventually found the welcome team of Adit and Debbi. Adit was an Indo-Chinese Jakarta native who looked more Chinese than Indonesian. He was clean cut and had an impeccable American accent. Debbi was a half-pounder burger-sized helping of American woman hailing from Boston via Kansas. She was the Director of Studies (DoS) for the language centre I was going to be working in. They were both really warm and welcoming and happily invited my barrage of questions whilst helping me with my luggage. As I climbed into the back of the air-conditioned Toyota belonging to Adit, I was handed an EF welcome bag containing a few pages of information about the city and an envelope with 200,000 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah – about £10).

As we left the airport we entered the melee of metal and horns that is Jakarta traffic during the early evening rush hour. We were heading to Taman Anggrek Mall in West Jakarta, an enormous shopping centre, apartment and office complex. An absolutely huge LED screen, easily the length of three football pitches, wrapped around the front of the mall. This glowing facade beamed brightly coloured advertisements out across the west Jakarta night and was an impressive sight.

Taman Anggrek Mall facade -353,57m

Adit parked the car in the basement car park of Taman Anggrek and we walked through the building and into the neighbouring Central Park Mall, a smaller, newer and equally impressive shopping/office/hotel complex, to get some food courtesy of “the company” – real, non-rehydrated food. A flavoursome Malaysian beef rendang was as good a tonic as I could have asked for; it was very tasty.

After we had eaten, Debbi trundled her large, tired, frame off to her apartment in the Podomoro complex next to Central Park and Adit took me to my temporary accommodation via the sauna that is a Southeast Asian underground car park. The sudden burst of tropical rain that greeted us as we re-entered the outside world was refreshing, although I was hoping it wasn’t going to be a permanent feature of my first couple of weeks in the city.

My temporary new apartment in Centro City wasn’t great. The cold shower and tangled web of hair in the drain weren’t what I expected, but the bed was all mine and the air-con worked fine. After re-shuffling my luggage rather than unpacking, I headed out to the nearest street trader to grab a bottle of coke, a pack of cigarettes and a spicy fillet burger from the KFC on the corner of the side street that led off the main Daan Mogot highway to my apartment building. After eating my unhealthy snack, I returned to my room to down some duty free Jim Beam with my mixer, called my daughter to let her know I’d arrived safely and then drifting off to the sound of the chatter, giggle and amateur song coming from the neighbours in the room next door.

I didn’t have the best night’s sleep. The droning roar of Friday night traffic on the Daan Mogot highway sounded like a Grand Prix. The early morning call to prayer of the nearby mosque was peculiar but un-intrusive, but the noisy neighbours decided to get up at about three in the morning to chatter and giggle some more, so I decided to play some music through the Bluetooth speaker I’d brought with me. This had the dual effect of blocking out the noise and shutting up the neighbours. Thank God for house music. Thank human innovation for technology.

Apartment view of a city shrouded in smog

Apartment view of a city shrouded in smog

In the absence of any pre-arranged timetable, I awoke at my leisure the next day, scratched away at a mosquito bite on my hand and pondered; nothing specific, just general pondering about the uncertainty that lay ahead. Then I rolled out of bed and had a swig of warm coke. It was about 11.30am, the blur of day one was over and day two was due. I was about to take a shower when I was stopped by a quiet knock at the door; it was Adit and his friend Rudi, the EF Smart School Centre Manager. They stood at the door like vampires waiting to be invited in. They had come to take me to see the new school I would be working in and show me the apartment that I had the option of moving to. I invited them in but they decline and said they would wait for me downstairs in the lobby, so I took my shower – a cold shower that was surprisingly nice. Washing the first hot and sticky layer of tropical dew off my skin felt good. I then dressed, gelled my hair and trimmed the messy stubble on my face. I now felt like I had arrived.

It was a typically hot, sunny, sticky and steamy post-rain tropical morning as we corralled into the herd of cars, taxis and mopeds. Rudi was also an Indo-Chinese Jakarta native, although he looked more Japanese. Like Adit, he was very well presented, although his English was nowhere near as polished. He and Adit had been friends since school and were very close. They had both previously worked for a school called Wall Street, who were EF’s main competition in Jakarta, but they had both defected for better salaries. I fired questions at the pair of them whilst taking in the environment from the back seat of the car as we drove toward the massive Taman Anggrek Mall.

My initial impression of Jakarta was that of a densely populated city that was shadowed by skyscrapers and high tower blocks that peered down on a morass of hustling South East Asian poverty. Adit said that life in Jakarta took place in the many huge malls that were spread across the provinces. The night before he’d told me that the people lived their lives like termites in these malls, and that’s how it seemed; an air-conditioned environment of commerce and food populated by people who should really be more tanned than they were. When we got to the mall I was again treated to a meal courtesy of the company before Rudi took me to a phone shop to get me connected with an Indonesian sim card and some call credit. We then headed over to EF’s new Smart School that was situated on the third floor of the Taman Anggrek mall.

Mega Mall

Mega Mall

Smart School was the name EF gave to their adult language schools – and they were very smart, and pretty impressive. All glass panelled classrooms and cutting edge design. Open ‘English Speaking Zones’ and teaching spaces that were unashamedly modelled on the Google working environment I was told. There I met some more staff, including Kate, a tall Australian teacher who originally came from Tasmanian. Kate was like almost all Kate’s I’d ever met – friendly, pleasant and just very nice. I don’t know what it is about the name ‘Kate’, but really, I’ve never met a horrible Kate. I’ve known a couple of crazy Katies and my auntie Kathleen is a craggy, bitter, bitch and the antithesis of every other Kate I’ve met, but ‘there’s something about Kate’ that makes every Kate seem pretty great. Unfortunately Kate was leaving in a month due to “visa issues”, which was a shame.

Kate had nothing bad to say about the school or the teaching set up, she really enjoyed working there. As Debbi had told me the evening before, it was unlike any other kind of English language teaching I’d have been likely to have experienced before – no planning, no paper and no paperwork! EF were pioneering the future of the language learning experience with their paper-free Smart Schools and this was the latest of their flagship modern learning centres situated in Indonesia, China, Russia, Hong Kong and Singapore. I must admit I was impressed and was looking forward to actually working.

MTA School inside

EF Smart Schools – thoroughly modern teaching environments

The rest of the day was mainly orientation and discussion based around what my more permanent accommodation would be when my month in the Grand Prix Inn, as I now called it, ended. However, this was looking like it was going to be a little bit tricky. The general rule in Jakarta is that you sign up for a 12-month lease and pay up front, which even at the relatively cheap rates by European standards, was still pretty expensive by Southeast Asian standards. A half decent one bedroom studio apartment worked out at around 4-5million IDR (Indonesian rupiah) a month – around £200-250 – so you’re looking at forking out around £3000 up front. I wasn’t entirely sure that I would stay beyond six months and wanted the option to quit, so I didn’t really like the idea of committing that much. However, it seemed like there wasn’t really going to be too much of an option.

EF had secured pretty decent accommodation in Mediterania Gardens, an apartment complex that annexed the Central Park mall and was within walking distance from the school. Debbi lived in one of these apartments and the deal was that you signed the contract for twelve months, EF paid up front and then took the money from your wages each month. It was a pretty fair deal, but I felt a little rushed because Jakarta didn’t appear to be what I expected. I knew it was a huge megacity, but after interrogating everyone I had met since I had arrived, I soon realised it was not the place I had imagined. It seemed that there were few green spaces or areas of natural beauty for whiling away my days. The botanical garden in Bogor was the nearest good sized park, but getting there took a good few hours of tricky travelling and maybe an overnight stay. The nearest beaches were the Thousand Islands, but again, that involved a crack-of-dawn start, a long journey to the harbour and a long boat ride. So essentially there was nothing that was really within an easy distance where I could just go and relax and have some tropical ‘me time’ whilst taking in the sights. This played on my mind throughout the day and the night. I had wanted to be excited about my new life in Jakarta but it was turning out to be very different to what I had imagined.

Rudi had left the school earlier and Adit, like me, was a little exhausted after an uneasy nights sleep. I really wanted to release him from the burden of my orientation and questioning, but it wasn’t until around 6pm that I could finally let him go. I then took myself down to a strip of bars in the impressive Tribeca gardens that was part of the Central City mall to watch some Premiership football. I settled in at a place called Le Biere where I ordered a burger, a bucket of local bottled beer, and endured a dull nil-nil draw between Manchester United and Burnley F.C. as Louis Van Gaal continued his limp start to life as Alex Ferguson’s second replacement. However, being a Manchester City fan, the result was satisfying and filled the gap whilst I waited for my main event. Unfortunately, as is usual in many places that don’t have the more sophisticated music and bar culture of the main European cities, industrial strength house and techno pounded out of the speakers whilst people ate and drank. This painful racket replaced the commentary and didn’t help to assuage the disappointment of Stoke nullifying my superior Blues for most of the game before stealing a very unlikely 1-0 win at the Etihad Stadium.

I was tired and a little bit deflated after a long day, several beers and a bad football result. I flagged down a cab and headed to the Grand Prix Inn. The following morning I had to be back at the school to feature in their commercial. The first couple of days had been an interesting reconnaissance mission of discovery with some disappointment, but like it or not, I was here for the long haul and I had some tricky decisions to make before I would be completely settled. But I was remaining positive. At least it hadn’t rained again – unlike Manchester (cloud and rain according to the weather app on my phone).

18: Moving Option 2

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Mediteranea 2 pool view

If you’re an expat in Indonesia you will usually get overcharged for accommodation, so before we went to view the Mediterania 2 apartment Suki told me not to say a word and let her do all the talking.

We met the apartment owner Vivi in the lobby of Mediterania 2 block J and she took us up to the 29th floor (which is really the 25th). When we entered the apartment the décor was much more simple and a lot more modern than the menagerie of kitsch that welcomed you as you walked into Belgian Jeff’s place. It had cable TV, which included Fox Sports and the HBO Channel. It also had an internet connection and two pools in the complex, one of which was 50 metres in length, which from the balcony looked like a glorious place for an early morning swim. Vivi spoke good English. She also seemed quite professional and had a trustworthy air about her.

Ideally I would have preferred a one-bedroom apartment, which would have been cheaper, but at this stage I didn’t have too many options. I had tried to find a place by myself, but everywhere wanted twelve months rent in advance, which was longer than I wanted to commit to. However, I still had time to make a decision, so I asked Vivi to give me a week or two to confirm either way. This gave me the option to continue looking for something a little cheaper with one bedroom. However, now that my working timetable had started, I was pretty exhausted by all the extra-curricular messing about that I was having to do. Searching for accommodation and trying to get things back at home sorted out – not to mention the fact that I was still at the Grand Prix Inn, which was situated in the middle of nowhere – meant that I had to try and get everything done in the time I was in Mallville. All I wanted was to find a decent place to live – how hard did it have to be!? I felt beaten and was more or less resigned to the fact that I would have to go over budget and take what was on offer. I really didn’t want to pay more than 4,000,000 a month for my accommodation – 5,000,000 at the very maximum – yet I was running out of time and had no other solid options. But there was still the slim possibility of sharing the costs of Vivi’s place with Simon. Whilst we were drinking the night before he had hinted that it might be cool if he and I shared a place together. Although I didn’t know him, I was open to the idea of sharing with someone who I could at least hang out with. However, Simon’s suggestion was dependent on whether his boss was coming over at the end of September or not. There was also the option of taking a room in Belgian Jeff’s place, but there was no way I was going to move into a place where at any given time some random person who I’ve never met before could turn up to stay in the other room. If I could only get my shit sorted out back at home and get some extra money coming in then that would cover the additional cost of renting Vivi’s place on my own. But if I could get Simon to commit to sharing that would mean that my rent would be even lower than I had budgeted for. I had arranged to meet him later in the night at Loewy’s so I would try to convince him whilst we were there. If I could get him to share with me – provided he was okay to live with – I would be sorted.

17: Picture Postcard Possibilities

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

bunaken island

Wednesday was my first full teaching day and I had been given a pretty light timetable of classes. The induction and preparation helped me to ease into my teaching routine very easily. The students were keen to learn and after my first session with just two beginners, I felt pretty confident in my new job. There were only five lessons to teach and the sessions were all just under an hour. This gave me a two-hour break in the middle of my timetable to go and make some holiday enquiries.

I found a travel agent on the ground floor of Taman Anggrek mall. I told the female travel advisor, that I had a three-day break and asked what she could recommend.

I seemed to be quite a novelty in the area where I lived and was looked on with curiosity by most native Indonesians there – I suspect that dark skin and English accent threw them off a little. Bule they could understand, but brown skinned Bule – with a strange Mancunian accent – this frazzled their circuitry a little. The sales advisor I spoke to was called Chintia, a plump, young, light-skinned Indonesian woman with chubby cheeks, bad skin and petit little features. She wore blue coloured contact lenses in her large, round, eyes; a common accessory I’d noticed amongst the Indonesian women. She spoke good English and I being one of those rare customers who wanted to buy whatever was on sale, she was keen to help.

Chintia quickly offered me the choice of a beach break in Bali or a three day stay in Jogja where I could go and see a couple of temples. A middle aged Indonesian lady who was sat beside me suggested that I visit the island of Bunaken off the coast of North East Sulawesi. She came from Manado, which is the main city on the island and she said that Bunaken had one of the best beaches in Indonesia. She was very convincing, mainly because she had a wonderfully warm character and a generous face that made you smile when you spoke with her. Her large, brown eyes beamed with sincerity from behind the glasses that sat on her petit little nose above her petit little mouth and she spoke with a delicate, almost secret voice, and with the slightest of lisps. She reminded me of the favourite auntie who always gave you a nice treat when she visited. I’ve never had an auntie like that, but I’ve heard of them. She asked where I was from and what I was doing in Jakarta, so I introduced myself and told her I was a teacher at EF. She seemed very impressed. EF had been doing a lot of advertising for their new adult schools in Jakarta and it seemed that a lot of people knew of them. The lady’s name was Yvonne and she, like many practising English speakers you meet, was unnecessarily apologetic about her English. In Yvonne’s case she had even less reason to be apologetic because her English was fairly good. However, she insisted that she must improve because she was writing a paper in English for her Phd in medicine. I was impressed, and quite surprised that this unassuming lady was so modest yet clearly so very well educated. I suggested to her that she should come to the school and join my lessons. EF offered free taster sessions that potential students could attend, so I told her she should come and try one out. She gave me a big smile and thanked me before we both continued with our respective travel enquiries.

bunaken map

Despite Yvonne’s convincing endorsement of Bunaken I decided that it was too far to travel for a three-day break. To fully appreciate a beach you need a little more time to actually bask in the sunshine properly. Bali was the same. It required a longer stay and good company to fully appreciate the setting and enjoy some nightlife. I just needed to see some sights, a little tropical landscape and the opportunity to take in some proper Indonesian culture, so I decided on Jogja.

I booked a three-day trip that including tours to the huge Buddhist temple at Borobador and the Hindu temple at Prambanan. However, it was becoming pretty evident that Jakarta was not being easy on me. Whilst accommodation and flights were easy enough to arrange, it was too short notice to book the tours that came with the package. I didn’t care and booked the flight and hotel. I was not missing my opportunity to get out of Jakarta. After less than a couple of weeks in this city I desperately needed some fresh air. So after the paperwork was done and payment was made, I rushed to get back to my next lesson feeling pretty good about my upcoming break.

When I got back to the school Suki was there and she had something to tell me. She had decided that she didn’t want to share a place anymore because she was going to get a place of her own. This news completely dampened that little excitement I had briefly experienced just a few minutes earlier at the travel agent. I was a week and a half into my temporary new life in Jakarta, I was going to be on holiday for three days and I now only had two weeks to find an apartment. With no knowledge of Bahasa, no help from EF, limited internet access and a limited budget, it wasn’t going to be that easy and I wasn’t fucking happy. The shitty stick ends that this city kept thrusting into my hand were unrelenting and already I was growing to hate the place.

Suki had her reasons for changing her mind. She had decided that it was better for her to move into a place of her own as her boyfriend was coming over to stay for a few weeks in November. She was also planning on going to Europe for a couple of months in December so it was better for her to get a place on a temporary contract. Apparently she had lived at the place she was moving to before and it was convenient for her situation as she could pay for it monthly and didn’t have to commit to a long-term agreement. Her contract with EF was only temporary and the house was in Kemang, which was closer to where her other job commitments were. So whilst I was pissed off, I did understand her reasons. Also, to her credit, she didn’t leave me totally hanging out to dry. She had finally made some headway with earlier enquiries and found a two-bedroom apartment in Mediterania 2 that at $5,500,000 was just about affordable for me. She had contacted the landlady and already arranged a viewing later that day. I was just hoping that the place was going to be okay because the uncertainty about my accommodation was draining me of all my enthusiasm.

16. The Affable English Expat

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Central Park La Biere

The first time I met Simon was only very briefly in the lift when I had first come to view Belgian Jeff’s place a couple of days earlier. I hadn’t had a chance to take him up on his offer to meet for drinks, so this was a good opportunity to get more of an idea of what he was like before committing to a full-on social session. To be honest, with his extreme English accent, public schoolboy looks capped with a thinning mop of dark hair that just about hid a way too premature comb-over, he looked for all the world like a young Tory and you could have been forgiven for thinking he was gay. As bored and friendless as I was, hanging out with a posh, gay, Tory wouldn’t have worked for me, so here was a good opportunity to sound him out and see if he would be good company.

Simon was returning from work so he was dressed in a formal suit and shirt without a tie, and carrying a laptop case. He eagerly took of his jacket and his stiff, black leather shoes before reintroducing himself, “Hi, I’m Simon; good to meet you”, he said, smiling broadly as he offered his hand. He had a surprisingly firm and well-practiced handshake. Not the handshake you would expect from a gay, public school boy.

“Jeff”, I replied.

“So have you been playing tennis?” he asked.

“Well we’ve been hitting tennis balls and running around the court. Whether you could call it ‘tennis’ is debatable” I replied. “Jeff tells me that you’re pretty good with a racket.” I was joking with him. Jeff had told me he was useless. Simon smiled broadly and gave a little laugh as he replied in the most English of English accents.

“Oh… well I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was good, but I can play a little bit. Tennis isn’t really my thing.”

“Football?” I asked.

“I think I prefer to watch rather then play to be honest.”

He had the slightest hint of a lisp as his tongue stuck in the crooked, enamelled fencing of his comically bucked teeth. He was almost like a caricature of a public schoolboy rather than the real thing and I still couldn’t tell whether he was gay or not, but he was certainly very cordial.

An artists impression of who Simon might just be.

An artists impression of who Simon might just be.

Whilst our accents placed us miles apart socially, I found it surprisingly easy to speak with Simon. The usual expat questions were asked – What do you do? How long are you here for? Where are you from? These are the opening conversational gambits for most people travelling and living abroad. As it turned out, Simon had actually gone to university in Manchester and seemed to have enjoyed a lot of that time going to the bars and clubs in the city. This meant that we shared some common ground, enough to leave Jeff as a spectator as Simon and I settled comfortably into conversation about his time in my hometown.

I got on pretty well with Simon and found that despite his accent and appearance he was a bit of a lad – or a cad perhaps? He certainly wasn’t gay. He hadn’t been in the city for long and I think he was actually keen to find a partner in crime for prowling Jakarta’s nightlife. He told me he had stayed in the city before for a few months a year or so earlier, but most recently he had been working in Cambodia. Before that he had worked in China, Thailand and Japan. He didn’t go on too much about his job, but from what he had to say about his student days, the man liked a night on the town.

The time had flown pretty swiftly since I’d been speaking to Jeff and Simon, it was almost midnight and I fancied a beer. So did Simon. So I suggested that we all head over to La Biere in Central Park for a few drinks. Belgian Jeff seemed a little reluctant to join us, but he decided to come along anyway.

Maybe it was the free flowing nature of how two English people can talk with each other, but the Belgian was rendered little more than a mute onlooker for the rest of the night as Simon and I emptied bottle after bottle of Bali Hai and talked about home and abroad, our respective travelling experiences and perspectives on Jakarta since we’d been there.

Simon was turning out to be quite an amusing character. His mother was Scottish and his father was Egyptian, but he looked more Jewish or maybe even Mediterranean. He was most definitely a straight shooter and his main preoccupation seemed to be with Asian women. During his time working and travelling in Asia he had developed a preference for submissive, giggly, little Japanese and Chinese girls and considered himself quite the player. He remained a little vague about his job, but it seem that he spent his time selling finance and insurance packages to expats. He didn’t actually work directly for Bloomberg, but they were one of his company’s clients, although I got the impression that he had probably made more of the Bloomberg connection to Belgian Jeff when enquiring about his apartment.

Simon was basically a salesman, and like all salesmen he was cordially disarming with corrupt undertones. The more he drank the more of his insalubrious nature he revealed. With his quintessentially English accent and youthful looks, the man was very much the suited sheep in wolf’s clothing, and he was well aware of it. I imagine he was pretty good at his job though, as at a youthful 33, he had gone from managing his company’s office in Phnom Penh in Cambodia to setting one up in Jakarta.

Simon seemed to have been working for his boss for a long time and said that they were as much friends as colleague. Of the many nights out he told me he’d had in Cambodia and Asia, he had enjoyed many of them with the man he worked for. However, he said his boss was well into his 50’s and struggled to keep up with Simon’s excesses – excesses he was quite proud of. He told me it would be good for me to meet him and for us all to go out for some drinks when he came over to Jakarta. In fact, as I suspected, Simon was very keen for he and I to go and explore the nightlife of Jakarta. He’d done his research and was assured that there was indeed a great expat scene going on in the city. By now I knew exactly what he meant – easy Asian girls. If not easy, then cheap.

Simon was very much the fun seeking expat enjoying a libertine lifestyle in Asia, which brought with it the freedom of easy sexual dalliances that the western bar and club scene made much more challenging. He made no apologies for this, and had he not been so formally turned out he would have come across as sleazy. However, he was more entertaining and sociable than anyone I had met so far and I was looking forward to stepping out with him on a proper night out. Anything was better than the isolated boredom of Grogol and it’s noisy, unwelcoming mall bars.

It was midweek and the strip in Central Park finished at 2am. In the couple of hours we had been there Simon, Jeff and I had finished three buckets of bottled beer – fifteen in total. Simon and I had drank most of those as Jeff had become surprisingly mute after we’d arrived and stopped drinking after his second beer.

We grabbed the bill and Simon and I exchanged numbers. He keenly suggested that we get together for a few drinks the following night at a place called Loewy’s. There was a networking event that happened every Wednesday at the Marriott hotel where they had a free German food buffet. Simon said it was predominantly expats and a good place for him to solicit business (I imagined he solicited a lot more than business through the course of the night). Unfortunately it started at 6pm when I was still working. However, Wednesday night at Loewy’s was ladies night and he said it was always very busy and good fun and didn’t end until late. I had been starved of western, English speaking company so I agreed to meet him after I finished work.

15. Mediterania Downtime with Jeff, John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

*****

I’m no tennis player but I can serve the majority of balls in the right area, hit a return, get around a court with some purpose and just about look the part. Belgian Jeff could barely move. His open linen shirt clung to his sweaty torso and flapped around his man boobs as stickily as his feet moved around the green painted tarmac. Even during the tennis this peculiar man had the Beatles playing out of his Bluetooth speaker; I’m sure ‘Love, Love Me Do’ isn’t what inspires the players on the ATP tour, but it was fine for a pair of sub-standard amateurs who couldn’t maintain a rally longer than five shots. The hardest part for me was not laughing at Jeff.

After an hour we were relieved of our time on the court by some keen looking Indonesians who stretched and limbered up for what I expect was going to be a proper point scoring contest. Jeff and I gathered up the wayward balls and the rest of our things and he generously invited me up to his apartment to use his shower.

After I had showered Jeff offered me a drink. He had no beers but he did have English tea with milk, which I happily accepted. There isn’t much hot English tea on offer in Jakarta and I hadn’t tasted a good brew since we’d left the Surdiman school where the out-going DoS, Nick, had ensured there was a regular supply of Liptons.

Jeff seemed like a man who was desperate for some Western company. Despite attesting to “living the dream” in Jakarta as he’d put it, he struck me as a retiree who hadn’t quite reached the heights of his expectations and I don’t think his expat retirement “dream” had quite materialised as he’d envisioned. He seemed like a nice enough guy though – he was friendly, easy going and his eccentricities didn’t irritate too much, although the ongoing soundtrack of the Beatles was starting to grate a little. The sounds of John, Paul, George and Ringo played through his little Bluetooth speaker for the entire time I was in his apartment. It was like an offbeat soundtrack to his narrative about how he had ended up in Jakarta. He told me he had run a record shop and had enjoyed his job, but was forced to sell up after the online music revolution killed off the high street industry. He had met his wife Evi whilst on holiday in Bali and they had been together for six years, four of which they had been married. Their daughter was also four years old, which I perhaps cynically assumed explained their marriage. I suppose Jeff was the stereotypical Bule ‘catch’ for someone like Evi. Untypical however was the fact that the four properties they rented out around Indonesia were all in her name.

A foreigner can’t own more than 49% of any asset in Indonesia. The controlling share of 51%  or more must be owned by an Indonesian national. I understand that this safeguards developing countries from the type of foreign exploitation that has plagued them in the past. It would have surprised me that a man of Jeff’s years and experience in business would settle for such an arrangement, but in the little time I had know this peculiar fellow, he seemed unbelievably blasé and naïve. Perhaps this was down to his easygoing nature, but the fact that he had other properties to live in yet chose to share a small apartment with his family and a short-term letting tenant that he knew nothing about indicated that he was either incredibly stupid, incredibly trusting or incredibly desperate for money.

Jeff had told me his lodger Simon worked for Bloomberg and was paying $1000 a month for the room. He also said the reason he and his wife hadn’t moved into the other place they had was because until recently they’d had guests from Holland who were staying there. However, I’d come to the conclusion that a lot of what Jeff said was bullshit. This didn’t bother me too much though, I was just hoping that my apartment saga was over. He seemed harmless enough and I imagined he would be an amenable landlord. So as I nodded and smiled and ‘umm’-ed and ‘ahh’-ed and ambled along with the conversation, half an hour quickly passed before his lodger came through the door.

14. Moving Options

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

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The first day of my working week in my new job had been an easy one. The second day was easier still. The normal hours for adult language classes are between 1pm and 9pm, but I didn’t need to start until 2pm and I was timetabled to finish by around 7pm. However, restless sleep, a 4am call to prayer and noisy neighbours at 8am meant that I had another early, crude, awakening. A swim would help, I thought.

After my dip in the pool, which lasted all of about thirty minutes, (ten of those minutes were spent puffing and panting as I sat and dried off in the morning sun) I had another couple of hours to kill. EF were no longer paying for my taxis so I decided this would be a good time to familiarise myself with the Transjakarta Busway system. With a good few hours before I was due to start at the school, I figured I had enough time to risk getting lost. The worse case scenario if I did get lost and found myself in some part of the city I wasn’t supposed to be in, was that I could get a taxi to take me back.

I had printed off a Google map of the area where I was living and noticed that there was a busway stop just a few hundred metres from my aparthotel complex near a place called Indosiar (pronounced In-dos-i-ar). I had downloaded a Transjakarta Busway app and just about managed to work out that I could get to Central Park within a few stops with a single changeover at a place called Grogol Stasiun. It was still only a little after nine so I had almost five hours to don my shorts and a t-shirt, get to Mallville, have some breakfast, get back to my apartment and change into appropriate, formal, teaching clothes and still have time to go back to the school. But the best laid plans of mice and men get lost in the random irregularity and sticky heat of Jakarta.

Despite the Google map showing the Indosiar stop to be just a few hundred feet from my apartment, Jakarta decided otherwise. My sense of direction isn’t the greatest – it is, in fact, totally shit – but according to Google Maps I was definitely going in the right direction when I headed out to look for this nearby bus stop. The map definitely positioned it near the Ibis hotel on the other side of Jalan Daan Mogot, which placed it almost directly adjacent to Centro City Apartments.

After walking for half an hour in the searing heat, on treacherous paving, through thick exhaust fumes, I found myself on the other side of the highway overpass about five hundred yards away from where the bus stop should have been and there was still no sight of it. I was hot and bothered and I grumbled and growled under my breath as I cursed the damned city. Then I caught sight of some buses on the other side of the highway parked up in what looked like a coach service station. I knew the Bahasa for ‘I want’ (saya mau), so I crossed over and walked up to a group of men at one of the pumps and said in my worst Indonesian; “Saya mau Indosiar bus stop” They all laughed at me.

I don’t really know what the guys at the bus filling station said, but using the best of non-verbal communication, and the KFC, Ibis hotel and Centro City Apartments as landmarks, I realised that the they were telling me that I was going in the wrong direction and that I had to walk all the way back. So cursing and grumbling and stopping every few minutes to say to someone “Saya mau Indosiar”, after another half an hour of sweating my back out in the searing heat, walking across treacherous paving, through thick traffic and exhaust fumes, I found myself back where I had started. So for the last time I repeated my request – “Saya mau Indosiar” – to one of the random locals on the street and they pointed me in the totally opposite direction to where the stop was located on the Google map. ‘What the fuck is wrong with this city?!’ I thought.

The Transjakarta Busway network map

The Transjakarta Busway network map

It was now about half past ten and I was hot, sweaty, pissed off and hungry. I couldn’t decide whether to risk getting on the bus and getting lost and being on the wrong side of town and having to get a taxi back into the school whilst inappropriately dressed, or whether to head back to the apartment to get changed – wasting another half an hour whilst getting hungrier and hotter and more bothered. I still had a good three hours, but I didn’t know how long the bus would take, so I decided I should go back to my apartment, get a cold shower and cool off, then start again. I wouldn’t get to the mall for another hour, but then I could have some form of breakfast and kill whatever remaining time I had left using the internet in the school.

The sunny morning had been pretty much wasted searching for a bus stop. However, on the plus side, I now knew how to get to the school using the Transjakarta Busway. It turned out to be pretty straightforward and only took around thirty or forty minutes to get from apartment to classroom. That had been the hardest part of the day, the rest turned out to be mercifully easy going. The final part of our induction was simply familiarising ourselves with the office IT, sorting out logins and passwords for email and intranet, and getting the material prepared for our first weeks’ lessons. Aside from that, we were pretty much given a free day. The best news for me however, was finding out that I’d been gifted a long weekend. Because my allocated days off were Monday and Tuesday and I had worked those days in the first induction week, Debbi let me have the Sunday off at the end of the week to balance up the rota. This meant that I had three whole days. Three whole days was enough to get out of Jakarta and go somewhere in Indonesia that wasn’t shrouded in smog and polluted by traffic. This was an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss, but I didn’t have much time to plan. Plus, there was still the issue of sorting out my apartment.

It had been well over a week and Suki still hadn’t followed up any of her apartment leads, which was starting to piss me off, and I think she knew it. I understood that she was working a lot of hours, but I was also aware that she was living in rather lavish, expat comfort over in Kemang and perhaps wasn’t quite as motivated as I was to get things moving. Also, because she was working between the Surdiman school in central Jakarta and the Taman Anggrek school in the west of the city whilst living down in the south of the city, I didn’t have too many opportunities to liaise with her to get things sorted out. Although I had told her about Belgian Jeff’s place, she wanted to take a look for herself. So as our second day had finished early, I arranged for us to go over to see the apartment that evening.

Jeff himself wasn’t available to do the viewing, but his Indonesian wife Evi was. Whilst Evi was showing Suki around the apartment I got something to eat in one of the cheap restaurants in the ground level units of Mediterinia 1. About twenty minutes later Suki returned and she seemed relatively happy with what she had seen of the Belgian’s apartment. She had even managed to negotiate a settlement of 8,500,000 IDR per month for the rent with Evi, internet and bills included. This represented an improvement on the 9,000,000 that her husband had initially proposed. The monthly service charge was 400,000 and the deposit would be 5,000,000. We also had a few days to confirm, so my mind was now a lot more settled.

Later that evening Belgian Jeff called me to find out if I had made a decision about his apartment. I told him I would let him know by the weekend deadline Evi had given. He then invited me over for a game of tennis later that evening. ‘Why not’ I thought. If Mediterania Gardens was going to be my home for a couple of months then I guess I should sample some of the onsite amenities.

13. A Stuttering Start

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Mediterania 2 apts

Mediterania 2 Apartments Residence

On our first day of meeting at the FX Mall School in Surdiman, Suki had told me that she had found three or four pretty decent apartments in the Mediterania Gardens Residence apartment complex that were reasonably priced. There are three Mediterania blocks – Mediterania 1, Mediterania 2 and Royal Mediterania Gardens – and these are the main apartment units in the Podomoro complex in the area close to the two big malls in the Grogol district. There are also apartments in the Taman Anggrek mall complex and the Central Park buildings themselves, but these were out of my price range as EF did not pay the good expat wages that the international schools paid.

In Jakarta, international school teachers are paid something in the region of $2500 upwards a month, with an additional apartment allowance of around $1000. This converts to around 40,000,000 IDR a month, which is a pretty damn good wage in Jakarta. You can live very comfortably when you’re earning that kind of money. EF paid 13,500,000 IDR net tax (10%) with no apartment allowance. This is ok, but you can’t exactly spend indiscriminately, although with some budgeting you can live well enough. However, it meant sacrificing the grandeur of a home-from-home kind of apartment – with a maid – and regular nights out in the expat areas where your drinks will cost around the same as an average bar in the UK or US (around 100,000 IDR for a good spirit with a mixer, which is the equivalent of around $8 or £5). For all their talk of being the biggest language school company in the world, English First were pretty fucking mean with their teacher’s wages.

The Mediterania apartments were the best option for me if I wanted to be in within walking distance of my job in Taman Anggrek mall. I had seen enough of the traffic in Jakarta to know that I didn’t want to commute any distance to work, I just couldn’t afford taking a taxi to work every day. Also, the Mediterania apartments were at the heart of Mallville, so there were a couple of bars nearby and plenty of easily accessible amenities. However, there weren’t many apartment owners that would let you pay rent on a monthly basis, so I was keen to get something sorted out sooner rather than later. I was pretty happy with Belgian Jeff’s place, but he had already started pestering me with text messages giving me deadlines to make a decision. Ideally I would have preferred to spend a little less than 4,000,000 IDR on an apartment due to my paltry salary, but I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of having an option to fall back on if the places Suki had found didn’t materialise.

I had already asked Suki a few times about the accommodation leads she told me she had gathered, but she kept on saying that she hadn’t followed them up, which kind of bothered me. I wanted out of The Grand Prix Inn, but I wanted to know I had something in place rather than leaving it to the last minute and worrying. Despite assuring me that there was plenty of time, I wasn’t so certain. I just didn’t feel too much confidence in relying on good fortune in Jakarta. I had worked overseas 15 years earlier in Cyprus and from the moment I arrived on that island everything seemed to fall into place. I got a job working the villa program for a holiday company. They put me in a great apartment and gave me a car and a mobile phone. I made friends quickly and settled into the resort within days. In Cyprus everything felt right from the very start. Here, it all felt wrong. Things hadn’t been running smoothly from the moment I’d arrived and was greeted by a rainstorm.

Construction around Mediterania 1

Taman Anggrek apartments in the background as construction continues on the new SOHO development, the latest addition to the Podomoro complex block.

First of all there was the disappointment of my accommodation in Centro City Apartments. I’d had to deal with the blocked drain in my shower on day one, which, in fairness, was pretty straightforward; a maintenance man came up armed with a plunger, I gave him one of the wire clothes hangers to dig out the bits of hair and human waste that were blocking the drain and he soon had it fixed. However, I had been there for over a week and the water coming out of the shower was still cold and the TV still didn’t show anything but static.

The fat man with the vacant stare who sat at reception didn’t inspire confidence when challenged by a query. The slim and angelically sweet looking girl who worked the day shift was much easier on the eye, but was as equally unlikely to win you many points in a pub quiz. So I was hardly surprised when it took a couple of nights to get a maintenance man round to look at the TV. He spent around two hours adjusting the channels and making some soldering adjustments to the aerial cable, during which time I fell asleep. When I awoke I asked him how it was getting on and he told me that the TV couldn’t be fixed. It couldn’t be fixed because it wasn’t broken. According to him, the satellite dish was pointing the wrong way. However, this didn’t make sense as the neighbours’ TV woke me up every morning, and I assumed we shared the same dish. Plus, the building was by no means new, so whatever the TV was connected to, it had been there for some time. Surely the dish hadn’t always been pointing the wrong way? I relayed this idea to him in broken bits of English. I’m not sure how much he understood, but it was enough for him to adjusted his assessment and tell me that I actually needed a cable TV package. But, this didn’t make sense either, as the leaflet for Centro City Apartments stated that the rooms had satellite TV as well as hot water and wifi. So I enquired with the sleepy looking fat man who did the night shift at reception. That was when I found out that only the hotel residents of this aparthotel received those luxuries. The apartment residents only got The Static Channel and wifi access in the lobby; wifi access that required a new access password every day for each device and the need to cover yourself in mosquito repellent to fend off the hive of flying micro-vermin living in the rug by the armchairs and sofas.

Aside from being a waste of time and bloody annoying, the experience with the broken TV and shower made me think of what Claire had told me about the general lack of intelligence amongst the Indonesian people in Jakarta. I mean, why would the reception staff send a maintenance man up to repair a TV in an apartment room when they knew that none of the apartment rooms had cable TV? Irrespective of the questionable levels of common sense amongst the aparthotel staff, it wasn’t just the niggling little problems in my apartment that prevented me from settling in comfortably in this dirty, hot and sticky tropical city. Before leaving England, I had made careful plans and provisions to ensure all my outstanding matters at home were taken care of and I would have some money to come away with. However, there were still several things that hadn’t been settled before I left. I had some money owing to me from friends, but those friends had not been in touch. I was also relying on income coming in from renting my own place back home, but the tenant I had planned to move in had let me down at the last minute and I didn’t have a replacement as yet. I was also dealt a financial blow when I found out that my previous employer had gone into liquidation and I hadn’t received my last month’s wages. So literally nothing was going to plan, which made me feel very unsettled and a little bit anxious.

I had brought around a £1000 with me in cash and had some money in the bank. I calculated that I could survive a maximum of three months without finding a tenant to live in my place back home, but if I didn’t get a tenant by then, I would have to return or I would be left in dire financial straits. However, it was still early days and I was trying to stay positive about my situation. But unfortunately, there were only two positives that were working in my favour; Three Mobile, who were my English mobile phone service providers, had a feature called ‘At Home’ that allowed me to call and receive UK calls whilst in Indonesia without incurring excessive roaming charges. This was a massive bonus for keeping in touch. Even better still was my daughter, who was coordinating things for me on the home front. She was collecting my debts, forwarding important mail, coordinating with my letting agent and the workmen who were completing a couple of repairs in my property, and keeping me generally updated on all my unresolved matters. She was an immense help. But every spare minute of my free time since I had been in Jakarta had been spent calling back home and going down amongst the hive of mosquitoes in the lobby in the evening to use the internet to read and reply to emails so that I could get things settled back home as quickly as possible. With the time I was spending travelling to and from work and trying to get things fixed in my current temporary home, I hadn’t exactly been relaxing at the end of the day, because with the seven hour time difference, the evenings were the only time I could make calls back to the UK. So the uncertainty about my living situation was not helping. Neither were EF, who had so far not given any support other than offering to tie me into a 12 month contract for the accommodation they had secured at Mediterania 2.

All of the unsettling little issues I had at home and at my home abroad were at the forefront of my mind since I’d arrived and I wasn’t enjoying my initial experience of life in Jakarta. But I was determined not to let any of it get me down. I had only been here for a couple of weeks. I knew that once the letting agent had found me a tenant back home and I had found a permanent apartment to live in whilst I was here, my new normality would follow and I could start to assimilate with this new temporary life I had chosen.

12. The Learning Pyramid

Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.

Grand Prix in pool 1

Monday morning came around after what was becoming the usual restless night of broken sleep. I awoke, not so much bright, but early, so I decided to take advantage of the one luxury the Grand Prix Inn had to offer and went down to the pool for a swim; it felt like a Hollywood way to start the day. However, I hadn’t swum for a long time and my lungs wanted out pretty soon, so after a few lengths, I dried myself off and went back up to my room to get ready for school.

There’s nothing like an early morning swim to sharpen the senses, so after showering and dressing I was looking forward to my first classes and meeting my new students. The EF course material was already prepared in the form of Powerpoint lessons, so all I had to do was find out what my timetable of classes were and read through the teachers’ notes for each of the lessons. There were a few more short induction sessions to do on the Monday and Tuesday so I could ease into the teaching rota before my teaching timetable began in earnest on the Wednesday. After that, my new life as a full time teacher working for English First in Jakarta would be underway. However, Debbi had a little surprise waiting for me when I arrived at the school. She told me that she wanted me to prepare and deliver my own short lesson on business idioms. This I wasn’t prepared for and I only had an hour to put it together!

Necessity is the mother of invention and I had needed a lot of invention during my many years working to deadlines as a freelancer. Despite being a little pissed off at Debbi’s surprise lesson plan request, Google came to the rescue. I whizzed through a few websites, copied and pasted some text and images, did some editing and rustled up a pretty decent Powerpoint presentation on the subject of business idioms. I scribbled a page of teaching notes and just about had time to load my Powerpoint presentation up onto the big screen in the workshop classroom before the students began eagerly arriving to the lesson.

Good language teaching is very much like good directing, you should really try and get the learners to do the talking and elicit as much of their knowledge as you can. You then drip feed your knowledge and the target language at strategically appropriate times, aiding the learning process and steering them in the right direction when necessary. You’re often giving students strategies for learning as much as just telling them new things. So yes, you give them new information, but the process of teaching them to learn encourages students to solve problems, which in turn embeds this new information – knowledge. How the students then effectively use the knowledge is often the process of recalling the taught information. In language teaching, as is the case with all forms of teaching, different strategies are used to help embed this new knowledge. How easily accessible it is to recall at a later date depends on how effectively it is embedded – or taught. There’s a diagram called ‘The Learning Pyramid’ that explains this principle in terms of ‘passive’ and ‘active’ learning. So for example, simple lecturing is the least effective form of embedding knowledge (5% retention) followed by reading (10%), audio-visual (20%) and demonstration (30%). These are the passive forms of learning. Active learning is more a participatory teaching method and yields much better retention percentages. For example, the learning pyramid suggests that group discussions lead to 50% retention, followed by practice by doing, which is supposed to have a 75% retention rate. Finally there’s teaching others, which is right up there at the top (or bottom by virtue of the learning pyramid design) with a 90% retention rate. These figures are all highly generalised and this principle is merely one of many educational theories that are dependent on many other factors relating to the individual learner. But anyway, I’ve already drifted too far away from my narrative thread; my point is that I was quite pleased at how quickly I managed to put an effective short lesson together at such short notice, and after delivering it, my confidence was buoyed significantly.

Learning-Pyramid

Despite all my talk about the learning pyramid and retention rates of information, I am useless at remembering names; worse than useless, I’m practically impotent. Alzheimer sufferers would put me to shame at name recall. I’ve tried that thing where you repeat the name three times in your head, but it usually doesn’t work. Within seconds of the sound of that final syllable leaving a person’s lips, the name they’ve given me is usually lost in the vacant void of recall deficiency in my brain. But I’m working on it and it’s getting better. So to recall names, I try a combination of methods, including the repeating method, only I repeat the name over and over and over. I also try and remember the name as an audio rhythm and attach the sound of the name to something else that I’m familiar with. Relating the name to a feature of the person – where you met, how they look, what they wear etcetera, also helps. For example, Valeria from Bulgaria, Hairy Mary, or Masharaf with the head scarf. All of these things are helping to cure my mental affliction, but I’m still pretty shit when it comes to remembering names. So I didn’t remember any of the names of my first group of students, except for Suli, and I only remembered her name because she had the craziest of crazy paving teeth, but the most enthusiastic smile.

After I had delivered my first lesson for EF, I joined the rest of the staff for a group induction session on how to use the interactive Smartboards. These are the big white screens that have replaced whiteboards in modern classrooms. You link these large monitors to your computer and and they have a touch screen, which you can also draw and make notes on as well as modify your files. The generic name is an interactive whiteboard (IWB), but like Sellotape and Hoover, Smartboard is the main brand that makes these classroom accessories, so they generally get called Smartboards. That said, in my experience, Smartboards are a bit of a gimmic and a pain in the arse, so I avoid using them too much. However, I didn’t really know how to use them to their full advantage and this session turned out to be pretty good. It was delivered by Andy, the outgoing DoS from the Surdiman school in FX Mall, who happened to be a bit of a whizz on a Smartboard. His presentation, although pretty lengthy, gave a very useful and constructive overview of all the wonderfully visual and engaging things you can do with these glorified whiteboards. He actually managed to put the ‘smart’ back into the Smartboard and I learnt a lot of new stuff about how to utilise the various animated graphic features they have. However, the problem with Smartboards – or any of the other new technological school tools – is that teachers need time to practice using them in order to create good lesson material. Teachers just don’t get that extra time. So, after the Smartboard session Suki, Debbi, Kate and I were given an hour to play around with the boards and create a few things of our own using our new found knowledge. Unfortunately, we didn’t get very far. It seemed that most of what we had just been told in the preceding hour long lecture had already pretty much been forgotten – thus proving the 5% rule of the learning pyramid with regard to passive learning by lecture.