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).

26: Satay Supper and a Good Night’s Sleep

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


Before going back to my room I stopped at the reception to confirm that my driver was booked for the following day’s sightseeing tour to Borobodur and the Dieng plateau. Santi wasn’t there, but she had left a note for me to say that the driver was coming to collect me at eight in the morning, which meant I had to probably be up before seven to get ready and have breakfast.

It had already been a long day so I needed an early night if I was going to be up early the next day. I was going to eat in the hotel restaurant, but despite its Javanese charm and tranquillity, it was totally empty. If I was going to eat alone I at least wanted the cultural, social osmosis of dining amongst some other people. It was Saturday night and it seemed like a youthful kind of place, it wouldn’t be too hard to find a café serving some nasi goreng, beer or even a burger.

The pavements around Yogyakarta weren’t that much better than the pavements in Jakarta; stone slabs and rocks roughly slapped together with cement and concrete. The roads crookedly clashed with the ad hoc pathways and kerbs, forcing any attempt at strolling into a stumbling negotiation of trip hazards. I walked around the block to find something resembling a vibrant hubbub of Saturday evening eating and drinking, but there wasn’t much more than random small groups of people lazily passing time in small, grimy looking cafes that looked like they were closing for the night. I walked for over half an hour, but despite the ceaseless traffic and the screeching, ripsaw, noise of mopeds, the town was totally dead. Nevertheless, I was still hungry.

It was after eleven by this time and the only places that seemed to be still serving food were the grimy, little tarpauline covered warungs on the main road. Their charcoal burners seemed to go on into the night, serving fish, chicken satay, goat, beef, rice and noodles. So, feeling a little weak and weary, I took a seat at one of the wooden trestle tables in one of these warungs. As I sat down on the dirty little plastic stool, I stared at the grimy, laminated menu and tried to decipher what it said. But all my energy left me. I rested my elbows on the plastic tablecloth hopelessly staring at the words on the card as the man approached. He smiled at me, clicked and clacked something in Indonesian, to which I could only reply, ‘No Bahasa’. I was too tired to try and attempt any kind of paraphysical communication and just pointed at the food he had cooking on his fire. ‘Ayam?’ I asked. He nodded and smiled, I nodded and smiled; he then said something that I assumed meant drink and I nodded again and said ‘Fanta’. He scribbled on his pad and came back five minutes later with half a dozen hot, little, chicken skewers with satay sauce and a plate of steaming white rice. The Fanta followed.

It didn’t take long for me to finish my food. I’m not a huge fan of satay sauce, but when I’m hungry my palate doesn’t discriminate and I thoroughly enjoyed my late night street dinner.

It was almost midnight as I made my way back to the hotel. As I negotiated the pavement in the dark, I saw a man asleep in a baja. These things don’t look too comfortable to ride in as a customer, but this poor guy – barefoot, his legs dangling over the side of this tiny three-wheeled, motorised contraption, with his arms crossed across his chest – was sleeping like an overgrown babe in the arms of his crooked, shabby, little taxi. Nothing but the sky between him and the gods; I felt for him. I really did. I felt for him and I felt blessed to be spending the night under a roof in a bed that felt like the palm of Buddah’s hand. Waking up to the sound of trickling water and a buffet breakfast. I should really be more grateful for what I’ve got and stop complaining, I thought. I then turned the corner and realised I was about another ten minutes away from the hotel. Shit. Why had I walked so bloody far?

25: The Prambanan Temple

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

Prambanan 1

Santi told me the taxi would only be about 50,000 to Prambanan, but the driver decided that he wasn’t going to use his meter and wanted 100,000 for the fare. He was a big, fat, wide-eyed, swarthy looking man who looked like a dieting Jabba the Hut with hair. He had long, dirty fingernails, the longest being on his pinkie, which was fashioned with a cheap metal ring with a big blue oval stone in it. This long dirty fingernail and big nasty ring thing seemed pretty popular amongst some of the mainly older men in Jakarta. I think it’s just an Indo-ring-thing – to each their own I guess – but I just didn’t like the driver. He was by far the most aggressive Indonesian I had encountered. He didn’t speak any English and he was being a dick, so I got out of his car, which he didn’t like. I walked up to the porter to ask him to get me another driver when a young French couple, who had just checked in to the hotel, came walking out. The porter said that they also wanted to go to Prambanan, so we agreed that we would share the taxi.

In the taxi on the way to Prambanan, Alex, Delphine and I introduced ourselves to each other. They came from Paris where Delphine had just completed university and Alex worked in some kind of marketing job. Jogja was the beginning of a three-week Asian tour, the last such holiday they would have an opportunity to have together before both of them started working full time. They had arrived in Jakarta the night before, but upon advice had wisely decided that they didn’t want to spend any of their limited time there, so they had immediately got a flight out to Jogja. They were only staying for a couple of days before they moved on to Cambodia and then Vietnam. They were both in their mid-twenties and weren’t exactly a complementary physical match; Alex was a very slight, almost effete, man, whilst Delphine, who was by no means fat, had a quite robust build. However, physicality aside, they complemented each other and seemed a really nice couple. They also spoke good enough English for easy conversation.

The journey from the hotel to Prambanan only took about half an hour. There wasn’t much to see en route, apart from one strange interlude when we we saw a bizarre sight in the middle of the road. There was a group of very badly dressed transvestites – or transsexuals, there was no way of telling, although it was pretty obvious they were all men – wearing garish make up, colourful dresses, short skirts and high heels and they were just… there; in the island in the middle of the road, walking amongst the cars and drivers, pouting and blowing kisses. If I had have been in Thailand or Brazil it would have seemed normal, but in Indonesia it was a very peculiar sight.

Soon afterwards we arrived at the Prambanan site. The taxi meter read 49835 when we arrived. I got 60000 off Delphine and Alex and reluctantly gave the fat driver a 100000 bill. We stepped out of the car into searing heat and headed toward the ticket office for the temple and I suddenly felt a little awkward as I thought to myself, ‘wait a minute; I’m gate crashing this couple’s Prambanan experience.’ I don’t like feeling awkward so I said, “If you guys want to go off and do your own thing, that’s fine. Just tell me.”

“No, it’s no problem.” Alex said in a typically Gallic laissez-faire manner. So we paid for our entrance tickets and were handed white, finely print patterned sarongs to wrap around our waists before we entered the grounds. I didn’t know the significance of the sarong, but I assumed the covering up was a sign of respect for the religious site.

As we walked through the spacious, surrounding grounds, I become aware of gentle Javanese music being piped through speakers that were dotted around the area. It was very calming and helped to put me in the reverential mood needed for appreciating a visit to an ancient historical temple. But as we continued to walk through the grounds, across the arid, sun-scorched grass, we came across an outdoor performance that was taking place that wasn’t quite so calm and tranquil. There was an audience of about thirty people scattered around the area watching this performance, which was a bit odd to say the least.


There were a group of young musicians with Javanese instruments who were positioned at the steps under a small pagoda. They were playing some perky, upbeat, traditional music whilst an Indonesian woman sauntered around the area in front of them, singing along in a lazy, whining, karaoke voice. I couldn’t tell you what the narrative thread of the show was exactly, but there were about ten performers or so, some dressed in bright coloured, satin, calf-length leggings with black and white chequered sarongs wrapped around their waists. The others looked as if they were wearing what they came out in. Some of these performers were dancing around erratically to the eclectically rhythmic, Javanese drum and pan beats being played by the musicians on the pagoda. Others were writhing around in the grass, clowning around and just generally acting a little bit crazy. Some characters appeared to be beating others, whilst there were another group of performers crawling around on all fours with crazed, intense, looks on their faces, sweating in the sun and stalking, wide-eyed, amongst the audience; they looked liked they had just come out of an all night hardcore rave from 1992. There was some guy ripping up grass and chewing on it, someone else was being chased by a man with a stick; all the while the singer smiled as she swayed and swung her hips lazily. It appeared like she was conducting the crazies surrounding her, all of who seemed to be improvising some kind of representation of madness and oppression. It really was a bit intense and none of us really had a clue what it was all about. So we watched for a while, until the bafflement got boring, then we headed toward the main temple.

Prambanan 2

Prambanan is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built around the 9th century and is the largest of the many Hindu temples in Indonesia. There are hundreds of shrines surrounding the main temple structures, which rise up at least 100ft into the sky. These bullet shaped monuments to the Hindu gods, with their spectacular masonry and artistic reliefs, are an impressive sight and a popular tourist attraction.

It was a busy day and dozens of people were walking amongst the huge monuments taking pictures. Camera’s snapped everywhere and almost all of the tourists, mostly Asian and many in Muslim dress, were armed with long selfie sticks, striking pose after pose in a tourist frenzy of image capturing in the heat of the afternoon sun. Bodies streamed up and down the high steps that led in and out of the big temples, stopping and posing and shooting and smiling, gathering as many visual mementos of the day as they could. I had left the Parisian couple to share their time together whilst I wandered around and took some photos of my own.

Prambanan 3Parambanan 4P1010019 P1010038 P1010042 P1010044 P1010028

A relief in the shade.

A relief in the shade.

It’s hard to get the feel of an ancient monument without a guide. The sculptured images on the stones at Prambanan, whilst very impressive in their sheer number and intricacy, don’t really have much meaning without an expert’s commentary and after a while it all starts to look much the same to me. It was fiercly hot in the midday sun and apart from a single parasol shaped tree with a bench beneath it, there was nowhere to outside to get relief from the burning rays. So after about half an hour, having taken my fair share of photos, I wanted to go and get a cold beer and sit in the shade. I found Delphine and Alex, who were also a little exhausted from the heat. I took a few photos of them as a couple and they took a few photos of me before we wandered out of the main temple grounds to see what else there was to see.

Within the grounds of Prambanan we found an interesting museum housed in in a garden with a couple of small pagodas. The garden was filled with a display of stone figures that had been excavated from the site. Many of these were statues of the Hindu God Ganesh, a multi-armed man with an elephant’s head. Inside the museum it was dark but cool. There were exhibits with accompanying text on display explaining the excavation history and the significance of the site and its artefacts, but it was mainly in Bahasa. However, I think for most tourists, sites like Prambanan are more of a visual fix than of academic interest, and in both respects Prambanan is satisfying. But being hot and thirsty, the main thing on my mind at that point was ‘cold drink – preferably beer’, so we left the museum to find refreshment.

Outside I couldn’t resist dipping my hot feet in the water of a shallow little moat that bordered one of the pagodas. I sat for a while whilst the fish nibbled at the dead skin on my feet. A fish foot massage is an odd sensation, but quite relaxing. However, it’s not quite so comfortable when some of the fish are big enough to get a whole toe in their mouth – Alex and Delphine certainly weren’t tempted.

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On our way out of Prambanan we stopped to look at some tired looking deer that were in a large fenced enclosure. Whether there was any significance of a little animal farm to the rest of the temple site is unlikely, but the young children seem to like them.

We finally exited through the gift market, but I never got my beer. Instead I got a big coconut filled with fresh juice that was just as good. So I hydrated myself on the warm juice as we wandered into the car park to find a taxi to get back to our hotel, but there were none. So I suggested that we walk out to the main road. “There’s always loads of taxis on the road in Jakarta”, I told them. “We’ll be able to flag one down on the road”, I said.

The Parisian couple were going to head into Yogyakarta centre to eat and invited me to come along. I couldn’t tell whether they were just being polite, but I was hungry so I agreed. The only problem was that we couldn’t find a taxi and I now I felt a bit stupid. Everywhere you look in Jakarta there are taxis waiting to be hailed, but there seemed precious few outside Prambanan. So after spending quarter of an hour or so without any luck, we walked back to the site’s car park. However, the only transport there was a man in a two-seater mini chariot that was like a large becak, only it was motorised. The vehicle was clearly designed for couples, so I told Alex and Delphine to take it and I said would maybe see them back at the hotel.

I ended up waiting for almost another hour to get a taxi. I myself had no luck getting one of the rare taxis that passed to stop, and I had no call credit on my phone, so I couldn’t call the hotel to ask for a taxi number. Even if I did I wouldn’t have been able to speak to them in Bahasa, so I ended up asking a policeman for help. There was a ‘Polisi’ hut on the corner at the junction of the main road, so I sat inside in the shade whilst one of the officers kindly hailed down a taxi for me. I was relieved and gateful because by the time I got back to my hotel it was already dark.

24: A Breath of Fresh Air

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

Borobodur view

Arriving in Jogja I didn’t really know what to expect. Jakarta had been a disappointment so far. I’d only been there for two weeks and I already felt like my holiday was much needed – just to get some fresh air into my lungs at least. When I had done some cursory research on the internet to find out a little bit about Jakarta before arriving, the pictures I’d seen online had presented images of a place that looked so vibrant and modern, and Indonesia was a country that seemed to have such natural beauty. I just couldn’t understand how it could have as its capital such a polluted violation of a city. Could it be possible that Jogja, which is the location of the old Javanese capital of Yoyakarta, was going to be the same? I hoped it wasn’t.

The journey to Soekarno-Hatta airport was only about forty minutes in the early morning pre-rush hour traffic. Being that close to the global escape route from the city was probably the only benefit of living in the Grand Prix Inn. However, I’d left at around 7.30am and overshot my timing so I found myself with over two hours to kill in an airport that didn’t have a bar. So I smoked my last rapid burning Marlborough Light and logged on to the airport wifi to see what the Facebook family were up to. I logged in my airport location (because that kind of thing is cool on Facebook right?) and I immediately got a ‘Like’ off Josie, a good friend from back home. It was Saturday and quite late back in England – around one in the morning – but Josie has her own hairdressing salon in Affleck’s Palace shopping arcade in Manchester and her working week would have been done. She’s a massive Man United fan so she would have watched Match of the Day and been pretty happy with City and Arsenal battling it out for a draw. She would have been engaged in online footy banter no doubt, trying to wind up the blue half of the city, who’s team were the current Champions whilst her once mighty reds had failed to even make the Champion’s League places the previous season. She asked how things were going and I asked what was happening back home. There wasn’t much to report of note from either side. My first couple of weeks in Jakarta had been an inglorious and disappointing adventure so far, but I didn’t really want to moan and be negative. Being in an airport heading out to another city in this new part of the world I now resided was exciting enough for friends back home so I left it at that. As for Manchester, well when you’ve lived in a place all your life, anything that would constitute exciting news seldom happens in two weeks. Actually, never mind two weeks, two years can be just as uneventful. That was a large part of the reason I had moved to the other side of the world. I needed a change; to reignite my life and the apathy that had set in after several uneventful false re-starts. But that in itself is another story for another time perhaps. So, after our brief cyber contact, Josie wished me well, told me to be careful and I signed off before proceeding to check in.

Seokarna-Hatta may be an international airport and the main sky route out of Indonesia’s capital city, but it’s a little bit shit as main airports go. It has three terminals and is quite big, but shopping is limited. Food and drink options at each terminal don’t exactly spoil you with choice, and it has that embarrassing feature that you sometimes find in the little airports in the less significant countries in the world; airport tax. I’m not too sure what ‘airport tax’ really is, but I think at most of the world’s major international airports it’s something that is absorbed in the price of your flight ticket. However, at S-H it’s an added extra you have to cough up to escape through to the departure gates.

A domestic flight from Jakarta to Jogja incurs a tax of 45,000 IDR on the way there and 35,000 when you come back. Once through the departure gates you can maybe get a cold drink from a vending machine or buy a dry Indonesian snack to nibble on, but in all honesty, there is nothing to do but wait. So I decided I’d wait with a soundtrack. I had a wifi signal on my phone so I connected up the earphones and checked out what was happening on Soundcloud.

My Soundcloud stream fed me some good tunes to kill the dead airport time and I made myself quite comfortable, bobbing away to the house beat popping against my eardrums. I was listening to a gorgeous deep, afro-house offering from Afe Ikuku called Cobra (courtesy of Martin Iveson at Atjazz Records) as I watched a group of Indonesian men sat on the bench in front of me. There were four of them aged somewhere between their forties and fifties and they were surrounded by packages and hand luggage. They were all dressed pretty conservatively in batik patterned shirts, trousers and casual shoes except for one; a funny looking skinny fella who appeared to be mute. He was maybe in his late thirties or early forties and wore a jacket, sandals, a baseball cap and a pair of massively flared denim shorts. However, what was most unusual was his apparent role as masseur amongst the group.


The two eldest men in the group, who were probably around fifty, took it in turns to receive massage treatment from the mute man, who in contrast to his relaxed companions, had a darting, sprightliness about him. He fired animated sign language signals intermittently at them in between his conscientious hand, shoulder, arm and calf kneading duties. It was an odd little spectacle, but he must have known his stuff because the older guys were twitching and flinching, there eyes rolling as they sighed in pleasure – I was jealous. I was pretty tired and could have done with a good shoulder rub.

I had a fair amount of time to pass and I really just wanted relax and listen to some tunes until the gate opened, but the wifi signal in the airport started buffering and interrupting my Soundcloud stream. This was really annoying as there was some really good music in my feed and the suddenly sketchy wifi signal was just messing with my relaxation and I still had over an hour to kill. ‘Fuck it’, I thought and decided to play something straight from the phone instead, only I got distracted by a little kid and made a big mistake that meant I wasn’t getting any more relaxation that morning.

This lively little kid that was playing around the bench near me was only about five or six. His front teeth looked as if they had been disintegrated by pacifying, sugary treats. But he was a cute little lad, so when I caught his eye I started playing peek-a-boo with him. But then he wouldn’t leave me alone. I only meant to have a quick giggle with the kid before setting my playlist and relaxing back into my chair for another hour. But no, now he just wanted to play. I should have really known better. I tried to ignore him but it was too late. He started slapping the back of my head and tugging at the epaulette on my shirt, but I was just too tired to continue with his games. His mum told him off, but it didn’t work. Those front teeth told a story of failed discipline and saccharine bribes – this sugar fuelled little shit wasn’t going to stop until I gave him a sneaky pinch and made him cry. But then, just like a flash of thunder in a storm cloud that stops as suddenly as it starts without the explosive energy of thunder and lightning that should follow, I got lucky. He pulled a long, loose thread of material off my shirt and suddenly burst into jubilant fits of laughter! He started dancing around the airport with this wispy little piece of cotton thread as if it was the best kite in the world. So I took my opportunity and escaped out of his view to the area in the lounge where the boarding gates were, leaving the crazy little fella to his sugary high and simple pleasure.

I had read somewhere that Lion Air is one of the most accident-prone airlines in the world. Only as recently as 2013 one of their pilots overshot an airstrip on landing and ended up in the sea. I confess, I flinched once or twice during the short hour-long trip over to Adisujipto airport in Jogja and when we landed safely I was genuinely relieved.

I was met at the arrivals gate by the hotel transfer driver, whose name I just couldn’t pronounce and unsurprisingly didn’t retain. His English was more or less nonexistent, but I managed to get him to take me to a moneychanger and a place to eat before we checked into the Puri Artha hotel in the Jogja capital of Yogyakarta.

The first thing I noticed about Yogyakarta was that it had far less traffic than Jakarta, but it still had enough. However, here it seemed like the moped was king – there were scores of them – teams of them – buzzing around everywhere. Young and old, families and friends – everyone was on a moped. There was even a large open fast food chain that had a massive banner advertising its moped parking along with its cheap food. The other noticeable thing about Jogja’s capital city was that there wasn’t as much garbage strewn around the place. It was like a proper island town with none of the skyscrapers that bullied the landscape of the main districts in Jakarta. There were also fewer taxis and there wasn’t a bar in sight.

We soon arrived at the The Puri Artha Hotel, a lovely little small hotel decorated in a combination of Javanese and Balinese styling. Although not in the centre of Yogyakarta it’s located on a busy little street that has a lot of independent little urban fashion boutiques, which was a refreshing change from the corporate monotony of commercial labels that fill the big malls in Jakarta. There seemed to be as many of these youthful little fashion shops as food and drink stops.

Puri Artha entrance

The Puri Artha Hotel is split between two buildings on opposite sides of the road and has its own traffic controllers who ensure you cross safely. The driver pulled up at the front as I stepped out with my single piece of hand luggage and was directed into the small lobby where there was an attractive young Indonesian woman behind the reception desk. She spoke good English but bore the professionally serious countenance of someone who seldom deviates from protocol. She greeted me with a detached “Welcome Sir” as I sucked on one of the tiny little hard-boiled sweets I’d taken from the small glass bowl on the reception desk.

“Hello”, I replied, as I handed her my reservation. She then set about checking me in with a casual efficiency.

“Can I take your passport Sir”, she asked.

“Only if I can have it back”, I joked. There was no response from the young woman, just an impassive, professional smile.

I dug my passport from my holdall and as the woman went about dealing with my reservation and preparing my room card, I took a look around the lobby area, admiring it’s ornately carved ethnic styled furniture and complete gamelan feature. I liked it. It was calming. It was the first time I actually felt like I was in Indonesia.

“Room 254 Sir”, she said as she handed me my key card.

Inside, my room was all dark wood, modern-but-classic styled furniture and twin beds. ‘Oh dear, here we go again’ I thought. So I explained to the porter that I had requested a large double bed, something that should have been pretty evident from my reservation as a single traveller.

“Sorry Sir”, he said, “I go ask at reception.” He then rushed off with the card key as I waited in the room hoping that this would not turn into an irredeemable problem that would piss me off before I’d even got started on my weekend break. Fortunately it didn’t. A few minutes later and the porter returned with a key card for the room next door, which did have a large double bed. This was a relief. The last thing I wanted was to start my first Indonesian holiday with contention.

The second room was much the same as the first, except with a double bed. There were all the necessary amenities that you would expect at any decent hotel including disposable slippers. It was a little old, yes, but it was spotlessly clean, the water was hot, the air conditioning worked, the TV had the HBO channel and the bed – a big double bed – felt like the palm of Buddha’s hand. The room also had a bath. I hadn’t had a deep, hot bath since leaving home so that was something I looked forward to enjoying. At around £30 quid a night, it wasn’t bad.

After I unloaded my stuff I took a little wander around the grounds of the hotel. All the rooms were ground level, bungalow styled residences with a small veranda at the front with table and chairs. One side of the hotel had a small pool with an ornate, ethnically styled water feature at one end. The side where my room was is where the restaurant and spa were located.

The grounds of both sides of the hotel were beautifully decorated with neatly preened gardens complete with Javanese ornaments, statues and ponds crossed by the cutest little ornate bridges and filled with small Koi and large catfish. As you walk through the gardens, the gentle, calming trickle of the ponds’ water features make you feel so relaxed, you just want to kick back with an iced tea and fall asleep. But I only had a couple of days and I had to arrange some sightseeing since I was unable to book them when I booked the room and flight.

Puri Artha Gardens

Puri Artha gardens. An oasis of tranquility.

Puri Artha gardens. An oasis of tranquility.

There were a group of middle aged and elderly Germans at the desk when I went to the reception to ask about doing some sightseeing. They were checking out and waiting for a taxi to take them and their backpacks to their next cultural excursion in Indonesia. I didn’t have to wait long for them to settle their bill so that I could speak to Santi, the young woman at the reception with the professional smile.

Santi spoke good English so it wasn’t difficult to communicate; “Hi”, I said with my most charming smile – I hoped that if I could develop a cordial rapport I might be able to broker a better deal on my excursion package. At the very least I hoped that it might help me avoid being ripped off as a clueless, Bule with too much holiday money to spend. “I’m only here for a couple of days and I wanted to see the, erm… Baramban and Poropudan…?

“Borobudur and Prambanan”, she said, correcting me.

“Yes, the temples. How far away are they?” I asked.

“Well Prambanan is only about one hour away in a taxi Sir. Borobudur is maybe two hours or more”, she told me. It was still very early in the afternoon so I asked her whether it was possible to see either one of these landmarks that day – or possibly even both. She told me that they are in opposite directions, and whilst I could take a taxi from the hotel and go and see Prambanan in good time, it would be too late to get to Borobudur.

“You can hire a driver for tomorrow and see both temples in one day. If you want I can arrange a driver for you?” she suggested.

“How much is a driver for the day?” I asked and she told me it would cost around 750,000 for the day. I thought that seemed like a fair price and a decent plan, but it seemed a waste of one of my days. I had the whole of my arrival day to go to Prambanan and I could do it in a taxi. There must be other sightseeing to be had in Jogja, so I asked Santi what else I could do. She suggested I take a trip up to the top of Dieng-Plateau and take a look at the active volcanic craters (Kawah-Sikidang) and the surrounding sulphur mines. There was also the Yogyakarta Palace (Kraton) where the king of Jogja and his family live. It’s described as ‘A Living Museum of Javanese Culture’ on the YogYes.com guide site, but Santi didn’t really sell it.

The hotel had a decent wifi signal in the reception so I was having a look online for two-day tours that were on offer, and there were quite a few. There were tours that included cycle rides, trips around old villages where you can engage in some traditional arts and crafts (before being left in a market to get mithered by traders trying to sell you their wares not doubt). There was even a possibility to catch the sunset at Parangtritis beach or do a spot of white river rafting. However, I was well into the first of my two days and was too late for booking myself on any of these packaged tours. So after Santi patiently fielded all of my tour queries, it was decided I that I just didn’t have the time to be zigzagging from one side of the island to another to take in everything. I definitely wanted to see the Borobudur temple, so working around that, the plan was to go there first in the morning before taking the three hour drive up to the 2093 metre high Dieng Plateau to see the Merapi volcano craters, stopping off to see the sulphur filled ‘colour lake’ (Telaga-Warna) on the way. I would get a taxi over to see Prambanan that afternoon and get back in time for dinner. Sorted; I had my weekend planned, I just needed my driver for the following day.

“If you just wait a moment I can call our agent and find out for you”, she said as she reached behind the desk to find the number.

Santi spoke to somebody on the phone, but although I don’t speak Bahasa, it didn’t have the tone of someone speaking to a travel agency. It was more like someone speaking to a driver who they use for guests who want to book tours. After a short while she looked up from the phone and told me that it would cost 1,200,000 IDR for a driver for the day.

“One million two hundred!” I said, “This is the same price as the tour package. I may as well just go on a tour if I have to pay that much. You said 750,000 earlier.”

“Yes but the driver is more than this for the day Sir”, she said.

“Yes but surely the driver is cheaper than the tour guide”, I told her.

“Yes but with the driver you can stop where you want. You can take pictures without waiting for many people”, she replied.

“Okay, but one million two hundred!? Ask him what his best price is please”, I asked. So she spoke to the person on the end of the phone and eventually came back with a price of 950000 and a questioning look of ‘yes or no?’ I had no time to to make any other arrangements and I didn’t want to waste the little time I had quibbling over what was really only a few quid. I accepted the offer on the guarantee that my driver could speak English. I didn’t want to spend the whole day with someone that I couldn’t speak to. Santi assured me that the driver spoke English and told me that she would give me confirmation details when I returned.

With my trip booked for the next day, my weekend schedule of sightseeing in Jogja was underway. I decided not to waste any more time, so I returned to my room for a quick shower then came back to the reception and got the porter to hail a taxi to take me to Prambanan.

23: Enough Already!

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

FX School big window view

My view of Jakarta had been enlivened a little since I had arrived a couple of weeks ago. The city had been opened up and exposed some of itself. Amongst the slick suits and loud shirts there was also the inevitable dirty laundry; there was a little more in this wardrobe than headscarves, robes and work wear. However, there were still no surprises. I had found no magical doorway leading to a world of culture, wonder and excitement in Jakarta. Whilst it had been fun to let off some steam and it was interesting to get some exposure to the seedier side of the place, I still didn’t like this city. Being unsettled both here and at home didn’t really help my perspective on things, but the simple fact was I didn’t feel any connection to Jakarta yet. Despite only being here for a couple of weeks, I’d already started to hate the place.

My early conclusion was that Jakarta was a shithole of traffic, pollution, garbage and malls. Since then I’d had an opportunity to experience a little bit more of life here, but whatever charms this city had to offer I had either missed them, they were still as yet undiscovered or they were simply lost on me. I found everything about living here contrived and awkward, but mainly just frustrating.

The most frustrating thing about Jakarta is traffic congestion. This is one of the first things you read about when researching life in the city. It’s like New York and crime, Pattaya and prostitution, Lagos and fraud, Manchester and bad weather; a marque of infamous distinction that establishes a place’s unique character; a badge of dishonour that somehow becomes an accepted trademark. However, it isn’t just the stagnant traffic that prevents things from happening in Jakarta.

NOT rush hour.

NOT rush hour.

When you need to get somewhere fast in Jakarta it’s as if you’re time is struggling to move through the dense, thick, polluted atmosphere. Despite being one of the most populated cities in the world, everyone walks at a shuffle pace. This is particularly annoying when you’re in a hurry and you find yourself really tempted to punch people shuffling in front of you in the back of the head. I don’t think this slow shuffling is down to the heat either. Nobody walks anywhere here because a consistent level pavement that isn’t used as an ojek stand or vending site for traders is such a luxury. The better paid working population spend most of their time stuck in air-conditioned vehicles in traffic jams in between going to air-conditioned apartments, offices and huge malls. The lower paid locals who aren’t on mopeds, pack into the death traps that pass as local buses. No, it’s as if there’s an invisible cord binding people’s upper thighs together and preventing steps from being any longer than twelve inches. Steps move as much sideways as forwards. I wouldn’t be surprised if Indonesians were banned by FIFA from being professional referees as they could never measure out the correct distance for a free kick.

The fact that many things just don’t seem to work properly contributes to the frustrations of life in Jakarta. Lifts that indicate ‘up’ go down and lifts that indicate ‘down’ go up. Empty buses stop at packed busway stations, then without any explanation they drive off without collecting passengers. Most of those buses don’t have adequate markings or a display to indicate their number or destination. Wifi signals show full strength but fail to connect. Menus don’t show the actual price that the customer is paying or the actual service charges, despite the fact that service charges vary from place to place. The Padang food is nice, but it’s served cold and not many places will warm it for you. The currency is so weak that everything is rounded up to the nearest 100 and taxi drivers automatically help themselves to the best part of the nearest 10000 or 20000. Times of opening are often just general and times of meeting can only be speculative because who knows what traffic you’re likely to face. Security checks are little more than a pantomime of appearances with security officers responding to bleeping detectors with a smile and a cordial “Terimah kasi” (at one particular ‘checkpoint’ in the Central Park mall, the guard beams at you with his wonderful smile, collects your bag and simply hands it back to you once you’ve passed through the metal detector); and the guys who open the car boots and glide that mirrored bomb finder under the chassis for the briefest of moments looking for explosive devices, do they really know what they’re looking for? I think not. No, things in Jakarta don’t work properly. Certainly not in the way any Westerner would expect. The way people go about things here defies the familiar logic of western life.

When Claire had said that the people in Indonesia were stupid, it sounded a bit racist and judgmental, especially considering that the average reading age in the UK is about 9 years old with around 15% of the population being “functionally illiterate” according to the National Literacy Trust. She had spent four years living in Jakarta working as a primary school teacher. She had seen how life and the formal education system worked here, so I couldn’t judge her judgment. Particularly when she told me the story of her teaching assistant who caught typhoid and actually believed her doctor when he told her that it was caused by drinking too many energy drinks and eating too many Chitato’s. However, in my short experience here, I had found that my Indonesian hosts were really not the sharpest of the proverbial tools in the global toolbox of intellect. Sure they’re very nice – they smile and they’re friendly and subserviently accommodating – but common sense does not appear to be a common trait. It’s as if the people in this city aren’t taught to think independently. They seem to short circuit when faced with a decision that deviates from the instructions. This is a problem, because they frequently make mistakes and fail to deliver services as promised.

When you are dining out in Jakarta or purchasing any significant number of goods, every bill and receipt has to be checked (and it’s frequently incorrect). The server seems to expect this as they wait for you to tell them where they went wrong. Then there is the service itself, it borders on harassment. When you go up to a food venue to take a look at the menu on display, the service personnel spring to your assistance and proceed to point at the things that you are obviously looking at, sometimes reading out to you – the English speaking Bule – the English details of the menu. If you then decide to enter the restaurant, you are immediately confronted by an eager member of staff with a pen and pad ready to take an order that you haven’t even had a chance to decide on. When you politely indicate that you need a little time, they smile, take half a step back and stand looking over your shoulder.

A very pink shop

A very popular pink shop

In the popular malls, shop assistants stand at the entrances of predominantly empty shops, eager to usher you in. The poor souls stand there for hours, all day and throughout the evening, desperately hoping that you will become their customer. Maybe they just want an opportunity to get the circulation in their feet moving again. Maybe they stand at the shop entrances to get some of the kinetic body heat from the people passing by because the building controlled air conditioning inside is jacked up so high that they’re freezing. If they’re stood there to encourage you to buy, then somebody needs to tell the fucking idiot who’s trained them that it’s not working. Furthermore, it’s creepy and off-putting when you walk toward a shop and before you’ve even made an approach to the door, let alone any of the products inside, the sales assistant is looming with a big toothy grin.

On the third floor of Taman Anggrek where EF have their school, there is a corridor where two competing phone shops are directly opposite each other. Each of these shops have a team of sales staff – some with A-boards over their shoulders – all with flyers and all shrieking special offers to passers by whilst horrible techno music pumps out of in-store speakers at full blast. In between these two shops is a toy shop that releases motorised dogs, yapping and wagging their tails at the entrance all day. The obnoxious noise of competing traders compounded by the shrill sound of loud tannoy announcements during promotional events in the lobby forecourt in Taman Anggrek on a Saturday makes it sound like an asylum for mentally ill sales staff and customers with chronic consumeritis. I don’t know if the shop managers and shop assistants are badly trained or they’re so terrified of losing their job that they over-compensate and don’t dare try something of their own. Maybe it’s just commercial naivety or maybe it’s just the way it works in Jakarta. Whatever it is, the noise in the mall on a Saturday is like having somebody scratch at your brain with a cactus.

There is another thing that I have found stupefying about Jakarta. The issue of litter and the problem of garbage that blights the city is something that people who live here are aware of. I discussed this in a lesson with some of my students and one of them asked, “Do you think Jakarta is dirty?”

“Yes” I said, “It’s very dirty!”

“I know, lots of rubbish everywhere in Jakarta” she replied.

So this is an obvious problem that is plain to see, yet there is little recycling done in the city. And whenever you go into a shop, whether you’re buying a week’s worth of groceries or a single bottled drink, you are given a plastic bag to put it in. A bag for groceries makes sense, but a bottled drink? You see people get their drink and their cigarettes, walk out of an Indomaret or Aplha Mart (the main mini-market chains), take their drink and cigarettes out of the bag, and then discard the bag on the street. In fact, you see people indiscriminately discard any wrapper, plastic cup, can or disposable container on the street. It’s disgusting. But it’s this type of illogical rationale and lack of awareness of the totally obvious amongst the people who live in Jakarta that make it so frustrating.

Filthy canal

Garbage floats down a man made river of shit that runs alongside the fantastic Central Park complex.

Jalan Palmerah garbage 1

Burnt garbage rots behind a bus stop in a local district.

You wouldn’t expect a developing country, where millions live in abject poverty and good education is a luxury of the rich, to have the most sophisticated infrastructure and organised services in the world. However, it seems it’s too much to expect even the simple things to make sense.

This isn’t the city I expected when I saw the skyline of towering skyscrapers in pictures on the internet. The night I arrived and saw that amazing LED screen wrapped around Taman Anggrek mall, I was impressed and I had high expectations. But Jakarta is nothing like any other city I’ve ever visited – and I’ve visited a fair few. It’s a place of contradiction and dysfunction. Regress dressed in high tech; “All fur coat and no knickers” as my mother would say. However, apart from the climate, there is one thing that I find redeeming about Jakarta and its culture.

Having the largest Muslim population in Asia, a Westerner coming to Jakarta – or just Indonesia in general – may expect that there is an unwelcoming and repressive atmosphere; this is not the case. Granted, there’s not much of a bar or drinking culture outside of the expat areas in Kemang and the centre of the city – the ‘sin tax’ makes drinking an expensive pastime. Although, with cigarettes being manufactured in Indonesia and providing work for thousands, they’re as cheap as a dollar a pack, so Indonesian’s can happily smoke themselves into an early grave. Or they can pass their time in the numerous eateries, gorging themselves on oily, fatty foods, sugary drinks and confections and ease toward coronary thrombosis and heart failure instead (Indonesia is by no means a slim nation). However, unlike the homicidal maniacs and fanatical fundamentalists coming out of the Middle East and Africa who are hell bent on violently imposing, oppressive Sharia law on the world and regressing society back to the Middle Ages, the Islamic doctrine here is one of harmony and a general ‘live and let live’ culture prevails.

The Muslim people in Jakarta integrate with anyone and everyone from what I have seen. All over the city you will find young Muslim women in and out of headscarves who are in active, gainful employment. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Muslim women are free to drive and walk the streets without their husbands. You will see young girls happily making their way through the city between schools and colleges, laughing and joking with other girls and boys alike. Even though modestly dressed, they appear so without a look of stifling discomfort – you seldom see the Ghost Wife in full veiled Islamaclava, covered from head to foot in black robes. And whilst displaying cleavage may be frowned upon, young women in tight little shorts are a common sight, as are tattoos. Nobody is spat at or stoned in the streets. Even the gay men don’t feel a need to hide their camp demeanour. No, whilst the religion is prevalent, it is not a social imperative that is imposed on everyone (but the call to prayer is loudly obtrusive).

I know I’m probably suffering from culture shock, and I do hope I learn to go with whatever flow it is you have to go with to enjoy this city, I really do. But right now, the noise, the pollution, the traffic, the landscape and the sheer isolation I feel from everything here is getting in the way. Hopefully settling into a permanent place to live will help. Hopefully, sorting out all of my loose ends back home will set me at ease. Hopefully meeting a few more expats and making some friends amongst my hosts will help. Hopefully, because the only plus side so far are my students. They are a delight to teach, and if their warmth, respect and eagerness to learn is indicative of the true Indonesian character, then this is a wonderful characteristic that I’d like to experience more of outside of the classroom. However, for now, all I have to look forward to is my three-day stay in Jogja. Perhaps experiencing a bit of the ‘real’ Indonesia will help me to readjust my compass and get me back on track to fully enjoy my experience of life in this city.

2015-03-26 16.56.52

A very misleading skyline.

22: Bad Teacher, Great Students

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


The school day after the night before was difficult. I’m one of those social smokers who likes the accompaniment of a cancer stick with my liver killer. However, since I’d arrived in Jakarta I’d been smoking more and more – I think out of boredom more than anything else – and I had smoked a lot of cigarettes during the previous night’s lengthy session. So not only was I struggling with the mild brain damage and dehydration of a hangover, I also sounded like Darth Vader. I just hoped I wasn’t going to get lured to the dark side and become a regular smoker.

As the day wore on I managed to soldier on through my lessons with my gravelly voice, carrying my hangover with me. It wasn’t the first time I’d had to manage work whilst still under the influence of the residual effects of a heavy night. Javanese coffee is high quality and there is a ready supply from the coffee machine in the school. There’s also a water cooler. Rehydration and caffeine help hangovers. Having great students also makes the teacher’s hangover bearable, and that was the one redeeming feature of my fledgling experience of Indonesia so far, the students. They were proving to be the one shining light on what was so far a dull and disappointing experience. They were so cheerful and enthusiastic and respectful of my role as their teacher that I couldn’t help but warm to them straight away.

Amongst the many characters that attended the classes at the school was Didi, an elementary learner who loved football and Bob Marley. Like Yvonne who I’d met at the travel agent, Didi came from Manado. He had an overbite like a shelf and a playful character to match his goofy looks. He attended regularly and had made a lot of friends from the pool of students that had been enrolled since the school had opened a few weeks earlier.

Most of the learners at the Taman Anggrek school were elementary or lower intermediate students, so they only had a basic level of English. Some were quite confident and took their lessons by the scruff of the neck, ensuring they got the most out of their fifty-minute learning slots. Khadir, a business manager who was perhaps in his late-30’s or early 40’s, always cheerfully volunteered himself for exercises. He always had dry, cracked lips and dark shadows around his eyes as if he hadn’t had enough sleep, yet he put so much effort into every word and sentence despite the struggle. Although he often made mistakes, it never affected his confidence to try again until he got it right.

Vitri, a bespectacled Muslim girl in her late teens with a grave countenance for someone so young, practically berated me every time I mispronounced her name (which was often). However, when I managed to make her laugh, I found that behind the serious look framed in that hijab was an ambitious young woman with a beautiful smile.

Lenni was an upper intermediate learner. She was a big, round, loud girl whose spoken English and grasp of grammar was really good. So much so that I had to reign her in when she was in the classroom as she was inclined to dominate. Her closest friends in the school were Hani and Echo. Hani was an unassuming, quiet, young woman who I learned was a doctor by profession. Echo was a big, dopey-looking, bear of a man with pinhole eyes who was just as loud as Lenni, but not as accomplished with his English. Echo was serious in lessons, but was like an overgrown child when hanging around the lounge area with the other students. His high-pitched giggling was unmistakable and his permanent smile beamed at me every time I walked by.

It would take weeks before I remembered the names of all of the students, but they all knew my name from day one. And when I walked through the door of the school, they greeted me as if I had been working there for months and I was their favourite teacher. How could you not love a teaching environment like that?

All the students I met in the first couple of weeks made teaching for The Company nothing less than enjoyable (even with a hangover). The time spent in the classroom and amongst the students was easily the best time I had spent in Jakarta so far. But wherever you are, whatever you do, you need a good work/social balance. I didn’t have a social circle or a social life to speak of.

Neither Debbi nor any of the other teaching staff had made any effort to get the new recruits together for a meal, or maybe just to have a few beers; and whilst Rudi had said that he liked to play futsal (the Indonesian version of 5-a-side football) he hadn’t extended an invitation to me. Apart from Adit, who was teetotal, and Yuvike, a feisty young, Indo-Chinese woman who was married to a young Australian guy who worked at one of the other EF schools in the north of the city, none of the Indonesian members of staff at the school in Taman Anggrek had a good grasp of English. As such, I had no social relationship with anyone apart from Claire, and now Simon. But Claire lived on the other side of the city, and Simon’s main focus was going out on the town and fucking as many Asian women as he could. I may have only been in Jakarta for a couple of weeks, but I knew that if my situation didn’t change soon I probably wouldn’t stay here for much longer. I needed more than just work and a descent into alcohol and corrupt behaviour once a week to endure a full year – or even six months – of life in this place. I need to feel part of the place that I’m living in, even if I am only there temporarily. Yes, I liked my students and so far work was good, but I just wasn’t getting on with Jakarta.

21: An Imperfect Gentleman

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


The pre-night bourbon and generously spirited cocktails in Loewy’s had taken more of an effect than my Irish ancestry was ready to admit and I was pretty damn drunk by the time Loewy’s wound down at around 2am. Of course when you’re pretty damn drunk all you really want to do is more drinking, so when Gavin and Simon suggested we head to a place called Blok M, I was all for it, except I had little money left. However, Simon was keen to extend the night and extended the offer of a drinking loan by way of an introduction to Jakarta. So with that invitation, we made our way outside where the taxis were waiting and we all headed off to Blok M.

A few minutes later we turned down a brightly lit, lively, little street. There were a few late night convenience stalls selling drinks and snacks and the ubiquitous street vendors peddling ready cooked fried rice, fried dough snacks and other bits of edible bric-a-brac. Taxis and mopeds flanked either side and there were plenty of people hanging around. There were even a few young children bustling around trying to hustle the visiting, drunken Bules for spare change. This was obviously the well-worn path for die hard drinkers – and it was still only Wednesday… Thursday morning!

We entered the doorway of a dirty, ramshackle building that was a million miles away from the polished chic of Oakwood and Loewy’s bar and bistro. Gone was the subtle, mix and blend of a deep house soundtrack, this place slapped you in the face with a dirty wallop of bass as soon as you walked in. There were signs of a band that must have played earlier, but they had packed up and left us with a Dj and his noxious playlist of tacky r’n’b and noisy techno. The glass, brass, and marble décor from before was now replaced by bar stools and tables with scuffed paint and chipped edges. Through the smoke and dim lighting, much of which emanated from the end of the room where there was a well-worn pool table, it was plain to see that this was little more than a shabby downtown, late night bar – a very late night bar. Nobody came here dressed to impress, people came here for cheap pick-ups ,and there were plenty of them. Clutches of Indonesian women in twos, threes, fours and more, hugged the sides of the room. These were not the well-preened ladies of Loewy’s. These “ladies of the night”, leaning against the bar and the walls and gathered around the tables, they were conspicuous in their intent. The bar’s other clientele consisted mainly of expat men – mostly middle aged and mostly casually dressed – at best. I was clearly in a hot-spot for prostitutes and cheap liaisons.

Blok M

We quickly found a free table and Gavin ordered us all a beer. As I looked around the place I could see women staring in our direction. All trying to make eye contact, waiting to be summoned over.

Simon took no time at all in reeling in his catch. Before our beers had even arrived he had a slim, young and quite beautiful Indonesian girl gyrating between his legs. We couldn’t have been in there for more than a couple of minutes and Simon, who hadn’t even gotten off his seat, had this pretty young thing with the tightest of tight jeans practically painted onto her slender little legs, enthusiastically wriggling in his crotch. He beamed with toothy satisfaction, sat on his stool in this dingy bar dressed in a formal suit, he was the centre of attraction. I shook my head in disbelief as I watched the instant transformation of this professional, respectable young Englishman into a seedy sexpat.

Our beers soon arrived and as Gavin handed them out I asked him; “What the fuck is this place?”

“This is Top Gun mate.”

As I looked around taking in the scene in Top Gun, it was a familiar format to other seedy, downtown, pick up joints I had seen around the world. Thinly veiled prostitution dressed up as late night drinking. The Bule predator only needs take his pick of whichever lady catches his eye, buy her a few drinks then invite her to his place, or a hotel. Somewhere in between the sex and the taxi he negotiates a price. Simon seemed to know the drill well. He’d hardly finished his second beer before he turned to me and told me he was leaving.

“What!” I said – I hadn’t really expected to be left in the middle of some seedy part of Jakarta in the early hours of the morning – but before I even realised that he was on his way out of the door with his little Asian catch, he was already gone. So I was left with an Australian man I’d only met a couple of hours ago after he nearly got into a fight, and I had nothing but the price of a taxi in my pocket.

I wasn’t particularly happy about Simon abandoning me, but hey, I’m a grown man and perfectly capable of taking care of myself. As much as I didn’t really want to hang around a seedy bar full of prostitutes in the arse end of a shithole city with a guy who was practically a stranger, I didn’t want to look like a complete pussy and just up and leave because my friend had left me either. So I decided I would casually finish my drink before making my excuses and getting a taxi back to my apartment from wherever the hell I was. But I wasn’t really in control of this night, and before I even had a chance to finish my Bintang, Gavin turned to me and said, “Come on, let’s get outta here.”

Before I knew it, we had crossed the street and were inside a club. I had no idea what this club was called but it was jam-packed and the nasty sound of Jakarta techno was pounding out of a loud sound system, out across a throng of people who were bouncing in and out of the colourful beams of laser lights that projected out of the Dj booth on the other side of the dance floor. It was dizzying.


No sooner had I entered the club, I’d lost sight of Gavin, but then caught sight of Simon. He walked over with a drink in one hand, his prostitute in the other, and a big smile on his a face. He garbled something in my ear, which I couldn’t hear or understand, before disappearing into the crowd. Then Gavin returned with another bottle of Bintang, before he also then disappeared back into the noise and the crowd of the club.

I found a table to lean against and through the hazy gaze of my inebriated brain, I took in the scene around me and thought to myself, ‘Maybe this place could be fun.’ But of course, I was very, very drunk.

I don’t know how long we stayed in the club for, or what it was called, all I remember was Gavin coming up to me at the end of the night with an Indonesian woman who wasn’t his wife.

The three of us walked outside and I jumped into the first cab that came along. Luckily it took me back to the Grand Prix Inn without any major detours, and luckily I had enough to pay for it.

It was daylight when I passed the security guard and took the lift up to my apartment. As I stumbled through the door, I was unsure whether I had locked it behind me. I peeled off my clothes and dumped them in a pile at the end of my bed, tumbled onto the mattress and was asleep before my head hit the pillow. It was the first easy sleep I’d had since arriving in Jakarta.

20: The Aussie Expat

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

loewy night

From outside, Loewy’s looked like a chic western wine bar, but unlike anywhere in England or Europe, the up market welcome party at the door didn’t signal the pseudo-exclusive nonsense of dress inspection and ‘guest list’ questioning. As I approached the entrance, my reception were two suited Indonesian gentleman and an attractive Indonesian lady who was sat at a podium beside the doorway. They all welcomed me with a smile before lifting the velvet rope to allow me inside. Once inside I found that for the first time since arriving in Jakarta I was amongst a predominantly western crowd of people – this was definitely an expat’s bar.

Almost all the clientele in Loewy’s were English speaking Bules dressed in shirts and stylish, smart-casual, wine bar apparel. The Indonesian men, most of whom were enthusiastic cocktail makers and serving staff, were easily outnumbered by the well dressed, high-heeled Indonesian women. Deep house music complemented the gaps in between the hubbub of conversation rather than assaulting the atmosphere in the way the assorted collection of noisy racket did in the bars and restaurants around Grand Central. This place felt like a venue that was dressed appropriately, had the right equipment and knew what it was doing. I liked it.

loewy 1

Loewy’s by day

I found Simon at the bar where he said he would be. It was his favoured position when on the prowl, apparently. Although the place was quite full, he was pretty easy to spot as he was one of the few people wearing a full suit. As I walked up to him I could see he was already well oiled; he looked clammy, flushed, and being sat alone, a little sheepish. I felt quite bad for being so late, so I walked up behind him and gave him a jovial, hearty slap on the shoulder. He was pretty drunk and hardly flinched as he turned toward me with a big, toothy smile; “Hey Jeff”

“Told you I’d get here before midnight” I smiled back at him. “So what’s going on?”

“Well I’ve consumed quite a few since… I… I… I got started early, so I’m quite… quite merry shall we say – but not too drunk!” he assured me with a wag of the finger “I can take my drink, you can be sure of that. So how’s it going?”

“Good, good” I said, “This place looks very lively.”

“Yes, Wednesday’s are usually quite fun. Ladies night does attract quite… quite a nice crowd I think”, he said with a mischievous smile.

The bar was crowded and it was indeed ladies night with lots of sophisticated looking, very attractive Indonesian women dressed to impress. The place actually had an atmosphere, something that was totally missing from the brightly lit, venues around Grand Central. I felt quite comfortable, like I was actually welcome.

The bar area in Loewy’s was pretty congested and there wasn’t much space to get in next to Simon to order a drink, but the waiters were well trained and it wasn’t long before a tall, slim, Indonesian bartender, sporting a ponytail and looking very cool in a white shirt and black waistcoat, nodded at me for my order. I asked Simon what he was drinking; “The long island’s in here are very good. I’ve had a few”, he said

“Ok” I said. I leant over to cut through the noise and give the barman my order; “Long island ice tea please”, I asked. He gave an affirmative nod and joined the hustle of busy staff behind the bar to prepare my drink.

loewy bar staff

With my cocktail on the way, a host of expats to mingle with and a high-spirited Englishman for company, the night was looking promising. But, this was Jakarta, and this city just didn’t like me.

I hadn’t even had a chance to fully settle into my surroundings when I heard an argument brewing between a group of guys who were stood beside me. I didn’t quite know what was going on, but there was an Indonesian woman in the mix, a big drunken idiot and cocky little finger-pointing mate. They seemed to be directing whatever the cause of their drunken anger was at a guy who was sat next to where I was stood at the bar. This guy was sat alone, yet despite the increasingly loud and animated umbrage surrounding him, he seemed surprisingly calm.

As voices became louder and threats were hurled, the man dance was eventually offered.

“Well come outside then, come on. Fucking come outside you fucking arsehole… She’s my woman… I’ll say what I want… Yeah… What?” – blah blah blah. I’d seen this type of thing many times before and I could see that this was all alcohol fuelled bluster from which nothing was going to erupt. We weren’t in England and this wasn’t a place where bottles were smashed across people’s heads or glasses into faces. This was middle-class professionals puffing up their chest because they’re far from home and have had a lot to drink. They weren’t the naturally violent types I had become used to in city bars in England. The guy who was sat down seemed to know this too and taunted the two drunken Bules with his disinterest as he sat calmly puffing on his cigarette amidst their shouty arm-waving.

Eventually the Indonesian barman with the ponytail joined in. He started shouting at the big drunken idiot, the little finger-pointing man was shouting at the man who was sat at the bar whilst strategically placing himself between his friend and any physical trouble, and the Indonesian woman was artfully teetering on very high heels, pleading for everyone to calm down. As the shouting got louder, virtually all the bar staff got behind Mr. Ponytail (who I assumed was the head barman) in defence of the solo seated man, and soon everyone was just shouting. The bar staff were shouting at the drunken idiots to leave, the drunken idiots were shouting idle threats at the seated man, meanwhile, the Indonesian woman had just given up and was leaving the testosterone to work itself out.

All this shouting and arm waving was threatening to ruin the cordial, fun atmosphere in Loewy’s and inevitably the doormen moved in. They ushered the two drunken idiots out of the door and the whole thing ended without so much as a punch being thrown or a glass being smashed. As they were politely jostled out of the venue with the assistance of a group of bar staff, I heard the man sat at the bar say, “Facking arsehole” in an Australian accent. He looked at me, smiled, shrugged and took another swig of his drink. One of the guys behind the bar asked him if he was ok.

“Ah it’s nothing mate, don’t worry about it. Some people just get a bit too drunk that’s all. No worries mate, not a problem at all.”

The minor commotion seemed to have stunned Simon into silence, so I tried to lighten his mood a little; “This is the kind of place you bring me to Simon!” I said to him, “bar brawls and people being dragged out by doormen. I thought you said this was a nice place.”

He quickly regained his jovial spirit and said, “I… I… Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like that in here ever before. It’s you! You Mancs. You always bring trouble”, he joked.

“Eh, don’t blame me! I’ve only just got here. I’ve not even had a drink yet – where is my drink anyway?” I said, as I searched the bar for Mr. Ponytail and my long time coming long island ice tea.

“What was all that about?” Simon asked.

“I dunno; some bird, some drunken guys, fuck knows.” I replied. So I turned to the Australian and asked him.

“Ah nothing mate”, he said with brusque Australian cockiness, “This guy was talking shit to his girl so I just told him to go and take it outside. It’s not really what you wanna hear when you’re out. He didn’t like it and wanted to play the big man. I’m ok; he wasn’t gonna do nothing” he said confidently. Then he asked me “Where’s that accent from then? Are you a Brit?”

“Yeah, Mancunian.”

“Ah, right; I thought you sounded a bit Northern.”

“I take it you’re Australian?” I asked.

“Yeah, that’s right. So you here on holiday or you working?” He asked.

“No, I’m a teacher; English teacher. I’ve just come out to meet my friend here”, I said as I pointed to Simon. “He told me this was a nice bar; I walk through the door and there’s a brawl going on”, I joked.

“I’ve been here many times,” said Simon “and there’s never been so much as a raised voice. It’s these bloody Mancunians”, he smiled.

“You’re not from Manchester then?” the Aussie said.

“No no no, I went to university there but, no”, Simon replied, before instinctively offering his hand “I’m Simon.”

“Gavin” the Aussie replied as he returned Simon’s firm handshake.

I then introduced myself as Simon struck up conversation with our new bar friend.

Gavin was in his mid-thirties and married to an Indonesian woman. He had lived in the country for several years and was currently living in the Kuningan district, so Loewy’s was his regular. At an average five ten or eleven, he wasn’t a big guy by any accounts, but he said he used to work as a doorman back in Australia when he was just sixteen. As Loewy’s was also his regular drinking spot, he knew all the bar staff and wasn’t worried about what had just happened, dismissing the pair of loud expats as typical of the type of arrogant, drunken idiots you get in the bars around Central Jakarta.

My drink finally arrived as Simon, Gavin and I settled into the typical expat conversation about Jakarta – what’s good (not much), what’s bad (the traffic), where are the best places to go for some decent nightlife – a question to which Gavin seemed to have all the answers. He suggested that we should visit a place called Top Gun when Loewy’s was finished. Simon apparently knew of this place and gave a wry smile when it was mentioned.

“So what is this Top Gun?” I asked them both.

“Oh that’s the seedier side of the city mate”, said Gavin.

“Oh really!” I replied, intrigued as to what constituted “seedy” in a city with the largest Muslim population in Asia.

“Many ladies of the night”, Simon said, eccentuating the key part of his sentence in his deliberate English tone. His voice was now beginning to slur a little as he started on another of Loewy’s potent long island teas.

“Could be interesting”, I said. Having seen Kemang with Claire, I was interested to see what the boys do when they go out to play in Jakarta.