38. Undesirable Residence

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

*****

The next morning I got up to have my morning swim, but the band on my swimming goggles broke when I was putting them on. Nevertheless, I swam anyway. A bit of chlorinated pool water in my eyes for one morning couldn’t hurt. Well maybe a bit of chlorinated water wouldn’t have hurt, but whatever anti-bacterial agent the pool maintenance staff used to sanitise the pool water at Centro City managed to temporarily blind my right eye. I was squinting like Popeye on the busway journey to Podomoro City and for about an hour afterwards. But blind in one eye or not, I was determined to find an apartment.

I followed the same routine as I had done the day before, albeit with a visual handicap and a little less enthusiasm, but all I got were the same responses: Twelve month contract and money up front. The best offer I got was a six-month contract, but that was still with the money in advance. It was pissing me off because I had asked Sally the recruitment manager if I would be able to find decent accommodation on the salary EF were paying and she assured me it would not be a problem. So far choices were looking extremely limited. The only glimmer of hope came right at the end of the day when I met with an estate agent who told me she had a couple of two-bedroom apartments available for 6,000,000 IDR on a pay-monthly basis. Not exactly within budget, but at least I wouldn’t be committed. If something came up at a later date I could always move out, so it was worth a look.

Sammy Ming was a little dark-skinned Indo-Chinese woman who worked for Vivi Properties. She had no connection to the other Vivi (whose name isn’t actually Vivi) and did not look quite as trustworthy. Sammy Ming was a shifty-looking woman with narrow eyes, badly drawn, old and worn tattoos up her arms and a set of teeth that were little more than rotted, brown, stumps. Her office was a bit of a shit tip with old garish wallpaper and a series of cheap paintings of Jesus hung up on the walls. I think they were depictions of the Stations of the Cross, but there were definitely some missing and they were not in the correct order. There were stacks of old fashioned furniture piled up around the room, which was split in two by a large screen, behind which I could see even more stacked furniture.

Sammy Ming had a couple of units to show me that she was prepared to rent on a monthly basis. The first one was a shithole in Mediterania 1 that was dank, dull and horrible. The walls quivered with a scurry of movement as soon as the door was opened as a gang of little half-grown roaches rushed back to their cracks. I was surprised this dwarf-like woman even had the gall to show it to me, let alone keep a straight face whilst doing so.

The other place she had to show was a two-bedroom apartment in the Mediterania 2 complex. This was much nicer, but it wasn’t as nice as the one that Vivi was offering in the same block for 500,000 less. After two days of apartment hunting it wasn’t looking good.

Belgian Jeff had extended his deadline, which led me to believe that he didn’t have anyone else lined up to take his apartment, but I really didn’t want to share a place with someone I hadn’t even met yet. A parade of randoms popping in sporadically over the course of the next six months as and when his online bookings came in through Facebook and Airnb – nah. To avoid shelling out too much on rent I had to try and get Simon to agree to sharing. The week before when we had met at Loewy’s, I had completely forgotten to talk to him about it so I sent him a text message to see if he was still interested. His reply came straight away and he seemed very keen on the idea. So we arranged to meet in Loewy’s again later that night. This time I was going to make sure that we did actually discuss the apartment before either of us got too drunk to make any sense.

37. Positive Mental Attitude

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

*****

As had become my new routine, I started the following day with a swim, which was proving to be an invigorating morning tonic. I was now up to twenty unbroken lengths (ten breaststroke followed by another ten of front crawl). As I was drying off, I was approached by a round, little African man with bulging, sleepy eyes and a happy face. He started speaking to me in some foreign language I didn’t recognise or understand; “What?” I replied.

“You are from Morocco?” he then asked in English.

“No” I said, “I’m from Manchester. England.”

“Ooooh – I t’ought you were my friend from Morocco”, he said. He then introduced himself and his colleague; “My name is Duda, this is my friend Ali.” Ali was a slimmer, but equally short man. He smiled at me warmly as he offered his hand.

“Where are you from?” I asked them.

“We’re from Tanzania. What are you doing in Indonesia?” he asked me. I told him I was an English teacher and asked him what he was doing here.

“Business” he said, “Jakarta a very good place for business.” He then smiled, wished me a good day and he and his colleague walked to the sheltered area of the uncompleted bar that was at the other end of the pool. There seemed to be quite a few African’s who were staying at the Grand Prix Inn, but I had never spoken to any of them until now. I wondered if they were all here on business. Surely they couldn’t have been at the Centro City on for holiday!

My morning swims were helping me face the day with enthusiasm. It would have been nice to use the Centro City gym on occasion, but it was apparently closed due to a leak in the roof. It had been closed all the time I had been there so God knows how long it had been closed before I came, or when they planned on getting it opened again. I suppose just saying you have a gym on the website and promotional flyer is good enough. The pool bar also looked as if it had been incomplete for a very long time, and there were dozens of cracked and broken tiles around the pool that hadn’t been replaced, or even filled, just waiting to slice open a naked toe. Centro City really was a shit place to stay and didn’t do much to enamour me with Jakarta. However, once I got my own place, I was sure that I would be a lot more comfortable and feel a lot more optimistic about living here.

I arrived at the Mediterania complex at around midday with no plan of action but optimism. I knew there were plenty of estate agents in the office units on the ground levels of both buildings, so I spent the entire afternoon asking around for available accommodation. However, by the time their working day approached its end, my optimism had faded.

I had spent the whole day doing a lot of waiting around in air conditioned offices and answering a lot of questions about where I was from, what I was doing in Jakarta, how long I was staying, how much money I wanted to spend and what kind of apartment I was looking for – “Manchester, England… Teaching English… At least six months… No more than five million for a one bedroom apartment and I want to pay monthly…” Unfortunately, to this final answer the response was always the same – “Sorry mister, we only have twelve month contract.”

My first day of apartment hunting had been hot, frustrating and ultimately fruitless, but tomorrow was another day and I was determined to remain positive.

36. Back to Work

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

*****

My weekend break in Jogja had given me a taste of what the real Indonesia had to offer. The monumental Prambanan and Borobudur temples were impressive, but it was also just as interesting to see the Indonesians in an environment outside of the concrete catastrophe of Jakarta. Passing through the mountains and villages and seeing the Javanese people going about their day-to-day lives in a rural setting offered a different perspective on life in this country and I had really enjoyed my brief stay.

On the final day, my flight back to Jakarta wasn’t scheduled until after five in the afternoon, so after checking out of the Puri Artha I had spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around their little hotel pool where I was practically undisturbed for the entire time.

As I dipped in and out of the empty pool and lounged on the sun lounger, I thought about the last two weeks. They had felt very long, but they had been pretty easy going. There I was lying in the sun at the end of my first holiday since I had become an English teacher for EF in Jakarta and I had only done about a day and a half of actual teaching work. As honeymoon periods go, this was pretty satisfying. However, on my first day back at the school I was to find that this long honeymoon period was over.

My work contract stated that I would only ever get an absolute maximum of twenty-four teaching hours to do each week. When I got back to work on Monday afternoon I found that my timetable had been generously filled with twenty teaching sessions. Whilst only a few of those sessions actually needed planning from scratch, delivering three or four fifty-minute teaching slots back-to-back with only a ten-minute break in between is pretty intense. However, on my new working rota Tuesday and Wednesday were my designated days off. This meant that, despite only just getting back from my little holiday, after that first day of work I would have another two days off. Those two days would not be spent idling however. No, I’d had enough rest and relaxation; I had to spend those two days apartment hunting.

After finishing that first day back at work I was pretty exhausted. I had left the school too late to be able to get anything to eat from the mall because most of the restaurants start packing up at around 9.15pm, so all I had to look forward to when I got home were coffee and some snack food I had picked up in the Hero supermarket that was in the basement of Mall Taman Anggrek. Unfortunately, when I got home that evening, a colony of micro ants had gotten to the cake before me. Not just the cake but also the few other snacks I had stored in the cupboard – sugar, cornflakes, apples, crisps – these tiny little bastards were in everything, not to mention all over the kitchen worktop. It was my own fault. I had forgotten the tropical home rule of keeping everything packed in airtight containers and never leaving so much as a drop of spillage un-cleaned. So, tired and hungry, I went downstairs to the onsite minimart, bought some bleach and then spent half an hour wiping down all the surfaces of the kitchenette in my room. I then wrapped all the food seized by the ants up in a carrier bag and discarded it in the waste disposal that was at the end of the corridor on my floor. By the time I had finished cleaning up it was after 10pm. I knew the café downstairs closed at around 11pm, so I rushed down to get myself a takeaway meal.

The café menu didn’t look too appetising, but I eventually settled on the chicken teriyaki with noodles. Twenty minutes later it was ready, wrapped and packed for me to take up to my room.

When I got to my room and opened up my Styrofoam-boxed late dinner, there was no teriyaki in there, but there were these strips of chicken coated in batter that came with noodles and a gelatinous gravy. Maybe the people in the café got teriyaki, teppanyaki and tempura all mixed up, or maybe they were just plain stupid, but what I had was not chicken teriyaki and I wanted chicken teriyaki! I was really pissed off, but I was just too tired and hungry to go back down and argue with them. The smiling girl who worked their wasn’t pretty, but she was nice. She was nice but also very dim. And she didn’t speak any English. There was another guy with a wonky, offset eye who was also very nice and he did speak some English. But he was also as dumb as that stray eye made him look. No, I didn’t have the energy to humour the smiling idiots in the café so I just ate what they had given me. And yes, it tasted as shit as it looked, but I ate all of it anyway. The important thing was that I wasn’t going to wake up hungry the next day because I had to go and find myself an apartment.

 

35. Private Massage

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

*****

After all those hours sat in the passenger seat of a car I was looking forward to my nine o’clock massage appointment. But I was also pretty hungry. I thought about putting the massage back half an hour so I could get something to eat, but it was late and there just wasn’t enough time. Besides, a massage on a full stomach is not a great idea. All that kneeding and circulatory rerouting is likely to release some unwanted gas, which would not have been a pleasant experience for me or the masseuse. No, food could wait a little longer; I wanted my massage, so I decided to stop off at the little on-site spa on the way to my room and to let them know that I would be coming as scheduled.

When I opened the door and looked into the little waiting area of the spa, I saw a reception desk, a few chairs and two Indonesian girls wearing the white, nurse-like cotton uniforms of the professional beautician. They were both slumped on the loungers half asleep. Surprised by my abrupt entry, they shuddered out of their semi-slumber and shifted upright in their chairs.

“Erm, sorry” I said, as I had obviously disturbed them, “I’ve got a massage booked at nine? Mr. Green? I booked it this morning.”

Still a bit groggy, they looked at each other in bemusement. I assumed neither of them understood English until one of them said, “You want massage sir?”

“Yes” I replied. “I have massage booked for nine.”

The girl stood up and walked toward the reception desk as if to check the timetable. I don’t think there was really anything in the timetable to check, but she turned to me and said, “Nine o’clock? No massage at nine o’clock sir. You wait half hour mister?”

“Erm… yeah, ok, nine-thirty’s ok.” I said.

“Ok, lady come to your room at nine-thirty. What your room number?”

The girl who was pretending to read the timetable looked a little older than her colleague and seemed to be in charge. Of course it was also possible that neither of them were in charge and she just spoke more English. I say this because her colleague looked as if she had no idea what we were saying; she was a stumpy but curvy little thing with droopy eyes, a flat face and long black hair held back off her face in a schoolgirl fashion by a headband, and if I’m being honest, she didn’t look as if she had any idea about much of anything. Of course that didn’t mean that she wasn’t a great masseuse, but I was doubtful. I was also doubtful about having the massage in my room. My bed was against the wall, which meant that the masseuse wouldn’t be able to get the full 360 degree access to reach the necessary parts that needed kneeding. But it wasn’t only that. It was late in the evening, and perhaps I was being guilty of making stereotypical assumptions about private massages being offered in Asia, but I didn’t want to be distracted by the blurry lines of any suggestion of a ‘happy ending’.

“No, I don’t want massage in my room” I said, “I want massage here.”

The girl in charge seemed a little put out that I wanted my treatment in their spa rather than in my room. She probably wanted to wrap up and go home early, or maybe they hadn’t had much custom and the massage rooms weren’t ready, I don’t know. Whatever the reason was, it didn’t do much to allay the prurient leanings of my overactive imagination. But, the customer is always right, right?

“Ok mister, no problem” she said “I call your room when ready, ok?”

“Ok” I replied, “Thirty minutes, yeah?” She smiled and nodded. I then rushed back to my room to have a quick shower before she arrived.

By 9.30 I was showered, ready and waiting for my call. At 9.40 I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and there was the little, flat-faced, droopy-eyed massage girl with all of her massage kit. “Massage mister”, she said.

I was about to ask her why she had come to my room when I had asked to have the massage in the spa. I was about to ask why she had not called as had been arranged. But as I opened my mouth to say something, I changed my mind. I looked at the girl with her tired, droopy eyes and her seemingly permanent look of bemusement and decided to concede. If I was going to spend the next year in this country, or only six months, I was just going to have to get used to how things worked – or didn’t work. Putting up with the inconvenience of having an hour-long massage in my room instead of in a spa was a good way to start. So I stripped down to my boxer shorts and submitted myself face down in prostration into the palm of Buddah’s hand in hopeful anticipation that the next hour would be one of blissful massage magic.

It was.

Like most people, I enjoy a good massage. I have suffered from sciatica in the past and I had regular massages as part of the many treatments I used to get rid of the pain and realign my muscles. I’ve had all kinds of massages – gentle therapeutic massages, deep tissue sports massages, aromatherapy massages, Swedish, Thai, Cambodian, Chinese – I even had a non-contact chakra massage once (it didn’t really do much for me) – but I’ve never had a Javanese massage. It was great.

The little masseur went through here massage motions from fingertip to toe with a series of swift, swiping motions. Her little hands whipped up, down and around every muscle she could find in a fantastic frenzy of emollient movements whilst I drooled into my pillow and melted into the mattress.

There really was no need for the space around the bed after all because the diminutive little thing climbed all over my back to do her stuff, absolutely magic stuff. All the knots and taut spots that had cultivated during the day’s drive, all the tensions of the previous week’s stresses, she kneeded, rubbed, and swept them all away stroke by stroke; it was almost better than sex. Actually, at one point she went so far up my inside thigh that I have to confess to feeling aroused. Fortunately I remained in control and avoided any embarrassing pointing.

“Finished mister” she said after the hour was over, but I could have lay there all night.

It was my turn to look dopey and bemused as I rolled over and mumbled a thank you whilst fumbling for my wallet to pay the girl.

I lay there for about ten minutes with a dumb smile of contentment on my face after she left and would have fallen asleep if my stomach would have let me. But it didn’t. It needed feeding. I really didn’t want to move and disturb the wonderful feeling of relaxation I was enjoying, but I had no choice. A nagging hunger for the rest of the night would have only ruined my sleep. So, remembering that we passed the big outdoor noodle place that advertised moto parking on the way back, and it was only a short walk away, I gave myself another ten minutes of relaxation before heading out for a late night snack. It was my last night in Jogja and I was satisfied that an early night on a full stomach after a great day out and a fantastic massage was a satisfactory way to sign off my first Indonesian holiday.

34. Mountain Descent

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

*****

The drive back to Yogyakarta wasn’t quite as spectacular as the drive there. The sun sets in Indonesia at around six o’clock and it was already after five so the light was fading. We were also descending through the clouds and there was some drizzle and rain on the way down.

As we took the main road from the plateau we trailed behind a couple of trucks carrying sulphur miners back to their villages and I was reminded of a documentary I had seen on TV about the world’s most dangerous jobs; sulphur mining in Indonesia is one of them. The biggest of these sulphur mines is Gunung Ijen, an active volcano in the east of Java.

Sulphur miners use basic tools to hack away rocks of sulphur from inside the mouth of the volcanic crater before carrying heavy baskets of the stuff weighing up to 90 kilos to the weighing station where they get paid in cash. They do this for about ten hours a day in the blistering heat surrounded by poisonous gases that not only scorch their eyes, throat and lungs, but have also been known to dissolve their teeth. Their life expectancy is around 50 years and many of them end up with crooked, bent and disfigured backs from the hard graft they do. Yet for this literally hellish job they are paid a mere pittance of around 1,000 IDR (about 4p) per kilo.

As I looked at the red eyes of the men smiling from the trucks in front of us, I was reminded of the way many of the people living in developing countries and the Third World are cruelly exploited. Often these places are what we westerners consider natural paradises. They are the places we go for holidays and gap years and, if we happen to be wealthy enough, to bank our money tax free. We get our cheap hotels and cheap drinks and cheap food and cheap souvenirs and cheap counterfeit goods and even cheap sex from these places. And whilst we retain a guiltless distance, the truth is that all the exploitation these people are subjected to is typically in order to feed the capitalist appetites of those of us who live in the developed western world. It’s like vicarious slavery experienced at a moral distance via consumerism, commerce and online shopping. This ethically unsound condition is the human toxic waste of capitalism that pollutes humanity. However, the irony is that on either side of this extreme social chasm, no one is truly satisfied. Whilst the poorest of the world often live in abject poverty, most of us in the industrialised western world live in a state of lost abjectedness.

Despite their grim lot, the truckload of miners arguably had more smiles in them than the throng of early morning rush hour commuters scrambling to jobs that they also hate. Tired and sleepy and with half a mind on the massage I had booked, I drifted off as I pondered on what a wonderful, cruel and crazy place this world is that we live in.

I slept most of the way back to Yogyakarta. I hadn’t bothered to stop for food so Nana made good time and we were back at the hotel a little after 8.30 in the evening. As the driver pulled into the small drop off area at the side of the building to let me out I thanked him sincerely and paid him his money. I’d had a really good day out and it was 950,000 IDR well spent, and well deserved. For the whole twelve hours Nana had been a consummate professional. During the entire time he had barely spoken. The only thing I had learned about the man was that he was from Jogja, he was married and he had a great smile. Also like myself, he didn’t like Jakarta.

34. What A Wonderful World

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

 

The drive back to Yogyakarta wasn’t quite as spectacular as the drive there. The sun sets in Indonesia at around six o’clock and it was already after five so the light was fading. We were also descending through the clouds and there was some drizzle and rain on the way down.

As we took the main road from the plateau we trailed behind a couple of trucks carrying sulphur miners back to their villages and I remembered a documentary I had seen on TV about the world’s most dangerous jobs. Sulphur mining in Indonesia is one of them. The biggest of these sulphur mines is Gunung Ijen, an active volcano in the east of Java.

Sulphur miners use basic tools to hack away rocks of sulphur from inside the mouth of the volcanic crater before carrying heavy baskets of the stuff weighing up to 90 kilos to the weighing station where they get paid in cash. They do this for about ten hours a day in the blistering heat surrounded by poisonous gases that not only scorch their eyes, throat and lungs, but have also been known to dissolve their teeth. Their life expectancy is around 50 years, and many of them end up with crooked, bent and disfigured backs from the hard graft they do. Yet for this literally hellish job they are paid a mere pittance of around 1,000 IDR (about 4p) per kilo.

As I looked at the red eyes of the men smiling from the trucks in front of us, I was reminded of the way people living in developing countries and the Third World are cruelly exploited. Often these places are what we westerners consider natural paradises. They are the places we go for holidays and gap years and, if we happen to be wealthy enough, to bank our money tax free. We get our cheap hotels and cheap drinks and cheap food and cheap souvenirs and cheap counterfeit goods and even cheap sex from these places. Whilst we retain a guiltless distance, the truth is that all the exploitation these people are subjected to is typically in order to feed the capitalist appetites of those of us who live in the developed western world. It’s like vicarious slavery experienced at a moral distance via consumerism, commerce and online shopping. This ethically unsound condition is the human toxic waste of capitalism that pollutes humanity. However, the irony is that on either side of this extreme social chasm, no one is truly satisfied. Whilst the poorest of the world often live in abject poverty, most of us in the industrialised western world live in a state of lost abjectedness. Despite their grim lot, the truckload of miners arguably had more smiles in them than the throng of early morning rush hour commuters scrambling to jobs that they also hate. Tired and sleepy and with half a mind on the massage I had booked, I drifted off as I pondered on what a wonderful, cruel and crazy place this world is that we live in.

 

33. It’s Sulphur Nothing

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

Dieng sulphur mines 6

The only time I had been anywhere near a crater or a volcano was back in 1999 when I spent a brief time working as a holiday rep in Tenerife. I did the company’s night tour up to the top of Mount Teide, which is a dormant volcano, and at 3,718 metres, the highest peak in the Spanish territories. I don’t remember too much about the trip except that the guide told us that the eerie lunar landscape of the surrounding Mount Teide National Park was where they filmed parts of the Planet of the Apes films of the 60’s and 70’s. I also remember it being bloody cold on the way to the summit. I do also remember that there was a bar up at the top where they served a quality brandy that went down warm and smooth, which added to the experience of looking up at the clear night sky that was peppered with the pinhole glows of a million stars. Actually, now that I think about it, it was a pretty memorable little trip. The Sikidang crater experience will be memorable for very different reasons.

Indonesia is undoubtedly a beautiful country with a range of flora, fauna and geography that is totally unique. I had watched enough David Attenborough, seen enough pictures and read enough about it online to be confident of this fact. Unfortunately, Indonesians have no idea how to make the most of their natural assets.

According to the tour sites, the Sikidang crater is supposed to be one of the two main tourist attractions of the Dieng Plateau. I had already been to the Colour Lake, which is the other one, and without meaning to be too churlish, it was shit. From packaging to presentation to the spectacle itself, it was barely worth a twenty-minute bus ride let alone a three-hour drive. Now, as we pulled into the empty car park of the attraction that is the Sikidang crater, I knew this was going to be just as uneventful.

Persisting with his professional distance, my driver Nana remained in the car as I stepped out to explore what Skidang had to offer. The view ahead of me was that of a barren mountain landscape beneath a noxious looking blanket of yellow smoke and I had little idea as to where I should be headed or what I should be looking for. I had even less belief that I was going to find anything worth seeing, but I continued walking forward and soon came to a path. The path led me through what looked like a market that had packed up for the day. There were colourful signs above one or two of the stripped down wooden stalls advertising warungs selling bakso and various mie (noodles) dishes. There were also still a few random locals that appeared to be leaving the area who may have been traders or even sulphur miners, but there was no one who looked like they were there in any professional guiding capacity. Nevertheless, I continued along this path toward the plumes of yellow smoke rising up in the distance still not really knowing what I was looking for, hoping that whatever it was that I was supposed to be seeing would make itself known at some point soon.

Dieng sulphur mines market

The path eventually dissolved into the rocky ground, ash and dead earth and I carried on up a mild gradient toward nowhere, but the most eerie nowhere I had ever seen. The whole area literally looked like scorched earth; like a place that had been nuked years before. The air was filled with the pungent eggy stench of sulphur and all around I could see smoke rising up out of holes in the ground. I thought about the market I had just passed with its open-air warungs and really could not imagine why anyone would want to sit and eat food there, or come here to buy their fruit and veg for that matter. Whilst the hills in the distance showed the verdant green signs of life, the immediate terrain was nothing but patches of choking brush amidst a dusty, barren, yellow jaundiced landscape; there was simply nothing to see here. Nonetheless I was still curious and I could see what I thought might be a sort of rope hand-rail leading further up the mountain a hundred feet or so ahead, so I continued up the rocks and through the smoke and ash toward whatever it was that I was supposed to be looking for. But, after about five or ten minutes of walking I decided that I really could not be bothered. I told myself that the best I could hope to see was a bubbling pool of grey, molten rock and it just wasn’t worth me wasting my time when I had a long, long drive ahead of me with a meal and a Javanese massage waiting at the end of it. It had been a nice day; Borobudur was pretty impressive and the Dieng drive was lovely, but it was now time to go home. So I took some photos just to remind me that I had been there before heading back to the car. If nothing else, the landscape of the area was pretty unlike anywhere I had ever been before and I knew I was probably never going to go there again.

Dieng sulphur mines 2

Dieng sulphur mines 5

Eerie but dreary