9. Brief Encounters

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

Bremer

Like Claire, I had a long distance lover who I had left behind. However, my circumstances were a lot different. I had met my Latin Lover before coming to Jakarta and had only known her for a few months. It was supposed to have been a brief encounter with the possibility of some fun before I headed off to my new start in Asia, where I had planned on being a free agent and enjoying some free exploitative expat love. I’d hoped to meet an exotic stranger who I might whisk off to the Western world, or beyond, and share a life with. Instead I met a beautiful South American woman in Manchester.

She herself lived in Madrid and was only staying in England for six months to do an immersive language course to improve her English. Ironically, she was studying at a franchise of the same language school I was now working for. The greater irony was, that after having made the bold move to reignite the dulling embers of my own life with an extreme geographical paradigm shift, I had fallen for a woman from Venezuela in my own backyard. A woman who had the same enthusiasm for travel that I had. A woman who offered the possibilities of opening the pathways to a life less ordinary beyond the cold, grey, cloudy shores of Britain. However, I had mixed feelings about the timing of this unexpected romance. I wanted to enjoy my Asian adventure as a free agent and an unexpected long distance romance presented distractions. I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to invest in the possibility of something more developing from what had only been a brief relationship at the expense of suffocating my experience of living in Indonesia. But, life’s a crazy bitch – sometimes demanding, sometimes a nightmare and frequently unpredictable. It usually depends on the choices you make. I had only been in Jakarta for a week and already I had reservations about staying much more than six months. So, perhaps selfishly, my thoughts at this time were leaning toward a reunion with this beautiful woman from Caracas with the Russian name.

Claire and I finished up our meals and drinks and requested the bill, which Claire insisted on paying. I had carried enough cash to cover the night, but admittedly, I was surprised by the difference in prices between west Jakarta and Kemang, which is in the south. Whilst a meal and drinks in Taman Anggrek or Central Park would have set you back around 150000 IDR or so at best, in Kemang it was expat prices and more than double that. Either way, Claire insisted on picking up the bill and considered it a ‘Welcome to Jakarta’, so I insisted on picking up the bill for the drinks for the rest of the night.

When the bill for the meal came, it was totally wrong – basically, it was someone else’s bill! Claire had told me during the evening that Indonesians were generally pretty dumb and I should learn to get used to it. This had been a ‘matter of fact’ kind of observation rather than an offensive dig. It certainly wasn’t a racist statement; you can’t work as a teacher in the Middle East and then Asia, make friends with a six foot two Jamaican who is as black as night, marry a broke Fijian with dreadlocks and pick up the bill of a Jamaican Irishman who you have only just met and be racist. Besides, the glaring mistake with the bill kind of proved her point to some degree. However, time would tell whether this was a one-off or an Indonesian cultural maxim.

By the time we left the restaurant and stepped out into the hive of late Saturday night traffic on Kemang Raya, the rain had stopped and I could see that the road was indeed a main strip. Jakarta actually had a strip – hallelujah! A place where a person can go at the weekend and hop from bar to club to club to bar is salvation for the working Westerner, for whom the alcoholic nectar, salubrious adventure and social matrix of the adult playground and it’s soundtrack of dance music is essential. We stepped into a Blue Bird taxi and remained virtually stationary in traffic for about fifteen minutes before handing over 25000 IDR and walking the rest of the way to an Irish bar called Murphy’s.

Murphy’s was noisy – very noisy. There was a live Indonesian cover act playing popular western music – and playing it very well – and a fair share of ‘Bules’. Claire told me that Bule (pronounced boo-lay) is the name given to the white foreigners and expats living in Jakarta. One of these Bules was lapping up the band, waving his hands in the air, pumping his fist and mouthing the words to some rock-pop song the band were playing with the enthusiasm of a teenage fan at a concert. He was pissed of course. We speculated whether he was American or Australian, but we couldn’t decide. What we did decide was that it was likely he would have been a little more reserved back home.

Many of the expats in Jakarta and other developing countries tend to act is if their lives outside of work are just one big holiday. They’re thousands of miles away from home where nobody knows who they really are. They’re respectively wealthier than they would be back home and have an elevated status among the local population due to their high incomes, so why not live a little. Like the man who was entertaining us, they were usually harmless and fun to watch.

Aside from the comedy factor of the overenthusiastic Bule, there wasn’t much else in Murphy’s apart from expensive Guinness, smoke and noise. Having a conversation was hard work. After a short while of shouting across a few inches of space to make myself heard, my throat was hoarse. Claire wasn’t too impressed with the band either, so I killed the rest of my Guinness, Claire knocked back the whiskey she had ordered, I paid the 200000 IDR for the drinks and we headed out to somewhere else.

Treehouse, the place for cool kids in Kemang.

Treehouse, the place for cool kids in Kemang.

We walked through the noisy Saturday night melee of traffic and people, carefully manouveuring the treacherous cracked stones, paving and potholes that pass for a footpath in Jakarta, and found a nice little bar called Treehouse. This was more like the kind of terrace bar you would find in an informed European resort. It reminded me of the kind of place you would find in the Northern Quarter in Manchester. It was a small venue with raw wooden features and a staircase suspended by rope that led to an open mezzanine that hovered over the main bar. Unlike the shrill racket in Murphy’s, lounge style, deep house music played at a tolerable level through the PA system and the place had a nice atmosphere. However, when we ordered our drinks and walked up the rope stairs it seemed apparent that there was a private party going on as there were remnants of a buffet lying around and a half-eaten birthday cake in the middle of a busy table of trendy, young Indonesians. It was a cool little place, but we felt like we were gatecrashing so we left to find somewhere else. Luckily, just around the corner we heard some more decent music that led us down a narrow corridor to a larger, even better venue called Bremer.

Bremer had the same type of trendy, young Indonesian crowd as Treehouse, but it was a bigger venue. It was all open air and literally built around two large trees, upon which was suspended a terrace area that overlooked the rest of the bar. There was a Dj in a white shirt and sunglasses set up in the corner amidst the seating on the ground level who was playing some damn good house music and it had a decent atmosphere. So we ordered some drinks and took the steps up to the terrace that was built into the trees. We found some seats and oiled the wheels of conversation with a steady flow of Jack Daniels (for me) and rum (for Claire) as we spent the rest of the night talking about travel, England and the frustrations of long distance relationships.

We remained in Bremer until the Dj started playing noisy chart hits, which the locals did seem to prefer as they joined in en masse with the big choruses. I suppose in a place where karaoke is so popular it shouldn’t really be a surprise, but how the hell the Dj segued from Ibiza style house beats to The White Stripes I don’t know. However, I don’t care for pop or rock and it was way past two in the morning, so we decided to call it a night. But before I left, Claire wanted to show me one more place.

Eastern Promise, which is more commonly know as EP, is an established expat favourite that has been part of the Kemang scene since the late 70’s. It is only a short walk from Bremer, but when we arrived there it was clearly coming to a close. Claire said the place was usually full at the weekend with the older male expats looking for easy local pickups. That time had clearly passed and the night was over. There were just a few straggling single white males and the last of the un-plucked Indonesian women left. I didn’t want to waste any time murdering my mojo in there. I was tired, I’d had a pretty good night and it was time for me to head back to Mallville.

Getting a cab outside was easy. I gave Claire a warm farewell hug, thanked her for my introduction to Kemang nightlife and promised her that the next night would be on me. She had saved my weekend and shown me a part of the city where I knew I could come out to play. I was also a lot happier knowing that I now knew at least one person who I could go and socialise with. So, contented, I took the taxi back to Daan Mogot – a journey that was half the price and half the time without the heavy traffic – and I was back at the Grand Prix Inn in less than forty minutes.

I slept well that night thinking about my Latin Lover and what other places of interest I would find in Jakarta over the coming weeks.

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8. A Friend From Home

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

Saturday night rush hour

Saturday night rush hour

The taxi ride to Kemang took over an hour in torrential tropical rain and thick heavy Saturday night traffic. I had only been in Jakarta a week and it had rained twice – heavy rain. It wasn’t making me feel confident about my future here.

I’d originally arranged to meet Claire around 7.30 – 8 ish. Having lived here for four years, she obviously understood the time vacuum created by the chronic traffic congestion. She seemed pretty relaxed about my near two-hour delay as I was sending her updates about my ETA before arriving at around 9.30. She had sent some directions involving a Pizza Hut, traffic lights, a supermarket and a petrol station. They were good enough for the driver to get me to Kinara, the Indian restaurant on Kemang Raya (‘raya’ meaning highway or road) where we had arranged to meet.

From what I saw, Kemang Raya appeared to be the main strip that ran through the area. There were dozens of bars, shops and restaurants, but the taxi the driver didn’t know the restaurant I was looking for. Furthermore, he couldn’t speak English, so it was a case of spotting it through the window. Despite the rain, this wasn’t too difficult as the car was practically at a standstill due the impossible traffic on Kemang Raya.

Kemang-Kemchick

When we finally arrived at Kinara, I stepped out of the taxi and under the umbrella of an eager valet who was assisting patrons entering the restaurant. This type of pseudo-VIP service seemed a common feature in the commercial districts of Jakarta – everyone eager to serve the well-paid clientele.

I walked into a place called The Fez, a sports bar and expat’s drinking spot that is situated above Kinara, and found Claire sat at the bar where she said she would be. She also said she would be the only white girl in there. Although the place was populated with a number of other white male expats, she was the only white girl in there and easy to spot.

“Claire?”

“Jeff?”

She greeted me with a firm handshake; “Did you find it alright?”

“Yeah, but the traffic was bad.”

“Welcome to Jakarta! Do you want a drink here or shall we go down to eat?” she asked. I was starved after spending all afternoon with the odd Belgian man and desperately wanted to eat. So Claire paid for her beer and we alighted the ornately carved stairway of the quite lavishly themed Indian restaurant below.

Back at home I live within strolling distance from Manchester’s ‘World Famous Curry Mile’, but I rarely eat there anymore – I’ve simply overdone it. I hadn’t eaten anything that really excited me since I’d been in Jakarta, but I knew my Indian food well, and if the chef cooked his karahi lamb to any decent standard then I’d be happy. Unfortunately, there were no karahi dishes on the menu, so instead I ordered a chicken saag – slow cooked pieces of chicken made with Indian spices and spinach (saag). As Indian spices go, it’s a pretty mild dish, but very tasty. Claire ordered a rogan josh.

As we chomped on poppadoms whilst waiting for our food to arrive, Claire and I talked and talked and talked and talked. It wasn’t nerves, we both just talked a lot, threads of conversation overlapping and getting lost in the rush to get a new thought out into the open. I do this a lot because that is how I am, but it was funny to be sat with someone I barely knew who did the same. We raced to the end of every line, feeling around the borders of informality and profanity, the way you do when you meet someone for the first time to see how much either one of you are comfortable with. Those borders were quickly being redrawn with each new overlapping thread of conversation and after a very short time it was like speaking with a friend from home. Of course if Claire had known my friend Eugene then she would have been no stranger to the fact that we both had inner-city origins, so I guess she probably expected me to slip into my urban, Mancunian vernacular at some point.

It’s a bit strange when you are in a new country and you meet someone from your homeland that you don’t really know. There’s an initial social incongruity, like two ships settling into alignment on the open sea to exchange trade. Fortunately Claire and I quickly settled into a cordial ebb and flow of familiarity without any awkwardness. I got the impression that like myself, Claire missed the familiarity of casual English conversation. She worked in an international school in primary education, and although she was one of a number of English teachers, most of her work colleagues were Indonesian, so maybe she didn’t get the opportunity to conversationally freestyle as much as she would have liked. Believe it or not, this is one of the things you can miss most when you are away from home and amongst people for whom English is a second language. It doesn’t matter how well their English is, there are certain cultural and linguistic nuances that only your fellow natives can relate to. To be able to release the brakes and conversationally freefall is linguistically liberating.

I demolished my food and my beer in no time. I also ate what was left of the rogan josh that Claire left behind, which was delicious. During the meal she told me about her time in Jakarta and highlighted some of the frustrations I should expect whilst I was here. She wasn’t too complimentary about the place or the people, which made me wondered why she had stayed for four years. It turned out that it was love and money.

Claire was married to a Fijian who she had accidentally fallen in love with whilst working in Kuwait. However, due to the prejudicial nature of migration policies, there had been complications with visas and employment and income. Without the right passport, nationals of less wealthy and influential nations are exploited by countries in the Middle East and her Fijian husband had found it impossible to secure a decent job with a decent income, so they had moved to Jakarta where he had been involved with the national rugby set up. However, this didn’t last long. As options were limited and her income wasn’t enough to sustain them both, he had decided to join the British army in order to enable him to get a British passport. However, risking your life for queen and country pays less than buffering customer complaints in a call centre, so his army income during training wasn’t great. So in the meantime, Claire had been in Jakarta building some financial foundations.

Listening to Claire tell me her story, I had great respect for her. She seemed like a damn good woman. Selfishness is an all to prevalent aspect of contemporary western society. There is a culture of blame and demand; people constantly talking about their needs and their rights and their entitlements. To meet someone who was staunchly standing by her man, something that I had never been fortunate enough to experience in any of my relationships, was refreshing. She was (as the Cockneys say) a ‘Diamond Geezer’, only a female version. Eugene had been right, she was ‘good people’ and I’m glad we’d met (thanks Eugene).

7. The Peculiar Belgian

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

After some prompting by text whilst waiting at the information desk at Central Park, Jeff arrived about 20 minutes late. He wasn’t quite what I expected.

Jeff’s introduction on Facebook gave me the impression of a rather professional European expat who had a solid profession that he subsidised with a short-term real estate rental business. The man that shuffled up to me wearing a dirty old pair of Crocs, a pair of loose, cream coloured, linen trousers, a white, linen shirt unbuttoned to the peak of his paunch, and a weathered old holdall thrown over his shoulder, looked more like a backpacker who had stayed too long in Asia and was no longer equipped to return to Western formality. But his handshake was firm and his welcome warm.

Jeff was a talkative man and although I was now used to speaking in clear defined syllables to foreign English speakers, I wasn’t sure he was picking up everything I was saying. He seemed to be emitting the sound of the Beatles as we walked through the stream of taxis and traffic that continually circled the entrance of Central Park. As we moved further away from the engine noise, heading toward the Mediterania Gardens apartment complex, I definitely noticed that the music was coming from his bag and asked, “Is that you?”

“Yes” he replied, “I always walk with music, everywhere I go. I love music. It is the one thing I need in life.” This guy was definitely an eccentric.

Before taking me up to see his apartment, Jeff showed me around the pool area of the Mediterania complex. It looked very nice. It was designed within a tropical landscape garden set in the natural atrium made by the four surrounding tower blocks of Mediterania 1. The entire pool feature grew out from the middle of the two blocks on the south side, leaving the sun to set between the west side towers. The main pool was raised up from the ground level and had a stone canopy and grotto-like area where steps led underground to the aging showers and changing rooms. More steps lead down toward the lower ground garden area and to the doorways to the surrounding apartment buildings. A moat of shallow water ran through the tropical flora that was bedded in amongst the rockeries that surrounded the pool. This was the fun area where children played and paddlers paddled as the serious swimmers did laps above them. The whole pool garden looked as good as any you would find in a three or even four-star hotel, albeit a little old. This was promising.

Mediteranea 1 pool

The pool area of Mediterania Gardens Residence 1.

One thing that was immediately noticeable about the Mediterania 1 complex was that it was mainly populated by Indo-Chinese. They filled the lift that we took up to the apartment floor whilst the Beatles played out of Belgian Jeff’s bag. It sounded quite loud in the confined and crowded lift space and I felt a bit awkward. However, Jeff didn’t seem to care and continued talking at a level that made me wonder if he even acknowledged that there were other people in the lift. He pointed out that the buildings in Jakarta had no 13th or 14th floors, or any number with a four, as those numbers were considered unlucky. This means that all the high-rise buildings are a few floors lower than they actually state. That being said, they still looked pretty high to me. I have never lived in anything above four floors. Ping! The lift arrived at the 32nd floor – which of course is only the 28th. Still, it was more than high enough for my liking.

Lady luck wasn’t travelling with me on this trip. As soon as I saw the size of the Beligian’s apartment I knew it wasn’t a one bedroom, which meant I would probably have to take up Suki’s offer of sharing. However, if I had to share, Jeff’s apartment looked like it was big enough to comfortably accommodate two people.

The apartment’s décor was homely let’s say. There was a little two-seater leather sofa and an armchair that had no relation to the rest of the interior furnishings or decoration. Actually, none of the décor was related. It was a sporadic mass of kitsch and random bits and pieces. There was an ethnic Balinese painting here, a sequinned, embroidered wall hanging of an elephant from Thailand there. There was a cabinet filled with miniature porcelain ornaments on one wall. There were more of them on some corner shelves that flanked the cupboards of the kitchenette and cooking area. The rest of the cooking area consisted of a sink, a twin gas burner, a small fridge, a microwave and a small preparation surface. There was also a bar, two stools and a large fan on the ceiling.

Of the two bedrooms, one was a fair-sized double with a fitted wardrobe and mini safe; the other was a much larger room that had been split into two by a false wall. The flat screen TV in the living room sat on a modern black unit with a DVD player, and the smaller bedroom had a smaller TV on a unit opposite the foot of a single bed. The third room annexed that room and consisted of another single bed and bedside unit.

The apartment had clearly been thrown together without much interior design consideration, but it was functionally equipped for short-term tenants. It had what was needed, including a hot and cold shower and a washing machine that filled the minor space of a small balcony (the rest of the space was filled by an air conditioning unit).

Jeff talked all the way through the viewing in the way that a hard seller does to smother any objections. Eventually, I cut to the chase and asked about the price and terms. I wanted an option and as far as comfort was concerned, his apartment was suitable. Unfortunately the price wasn’t. The apartment worked out at 9,000,000 IDR a month including a 400,000 IDR service charge. It wasn’t exactly cheap considering the one-bedroomed apartments the company were providing were 4,000,000 IDR. However, the Belgian was prepared to accept monthly payments.

He had originally shown me pictures of another house that was dimly lit and dull – it actually looked as if it was located somewhere in the old German Eastern Block from the pictures I had seen. He also had another two-bedroom apartment in another block in Mediterania 1 where he was living with his wife and child. They also had another short-term tenant who was staying with them until the end of October. I had a couple of hours to kill before I was due to go up to Kemang and meet Claire so I agreed to take a look at the other two places.

We left Mediterania C to go and see his other apartment, which was located in the B block. The soundtrack of John, Paul, George and Ringo followed us everywhere. As we stepped out of the lift onto the 23rd floor of Mediterania B we met his temporary tenant, Simon, and Jeff introduced us. Simon looked like a formal Jewish businessman. He had a very young face, although he was probably in his late 20’s or early 30’s. He was well-spoken and very cordial. So much so, that he immediately asked if I fancied a drink later, which took me by surprise. Nevertheless, I agreed. I didn’t know anybody else so anyone who was friendly enough to offer a social get together was better than no one at all. If he turned out to be gay, which seemed very possible, I would immediately leave him with no illusions as to my heterosexuality.

Jeff’s second apartment was the same size as the one he had shown me in Mediterania C, but it didn’t have the partition in the second room. There were toys all over the place and there was a mural of the sky and balloons on the ceiling. Jeff said that it was one of the things that made him like the place. I didn’t like it at all. In fact I much preferred his other apartment. The décor may not have been the best, but at least it looked as if it was post millennium. The Mediterania B apartment looked in desperate need of redecoration and just felt too old.

Jeff hadn’t stopped talking for the entirety of the viewings and I realised I’d been with him for well over an hour. It was approaching six and I needed to get back to change so that I could get over to Kemang and meet Claire. However, Jeff offered to show me his other property, the dingy looking Eastern Bloc house. I figured that since it was still relatively early and I needed as many accommodation options as possible, I may as well go and see it. I needn’t have bothered.

The Belgian’s third property was a house in the local neighbourhood of Tajung Duren; it was very much native living. The entrance was down a dark alleyway populated by locals, dust and dirt and I decided that there was no way I was going to live there before I even looked inside. The inside itself proved, unsurprisingly, to be even worse than the outside – worse even than the pictures he’d sent. It was covered in cobwebs and the TV and décor were so old that it could have been used as part of a set for a Kafka stage play. I don’t know how the man kept a straight face as he suggested that he could let me have the whole house for $350 dollars a month, which was over 4000000 IDR. I was tired and by this time I felt familiar enough with this man and his singing holdall to abruptly end the viewing. So I asked him to point me in the direction of a taxi so that I could get back to the Grand Prix Inn, get changed and get over to Kemang to meet Claire.

As I travelled back to my apartment, I wasn’t entirely satisfied. Yes, I had an option for sharing, however, none of the accommodation I had seen was great and I remained unsettled and uncertain about where I would finally end up living. I didn’t want to think about it. It was Saturday evening and I had an invitation to see another part of Jakarta and share some social time with a fellow Brit. Amazingly, by the time I got home, quickly showered and changed it was well past eight. I could have sworn I’d left the Belgian well before seven. Somehow this place just seemed to swallow up time.

6. The Weekend Starts

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

Pizza & Biere & Kitchenette

I got to the Tribeca garden courtyard of the Central Park mall and found a café bar called The Hog’s Breath. An interesting name for a venue in a country that has one of the biggest Muslim populations in the world, I thought. They had wifi and a 3-for-2 offer with San Miguel on draft so I took a seat. San Miguel was the best of the beers I’d tried in Jakarta so far. The local Bintang left a nasty bin-tang in my mouth and the Heineken was no better. Someone had told me that the Indonesian breweries use glycerine to preserve their beers in. I don’t know how that process works, but if that’s what was giving the nasty after taste in their beer, it wasn’t working well.

I sat at a table with my half-pint glass of San Miguel and a pack of rapid burning Marlboro Lights and tried to access the wifi. However, despite my phone displaying a full fan of wifi reception, there was absolutely no connection. The English-speaking waitress had no solution. I assumed that being a local she had grown accustomed to what I was only just starting to realise; the wifi in Jakarta was mainly useless. So I decided to simply sit and watch the world of Mallville go by and consider my thoughts of Jakarta having got through my first week.

Sat looking out at mall life passing by in the Tribeca gardens of Central Park, I was underwhelmed. If this mall culture was representative of the atmosphere of the whole city, then the place just wasn’t happening. There was no buzz. No punch. It felt muted, restrained – it didn’t have that freestyle, hedonistic energy of big cities like London, New York, Bangkok or even little old Manchester.

Pizza and Biere panorama 2

Tribeca’s well tended gardens.

Tribeca Panorama

A picture perfect scene of mudanity.

Sitting having a beer in the Tribeca garden of the Central Park mall on a Saturday afternoon was like sitting in a live action version of a developer’s drawing. The landscape gardening, pristine pathways and lawns with not so much as a cigarette butt or bottle top in sight are lovely. The ponds are teaming with huge, healthy Koi with signs attesting to the fact that they are actually fed on gourmet food by way of a non-authoritative order not to feed them your leftovers. The vibrant, green, carefully preened lawns have only ever felt the footfall of gardeners and are cutely signed with a request to the public from ‘Mr and Mrs Grass’ not to stand on them. People wandered and pondered on the choice of wonderfully styled semi-al fresco eateries that they would dine at as the pleasant sounds of lounge music piped out of the innocuous white pillars dotted around the pathways. People drifted in and out of the shops, striking the very poses of the figures in those developer drawings, like life imitating an imagined artistic impression. Happy families, contented couples, formal people having informal weekend lunches and uncorrupted teenagers innocently rebelling via the medium of premature nicotine abuse; it was like a contemporary Southeast Asian slant on 1950’s USA – all very lovely and all very safe, perverse only in its artificiality and deliberate denial of the abject poverty that lay begging and desperately hustling all the hours of the day literally just around the corner.

Tribeca Gardens pond

Central Parks Koi Carp

Central Park’s well fed fish.

Little beggar woman 1

The other side of the city – the grimy space between Central Park and Taman Anggrek where a not so well fed woman with her baby begs for change.

Lovely is a bit of a lame adjective to describe one of the biggest cities in the world with a population of around 10 million people. It’s kind of bland and anodyne – appropriate in the way that a politically correct office joke in a broker’s boiler room would be. I knew my early judgments were unfair and I imagined that there was a great deal more going on with the people of Mallville at home and at work; and of course there’s more to life than enjoying the hedonistic recklessness of unrestricted freedom. Perhaps it was just me and my perverted perspective. Perhaps being the corrupted product of a heathen, secular society that had long been allowed the freedom of equal rights and the luxury of safe rebellion had tainted my viewpoint of this idyllic scene. Or perhaps I was being unduly influenced at that moment in time by the Muslim couple sat in front of me; he was sat in shorts and a casual shirt whilst she was dressed from head to toe in a black robe with nothing but a slit in her veil for her eyes to see through – they had barely uttered a word to each other for almost an hour. Whether it was my perverted western perspective or my feelings of detachment and isolation from the place that was subverting my subjectivity with bitter cynicism, I don’t know, but there was something odd about the scene in Tribeca gardens. I couldn’t believe that this was what Jakarta was like all over.

 

It seemed that many of the people in the Central Park mall were struggling with natural social interaction. The atmosphere and setting seemed so contrived. The numerous, brightly coloured and smartly designed cafes and restaurants served up fast food, sweet drinks and confections and they had plenty of customers. But there was a strange lack of social atmosphere for a place that was so busy. People spent more time looking at their mobile phones or tablets than speaking with the people they were with. They had come out with their friends, ordered their sugary drinks or their coffee or their cake in one of the stylish cafés, but then they were spending most of the time scanning the surrounding scene as if looking for something more interesting to do in between social media updates. It all looked cool and modern, but it was also a little bit sad and a little bit odd. Sure, mobile phones and social media have detached a lot of people from the art of personal, social interaction in the UK also; I’ve been guilty of mobile phone distraction myself to a certain degree. However, looking around at the people in Central Park, there was an easily noticeable majority who were more interested in their smartphones than their present company.

In Britain, and Europe in general, alcohol and a particular irreverence tend to oil the conversational wheel. Even if we often over indulge, that disintegration of inhibitions at least helps to kick-start some kind of spontaneous action that isn’t totally restrained by the imperatives of an artificial social protocol. Sugary drinks, coffees and confections just don’t have that same kick. However, I knew I was suffering a little culture shock and I was certain that there was another side to Jakarta’s character. The side I had read about in the expat guides like jakarta100bars.com that rave on about the nightlife and social scene in this megacity. If you’re a developing country that wants to progress in the world of western capitalism, you have to keep your expats entertained. That takes more than pretty landscape gardening, commercial branding and cupcakes. There must be an underbelly somewhere here that liked a tickle.

As I finished the last of my 3-for-2 happy hour drinks I noticed that I had received some new email on my phone. A sliver of wifi must have forced its way through the smog and given me just enough connection time to download new mail. One of the messages was from a woman called Claire, an expat who had been living in Jakarta for a number of years. I’d never met her but Eugene, a good friend of mine from back home, had told me to look her up when I got to Jakarta. He knew her from his time working in Kuwait and said she was “good people”.

Claire had emailed me a few weeks before I’d arrived to introduce herself. I’d told her when I would be arriving, but I hadn’t heard anything from her since. In her message she apologised for not getting in touch with me sooner and left a number for me to get in contact. I was due to meet Jeff from Belgium in half an hour, but I was so desperate for some English contact that I called her straight away.

The sound of a friendly English voice was good to hear, although with the shitty reception and the noise of the Saturday afternoon human traffic in Mallville it was difficult to hear anything. However, Claire seemed easy going and was keen for us to meet. We made plans to meet up later that evening for food and drinks. It was like being invited to an oasis of social contact after the Friday night before. I knew Claire was married and I had no other interest in our meeting other than to spend some informal time with another Brit, but I felt the excitement of someone going on a first date. Saturday night was going to be Saturday night, not another depressing episode of isolation like the night before. At least I would be doing something on the only free Saturday I would have in Jakarta until the DoS re-structured our days off (I had been assigned Monday and Tuesday). Plus, Suki had arranged for Eric and I to join her on a visit to the National Monument (MONAS) followed by a barbecue at her place on Sunday, so this was now starting to feel like a proper weekend and I was starting to feel okay again. If the Belgian’s apartment turned out to be the right kind of place for me to spend the rest of my stay in Jakarta, then all would be good.

5. Isolation

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

Central Park APL Building at dusk

For most of the working western world Friday is a big ‘Yaaaay!’ day, but I was having the most miserable Friday night I’d had in a long time. What made it worse of course was being thousands of miles away from home and being alone.

The only people I had really gotten to know since had been in Jakarta were Suki, Eric and Debbi. Suki lived on the other side of the city in the lively expat district of Kemang, but she was broke. Eric lived in the centre in Surdiman, which I understood had a few decent places to go out and socialise, but he didn’t really like bars or nightclubs or alcohol. As for Debbi, I didn’t think she and I were really on the same social wavelength. Besides, she was still nursing her abdominal pain and running a fever; she just wanted to rest up and hope that her illness would go away without the need to see a doctor. I hadn’t seen Kate during the training week so I hadn’t really gotten to know her. Besides, she lived with her boyfriend and just didn’t strike me as the going-out type. Adit and Benni didn’t do bars or alcohol. Even if they did, they were best mates, they lived together, they had girlfriends – they clearly had better things to do than entertain the new teacher from England. I hadn’t really gotten to know the rest of the Indonesian contingent at the school and they hadn’t offered up any form of social orientation, so it was just me.

I’m a gregarious type and I can usually entertain myself with a bar, a drink and a bit of social voyeurism. But the area of Grogol where I was staying doesn’t really have a bar scene or anything else for foreigners. There’s a strip of café bars in the Tribeca gardens at Central Park mall that stay open until 3am at the weekend. There you can eat and drink whilst your ears are battered by the clashing sounds of obnoxiously loud music pounding out of each of their PA systems. There are no expat faces there and it doesn’t really have the vibe of a place where you can go solo and mingle. So with no friends and no invitation I decided to drift off home alone for a date with Jim Beam and an early night.

Tribeca at night

A busy night at Tribeca as Grand Central host one of their regular special events.

The sun choked its way through the smog on a hot, clammy, Saturday morning as I awoke after another bad nights sleep in the Grand Prix Inn. I had made contact with a Belgian man called Jeff through a Jakarta expat page on Facebook and I had arranged to meet him later that day to view a couple of places he had to rent near Taman Anggrek. I wasn’t meeting him until four, so with time to kill on my first day off I decided to take a leisurely stroll through the surrounding area of Tajung Duren.

Tanjung Duren Canal District 5

Tanjung Duren Canal District 3

I was hoping that I would find somewhere within walking distance of my shitty, temporary digs that would alleviate the crushing isolation and boredom I had felt the night before, but there was nothing. Not a damn thing. Aside from the occasional green strip where a garden trader would have his plants and decorations on display, it was all roads with treacherous paving, auto mechanics, mini markets, run down dirty-looking warungs, run down exhausted locals sleeping in the shade of whatever little run down construction they worked or lived in, then hives of mopeds and cars buzzing loudly toward the malls. Worst of all though was the stench of rotting garbage rising up from the thick, green soup of pollution that lay stagnant in the waterways that ran through the district. As for the ‘leisurely stroll’ part, it was about as leisurely as off road mountain biking. The pavements that existed in the local area appeared to have been made by dropping lumps of concrete direct from the quarry off the back of a tipper truck, shoving them to the side of the road and steam-rolling over them until they were just about flat enough to walk on. Every footstep is an ankle sprain waiting to happen.

Big open holes on pavement

Mind the gap!

Huge open holes

Mind that gap too!

Tanjung Duren filthy canal

The waterways of Tanjung Duren.

After weaving through the traffic and noise, dodging potholes and stumbling over the battered broken rocks and stones that made up the pavement, I stopped at a restaurant/café for something to eat because I was desperately hungry. I’m normally quite confident about my stomach’s capacity to digest most things in most places without agonising abdominal comebacks – within reason of course – and this place looked about as good as it got. There were a lot of people in there, which is always a good sign, and it had an open kitchen where I could see what they were doing. It also had a roof, which amongst the dozens of shabby little warung stalls, seemed like a mark of prestige. Despite this, it was still little more than a hashed together, wooden shack with seating. But it looked clean enough and the flies were manageable.

Naturally, nobody spoke a word of English. There were two impossibly cute little waitresses who seemed to find it impossibly funny that I wasn’t Indonesian, yet I was somehow in their venue. I guess it was pretty odd since there really weren’t any other expats or travellers to be seen. I had no internet signal so my Google Translate wouldn’t work, which meant I couldn’t read anything on the menu. I had tried a dozen times to download the offline Indonesian dictionary, but it just wouldn’t work, so I looked at the pictures on the wall to find something to order, awkwardly trying not to look like a total tourist. However, I couldn’t really figure out what was in the faded, laminated images. The 3D models that this particular restaurant had innovatively decided to use to represent their tasty culinary delights, mainly looked like glazed lumps of various shades of shit. There wasn’t really a discernible form I could make out. So knowing the word for beef is ‘sapi’, I saw a picture that vaguely resembled a soup of sorts with sapi and vegetables and ordered it.

The hot and spicy soup came, and it was nice. The meat was a bit tough, but there were toothpicks. The main thing was that I was now fed and watered and ready to move on to the polished and fully serviced world of Mallville. Taman Angrekk and Central Park, the twin towers of commerce that seemed to be the focal point of the district, were only a few minutes of uneven walking away.

4. Gut Reaction

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

Warung life

After the week of training was over I was starting to feel a bit more comfortable in my new polluted home. I had gotten to know my new work colleagues as well as all the staff at the Surdiman school and everyone seemed pretty ok so far.

Sally, the Indonesian recruitment manager who had recruited me, had recently been promoted to Production Manager for EF’s Jakarta operation. There’s a stereotype about Asian women being shy and submissive, but there was nothing wispy or submissive about this lady. She struck me as someone who worked hard and was quite the alpha female; about five-nine in office heels, she had an acerbic wit that she delivered in a lazy, almost alluring style. She walked with a lopsided tilt, possibly due to one leg being shorter than the other, but this in no way tilted her confidence. However, despite her little handicap and a noticeable lick of dark hair above her top lip, she had a physical presence that was quite attractive.

Pauline, the Country Manager, who had worked for EF in Indonesia for almost 20 years, also had a laidback, quietly confident and executive air about her. She had a professional smile and quite emotionless eyes that peered out through the lenses of her designer glasses from a tight, moon shaped face. She looked a little icy.

Ananta, the FX School Centre Manager, was an athletically built woman who enjoyed adventure holidays and extreme sports. She also came across as a strong female. In fact, it seemed that all the senior staff team at the Surdiman school were strong women. I liked it. It was just a shame I wasn’t going to be working with them.

Suki, the diminutive Indo-Dutch woman who was taking the induction training with us, spoke impeccable American-English, albeit at a pitch that could deafen a dolphin. She was a character that could be equally sweet and annoying. She was working two jobs on opposite ends of the city and trying to get some kind of online business off the ground, so she was exhausted most days. This made her a little cranky at times, but she still managed fits and spurts of effusive energy. It was a little strange having her working with us because I had actually connected with her online before I had come to Jakarta. This happened when I had been doing some research into what it would be like working in the city. Suki had contacted me via an online forum that I had found about working for EF in Jakarta. Most of the other people on the forum had been less than complementary and I was considering backing out. However, after I had spoken to Suki via Skype, she settled my anxieties a little. She had worked for English First for many years and offered a much more balanced view of what they were like as a company and what life was like in Jakarta. She gave me a rundown of what to expect in terms of work and living standards on the salary they offered (13,500,000 IDR – after 10% tax deduction). She told me that the cost of living could be as much or little as I chose, such was the stark contrast in lifestyles in Jakarta. However she assured me that I would live a relatively comfortable life by Indonesian standards (although that all depended on what ‘Indonesian standards’ were). She also said that I would find decent enough accommodation, which was the main thing that had concerned me before coming. I didn’t want to be living in some shithole, hovel in a shanty-town at the arse end of the city – that would definitely have been a deal breaker.

Suki had told me she’d had enough of teaching when we spoke, but when we met for the first time during the induction at FX she told me that she now needed the extra money after her business plans had suffered a setback. I was just glad she was part of the team. It was like I already had a friend on-side. She even did an apartment hunt for me on day one, suggesting that we share a place together. I agreed to the idea – although after a day or two with her I started to think that I may have been a little too hasty; that high pitched voice… hmm – could I cope with it for twelve months? Could I cope with it for 12 hours!?

I’d spent most of the training week getting to know Suki and Eric, the six-foot-seven Canadian who was the incoming DoS for the Surdiman school. The three of us looked like a pretty odd trio – big bear, little bear and teeny-weeny little bear. Eric in particular was quite a sight as, amongst the generally diminutive Indonesian locals, he stood out in the Jakarta crowd like Gulliver in Lilliput. The funny thing about Eric though, was that despite being a towering length of man that unfolded out of a chair like a giant puppet, he was a delicate thing. He was long rather than broad and seemed to be allergic to everything – cats, caffeine, beer, and something he ate in the basement café of FX Mall apparently.

Warung dining street style

Warung dining street style

Most of the indigenous workers who service the shops, cafés and restaurants of the many fancy malls in Jakarta can’t afford to eat in the places where they work. Instead, they go for lunch and dinner in the basement food courts. Here you can get a meal and a drink for around 10000 to 20000 IDR (£1 to £2) with no tax or service charge included. These are a step up from the warungs you find on the street, but I found that the food was still really tasty. However, the level of hygiene was questionable at best!

Warung hygiene street style.

Warung hygiene street style.

Eric had been eating in the food court in the basement of FX Mall since arriving about a week earlier, but by day two of training he was back and forth to the toilet purging his bowels. Obviously something didn’t want to be in there and his body was making sure it didn’t stay. He got some advice from the Indonesian staff in the office and bought some black tablets, which he took to remedy his ailing guts. He spent the day drinking water in between toilet trips, but he was fine by the following morning. Debbi on the other hand hadn’t eaten from the basement – although she’d pretty much eaten everything else the malls could offer – but she was also suffering from a bad belly. However, she suffered her stomach troubles for the whole week and worked through it. Rather than medicine or a doctor, she was relying on sleep and rest. I was actually worried for the woman, although part of me was a little unsympathetic. Since I’d been there I had watched her unapologetically shovel a whole lot of shit into herself. Fortunately however, like Eric, she came out the other end of her colonic troubles without any serious problems. After a few days rest her abdominal agonies abated without needing drastic medical attention. Nevertheless, I decided I was going to be a little more wary of where and what I ate in the future.

The main training week ended on Friday evening. There were just a few more induction sessions to do the following week in the Taman Anggrek school on Monday and Tuesday. But it was Friday night, what to do? Nothing apparently. I suddenly started to feel lonely and a little depressed.

3. Induction

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

Morning came with more mosquito bites and a blocked shower drain, which meant I had limited time to have my cold shower before the water ran into the room.

I sat in my Blue Bird Limo taxi (that’s Toyota Limo, not Limousine) on the way to Taman Anggrek and itched a swollen lump on my shoulder that looked like a party of mossies had had a barbecue blood supper at my expense during the night. I was on my way to meet Debbi who was going to take me over to EF’s main Smart School in FX Mall in the Surdiman district of the city centre. This was where all of us new staff would be having our weeklong induction.

Slide rules - one of the features of Surdiman's FX Mall.

Slide rules – one of the features of Surdiman’s FX Mall.

The Surdiman school was about twice the size of the one in Taman Anggrek and even more impressive. Glass-walled classrooms and workshop spaces were clustered to the right at the bottom end of a long office space that opened up into a wide English Speaking Zone. The back wall of the space was a floor-to-ceiling glass window that looked out onto the Surdiman cityscape. We were three very high floors up and the whole room appeared to spill out over an open ledge that dropped into the city. There was a long table more or less the length of this huge, glass, panoramic wall. The view looked like a hyper-real 3D cityscape painting. Students were scattered along the table and amongst the colourfully upholstered seating that was casually arranged around the English Speaking Zone. Most of them were hardwired into the iPads provided by the school to use EF’s Efekta language software via in-ear headphones, many multi-tasking with social media and apps on their smartphones.

Opposite the glass wall at the far end of the room there was an open mini-lecture theatre space with stepped seating. A massive monitor hung on the wall, which like most of the walls was decorated with huge blown up cropped images of some of the worlds most famous cities – London, New York and the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco.

As you enter this über modern language learning zone from the mall, the automatic glass doors slide apart and you are welcomed by the smiling staff in the reception booth. Next to them are two desks where the Education Consultants, who are essentially the sales people for the school, sit in wait for any new customers, ready to pitch the benefits of English learning with EF. Further along is the staff room/office, which occupies a long section of the room behind a glass wall that runs along the right side of the corridor leading to the open zone. It is a space that is around 20 feet long. On the opposite side running parallel to the office space are a row of booths where students have meetings and assessments with staff, or just meet with friends and practice their English.

From the coffee maker to the 35 assorted retro-styled light bulbs hanging over the long table in front of the panoramic glass wall looking out onto the city, this was a pretty amazing place to teach and learn.

A school with a view.

A school with a view.

The induction week was the usual corporate indoctrination that began with the do’s and don’ts of representing English First in Jakarta. All the team were introduced to each other and we were asked to read and then sign our contracts. The contracts were air tight but pretty straight forward. There was a section that pretty much stated that all thoughts and ideas during our term of employment were the property (in perpetuity) of The Company! Signing off to that part did make the creative in me feel uncomfortable, but what was I going to do; object, decline and get on the next eighteen-hour flight home? Of course not, so I signed the papers knowing my ideas were always going to be my ideas and I could do what I liked with them. No contract signed in Indonesia was going to buy the inside of my head. All of us had a quibble and gripe about various aspects of the contract, but Sandi, one the Indonesian office staff who was overseeing this process despite knowing absolutely nothing about contract law, just smiled, nodded agreeably and shrugged. Then after the contract signing, we had a quick coffee break – although Eric, the new incoming DoS at the Surdiman school, didn’t drink coffee.

Despite the strict rules as stated in the ‘Code of Conduct’ in relation to acceptable language, behaviour and topics to be avoided whilst we were the working property of EF, the training sessions were a great laugh. Since nobody had told me that I had to wear my professional attire for the training, I had rolled up in a short-sleeved linen shirt, denim shorts and sockless summer shoes, which made me the target for the first jokes of the day and pretty much set the tone of the subsequent relentless, sarcastic wit, peppered with inappropriate innuendo of varying sorts – most of which we had only just been contractually informed were forbidden. However, teachers tend to be an irreverent and humorous bunch. With the combination of a British Northerner who had served almost a decade in teaching service for the company in Indonesian and was now returning back home for an educational sabbatical; a six-foot-seven Canadian who had spent nine years in various teaching jobs in Japan, Iraq and Qatar; a four-foot-eleven Indo-Dutch Jakarta native who was getting more delirious by the day because she was juggling too many different jobs to earn money and not getting enough sleep; and a Mancunian (me); it was kind of inevitable that there would be a fair few laughs along the way. I deliberately exclude our American friend Debbi from this mix, not because she wasn’t in attendance, but because a lot of the humour seemed to go right over her head. Maybe being American she didn’t quite get a lot of the British wit, or maybe it was because she had been nursing a bad stomach all week, or maybe she was just trying really hard to remain professional in her new role as DoS. Whatever it was, she just wasn’t on the same comic page as the rest of us. However, she did share the odd belly laugh (and she had quite a belly) over the course of the training and, to coin a British phrase, ‘she was a very good sport’. In fact, from what I could tell, Debbi seemed like she was going to be pretty ok.

On the whole, the 5 days of training were pretty uneventful in terms of experiencing Jakarta life, although I did find out a few useful things that week:

  1. When you buy food or drinks in the restaurants or bars in Jakarta, the price you pay is topped with a 10% tax and an additional service charge that can be as much as 15%. However, you don’t find out what the service charge is until you get your bill and the tax is added after the service charge, which makes it pure guesswork as to what the bill is going to actually be; the point being – don’t budget around the actual prices on a menu.
  2. The price of goods and services in Surdiman, and central Jakarta in general, are around 10-20% higher than in the west of the city.
  3. Always check for cars before opening your door to get out of a taxi, as when the car that is driving past rips off the taxi door, you have to foot the bill! Luckily for me, EF kindly covered the cost of the damage – but it did seem like a bad omen. Time would tell if that would be the case.