A year ago today I left Indonesia after spending the best part of a year living in the capital of Jakarta working as an English teacher. It was an interesting experience to say the least. Jakarta Bound is a travelogue about life in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in South East Asia.
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 that belonged 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). We then left the airport and 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 for my welcome dinner, courtesy of “The Company”.
Taman Anggrek mall – or more correctly, Mall Taman Anggrek – is an enormous shopping centre, apartment and office complex with the world’s largest LED screen. This absolutely huge LED screen, which is easily the length of three football pitches, wraps around the front of the mall creating a bright, glowing, facade that beams brightly coloured advertisements out across the west Jakarta night. It was an impressive sight.
Adit parked the car in the basement car park of Taman Anggrek mall, which was swelteringly hot. We walked through the main building and into the neighbouring Central Park mall, a smaller, newer and equally impressive shopping/office/hotel complex. It was the early evening yet it was already dark, however it wasn’t too late to get some food – real, non-rehydrated food. A flavoursome Malaysian beef rendang was as good a tonic as I could have asked for.
As we ate, I tried not to notice that Debbi had built up quite a sweat. She had been waiting at the airport for quite a while and it was very hot, although I suspect the weight she was carrying didn’t work well for her either. Nonetheless, she didn’t hold back when it came to tucking into her evening meal, which she washed down with a very thick and colourful drink that looked like it could have come from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. As she threw it all down, I couldn’t help but notice the blunted layer of controlled hair growth beneath the beads of sweat on her top lip. She also had what was practically a ‘five o’clock shadow’ creating a strap of blue shade on the larger of her two chins. I know physical aesthetics shouldn’t impede on personal judgement, and I didn’t want to stare, but my new work colleague was somewhat of a physical oddity.
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-conditioning 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. When I had eaten 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 drifted 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.
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.
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.
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 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).