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