11. The Colonial Experience

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

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When we arrived at the place where Suki was staying, it wasn’t quite what we expected. The taxi turned off a main highway and took us through the narrow streets that dissect Kemang and we arrived at a gated house that was randomly slotted in amongst the local tenements. The gates opened to reveal a very plush residence complete with gravelled driveway and a doorway framed by an ornate, concrete canopy suspended on pillars. Inside this modestly plush, villa residence were the customary marble floors, which spread out into a large open lounge, dining area and kitchen. Light from the carefully groomed tropical garden spilled generously in through the wall length patio doors onto a long dining table where a group of professional guests were sat. The host and his guests caught me off guard. I was expecting a shared house of 20 to 30-somethings lounging around a pool in summer wear, perhaps listening to music, not the formal gathering that was around the table. So I made my way to the very nice toilet and shower room to relieve myself and take a moment to readjust my social compass. Meanwhile, Eric was shown to a bedroom so that he could lie down, as his sunstroke had gotten the better of him.

The host was a large, stout, middle-aged Australian man called Vic. His guests included a very formal, suited Indo-Chinese businessman who was maybe in his late 20’s or early 30’s and accompanied by his beautiful Asian wife. The other guests included a middle-aged Indonesian businessman who worked in recruitment and a young Muslim woman who worked at the language school along with Suki. Vic did some part time business English teaching at the same school, but he really didn’t need the money. He had been a chef and owned a restaurant in Australia before moving to Kemang with his wife Anne, and she was a very well paid business consultant on a three-year contract in Jakarta. Judging by their home and the team of friendly Indonesian maids they had in their employment, they were very much living the good expat life. However, he had still asked Suki to get a 50,000 IDR contribution from Eric and I to go toward the quality spread he himself had prepared. Nonetheless, Vic and his guests were very amenable and the conversation was polite, if not a little formal; “So what do you do?”… “Oh really! And what school do you work at?”… “Is it an international school?”… “What type of students do you have?”… “How are you finding Jakarta?” – typical professional expat dinner party conversation rather than the barbecue-by-the-pool type of affair I had been expecting. Still, the lamb chops, imported sausages, salad, bread and dips were very, very nice.

After an hour or so, Eric emerged from the bedroom feeling a lot better and introduced himself to the barbecue/dinner party guests. By now the Indo-Chinese businessman had left with his wife as he had a business engagement to address the following day and needed to catch a flight. Pria, the young Muslim woman, stayed on along with Yanto, the recruitment consultant, and we all amiably chatted over lunch before Vic’s wife Anne arrived to join us. Eric eased into the conversation easily enough and it was all very pleasant, if not a little staid. As language teachers, we were a good few levels of income and expat society below our hosts, but teachers are generally gregarious enough to accommodate most social settings.

Suki had already gotten into her bathing gear before the barbeque styled dinner was finished, and after some coaxing, she persuaded me to join her in the pool. I didn’t feel that comfortable about stripping to my sweaty, swimming shorts and lounging in the small pool in front of our expat hosts, but it seemed rude not to – and I was really hot and sticky. So as the afternoon heat started to recede I cooled off in the water. Suki’s work colleague Pria had joined us by the pool. She naturally kept her headscarf and clothes on, but risked paddling her feet in the water. The young maids also joined us, taking a rest in the shade of the swinging chairs that were suspended from the tree that grew in the centre of our hosts sizeable and well maintain tropical garden (Anne told us that it was treated with a special anti-mosquito spray every week, as she had a terrible reaction to mosquito bites). They didn’t actually go as far as getting in the pool, perhaps due to religious etiquette, or more likely, they didn’t want to transgress their professional status. However, they seemed pretty entertained by my presence, giggling and smiling as they questioned me about who I was, where I came from and how I was liking Indonesia. I had come to realise that, being a Jamaican-Irish, inner city kid from Manchester, I was somewhat of a novelty to most of the Indonesian people I spoke with. As I chatted with my poolside company, Eric, Vic and Pat sheltered in the cool of the patio.

The evening caught up leisurely and the light faded, and by the time it got to around seven in the evening, we decided it was time to head back to our own humble expat worlds. So Anne called taxis for Eric and I and we were treated to some of Vic’s wonderful self-made Eton mess and fresh chocolate gateaux as we waited. Looking around Vic and Anne’s set up, I started to understand why the expat life was so appealing for some people. People who were earning thousands of dollars a month (Suki told me Anne earned around $2000 an hour) and could afford to live in a gated villa with home help. For me, the effort of living in Jakarta on a salary of less than £1000 a month had not so far enamoured me to my expat experience. However, that afternoon with Vic and Anne in their lovely home with their good table manner, polite guests and delightful servants was a temporary oasis of western civility and very much appreciated.

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