68: Be Like Water

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


I hadn’t seen Claire since we had first met for dinner and drinks in Kemang. She seemed quite involved with her job and I had just been too involved with lots of other things. Nevertheless, we had kept in touch via text messages and I had been keeping her updated with how I was settling into the city. She had been really supportive, and she really didn’t have reason to be. Having someone who was happy to let me sound off when I was frustrated was invaluable and I was really grateful to have her on-side. She was like my culture shock therapist. She had been in Jakarta for four years so she related to all of my frustrations, so when she invited me to join her and some of her friends for a weekend on the river in Kalimantan – the Indonesia side of Borneo – I jumped at the chance.

Borneo has its own unique ecosystem with hundreds of indigenous species of plants and animals, the most well-known probably being the orang-utans, a peaceful, charming and intelligent species of ape that had almost died out due to excessive tree farming destroying their habitat. Not many people get the opportunity to take a trip like this so I really wanted to go. I just had to convince Debbi to give me the time off, which I didn’t envisage would be too difficult. So far she had proved to be a pretty easy going boss. In fact, work had been the one constant since I had been in Jakarta.

EF were proving to be a pretty good company to work for. Ok, I didn’t share much in common with my work colleagues, we never went out for drinks, food or even visited each other’s apartments, but they were nice enough to work with.

Suki had been moved to the Sudriman school in FX Mall and they had moved a teacher from their called Tina to our school, another American. Like Debbi, she was also quite a big unit, although not as big as Debbi.

Tina was very much a no-frills kinda gal. She had a wild curly afro of fair hair and dressed like a backpacker, which is how she had seemed to have been living her life for the past few years. She had spent most of her time in Asia – India in particular – and I think for her, like many other ESL teachers, teaching English was just a way to travel.

Tina was very softly spoken and had what seemed quite an introverted character. She didn’t like bars or discos and she didn’t particularly like to drink too much. She was in her early thirties and wasn’t really the socialising type either. She actually admitted that she preferred her own company, for the most part staying indoors or walking around new places alone. Another thing that I noticed about Tina was her facial hair. I mention this because this was a bizarrely common feature of all three of my western work colleagues. Debbi obviously struggled with abating the five o’clock shadow that covered her hefty chin. I had also noticed that Kate had more than a few teenage boy hairs poking from her chin. Even Sandi had the clear signs of a moustache on her top lip. Was it something in the water!?

My students continued to be a delight to work with and I was now very comfortable with the material we were working with and the timetable. Living so close to the school made it easy for me to satisfy my stomach, get some rest, and make the most of my new pool. I had now smashed the ten-length barrier and was getting around 500 metres a day of swimming. This was after watching some old Chinese man from my balcony do length after length without stopping. That was a psychological gauntlet thrown down and I was determined to get myself up to 1500 metres a day. Apart from the physical health benefits, I was starting to get a good rhythm going and finding that once in the zone, gliding comfortably through the water, it was very meditative. I had always found swimming hard work, but when you get your stroke going and it becomes effortless, the rhythm and the solitude of gliding through clear water is like a form of meditation where all your thoughts flow through your mind unrestricted. Actually, my daily swim had become the best thing about my new lifestyle. Within the chaos of that dirty polluted city, it offered a period of calm contemplation and I think this was helping me immensely as I was gradually growing to like the place.


67: The Odd Couple

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


That night, Simon took his new girlfriend back to our place and I had the unwanted pleasure of listening to them having a good old meat slapping session, which was a bit uncomfortable.

In fairness, I could tell by the restrained whimperings that they were trying to be quiet for my sake. But since the walls of the flat were made of little more than MDF board, it didn’t really make much difference so the audio painted a pretty unsightly picture in my head as I tried to sleep. Simon had told me that Kas shared an apartment with six other girls so this was probably going to be something I would have to put up with every weekend. I have never shared an apartment before and I knew there were certain things that I was going to have to get used to, but I hadn’t expected to be sharing with a couple. And I certainly hadn’t factored in listening to the sound of paunchy porn every weekend.

Moving in with Simon, I thought my apartment troubles would be resolved, but it wasn’t long before I was having second thoughts about our arrangement. And it wasn’t just the idea of listening to him shagging in the room next door. I actually I didn’t mind Kas being around, but she did seem to make herself at home a little too quickly for my liking. That first night when she stayed over, she spent the rest of the morning lounging on the sofa flicking through the TV channels in nothing more than a big t-shirt. This was to become a regular weekend event.

The place was only small, so once Simon and her were cuddled up on the couch, I was relegated to feeling out of place on the stool at the bar in the kitchenette. In the evenings, the pair of them would camp on the sofa eating pizza and watching box sets of her favourite American comedy series, How I Met Your Mother. Simon was playing out loves young dream and he seemed to be enjoying it. I wasn’t.

Simon also had some questionable attitudes toward general cleanliness around our living space.

From what I could tell, he had one pair of shoes, a pair of trousers, one suit, a couple of pairs of boxer shorts and two or three pairs of socks. During the first week he lived in the place, he somehow managed to hand wash his shirts, socks and boxer shorts in our little bathroom sink with nothing but water. Naturally, he had to regularly wash his underwear so he would leave it hanging out to dry on the balcony, which wasn’t too big, especially as the air conditioning outside unit was fixed to the wall out there too. Nevertheless, there was just enough space for a little table and chair so I could sit in the sun and take in the view of the pool, the rooftops of Tanjung Duren, and Simon’s underpants.

He also had a habit of leaving everything just where he left it. Food, crisp packets, cans, bottles, pizza boxes; he’d just consume and go like a slug. He’d never empty the bin – he hardly ever even put anything in the bin. When I mentioned this to him, he actually suggested that we get a maid. A maid! There wasn’t room enough to wave a duster around your head, but he wanted someone to come in every week just to put his bottles, cans and food wrappers away and take out the rubbish!

Simon wasn’t the most considerate flatmate either. He would use all the bottled water in the apartment – not just for drinking, but for shaving too – then he wouldn’t bother to get anymore; perhaps just a small bottle from the mini market downstairs if he really need it. However, it wasn’t just Simon’s slovenly habits that were the problem, the apartment itself wasn’t ideal for two sharing.

The apartments in Mediterania II were only allowed to have two air conditioning units, even the two bedroom ones like ours. Why? Well there was a limitation on the power allocation for each apartment apparently. Now, the air-conditioning unit in my room was ok, but the unit in the living room was useless. Even on its coldest 16-degree setting you had to leave it on for about an hour just to cool the room down a little. It didn’t really bother me because I’m not really a fan of air-con. Simon on the other hand liked that chilly, refrigerated freshness of ultra-cold air-conditioning when he was inside so he would leave it on permanently, even though it wasn’t really making any difference. This wasn’t so much of a problem during the day, but he wanted to leave it on throughout the night too because he had no air-con in his room, which with its sun facing window, was practically a sauna. He thought that some of the not-so-cool air in the living room would drift into his bedroom and cool it down, but it wasn’t working. With or without the air-con his room was an oven. A fan would have helped, but he said it would have given him a dry throat, which is probably true. But leaving the air-con on all day and night was just an expensive waste of electricity, so we got in touch with Vivi to see what she could do.

Vivi’s solution to the problem was to get a workman in to drill a big hole in the wall between our bedrooms and install an extractor fan to suck the cool air from my room into Simon’s room. This meant that I would have to have the air conditioning on all night in my room whilst listening to the noise of the extractor fan sucking the cool air into Simon’s room. This simply wasn’t going to work. Not just because of my dislike of extreme air-conditioning, but also because of the noise that came from the extractor fan. I just couldn’t sleep through that racket. So the situation was that either Simon wasn’t going to sleep because of the heat or I wasn’t going to sleep because of the air-con and noise from the extractor fan.

The other big issue in the apartment was the internet; it just didn’t work. Simon spent a significant part of his day sending and replying to emails, which was vital to his job. Having no internet was a big problem for him. And even when he bought a portable 4G Bolt unit, that didn’t work too well either. Apparently, this problem was to do with the building and the location itself rather than the internet connection. But what it meant was that Simon had to go to his office or find a wifi connection in a café somewhere whenever he had to communicate with clients, which was every day. Moving around Jakarta is not easy and this constant moving around just wasn’t working for him.

One of the enduring qualities of human beings is that we learn to adapt to any environment. Deep down I knew that the issues with the apartment in Mediterania II weren’t going to resolve themselves, but I just didn’t want to think about it. I’d had enough of stressing about where I was going to live and everything else and I just wanted a breather. A few weeks just concentrating on enjoying this temporary new life I had in Jakarta. The new apartment had a fantastic pool area, I could walk to work in less than ten minutes and there were plenty of places to eat nearby. My bed was really comfortable too. I was relatively happy and I wanted to keep that feeling, even if it was just for a short time. But deep down I just knew it wasn’t going to last long. Usually in those kind of situations, things get worse before they become completely untenable.