71: End of the Bus Affair

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

Transjakarta busway sign 2014-09-30

Since I was now living within walking distance of Mallville and my workplace, I no longer had to use the Transjakarta busway every day, which to be honest was a relief. Whilst there is some cultural novelty to using the buses in Jakarta, that novelty soon wears off when you have to use them every day.

The Transjakarta Busway is like the rest of Jakarta, congested, dirty and lacking any real logical coherence. There is a map and there are fixed routes, but from what I can tell there is no timetable, which is not too surprising given the unpredictable nature of the horrendous traffic in the city.

The buses vary between freshly valeted, up-to-date vehicles and condemnable rust buckets with bricks for suspension. Someone told me that some years earlier there had been a large pot of public money invested into upgrading the stock of buses for the city. Unfortunately, by the time this money had filtered through the corrupted hands of government officials, all the people got with what was left was more of the same crap with a few shiny new vehicles thrown in for appearances sake. Corruption within government and public institutions is such a pariah for developing countries. In a fairer more just society, offenders would be treated as harshly as drug dealers.

transjakarta bus

One of the newer Transjakarta buses

The Transjakarta buses are split into two sections. The section at the front of each bus is for women only (wanitas) because apparently, women being inappropriately touched by male passengers had become a bit of a problem. Along with the signs on the bus windows indicating no eating and no smoking, there is one that always makes me smile; its a graphic of a male figure sneakily touching the skirt hem of a female passenger to indicate ‘no groping’. The ‘no eating’ sign on some of the buses is also pretty unique to Asia. It has a graphic of a durian, which is a large, oval, southeast Asian fruit about the size of a small honey melon. It has a hard, vicious-looking shell covered in inch-long spikes and looks like it should be on the end of a medieval club. But it’s not the spikes that make this particular piece of edible flora so threatening, it’s the smell.

Durians are also known as ‘smelly fruit’ because the soft flesh of these pomological beasts absolutely reeks. I really don’t know how to describe it, but food writer Richard Sterling comes pretty close, describing its rank, potent odour as a combination of ‘turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock’. American chef Anthony Bourdain goes one better – ‘Your breath will smell as if you have been French-kissing your dead grandmother’ – It smells bad! So bad that, even with its husk intact, it is banned from both the Bangkok and Singapore MRT public transport systems. It is also banned from many of the upmarket hotels in Asia, some even fining guests for releasing the stink of this fruit thing into their socially manicured temporary living areas.


The notorious ‘smelly’ fruit

If you use the Transjakarta Busway when it isn’t full, it’s fine. But riding a bus during rush hour is hard work.

The average temperature throughout the year in Jakarta is about 35 degrees, which is pretty damn hot, even before you factor in the humidity, so just the sheer heat of a busy bus is difficult to tolerate. Although in fairness, even when packed, the buses don’t really smell bad; nowhere near as bad as a busy bus in a busy city in the UK for instance. But still, being packed in a bus with a bunch of hot and sweaty commuters in tropical temperatures isn’t pleasant.

Getting on and off a bus during rush hour is a mission. People somehow manage to push and jostle without any real force being asserted, which is a paradox of physical law. Yet despite this antagonistic melee, nobody ever complains about losing their place in what passes for a queue and nobody ever loses their temper. It’s like watching hordes of wildlife in action. If this scenario were played out in Britain, or anywhere else in the western world, there would be fights and arguments on a daily basis. Somehow it just doesn’t happen in Jakarta. I think I am the only one who so much as scowls during these scrambling bouts of organised chaos. The coolest person of all though, is the conductor.

The conductors on these buses stand all day in their tropical patterned company shirts, monitoring the doors, ushering the passengers on and off in a disorderly orderly fashion. As you can imagine, with the sweltering heat and the intermittent madness of fifteen or so people trying to get on and off the buses all at the same time, the conductor seldom smiles. This guy has a tough job and no one ever says ‘Terimah kasi’ when they bundle past him; but I always do.

The drivers on the buses in England – well Manchester at least – are all too often miserable bastards. They’ll happily drive off when they’ve watched someone busting a gut to catch them at a stop. They’ll abandon man, woman or child in the middle of the night for not having the right money, the right bus pass or even the right change. Yet us Brits always say “Thanks” when we get off at the end of our journey. These guys on the Transjakarta Busway genuinely deserve some thanks. Managing that rush hour madness in the heat and humidity, they deserved a fucking medal!

Despite the shortcomings of the Transjakarta Busway, I strangely enjoyed this up close and personal slice of city life. It was the nearest I got to any symbiotic empathy with the people who lived here. It was the shuttle for the people who endured this tropical rat race – and boy did those people look exhausted. I usually stood up with my earphones plugged in my ears, listening to music as I scanned the passengers in the carriages, trying to get a sense of who they were. But I couldn’t. The best I could perceive was that, like most commuters chained to a life of work and debt, they were physically and mentally drained for the most part. But despite my voyeuristic fondness for the Transjakarta Busway, it didn’t seem to like me. Almost every time I crossed a walkway towards my station, I would see a bus pulling in at the stop. Then by the time I got there, it was gone, leaving me to wait in the heat as my lungs got assaulted by the toxic fumes and dust of Jakarta’s traffic. And typically for Jakarta, whilst the busway stopping stations have fans, those fans usually don’t point in the direction of where people sit and wait for the buses.

Transjakarta busway 2014-09-26

The joys of commuting

One time I arrived at station just in time for the bus, only to watch it clear everyone off and drive on empty. I found that this happens quite frequently, although I have no idea why. On this particular occasion, the next three buses drove past without stopping and I was left to wait for another 20 minutes for the next one to pick up. So yes, whilst there was some perverse cultural charm to riding Jakarta’s public transport system, I had built up a healthy contempt to the familiarity of doing it every day.


70: Different Strokes, Different Folks

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


As I had hoped, Debbi was very cool about me rearranging my days off to take the long weekend trip to Kalimantan. She confirmed my time off the day after I asked so I now had another short holiday to look forward too. If Karen’s friends were as cool as Karen, then it should be fun. In the meantime, I was still quite enjoying living in my apartment in Mediterania II, although I don’t think Simon was.

Simon wasn’t the sporty type so he didn’t appreciate the on-site pool as much as I did. In fact, I had only seen him use it once when he had brought Kas over one weekend – he definitely wasn’t a swimmer!

I had noticed that many of the residents at Mediterania II had peculiar swimming styles. It was as if most of them had never had any formal instruction on how to swim properly. There were a lot of variations of doggy paddle, a lot of energy sapping splashing and there was one particular swimming style that I can only best describe as a dolphin stroke. It involved descending deep under the water, taking a couple of strokes, coming back up for air, and then another couple of strokes before diving under again. However, none of the Indonesian swimmers’ styles were as odd as Simon’s, which even Kas had to laugh at.

Simon approached swimming like a person who was trying to avoid getting wet, which of course is impossible if you’re swimming. He began by placing his towel at the edge of the pool before slowly descending into the water. He then gently pushed off and began his motion, which was like a really slow butterfly where his head – not even his face – ever went under the water. Whereas the butterfly is a really energetic stroke, Simon would softly paddle his legs and, with his arms outstretched, merely stroke the water like someone rowing a boat who doesn’t really know how to row; I don’t know how he even stayed afloat. The 50-metre length pool was too much for him, so he swam back and forth the width of the smaller pool, stopping in between each set to dry his face with his towel. It was comical.

He didn’t seem to like spending too much time in the flat either. In fact, he spent hardly any time there since he couldn’t get a proper internet signal and he spent most evenings at some networking event or another. He wasn’t the best company when he was there either, often entering looking glum and tired. We might have a beer or two and a little bit of idle chit chat, mainly about how his “relationship” with Kas was going, but that was about it. And we seldom went out together, mainly because there really wasn’t anywhere interesting to go in west Jakarta, not even to watch the football (like me, Simon was a City fan). Besides, I think that when he did go out in the evenings, he would arrange to meet Kas, so he didn’t get back until late and he’d usually just go straight to his sauna of a bedroom, meaning the air-con would go on in my room, which pissed me off.

Sharing with Simon really wasn’t going as expected, and after the first couple of weeks at the flat, he had already started to hint at moving.

He talked about places Kas had seen in Sudriman that were affordable. At first I thought he was talking about places that were affordable for me and him to move into, but then he told me, albeit half-jokingly, that Kas was making overtures about the pair of them moving in together. He probably didn’t see how I could read between the lines, but I always read between the lines. I find that that is where the real information is.

Knowing that Simon was actively looking for another place put me on alert to start thinking about moving options again, but I just couldn’t be bothered doing anything about it. I really couldn’t. Besides, despite him implying that he was intending to move in with his new girlfriend, I was already starting to notice imperfections in the early bloom of their romance.

From what I knew about Simon, he wasn’t the relationship type; it just didn’t suit his personality. He was a career salesman and I think, generally speaking, professional salespeople are inherently selfish. I suppose you have to be to make it in that game. He could also slip into what can only be described as a petulant mood when frustrated or when he wasn’t getting what he wanted. He would become very stroppy, like a spoilt little boy who is tired and can’t get his own way. When he was in this mood he could be quite curt and unreasonable, which isn’t a characteristic conducive to relationship building.

I had already seen him get into one of his strops with Kas when she was taking a typically feminine amount of time to get ready to go out. I didn’t think much of it, but I guessed that he had shown this side of his character before when she started asking me questions about him; “How long have you known Simon for?” “How well do you know him?” “Did you know any of his other girlfriends?” “How long has he been living in Asia?” “Does he often get angry?”. I told her I had only known him as long as I had been in Jakarta, which wasn’t very long. The other questions I didn’t have conclusive answers to. Even if I did I wouldn’t have told her anything other than neutral nothings because, first of all, whatever his faults, my loyalty lay with Simon as I had met him first. Secondly, as with the sisterhood, the brotherhood take sides in any battle of the sexes, and mine was with my fellow brother. But most of all, experience has taught me not to get involved in other people’s relationships as you always come out of it as the villain. If they break up and they regret it, it’s all your fault. If they stay together, then whoever’s side you took, the other one will harbour a bitter resentment toward you which they will eventually use to squeeze you out of both of their lives. But perhaps worst of all, if they do stay together, they will both end up accusing you of being the malignant tumour that was ruining their relationship and hold all those opinions they begged you for against you. So no, never again will I enter that snake pit. Anyway, it was all pretty silly. They had only been together a few weeks so it was hardly even a relationship. And the truth was that I didn’t even care, I just wanted to stay in my apartment for as long as possible. Since I didn’t know whether them staying as a couple would help, I reserved judgement and just tried to ignore what I knew deep down was inevitable – I was eventually going to have to move again, and probably very soon.

69: Five Favourite Things

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


Ok, maybe I’m being a little too optimistic when I say I was starting to like the place, but I was certainly finding more of my comforts, and for me certain home comforts are essential to… well, being comfortable.

There are five things that I need in my life that will keep me generally satisfied: food, films, music, sleep and sex. If I can satisfy those needs, I am pretty much content. This may be oversimplifying life a little, but sometimes a simple life is a happier life. Sure, I could include things like family, friendship and love, but I know I have all of those things. And I’m not talking about Maslow’s psychological hierarchy of needs either, I’m simply talking about my hierarchy of comfort needs, and for the most part, they were being fulfilled.

I had come to master the two malls on my doorstep. They had become my big walk-in menus. I had sampled quite a lot they had on offer, but the beef rendang in Java Kitchen hit the spot every time. There was also a cheerful Chinese woman who spoke English who had a little warung in the shopping precinct on site at Mediterania 2 that opened up for food for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Her food was unbelievably cheap and unbelievably tasty. I had tried a Domino’s pizza from Tribeca Garden’s one time when I had an unassailable urge for some straight up western food without spices, but the pepperoni substitute gave the whole thing a strange flavour that I didn’t like. However, the PHD (Pizza Hut Direct) on the street just outside the apartment building did a very good spicy beef pizza that thoroughly satisfied. In between meals I snacked on the Japanese bread cakes from the cute little Hoshi bakery in Central Park and the chocolate muffins in Bread Talk. I got fruit, yoghurts, drinks and cereals from the supermarket so on the whole the food mountain – which was probably the most important – had most definitely been conquered.

Satisfying the film void was easy enough as I had cable TV with both the HBO and Fox channels. Not exactly a choice on demand, but there was enough to fill the void of boredom on most evenings. As for music, I never leave home without it. Whilst Jakarta had offered up nothing in its bars or clubs, I had my own library on my hard drive, not to mention Soundcloud, YouTube and Traxsource on demand, when I could get internet that is.

With food, films and music sorted, I had most of my needs covered, but sleeping was not so easy. Ever since Vivi had put the fan between me and Simon’s rooms, a lack of good sleep was gradually developing into a burgeoning issue. I’ve never been a great sleeper, but waking up half way through the night to turn the fan and aircon off was pissing me off. That was something that had to give at some point.

So what about sex? What about it? I wasn’t getting any of that either. My Latin Lover was still on vacation in Venezuela so I didn’t really hear anything from her. Not that that would have constituted sex, but it would have at least felt like some kind of intimate connection. As such, I was trying mightily hard to ignore the libidinous buzz in my balls that I woke up to every day. The sultry tropical atmosphere didn’t help. Going into the refrigerated EF office every day cooled me down a little. Then spending the rest of the day looking at my big, ugly work colleagues took my mind of sex completely. That is unless Yulia or Shirley were working, two attractive Indonesian girls who worked as sales agents. They were coffee coloured brush strokes of perfect feminine curves created from God’s own hand. From the tops of their pretty little heads to the tips of those little toes squeezed into their high-heeled shoes they were a delight to look at. But even if they weren’t working, you couldn’t walk through Jakarta for more than five minutes without seeing a beautiful woman – a naturally beautiful woman too. Three out of five is pretty good, but I needed my five things. If I’m tired enough I can sleep through anything, but the sex, something had to give sooner or later.