63: A Menu For Everyone

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

*****

Beyond the air-con of the food venues in the malls, there is an unlimited number of off-site street food available and little eateries dotted all over the place – and I mean ALL over the place.

You will find aged grandmothers in Muslim dress on the busway overpasses crouched next to pans of rice and pots of sauces from which they spoon takeaway portions into little plastic bags they seal closed with an elastic band. There are also an assortment of traders sharing the same overpass selling all sorts of random handy goods as well as fruits and fried, doughy snacks

Every day sinewy, tanned, bicycle traders cycle their way in and out of the busy parts of town, a makeshift display cabinet propped on top of the handlebars of their modified mobile cafes from where they sell peanuts and various other bits of low maintenance, lightweight, edible nibbles. This is not an easy gig and my heart bleeds for these guys when I see them peddling back through the pollution and heavy traffic to whatever shack they live in having only made a few thousand rupiahs (10,000 IDR is less than a dollar) for their great efforts. But even the traffic congestion offers an opportunity for some of the poor locals to scrape an income of some sort together. You see men, women and children with little snacks bound with string and slung over their backs for sale to the stationary commuters stuck in traffic jams. Necessity really is the mother of much of life’s invention.

Whilst you can’t expect a great deal of hygiene from many of the tax-free street eateries, the food from warungs and the pece lele’s is often just as tasty, if not more so, as the overpriced mall food. I’ve also found that these street traders are a lot better at producing an accurate bill!

There really is a remarkable amount of food outlets around this city. It’s as if in the absence of a drinking culture an eating culture has developed. Hangovers don’t get in the way of appetites in Jakarta. Judging by the abundance of wobble and the copious amounts of junk-in-trunks on display, smoking doesn’t either. But if the lack of outlets for social drinking is down to the influence of Islam, I don’t get what Mohammed’s plan is. Cigarettes and sugary foods are as sure a way to heart failure, an early grave and an oversized coffin as pork products and alcohol. Furthermore, whilst all the smoking and sugar consumption is a sure way to bring you closer to God, you’re hardly going to look the part as you wobble up to the pearly gates with your big gut, chafed thighs, bad breath and nasty teeth. If hell is crowded it’s only because there’s no room left in heaven; it’s full of all those good Muslims who abstained from alcohol but, addicted to sugar and hydrogenated fats, gorged themselves on milkshakes, bubble teas, cakes and ice-cream after massive Halal feasts. Meanwhile the Catholics and Christians must be sat at a bar in purgatory getting drunk with the Sikhs and Hindus whilst the Jews are stood outside the pearly gates, bemused and affronted, insisting that as God’s chosen people they should be on the guestlist.

Religious irreverence aside, there are a couple of things you may want to know about eating Indonesian food: First of all, food is eaten with a spoon and fork instead of a knife and fork. Rather than cutting up chunks of food and impaling the mouthful on the fork, the people here use both utensils to scrape and peel away a mouthful of what is on their plate before scooping it into their mouths with the spoon.

Secondly, that tasty looking food that you see inside the glass display cabinet is cold, and it is served that way. If you want your food hot (panas) then you have to ask, otherwise, a packet of hot rice wrapped in a banana leaf is the only thing that will add some heat to that cold fried fish or meat. Also, Indonesians like a lot of sambal, hot chilli and spices to accompany their cuisine, so go easy on those condiments if you’ve got a sensitive tongue.

The drink of choice here is iced tea. If you order a coke or lemonade it will likely be one of those little chaser cans you normally get in a bar, and you’ll need at least three of those to douse that red-hot chilli fire.

There is one other thing that’s worth noting; there are no smoking restrictions in public places in Indonesia. This means that if you go out for something to eat, unless the restaurant specifically has a no smoking section, you are probably going to have to tolerate smoke and tobacco fumes. Like in Spain, the tobacco industry is very big in Indonesia and many of the people here do like to smoke.

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62: Moody Foodie

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

*****

I like to eat, and I like to eat Asian food. Yes, I understand that it is quite literally a matter of taste, but as far as my taste buds are concerned, the variety of ingredients, flavours and textures on offer in Asian cuisine totally trump any other by a Usain Bolt stride. The Italians, French and Spanish with their pasta, snails and jamón, all claim to have the best cuisine in the world. Dream on. That’s just European colonial arrogance and swagger. They’re merely spectators at the global food awards when compared to what Asia has to offer.

The imagination, creativity and sheer audacity of what they cook up in Asia is amazing. I’ve tried Thai and Chinese food, some Japanese and a little Korean, but I had never tried Indonesian food, so I was looking forward to sampling the spicy delicacies of Indonesian cuisine.

I had learnt the words for fish (ikan), chicken (ayam), beef (daging), goat (kambing) and rice (nasi). I already knew that nasi goreng was an Indonesian fried rice, and it’s very nice, but as for the actual dishes themselves, apart from the satay – a peanut sauce (I don’t particularly like peanut sauces) – I didn’t have a clue. Ikan bakar, ikan goreng, bebek goreng, pecel lele, bakmie, kwetiau, soto betawi, nasi uduk, nasi kuning, tempeh, tumpeng, bakso, gado-gado, sop buntut, sayur-asem, sayur-mayur, bubur ayam, lauk-pauk, Padang food – I had no idea what any of it was. Then there was all the other Asian food too. Thai and Chinese I knew, but apart from sushi, all the Japanese stuff was a mystery to me. Then there were the fusion places… I was just lost.

It isn’t just the Indonesian and Asian flavours on offer in Jakarta, there really is a wide and diverse range of food in the restaurants and cafes. The ubiquitous American burger is widely represented, and you can always find a decent cut of meat at one of the Pepper Steak restaurants, or any of the many other restaurants for that matter. However, a good steak does come at a premium.

Obviously, the global culinary contagion that is McDonalds features in almost every district, and KFC also seems to be a popular franchise. What is lacking are English speaking descriptions on menus, or English speaking serving staff, so you better have a translator of some sort handy. You’ll also need a large helping of patience because, like a lot of things in Jakarta, what you see is often not what you get. What you ask for isn’t even guaranteed to be what you get. And of course, what you get isn’t always what you’ll be asked to pay for on your bill.

61: New Beginnings

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

*****

I spent the first night in my new apartment alone. Simon had passed by to drop off a holdall and a few things, but he wasn’t checking out of his hotel for another day or two. He was also busy with whatever it was he did in his job – networking, meeting with clients, drinking with clients, schmoozing potential clients; I still wasn’t entirely sure what his job was or what his role as a ‘country manager’ involved. I was a little surprised at how few belongings he had though; one holdall with a few clothes in, a laptop bag, a spare shirt and suit on a hanger wasn’t much luggage for a man who had been in Asia for the last six years. He was a curiosity for sure.

With a day off all to myself, no friends and nothing much to do, I decided to take a closer look at what was in and around Mediterania residents complex and my new Mallville neighbourhood.

Although the MGR apartment blocks are right next to the two big malls, they still have most of the amenities on site that you would typically find in a small shopping precinct on a housing estate, albeit without the outdoor swimming pools or tennis courts. So, in the basement car park of Mediterania II there is a launderette that offers a washing, drying and delivery service. Mediterania I has a nursery and on both sites there are mini-markets and several small cafés and restaurants. There is also a PHD – Pizza Hut Delivery – just outside the entrance to Mediterania II on the street corner, not to mention the overwhelming choice of food on offer in Mall Taman Anggrek and Central Park, the latter having a direct entrance from Mediterania II.

With all the choice of food on offer on my doorstep, you would think that finding something to eat would have been pretty straight forward. It wasn’t. Although I like to think of myself as a fairly adventurous foodie, I can also be a bit picky about where I eat. Whilst I’m happy eating street food when I can see what they’re cooking and where they’re cooking it, if a place looks a bit grimy, a little less than hygienic, or if it just doesn’t smell right, I’m not eating there. Unfortunately, none of the places on-site in Mediterania I or II looked like any place I would really want to eat. And to tell the truth, I didn’t really know what to order anyway.

Everything on the menus and in the buffet trays seemed to be similar variations of the same dish, some with fried fish, some with chicken, some with beef, some with soggy vegetables or sloppy thin noodles or sloppy fat noodles – it was all just a bit sloppy and not very inviting.

Inside the malls it was different. The shopfronts and terraces are colourful, shiny and bright. Neon lights in powder puff colours, Javanese and Asian themed décor, serving staff in colourful uniforms with big, bright smiles welcome you to come and eat from a dazzling choice of beef, chicken, duck, fish and even pork dishes. Rice, noodles, ramen, pasta and pizza; doughnuts, cupcakes, pastries, tarts, crepes, waffles and ice cream; ice tea, bubble tea, yoghurt drinks, smoothies and juices; hot dogs, burgers, sushi, wanton, gyoza, jiaozi, baso, bakso, gado-gado – there are well over a hundred different places to eat and drink in Central Park alone and even more than that in Taman Anggrek, yet somehow I just hit a blank whenever I tried to think of what to eat!

Food montage

A kaleidescopic mirage of colourful culinary delights.

The best dish I had eaten since being in Jakarta had been the Indonesian (or Malaysian depending on who you ask) beef rendang – voted by CNN Travel as the best food dish in the world (2014). Unfortunately, none of the food outlets in Mediterania Gardens sold it so I had to go over to Java Kitchen in Taman Anggrek to get my regular rendang fix. Aside from the rendang, there was only the rica-rica fish and a sizzling teppanyaki beef dish I’d had up in the food court of Taman Anggrek that I thought were really good. I had struggled to find anything else that my palate really warmed to. Finishing work when everything was closing up in the malls didn’t help either. What was left or left over by that time was nothing but left leftovers. But what was most frustrating was knowing that not knowing what to ask for was limiting my range, especially when you know those tasty dishes are out there.

 

60: Lost & Found

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

*****

As we pulled out onto Daan Mogot and passed the Indosair busway stop where I had been taking the bus to work every day, I couldn’t help but smile.

The bike continued up the highway, past the KFC on the corner of the street that led to Centro City Aparthotel and up toward the crossroads where it did a u-turn to head back in the opposite direction. We passed the Ibis, which was now on the left, and headed back up toward the Indosair busway stop. Just before we reached the bus stop, we turned left to go down a dirt road that led to a group of large warehouses. This was where we stopped.

As I handed the ojek driver 10000 IDR and thanked him, he possibly wondered why I was sniggering and shaking my head. He couldn’t have known that I had been trying to find out where this letter was for the last three weeks. And he couldn’t have known that the depot I had just spent the best part of the last couple of hours trying to find was just across the road and a couple of minutes away from the apartment building where I had been staying for the last month; the apartment building I had left that very day. I knew he couldn’t have known any of those things and the irony was not lost on me. Perhaps a couple of weeks ago I would have been angry, but today I was just glad that I’d moved out of that shitty apartment and I was finally going to get my letter, fill out the form inside, send it back home and hopefully get those wages I was owed.

Getting the parcel took some time. The depot was like – well it was like what you would imagine a depot in a developing country would be like, slow. I was sent from one warehouse building to another where stacks of parcels of all sizes from all over the world were bundled in corners and piled up against walls. I gave my address and tracking number to three different members of staff who typed details into old computers, walked off with pieces of paper, returned with pieces of paper, until after about 20 minutes a lady took me over to a storage area where her colleague held up my jiffy bag with my address on it, but no name! – ‘Lois!’ I thought. No wonder they had taken so long finding it, but find it they had and I was pleased.

City had got a 4-2 result at Hull at the weekend, I had a new apartment, a new housemate and I’d even had word from the estate agent back home that they had found tenants for my property and they were due to move in at the end of the week. And once I will have sent off my form and the auditors will have processed it, I will get the wages owing to me from my previous job and have money in the bank again. It really did feel like things were finally starting to come together. With this renewed enthusiasm, I decided to go to Hero and buy some shopping, fill the fridge, then spend the rest of the sunny day lounging around my new pool. Jakarta didn’t have me licked yet.

59: In Search of the Lost Mail

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

*****

My new apartment was supposed to have wifi, but the signal was really weak, so I plugged in the ethernet cable, opened up Firefox on my laptop and waited… and waited… and waited… It was ridiculously slow; I mean it was practically useless.

I spent almost an hour waiting to get the Royal Mail website to load, put in my tracking number to track my letter, which was at ‘kantor pos’ in Tajung Duren, then for Google Translate to tell me that ‘kantor pos’ is actually the word for post office in Bahasa, then to do a search for the place, which seemed to be very close. With all that done, I was finally good to go.

I used the Google navigator on my phone to get the location of the kantor pos, which seemed to be in the middle of a space behind the Taman Anggrek mall, so I went on to the street to get an ojek driver to take me there. I showed the driver the location on my phone and he pointed to the Taman Anggrek mall. Then I remembered, I had already been to a mail carrier company in there the week before to ask them if they had received anything for me from Royal Mail, which they hadn’t. So I explained to the ojek driver as best I could that I was looking for a “kantor pos” to collect a letter from England. Fortunately, he knew a little English and seemed to know where to go. He gave me the spare helmet that all ojek drivers have for their customers. I reluctantly pulled the sweaty headgear over my head. I fumbled with the knotted chinstrap for a while before the driver adjusted and fastened it for me. I then got on the back of his bike and we headed toward Tanjung Duren.

After going through the maze of little streets in Tanjung Duren we soon pulled up outside a little building that was raised off the ground and had wooden steps leading up to its doorway. The driver stopped, took off his helmet and, with a big smile, pointed to the building; “Kantor pos”, he said.

I gratefully removed my sweaty helmet and got off his bike. He then led me up the little wooden stairs and into the building. He said something to the two male clerks behind the front desk – I assume he was explaining who I was and what I wanted. Still smiling, he asked me for 10,000 IDR for the journey. I paid him, gave him his helmet and he left me with the clerks in the post office.

The Tanjung Duren post office was like the rest of Tanjung Duren, shabby. It was very hot inside and there was no air-conditioning to cool the place down, just a little desk fan that was directed toward the clerks; any loose paper or documents were impaled on stick bill forks or under paper weights. Behind the clerks were piles of packages and letters that were stacked up in what to my untrained eye seemed like no kind of order. Shabby, shoddy and rag-tag as it was, the two clerks, despite not understanding a word of English, were friendly and helpful. In that respect, it was superior to any similar such set up you might find in London.

Normally, my Google Translate app would have given me the basics to communicate my needs to these men, but it was having a timely I’m-not-working-now-hahahaha moment, as it was prone to do at times of need. So again, para-linguistics was all I had, and it was all I needed. When I showed them the tracking number for my letter that I’d typed into my phone, they seemed to know exactly what I was looking for and where I could find it. They entered into a discussion between themselves, typed some details into an ancient computer whilst I stood there with my fingers crossed. However, they weren’t going into a back area to get anything and they weren’t looking amongst the piles of letters and parcels that were strewn around the room. But then again, they weren’t shaking their heads, stroking their chins and looking confused either. This meant that my letter was definitely somewhere, just not there, but they knew where, because one of the men was drawing a map and writing something in Bahasa on a piece of paper. He then said something, not a word of which I could interpret yet I fully understood. He was telling me that my parcel was not at their post office but at a depot of some sort that was only a short distance away. He came from behind the counter and took me outside. He called a very, very old man over, they exchanged words, the old man went off and got two helmets and called me over to his moped. It was all very clear. This old man was going to take me to the depot on the direction of the post office clerk. I was actually enjoying this little adventure. I felt like Indiana Jones in search of the Holy Mail.

I thanked the post office clerk, got on the back of the old man’s moped and we rattled off through the maze of streets and canals and out of Tanjung Duren and onto a large road that I recognised as Daan Mogot.

58: Debt Recovery

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

*****

With everything unpacked and put away, the next thing on the day’s agenda was to track a letter from home that my daughter had sent to me. It was a form I needed to fill in to get the wages from my last job.

Before leaving the UK I was the English Project Manager at a language centre that delivered courses preparing students for citizenship applications. There had been a documentary on television that had exposed dozens of colleges and language testing centres across the country that had been cheating the examination system. As a result, the Home Office had made new legislation that meant thousands of non-native British citizens had to also reapply for their citizenship. The new legislation also required applicants to pass an ESOL E3 level speaking test. The directors of the centre, Mr. and Mrs. Mustafa, had shrewdly decided to capitalise on this new market and I was employed to coordinate the project. My job was to develop a scheme of work and lesson plans for the language courses and a preparation course for the citizenship test. As the only qualified teacher in the centre, I was also responsible for assessing the students, delivering the lessons and conducting the exam.

I had never really felt comfortable with the way things were set up at the MIC Citizenship and ESOL Centre, it just felt a little off. Mrs. Mustafa, who was the director of the school, had a contrived air of pretension about her. She was well-spoken, clearly well-educated and she conducted herself in a very dignified manner. She always wore traditional Indian dress and seemed to command a great deal of respect from the Asian community that the centre predominantly served. But despite seldom being in the centre, she liked to micro-manage, which was a little irritating. She would come in for a “brief meeting” to discuss how the project was developing, then tell me what she wanted to do. If I questioned or queried anything, her response was a passive-aggressive indignation, perceiving me to be argumentative.

I never saw Mr. Mustafa who owned the school, but I knew he also had another larger language school that had been running for some time. But irony of ironies, this larger school was itself investigated in relation to its examination and assessment practices. The outcome of this investigation led to the school losing its examination status and being forced to close. As a result, Mr. Mustafa put the companies into liquidation, which meant that I didn’t get paid my final wage. However, as I was now one of their many creditors, when the receivers set about administrating the liquidation process, I had been contacted so that they could recover the money owed to me. All I had to do was complete the relevant form that had been sent to my home address. My daughter had collected this letter and posted it to my address at Centro City Apartments. But that had been about three weeks ago and I still hadn’t received it. Overseas mail isn’t sent by boat anymore so I knew it must be somewhere in Jakarta, and I needed that money.

57: Hello Mediterania Gardens

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

Medi 2 pool 8 2015-03-18

 

Opening the door and stepping into my new place felt great. It wasn’t big or extravagantly decorated, but it was cosy. Ok, the kitchen was little more than a 70’s looking kitchenette with a double gas hob burner that was supplied by a canister in the cupboard underneath, but from what I had seen, that was pretty standard in Jakarta. Nevertheless, the sofa was modern, there was a modern LCD TV that actually worked, and the décor was uniformly simple, the only flourish being an abstract Matisse-esque tree pattern that had been printed on the wall behind the TV. But even that, with its colour palette of browns and greens was pleasantly understated and complimentary to the rest of the place.

My room, which was the large room with the king size bed, had a large fitted wardrobe on the back wall with plenty of space for all my stuff. There was a bedside cabinet and a little desk beside the window in the corner. It was pretty nice. Of course, compared to my own flat back home it was pretty shit, but it’s the simple pleasures you learn to enjoy again when you are stripped of options. Right now, it was about 30-plus degrees in Jakarta and the sun was shining like it did every day. No amount of home décor in grimy grey Manchester could substitute that. Not to mention the fact that I had access to a lavish pool area with a 25-metre pool and a 50-meter pool, replete with outdoor jacuzzi. You can’t get that kind of luxury in Ikea.

Medi 2 pool 2 2015-03-18 16-56-00

After unpacking my stuff, I spent a moment taking in my 29th floor view, which when you subtract the 13th floor and all the floors with fours is actually the 25th floor; it wasn’t bad.

Medi 2 pool 1 2015-03-18

At the base of the atrium created by Mediterania blocks D, E and F, I had my pools. There was no tower block to the west so, just across a road beyond some tennis courts and a school that was beside the apartment complex, the surrounding district of Tanjung Duren filled the open-ended space. The roofs and walls of the houses cramped into the area created a fractured mosaic pattern of browns, greens, ochres and off-whites just beneath a hazy layer of blue-grey Jakarta smog. ‘This is not bad at all’, I thought to myself.

Medi 2 Tanjung Duren view 2014-09-30