39: Bonding and Agreements

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

*****

I arrived at Loewy’s at around 10pm to find Simon sat at the bar with a Long Island ice tea. He was wearing the same suit and shirt from the previous week and had the same affable grin. However, this time he wasn’t cherry red drunk.

“Hey, how’s it going” he said with a broad smile as I approached, offering his well-practiced, firm handshake. He asked me how work was going, which I thought was nice of him. It wasn’t often friends or acquaintances asked me how work was going. Even most of my girlfriends hadn’t ever bothered to ask me about my working day. However – and maybe it’s just my cynical inclinations toward salespeople – Simon struck me as someone who had his scripted protocols and practiced the art of professional seduction instinctively. He knew how to warm his clients up and his impeccable social manners matched his impeccably English accent. I ordered a drink and straight away we got down to discussing the apartment.

Belgian Jeff had told me that Simon was paying $1000 per month for the room he was renting and asked me not to tell him how much he had offered the apartment to me for, which was considerably less. I’d promised the Belgian that I wouldn’t say anything, so instead I told Simon about the price of the other apartments I had seen, which Simon thought were a much better deal than what he was paying at the moment, which was $500 dollars for the room at the Belgian’s place.

“$500!?” I said

“Yes; why? How much did he offer it to you for?” he asked. Since the Belgian had not been honest with me I no longer felt compelled to honour the promise I’d made to him, so I told him that Belgian Jeff had told me that he was charging him a $1000 for the room and asked me not to tell him how much he was offering the whole apartment to me for; “Don’t tell Jeff I told you this, but he offered me the whole apartment for 8,500,000 a month.” Simon clarified that he had actually also been offered the whole apartment for $1000, but definitely not just the room. Either way, the Belgian was not being straight with either of us, and I don’t think Simon liked the idea that he’d been had over. He had quite a high opinion of himself and the idea that a Belgian buffoon who walked around in Crocs with a Beatles soundtrack coming out of his bag bothered him.

“Look” I said, “the best way to do this is to tell Jeff that you have looked around at other places and they’re much cheaper than what you’re paying with him. Tell him that you’re thinking of moving into a place with me and then ask him what’s the best price he can offer us his whole apartment for. He’ll have to give you the same deal he offered me.”

Simon agreed, but he was also interested in taking a look at the other places I had viewed in Mediterania 2. Surprisingly, despite describing his job as Country Manager for his company’s office in Jakarta, a title that alludes to a grand status and a large salary, he was as keen as I was to save money on his accommodation. I told him the best apartment was Vivi’s and I would pass his details onto her so that he could arrange a viewing before we made a decision.

It seemed that my apartment troubles were now over. With Simon pretty much committed to sharing a place with me we were now practically flatmates, it was just a matter of deciding which flat we would be sharing. So with the apartment issue resolved, Simon and I got on with the business of getting drunk in Loewy’s and I got to learn a little bit more about my quirky new flatmate.

Simon very much played on the image he presented as the suave, well-bred Englishman abroad. He told me he liked to wear a suit when he was out socialising in Asia because it helped him stand out from the crowd. It had certainly worked for him that night in Top Gun where he was very much the honey pot amongst the swarm. Even perching at the bar was part of his performance.

“I don’t like to approach a woman, I like to remain aloof”, he said. I think it gives you an air of mystery amongst the women in bars in Asia.”

“Really” I said, surprised at the confidence of this man with the thinning hair, premature paunch and slightly crooked, bucked teeth. I had to admire the fact that he confidently worked his strengths. And to be fair those disarming boyish, English looks surely gave him something that the ladies of Asia only ever saw in Hugh Grant and Mr. Bean movies. Simon was also very easy to talk with and it surprised me just how well we seemed to get along. I also had to admire a guy in his early 20’s who had come to Asia, alone, and had lasted almost a decade carving out a career and what I imagined a decent income for himself. Salesman or not, I kind of liked the guy. I didn’t trust him, but I did like him. And he was proving to be a pretty good drinking partner.

When the crowd in Loewy’s thinned out at around one o’clock, we decided that the night was still young enough for a few more – but not in Blok M. Simon was as new to the city as I was and hadn’t yet been to Kemang, so I decided to take him to EP. I figured it would be his kind of place.

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38. Undesirable Residence

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

*****

The next morning I got up to have my morning swim, but the band on my swimming goggles broke when I was putting them on. Nevertheless, I swam anyway. A bit of chlorinated pool water in my eyes for one morning couldn’t hurt. Well maybe a bit of chlorinated water wouldn’t have hurt, but whatever anti-bacterial agent the pool maintenance staff used to sanitise the pool water at Centro City managed to temporarily blind my right eye. I was squinting like Popeye on the busway journey to Podomoro City and for about an hour afterwards. But blind in one eye or not, I was determined to find an apartment.

I followed the same routine as I had done the day before, albeit with a visual handicap and a little less enthusiasm, but all I got were the same responses: Twelve month contract and money up front. The best offer I got was a six-month contract, but that was still with the money in advance. It was pissing me off because I had asked Sally the recruitment manager if I would be able to find decent accommodation on the salary EF were paying and she assured me it would not be a problem. So far choices were looking extremely limited. The only glimmer of hope came right at the end of the day when I met with an estate agent who told me she had a couple of two-bedroom apartments available for 6,000,000 IDR on a pay-monthly basis. Not exactly within budget, but at least I wouldn’t be committed. If something came up at a later date I could always move out, so it was worth a look.

Sammy Ming was a little dark-skinned Indo-Chinese woman who worked for Vivi Properties. She had no connection to the other Vivi (whose name isn’t actually Vivi) and did not look quite as trustworthy. Sammy Ming was a shifty-looking woman with narrow eyes, badly drawn, old and worn tattoos up her arms, and a set of teeth that were little more than rotted, brown, stumps. Her office was a bit of a shit tip too. There were stacks of old fashioned furniture piled up everywhere and even more of this old junk stacked up behind a long screen that split the room in two. The walls were decorated in old, garish wallpaper and there were a series of cheap paintings of Jesus hung up on the walls. I think these paintings were artistic depictions of the Stations of the Cross, but I’m sure there were some missing and they were definitely not in the right order.

Sammy Ming had a couple of units to show me that she was prepared to rent on a monthly basis. The first one was a shithole in Mediterania 1 that was dank, dull and horrible. The walls quivered with a scurry of movement as soon as the door was opened as a gang of little half-grown roaches rushed back to their cracks. I was surprised this dwarf-like woman even had the gall to show it to me, let alone keep a straight face whilst doing so.

The other place she had to show was a two-bedroom apartment in the Mediterania 2 complex. This was much nicer, but it wasn’t as nice as the one that Vivi was offering in the same block for 500,000 less.

After two days of apartment hunting things weren’t looking good. Belgian Jeff had extended his deadline, which led me to believe that he didn’t have anyone else lined up to take the place. Nevertheless, I didn’t really want to share a place with someone I hadn’t even met yet and parade of random people dropping in for short stays as and when his online bookings came in. No, that was not an option; therefore, to avoid shelling out too much on rent I had to try and get Simon to agree to sharing. The week before when we had met at Loewy’s I had completely forgotten to talk to him about it, so I sent him a text message to see if he was still interested. His reply came straight away and he still seemed very keen on the idea, so we arranged to meet in Loewy’s again later that night. This time I was going to make sure that we did actually discuss the apartment before either of us got too drunk to make any sense.

37. Positive Mental Attitude

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

*****

As had become my new routine, I started the day with a swim, which was proving to be an invigorating morning tonic. I was now up to twenty unbroken lengths (ten breaststroke followed by another ten of front crawl). As I was drying off, I was approached by a round, little African man with bulging, sleepy eyes and a happy face. He started speaking to me in some foreign language I didn’t recognise or understand; “What?” I replied.

“You are from Morocco?” he then asked in English.

“No” I said, “I’m from Manchester. England.”

“Ooooh – I t’ought you were my friend from Morocco”, he said. He then introduced himself and his colleague; “My name is Duda, this is my friend Ali.” Ali was a slimmer, but equally short man. He smiled at me warmly as he offered his hand.

“Where are you from?” I asked them.

“We’re from Tanzania. What are you doing in Indonesia?” he asked me. I told him I was an English teacher and asked him what he was doing here.

“Business” he said, “Jakarta a very good place for business.” He then smiled, wished me a good day and he and his colleague walked to the sheltered area of the uncompleted bar that was at the other end of the pool. There seemed to be quite a few African’s who were staying at the Grand Prix Inn, but I had never spoken to any of them until now. I wondered if they were all here on business. Surely they couldn’t have been at the Centro City for a holiday!

My morning swims were helping me face the day with enthusiasm. It would have been nice to use the Centro City gym on occasion, but it was apparently closed due to a leak in the roof. It had been closed all the time I had been there so God knows how long it had been closed before I came, or when they planned on getting it opened again. I suppose just saying you have a gym on the website and promotional flyer is good enough. The pool bar also looked as if it had been incomplete for a very long time, and there were dozens of cracked and broken tiles around the pool that hadn’t been replaced, or even filled, just waiting to slice open a naked toe. Centro City really was a shit place to stay and didn’t do much to enamour me with Jakarta. However, once I got my own place, I was sure that I would be a lot more comfortable and feel a lot more optimistic about living here.

I arrived at the Mediterania complex at around midday with no plan of action other than optimism. I knew there were plenty of estate agents in the office units on the ground levels of both buildings, so I spent the entire afternoon asking around for available accommodation. However, by the time the working day had approached its end my moving options looked no better than they had in the morning and my optimism had faded.

I had spent the whole day doing a lot of waiting around in air conditioned offices and answering a lot of questions about where I was from, what I was doing in Jakarta, how long I was staying, how much money I wanted to spend and what kind of apartment I was looking for – “Manchester, England… Teaching English… At least six months… No more than five million for a one bedroom apartment and I want to pay monthly…” Unfortunately, to this final answer the response was always the same – “Sorry mister, we only have twelve month contract.”

My first day of apartment hunting had been hot, frustrating and ultimately fruitless, but tomorrow was another day and I was determined to remain positive.

36. Back to School

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

*****

My weekend break in Jogja had given me a taste of what the real Indonesia had to offer. The monumental Prambanan and Borobudur temples were impressive, but it was also just as interesting to see the Indonesians in an environment outside of the concrete catastrophe of Jakarta. Passing through the mountains and villages and seeing the Javanese people going about their day-to-day lives in a rural setting offered a different perspective on life in this country and I had really enjoyed my brief stay.

On the final day, my flight back to Jakarta wasn’t scheduled until after five in the afternoon, so after checking out of the Puri Artha I spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around the little hotel pool where I was practically undisturbed for the entire time. As I dipped in and out of the empty pool and lounged on the sun lounger, I thought about the last two weeks. They had felt very long, but they had been pretty easy going. There I was lying in the sun at the end of my first holiday since I had become an English teacher for EF in Jakarta and I had only done about a day and a half of actual teaching work. As honeymoon periods go, this was pretty satisfying. However, on my first day back at the school I was to find that this long honeymoon period was over.

My work contract stated that I would only ever get an absolute maximum of twenty-four teaching hours to do each week. When I got back to work on Monday afternoon I found that my timetable had been generously filled with twenty teaching sessions. Whilst only a few of those sessions actually needed planning from scratch, delivering three or four fifty-minute teaching slots back-to-back with only a ten-minute break in between is pretty intense. But I got to meet more students and I was remembering more of their names – Vendi, Handi, Harry, Budi, Yudi, Yoda, Florbella, Lydia, Natasha, Ivan, Andre, Aldo, Putri, Phil, Bernard, Lucky – so many names, so little recall and so little time in between classes. With a full timetable and such a tight turnaround I was literally racing through the day, but I was learning a lot about my students.

English classes at the EF school were not cheap by Indonesian standards, but most of the students were professionals with good jobs. Many of them managed departments in companies, some were recent graduates or students with aspirations to become successful entrepreneurs. Handi worked for his sister’s company, Yoda was a departmental manager for a distribution company, Harry was the senior manager responsible for brand endorsements on products with Disney and Pixar, Budi was an engineer, Florbella was training to be a doctor but wanted to be a photographer, Ivan was aiming to finish college and go to a university in America, Bernard was an aspiring software engineer – these were all middle class Indonesians with ambition and family money behind them. Some of that money had been hard earned by parents who had slogged away for years in their shops or warungs to give their children the opportunities that they had never had, and these young people really appreciated that sacrifice. In one of the lessons we discussed who were the people that they most admired in there lives. Almost all the students talked about their fathers, the men who had worked so hard to give them an opportunity to go to the schools, colleges and universities they had attended. Budi spoke of the love and admiration he had for his wife who had supported him and his family whilst he went out to work. If asked about inspirational people in their lives, many English students would have no doubt cited sportsmen and women, film stars, singers and other celebrities. In Indonesia they recognised that the real role models in their lives were those people that gave them life, nurtured them into adulthood and supported them, not successful, wealthy strangers with great PR.

By the time my first day back had come to an end my throat was dry and I was pretty exhausted. I had left the school too late to be able to get anything to eat from the mall because most of the restaurants start packing up at around 9.15pm, so all I had to look forward to when I got home were coffee, cake and some snack food I had picked up in the Hero supermarket in Mall Taman Anggrek. Unfortunately, when I got home that evening, a colony of micro ants had gotten to the cake before me. Not just the cake but also the few other snacks I had stored in the cupboard – sugar, cornflakes, apples, crisps – these tiny little bastards were in everything, not to mention all over the kitchen worktop. It was my own fault. I had forgotten the tropical home rule of keeping everything packed in airtight containers and never leaving so much as a drop of spillage un-cleaned. So, tired and hungry, I went downstairs to the onsite minimart, bought some bleach and then spent half an hour wiping down all the surfaces of the kitchenette in my room. I then wrapped all the food seized by the ants up in a carrier bag and discarded it in the waste disposal that was at the end of the corridor on my floor. By the time I had finished cleaning up it was after 10pm and I was still hungry. I knew the café downstairs closed at around 11pm, so I rushed down to get myself a takeaway meal.

The café menu didn’t look too appetising, but I eventually settled on the chicken teriyaki with noodles. Twenty minutes later it was ready, wrapped and packed for me to take up to my room. When I got to my room and opened up my Styrofoam-boxed late dinner, there was no teriyaki in there, but there were these strips of chicken coated in batter that came with noodles and a gelatinous gravy.

Maybe the people in the café got teriyaki, teppanyaki and tempura all mixed up, or maybe they were just plain stupid, but what I had was not chicken teriyaki and I wanted chicken teriyaki! I was really pissed off, but I was just too tired and hungry to go back down and argue with them. The smiling girl who worked their wasn’t pretty, but she was nice. She was nice but also very dim. And she didn’t speak any English. There was another guy with a wonky, offset eye who was also very nice and he did speak some English. But he was also as dumb as that stray eye made him look. No, I didn’t have the energy to humour the smiling idiots in the café so I just ate what they had given me. And yes, it tasted as shit as it looked, but I ate all of it anyway. The important thing was that I wasn’t going to wake up hungry the next day because I had to go and find myself an apartment.

Despite the full timetable of my third week, Tuesday and Wednesday were my designated days off. So even though I had only just returned from my little holiday, I got another two days off straight away. But those two days were not going to be spent idling. No, I’d had enough rest and relaxation, I needed to spend those two days apartment hunting.

 

 

27. A Sound Sleep, A Big Breakfast and A Road Trip With Nana

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

*****

I slept very soundly amidst the soft cotton and deep layers of bedding on my hotel bed. Unlike the Grand Prix Inn, there had been no roar of traffic, noisy neighbours or early morning call to prayer to disturb me. The Javanese tranquillity of the Puri Artha remained silently intact; that is until the insistent, chiming, alarm, rang repetitively from my phone to tell me it was 7am. Morning had come too soon.

With my head enveloped in the plump, padding of pillows and quilt, nothing was more appealing than staying right there in that bed and not moving, so I snoozed my alarm and postponed my awakening for “just ten more minutes”. But it was off again in what seemed like a few seconds, only this time I was ready.

An intense beam of sunshine forced it’s way under a gap in the blackout curtains to sell me another glorious, sunny, South East Asian day, but there was no pitch required. After filling myself up at the breakfast buffet, I would be spending the day being driven through the hills and valleys of Central Java and seeing some sights. With this type of motivation, getting out of bed isn’t the chore it usually is for me. So I sprung out of my quilted pit and into the shower before heading to the al fresco restaurant to see what the breakfast buffet had to offer.

I was expecting a message from reception at around eight to tell me when my driver arrived so I didn’t have a huge amount of time to eat breakfast, which was a shame because there was plenty of it. Fresh fruit and juices, yoghurts, cereals, croissants, cakes, pastries, teas and coffee; there was a chef at the hotplate throwing together freshly made omelettes-to-order and there were also a host of Indonesian style spicy dishes, noodles and rice.

I was one of only a handful of guests who were eating at the time, so there was no waiting or crowding or noisy chatter and clinking of plates and cutlery. I chose a table and had a glass of juice and some fresh fruit to start before the waiter came over to offer me a hot coffee. As he poured I went to the buffet and gathered a collection of the little cakes and pastries and brought them back to the table. I then went to see the hotplate man about an omelette. Whilst the omelette was being put together I got myself some spicy vegetable noodles and some chicken wings; I had a long day ahead of me and I wanted to start it on a full stomach.

Puri Artha Gardens

 

I fully enjoyed my four-course breakfast under the roof of the pagodalike restaurant. As I looked out into the sunny little hotel garden, the delicate sound of trickling water features gently filling the empty silent space, I felt the most at ease and relaxed than I had been since arriving in Indonesia. Although I had only been in the country a couple of weeks, between the preparation for leaving and the initial settling in period, I needed this holiday break.

As I washed down the last of the mini Danish pastries with a mouthful of warm coffee it was almost eight o’clock.I returned to my room and got together everything I would need for the day: phone, camera, sunglasses and wallet. I didn’t want to be encumbered by any unnecessary incidentals. But as eight came and went there was still no call from reception about my driver, so I decided to go and find him.

I walked into the reception area and saw a little Indonesian man sat on the sofa reading a newspaper. He looked up as I approached, seemingly knowing I was his passenger.

“Are you my driver?” I asked.

“Mr Green?” He replied.

“Yes” I said, “Sorry I’m late, I thought someone was going to call to tell me you were here”. He just smiled, stood up and took the hand I offered. He shook my hand weakly, still smiling in the friendly and subservient manner that Indonesian workers do. I suspected straight away that he couldn’t speak English, so I asked; “Do you speak English?”

“No speak English.”

“No English at all?” I asked in frustration – constantly not getting what you’re told your going to get is very, very frustrating.

“No English sir, only speak Indonesia” he replied, his big smile still holding.

I smiled back at him and shook my head with a big, wry, sigh; it’s all you can do when you’re faced with the Groundhog Day of Indonesian ineptitude you faced in this country. I had all day with this driver and he didn’t speak any English, but what was I going to do?

“Ok”, I said, “I was told that you could speak English… err… Ok, well, erm… Ok, well… let’s go then.”

The driver’s name was Nana and he drove an air-conditioned Toyota SUV with tinted windows, so at least we would be comfortable. Although he said he didn’t speak any English, he knew the odd word here and there. Not enough for a conversation, but I had Google translate on my phone so we had the means for the most basic of communication. I told myself it might be a fun experience and an opportunity to learn a bit of Bahasa spending the day with a non-English speaking Indonesian. I had to tell myself something rather than be pissed off about being out all day with a driver who didn’t understand me. Also, since the Puri Artha also advertised a spa and its own in-house ‘beauty therapists’, I decided that after twelve hours of driving and walking around the sights of Central Java, a massage would be the perfect tonic for when I returned.

Before we took to the road, I had to make a stop in town so that I could change some more money, so I loaded up some useful words and phrases on my phone to elicit simple conversation as we set off to the nearest money changer. Nana selected one of only one CD he had to play so that the silence was filled with music; soundtrack 1 – How Much is That Doggie in the Window by Doris Day. This was going to be an interesting trip if nothing else. And even if it was nothing else, coming back to a Javanese massage would be some consolation.

23: Enough Already!

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

FX School big window view

My view of Jakarta had been enlivened a little since I had arrived a couple of weeks ago. The city had been opened up and exposed some of itself. Amongst the slick suits and loud shirts there was also the inevitable dirty laundry; there was a little more in this wardrobe than headscarves, robes and work wear. However, there were still no surprises. I had found no magical doorway leading to a world of culture, wonder and excitement in Jakarta. Whilst it had been fun to let off some steam and it was interesting to get some exposure to the seedier side of the place, I still didn’t like this city. Being unsettled both here and at home didn’t really help my perspective on things, but the simple fact was I didn’t feel any connection to Jakarta yet. Despite only being here for a couple of weeks, I’d already started to hate the place.

My early conclusion was that Jakarta was a shithole of traffic, pollution, garbage and malls. Since then I’d had an opportunity to experience a little bit more of life here, but whatever charms this city had to offer I had either missed them, they were still as yet undiscovered or they were simply lost on me. I found everything about living here contrived and awkward, but mainly just frustrating.

The most frustrating thing about Jakarta is traffic congestion. This is one of the first things you read about when researching life in the city. It’s like New York and crime, Pattaya and prostitution, Lagos and fraud, Manchester and bad weather; a marque of infamous distinction that establishes a place’s unique character; a badge of dishonour that somehow becomes an accepted trademark. However, it isn’t just the stagnant traffic that prevents things from happening in Jakarta.

NOT rush hour.

NOT rush hour.

When you need to get somewhere fast in Jakarta it’s as if you’re time is struggling to move through the dense, thick, polluted atmosphere. Despite being one of the most populated cities in the world, everyone walks at a shuffle pace. This is particularly annoying when you’re in a hurry and you find yourself really tempted to punch people shuffling in front of you in the back of the head. I don’t think this slow shuffling is down to the heat either. Nobody walks anywhere here because a consistent level pavement that isn’t used as an ojek stand or vending site for traders is such a luxury. The better paid working population spend most of their time stuck in air-conditioned vehicles in traffic jams in between going to air-conditioned apartments, offices and huge malls. The lower paid locals who aren’t on mopeds pack into the death traps that pass as local buses. No, it’s as if there’s an invisible cord binding people’s upper thighs together and preventing steps from being any longer than six inches. Steps move as much sideways as forwards. I wouldn’t be surprised if Indonesians were banned by FIFA from being professional referees as they could never measure out the correct distance for a free kick.

The fact that many things just don’t seem to work properly contributes to the frustrations of life in Jakarta. Lifts that indicate ‘up’ go down and lifts that indicate ‘down’ go up. Empty buses stop at packed busway stations, then without any explanation they drive off without collecting passengers. Most of those buses don’t have adequate markings or a display to indicate their number or destination. Wifi signals show full strength but fail to connect. Menus don’t show the actual price that the customer is paying or the actual service charges, despite the fact that service charges vary from place to place. The Padang food is nice, but it’s served cold and not many places will warm it for you. The currency is so weak that everything is rounded up to the nearest 100 and taxi drivers automatically help themselves to the best part of the nearest 10000 or 20000. Times of opening are often just general and times of meeting can only be speculative because who knows what traffic you’re likely to face. Security checks are little more than a pantomime of appearances with security officers responding to bleeping detectors with a smile and a cordial “Terimah kasi” (at one particular ‘checkpoint’ in the Central Park mall, the guard beams at you with his wonderful smile, collects your bag and simply hands it back to you once you’ve passed through the metal detector); and the guys who open the car boots and glide that mirrored bomb finder under the chassis for the briefest of moments looking for explosive devices, do they really know what they’re looking for? I think not. No, things in Jakarta don’t work properly. Certainly not in the way any Westerner would expect. The way people go about things here defies the familiar logic of western life.

When Claire had said that the people in Indonesia were stupid, it sounded a bit racist and judgmental, especially considering that the average reading age in the UK is about 9 years old with around 15% of the population being “functionally illiterate” according to the National Literacy Trust. She had spent four years living in Jakarta working as a primary school teacher. She had seen how life and the formal education system worked here, so I couldn’t judge her judgment. Particularly when she told me the story of her teaching assistant who caught typhoid and actually believed her doctor when he told her that it was caused by drinking too many energy drinks and eating too many Chitato’s. However, in my short experience here, I had found that my Indonesian hosts were really not the sharpest of the proverbial tools in the global toolbox of intellect. Sure they’re very nice – they smile and they’re friendly and subserviently accommodating – but common sense does not appear to be a common trait. It’s as if the people in this city aren’t taught to think independently. They seem to short circuit when faced with a decision that deviates from the instructions. This is a problem, because they frequently make mistakes and fail to deliver services as promised.

When you are dining out in Jakarta or purchasing any significant number of goods, every bill and receipt has to be checked (and it’s frequently incorrect). The server seems to expect this as they wait for you to tell them where they went wrong. Then there is the service itself, it borders on harassment. When you go up to a food venue to take a look at the menu on display, the service personnel spring to your assistance and proceed to point at the things that you are obviously looking at, sometimes reading out to you – the English speaking Bule – the English details of the menu. If you then decide to enter the restaurant, you are immediately confronted by an eager member of staff with a pen and pad ready to take an order that you haven’t even had a chance to decide on. When you politely indicate that you need a little time, they smile, take half a step back and stand looking over your shoulder.

A very pink shop

A very popular pink shop

In the popular malls, shop assistants stand at the entrances of predominantly empty shops, eager to usher you in. The poor souls stand there for hours, all day and throughout the evening, desperately hoping that you will become their customer. Maybe they just want an opportunity to get the circulation in their feet moving again. Maybe they stand at the shop entrances to get some of the kinetic body heat from the people passing by because the building controlled air conditioning inside is jacked up so high that they’re freezing. If they’re stood there to encourage you to buy, then somebody needs to tell the fucking idiot who’s trained them that it’s not working. Furthermore, it’s creepy and off-putting when you walk toward a shop and before you’ve even made an approach to the door, let alone any of the products inside, the sales assistant is looming with a big toothy grin.

On the third floor of Taman Anggrek where EF have their school, there is a corridor where two competing phone shops are directly opposite each other. Each of these shops have a team of sales staff – some with A-boards over their shoulders – all with flyers and all shrieking special offers to passers by whilst horrible techno music pumps out of in-store speakers at full blast. In between these two shops is a toy shop that releases motorised dogs, yapping and wagging their tails at the entrance all day. The obnoxious noise of competing traders compounded by the shrill sound of loud tannoy announcements during promotional events in the lobby forecourt in Taman Anggrek on a Saturday makes it sound like an asylum for mentally ill sales staff and customers with chronic consumeritis. I don’t know if the shop managers and shop assistants are badly trained or they’re so terrified of losing their job that they over-compensate and don’t dare try something of their own. Maybe it’s just commercial naivety or maybe it’s just the way it works in Jakarta. Whatever it is, the noise in the mall on a Saturday is like having somebody scratch at your brain with a cactus.

There is another thing that I have found stupefying about Jakarta. The issue of litter and the problem of garbage that blights the city is something that people who live here are aware of. I discussed this in a lesson with some of my students and one of them asked, “Do you think Jakarta is dirty?”

“Yes” I said, “It’s very dirty!”

“I know, lots of rubbish everywhere in Jakarta” she replied.

So this is an obvious problem that is plain to see, yet there is little recycling done in the city. And whenever you go into a shop, whether you’re buying a week’s worth of groceries or a single bottled drink, you are given a plastic bag to put it in. A bag for groceries makes sense, but a bottled drink? You see people get their drink and their cigarettes, walk out of an Indomaret or Aplha Mart (the main mini-market chains), take their drink and cigarettes out of the bag, and then discard the bag on the street. In fact, you see people indiscriminately discard any wrapper, plastic cup, can or disposable container on the street. It’s disgusting. But it’s this type of illogical rationale and lack of awareness of the totally obvious amongst the people who live in Jakarta that make it so frustrating.

Filthy canal

Garbage floats down a man made river of shit that runs alongside the fantastic Central Park complex.

Jalan Palmerah garbage 1

Burnt garbage rots behind a bus stop in a local district.

You wouldn’t expect a developing country, where millions live in abject poverty and good education is a luxury of the rich, to have the most sophisticated infrastructure and organised services in the world. However, it seems it’s too much to expect even the simple things to make sense.

This isn’t the city I expected when I saw the skyline of towering skyscrapers in pictures on the internet. The night I arrived and saw that amazing LED screen wrapped around Taman Anggrek mall, I was impressed and I had high expectations. But Jakarta is nothing like any other city I’ve ever visited – and I’ve visited a fair few. It’s a place of contradiction and dysfunction. Regress dressed in high tech; “All fur coat and no knickers” as my mother would say. However, apart from the climate, there is one thing that I find redeeming about Jakarta and its culture.

Having the largest Muslim population in Asia, a Westerner coming to Jakarta – or just Indonesia in general – may expect that there is an unwelcoming and repressive atmosphere; this is not the case. Granted, there’s not much of a bar or drinking culture outside of the expat areas in Kemang and the centre of the city – the ‘sin tax’ makes drinking an expensive pastime. Although, with cigarettes being manufactured in Indonesia and providing work for thousands, they’re as cheap as a dollar a pack, so Indonesian’s can happily smoke themselves into an early grave. Or they can pass their time in the numerous eateries, gorging themselves on oily, fatty foods, sugary drinks and confections and ease toward coronary thrombosis and heart failure instead (Indonesia is by no means a slim nation). However, unlike the homicidal maniacs and fanatical fundamentalists coming out of the Middle East and Africa who are hell bent on violently imposing, oppressive Sharia law on the world and regressing society back to the Middle Ages, the Islamic doctrine here is one of harmony and a general ‘live and let live’ culture prevails.

The Muslim people in Jakarta integrate with anyone and everyone from what I have seen. All over the city you will find young Muslim women in and out of headscarves who are in active, gainful employment. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Muslim women are free to drive and walk the streets without their husbands. You will see young girls happily making their way through the city between schools and colleges, laughing and joking with other girls and boys alike. Even though modestly dressed, they appear so without a look of stifling discomfort – you seldom see the Ghost Wife in full veiled Islamaclava, covered from head to foot in black robes. And whilst displaying cleavage may be frowned upon, young women in tight little shorts are a common sight, as are tattoos. Nobody is spat at or stoned in the streets. Even the gay men don’t feel a need to hide their camp demeanour. No, whilst the religion is prevalent, it is not a social imperative that is imposed on everyone (but the call to prayer is loudly obtrusive).

I know I’m probably suffering from culture shock, and I do hope I learn to go with whatever flow it is you have to go with to enjoy this city, I really do. But right now, the noise, the pollution, the traffic, the landscape and the sheer isolation I feel from everything here is getting in the way. Hopefully settling into a permanent place to live will help. Hopefully, sorting out all of my loose ends back home will set me at ease. Hopefully meeting a few more expats and making some friends amongst my hosts will help. Hopefully, because the only plus side so far are my students. They are a delight to teach, and if their warmth, respect and eagerness to learn is indicative of the true Indonesian character, then this is a wonderful characteristic that I’d like to experience more of outside of the classroom. However, for now, all I have to look forward to is my three-day stay in Jogja. Perhaps experiencing a bit of the ‘real’ Indonesia will help me to readjust my compass and get me back on track to fully enjoy my experience of life in this city.

2015-03-26 16.56.52

A very misleading skyline.

19: School Night

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

Loewy sign

After Suki had told me she had changed her mind about us sharing an apartment, I contacted Belgian Jeff and explained that I wouldn’t be able to afford his place on my own. He quickly put forward the idea of Simon and I renting his place together. I told him that this might be an option and I would get in touch with Simon to speak with him about it. I got the impression that Jeff was as desperate to rent his apartment as I was to find one, so I told him that I was also considering other apartments that I had seen that were a lot cheaper. He then started to ramble on about how his apartment was much bigger than the others I had seen – although he hadn’t seen them himself – and how his place was fully equipped – internet, cable TV, washer/dryer and luxury massage chair. He even suggested that he could rent out the little room that was adjoined to one of the bedrooms in the apartment. He said this would make the price even more affordable. But I made it clear to him that this wasn’t an option for me. Why he thought anyone would want to have a stranger living in a room annexed to their bedroom, I don’t know. The idea of someone walking through your bedroom to get to their bedroom every night was ridiculous. However, such a ridiculous suggestion was not so surprising coming from the offbeat Belgian. So I told him I would discuss sharing with Simon and hopefully I could give him a decision one way or the other very soon.

Whilst the apartment hunting wasn’t going too well, I was enjoying my new teaching job. I was already developing a good rapport with the students and the Indonesian staff in the school, who treated teachers with the kind of professional respect that is typically reserved for our medical and legal peers. Most of the English teachers working in Indonesia are American or Australian, so as the only English English teacher at the school I was somewhat of an exclusive novelty. This was strange for me as a Northerner. I would never have thought that my Mancunian dialect would ever be taken as a pure form of renounced pronunciation.

The EF system of a continuous timetable of short 50-minute Powerpoint lessons that moved along with pace and variety meant that the day passed quickly. However, when I finished work at nine I couldn’t wait to get out. My work environment wasn’t generating any kind of social engagement so I was looking forward to meeting Simon and seeing some more of Jakarta’s social scene for myself. When you’re away from home it’s important to make new friends quickly or it can become very lonely.

Simon had sent me a text message earlier with the address and directions to Loewy’s to give to the taxi driver. I’d told Suki where I was going and she knew the place. She told me I could get the busway most of the way there, which would probably save me some time and some money. The evening hours between seven and ten were one of the many peak traffic periods in Jakarta and I’d found taxis take about half an hour just to leave the Taman Anggrek area. I was a little short on cash after paying for my weekend break and I already knew that drinking in Jakarta wasn’t cheap. Also, Simon had been at a networking event since around six, so I didn’t want to have him waiting on me for too long. Not knowing how much I would spend throughout the course of the night or how long it would take me to get to Loewy’s, saving time and money by getting the busway seemed like a good idea.

I grabbed something to eat at the mall and returned to the Grand Prix Inn to have a shower and get changed. I had barely got out of the shower and had a couple of hits of Jim Beam by the time I got another text message from Simon asking how long I would be. Jakarta’s tropical time vacuum had managed to swallow up a couple of hours and it was already after eleven. So I hurriedly got dressed, downed a final glass of Jim Beam – straight – sprayed on some Hugo Boss before heading out to the busway, which I now knew was a short five minute walk from my apartment.

I took the busway to Grogol, changed for Central Park where I took route 9 toward Pluit as far as Semanggi. I got off the bus and walked along the long overpass to the main highway where I found an Express taxi waiting. I got in the car and used my pre-set dialogue from Google translate to give the driver directions to Oakwood, the development complex in Mega Kuningan where Loewy’s is. I managed to arrived just before midnight.