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 be 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 a being forced to close. As a result, Mr. Mustafa put companies into liquidation, which meant that I didn’t get paid my final wage. This of course meant that I was one of their many creditors, so 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.

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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.

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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

56: Goodbye To The Grand Prix Inn

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

*****

During my month at the Grand Prix Inn I’d had very little to do. Neither the accommodation nor the location offered much in the way of benefits or amenities. If I’d had a moped then maybe I would have gone exploring the Tanjung Duren area a little more, or perhaps taken a look around Tomang and Grogol or the other surrounding districts. What I would have found, I don’t know; I didn’t speak Bahasa and most of the people I’d met in West Jakarta didn’t speak English. However, if what I’d seen over the last month during times in transit was anything to go by, I imagine there wasn’t much more than food and non-alcohol drink traders, more traffic and more crazy paving. As for my apartment in Centro City, there was no TV and it had the lousiest hotel restaurant I’ve ever encountered. Using the wifi in the lobby required a generous layer of toxic mosquito repellent and I couldn’t even listen to the music on my laptop through the Bluetooth speaker because of the twats next door and their security hotline. The only benefit on offer at the Grand Prix Inn was the pool, which I’d been using almost every morning.

Having access to your own 25m outdoor pool is a luxury if you come from the north of England. It was the only luxury I had in that shitty place, so I had made the most of it. After that first swim where I huffed and puffed and wheezed after a measly two lengths, I had been determined to get up to at least a regular ten lengths of uninterrupted front-crawl each day, which I did. However, I’d had a little set back in my daily routine when my swimming goggles broke. I’d tried to swim without them a couple of times, but whatever anti-bacterial agent the pool maintenance staff used to sanitise the water blinded my right eye for almost an hour after I got out. I kept meaning to buy a new pair, but never got around to it. Also, the last time I used the pool, I believe a middle-aged Chinese man tried to hit on me. Maybe he was just being friendly as he looked me up and down with a leery grin whilst firing the usual introductory questions, including – “Are you here alone?” But somehow I don’t think strolling out to the pool area fully clothed in the peak heat of the mid-afternoon sun to make idle chit-chat with a dripping wet semi-naked stranger who is sat alone is standard. Maybe I had inadvertently triggered some kind of Indonesian gay mating ritual just by being alone by the pool, I don’t know, but it was a bit creepy, so I had avoided the pool for the last couple of days of my stay.

The day I left to go and take up residence in my new pad in Mediteranea Gardens was my day off and I was actually excited. I haven’t moved much during my life, but leaving that shitty place in its shitty location with its shitty restaurant and its shitty neighbours and its useless reception staff and its useless TV and its cold shower and its ants and its gay poolside cruiser; it was a great relief. I hadn’t felt as pleased since I’d first arrived in this shitty city and I was determined to make this my turning point for a new positive start in Jakarta.

I returned my key and card to the property management team that I’d heard about who were located in a poky office in a corner of the swelteringly hot basement car park. They looked a bit confused and didn’t really know what to do, but I didn’t care. I’d gotten used to Indonesian people looking confused and not knowing what to do. This time I didn’t need anything from them, so I wrote Rudi’s name and phone number on a piece of paper so they could contact him to settle the bill and got out of there as quick as I could to my waiting taxi. I gave a wave and a salute to the reception staff and headed toward Mallville.

52. Double Dutch

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

*****

Kemang is probably the most popular district for expats and Friday nights are very busy. When you come off the main highway and enter the district at the start of Kemang Raya, the main road that runs through it, the traffic grinds to a halt. I had found it impossible to time my journeys from Taman Anggrek to Kemang. The busway is the quickest way to get out of Grogol in the evening so I took route 9 and stopped at Semanggi where the traffic eases of a little. I took one of the taxis that were waiting at the bottom of the steps of the overpass up to Kemang, but it’s just impossible to predict how bad Jakarta’s traffic is going to be so it’s hard to make solid meeting arrangements.

I had arranged to meet Adam at Eastern Promise – EP as it’s known – at 9.30 and I was already a little late by the time my taxi rolled up to the back of the Kemang Raya tailback, so I got out of the taxi and started to walk. I knew EP was close, but I didn’t know where it was exactly. However, I did know that Murphy’s was on Kemang Raya so I decided to call Simon to tell him to meet me there. But just as I was about to dial his number I saw him walking toward me.

“Hey, how are you doing?” he said as he greeted me with his toothy grin and firm handshake.

“I was just about to call you”, I said to him. “It’s a good job I bumped into you because I can’t remember where EP is. I was going to tell you to meet me in Murphy’s; it’s the only place I know how to get to.” My sense of direction is as bad as my memory for names, and to be honest, I wasn’t even too sure where Murphy’s was. It was now about ten o’clock and Simon had just come from an evening of drinking with one of his clients so he was already a little drunk and in pretty high spirits. “So where should we go?” I asked. I wanted to try and find Treehouse again, but Simon wasn’t too bothered where we went, he just wanted another drink.

As we were stood by the side of the road considering where to go next, two young white women came walking by. As white women are few and far between around Jakarta, I assumed that they were expats. As they approached I said, “Excuse me, do you know a place called EP? Eastern promise; it’s a… popular… expat bar… near here…” For an awkward moment I thought they were going to completely ignore me and walk on by. But then they stopped.

“You speak English!? Where are you from?” one of them asked. Perhaps they just needed a moment to adjust to the sound of an English voice.

“I’m from Manchester” I said, “What about you? Are you Dutch?”

There is something about the Dutch English accent that sounds like the German English accent, yet with a specific tone that, if you have the ear for both, makes it easy to tell them apart.

“Yes, how can you tell?” said the other young woman.

“Oh, my brother lived in Amsterdam for a couple of years and I know the Dutch accent”, I replied.

They didn’t actually look Dutch, if the Dutch even have a particular look other than being tall, which neither of them were. They were actually both quite short. The smaller of the two, whose name was Naomi, was a slim, pale young woman with long brown hair and wide eyes. Her friend, who was also called Naomi, was a little taller and more solid in her build. She had black hair, pale olive skin and looked Mediterranean.

“So you’ve never heard of EP?” I asked them. “I believe it’s the local spot for expats in Kemang.” It turned out that they had also only been in Jakarta for a couple of weeks and hadn’t really been anywhere – hence their pale complexions. They said they had just come from a nearby rooftop bar where they were the only white women. It hadn’t been very busy and the host at the door had been pestering them so they had left. The littler of the Naomi’s said that they thought I was Indonesian at first, which is why they were ignoring me; nice.

“When you said hello, I was like, ‘what’, then I realised you were speaking English. I thought you were going to start hitting on us like the weirdo in the bar”, said the taller Naomi. I guessed that meant that Simon and I had passed the obligatory man-scan that women silently give strange men before committing to engaging in further conversation. This is an involuntary and informal ‘Not a Total Dick’ or ‘Complete Weirdo’ test that, in fairness, any sensible young woman should do. However, it seems like the assumption is always that the man wants to get into their knickers, which more often than not is probably true. However, on this occasion, although neither of them were particularly unattractive, I didn’t have any lurid intentions. And I don’t really think Europeans were Simon’s taste. But they were young, lively and spoke English with no effort at all. All of those things were bonuses for me. Plus, we were all new to Jakarta and shared a common geographic dyslexia with regard to Kemang, so I decided to invite them to join us for a drink; only perhaps not in EP. I didn’t ask, but I guessed that they were both in their mid-twenties. I didn’t think that a bar full of middle-aged expats and Indonesian Bule-prey would have really been their scene so I suggested that we go look for Treehouse. I knew it was close and I was determined to find the place. If we couldn’t find it this time we could always ask someone.

51. Almost, But Not

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

*****

Despite the fact that my days off were Tuesday and Wednesday, Friday still marked the start of the weekend. This weekend also marked a full month since I had been in Jakarta and a week since the robbery at Jeff’s apartment. Yet since agreeing to flat share with Simon, he had not yet formally signed a contract with the owner Vivi.

It was probably just my instinctive lack of trust for the man, but I was beginning to suspect that Simon was stalling and considering other options for himself. He had made excuse after excuse for why he hadn’t finalised the signing of the tenancy contract with Vivi. By now he had got himself another phone, but he hadn’t bought any phone credit to call her and she hadn’t called him he said. She had told me that she had emailed him several times to request a copy of his passport, which she needed to finalise the tenancy contract, but he told me hadn’t received any email from her. Perhaps he had reconsidered living in an apartment complex next to the man he was trying to avoid.

In the meantime, I had Jeff sending me messages asking if I had seen Simon and asking to meet with him “to talk”; about what I don’t know. I suspected that he was anxious to get me to give him confirmation about his apartment. I didn’t owe either of them anything, all I needed was a place to move into. If Adam let me down I always had the room in Jeff’s place to fall back on, but Adam didn’t know that. I also figured that Jeff suspected that I was stalling him because he knew I had agreed to move in with Adam, but I hadn’t confirmed that fact with him either. So as it stood, until Adam signed the contract with Vivi and paid his deposit, I was still in a limbo of sorts.

It was all ridiculous. I felt like one of the players in some petty drama where all the characters were trying to con, bluff and double-bluff each other: An English teacher thousands of miles from home, a salacious salesman masquerading as an English gent and a Belgian buffoon with a place to rent. But who can be trusted? It was comical really. But at the same time it wasn’t, because I needed to move, and my time was running out.

I didn’t want to give Simon an ultimatum so instead I pretended to be relaxed about the apartment and told him that I had found another place that I could move into if he was having second thoughts. This seemed to spur him into action and he promised to arrange a meeting for us to get the keys off Vivi on the Monday. In truth, I had until the following Wednesday, which bought me a little bit of time if he didn’t come through as agreed.

I may have been just a little paranoid about Simon, but I didn’t really know this guy and my instincts were telling me that he couldn’t be relied on or trusted. There was just something about him that I found ingenuous. Probably that fact that he was a salesman; can you ever take the word of a salesman? There always seems to be something manipulative between the lines of what a salesman says. So it was with Adam, with his penchant for evading direct answers to direct questions and his ever so particular choice of the appropriate adjective. Furthermore, he described himself as a libertine and seemed quite proud of the fact that he had no moral qualms about how he sought his pleasures. Obviously, this wasn’t the best foundation for the start of a flat sharing relationship, but unfortunately I wasn’t left with much choice. Nevertheless, it was Friday and Friday is the first day of the weekend and should be a good day anywhere. Whatever Adam’s faults, he was a fun guy to go drinking with, and he was the only guy I had to go drinking with. So with Monday set as the date for signing the contract and collecting the keys, we agreed to meet in Kemang for a night out. Also, with this being Simon the salesman, there was another reason why he was keen to go out – I still owed him for that night he had covered in Loewy’s and Blok M a couple weeks earlier. This night was going to be on me, but there would be no late night pick ups!

50. Mind The Gap

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

*****

As I walked in the sticky heat from FX mall to the main atrium at the centre of Senayan Plaza, the sharpness of contrast between the lives out on the street and the aspiring lifestyles presented in the mall was startling. Passing the sweating vagrants and exhausted hawkers pitched up along the road desperately trying to earn a living whilst those who had broken through, those who had gained employment, those who had gained a uniform, those who were shielded from the unsightly poverty grazed in the shop windows inside, cut through to the poor inner city kid at my core. I just couldn’t help but feel socially disconnected from the air of superiority in the place.

Walking through Senayan Plaza felt like walking through a hologram; none of it felt real. Irrespective of the fact that it wasn’t very busy, it felt empty. Devoid of any soul. There was a very attractive, smartly-dressed Indonesian woman travelling up on an escalator. She carried an air of importance about her, but for no reason that I knew. I saw an Indonesian man in a sharp suit sat at his laptop in a stylish coffee shop. He looked focussed and aspirational. In fact, as I looked around, I noticed that everyone in there looked as if they were of a superior, aspiring class. Particularly the Indonesians. I imagined none of them had any reservations about turning their backs on the life of indigenous poverty outside. Their goal was being achieved, if it hadn’t been already. I wondered if they even cared about those left behind on the streets and those doing the shit jobs for shit money. They probably didn’t. Like many people who have escaped the poverty trap, they are likely to have been hardened by the idea of never returning to it. For those who were never there, there is seldom empathy for those who are. Despite being all too aware that this was simply the way of the world and I should accept it, my thoughts wound me up.

In 1965, Britain and the USA backed a violent coup in Indonesia to oust the then President, Sukarno, from power. Sukarno wanted to implement a socialist style of economic reform in Indonesia and redistribute the wealth of the country amongst its people. He had already rejected the edicts of the IMF and World Bank, infuriating the rich western nations who knew the huge financial potential of exploiting the economy of Indonesia and gaining control of its natural assets. They knew that if they could impose their version of western democracy and thrust a brutal Milton Freidmann style of capitalism onto this nation, it could be transformed into a rich cash cow for generations to come. So with the support of western commercial interests and information provided by the CIA, a military coup led by General Suharto took over the Indonesian government. This violent coup led to the imprisonment, torture and brutal murders of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians. In fact, it is believed that in a little over a month, Suharto’s brutal regime massacred around a million people. Witnesses at the time said that the small rivers and streams in Java ran red with blood and were clogged with bodies for weeks. And for what? so that one day someone could drive to a fancy mall in an air-conditioned luxury car, buy a Gucci handbag or a pair of Nikes and stop for a fucking Starbucks before going home!? It’s insane. Senayan Plaza was insane. The clinging humidity of the outside world glued me to those who were relegated to the streets and the commercial opulence of Senayan Plaza disgusted me.

plaza-senayan

The prize of progression.

I got a sense that Indonesia – Jakarta in particular – had been forcefully nudged toward a commercial culture in the mould of western society. South East Asian pegs being forced into western consumerist holes; holes that quickly become bottomless pits of emptiness that can only be filled by purchases of unnecessary shit. Pits filled with snakes that want you to spend all your money. Pits that lure you in with advertiser’s lies about improving your lives and seductive marketing promising you happiness if you spend. These pits have little room for ethics or culture unless they can be rebranded and used to sell more shit. These pits use spin to make you dizzy and forget who you are and where you were going. Like the proverbial crab in a barrel, once you’re in this pit you forget everything as you try to crawl to the top to get the latest, newest, most improved stuff to fill the hole in your life that those seductive corporate marketers have convinced you that you must have. Wants become needs and as you pursue those imaginary needs you no longer want to hear about what is beyond your aspirational consumerism because it gets in the way of the dizzying dream of the shopping pit and its promise of a better lifestyle. Fuck pollution and the environment, fuck culture and tradition, fuck your friends, neighbours and countrymen over if it makes you rich. Fuck an expat if he can help you be that badass bitch with the Gucci handbag and Manolo Blahniks. It’s a well-worn path in the industrialised west, but it doesn’t seem to fit here. No more than those naturally broad flat Indonesian feet fit into those narrow high-heeled shoes. Having taken a glimpse of the rural life on Java, Jakarta’s culture feels as ill-fitting and unsteady as the beautiful Indonesian girls painfully hobbling through the malls and nightclubs in six-inch heels and tight mini-skirts. It feels as odd as those young, aspiring go-getters in their shiny, pointy-toed shoes, tight pants and long-sleeved shirts sat at their laptops in 30° heat. It just feels wrong.

I was going to take a taxi back to Taman Anggrek because it was rush hour and the bus was likely to be packed, but I didn’t want to. It felt somehow hypocritical. As ridiculous as it sounds being British Expat with all the privilege that it affords, I just felt like I wanted to be with the regular people. I didn’t want to be in the air-conditioned bubble that many of the expats spend their lives in as they travel from office block to apartment block in taxis. I think I maybe just wanted to readjust my social compass and brush alongside reality for a while. Or perhaps I was just having another rush of extreme culture shock.

49: Plaza Senayan

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

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When I took a look around FX mall there wasn’t really a great variety of shops for a place designed for shopping. There were probably more places to eat than anything else. I did find one sports shop, but they didn’t sell swimming goggles. However, the eager young sales assistant told me that I would find more sports shops in Plaza Senayan, which was a much larger mall that was “only next door”. Naturally “only next door” isn’t quite as simple as it sounds in a mega city knotted together by traffic, pollution and crazy paving. It’s even less simple when the place isn’t actually next door.

Plaza Senayan is behind FX at best. Quite a long way behind it. Nevertheless, it isn’t too hard to find as it is the largest of all the nearby structures, with its apartment block towering a good few stories higher than any of the surrounding buildings. There is also the Senayan City complex across the road from the plaza, so if you miss one of the developments you will probably find the other.

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Senayan City on the other side of the street

When you see Senayan Plaza, it is clear that this place is one of the showpiece shopping malls in Jakarta. It is a pristinely maintained mecca of high-end consumerism. Most people probably go there by car, which spares them the embarrassing discomfort of facing the contrasting display of poverty that clings to the fringes of this extravagant development. I myself got the full view of Jakarta’s gaping poverty gap as I walked from FX mall to the rear entrance of Plaza Senayan. Turning the corner down the street that runs alongside Gelora Bung Karno National Stadium, I passed the poor street vendors sat at their mobile rickshaw shops and the many homeless people sat begging on the street before turning left down the side street that leads to Plaza Senayan car park. As I teetered along the edges of the unpaved pavement, trying to avoid slipping into the deep gutter that ran alongside, and ducking and dodging the overgrown trees and bushes pushing their way into my path, I could see this gleaming palace of commercialism just ahead. There was a queue of Mercedes’, BMWs, Land Rovers and other $60,000-plus cars queuing up to the barrier and security checkpoint that allows you through to the rear car park of this big shopping, office and apartment complex.

At the checkpoint security guards opened the boot of each car, took a cursory glimpse inside and glided their bomb detection mirrors underneath the chassis’. Indonesia has been targeted by Muslim extremists several times in the past, but it seemed that the security was there for show more than anything else. I’m no expert, but looking in the boot of a car for a little less than a second is not the most vigilant or committed of security check procedures. I managed to stroll past this security pantomime unchecked, through the outdoor car park across to the rear entrance of the building, past another security guard, beyond the information point, across a road coming out of the underground car park where there was a valet service, and straight through the underground promenade that leads to the main shopping arena totally unchecked. I guess putting people in uniforms and giving them shiny badges is good for morale if nothing else.

As I walked through the promenade that led to the main shopping centre, there were bistros and coffee shops flanking either side. They were serving a busy looking assortment of expats, professionals and ‘suits’. An oriental man waved his hand in the air without looking at anyone in particular. His casually arrogant gesture prompted a waiter over holding a very modern looking digital ordering pad and ready to service the customer’s needs. As I looked around I noticed that there were more white faces and English voices in these bistros than I had seen anywhere else since being here. It could have easily been a hot summer’s night in an upmarket business district of London.

senayan-coffee-shop I carried on into the mall and there they were – Gucci, Dior, Bulgari, Armani, Rolex – all the commercial marques of distinction (and Zara) that tell people they’ve made it, or at least give them the appearance of someone who has. There were no gaudy, clashing colours or tacky promotion people hanging out of doorways with frivolous gimmicks. Everywhere was polished, cream marble, brass, chrome and glass. It was undoubtedly a very classy place; aesthetically at least. For as beautifully designed this temple of exclusive commerce was, I suddenly found myself filled with this feeling of contempt.

plaza_senayan-interior

Plaza Senayan, a gleaming temple of consumerism