78: All Aboard the Monkey Boat

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

River port Kapuas 2014-10-12

When we arrived at the tiny little airport in Kalimantan, we were met by our guides, Yetmo and Tina. They obviously knew our flight had been delayed, but they didn’t know whether we had decided to stay the extra day or not. Yetmo’s brother was the captain of the boat that was taking us up the river and they were in a hurry to get the trip underway, so once we confirmed with them that we were going to extend the trip another day, we hurriedly rescheduled our return flights.

We were flying with a little airline called Kalstar, and it was their decision to make the unscheduled change to our flight. You would have thought that they would have also felt an obligation to accommodate the flight rescheduling costs we were having to make. But this being Indonesia, that wasn’t the case. Instead, we all had to pay the airline a few more hundred thousand IDR for the privilege of having them fuck up our plans. You had to love the smiling gall of this place. Well you don’t have to, but I supposed it helps.

Two big 4X4’s took us all to the port where we stopped at a dusty little warung in the village for a break before departing. It was run by the wife of the man who was the cook on our boat. It was the typical sun-bleached, bare boned noodle and rice café you found in the small villages in Indonesia. The kind of place a westerner would only risk eating in if they were really hungry. None of us were that hungry, but we all had a cold drink whilst we waited inside, away from the glare of the late morning sun as our boat was being prepared for boarding.

There were eight of us on the trip in total, the average age being somewhere between the mid-to-late forties. Laura and Clive were a married couple who were both at the far end of forty, maybe even fifty – middle ages are hard to tell, though Clive did appear to be the younger of the two by a few years. Laura was the headmistress at the school where Claire worked and Clive also worked there as a teacher.

Jane was an attractive American woman who was raised in Japan. Along with her English, she also spoke both Japanese and Bahasa fluently. She was married to an American man who had his own company in Jakarta. They had two children and they had been living in Indonesia for almost twenty years. Mathematical logic put her in her early-forties although she didn’t look any older than thirty-five.

Caroline was a middle-aged woman from New Zealand who was also the wife of an expat businessman. Gaby, another Kiwi, also worked at Claire’s school, but she was approaching retirement age. Ditte, a tall Danish woman who was married to a businessman who ran a large food company in Bandung, was probably already at retirement age, or even beyond. She had also lived in Indonesia for many years and also spoke fluent Bahasa.

Despite the slightly odd socio-cultural mix, there wasn’t any awkwardness between us. Everyone seemed quite nice and agreeable, but this was clearly going to be a very sober and civilised nature trip, which was probably a good thing for me. However, we were all westerners and civilised or not, our culture demanded that we like a bit of a tipple when holidaying. Claire had brought a bottle of rum for the trip, and there was lemonade and cola already stowed on board as part of our food and refreshments. Yetmo had taken drink orders from the rest of us for our three days on the river and had gone off to collect them. This not being the capital, getting alcohol wasn’t as simple as popping into an Indomaret. Nevertheless, we weren’t going to have to wait for him. He was going to catch us up on the river later.

We didn’t have to wait long for our boat to dock. However, when I walked out to the jetty to get aboard, the boat I saw wasn’t the boat I expected. I mean I know nothing about boats or anything nautical, I just had my westernised assumptions about what a boat should be; you know, a modern styled vessel the likes of which you would find tied up in a marina in the Mediterranean, or on the bank of the Thames. But looking around at the other boats that I could see on the river, it was what I can only guess was a typical, traditional Indonesian riverboat. I mean I’m not saying I was worried; Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago with a great nautical tradition that dates as far back if not beyond that of any European nation. It’s just that the sudden realities of otherness in the different cultures of developing countries often give your western memory’s frame of reference an unexpected little judder.


76: Noitacinummoc Doog

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


I was hungry, which doesn’t help a man’s mood, but I don’t think that was the reason I lost my temper. No, I think it was a culmination of frustrations that had built up over the previous couple of months; a general dissatisfaction with the fruits of the labour I had put into my big Asian adventure and an ever-increasing irascibility that had come with it. There were a number of niggly things I had pushed down into my septic tank of tolerance, but the most recent things were directly attributable to Simon. His living habits had been pissing me off. The fan in my room had been pissing me off. His veiled hints at moving out of the flat were pissing me off. Being in the middle of the shit he had with Jeff was pissing me off. Yet despite all of this, I was still prepared to help out with his situation with the Belgian buffoon, but just not today. And I had told him this.

He was resting on his bed with Kay when I burst into his bedroom.

“What did you fucking tell Evi?”, I barked at him.

He didn’t want his girlfriend to know anything about the prostitute-theft-Jeff situation so I had been avoiding the subject whilst she had been around. Now, I didn’t care. I had made it absolutely clear that I was doing nothing but packing and sleeping that night, but this toffy nosed little twat had gone ahead and made arrangements for me to meet Evi anyway! He was taking the piss!

“What…! What are you talking about?!”, he stuttered back in shock.

“I just got a call from Evi telling me that you had arranged for me to meet her tonight”, I said.

“Evi!? I haven’t spoken to Evi!” he replied.

“She said you just sent her an email”

“I haven’t sent her any emails… today… I sent an email to Jeff earlier today before I sent you that message”, he said, totally bewildered – or was he? Was he just putting on an act? The tricky little fucker – I just didn’t trust him.

“Show me your emails”, I demanded.

Kay didn’t have a clue what was happening. She just remained quietly sat on the bed, and it dawned on me that I probably looked like a nutter at that point. Meanwhile, Simon, a little groggy and somewhat shaken, picked up his phone and trundled out of his room, his hairy gut overhanging his sweaty boxer shorts. He pulled the door behind him so that Kay couldn’t hear and fumbled nervously with his phone to open up his emails. He then showed me the trail of email correspondence he had sent to Jeff’s email address that day.

It was true, he hadn’t contacted her since earlier that afternoon and he hadn’t said anything about meeting me. But I still didn’t trust him. What was it? Was he really so untrustworthy or was I just a paranoid loon with suppressed anger management issues? Maybe it was both.

I felt a little bit stupid and a little bit guilty as I apologised. I explained to him what Evi had told me and why I was so angry. He said that Evi may have just gotten the information confused and suggested that I “should be more relaxed about these things”… this for some reason really wound me up again. I found myself getting a sudden rush of blood and an urge to punch him in the mouth. I didn’t want him to be intimidated by me, but at the same time I did; this was a guy who I felt would take a yard for every inch given if allowed to. I should be more relaxed! – he was taking the piss… Then my phone started ringing. It was Evi.

Evi and Jeff still didn’t know for sure that Simon and I were sharing an apartment so I told her that I had just spoken to him. I told her that he said he hadn’t sent her an email to arrange a meeting. She was at her apartment with Jeff so she went off to speak to him for minute before coming back on the phone; “I think there’s some confusion from message from my husband.”

75: A Reluctant Errand Boy

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


“It’s all about the holidays”, Claire had told me. “The best thing about living in Jakarta is that you’re always only an hour or two away from somewhere beautiful”, she’d said. Despite having a nice ring to it, I can’t see the Jakarta tourist board using that line anytime soon.

It was a Sunday, the day before my little holiday break in Kalimantan with Claire and her friends.

Sunday is a short working day at the EF school so I was out by around six o’clock. However, I still had to have dinner, pack my bag and get in touch with Claire to clarify some changes with the return flights.

The return flight from Kalimantan was with a company called Kalstar Airways and the flight for Claire and her group had been moved forward. Although I had booked my flight separately, I assumed I had booked the same flight as they had so I needed to know if my flight was also affected. Claire’s travel agent had informed her, but neither the airline nor my travel agent at Dwidaya had told me anything. I thought that this perhaps meant that the flights were different. I mean if they were the same flights then surely I would have been notified about the changes too. This being Indonesia, I didn’t want to take anything for granted so I decided to go to the travel agent after work to ask them directly. The outgoing flight was scheduled for 9.15 in the morning and I wanted to have a relaxing day to organise myself before having an early night.

Simon was having a nice day out with his girlfriend at Dreamland, the theme park in Ancol, in the north of Jakarta. Yet despite being busy, he managed to find some time in the afternoon to send me a text message with explicit instructions to contact Jeff’s wife Evi and arrange to meet her to hand over another instalment of his debt. Knowing Simon as I now know him, I knew he didn’t mean to come across as his message implied – as a boss giving his subordinate orders – so I bit my figurative tongue and replied, in plain tones, reminding him that I was going away the following day and I wouldn’t have time to do his money drop. He was fine with this, which was very understanding of him.

I didn’t have many details about the Kalimantan trip. I would be spending a couple of days on a boat floating up a river through the Borneo jungle with a bunch of people I had never met before, food and drink included; that was it. Claire had paid my deposit for the trip and I had paid for my flights. She had told me that we were being met by the tour guides at the airport in Kalimantan to start the tour so I wanted to be well rested, fresh and prepared to hit the floor running when I arrived. With the flight leaving at 9.15 I would have to arrive around two hours before. The journey time to the airport was an expected but not assured half-hour. I figured a 6.30 alarm would give me enough time for a shower and a fruit salad breakfast before leaving. But I needed an early night.

Simon and his girlfriend had returned from their day out and were in the apartment when I got in, but I wasn’t in the mood for making small talk. I was still a little bit annoyed at the cheek of this guy in assuming that he could give me instructions via SMS for delivering his debts whilst he was having a nice day out. Checking my flight details with the travel agent gave me a polite excuse for getting away from him for half an hour.

Dwidaya Travel wasn’t open when I got there and when I tried the phone numbers on the travel paperwork nobody was answering. I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime so I decided to go to Java Kitchen to get some dinner to take back to the apartment. Unfortunately, they didn’t have anything left that I wanted to eat.

As I walked through the mall back toward my apartment, I was trying not to acknowledge that I was hungry and a little bit pissed off at having wasted the last half hour accomplishing nothing but getting a sweat. I then noticed my phone was vibrating in my pocket; it was Jeff’s wife, Evi. I answered.

“Hello Sir… Mr Jeff… I just got email from Simon… he say you can meet me in the lobby…”

I couldn’t fully hear what she was saying between the noise of the mall and the bad reception, but I heard enough. After a brief but fractured communique with Evi, I established that what she was telling me was that Simon had just sent her an email to say that I was going to meet her between nine and ten in the lobby of Mediterania Gardens 2 that night to give her some money.

74: Destiny Can Go F**k Itself

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


I stopped off at the local Indomaret and picked up a couple of bottles of Anker beer before I headed back up to the apartment. Simon was still at home when I got in so I opened both the beers and gave him one and told him all about my meeting with Jeff. It was pretty funny in retrospect and we both had a bit of a laugh about it, but when I told him I wasn’t going to do any more money drops for him he wasn’t so amused. Nevertheless, as was typical with Simon, he was quite calm and pragmatic about it and suggested that I could maybe meet with Jeff’s wife Evi instead. This seemed like a pretty good idea. I didn’t particularly mind helping him out if there was no stress involved, and the couple of times I had met with Evi she was always easy going and pleasant, like pretty much all of the Indonesians I had met. I couldn’t imagine her being awkward with me in the way Jeff had been. It also dawned on me that Jeff was possibly trying a bit of psychological chess. Perhaps he thought that by implying that I was a being some kind of little bitch for Simon, it would pique my ego and I would stop doing his money drops, forcing Simon to do it himself. Or perhaps I was just overthinking things, something I’m prone to do. Either way I agreed. Keeping Simon onside was in my best interests. Despite his faults he was still one of only two ‘friends’ I had in Jakarta and everyone needs friends. Especially when they’re miles from home.

Since I had moved in with Simon, we had rarely stayed up late, drank a beer and had a chat in the way I expected flatmates would do. I found this a bit odd as when we had been out our conversations had flowed freely. Perhaps he had a different head for different occasions. People can be like that. Also, I didn’t start work until two in the afternoon so going to bed late wasn’t a problem for me. Simon was usually out by 10.00 in the morning so he would be in bed by midnight most nights. Since I usually didn’t finish until 9.30 at night we tended to be out of sync, which kind of worked for both of us because it meant that he got at least an hour with the fan blowing into his room and was usually asleep before I got into bed and turned it off. But that night I let the fan run longer than usual as, despite sharing my bed most nights with that bitch Insomnia and not falling asleep for two or three hours, I wanted to have a little thinking time. That night the idea of destiny shared the bed with us.

Some people have a great belief in destiny, but I have my doubts. Mainly, because whilst most of the destiny adherers see it in a positive light, the other side of that coin isn’t always a positive thing.

Take Boabdil “the Unlucky” for example. He was the last of the Moorish kings of Spain to occupy the Andalucian throne in the stronghold of the magnificent Alhambra in Granada. From his birth, the Moor soothsayers prophesised that Boabdil’s reign would mark the end of the Moor’s 700-year rule in Andalucia, and they were proved right. Everything this guy did was fated to lead to the ultimate end of the Islamic empire’s reign in Spain. So what if some people are destined to be failures from the moment they take their first breath? And what if those people who are unfortunate enough to have this destiny forced upon them, never having a chance no matter how hard they try – what if they decide that they are going to fight their destiny head on and refuse to lose? Is it a futile battle? Do you just lay down and die? Or do you suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and take arms against a sea of troubles and, in opposing, end them? Is it possible? Can you fight fate? Why was I thinking this? Well, it wasn’t the first time I had ruminated on this idea.

I’ve come from what is romantically termed ‘humble beginnings’ and from a very early age I had decided that I was going to make my own destiny; I was going to be the difference. Yet it seemed, despite putting the work and effort in, everything that I did ended in failure. It’s been pretty depressing. Yet here I was, in my third profession, having made a bold move to force a paradigm change in my life, but still hitting brick wall after brick wall; how the fuck could I manage to take a job eight thousand miles away from my place of birth, yet within a month find myself embroiled in some drama, albeit relatively trivial, but drama nonetheless?

You could argue it is my choice of friends, but what other choices had presented themselves since I had been in Jakarta? None.

You could argue that it is my combative personality, but combative personalities have helped many successful men and women succeed. And besides, I hadn’t done anything particularly confrontational since I had been in Jakarta. Yet within less than a month, a had gone on what was a highly enjoyable night out and it had turned into the catalyst for a drama that was not of my doing!

Fuck you destiny. Fuck you and the grubby little boat you sailed in on. I’m going to take my resilience and shove it up your tight little party pooping arse.

73: The Drop

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


After the unfortunate incident between Jeff and Simon, I had agreed to be a go-between so that they could at least resolve the monetary aspect of their issue. Simon had agreed to compensate Jeff for the loss of his physical belongings to the tune of 16,000,000 IDR, but the loss of all those photographic memories of his wedding and his only child growing up could never be compensated. Nor could Simon’s abuse of his trust.

I thought I was helping by offering to meet Jeff on Simon’s behalf to hand over his money, but perhaps it would have been better if I had made him man-up and do it himself. Jeff, understandably, still harboured a fair amount of resentment toward his ex-lodger, which was fair enough. But because he had never got the opportunity to see Simon again after what had happened, he never really got closure and I think he had let his resentments stew. So when I met with him he decided he was going to direct that resentment toward me. Fuck that.

Simon could only withdraw a certain amount of money at one time from his bank’s cash machines so he was paying Jeff in instalments. I met with Jeff at a bar in noisy Tribeca gardens to pay him one of those instalments on Simon’s behalf. When I arrived, he was lounging in a booth in one of the bars looking dour and pissed off. I was a little bit later than was arranged so that was the first thing he started on about. This unemployed man of leisure was not happy that I had kept him waiting. I apologised but he continued to ramble on anyway. I ignored it. Then, as he was counting his money, he started with his digs.

“So you’re Simon’s errand boy now?” was his first swipe. I parried, not wanting to get into a verbal scuffle, but he continued; “How can you trust someone like Simon?” “Do you do everything for him now?” “How is your cosy little apartment together?” “How can you trust this man? Don’t you have any integrity?” – Now he was starting to get on my fucking nerves, so I told him…

“Look Jeff, you were the one who let a stranger into your home – your family home – without taking any kind of security or even a copy of his passport for ID. You let this stranger into your home with your wife and child when you had another apartment that was free. Why would you do that? Was it simply because you were thinking about the money? Did you put money before your own flesh and blood Jeff? Yet you’re talking to me about ‘trust’ and ‘integrity’!” He had no reply, he just babbled some nonsense about having trust and faith in all people; “Yes, and where did that get you?”, I said. I felt a little bit bad poking at what I knew would be a raw nerve, but what was I supposed to do? He then changed the subject.

“Where is the rest of the money?”, he said.

Simon had given me 4,000,000 IDR to pass on to him. I had counted it twice after he gave it to me to make sure that it was all there, and it was. I knew it was. Yet Jeff had counted it twice in front of me and somehow came up 100,000 short. I took it back off him and counted it again and sure enough it was all there; the guy was just being an arsehole.

“It’s all there Jeff. Count it again.”

He counted it again as I watched and it was all as it should be.

“Right then, that’s us done. I’m gonna get back”, I said and turned to leave, but he couldn’t resist one last dig.

“It’s a good thing that you trust him so much. I hope your new best friend doesn’t fuck you like he fucked me.”

I’d had enough of his shit. “First of all” I said, “He’s not my ‘best friend’, I’ve known him less time than you have, and only an idiot would trust someone they’ve only known for five minutes. Secondly, I am not worried about him fucking me over Jeff, because I’m pretty certain he’s aware that if he does I’ll fuck him right back a lot harder than you did”, I told him. “If I were you and he had brought some random girl into my house who robbed my shit, I would have made damn sure he paid for it. And I think he knows that.”

I must have raised my voice and looked a little bit pissed off at this point as the security guard came over and asked us to take it easy. Jeff didn’t have much more to say either, but I did.

“Look Jeff, just because you feel bad about letting a stranger into your house and putting money before the safety of your family, don’t take it out on me. I’m just trying to help you two resolve the situation. I suggest the next time you let people stay in your home that you take as much time taking a copy of their ID as you do their money. You should also be thankful that Simon didn’t turn out to be some crazy lunatic because your mistake could have turned out a lot worse.” At that, I turned and left him to marinate on what I had said. I also decided that I wasn’t going to be doing any more money drop-offs for Simon.

71: End of the Bus Affair

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

Transjakarta busway sign 2014-09-30

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

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

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

transjakarta bus

One of the newer Transjakarta buses

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

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


The notorious ‘smelly’ fruit

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transjakarta busway 2014-09-26

The joys of commuting

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

68: Be Like Water

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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