Thursday, February 10, 2011


Having recently returned from Calcutta (and yes, it is called Calcutta), I’ve begun to appreciate Jakarta more than ever.  South Jakarta, where we live, looks like a nice bustling city, with winding streets, roadside shops, lots of trees and only the occasional high rise building (in fact, you can use them to navigate by, since they tower over everything for miles around). Once you get to the Central Business District, however, it’s another story. This is no city, it’s a metropolis. Skyscrapers everywhere, roads and flyovers worthy of anywhere in the developed world, and of course the Malls: eight-ten story behemoths with names like Chanel, Versace, Ferregamo, all brand spanking new (and, according to rumour, with not enough stock – but that’s another matter).

Of course, every city has a marked contrast betwen it’s business and residential areas.  But Jakarta is the only one I know which has kampungs like Calcutta and a CBD like Singapore.  A fact that I’ve had plenty of time to appreciate over the past month in my wide-ranging search for Christmas presents (alas, most of my shopping was done at Toy Kingdom instead of the aforementioned Chanel et al).

Driving around, I noticed a great many things. First and foremost was the Jakartan (possibly Indonesian?) tendency to name your business ‘D’ something. D’Bar (a bar), D’Ocean (seafood), D’cafe (coffeehouse), D’Best (slightly grandiose), D’Branded (oddly enough, this was a shop for desginer rip-offs) and, best of all, D’Smut (a cafe and art gallery – the mind boggles).

One of the other things you pick up on are local driving customs: I’m filing them away for future reference, for the day when I finally start using my driver’s licence. Little things like using your hazards when you go straight over an intersection (illogical? yes; unneccessary? not if everyone is expecting you to do it);  honking when you go around a corner (unless you’ve been thoughtfully provided with a road mirror for that purpose); and of course the road jockeys.

I first came across road jockeys while driving out during the morning  rush hour. At some point I became aware of a number of women, fairly well dressed and heavily made-up, waving at cars as they passed by. ‘Hallo,’ I thought to myself, this doesn’t usually happen until well after dark  in Dar es Salaam. Then I realised that there were men as well, indicating their willingness to be picked up. How very equal minded, I thought. Next, I realised that many of the women were carrying babies. Surely this went beyond  the limits of broad-mindedness? I finally succumbed and asked The Driver about them. They were ‘jockeys’ he explained, a by-product of Jakarta’s traffic laws. During the rush hour, certain roads may only be used by cars with at least three passengers. An admirable law, drafted  in order to promote car pooling. However, what you end up with is a number of people willing to ride in your car for a price – hence the term ‘jockeys.’ The women with babies are the most popular, since they count as two passengers for the price of one.

As someone who cares about the environment, I should be horrifed by this blatant bypassing  of what was originally, a very good idea. One can’t help but be a tiny bit impressed at entrepreneurship of the jockeys, though. Where one person might see a general nuisance, they see a money-making opportunity by providing a widely-deplored but much appreciated service. And I suppose that technically this is increasing Indonesia’s GDP...

 The final observation about Jakarta’s streets came just before the Chinese New Year, when we lost ours. To a street market. Apparently this happens once a year, and I’m grateful that it was strategically placed just after the entrance to our alley, so we could still enter and exit. And that it was only over the weekend, since the market was blocking the quickest way to the childrens’ school.  I did wonder, though, about the forebearance of the drivers who phegmatically turned around and drove in the opposite direction when they found their way blocked by several metres of gaily decorated street stalls, instead of getting out of their cars and angrily demanding why on earth didn’t someone have the decency to put up at least one warning sign before they came all the way down a very a narrow road (which would have been my reaction).

But in general, Jakarta drivers seem to be a calm lot.  There is, of course, a lot of honking, but they let you out at junctions. And are tolerant of a sudden change of direction which necessitates a five-point-turn in middle of a traffic queue. And I haven’t yet heard of any road rage incident similar to those in India (Delhi in particular) which seem to be far too commonplace.  Perhaps, with ths many cars on the road, you have to be fairly tolerant otherwise no one would get anywhere (yes, even towards those annoying motorbikes which get in front of you everywhere). All of which bodes well for when I finally get out on the roads and start driving.

I’ll keep you posted.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Home is where your cake tins are

Day Zero at the New House
I pick up the boys from school and tell them the good news: we now have a new home, to which I have been given the keys only hours before. “Can we explore it right now?” asks Kieran hopefully. I think he’s picturing a composite of all the houses we have viewed over the past few weeks and having visions of Harry Potter cupboards (the family term for the under-the-stairs cupboard), basements, and even attics that might possibly still contain the detritus of a long-departed family. So we head up the stairs, Kieran armed with his trusty sword (a broom handle); I, with a kindly-donated shield (dustbin lid) and Rohan with his mighty mace (plunger).

There is, alas, no basement or attic. Sadder still, we are missing our curtains (they were taken off to be cleaned a week ago and have yet to be returned), gas regulator, telephone line and several other key items that were promised by the landlord. And our shipment is still at the docks somewhere. Even so, we have to start somewhere, so with only a dining table set and one sofa for furniture (thank you Morgane!) we decide that we’re going to move in over the weekend.

Day One
It’s Saturday morning and one emergency shop later we have several essentials: a water dispenser, four plates, four cereal bowls, two sets of cutlery (the boys have their own already), 5 water glasses, two pots, a frying pan and a bucket (this last a request from the maid – I have no idea why).  Oh yes, and enough cleaning implements to sort out a small mansion. Unimportant stuff like food can wait a while. And I think we’re going to be doing a LOT of dishwashing in between meals.

We’ve also managed to get a few other key items delivered, such as (in order of priority) a mattress for Rich and me (the kids are taking their chances on the floor with cushions), Richard’s swanky new gym equipment, and a gong. Oh yes, and there is a beautifully carved Javanese bar on its way. I’m not sure we are doing this in exactly the right order.... However, we are ready for our first night in the New House.

Day Two
We have definitely started to settle in: the pool has been christened, the house inspected thoroughly (still no curtains) and we’ve even found time to visit the neighbours. There is another child on the compound, which is lucky for the boys as they are used to having playmates around.  And I’ve discovered that we have a mango tree! With mangoes! Only green ones so far, but I’m sure that, given time, they will ripen to the delicious orangey-yellow colour of the local mangoes ( And if not, there’s always mango pickle to be made).

Day Five
We now have lots more furniture. Kieran has a bed. Rohan has a mattress all to himself. And most importantly, Richard and I have a bed – a beautifully carved Javanese bed. It’s lovely, but since we also have a beautifully carved Javanese dining table, beautifully carved Javanese chairs, a beautifully carved Javanese bar and a beautifully carved gong (origin unknown), I’m beginning to long for the joys of pressboard IKEA furniture. On the plus side, the curtains have finally turned up...

Day Eight
Our shipment is here! This is the shortest time we have ever had to wait to be reunited our things (it took two months in Cairo and three in Dar) but we’re all still hugely excited. Men arrive early in the morning and unload the trucks, assemble the flat-packed furniture, laugh at Mr and Mrs Maasai (our two little statues who are immediately set to guard the hallway) and somehow manage to do it all in under three hours. This including Coke breaks. Very impressive.

Unpacking is a bittersweet experience. Standing at the door, ticking off items as they come in, I’m reminded of how I did the exact opposite in Dar – waved goodbye to all 97 boxes as the moving men put them in a truck. It’s the first pang of homesickness I’ve felt since moving here and for the first time, it feels like I have really said goodbye to Dar es salaam. That house isn’t home any more, this one is.

There are other emotions: there’s the joy of having all my clothes again (I can stop rotating the three outfits I’ve worn since getting here) and confusion at some of our choices (why, for instance, did we remember to pack our iron, but leave behind the ironing board?). There is amazement at how many towels we own (about 30 at last count) and how few wine glasses: two incomplete sets of champagne flutes, a couple of half-bottle glasses and some assorted white wine ones including one from the 2009 wine tasting festival, one from the ex-neighbours who have now moved to Sydney and one that a friend turned up with at the end of a particularly drunken Ball Night which stayed on in our house. The only complete set is of sherry glasses – which we hardly ever use, for obvious reasons.

There is also the sense of enormity at how much more storage space we need – how on earth did we fit it all into the previous house? And a sense of doom at having to go out and buy yet more heavy teakwood furniture. Oh for a good old-fashioned BILLY bookshelf.

But most of all there is contentment. For the first time since we moved in, I have all my books around me. And my kitchen implements. The boys have their toys. And Richard has his favourite coffee mug.

We’re home.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Communing with Nature in Western Java

Last week was half term at the French school the children needed entertaining. With Richard away, and not many options for playdates, we decided to head out of town and explore more of Indonesia. I was joined by another mother in the same predicament and together we decided to visit Tanjung Lesung,  a seaside resort on the southwestern corner of Java.

The brochure described the accommodation as ‘an eco-lodge built to blend in with the natural landscape,’ while simultaneously promising ‘four-star air-conditioned luxury,’ all situated right next to white-sand beaches and crystal-clear sea.  It sounded like the perfect place to commune with nature and keep the kids occupied.  And, after a somewhat long drive down (the advertised three-hour drive took well over four and a half hours), we were not disappointed. The swimming pool and lush tropical garden were right in the middle of the villa, which was actually composed of three bedrooms built around the open air garden with al fresco living and dining areas. Sadly, we were temporarily prevented from exploring the beach by the usual four o’clock rain, but that was no matter – the rain would clear up, and the next day we’d be free to enjoy the beach, with attendant snorkelling, pedal-boating, jet-skiing and even possibly a trip to the nearby Krakatoa volcano.  In the meantime we had the pool, the garden, the fabulous food and Twister to keep us occupied.

That first sign that things might not be going to plan was a text message from Richard asking if we were ok – an earthquake had caused a tsunami that hit the Mentawai islands (off Western Sumatra, which is the island next to us), and he was worried that we might have been near enough to be affected. We weren’t; but the next day, the water was distinctly choppy and, possibly worried about aftershocks, the very nice beach co-ordinator said that any pedal boat or jet-ski related activity was our of the question. Snorkelling was also ruled out as the water was far too murky to see anything.

That left Krakatoa; however, the other piece of breaking news was a volcano eruption in central Java (still far way, but the same island this time). As if in sympathy, Krakatoa had begun spewing smoke, thus rendering it technically active, and there was now no way we could even attempt the trip.  (Of course with both Rohan’s and my tendency to sea-sickness, the three-hour round trip on a speed boat might not have been a good idea in the first place, but that’s another story...)

So we got on with Rohan’s favourite past time of building sandcastles until lunchtime.  More great food, and a chance to lounge on the beach until the inevitable rain drove us back into the villa for a DVD this time. It was around tea-time that I decided that the holiday wasn’t exactly working to plan and that it might be a good idea to return to Tanjung Lesung at a better time. "Come during the dry season" I was helpfully told by a nice man at Reception, although he acknowledged that the dry season only lasted a month (mid-July to mid-August). And that often, it rained then too.

So, one emergency phone call to the driver later, we were on our way back to Jakarta with only slightly heavy hearts. As if to reinforce our decision, it rained all the way back. The slow traffic meant we hit Jakarta at rush hour, and it took a grand total of six hours to get back – two of them in Jakarta alone. Still, the boys and I were happy enough with our music and even though the driver is probably tired of hearing ‘Pop goes my Heart’ (played a total of 16 times) we made it back home and into our beds without any further incident.

It wasn’t until we returned to Jakarta and the world of TV and Internet that we learned the full extent of the disasters; entire villages wiped out, hundreds dead, and more missing.  The relief work has only just started and it will take months for the villagers to get their lives back.

The trouble with communing with nature is that it sometimes wants to talk back.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

First Impressions

This is what the boys think house hunting is: “There are lots of little houses running all over Jakarta and Mummy has to go out with a bow and arrow or a sword and shoot one in the heart and then we can live in it.” (This little nugget was from Kieran, although I suspect that Richard had something to do with it.)

I have been house hunting for over a week now, and there’s finally light at the end of the tunnel.  After three relocations, we not only have our requirements list down pat, we also have a healthy sense of perspective – I could live anywhere for three years, as long as there are plenty of kids round the corner. The other important factor, due to traffic conditions in Jakarta, is that the house be close to both Richard’s work place and the boys’ school. Thankfully, there has been a large selection of houses to look at, and for the first ever time, we may even have our own personal swimming pool (many houses here do - even the ones in compounds).

The other no-brainer is our ‘to do’ list; items I have ticked off so far include: (in order or priority) getting the kids into school, joining the local expat association, signing up for lessons in Bahasa Indonesia, getting an internet connection, opening a bank account  and buying a fascinator to wear to the Melbourne Cup next month. (Items outstanding: getting a driving licence, finding a maid, joining a nice country club, actually learning to speak Bahasa, and not getting too drunk on champagne at the Cup...)

I’ve been asked whether I prefer Jakarta to Dar; the obvious answer is that it is far too early to tell. The most obvious difference are the differences between a small town and large city – there’s a lot more traffic, huge shopping malls (the kids are in consumer heaven) and you get the sense that, having been made welcome, you will be left to get on with it.  The expats are scattered all over the city, so less tightly knit. You can go into the shops and not know a single person there (an experience usually limited to holidays in the UK). 

The other change, and a nice one, is Not Having To Do It All By Oneself. Richard’s company have been really good about providing help (right down to conducting the negotiations on the above-mentioned houses) and, used as I am to doing it all, it was quite a treat to find that the more mundane facts of life such as visas, licences, drivers, and even a temporary maid were all taken care of. In fact, on day one, we arrived to find a fully stocked fridge, toiletries in the bathroom, and cartoon-themed towels and bedding for the boys – someone really did think of everything!

Food shopping is proving to be a bit of a challenge  at the moment, though. I generally pride myself on ‘going local’ as soon as possible. Oddly though, local fruit and veg seem quite hard to find; so far we have been mostly eating imported potatoes, imported bananas, imported carrots, imported peppers, and I even saw an imported papaya in the hypermarket the other day.  I have no idea why this is so (although I did buy some domestic carrots eventually – bit of a mistake), since I assume the climate isn’t the problem. All I can think of is that perhaps things like carrots and potatoes aren’t really native to these parts (when did you last see a potato in chinese cooking?) so perhaps it’s not worth growing them for the few that want it. That argument doesn’t work with the fruit of course, although when I did venture out to a local pasar (road-side market) to try to buy a non-imported papaya, negotiations broke down due to my lack of Bahasa.

And of course, there is the weather. While it’s mostly like Dar es Salaam (ie, hot and humid), the wet season is a lot more WET. It has simply chucked it down at around 4pm most days, heavy enough even for a rain-loving person like me.  We’ve had a couple of thunderstorms, which had the boys huddling close to me on the sofa. (Rohan has since decided he’s going to pretend they are simply a fleet of aeroplanes flying overhead.) I’m looking forward to the time when we are all able resume our favourite past time of dancing in the rains.

All in all, it has been a good fortnight here in Jakarta. The boys appear to be settling in at school, as is Richard at his work, and I’m learning my way around South Jakarta (the little bit which we inhabit). I’ve been to a few coffee mornings, made a few friends, and even found time to start this blog.

Now...if only I could learn how to say ‘vegetables’ in Bahasa...