Indonesia was my first real foray into Asia having worked predominantly in the UK and Europe with brief stints in Africa and the Middle East and there are so many WTF moments for me it’s hard to know which one was the seminal one for me. Coming to (as opposed to 'too') in a mate’s pool after my first visit to Stadium and seeing several scantily clad young ladies drinking and flirting with the guys was quite sobering, however, and to this day, one thing stands out in my mind as the point at which I discovered I had tumbled ‘…down the rabbit hole..’. (NB. an Alice In Wonderland moment. J)
Very early on in my contract, I arrived home from work to find the apartment (Somerset Apartments, Mega Kuningan) flooded, WTF thought I and a brief reconnoiter established that the root of the problem was that the AC had let go in the Laundry Room. I called reception and told the young lady on duty what had happened and where but she informed me that I didn’t actually have a laundry room in my apartment. Yet another WTF moment was hard upon me; here’s me, an educated professional who knows what’s what and there’s this, albeit terribly attractive, young lady of, at most, 25 trying to tell me what I do and do not have in my apartment. So drawing myself up to my full height, which was pretty pointless as I was on the telephone, I informed her that I did indeed have a Laundry Room and more to the point that this appeared to be where the AC was knackered and I was hot, tired and in need of a beer so please could she suggest a solution to my woes immediately, if not sooner; I can be a proper twat at times as my wife (who’s Sundanese) will readily attest, anyway, I digress.
The poor girl, responsive even in the face of my churlishness, arrived at my apartment within minutes to inspect the damage and decide the appropriate course of action which to me seemed like an exercise in futility - sending for an engineer to fix the AC seemed a pretty obvious course of action to me- but seeing as she arrived with a complementary cold beer, I was somewhat mollified. I say somewhat because I had at that time yet to acquire the taste for Bintang.
Anyway, she asked to see this ‘Laundry Room’ of mine and I, wearing an expression best summarized as stoicism mixed with a good measure sarcastic indulgence, showed her the room, the ceiling complete with hole and ruined tiles on the floor sitting in what had to be acknowledged as quite an impressive volume of water. The following, whilst not verbatim, is a fair approximation of what followed:
Terribly Attractive Young Lady: “Mr David, I’m sorry for the confusion between us, please allow me to use your phone to contact the engineer?”
Me: “Please go right ahead”. At least that’s how I like to think I responded, knowing me, however, I rather think it went something along the lines of “Oh, if you bloody must then! Do please get on with it!”
TAYL: “Thank you Mr David, I will be very quick”
Very brief pause in the conversation.
TAYL: “The engineer is on his way up now Mr David and your AC will soon be fixed, I am sorry you came home to this mess”
Me: [Feeling indulgent and more than a little impressed with the beauty of said TAYL] “Ah well, it’s only the Laundry Room that’s affected, it could’ve been worse I suppose”
TAYL: “Ah Mr David, you don’t have Laundry Room.”
TAYL: “No, this is not the room for your laundry, some of our tenants like to have their own maids for cooking and cleaning and this is where she would live. This is the maid’s living quarters.”
Lots and lots of thoughts competed with each other for my attention but the one screaming the loudest was: “How the hell anyone could live in a room barely big enough to house an iron and ironing board (that’s how I figured it must be a Laundry Room)?” AND there’s a bloody lock on the door!.
I admit it did strike me as odd that the proprietors were so concerned as to give their tenants the facility of securing dirty socks but I put it down to cultural differences. Obviously, the bigger cultural shock was that anyone, intentionally, would ask (make?) another human being to live and potentially be locked into what I can only describe as a windowless cell.
Me: “You’re kidding!”
TAYL: “What is ‘kidding’ Mr. David?
Me: “You can’t seriously tell me that people have maids and they live in that room!”
TAYL: [A little indignant now] “Of course, why not? It is normal.”
Me: [A little less sure of myself now] “And lock them in?”
TAYL: “Well if one of our guests is ‘entertaining’ then, naturally, he won’t want to be disturbed.”
Me: “But, but….well! No, c’mon now…seriously?”
TAYL: “Serious? Of course I am serious, Mr. David.”
Me: “Oh! Really?”
TAYL: [Becoming bored with my incredulity, which did look like, to the untrained eye, the inability to process the simplest of information] “Yes, Mr. David, our guests’ maids live in rooms just like this in apartments just like yours, in fact, if you would like, I can arrange for you to interview some very good maids who are looking for work?”
Me: “Good Lord, no! I couldn’t possibly employ a maid and more to the point, I couldn’t ask her to live in there. I mean, where are the bathroom facilities, what about her privacy?”
TAYL: [Smiling now] “You don’t need to worry about those things, Mr. David”. Quite who would, I never discovered.
Me: “No, I don’t think I need that level of attention, after all the apartment is serviced daily.”
TAYL: “As you wish Mr David, is there anything else I can help you with?”
Me: [More than a little subdued] “No, wait, yes please, can you have another four beers sent up, think I need them.”
TAYL: “Of course Mr David, right away.”
How difficult has it been/was it to hang onto your culture?
Pretty hard all in all, if we take the above as how I started off in Jakarta, by the time I left I couldn’t possibly conceive of life without a maid; just too dreadful to contemplate. And it surprises me not at all when someone stops right in the middle of a mall walkway for no apparent reason, in fact I’ve come to expect it.
What do you miss most from 'home'?
Well I now consider Jakarta as my home and relocating to Doha has been tough, really tough but what I miss most from the UK is my family.
Have you joined/did you join any 'expat' clubs? If so, which ones?
I did join the St George Association but that soon dropped off; bit too much of a clique for my taste with too many people looking down their noses at my local girlfriends.
Do (or did) you seek out other expats on a similar wavelength to you?
No, not really, our group came together almost naturally. We’re all from different walks of life: professionals, teachers, a couple of pilots, engineers, a deep sea diver and a guy that exports furniture around the world but we all seem to be pretty much in tune with each other.
For example, I returned to Jakarta in July (2006) to marry and I just seemed to fall in naturally again with the rhythm of the group. Not that it’s unchanging, far from it in fact but there are a few constants that anchor us; one is that there’s always a core of about four people in town, not the same four people you understand but people who will transition in and out and provide continuity and news to returnees.
If you have been here for several years, what problems do you still have coping with?
For all its hassles, corruption and nepotism I’d still give my right hand to be back (I’ve only been away a year and I’m sooooo homesick). I hate the traffic but love the bars and clubs at the other end of the journey. I hate the pollution but love the fact I can get a cab when I want day or night. I hate tourists but love the Balinese. I hate the malls …nope, no redeeming features, I just hate those.
The thing I hate the most is that for all its natural resources, the government can’t or won’t exploit these in a sustainable, sensible way and educate its people out of poverty. And for all they’ve been screwed over, bullshitted and generally exploited, the Indonesian people still smile and welcome you with a generosity that I don’t believe can be anything other than genuine. I don’t love Indonesia per se, it’s only a place after all but I will forever be enamored and besotted by its people. .................................... DC took short term contracts in Baghdad, Kabul, Dubai and Kuwait City to fuel addiction to Jakarta. He relocated to Doha with his wife in November 2006 and the last I heard he was "Crying buckets to return."