I find it hard to believe that it’s almost a year since the Irishman and I rocked up in Jakarta. When our plane touched down on Indonesian soil nearly 12 months ago it marked not only the start of our married life together, but also the beginning of a new adventure for both of us.
Like the proverbial babes in the wood we were innocents, enchanted by the uncharted territory that lay before us, and maybe we were naïve to a certain extent (and that’s not such a bad thing) but not so much that we were not also well aware of what it was that we had decided to embark upon.
Make no mistake; our decision to leave our mad but comfortable existence in London to start a new life in Indonesia was not taken lightly. It was neither a reaction to things gone wrong back home, disenchantment with the UK, nor a desire to runaway and bury our heads in the sand. Au contraire, this opportunity was borne out of our desire to seize life by the cojones*, to step right out of our comfort zone, to try to embrace and learn from that experience and, most importantly, to be part of a team of people instrumental and dedicated to positive change in Indonesia via education.
This past year has flown by and it seems like only yesterday that on that late October evening we were being greeted by the cockroach welcoming committee that waved to us from every surface as we turned the lock, opened the door and dumped our tatty suitcases and weary selves into our new home in Dengue Villas. The smell of shit that hit us as we walked into our first marital home together nearly had us throwing up, and what can only be described as an eye- wateringly mal odour, coupled with the thick black gunk that oozed out of the bathroom taps made our first evening in Jakarta something of a major anticlimax after the previous three months building up to this big life-changing event. It was not romantic.
With not a soul to turn to for help or support, no useful welcome pack with phone numbers, advice or a map, no safety net of friends or family, our early weeks in Jakarta where as much about survival and learning to breath through our mouths as anything else. On reflection, those early months were also the first real test of our marriage. Irishman had to hit his new job running, leaving early each morning, and often late back at night as he struggled to make head and tail of the work and the enormous task in front of him. This left me with long days to fill in an unfamiliar city, in an environment whose culture was totally different from anything that I had ever previously known. The truth was that I was jobless, friendless, childless, dogless and suddenly felt very much alone for the first time in years.
My earliest steps out into what was then, the scary unknown were somewhat tentative and often a little nerve wracking. Having chosen not to live in an expat area, it seemed like I was the only western woman for miles around, and with my blonde hair I stuck out like a sore thumb. Some days it got me down being stared and pointed at, and to see children openly weeping, whilst clinging onto their mothers legs for dear life as I walked past was really quite upsetting especially as I must now confess that there were times when I too, wanted to cling onto someone’s legs and weep uncontrollably. Unable yet to speak one word of Bahasa Indonesia and with absolutely no grip on the geography or knowledge of the vast megalopolis that we now lived in, I was totally reliant on the wisdom of the taxis and Bajur drivers for getting me around. More often than not this became a case of the blind leading the blind, as the drivers would get lost and a short journey could take hours as they went round and round in circles clearly as confused and ignorant as I was to the layout of this vast, multi-faceted city.
I would find myself in markets, the only bule*, trying my level best to look confident and self-assured as I juggled two foot beans in one hand and mangosteens in the other, surrounded by street kids tugging on my arms all demanding money from me whilst I desperately tried to work out the currency and pretend I knew exactly what I was doing. I suspect that in those early days there were a lot of happy stallholders who were only too pleased that this stupid woman hadn’t yet cottoned on to the subtle difference between a 100,000 and a 10,000 rupiah note.
Like bees to a honey pot suddenly I was surrounded by a dozen strawberry sellers, at least half a dozen tea-towel sellers and always a couple of cheeky kids all desperate to extract money off me. One day (before I’d learnt my numbers) I caved in and decided to buy some strawberries. I asked how much they cost which was a pointless exercise as of course I didn’t have a clue what the strawberry guy was saying. Rummaging around in my purse for some change, we were soon joined by a beggar lady and a young boy. It was a hot day and my patience was wearing thin with all the demands. I soon gave up trying to understand what the seller was saying as I didn’t want to pay a ridiculous price for them, and as it was clear that I was not getting anywhere and the heat was fast turning the strawberries into jam it seemed best to count my losses and go. I apologised profusely in my best English for my ignorance and walked away. The little boy came running behind after me, grabbed my arm and in perfect English said ‘Ibu, the strawberries are 14,000 rps if you want them’ I was so shocked, and so very happy that this scruffy little kid could speak such perfect English that I hugged him. We walked back to the strawberry guy together and I bought two boxes of strawberries, gave the beggar lady a fistful of coins and handed the boy a large note for being such a hero and saving the day.
Those tentative steps in the early weeks and months slowly turned to bold strides as I became more confident in the language, familiar with the city and started to find places other than the homogenous shopping malls to visit. Irishman and I started to meet people, get invited to art and cultural events and both felt that at last we were getting into our stride. It wasn’t anything like our old life in London but, it was good, and it was different. The one thing that we were still finding difficult was being able to switch off and chill and so by February of this year it became clear that we needed an escape route away from the madness of Jakarta, somewhere that we could relax, breath some fresh air and regain some sanity. In March we found our bolthole in Bali.
Who knows how long we shall be here and what the next year will bring, nothing is fixed or certain. At any time we may have to leave which makes us even more determined to live this experience fully, to assimilate ourselves as much as we can into Indonesian life, to live in the here and now. We are living in one of the most beautiful, and extraordinary parts of the world, right on the pacific ring of fire. A place where 90% of the world’s earthquakes take place and the highest amount of volcanic eruptions occur. The Indonesian economy is soaring (it is currently the 12th richest country in the world) yet poverty is still a massive problem with the average wage less than $3.00 per day. Corruption is rife and the countrys infrastructure appears to be unable to cope with the speed of its growth or the demands placed upon it. In Jakarta, the building trade is booming as foreign businesses take advantage of the strong economic growth and investors plough their money into Indonesia. Huge, state of the art buildings house banks, businesses, and offices, but in their shadows the shanties and slum dwellers just do their best to exist from day to day. Cows graze on the scrubland infill areas of the city and goats are often seen wandering amongst the queues of traffic. This city will never cease to amaze me; Lonely Planet describes Jakarta as a hard place to love but over the past year, I have grown to love it.
We miss our children madly, and our friends, and I’ve probably spent at least 3 out of our 12 months here sat having the shits on a lavatory, or misfiring over a squatter, or squirting that damn hose thingy over my hair. I’ve consumed more Bintang and vodka than is good for me and sucked in the most noxious air that I have ever breathed in my life. but not once, however difficult at times it has been, have we ever regretted our decision to move here. As I write this post, perched in our new eyrie on the 12th floor of Dengue villas overlooking the choked and grid-locked roads below, this now truly feels like home.