Nelly The Elephant Packed Her Trunk…


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.

20 Comments

  1. Happy Adventure Anniversary, Lottie! And what an amazing (is there any other kind??) adventure it is! You are both so smart to have found your Bali getaway. Definitely important for you to have a soothing oasis to escape to now and again.

    I loved this entire post. As usual, you had me on the edge of my seat, gulping your words in. Ever see someone gulp with their eyes? Not a pretty sight. Especially touching was your story about the little boy in the market who told you the price of the strawberries.I know what that sort of relief and gratitude feels like. You described it all beautifully.

    You’re a lovely, lovely storyteller, Sis and very brave woman. xoxo

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    1. You just made me cry! seriously i burst into tears when I read your comment just now.

      You are a lovely, lovely friend and sister and I appreciate your always taking the time to comment and tell me your thoughts. It makes a world of difference to know that you enjoy my stories and I love the thought of you gulping down the words with your eyes. Think of all the calories you are saving yourself by not eating them!!

      I’m glad you understand that relief too, and gratitude. Moments like that come right out of the blue from seemingly nowhere, and hit you bam! in the solar plexus. I doubt that little boy had any idea of what his actions really meant to me, and he was probably scared shitless when I threw my arms around him and then handed him some wonga but, that little shrimp of a boy gave me hope. Hope that I would get to grips with life here, and more importantly for him, hope that his language skills will get him off the streets and give him a chance of a brighter future xoxo

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      1. I totally get it. Sometimes people and situations appear as if by magic, just at the right time and in the right place. Beyond this though, it says something about you, because you recognized it and took hold. Not everyone does, which is sad.

        I’m going to try to gulp with my eyes more often now. Anything to save on those calories. Hah! xoxo

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  2. Dont’ mention the ‘D’ word.

    It’s got so bad that a man whose shop I visit regularly for fabrics and batik actually turned round and said to me ‘Oh dear Ibu, you have put on A LOT of weight, you should do something about it!’ Indonesians are certainly not backwards in coming forwards when there’s something on their mind!!

    So dear Sister, I jest you not when I end my emails with Lots of love Fatty! I’m booking myself into fat camp xoxo

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  3. Why didn’t someone tell me about this blog? You write beautifully Lottie, what a wonderful story of your year in Jakarta. What an adventure! I’m really enjoying getting to know you.

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    1. Wow eeeee! thanks Trish. If it’s any consolation, I’ve only recently cottoned on to the fact that you have a blog too and I’m loving reading about your world and have started following you. Thanks for your kind words 🙂

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  4. I loved reading about your amazing year in Indonesia. How brave and adventorous of you and your Irishman to spend your first year of married life so far from your comfort zones. It sounds like you have had a true journey together and in life that is so precious and worthwhile no matter what.
    : )

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    1. thank you so much 🙂 yes, it’s been an amazing and extraordinary year. I still pinch myself that we are here and that we have done and seen so many things. Hope we can stay for a few more years because we both love it and we have only scratched the surface of this wonderful country. Still so much to see and do. Good luck with your adventures too, I really enjoyed your last post and I had to smile because I’m at the purple rinse, reading glasses stage now!!!

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  5. Hello!

    You are one of my “new” (well, new to me) Triberr mates, Lottie! Happy Anniversary and many congratulations on that. I’m glad you’ve grown to love Indonesia. That’s one place I’ve never been, but I’ve always wanted to visit, ever since seeing “The Year of Living Dangerously,” with Mel Gibson and Linda Hunt, for which she won a Best Supporting Oscar. If you haven’t seen it, do so. The association between Indonesia, the Sukarno regime and the music of Richard Strauss’ “4 Last Songs” is just so poignant, but oddly, fitting.

    Anyway, I’m so glad to have made your acquaintance through our Triberr, Brazen Blogger and I really am enjoying your amazing blog. You and Irishman seem happy and look happy! I look forward to your further adventures! Mary

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    1. Thank you fellow Brazen Blogger! It’s lovely of you to comment and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the adventures so far. I have seen ‘The year of living dangerously’ but ages ago and I keep meaning to watch it again as it will be all the more poignant for us living here now.

      I’ll be catching up with your blog soon – lifes been a bit crazy recently as I’ve had a month of guests staying and not any spare time. Great to hear from you and onwards and upwards for the BB’s! 🙂

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  6. Lottie, I don’t know if I’d have been able to muster the same amount of nerve and verve that you did so new in a marriage. Good for you! And I loved seeing your bridal photos…you look magnificently happy. 🙂

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