I spent two years living and working in Jakarta from 1991 to 1993. I taught math at the only English speaking university in Jakarta at the time. Once leaving the front doors of the university, however, very few people spoke English. I bought a translation dictionary and started memorizing words. Up to that time I thought it would be easier for me to teach everyone else English compared to me learning another language, but I surprised myself.
We had lots of holidays at the university. I would ask my students what was the holiday coming up this week. They replied that it was a red number holiday. The next week we had a couple more days off. "What holiday is this?" I asked my students. They replied, "A red number holiday". Again I didn't think twice about their answer. A week later we had an entire week off from school. "What holiday is this?" I asked. "A red number holiday," was the response. "Wait a minute," I thought twice, "Didn't we celebrate that holiday last week?"
It wasn't until a year later when I finally figured out that holiday. I was studying an Indonesian calendar and noticed it had lots of holidays listed from many countries around the world. The number on the calendar for that country's holiday was red where all other numbers were black. It turned out that if any country around the world had a day or week off, then so would we. I didn't mind. That gave me lots of time to travel around exploring the country.
A couple other Americans were hired to teach at the university while I was there but they ran back to America after a couple of days. Jakarta was definitely an unusual place for an American and took lots of tolerance and patience to survive. Not only did they drive on the other side of the road, everything seemed backwards from what we were use to. Stores in America had signs, "We buy and sell..." In Indonesia it was, "Sell and buy." We flip a light switch up to turn on the light, in Jakarta it was down. We count heads, for example, heads of cattle. Indonesia counts tails. The word pronounced like 'air' means 'water', the letter 'i' is pronounced 'e' and 'e' is 'a'. Teaching math was interesting as well. Their custom was to put a comma where the decimal point should be and a decimal point where the comma should be. It took some getting use to and it was great fun as well.
I use to walk to most places I went in Jakarta. The taxi drivers could never understand that. As I walked on the sidewalk a taxi would follow me at walking speed and kept honking his horn. "You're supposed to be in a taxi!" I waved for him to keep moving. When the taxi finally got tired of waiting for me to decide that I really wanted a taxi, he would leave but then another quickly took his place.
I liked to walk because I could meet the people that way. Even the poor beggars sitting on the pedestrian bridges over the highways had a smile when they saw me coming. That was not what they were supposed to do. They should always look sad so they could get more donations but they knew local customs did not apply when dealing with me. I would always stop to say hi and they returned my greetings. Me talking to them and they talking to me was strictly against Jakarta's caste system. I would then give them the equivalent of a quarter and say good-bye
I was scolded by a couple of my friends on different occasions for talking to them and for giving too much. They told me that I must not give more than the equivalent of a nickel. That didn't stop me. I felt that the man with no feet or the mother with five babies dressed in rags could use the extra change.
Some months later I learned that all the beggars in Jakarta had pimps. The pimps traveled to rural villages to find the most pitiful looking people and promised them jobs in Jakarta. He took them away from their families who were taking care of them and put them on the footbridges over the highways. Every night the pimp would take the beggars earnings and give them a little to eat.
This explained something that I always thought was strange. On rainy days, when I had to take a taxi to and from school, we would drive on a road that always had a poor fellow sitting in the street. Next to him was a wheelchair that had a broken wheel and the wheel was placed in the seat of the chair to make it more visible to passersby. The poor in Jakarta did not have wheelchairs and even if he did, he wouldn't have wheeled himself down that busy highway.
One walk that I never liked was cashing my paycheck. The only bank that could cash the check was directly across the highway from the school. It required a walk through the train station and over the footbridge. A taxi ride would require 30 minutes to get to the other side of the highway if you happened to find an honest taxi driver.
Each teller at the bank had their own small enclosed room. I found out why. The largest bill Indonesia had was the equivalent to less than $10. I gave the teller my paycheck and she handed over all these stacks of wrapped bills straight from the mint. I put one stack in each of my front pant pockets, another in each sock. I then stuffed my back pockets then my shirt pocket and the stacks kept coming. After my clothes were stuffed I had to make the walk back to school past all the beggars, literally bulging from the seams with money.
I had groups of friends around my neighborhood. One group always sat in the same place on one side of the neighborhood, another group sat on the other side, and a third group of my friends could always be found sitting on the curb on another side of the neighborhood. None of them ever seemed to walk the five minutes to get to the other side. I guess they had no reason to go there. Each group called me by a different pronunciation of my name so, even if I didn't recognize someone, I knew which group he belonged to.
As I sat on the curb with one group of friends, my landlord drove by. She stopped and told me to get in, which I did. She drove me for a minute that it took to get back to my house and expressed how shocked she was that I talked to the lower class. The next day the sister of the owner of the university called me into her office. The owner was the most successful business women in Indonesia and it was her sister who ran the university. They had a powerful family. Their father and brothers and uncles were high members of president Suharto's cabinet. The sister went to college in America so she was understanding of American ways, although, she too said that I must not talk to the lower class.
That didn't stop me either. In fact, one day the university had a major celebration, the best money could buy. Later that night I went to my friend's birthday party in the shack where he lived and I couldn't decide which party was better.
Walking around Jakarta almost got me into a different type of trouble. The walk to and from school required me to go through a train station to get from the elevated highway back to ground level. A young man jumped up from the bench where he was sitting and stopped me. This was not unusual and happened to me all the time in Jakarta. He asked the usual questions that every stranger asked me. The other men who were sitting on the bench started to circle around behind me. I was starting to get nervous and thrust my hands into my pockets. I don't know why I happened to do that but immediately the men behind me ran away. The man who was distracting me started to back up, showed the palms of his hands and said, "Ok, ok, no problem," and then he too ran away.
I realized that the only thing the average person of Jakarta knew about Americans was what they saw in the violent movies imported from America, and that was, American men could always reach in their pockets and pull out a machine gun or hand grenades. I remembered this little trick and had to use it once again in my two years of traveling around Indonesia.
One thing that I found interesting about Jakarta was the vast variety of insects that I never saw while growing up in the mountains of Colorado. It seemed that every day of my first year in Indonesia I discovered a species new to me and they were all in my house. I also can't remember ever seeing a lizard on the wall before going to Indonesia and my house was full of them. At first they didn't bother me. They were quiet when the lights were off and ate the insects when the lights were on. I quickly changed my attitude towards them when I was sitting at my table and lizard poo fell on my head.
One night while sitting on the curb with friends, a kaki lima walked by. The literal translation of 'kaki lima' is 'feet five'. That was a man pushing a three-legged cart around from one neighborhood to another looking for someone who was hungry. Each kaki lima sold one type of meal depending on the sound they made. The ones selling fried rice made a tapping on metal sound. The ones selling noodles with water buffalo meat made a hideous yell.
My friend introduced me to the street food by stopping one of the kaki limas. I had the noodles with round shaped water buffalo meat. My friend told me that some of the kaki limas used chicken instead of water buffalo. The kaki lima waited until we were done eating then he washed his plates that we used. He then made that hideous yell as he pushed his cart away to look for another hungry person.
The noodles with water buffalo meat was terrific. The next night I wanted to eat it again. I sat in my house waiting for the hideous yell to go buy. When I heard it I ran out and stopped him. I paid the equivalent of 35 cents for the meal and took it to my house. I took a bite and immediately my nose started running and my throat swelled up. After a trip to the bathroom I looked closer at the noodles. There was no round shaped water buffalo meat so I thought it must have been the kaki lima who used chicken. I couldn't tell the difference between some of the kaki lima's hideous yells. That meat was not chicken either; it had fur and little toes. I happened to stop the kaki lima who used rat meat.
The Indonesian 'presidential election' was quite an experience. There were three political parties, Suharto who was the current 'president', Sukarno who was the 'president' but was killed 20 years earlier when Suharto took power, and the Muslim party. Each party had a color associated with it and they alternated the days which they campaigned.
The campaign consisted of 20 men in the back of a pickup truck driving around trying to find someone who was wearing the wrong color for that day. One of them yelled threats at me as I walked to school because I was wearing blue that day. "Hey," I yelled back, "Aren't you the same person who yelled at me yesterday because I wasn't wearing blue?"
All that didn't matter anyway. In the end it was the large business owners who cast the vote for all of their employees and Suharto always had a 100% victory.
Two years passed quickly and the mood of the people changed drastically. While sitting on the curb they would tell me their feelings. I was shocked. If they told the same thing to the wrong person they would 'disappear'. The people were ready for a political change, and in Indonesia that change could not happen easy.
News reports from the Indonesian Burrow of Censorship mentioned something about the island East Timor, which did not help the attitude the people had towards foreigners. Foreigners who were big business executives started dieing in mysterious ways. It wasn't until I left the country that I found out what really happened in East Timor.
I thought it was time for me to leave. In fact, just before I left the American ambassador to Indonesia left vowing never to return. From the safety of 10,000 miles I watched the uncensored news regarding Indonesia in disbelief. The American stock market was pumping millions of dollars into that country. "Don't they know where their money is going?" I asked myself.
It was no surprise to me when the Indonesian stock market crashed. The rupia that was 1,600 to the dollar when I arrived in Jakarta and 2,000 to the dollar when I left, suddenly jumped to over 15,000 to the dollar. The revolt began and Suharto was overthrown. Almost twenty years have past and I often dream of returning to the curb in Jakarta to see if any of my friends are still sitting there.
Read more of "My Adventures" on the top right of this page.