Back in the warm, humid, clove-scented embrace of the Daerah Khusus Ibukota (Region Special Mothercity), Jakarta. The first time I came here back in 2003, I thought it was a terrible hellhole, but after sticking around for the better part of a year in 2005-2006 I’ve ferreted out enough of its well-hidden charms and learned to avoid most of its pitfalls well enough that I was actually somewhat looking forward to this job, which will see me spend most of Nov-Dec in Indonesia.
Not that much has changed while I was away, although they’ve completed a few new shopping malls and a lot more busway lines. Pac-Man no longer runs above the desks of Imigrasi at the airport, alas, as they’ve finally replaced the LCD scrollers with flat-panel TVs, but the bloated bureaucracy of arrival processing hasn’t changed at all — the on-arrival visas of a 777-load of foreigners were being processed by one (1) Imigrasi guy, with four (4) police officers quite literally standing behind his shoulder in the booth. Next to him, a handy sign informed that certain ranges of US$100 bills would not be accepted for visa payments until, and I quote, “we have notifiaction from our head”, which I think just encapsulates the experience perfectly: one single word, and they’ve managed to squeeze “notification”, “fiction” and “biatch” in there.
The ride from the airport is a bit more pleasant now that most of the boxy old Nissan Cedrics used by hotel taxi monopolist Silver Bird have now been replaced with plush pitch black Mercedeses. Oddly, though, the price hasn’t gone up at all, so the Gini coefficient strikes you harder than ever when slums and beggars glide past your tinted window as you recline on a leather seat that smells of money and ponder whether to tip your driver 5 or 10 cents for your $3 ride.
Getting used to Indonesian money again is taking a while. At 9400 rupiah to the US dollar, the rupiah being one of the few currencies that has managed to depreciate faster than the greenback, it takes tens of thousands to buy lunch and millions for a hotel room. (I still remember my surprise the first time I went to an Indonesian ATM and was informed that my remaining account balance was north of 100 billion, and even now I feel like a snob when I ask the foreign exchange counter at the airport for a million rupes — just over $100, that is.) I picked up a prepaid SIM card and figured that the Rp.12000 preloaded onto it ought to last a while, but a few international SMS later that was down to half and I realized that I had started off with the grand total of $1.25.
A short break always helps you spot new things even in places you thought you knew well. I’ve always associated the smell of Jakarta with the funky mix of low-octane exhaust, burning garbage and sewage outside, but this time, I realized that for us white-collar guys, the real smell of the Jakarta is aerosol air purifier. Every single elevator and meeting room in the city appears to have a little box mounted on the wall, practically always the same model made by Initial, whose job is to squirt a dash of scent every few minutes. It’s a fairly audible squirt too, seemingly always perfectly timed to punctuate awkward silences in conversation, like little sweet-smelling farts.
Another of Jakarta’s many little weirdnesses is how many women (and the occasional guy) are coiffed out with elaborate hairstyles that, in the rest of the world, went out of style in the 1920s: one of the lounge ladies at the hotel has a bob of such surreally symmetric perfection that a friend of mine suspects it’s a wig. With service industry wages averaging around US$60 a month, department stores are so terminally overstaffed that any customer (particularly a two-meter blonde alien) draws a crowd of half a dozen curious, perfectly made up and more often than not stunningly attractive saleswomen staring at every move you make. Not that I’d usually complain, mind you, but it’s a little distracting if you’re in the market for a new pair of underwear.
On the second day back at work, one of the client’s guys came up and told me there was a fire drill. There was no alarm, I protested, but I’d forgotten this was Indonesia — he’d been tipped off by the security guys that there would be a fire drill. So we moseyed down with our laptops and were already outside in a good position to watch the show by the time the bells started ringing, a window on the 8th floor opened, and and an orange smoke flare was set off. On the balcony of the neighboring building, somebody tried to aim a jet of water at it, only to discover that streams of water aren’t very good at going around corners. A few minutes later, a fire truck showed up, raised up its crane and to loud cheers started spraying towards the smoke — only problem was, the water pressure wasn’t even close to enough to reach it. After another ten minutes of fiddling, they managed to up the pressure and finally hit the smoke, and rescue squad commandos started rappeling down from the 23rd floor, hoisting down either brave volunteers or customers who hadn’t paid the bills. The final cherry on the cake was extinguisher practice, with office ladies in tudung veils charging at flaming barrels of oil. All in a day’s work… but I’ll keep a closer eye on the emergency exit routes in Indonesian buildings from now on.