Working in Jakarta

Monday, 2 November, Jakarta

The client’s office is large, and our open-plan floor accommodates around 120 hip & trendy young adults, kind of like an Indonesian Google. Only a few of the girls are wearing the Hijab, but I can’t help wondering how many of the remainder will cover up before heading home. I’m shown to a large table which must have been cleared specifically for my visit, and introduced to a crew of 8 keen faces, all of whom take a seat right there. The whole project team, face to face, for a week. I’m going to like the Indonesian way of working! 

My girlfriend is waiting for me back at the hotel after work, and I discover that she’d had quite an interesting ride herself, having taken the local buses from the airport much to the amusement of the locals, who patiently ushered her to the correct part of the bus for persons of her sex. We have much to learn. 

Our hotel is attached to the Central Park Mall (because, naturally, there’s a park in the centre of the mall) which is just one of 181 monstrous shopping complexes in this city of 12 million people. There are 5 or 6 floors of premium brand stores and restaurants, a koi pond the size of Lake Michigan, and a food court in the basement that reminds me of the subterranean city beneath Toronto. We try to find a celebratory bottle of wine for later but give up, settling instead for some cheap local beer once we discover a Carrefour. Dinner was at a premium-location-mediocre-food restaurant in the middle of the koi pond, where my bottle of Erdinger costs as much as my girlfriend’s entire meal, bringing the bill to Rp 370,000 / £19.00 all-in for two people.

Colourful nighttime picture of a really crap eatery in a plastic shopping mall
Vegas Hotdog. What else?

Tuesday, 3 November, Jakarta

Breakfast at the Pullman is predictably excellent, but my Eggs Royale (salmon) unexpectedly arrives with ham instead of hollandaise sauce. Interesting. The driver picks me up as arranged and we embark on another slow-motion white knuckle ride. Yet again I struggle to comprehend how it’s possible to make so little progress when you have an engine. But propulsion isn’t the problem, it’s co-ordination. Every inch of tarmac is exploited, six lanes of traffic in three lanes of road. Like two fat men trying to squeeze simultaneously through a narrow door, everybody wants to be first, even if that means nobody moves. I seriously consider walking to the office tomorrow, but there’s nowhere for pedestrians to go here; most sidewalks are either covered in rubbish, abandoned furniture, or commercial wares. At junctions there are complex pedestrian bridges so that you don’t have to take your life in your hands crossing the road, but no indication of where any of them lead, as my girlfriend found to her detriment while going walkabout this afternoon. Well, I say detriment, but in fact the lack of signage merely meant that she encountered many friendly locals, who would literally go out of their way to guide her to the other side of a junction via those endless convoluted walkways. 

You should see rush hour…

The same friendly helpfulness is evident at work too. Everyone I meet is keen and polite, everyone I need to deal with on this project is seated around the same table. We spend a couple of hours getting to know each other and confirming expectations and responsibilities before heading to the refectory for a communal lunch. Diners form two tidy queues, picking up trays, cutlery, rice, duck and various soya accompaniments. The food is good; everyone enjoys the same dish, not spicy at all. I learn that it’s considered impolite to sit on your own at lunchtime, and instead of leaving a space between themselves and other diners, lone arrivals are expected to join an existing group on one of the long benches. There’s so much to remember, more names and enthusiastic faces, and I’m struggling not to make the inevitable cultural faux-pas in the face of building jet lag. After the meal people wander off for a little quiet time, either smoking and reading in the corridors, or – in one individual’s case – to quietly practise acoustic guitar at his desk, bathing the open office in post-prandial serenity.

Monochrome photo of a guy fixing a scooter in a tiny roadside workshop
Papa’s Pit-stop

I won’t bore you with the working day’s finer details, but need to mention that the commute back to the hotel was the worst yet, taking over 90 minutes to cover the kind of distance I’d usually run in under 20. My driver seemed to take personal pride in finding increasingly tight alleys with which to beat the jams, sending people running for cover in order to avoid being hit. Often the only available space for fleeing pedestrians was in a doorway or a building, and at one point karma looked like she would exact her revenge when our car grinds out on a speed bump, threatening to leave us see-sawing forever in an alleyway too narrow for us to open our doors.
Back at the hotel I take the opportunity to speak with my boss in Sweden, and it’s been decided that because of me missing half a day’s work yesterday due to “immigration difficulties” I should stay longer, and work the following Monday to compensate. I’m already trying to figure out how I can get over to Bali for a cheeky weekend break (flights less than £150 return!) when Dad calls via FaceTime with the happy news that he’s had his stitches out and the biopsy came back negative, no chemotherapy needed. Sometimes it’s difficult being so far away.

Wednesday 4 November, Jakarta

Wednesday morning brings the same breakfast, the same crazy ride to work. I’m starting to recognise some of the landmarks that we creep past between hotel and office, and although I want to grab some candid street photos from the comfort of my car I’m not confident enough to open the window just yet, since anybody taking objection with my voyeurism would have no trouble catching us on foot. Instead I shoot Jakarta street scenes through the car’s dirty tinted windows, adding an accidental but appropriate filter effect to this bustling, bewildering city.

Our work at the office is progressing nicely, but pressure mounts since we have just two days left before the client’s systems go into a code-freeze ahead of Singles Day, which is to Indonesia what  Black Friday is to the US. Our product will be responsible for a significant portion of our client’s sales, and more and more people outside of the immediate project team make a point of approaching me to ask how the project’s going. Or maybe they’re just getting used to the sight of this white foreigner in their office, and want to practice their English.

After lunch I experienced my first earthquake. Head down and busy coding away, it felt as though somebody had bumped heavily into our table, making pens roll and water slosh in our plastic beakers. Very weird. Nobody seemed bothered however – maybe this was the reason behind the lids on every drinking vessel. Dinner that night is from a pizza restaurant in the underground food mall. I order something called an Angry Cheese Calzone (plus a bucket of Hoegaarden) and can’t help wondering if I just invited another earthquake.

Thursday 5th November, Jakarta

As soon as we’d made it to Singapore last Sunday I’d sent an email to the embassy, partly because I wanted to get the ball rolling on a replacement passport, and partly because I wanted to open a channel of communication that I could refer to if I get any more difficulties on this trip, which was a real possibility. Today there was mixed news over breakfast; a volcanic eruption has closed Bali airport, and a replacement passport is ready for me – I just need to send off the old one and hang tight for a couple of weeks. I’m not sure if they fully understood my situation.

Luxurious breakfast at the hotel; orange juice, coffee, assorted noodles and curry.
Breakfast at the Pullman

With Bali out of the window I started to look at my homeward journey. The original London – Jakarta return couldn’t be used to leave Indonesia because I bailed out in Singapore and took the boat, so if I wanted to get back to London with the same ticket I’d have to make my own way to Singapore first. Garuda quoted the equivalent of £60 for a one-way trip but as soon as I tried to book I was kicked out, because – surprise – my passport wasn’t valid for at least six months. Singapore Airlines had no such qualms, but stung me 560 USD for the 2 hour flight. I didn’t fancy my chances with the Batam ferry.

Lunch today is at a small restaurant round the corner from the office and there’s just three of us, myself plus two senior team members. We have only half a day until the big release and then code freeze, and I get the feeling that my colleagues need to get away from work for just an hour and enjoy a change of scenery, as well as a change of topic. Or maybe outside lunches are only permitted on days when key staff have to work until midnight to oversee important deployments. I feel a little selfish raising the topic of free time, and when I hint at my scuppered plans for Bali at the weekend they suggest I take a train to Bogor, 2 hours south of Jakarta. It’s mostly off the tourist trail and has a wonderful rainforest park, making it a favourite weekend destination for people who live and work around Jakarta.

Traffic is lighter on the way home today, and our driver only has to use the wrong side of a dual carriageway twice in order to force his way into a particularly bad junction, where a an enterprising pedestrian uses his body as a human shield, blocking first one lane and then the other so that the drivers who have paid him a handful of grubby bills get to pull out in front of those that haven’t.

Two guys on scooters grossly overloaded with what looks like T-shirts
Delivery comin’ through!

Back at the hotel I grab a quick shower before taking my girlfriend and my laptop out to dinner, since I still need to catch up with clients in Europe and the US, and because I’m on stand-by for tonight’s all important code release. Speaking of showers, I’m still not 100% convinced of our room’s facilities. Placed near the centre of the bedroom is a glass floor-to-ceiling capsule, very much like an old-fashioned phone box, and inside is the shower. The glass is not frosted, and apart from a single towel rail there’s nothing to protect your modesty from anybody in the room, or anybody in the corridor outside when the door is open. Most bizarre.

Wandering downstairs in search of more plastic mall-food, the ubiquitous airport-style security arch lights up when I step into the shopping centre, as it has done every day for every passer by. Only this time I’ve got more than just wallet and phone, and as I hand my laptop bag to the teenage security guard expecting it to be searched, he just gives it back to me after I’ve walked through the security scanner, which still goes off. Nobody thinks this is unusual, a forgettable facet of routine, but it’s still clear in my mind when I hear sad news from Jakarta two months later: multiple explosions and gunfire kill 4 civilians and 4 perpetrators in a brutal mall attack

Dinner is at the Hog’s Breath Cafe, an unashamedly cheaper looking version of Hard Rock where, for fourth day in a row, we are served our meals so far apart that my girlfriend has finished hers before my food arrives. It’s almost as though there’s a cultural edict preventing a couple from eating at the same time. We’re both done with desert yet the wine we ordered three courses ago still isn’t here, so we spend our last night together back in our room, she with a book and me with my laptop. With a valid passport and no obligation to stay there seemed little point in paying for a second set of ticketing changes, especially since they wouldn’t be covered under expenses, so tomorrow she’ll start the long journey back home alone while I get to find out if our product is live with Indonesia’s biggest online retailer.

Home from Home

Friday 6th November, Jakarta

The code deployment went well but there are a few teething troubles on both sides, and while the client starts to deal with theirs I’m getting ready to chat to Operations in San Francisco as soon as they’re online. Our planned team lunch doesn’t materialise but that’s OK, I think I know how the canteen works, and it’s only when I’m joined by two friendly developers from the fulfilment team that I realise I’ve committed the cardinal sin of sitting alone. They’re far too polite to mention it, instead spending half their lunch hour quizzing me about life in Europe and what I think about their country. Everyone is so friendly and approachable that it’s quite humbling at times. Or maybe I’m just more receptive since there’s issues with the product, the team’s busy, and I’ll be alone for the rest of the trip.

Back at the hotel I tip my driver Rp 200,000 (about £10) for not killing anyone all week, I’m told that on Monday I’ll have a different driver for reasons which are not made clear. Dinner is the saddest yet, Burger King for one, and it takes me a long time to pay because the bank notes all look the same and there’s no thousands separator, so I don’t know if I’ve handed over enough to cover extra ketchup or whether I’m trying to buy a car. When I finally locate the wine merchant afterwards even a two-inch stack of notes isn’t enough to secure their cheapest Merlot, so I give up and head back to the room for a very late night of fault-finding with our Ops team on the other side of the world.

Saturday 7th November, Jakarta

Despite the late night I’m up before dawn, trying to catch the Ops team in California before they clock off for the week. There hasn’t been much progress while I’ve slept, but now all it takes is a quick chat with the VP and six minutes later I have what I need. Can’t beat the personal touch sometimes.

By then I’m no longer motivated to head out to Bogor and decide to do a bit of exploring locally, just as the heavens open, so it’s back to the mall yet again. There’s nothing I really need except maybe a new suitcase, but on closer inspection everything inside the mall is as disproportionately expensive as everything outside is cheap: a medium-sized Samsonite coming in at Rp 8 million – around £400. I did buy one thing however; a small sticker that reads Damn, I love Indonesia. I’d seen them once or twice on the backs of cars, and it turns out this is actually a nationwide brand, styled like an ultra-patriotic Superdry. It’s a good comparison actually, because every single item in the shop carries the same slogan, the same stylised font incorporating part of Garuda Pancasila, one of Indonesia’s national emblems.

Fitting Souvenir