Sunday, April 02, 2006


The hotel life is getting stale. Stale as square white bread. That's what comes as a courtesy breakfast at Hotel Karya. We’re ready to put the single room, the leaking toilet, the blank walls, the Dutch toast, and the tourist slum behind us. Yesterday, we returned to a promising neighborhood to look around some more.

Last weekend, someone we met at the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents’ Club invited us to take a look at the house he’s moving out of. AP Chris also showed us around the Pejompongan area, which means “a rallying place”, though it’s sleepy and green by Jakarta standards. The way one hunts for a house here, according to AP Chris, is one finds someone and ask them. Imagine that. “Everyone’s a real estate agent.” Apartment finders get some kind of commission on the deal, so the incentive to help you out is pretty strong. Chris just pulled his car over the the side of the narrow road and asked a group under an umbrella if there’s any houses for rent. In no time, we were led through a warren of apartments - some horrifyingly dark and grubby, but a few really great living spaces. Landlords generally want one or two years of rent up front though, which is a little tough to commit to when we’re still unsure about income.

The gem of our hunt, found at the bottom of a dead end, was Ibu Amin, a 78 year old Pakistani immigrant who radiated grandmotherly charm. “I can’t sleep in a messy house,” she said. She reminded me, with a pang of heartache, of my own Memere. She actually offered to move out of her own house if we wanted to rent it instead of the one next door. I think she just wanted to show us the sheen of her mandi tile. Her pride in bathroom cleanliness lit her face, as did glow of pride in her five sons and 17 grandchildren. Though her Bahasa was well enunciated, it was clear she wasn’t going to slow down for beginners. I can imagine having many long, misunderstood conversations with her in the late afternoon sun. Could be charming, but could be a serious liability.

The apartment she’s renting is painted in a dizzying combination of blues, and includes two stained glass windows. The generous downstairs has two bedrooms and a large open living room with plenty of light. On a second floor, up an impossibly narrow spiral staircase, there’s a whole other apartment, with a small kitchen, another mandi, and a windowless bedroom. It’s probably designed to house a live-in maid, which is depressing. The most attractive part of the house is an open upstairs patio with a calming view of the neighborhood’s orange roofs and mango treetops. It’s funny how this city, from the right angle, can seem like a paradise. From an altitude of just five meters, all the garbage and rats and traffic and dilapidation disappears under a bed of greens.

She’s a beautiful woman, but it’s worth being cautious about grandmothers next door. She clearly has a standard of tidy we’d never be able to equal, and there’s no telling what kind of offenses we might accidentally commit against a Muslim neighbor with nothing but time on her hands to editorialize about the young bule couple.

For the same amount of money we spent for a windowless basement in Bloomington, we can get a really nice two or three bedroom house or apartment with balconies and office space, and probably hire someone to help us keep it clean. The hiring of help is an issue we have yet to wrestle with. Most expats here eventually hire a “helper”, and I feel like we’re already getting used to the idea. It takes a certain standard of cleaning to keep the critters out of one’s home, and Trish and I are…not used to keeping a place up to that standard, shall we say. There’s still something that feels a little colonial about hiring “helpers”, but I suppose that’s all in how the business relationship plays out.

I have to say, overall, I feel encouraged. Now that we’ve dipped in to the word of mouth network and have begun to make friends and contacts, this whole move seems to make a little more sense and it all seems a bit more manageable. Some days are really hard. You have to exert a full measure of effort to appreciate this city, and the foul breath of despair is always warms the shoulders. The dirt and the garbage and the noise and the traffic can catch up with you when your defenses are down. Today, however, I think I love it here.