View of central Jakarta in late 1977 from the Mandarin Hotel during construction

View of central Jakarta in late 1977
from the Mandarin Hotel during construction

My two and a half years in Jakarta

My life fell into several distinct phases. For the first few months I tended to meet British expatriates either at lunches organised by my boss Bob N at an indian restaurant, at the International Sports Club, at Scottish dancing held weekly at different people's houses or over Christmas 1977 at Carita Beach.

Andrew S had arrived in late October 1977 from Hong Kong as the interior designer for the hotel and so I started socialising with him and Ian R. Ian and I later took a share of a villa in the hills at Puncak which we had the right to use every four weeks.

The view from my office window

The view from my office window. There was a small kampung
or shanty village down near a stream next to the office which
had chickens and turkeys

Bob N left to become a partner in the Hong Kong office and I stopped meeting his friends. I had had enough of Scottish dancing which seemed to appeal to slightly older married people so I gave that up. I started running and drinking with the Jakarta Hash House Harriers. There were weekends away with them at Samudra beach and we met up at pubs during the week.

The Hash Master changed and the new Master John H was hopeless at leading the songs. The number of Brits on the Hash fell away to virtually zero and the number out running also seemed to get less and life got a bit dull after Andrew S returned to Hong Kong. At this time I decided I wouldn't renew my two-year contract. I realised that after another two years I would be type-cast as an expatriate and would be out of touch with building contract law and procedures in the UK. I didn't feel I wanted to stay abroad for my whole life so I decided to return while I still had a good chance of getting a job in the UK. I did however offer to stay on for a few months extra.

My replacement Dave L arrived in late 1979 and shared the flat above the office with me. We went out a lot to bars and discos. The Hash had a revival, the singing got better again and the numbers grew substantially and there were more Brits. I was very fit and winning my squash matches, going up in the league albeit from a lowish level, but it felt good to be winning.

The expatriate crowd

The expatriates I met at the Hash, the sports club and in the bars were generally British, American and Australian with a few Swedes, Germans, Danes and New Zealanders. We all got on very well together but we just never met the French or Japs. The French were very independent, interested in scuba diving. I didn't think they got on well with Brits anyway, Trafalgar and all that. The Japs socialised at the Horizon Hotel in Ancol, right the other side of Jakarta where there was a casino and a big massage parlour.

There were a huge number of Chinese and quite a few Indians, but they were permanent residents.

The International Sports Club

This had a pool which families with children congregated around at weekends. There were tennis, badminton and squash courts, a lake with sailing, a football/rugby pitch and a cricket pitch (although I only saw that used once). There was also a fairly good restaurant. It was used for large expatriate parties like the Scottish Highland Gathering party.

The bars

The George and Dragon and the Jaya pub were in a fairly central area catered for the older expatriates. I often went to the Jaya pub at lunchtime as it was near an office I visited. The "Blok M" shopping area near the suburb where most of us lived had a big bar called the Tankard. This had huge numbers of girls who all looked about fifteen. None of us went there much though, it was a bit large and had no special character.

A small hotel in Blok M had two bars. One was called the Tavern and was run by an expatriate. It was used by Brits and Americans mainly. The girls in there seemed to be girlfriends on the whole, there weren't many unattached girls. This bar closed at about 11 pm and people then tended to say "Are you going on?" which meant going to a disco or late night club.

The other bar in the small hotel was called the K bar and run by an Indonesian partner of the Tavern's manager as far as I can remember. It really only got going after the Tavern closed and was dark, noisy and full of girls. I could never understand why the girls didn't invade the Tavern; either they were kept out or they realised it wasn't quite the right bar for them. I think the managers, being partners, agreed to serve a different market. The men in there were usually Indonesian. Funnily enough none of us went in there much even though we passed its door when we left the Tavern.

The best disco was the Tannamur and I went there a lot with one friend or another. It had the best music, enough space, dark but not too dark and a good atmosphere.

The other main place we went to was called the Hot Men bar. It was pitch black inside and your eyes couldn't see anything at first except a few spots of light behind the bar. It was always really crowded and hot. As you waited to be served at the bar you would feel something soft squeeze in between you and the next person. You looked down and couldn't see anything except a row of white teeth and two white eyes. A voice would say "You like me, Mister?" and she would put her knee between your thighs. My usual response was "For Christ's sake, let me get a drink first!" I went there a lot with Dave L.

For about a year I didn't take girls home from bars, several people who did got the clap. It was before the days of Aids. I met girls in other ways but generally their English was so bad that taking them out to dinner or somewhere else was boring because of the lack of conversation. Eventually I realised, like my friends, that taking a girl home at 2 am and making sure she left in the morning was a better policy. They cost about 10 a night, but it was common practice for them to sift through your cassettes and take one. I always gave them a taxi fare too, but probably they caught a bus.

The girls also used to ask for packets of cigarettes although they never smoked them. They probably got several bought for them each night and sold them somewhere.

Anyone catching the clap had to get jabs from the doctor's surgery which usually meant getting them from the young wife of one of your friends who was working as a nurse, so it was a case of "pull your pants down, you naughty boy, and I'll give you your jab".

No doubt some people may think the girls were mistreated, but it was a two-way process and their choice whether to go home with a man or not. Many didn't. Some girls hung around bars until they got to know a bit of English, then they were taken to parties or out with the Hash, then they moved in with an expatriate. All the time their English improved until they could get a job in a hotel, travel agency or airline which gave them the chance to marry well or get a better job in Singapore or Hong Kong. Many married an expatriate.

Bearing in mind that the girls got 10 a night while my cook got 18 a month, I expect they got quite a lot more than they earned in a day job.

There were discos in the major hotels, but usually these were for members only. The Hilton Hotel disco appealed to the rich Indonesians like the generals' children. The generals' sons used to roar down the wide Russian-built dual carriageways in their Ferraris in the early hours and bribe the police if they got into trouble. On one occasion there was a gun-fight for some reason and someone was killed after a car chase but it was smoothed over.

My flat and servants

I lived in a rather drab flat above the office. At first Ian R was there too, but when he took over the running of the office he moved into a rented house so I was alone until Dave L joined me a few months before the end of my contract. I had an old cook and a young washgirl who also made the tea for the office, but I paid them out of my salary. I think the cook got about 18 a month and the girl less. There was also a guard (jagga) paid by the office who was supposed to sit in a hut in the front car park all night. In practice he played cards with other neighbouring guards or slept on the floor.

I also had a driver paid by the office for work and I could have used him in the evenings if I had paid his overtime. I never did because I preferred to be independent. If I had kept him up until 2 am while I was at a bar he would have had to get to his home afterwards and it would have been to late for him. I think he may have been a bit upset that I never used him.

Sometimes a girl would be leaving after breakfast just as the secretaries were arriving for work. I'm sure the servants gossiped with the secretaries, but as they spoke to each other in Indonesian it didn't bother me.

The temperature in Jakarta was always between 80 and 85 degrees F, day and night. I never had hot water for washing during my whole time there. Other expatriates had better houses with hot water but I washed in the Indonesian way - by having a mandi. There is a tiled sump with cool water and a small rounded saucepan with a wooden handle that you use to douse yourself while standing on the tiled floor. There was a bath but I only used it when I was really muddy after a Hash run. The water was the same temperature as the air - it felt cold getting into a bath or having a mandi, but quite refreshing after the first shock.

There was a huge difference between rich and poor in Jakarta. I was earning about 45 times what I paid my cook. I lived off my overtime which was paid (and taxed) locally but the rest was paid tax-free in Hong Kong. On the other hand we saw huge houses in Kebayoran Baru owned by rich indonesians probably getting a hundred times my salary at least. One house was rumoured to have thirteen mercedes in the garage as well as other cars. A mercedes was often a way of paying a bribe.

However, the servants lived rent free and no doubt ate some of my food and they saved most of their salary. How many people in England save most of their salary? They were well off compared to becak drivers sleeping in the open and building workers.

The people

Indonesians were always smiling and happy, even the poor, in fact more so with the poor. They had a tendency to fly into a rage unexpectedly and bring out a knife when provoked. Running amok is the term we use in English. Amok is a word from Malaysian and amuk in Indonesian means to go beserk. Luckily I never experienced anything serious although Don G pushed a group of young men close to violence at the Horizon Hotel over a car parking dispute.

Women breast-fed children almost anywhere. It was common on buses and as you drove along roads there would be groups of people sitting on benches at the roadside including bare-breasted women feeding their babies.

Children flew kites all day. The winds weren't very strong, but seemed to be enough. On any day I could see hundreds of kites when I looked down over the flat Jakarta landscape from the Mandarin Hotel. Trees all over Jakarta were festooned with kites. Children always seemed to be happy. By comparison, children of expatriates were often noisy, bad-tempered and uncontrollable.

The language

I bought two language books, but after learning to count and how to say "Good Morning" and a few other things, I didn't need to know any more. The client organisation of the hotel project consisted of English and Australians, the Architects were English, the M & E engineer was Australian, the contractor's and major sub-contractors' managers either spoke English well or were expatriates. The secretaries and receptionists at major offices spoke English, the Bank staff were English and so on. All meetings were in English.

Taxi drivers, market traders and restaurant staff didn't speak English but you could usually point to what you wanted or they understood a few words of English. The only real difficulty was with my servants or driver. I knew enough to tell them if I didn't want an evening meal (tidak makan - no meal), but not enough to tell them why or when I would be back. If I had something important to say to them, I got an office secretary to tell them.

Driving in Jakarta

Red mud spread in from the sides of the roads so it was difficult to see where the real road edge was, especially as the locals had a habit of walking and squatting all over the place. The becaks and motorbike taxis (bemos) never seemed to have lights. Luckily, the Indonesians drive on the left (as do most of the world's population I believe. India and Indonesia are in the top five most populous nations on earth). It was usual to drive down the centre of minor roads, especially outside Jakarta, and just swerve in to the side when something came the other way.

Where a road had been widened or the road edge was unclear there was often a street sign that had not been moved, so it was out in the road, very dangerous at night.

The roads that had tarmac usually had concrete open storm drains at the sides with no protection, so it was essential to know where the road edge was. These were gradually covered over along the main arteries while I was in Jakarta. The road lighting varied from non-existent to passable, but again this improved while I was there. Jakarta is flat and all roads looked alike, so I bought a magnetic compass to help me at least go in the right direction.

The minor roads around Jakarta were always busy all through the night with people sitting or squatting at the roadside listening to radios, playing cards, hanging around small food stalls or sleeping on tables. Becak drivers slept in their passenger seats. Bicycles with baskets piled high with food for markets were all over the place. In the local market areas there was a sludge of rotting vegetable matter all around and a sweet smell of sewage mixed with the smell of spices.

Driving in Jakarta could be complicated as there were certain roads (usually short) which were one-way during the day but two-way at night. As I usually drove around at night I got used to driving both ways down these roads, but sometimes forgot that they were one way during the day. Luckily I never got caught by the police or had a problem except once when a car coming towards me hooted. Some roundabouts only allowed you to go straight on so if I was lost and wanted to do a U-turn I couldn't. Some junctions did not allow you to turn right. I did this once and got stopped by a policeman. He looked a bit confused about what to do with me when I showed him my UK international driving licence. I said what I could in Indonesian and eventually he let me go. I gathered later that most people kept a banknote prominently available in their wallet.

Lots of vehicles, including buses, had no front lights. You could only see the bus by the pretty mauve and pink lights that adorned various places. Many lorries had blue and green rear stop lights as well as red and were covered in ornate decorations and coloured lights. We often followed lorries carrying sand into Jakarta when we returned from the club. They would be under-loaded at the sand depot then pick up a man or two with spades near Jakarta and we could see them frantically fluffing-up the sand to make it look like a full load.

There was a bus depot near the turning to Bob's estate and late at night buses would be parked in the nearby side roads while the bus driver and conductor counted out the money. If they hadn't issued tickets to some people they could pocket the difference between the value of tickets issued and what they had got. They then handed this to friends rather than be seen leaving the depot with bulging pockets.

Nearly every time you stopped at a pub or market you had to pay 50 or 100 rp to a parking attendant. I never knew whether these men were official or not.

At the market areas there always seemed to be beggars crawling around. Some had no use of their legs, so they would use their arms to drag each foot forward while crossing busy roads on their backsides. Sometimes in the gloom they were difficult to see.

At first I used to stop at red lights, but soon got hooted at. During the day most vehicles did stop at red lights but at night it was common to jump them.

Policemen were issued with stones of a certain size to throw at vehicles which jumped red lights. Horns that played a tune were popular. Warbling horns connected to the reverse gear were common and very useful as Indonesian drivers often reversed for no apparent reason and had broken mirrors.


Mosquitos and cockroaches were the main annoyance. The office toilet was small and mosquitos hovered around your ankles menacingly. One or two cockroaches scurried around the walls fast and then often suddenly ran towards your shoes and climbed up them. It meant you kept dancing to keep them away.

It was when I was working late in the gloom after others had gone home that I noticed the insects most. Eventually I managed to ignore the mosquitos even when they settled on my arms. Cockroaches were more difficult to ignore. Once I found one on my knee and another time I was just about to have a drink of tea when I noticed an enormous cockroach drowned in it. I had forgotten to put the metal lid on the mug.

I sometimes found one caught up in my socks in my chest of drawers as its spiny body couldn't get free.

Every few months someone came round to spray the office. Other staff went out into the car park but I tended to stay at my desk while the man with his face mask sprayed everywhere. Soon after he had sprayed in the store room near me a troup of cockroaches would file out quickly but as soon as they got to the middle of the office they would turn upside down, wiggle their legs and die.

Once when Ian was working late he came up to me in the flat too say that he couldn't work, there were too many insects. I went down to look and the whole of his room was black, black walls, black papers and books, etc. Small insects had been sucked in through his air conditioning unit.


I felt two earthquakes, the first was on September 21st 1978 at I.30 pm. I was having lunch when I felt a slow rythmical sideways movement east-west. Whereas a lorry going over a bump in the road produced a quick up and down thump, this was slow and repeated sideways movement. The chair moved noiselessly from side to side as if I was on an elephant. Ian said later that he read in the paper it was Richter force 6. The tea in my cup slopped from side to side even though the cup and table were not apparently moving.

I felt the second earthquake about a year later when I had returned late after a night out at a bar. I sat on my bed and felt the bed move. Of course at first I thought I had had too much beer, but then realised it was an earthquake.

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