I’m in Jakarta. I can go outside and take a deep breathe of reasonably clean air. There are skyscrapers surrounding me and a Starbucks a few blocks away. I’m a five minute walk from Standard Chartered Bank, the office I worked in two years ago. I’m going to see my friends Chesna and Odi tonight. I’m so, so happy.
When I last wrote, I was heading back to Palangkaraya after a week’s evacuation in Banjarmasin. I was thrilled to be heading back – mostly because I desperately needed to do laundry, but also because I was looking forward to being reunited with my friends and students. After the four hour drive on Monday, we rolled in around noon and I had barely brought my bags inside when Tisia called me and told me to come to school to join them for lunch. It was wonderful to see them all again – I haven’t been around all the teachers since my first week in Palangkaraya, a month ago. After a quick lunch, bu Tisia, bu Juniar (my co-teachers), and I piled into bu Lusni’s car and headed off to imigrasi. I was so happy to be back with them – we laughed and talked and caught up after almost a week and a half apart.
At imigrasi Tisia handed over all of my paperwork and spoke with the immigration official in rapid-fire Indonesian. I followed a little bit of it and soon learned that we were missing one document. After talking on the phone a few times to Rizqi and Ceacealia from aminef, we all went back downstairs and sat in the lobby where Tisia explained everything to me: except for the missing document (a letter from another agency in Jakarta), everything was set for her to be able to complete the visa conversion process for me. The official accepted my Letter of Attorney, Tisia would become my legal representative, and I was free to be evacuated again.
That evening, Carlie invited me to join her for dinner at her co-teacher’s house. After spending a solid 8 days together, we were happy to be reunited again so soon and I had a wonderful time with all of her people!
On Tuesday, my headmaster wanted me to come to their teacher workshop and formally introduce myself to everyone. When I arrived, I was ushered straight to the front of the room and seated next to the Headmaster and the head of the PTA (I think). Yosef, the 12th grade English teacher and my other counterpart moved a chair up to the front to sit next to me and translate what was going on. I was very appreciative 🙂 The headmaster gave a short introductory speech in Bahasa, and then pointed to me – my turn for a speech! Ha! I gave a very rudimentary introduction of myself in Bahasa to the 50-some teachers in the room. I messed up many times but they loved it and all seem quite excited to help me practice my Indonesian!
After my speech, I moved to a seat next to Tisia and listened (aka filled out imigrasi paperwork and played on my phone), sweated, and breathed in hazardous air for the next 3 hours of the workshop. Then we ate lunch and the workshop was over! I ran home to grab my five batik fabrics that I had collected over the last month and met Tisia back at school and off we went to the tailor! I handed him the pieces, told him what I wanted and hopefully, when we get back to Palangkaraya, I’ll have five new batik outfits! Pretty excited!
At this point, I’d been back in Palangkaraya for about 24 hours. The smoke was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Visibility was better than the day we had left for Banjar, but the air was so thick that you could feel it. It coated your mouth and your nose in seconds and there was no way I could wear my contacts – I could hardly keep my eyes from clouding up with my glasses on. When I was in my AC bedroom, sitting in front of my fan in the house, or sitting under several fans in a classroom – I was okay. But when I left those spaces, either to travel in between buildings, or in the morning when the air in my house was still thick with smoke, I coughed and my eyes smarted, and I constantly had a dull headache. I couldn’t believe how people were living there day in and day out… having to go about their daily routines, open their shops, ride their motorbikes across town… just live in all that smog.
At this point, we were waiting for word from aminef on the next steps. They had told us they were meeting with people from RELO (Regional English Language Office), a program of the US Embassy, on Tuesday to discuss whether we could join a program somewhere else in Indo until the smoke cleared up and it was safe for us to be in Palangkaraya. On Tuesday evening, they said they still weren’t quite sure and we’d have to wait until Wednesday to hear. We waited all of Wednesday before hearing from them that evening, that they were still figuring some of the details out so – “hang in there.”
And I was hanging in there. But I was dreadfully bored. From about 2pm on Tuesday until Thursday morning, I was alone in my house, pretty much confined to my AC bedroom and staring at my phone waiting for it to ring with our next plan. It doesn’t sound so bad when I’m typing it but imagine this… Tuesday 2pm-10pm – sit around, read a little, sweep your house, shower, read some more, the power goes out for 2 hours so you sit on your bed in the pitch black and watch a movie on your laptop until it dies and then you are stuck, power comes back on and you read some more, and more, and finally, it’s an acceptable time to go to bed. Wake up Wednesday with no plan for the day at 7:30am. Shower, sweep the ash up from the house, swish some clothes around in a bucket of soapy water, read, read, read… I love to read, but when it’s 10:30am and you’ve already read for two hours and you’ve done your laundry and have literally nothing else to do all day – you can’t even leave your house and go for a walk, reading begins to lose its charm. So somehow, I passed Tuesday and Wednesday and then Wednesday evening, we were told we’d have to wait until Thursday for word. At this point though, Carlie had had a migraine for a day and was done with the smoke and called aminef and asked if it was at least possible to get us back to Banjarmasin. The palangkaraya airport was closed so if we were going anywhere, we’d have to at least get to Banjar.
A little while later (this is 8 or 9pm – we’re such a burden to aminef. They’ve been working around the clock for us for days), they had contacted a driver and arranged for us to leave in the morning. I packed my things – this time plenty of clothes as I had no idea how long we would be gone and this time I wanted to go prepared – and Thursday morning, we set off for Banjar again.
We went back to the same hotel we’d stayed at just three days previously, and the hotel staff greeted us with laughter and smiles. We went for a walk to get dinner at the river warungs and we were so pleased to be able to walk outside again! It was definitely smoky there still, but nothing like Pky. That evening, Mark and Ceacealia informed us that we would be heading to Jakarta the following day to spend however long this evacuation lasted working at one of the RELO English Access Programs in Jakarta.
I cannot describe to you the pure joy I felt in learning this. Jakarta is a city of 10 million people. It has Western food, Starbucks, beautiful malls, and most importantly, friends. Dyah, Chesna, Odi, Frida – all friends from my time at Standard Chartered. And Mark and the whole aminef team… I was thrilled to get to see familiar faces after the long and lonely last couple of weeks. I know my small town of Palangkaraya will be great once school starts and I have students and teachers around me and can go for walks and visit Carlie and see things and go places… but since coming back from Bandung, the time in palangkaraya, confined to my bedroom, has been lonely as hell.
Friday afternoon we headed to the airport and after a short delay, we were off to the big city! When we stepped off the plane and onto the stairs that led down to the tarmac, I took a big gulp of air and squealed like a little girl upon taking in a breathe of air with no smoke! We were beyond thrilled.
We grabbed our bags, found a taxi, and headed into the city. The airport is about 30-40 minutes outside of the city with no traffic, and we were trying to go into the city at 6pm… not ideal. But I couldn’t have been happier in that 90 minute taxi ride. As we entered the city, I began to recognize landmarks – malls, buildings, hotels… Then we got nearer to the heart of the city and I really began to recognize everything. Tom’s apartment and office had been right in the center of the city and in a hilarious twist of fate, our hotel is quite literally a five minute walk from the Standard Chartered Bank office. I know these buildings, I know this area, I know a few good restaurants, and where the closest Starbucks is. It’s amazing!
Later, settled into our room, I couldn’t stop staring out the window at the bright lights of this big city and the fact that the SCB logo on the side of the building was just visible from my bed – it was so comforting to see that. I’m in a foreign country, evacuated from my site, disappointed that I’ve been here for six weeks and still have yet to spend a day teaching in my school, and yet, in a city of ten million I’m smack down right where I’m comfortable.
Can every day be like yesterday and today?
The only words I can think of to describe how I feel is pure joy.
After a full morning exploring our neighborhood, Starbucks, wandering one of the malls, Gado-Gado lunch, and some downtime in the hotel, we met Chesna and Odi for dinner at Plaza Senayan (one of the huge malls). It was so, so, so fun to see them!! I had seen Chesna on the first day I arrived in Indonesia, but it has been almost a year since I’d seen her son Odi. Odi moved to America for college, Northeastern, and graduated this May like me. But he spent his junior fall interning at Amazon in Seattle, so he (and Chesna) came to my house for Thanksgiving dinner last year.
Catching up with them was wonderful. After six (crazy) weeks here in Indonesia, we had plenty to share and we are also eager to learn more about Indonesia and Jakarta. We ended up all going to a movie later and I felt so relieved and happy to be back with familiar faces, speaking “normal” English, and in a place where I’m not pointed at constantly for being a bule. My heart was full and happy!
Then, this morning we headed out onto Sudirman (the main road) to participate in Car Free Day. Every Sunday, from 6-11am this main road is closed to traffic and thousands of people take to the street to run, walk and bike. Street venders set up small stands and offer food, drinks, clothes, and souvenirs. There are carnival rides, music, dancing, animals, farmer’s markets… it’s unbelievable. Carlie and I jogged the mile or so down to the roundabout and the center of the city, and met up with Rizqi, one of the main aminef staff who has been helping us out. We chatted and laughed and shared stories of the crazy last few weeks we have all had, as Carlie and I have bounced from Bandung to Palangkaraya, to Banjarmasin, to Palankgaraya, back to Banjarmasin, and now to Jakarta – and the wonderful Rizqi and co. has been on the other side orchestrating all of it. We ended up walking a huge section of Sudirman – by the time we got back to the hotel we’d walked more than five miles. It was fantastic to be outside, breathing clean air, surrounded by thousands of excited people, and chatting with yet another familiar face.
We showered and decided to head back to the center of the city to the Grand Indonesia, the massive (and I mean MASSIVE) mall to find some lunch and kill the afternoon. When we got inside, it felt like dejavu, Tom and I had come here many times to go to the grocery store (as Whole Foods-ish as you can get here) and come to eat at the restaurants here. I led us up to the restaurant floor (the mall is 8 stories) and stumbled upon a café I remember eating at with a big group from the bank. They had Western food and I eagerly ordered a chicken sandwich and Carlie, spaghetti bolognese. We couldn’t stop grinning.
Afterwards, we wandered through some stores (Gap, H&M, Fossil… – yes, so excited) and then headed over to a coffee shop near our hotel where we were meeting some more of my friends from SCB. Frida was part of a cohort that was just hired for a two year rotational program when I came in 2013. Tom had connected us then, knowing we were similar ages, and I’d gone out to dinner with her and some of the others in her cohort a few times. She’s a blast and we’ve stayed in touch through social media over the last two years. So when we came back to Jkt, I reached out to her immediately. Two years later, she has graduated from the rotational program and is now working permanently in the bank. For five hours, Frida, Rosalia (another friend from that cohort), Carlie, and I chatted over lattes and then dinner as we caught up on the last two years, talked all about our time here so far, laughed about different customs between the US and Indo, and learned more about the nuances of the Bahasa Indonesian language. I can’t describe to you how fun it was to just sit and talk with girlfriends my own age…
And now, after two full days in Jakarta we are exhausted but so happy. Tomorrow, we’ll head to the aminef office in the morning and, after texting nearly every day for the last three weeks, it will be great to reconnect in person. We’ll learn more about the English Access Program and hopefully get to go to the program tomorrow afternoon!
After three slow, smokey weeks, this was one fabulous weekend.