2010.08.18 Another Day in Indonesia

Written by David Green.

Morenci native Tom Green, along with his wife, Ginny, are teaching in Indonesia. Previously the Minnesota residents taught for three years in Malaysia.


We are half way through our two-year teaching contract at Jakarta International School. All in all, it has been an amazing experience. It is a top-notch school and we were able to take advantage of incredible travel opportunities throughout South Asia.

However, the first year presented its challenges. There is always a sharp learning curve in moving to a new culture and Jakarta presented plenty of interesting experiences for us, requiring patience and humor. Transportation comes to mind as a good example.

The school placed us in first-class housing, but it was a half hour drive from work. We taxied for six months, but tiring of that, we leased a car for the final three months. That was a taxing experience and here are some reasons why.

There are so many motorcycles on the road (not in lanes but all over the road) that you must always assume there is one on each side of you. Any quick turn to the right or left will result in crashing into one, which is not something you want to do. The motorcycle driver will demand you pay for damages no matter whose fault it is. Injure them, and you are expected to cart them to the hospital and pay for the stay. The police may help you out if you offer them a big enough bribe.

Did I mention how many passengers were on the motorcycles? It could be anywhere from one to four. The driver is usually following local ordinances and wearing a helmet, but the others are not.  It is hard to watch when there are two, small, unhelmeted children tucked between mom and dad zipping in and out of traffic.

Problem parking here in Jakarta? No problem, the lot attendants will tell you where to park, usually in front of another car. They will be watching to be sure you left the car out of gear with no emergency brake engaged. If someone gets parked in, they will just push your car out of the way.

Jakarta’s roads are usually packed. Trying to make a turn across traffic might look impossible, but have no fear. Out of nowhere pops up a guy who will risk his life by walking out in front of traffic to stop it for you, allowing you to turn. His hand will be out expecting his reward of 1000 Rupiah (12 cents). Well worth it in every case. Busy corners will have the “regular” guys who have staked out their territory and served it for years.

Some days were more difficult than others. Our last day of school was one of the most trying. We were so pleased it was the end of the school year because it meant the end of our hair-raising daily traumas commuting through Jakarta to school.

We leave in the dark at 5:30 a.m., as usual, and as we spin off the traffic circle we are terrified to see a string of car headlights coming straight at us. Have we taken the wrong road? Are we on the wrong side of the street? We swerve around them. Shortly, we are stopped in a jam, and a guy comes to our window to tell us (in Indonesian) to turn around. They have closed the toll road, for reasons we can’t make out. We turn around and swerve through oncoming traffic again.

Reality sets in: We know only one route to school. It is closed. We have a car full of plants and boxes, because we are moving. And this is Jakarta: you don’t just take a parallel alternate route. You don’t pull out street maps (we don’t have them because they don’t help).

Plunging into Jakarta traffic to “follow instincts” or “feel your way” would be suicidal, and/or certainly result in our missing our final staff meeting. We can’t ditch the car, because it is full of the house contents we are moving to our new apartment.

Out of desperation we find a taxi driver, and somehow communicate to him that we want to hire him to lead us to school via back roads. And so goes our final trip to school: following a taxi through twisted, jammed and flooded roads. Humbled, we make our meeting and thankfully we are done driving.

For our second year in Jakarta, driving will not be an issue as we moved to an apartment within walking distance of the school; one less learning curve.

Being a pedestrian will offer its own set of challenges but nothing like trying to merge into a speeding, unrelenting wall of motorcycles and smoke-belching busses or closed toll roads. Although I must admit, I will miss having the guys stop traffic for us to turn across traffic. Then again, I will likely need help walking across the road near school. I better be sure to keep a couple thousand Rupiah in my pocket.

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