An expat in Jakarta

My friend Kevin has been living and working in Jakarta; he finds that 99% of people are incredibly polite and welcoming, although it’s not an easy place to live for various reasons. Daily life as an expatriate provides quite a different perspective from that of the itinerant tourist or traveller, so I plan to share some of his observations with you.

Waiting for the bus in Blok M, Jakarta

Waiting for the bus in Blok M, Jakarta

Kevin writes: ‘‘Twas the night before Christmas…” well, actually not, but it feels a bit like it. It’s the day before Idul Fitri here, and probably more like Lent but more serious, because most people have been fasting from dawn to dusk for a month, and it finishes tomorrow. Not everyone of course, there are all sorts of exemptions: kids, pregnant women, sick people and so on. About 13% of people are not Muslim, so the food places around where I live (next to a big shopping mall, with lots of Chinese Indonesians who are Buddhist or Christian) are still open at lunchtime. A lot of people are not strict about it anyway; when I went to the desk downstairs at my apartment today, as I was talking to the receptionist I suddenly realized there was a young guy sitting under the desk with a bowl of soup, hiding from view.

Dawn to dusk is a big ask, no water, food or sex during Ramadan, and people definitely walk more slowly; shop assistants flop over their counters, it’s also the hot season and many people look lethargic. But people are usually just as friendly, polite and dignified, and some of them are quite proud of the annual Ramadan ordeal as being a character-building exercise.

Work hours are shorter for many, as they work during their “lunchtime” and those who don’t sometimes can be seen lying down in the boot of cars sleeping at lunchtime; they’re mostly small people. And “buka puasa” the breaking of the fast at about 5.30 pm means food joints are jam packed. The last few days have seen lots of big sales, as many people buy new clobber to show off when they go home to the village to visit the parents or the family (the trip is called “mudik”), and prepare for the big celebration of Lebaran on Sept 1 with gifts. Most businesses and schools close this week, and apparently 6 million of Jakarta’s 12 million head off so the roads and the trains become very clogged.

I’ve been invited to Lebaran festivities in the past – special foods are served, and people hold open house where they invite the relatives and neighbours around. Many practice saying “mohon maaf lahir dan batin”, meaning “sorry if I’ve done anything to offend you over the last year”.

As usual, debate continues in the newspapers here as to whether it’s a hypocritical ritual, or whether fasting makes people gluttons at night, and why should I apologise to that idiot next door when I’ve done nothing wrong? But I think it’s a nice gesture of humility which might mend some fences. Sorry is the hardest word as we know.


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