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Oh, Jakarta…how I’ve missed you!

Once more into the breach

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia


I have only been gone from this country since January; that’s only about four months, and it’s like going back through the looking glass to settle in once more.

There is of course the weather. Stepping off the plane after the gruelling flights from Vancouver Island to Vancouver, then from Vancouver to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong Kong to here – a total of about 36 hours in transit – the heat and humidity (or warmth and sultriness, depending on whether you’ve had enough Xanax for the journey) hit you immediately. Coming from an island off Canada’s west coast in May, the difference is considerable; there it would get down to just a few degrees above the frost point at night and climb to a balmy 20-23C if it was sunny; less if it was rainy, as it usually was, as the daffodils, tulips, and apple blossoms made their appearances. Here the temperature is a collar-wilting 30-34C with a humidity of over 90% at sunrise; by noon it can be a scorching 40 or more.

In contrast to the quiet little retirement-resort community of Parksville, Jakarta is a mega-city, the population of which is anybody’s guess but 12 million seems about right. (During the daytime it can go up to 18 million – people are serious commuters.) The cacophonous bustle is only matched in other Far Eastern mega-cities; enormous western cities like London or even New York can’t lay claim to the uniquely eastern chaos that characterises places like Jakarta and Bangkok. Even after a decade and more of living in this milieu I was taken aback as I struggled to get my bags and conveyance to the temporary apartment that will be my home until we can get JJ’s status sorted out and acquire him an exit visa.

Well, that’s not entirely true… the struggle to get through the airport, at least. The contrasts actually became apparent before the tropical heat slammed into me. I had wisely arranged to have a VIP service waiting to meet me at the airport. Now before the accusations of elitism start flying, a VIP service just means that you know someone who knows someone who holds a medium to high rank in Indonesia’s Customs and Immigration department. These guys usually freelance for “friends” (people willing to pay about $50). They wait in uniform at the arrival gate for your flight with a flunky or two and greet you with salutes, take your carry-on luggage, passport, and baggage claim checks, and escort you past all the tedious legal safeguards intended to control access to a sovereign country. At the baggage carousel, you chat casually with the top guy while one flunky waits for your stuff to appear, and while this is going on the other flunky comes running with your new visa, a stamped passport and plastic ID card (they’ve apparently snapped your picture as you got off the plane) that says you are registered with (protected by) the national police. The flunkies pile your gear onto a trolley and imperiously walk you past customs with your suitcases full of perfume, Cuban cigars, and bottles of hard to find booze bought by the dozen at duty free stores in Canada and China. Welcome to Indonesia.

That’s when you notice the heat.

And then it’s business as usual in Indonesia. Traffic like a punishment for every sin you’ve ever committed, masses of people everywhere, women so beautiful they bring tears to your eyes (even when you’re with a wife whom you love and haven’t seen in months), hawkers, vendors, beggars, lepers, police soliciting “cigarette money” from all of the above, and constant noise. Home again.

But some things have changed since I last stayed in Jakarta several years ago. The last long stretch I spent in Indonesia was mostly in Manado, in the eastern part of the archipelago, the capital city of the provincial island group called the Sulawesis. I had only visited Jakarta for a day or two at a time and stayed either with friends or at international hotels and was thus insulated from some of the realities of day-to-day life in the Big Durian.

This time we’re living in a furnished apartment in a section of Kelapa Gading that is home to virtually no westerners; mine is the only non-Indonesian face in the neighbourhood and I haven’t seen an occidental since I unpacked my scotch and gin in our tiny apartment. One thing that was pretty hard not to notice on the street was the increase in anti-western racism. One place flatly refused to sell me any take-out, saying they were out of food, although they provided my father in law with exactly what I had asked for when he tried less than a minute later. The barber shop in my building was more straightforward: they flat out told me they wouldn’t cut my hair because I was white. When I thanked them (they don’t get sarcasm) and turned to walk out I could hear the quiet jeering and the repeated use of the word “bule” (literally albino but a pejorative epithet for any westerner).

Indonesia has always been a racist country. Indonesians, particularly Javanese, and Jakartans even more particularly, have a preternatural ability to distinguish among shades of skin colour and to assign you a place in their incredibly rigid social hierarchy accordingly, and they can do that instantly and instinctively. Yolanda, having been born in Ambon, in the Malukus, in the eastern part of the country has dark skin, as does JJ. She has always been served last in Jakartan scrums at retail counters, the fact that her skin colour is at the far end of the spectrum from the ideal Chinese ivory tone affects every instance of social interaction she has or has ever had in this country.

Too dark for their own country

When she had just graduated from high school, she was told by the airline to which she had applied for training as a flight attendant (Garuda, incidentally, the national carrier) that she shouldn’t be ridiculous…she was too hitam (black). Ditto for the cruise line to which she applied. The systemic and endemic bigotry is one of the main reasons we are so anxious to get JJ to Canada.

At the other end of the scale, because of my whiter skin I am treated in this country as a walking ATM; I am regularly forced to pay two to ten times as much as an Indonesian would for the same goods or services, I am routinely treated sycophantically while I am fleeced and fucked over. But discounting for a moment the terrorist bombs in Jakarta and Bali that deliberately targeted and killed white western guests in Indonesia, (and killed a friend of mine, maimed several others,  but merely scorched my eyebrows) this completely overt racist discrimination is new to me. It always existed as a subtext, but there was always the sense that, as long as I kept smiling and didn’t object too strenuously to being screwed and laughed at, we could get along.


MMMM good!

In the meantime, the commercial establishments that depend on foreign traffic to stay solvent continue to suck up to the despised bule and ape what they think are western ways. The pictures on this page show my little family eating at a restaurant near the embassy district; it caters to westerners and so its menu reflects the owner’s knowledge and understanding of things western. Please note the items on the menu page. I won’t comment.

The hotdog that almost conquered the world

JJ gazes in awe at Hitler's dog

Great to be back, though. In between bouts of dealing with the realities of bureaucracy and simple things like food shopping and dining out, I sit by our swimming pool and watch JJ. In the late afternoon I make a thermos of martinis and go back down to the pool, sip, write, read and wait until we can finally get out of here.



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  1. To a current member of a growing gated community,

    Welcome back. Maybe it’s just culture shock??

    I’d like to read you on the Sukhoi fiasco.

  2. Sure, it’s culture shock. That doesn’t mean the naivite that accompanies a first time visitor to another country with a contrasting culture; that means the shock that accompanies the recognition of aspects of a culture that are abhorrent.

    As to the Sukhoi crash, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.Pilot error? Showing off? Everyone seems to concur that it was that kind of asshole behaviour that was at the root of the disaster. I’ll probably have a lot more to say about it when more facts are in. In the meantime….gee, what a fucking surprise!

    Thanks for writing!

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