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Website helps expats get the inside track

by David White

Information is one of the most valuable aids when you move to a new place, especially a foreign country. But finding the needed information is not always easy, and one can get frustrated trying to no avail to get it.

That information is now at your fingertips, thanks to three volunteer-oriented women who recently set up the web site Living in Indonesia: A Site for Expatriates (http://www.expat.or.id).

This is a comprehensive and interactive guide for foreigners planning to live, or already living, in Indonesia. The site is the brainchild of Lisa Kumaradjaja, an American who, after arriving in Jakarta in January of this year, found herself in a situation that confronts many newcomers-- she didn't know where to turn to get basic information on her new hometown.

In time, she made a few friends who showed her the ropes. She realized every new arrival has to go through the same thing, and started thinking of ways she could help other newcomers assimilate more quickly into the Jakarta lifestyle.

"It's hard to get information here," says Lisa, "and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if you could get all the information you needed before you arrived? Wouldn't that make the transition much easier?'"

The answer came in the form of an Australian and New Zealand Association (ANZA) newsletter, where she came across an article by David Yeo who was in the process of launching an expatriate-based job site. The two started talking, and decided to work on the web site together.

As Lisa has been in the information technology field for many years, starting the web page was a natural progression. Soon after they began working on the site, David was transferred out of the country, leaving the project in Lisa's lap.

She enlisted the aid of two friends, fellow American Danielle Surkatty, a book editor and management consultant, and Canadian Gene Sugandy, an accomplished graphic designer. All three women are married to Indonesians, and combined have lived in Indonesia for over 37 years.

"We have just the right components for doing this project," says Lisa. "I think that is why we've been able to put together a polished and professional web site."

Indeed, after only four months of existence, the site has already garnered two awards for excellence in web page design and content. The first recognition came in the form of a Culture Choice Award (http://www.worldculture.com),and the second was the coveted GAR Award (http://www.web-linker.com) out of Italy, a site that specializes in international culture.

Living in Indonesia: A Site for Expatriates provides a central meeting ground for acquiring and sharing information with other expatriates who have gone through, or are going through, a similar adjustment period.

The concept of expatriates helping expatriates to grasp the intricacies of life in Jakarta is not new. Up to now, however, there had not been a central location that newcomers could access to obtain data relevant to their unique situation. The information available on www.expat.or.id provides advice on everyday concerns, a listing of community events, suggestions on how to deal with the frustrations of adjusting to a new life in Indonesia, plus a whole lot more.

"Our site is interactive," says Lisa. "We provide information but we can also answer questions. We understand the other side. We're foreigners, so we've gone through the foreign experience, and we've gone through the transition already."

"We try to point people to organizations that can help them," says Danielle. "And, we can often get answers to questions that even we may not know the answers to through our many connections."

All work done of the site is on a volunteer basis. The Expat Web site Association, namely the three founding members, doesn't plan for the site to become commercial. "We see it more as a community service," says Danielle.

Indonet is currently the sole sponsor of the site. Under the watchful eye of Indonet's owner, Sanjaya, the Internet service provider has offered the group free space on its server, technical assistance and positive reinforcement.

The site has generated a lot of interest, both locally and worldwide.

"We were surprised at the excitement the site generated," says Lisa.

When officially opened in September this year, the site was experiencing 100 hits -- the number of times the site is accessed -- per day. That number has tapered off to around 50 a day, but that figure is expected to grow as the site adds new and updated information.

Browsing through the Guest Book, one will find visitors from around the globe from Canada, the U.S., Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands, France, Korea, Chile and Moscow, to name just a few.

First to access the site was a young couple from Melbourne, Australia, which surprised the founders as the site had yet to be placed on any search engines. The couple has since moved to Jakarta and is avid supporters of the web page.

On their most recent entry in the guest book, the couple writes, "Well, we finally got here! I well remember sitting in my darkened living room in cold, cold Melbourne peering at this internet site and trying very hard to imagine what it might be like living here. My fantasies were well fueled and shaped by this amazing site. And now we're here! Great job and thank you."

Clive Gardiner, a consultant for BMG Music, who moved from Hong Kong to Jakarta earlier this year, said the site was useful.

"The hardest thing when you move to a new place is finding information," he said. "It's hard in Indonesia to find the information you need, and the site was quite useful in establishing contacts. The site gave me a very valuable head start."

One of the most exciting aspects of the web page is that it is completely free for Internet users, and for those organizations listed on the site. As the site is always being added to and amended, new societies, groups and services that come into being will have instant access to the free listing. To register a group, or for further information, email the site's webmaster at expat.or.id.

As the internet continues to gain popularity across the globe, more and more people are using the web as their primary source of information. Indonesia is following the trend and already has established a few quality servers. Just as the net grows, so does the city of Jakarta. Hand in hand with this progress is the dynamic team of three women and a computer.

This article was published in the Jakarta Post on December 21, 1997.