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First Impressions

A new arrival shares his first impressions ...

"What are our first impressions? That's a very hard question, and can be answered in brief by the statement that - both of us are very happy to be here and our experiences so far (three weeks in and counting) have been almost invariably good and finding all of the things we need (car, house, driver, etc.) within our small budget has been much easier than we had anticipated.

In detail, perhaps some extracts from letters I have written tell the story better:

We have found a cute little two bedroom, two-story house in South Jakarta (where the air is cleaner and the traffic, at least locally, is a little less frantic). The owner of the house also had a car to rent and has located a driver for us - so, all of our transport and accommodation needs were met at one hit! The house is small, but adequate, and has lots of air conditioners. There is a big front garden area (currently full of building debris as they construct another, slightly larger house next door) and an Indonesian family live in their own house on site. They are employed by the house owners to provide security, look after the property and do little jobs that come up.

Our house is up a small street (or gang) near a mosque. Many mornings just after sunrise, (I wake up early here - a real change!) I sit on the step outside our house, smoking a cigarette and sipping my coffee. The air is coolish and there is often a gentle breeze. An early morning mists its lightly in the air. I can hear birds singing, roosters crowing and the muezzin from the mosque calling all of the faithful to the first prayers of the day. Echoes of his chant bounced gently through the air as the call is repeated (almost simultaneously) in every mosque in the area. People are stirring even then, shuffling off to the mosque, quietly chatting as they begin their day and the morning food cart (a two-wheeled contraption pushed through the neighborhood) makes its rounds selling a breakfast chicken porridge, the owner lightly beating a spoon on a china bowl to announce his presence. Each food seller has their own sound (a wooden clacker for soup, for example, or a steam whistle for sweet steamed dumplings) and they circulate at regular intervals during the day through the residential streets, selling their wares to people who come up to them with bowls and plates.

Unfortunately, it isn't always that idyllic. The heat is ferocious here - reaching a sharp 33 to 34 degrees Centigrade every day (the monsoon rains are two months late and the country is in the grip of a severe drought) and the 4 million vehicles (yes, I read it in the paper today) in Jakarta are all on the road at the same time, creating a dull gray/white haze that sits in the air all day and is acrid to breathe. It also intensifies the heat so that, if you are out during the day, you end up limp, sweaty, slightly sick, confused (by the revving and honking) and disorientated.

Traffic congestion is overwhelming - two lanes become four, right of way is granted only to size or sheer chutzpah and most traffic signals ignored. The approximately 12 kilometer trip from my home to my office takes between 40 and 50 minutes on a good day.

My work is looking like it's going to be interesting and I'm settling in at my office (and getting used to being the only non-Indonesian in the entire building).

The public service office I am working in defines every bad description of a bureaucracy you have ever heard. People are generally at the office promptly at 8:00 am and there does seem to be some work done between then and 10:00 am. It's all downhill from there. Morning tea seems to stretch into an early lunch time and people tend to start dribbling home starting at around 1:00 pm. During what remains of the day between lunch time and 4:00 pm (the official end of the day) those that are in the office sit in groups and chat, read the paper or play chess.

Anyway, the day I described above is on a Monday, when people are highly motivated. Things begin to deteriorate by about Wednesday.

Fridays, everyone is in 'leisure dress', most days they wear khaki safari suits, which are the civil service uniform. It is expected that civil servants take part in some physical activity on Friday mornings (as a group, of course - the psychology of the group is almost virulent here). More junior officers must come in at 7:00 am and take part in organized events (jogging, exercises, etc.) whilst senior officers play golf, tennis or soccer together. So, Fridays are very laid back, what with every one in their casual dress, and the break just before noon for mosque. Very few people seem to come back from mosque. So Friday afternoon is a dead write off, as far as getting anything done.

It's all very strange and unsettling to someone like me whose work culture has been long periods of non-stop activity punctuated by falling down to rest occasionally. Hopefully, I can incorporate some of the relaxed attitude to work whilst still keeping an edge. I'm sure it will be good for me.

Overall, things here are: Interesting, challenging, scary, horrid, fascinating, boring, and occasionally lyrical in their intense strangeness and beauty."

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