Parental advisory: this blog post contains no salacious comment. Despite the title.
I lived for two years in Jakarta, Indonesia when I was in my late 20s. After nearly four years working for Shell in London I joined Mobil Oil. This took me firstly to New York and then to Jakarta where I worked in a small ‘president’s office’. Mobil’s main operations were in North Sumatra.
It was hardly the stuff of the Raj, of Somerset Maugham or of colonial service but it was an expat life. I was well-rewarded, I got a hardship allowance for a posting which wasn’t really hardship (Singapore was only a short flight away) and there was a substantial ex-pat community which made for easy life outside work. It was nonetheless very different to living and working in London.
In those days, the mid 70s, you flew into Halim Airport. It was typical of many airports of the time, fairly modest, no fancy air bridges and everything in walking distance. That meant you got off the plane and into the open air and a shortish walk to the terminal building. That immediately gave you the heat and the humidity and the whiff of Asia which seemed to greet you everywhere.
In the building itself there was the bureaucracy of immigration which the officials loved: lengthy comparison of your passport with what you’d said on the landing card, big visa stamps executed with a noisy flourish, and official signatures signed with the elegance of a fountain pen.
I was there to work of course and we, the ex-pat community that is, generally worked hard. There were early starts, daily frustrations and the continuous challenge of reconciling the twin cultures of business and the ‘nanti, besok, beragkali’ (later, tomorrow, perhaps) of Indonesian life. But there were rewards as well of course and the first of these was the opportunity to do a manager’s job properly: to show leadership, to develop your people and to forge effective teams.
Our office was the Oil Centre Building in Jalan Thamrin. It was a modest 5 stories and was becoming dwarfed by the higher buildings then springing up around it. That might have made it less prestigious of course but it was appreciated in the frequent power cuts when you didn’t have the lifts to take you up to the higher floors. The Pertamina data centre across the road also had to factor in the need to power the computers as well.
Traffic in Jakarta was a nightmare exacerbated by the extensive network of one way streets which meant that whenever you set out for a meeting you could be sure of some driving away from your destination. There was a further factor identified by Swedish consultants who’d been brought in to sort it out. They found that some ridiculous number of cars at any time were simply carrying messages because the phone system was so poor.
The Mobil office was small and I was the most junior ex-pat. The others were four Americans:
Dorrington (Dory) Little was the President-Director, a title much used in Indonesia. He had offices in Medan (North Sumatra) and Singapore as well so he wasn’t present very often. He was an Anglophile and we shared copies of Punch;
Harold Inman was the man in charge of Mobil’s LNG project and the guy who’d employed me. Harold was a Texan, ex-navy, and to some extent a stereotype oil engineer. Straight forward, honest, single minded and focussed;
John Barber was the ‘legal counsel’ and had the manner of a small city lawyer. His first wife had died of cancer and he was then married to her sister Ellie. I knew John and Ellie well and we frequently had lunch together. Sadly Ellie also went down with cancer and died later;
Phil Irwin was my boss and another big oil industry man. He’d travelled around Mobil’s international operations and his wife furnished their home accordingly. Phil later turned up in the UK running a part of Mobil’s North Sea operations.
There were also two senior Indonesians. Mr Sjarafruddin was our Indonesian lawyer and took care of all of our local legal challenges. Mr Bachmid was not the most important person in the office but maybe the most useful. He was the fixer who sorted out all of our personal relationships with the authorities: work permits, imports of personal effects, traffic fines etcetera. Plus of course secretaries and other admin people.
And me. I was often the only ex-pat in the office and I had managed to secure a nice office next to reception which meant that I was often the person who got to talk to the frequent cold-calling visitors. I remember meeting a guy looking for work for a fully equipped off-shore drilling platform, having lunch with a couple of Aussies selling prefabricated buildings, screening potential employees who presented impressive CVs and stonewalling reporters looking for stories within the oil patch.
My moments of glory however happened when I was the company rep at the monthly ‘scout check’ where the companies engaged in exploration and production in Indonesia met to report their activities. The meeting had a rotating chair and as fate would have it Mobil’s turn came round when I was the rep.
But even I wasn’t always there. I was frequently in Medan having taken early morning flights on Garuda from Kemayoran Airport. That was good preparation for Ryanair out of Stansted. I’d arrange my Medan trips for Thursday/Friday so that I could come back having spent Saturday in Singapore. In those days we’d send a driver to check-in for us and only turn up when our plane had arrived. And if we knew we’d still have some time to kill we’d ring the bar in the departure lounge and ensure that they had some beer in the refrigerator.
Life outside work was equally intense. There was a lot of sport and for those of us without families there was some late night activity.
The favourite haunt for many of us was the Tankard in Blok M in Kebayoran Baru close to Kemang where I lived. It was a standard bar with a pool table and pin ball machines. It served standard drinks and I’m sure you could get standard food there as well. It wasn’t rough but one guy was knifed there one evening. It’s said that Chuck from the CIA and Ivan from the KGB were regulars and that they’d exchange nods of recognition across the bar.
The clientele was generally white male of course with a sprinkling of Indonesian women of a certain type but I do recall one time being engaged in conversation by a wild looking Indonesian male. ‘Where are you from?’ He said. It was a pretty standard start to a conversation but he kept persisting ‘exactly where’ so I told him ‘Connah’s Quay’. “Yes’ he said ‘I know it. I’ve been to Mostyn dock’.
I had a wide circle of friends, many Europeans, Aussies and Kiwis and some Americans, but four of us were close. The other three were:
Chuck Adams wasn’t the man from the CIA but worked for Chase Manhattan. He’d served in Vietnam which must have affected him. I later met him in Hong Kong and then we’ve been in touch recently. He’s now in California. We share stories about our frustrations with Trump and Johnson.
Phil Judd was perhaps my closest buddy and best man at my wedding. He was a Kiwi and worked for Gillette. He had a sharp wit. From Jakarta he moved to Singapore and then to Tokyo where he married Nariko. From what I could work out he returned to New Zealand where he set up a company importing bikes but further enquiries have hit a dead end. I fear that he’s already died.
John Finnegan was another banker. He worked for the Standard Chartered Bank and I was best man at his wedding to Liz. John went on to work for the Bank of Kuwait and most recently I tracked him down as Chief Exec at a Mongolian private bank. He left it in 2014 and the trail’s gone cold.
There were many others and we generally got together playing rugby or football. We only played rugby against sides from other cities in South east AsIa, so-called interport games, I remember playing against Bangkok, or from visiting ships both civilian and military.
However there were lots of opportunities to play football against Indonesian sides and the ex-pat sports club put out two sides. The first team was rather keen and fancied itself. I captained the second, the Masters, which took itself less seriously but nonetheless liked to win. This was a very international team with at least three Danes who worked for East Asiatic, a German and a couple of Frenchmen to complement the core of Brits. After our games we drank lots of beer and smoked Filipino cigars.
You can’t talk about sport in Asia without talking about the Hash House Harriers (the Hash). I understand that it originated in Kuala Lumpur and is a feature of life in most cities in the region and elsewhere. It’s either weekly communal exercise or an excuse for drinking. For most people it was both: an hour or so following a cross country trail with breaks and false leads to test you and then another hour drinking beer to celebrate. I enjoyed both elements and the weekly Hash Bulletin to be collected at the Tankard and other ex-pat haunts was essential reading.
But it wasn’t just beer and sport. We enjoyed some cinema although the films were censored. We compensated for this by the weekly video nights at the Petroleum Club. There was no point in watching the TV because even satellite TV wasn’t available then let alone anything internet based.
So then we ate. There were several good Chinese restaurants where we enjoyed ice cold and locally brewed Guinness (bir hitam, black beer, or bier cap kucing because of the cat on the label). The restuarants at the big hotels were also a safe bet but the best of the lot was the Oasis. This was in one of the many fine old Dutch colonial houses and it served an eclectic mix from full rijstaffel to prime beef.
At the end of the day you have to sleep and being an expat I did pretty well in terms of accommodation. I had my own bungalow, Jalan Nangka Timur 1 number 4, and had to contend with living on my own with just four people to take care of me:
Sami was in charge. She must have been 50 or so and she did the cooking. I don’t know where she learnt it but she was pretty good and cooked an especially delicious roast leg of lamb which would hardly have been standard Indonesian fare;
Umi was in her twenties and helped Sami. She kept the house clean;
Tatang was Umi’s husband and he was the jaga or guard. In theory he stayed awake at night and kept the household safe. He also took care of the small garden that I had;
Rais didn’t live in and he was my driver. He didn’t do badly working for me but then I got him an official job with the company which doubled his pay. I guess he owes me a favour!
There were of course gaps in the day. I didn’t spend every day, all day working and neither did I move seamlessly from office to sport to bar to bed. That’s when I read, more than I do now and for long periods because that’s what I did on a quiet evening. And I listened to music. Not I hasten to say a broad range of classical but good 60s and 70s popular and I could enjoy it with decent stereo kit, bought piece by piece (amplifier, turntable, tuner, casette player and speakers) as you did in those days, in Singapore. Despite the excesses of my life it was in the end pretty rounded and well balanced.
The sad thing about my two years there is that I saw so little of the country at large. My trips to Medan were my only visits to Sumatra and although Phil and I went on two long car journeys around Java stopping in Semarang, Solo and Bandung we didn’t venture to the other islands except, and rather inevitably, Bali. Indonesia is said to be the country of a thousand islands, visiting just three seems like a poor performance.
And finally: why the title? It was an expression coined by Phil Judd to characterise our lifestyle. Sadly, or thankfully, we rarely lived up to it.
(JDJ note: I wrote this a couple of years ago but for some reason didn’t publish it. I don’t know why. I note the reference to the Tankard and the same comments about it as in my recent post about ‘locals’, click here. It’s a bit modular but it reads OK and I’ve not seen to edit it very much/at all)