Letter from Jakarta: After the sky falls

Expatriate resident Jeff Pulice writes about the lessons he has learned from the recent riots in Jakarta: Foreign guys become very attractive, everybody reinvents history and other nuggets of wisdom.

Published June 11, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- June 10: In my last two letters I wrote about the chaos and terror that took over Jakarta -- and especially the expatriate community in Jakarta -- for a few weeks last month. There are more stories, much worse stories, to tell -- but I'm not ready to write that letter yet. In the meantime, even as these stories circulate, a kind of giddy euphoria has also overtaken life here, when what seemed impossible, inconceivable, just a few months ago is suddenly reality. The two twist, coexist, in weird ways -- as they do in the thoughts that follow.

What happens when 80 percent of your fellow expatriates leave screaming, when the majority of shopping centers are irrevocably gone, when everything you trust and distrust is thrown into the air to flutter down like feathers?

1.) Skilled professionals become harder to find

Before the problems, it was easy finding teachers for the language school where I work. We could reject the sarong-wearing, Birkenstock-shod, "oooh-isn't-it-all-so-mystical" neo-hippies, and we could hire people with the required knowledge of English. They didn't try to seduce every student with offers of "free private classes," they didn't come in loaded, they didn't call 15 minutes before class and give me a knock-down, drag-out account of why they're just too sexually/pharmaceutically/diarrhetically exhausted to come in and ask if I could reach into the magical hat I must have under my desk and pull out a replacement for them that evening.

Now, I'm forced to hire whatever walks in. I have to go into the hostel area of Jalan Jaksa and elbow my way through crowds of sunburned Japanese surfers and drunken Aussie rugby addicts, looking for someone who might not embarrass me and my organization in front of a class of paying students. I even miss Mark, the male model from New Zealand. Yes, he spent half the class talking about how blond and good-looking he was -- but the students often learned something from his tangled diction.

2.) Every foreign guy becomes 10 times more attractive

As the exodus of professional "consultants" (pardon the inside joke) and other foreigners reached its height, many young professional women lost their boyfriends. These women were not prostitutes. They simply appreciated the romance and fun that resides in American manhood (insert your own joke here). Some of these guys were very handsome and tall (multinationals seem to have a minimum height requirement for work in Jakarta). The marines from the various embassies were particularly attractive to the local jet-set girls.

Now, all of these guys have been ordered out of the country by the home office. I don't blame them -- given a choice between proving how macho they are by staying or losing their jobs, it's no choice at all. However, that leaves the dregs of guy-hood here.

Dewi is a junior trader at a finance house. She wears Versace suits and carries a quilted Gucci bag (for the record, she paid for it all). Her hair shines like bubbling hot chocolate, her skin tone is reminiscent of cafe au lait. Last night, I saw her approached by a guy whose face looked like a boiled fist and who had no ass whatsoever. She actually laughed at his jokes and they exchanged cards -- three months ago, she would have laughed in his face and poured her drink over his thinning hair.

And let us not even discuss the handsome Indonesian guys who yearn for the days when tall, strapping Aussie backpacker girls would appear like emissaries from Models Inc. They have my sympathy.

3.) Things you don't need become really cheap

Walking to an appointment last week, I felt a hand settle on my wrist. I plucked it off. Its owner hove into view.

"Handphone," he said.

I nodded and smiled. He followed me.

"Do you want to buy a handphone?"

"Saya sudah punya." I already have one, thanks. I turned to go.

He stood in front of me and opened his long coat. I had always thought those stories about watch salesmen with watches hanging from chest to knees were jokes, but no -- this guy had about 15 cellular phones inside his coat. Low overhead is the secret to business success.

I will not buy stolen goods, I thought to myself.
Buying looted goods is wrong.
They represent another person's hard-earned -- hey, is that a Nokia Communicator, the one with the keyboard that Val Kilmer had in "The Saint"?

I reached for it. I caressed it, flipped it open, its amazing features revealing themselves like a coy maiden in a Merchant-Ivory film.

"Duaratus Ribu," the salesman whispered, smiling, sure I was now in his larcenous clutches.
Eighteen bucks.

Then eight years of Catholic catechism kicked in and I handed it back and left.

Guess what Dewi bought a few days ago?

4.) Things you need become really expensive

"Best Foods mayo?"

"Tidak ada, coba minggu depan." No luck, honky, try next week.

"French ham?"

"Tidak ada, coba minggu depan."

"Country Time lemonade?"

The store manager just smirks and turns away, ready to disappoint another expat on a "shopping for home" trip.

5.) Local people find that riots are not fun

I cruised through the market area near my house today. In three kilometers, exactly four businesses are left standing.

Robinson's Department Store -- it used to be four floors of everything. People from outlying villages would come and just gawk at all the shoes and medicine and VCRs for sale. Now it's four floors of ash, four floors of falling scorched awnings, the huge neon sign melted into a Daliesque lava-flow. As I try to frame a photo of the gutted building, a young woman comes over. She's wearing the uniform she wore when she worked in Robinson's, perhaps the only connection she has left to remind her of when she had a job in an air-conditioned building.

"You worked there?"

She nods. We both look up at the building.

"They stole everything before they burned it, and now I have no job."

"What will you do now?"

"Pulang kampung." Back to the village.

Any jobs in the village?

Another smirk, a shake of the head. She asks me about jobs. Do I know of anyone who's hiring -- do I need a secretary?

I try to cheer her up by saying that at least she'll get to see her family.

Jakarta is becoming the land of smirks.

6.) Everybody reinvents history

All of the political cronies of ex-President Suharto now boldly proclaim that they knew that he and his family were corrupt -- heck, they knew it all the time! This is, of course, much easier now that you don't risk a bullet for saying so. Kwik Kian Gie, the Chinese-Indonesian economist, has invented a new term for these people: pahlawan kesiangan -- tardy heroes.

Every day, the paper lists new groups setting up political parties. Labor groups, women's groups, Chinese groups -- I have a feeling the next election is going to be a lot like the Philippine elections. That's not a bad thing -- it's a very good show, sort of chaos married to a block party with a few speeches thrown in for good measure.

People are fired up by the fact that they might have choices after 30-odd years. Bajaj drivers -- they drive the little three-wheeled death-traps, kind of a moped with a passenger compartment -- argue and wave newspapers, lauding their personal favorites. Democracy is suddenly not some foreign concept. It's this: guys who make $10 a month having spirited discussions about why Emil Salim is going to save the day.

I personally am amazed that B.J. Habibie has done so much so fast. You didn't hear about Suharto's son-in-law, Gen. Prabowo, going to the presidential building wearing a pistol and being followed by several trucks of marines in full battle gear? He tried to trade his own pistol for a meeting with the president -- a negotiating gambit you probably don't learn at Harvard Business School.

Ex-President Suharto announced that he would hold a press conference
today, to explain where he got the $40 billion in assets his
family controls. Oh, we were excited! The possible stories --
"I found it on a bus ... No, it was in a credenza ... No, I cashed in all
those gift certificates I get every year for my birthday ..." His official
salary was only about $1,000 a month at today's exchange rate.

Alas, his kids talked him out of it. They are keeping a very low profile.
Tommy, perhaps the most reviled of the Suharto offspring, rolled up to a
press conference a few months ago in his purple Rolls Royce. The press
conference was to announce that he hadn't used his father's influence to
import the South Korean cars he was selling. He failed to explain why the
cars weren't saddled with the 300 percent tax usually set on imported cars. He also
failed to explain why he hadn't imported any spare parts for the cars (the
idea was the cars would never break down, I guess). But the most important
question wasn't even asked -- "Why purple?"
We don't see that car driving around much anymore.
You can imagine why.

The truth is, despite what you saw on CNN, most of the country is still standing, the people still love to see a friendly smile, people here still fall in love and get married and cry at Indian movies. It's actually safe to come here, the food is still great and the jungle still holds jewels of opportunity. But, please, before you come -- lose the Birkenstocks.

By Jeff Pulice

Originally from Los Angeles, Jeff Pulice has been living and working in Jakarta for the past seven years.

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