Friday, November 16, 2012

My Local

As I have mentioned previously, the local "store" situated right outside my door has everything you need. Often, I have travelled around town trying to find specific items that are right under my nose. While waiting for the shop owner to find me some beer last nite, I started making a mental list of things available for purchase. Without further ado (aduh!) here is said list....

I will add new things that I see in future visits so I apologize if there is any repetition.

Toilet paper
Maxi pads (4 types)
Tennis balls
Packing tape
Beef base
Various little bags of spices
Soccer balls
Badminton sets
Barbie like dolls
Set of 100 plastic bags
1 gallon water bottles
Cooking gas
Laundry detergent
Dish soap
Pails (multiple sizes)
Paper clips
Note pads
Playing cards
Individual shampoo sachets
Body cream
Instant coffee sachets
Plastic cups
Wrapping paper
Shaving cream
Baby powder
Bryl cream
Plastic tambourine
Condensed milk
Macakrel in a can
Soft drinks in 1L bottles and cans
Dust bins
Super glue
Chocolate bars
Grass clippers
Fake money for kids
Pastry snacks
Streamers and other birthday party favors
Instant noodles (indomie)
Coconut milk
Cheap wine (local drink)
Board games

That's all I can get so far.  I'm sure that there are more but it's getting to the point where I am stressing out trying to find new things in there.  I'm sure you get the gist.   The best part is that all of this is compressed into a space smaller than my bedroom...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mega Hassle

In these modern times, a credit card is a necessity, even by Indonesian standards.  I limit myself to one credit card for online purchases and other monthly expenses.  Some people I know have a virtual smorgasbord of credit cards for multiple reasons.  One is to constantly float money, using one credit card to pay off another one each month.  This theoretically prevents them from ever having to pay interest on their constant debt.  Another reason for a multitude of credit cards is for discounts.  Many restaurants around town offer a 20% or more discount on food and beverages if you pay with a certain type of credit card.  Experts in this area will have whichever credit card needed in order to get a discount.  How they remember to pay all of these bills is beyond my comprehension

This brings me to the issue of paying my own bill.  I always pay my bill off as soon as I receive my statement, that is if I actually ever get one.  Over the last 9 months, I have received a whopping 2 credit card statements.  Have I complained? YES!  Have I called to re-confirm that they have my correct address and postal code? YES!  Am I about to lose my mind? YES!!!!

This all started around a year and a half ago when I moved.  I only moved 2 doors down from where I had previously been living and was still able to get my mail since a friend was living in my old house.  After a couple of incidences of her dog chewing up my mail, I decided to get my address changed.  I called up the credit card company and requested to have my billing details changed.  A month went by and neither address received a monthly statement.  Again, I called them up to confirm the address change.  They assured me that the new address was in their system and that I would receive my statement.  Sure enough, the following month's statement was mailed to my new house.  My only gripe was that (as it usually does) the statement arrived 2 days before the due date for payment.  I was proud of myself that I had been able to change my address using Bahasa Indonesia over the phone.

Come the following month, no statement.  I called the credit card company and they assured me that it had been mailed.  I explained that I needed to know how much I owed in order to pay and they repeatedly told me the minimum payment amount.  I explained to them that I wished to pay off the entire balance  After a lot of pointless back and forth conversation, they gave me the total amount owing.  They seemed to be amazed by the fact that I planned on paying the entire balance off.

The next month, it was the same story only this time, they had begun to send me text messages on an almost daily basis.  Most of these messages were to tell me that Coca-Cola was discounted by 15% if I used my "Bank Mega Credit Card" to purchase it between now and next Tuesday.  I patiently waited for my bill to come, which it never did.  Thanks to this, I missed the deadline for my minimum payment.  Lo and behold, I received a text message from Bank Mega the very next day detailing the total amount owing and the minimum payment amount.  I found it very convenient that they had sent this to me the day after the deadline in order to ensure that I had to pay interest on my outstanding bill.  Once again I called to inquire and they assured me that they did indeed have the correct address and that a billing statement had been sent.  I asked if it was possible for them to send me a text message detailing the amount owing and the operator told me they didn't know anything about that.  I looked into online billing statements, they don't exist for that bank.

For the next few months, I tried to meticulously keep track of how much I owed and made it a point to remember to pay my balance before the deadline.  I made it a point to call them every month as well and request a bill which never came.  This system seemed to work for the most part.  Whenever I underpaid, it was usually by a small amount which meant minimal interest.  I think I even overpaid a few times.  I would know this by the text message they would send me the day after the due date stating how much I owed.  Then one day months later, I received a billing statement.  I was stunned.  I opened it up only to realize that I had been charged for a monthly service that I had cancelled months ago.  I immediately called them and had them put a stop payment.  I foolishly realized that I had been paying this stopped service for many months.  Since it was $15 a month, I did not notice.  I assumed that all was good and that I would now receive a statement every month.  Never again did another statement come to my house.  However, the junk mail type text messages grew in frequency.  They read (translated into English......)

"Save 10 cents on fabric softener"

"Buy 2 get 1 free instant noodles"

"Free sponge with purchase of bleach"

and so on and so forth.

I had had enough.  I called them and demanded that I be removed from their calling list and to stop sending me text messages.  At this point, I was receiving 2 or 3 a day.  Many of them were reminders for the same promotions "Only one day left to get your free sponge".  They informed me that they didn't control that at the bank and that they didn't know who sent or how I got those messages.  I threatened to cancel my card and they pointed out that I would probably still receive text messages even if I did cancel.

I accepted my fate and decided to stick with my card as it was better than having no card.  Getting a credit card as an expat in this country can be very tedious and difficult.  I had previously been denied 3 times for different reasons despite making more money than probably 80% of the inhabitants of this country.  I also needed my card as I was going out of the country for a big trip.

While on this trip, I realized that it was impossible to pay my bill as I did not have access to my banking information.  Upon returning, I made it a priority to pay my bill as soon as possible as it was already at least 6 days late.  Astonishingly, I did not receive any statements in the mail from Bank Mega the whole time I was gone.  The morning after I arrived back in Jakarta, I paid my bill in full.  The following 2 weeks were filled with reminders to pay my bill from the bank.  They had someone call me 4 to 5 times a day and sent me 3 text messages a day saying how much I owed.  I answered the phone the first couple of times and told them that I had paid (which I had) but they didn't believe me.  After that, I would just not answer whenever they called.  The worst part was that the frequency of promotional text messages increased to around 6 a day.  This meant that I was receiving 4 to 5 phone calls and around 9 text messages a day from Bank Mega yet still not receiving a billing statement in the mail.  Looks like I'm going to have to change my phone number if this gets any worse...... 

I give up.  In the past, I have found some way to get around these situations but I have no fight left in me.  Am I becoming Indonesian?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


One of the great luxuries that I often take for granted in this city is the abundance and relative inexpensiveness of taxis.  On most busy city streets, one seldom has to wait for more than 5 minutes to hail a taxi.  There is a plethora of choices and quality when it comes to taxis but that is a topic for another day.  The hands down winner in the category of reliability and trustworthiness is the Blue Bird Taxi Group.  Their telephone ordering service goes a long way towards them retaining the crown as they are the only taxi company that will actually show up at your house within a reasonable time.

In the past, I have attempted in vein to telephone order a taxi from other companies including Express (my personal fave as they are cheaper than Blue Bird and pretty trustworthy), Putra, and TansCab.  These  competitors either inform me that a taxi is unavailable or end up taking 2 hours to arrive at my home, by which time I have long since walked to the road and found my own taxi.

Over the years, Blue Bird has consistently improved their telephone ordering system and continues to attempt to do so.  Their latest venture is ordering via Blue Bird application on smart phones, which I have not yet been able to successfully do on my Blackberry.  The great thing about Blue Bird is that, when they are busy, they will even call you back to inform you that a taxi has not yet been ordered for you.  They seem to have it together for the most part, a rare treat for any service in Jakarta.

The process is pretty simple, you register your phone number and address with them, call up, ask for a taxi and give them your phone number.  Usually, a taxi arrives at your front door within 10-20 minutes.  The drivers are also pretty gracious when it comes to waiting when I am not yet ready to leave.  As with anything in Jakarta, this process in not always perfect.

If it is a busy time of day or there is heavy rain, they will inform you that there is up to a 2 hour wait for a taxi.  When I do order in these instances, they sometimes show up in 10 minutes and sometimes don't show up at all.  There is also the rare occasion where the taxi takes an hour to get to my house, and of course this always happens when I am in a hurry.  There are other times when the taxi cannot find my house.  Only a couple of days ago, this happened.  The driver called me to inform me that he could not find my address.  I went outside and saw him 50 meters down the road.  I advised him to go forward and look for the street number on the front of my house.  Yes, I am aware of how condescending and ridiculous that sounds.

I have to admit that, the majority of the time, they have no problem finding my house and arrive promptly.  There is a Blue Bird depot just down the road from where I live, which I think must help.  Now here is the thing that I can't get over lately.....

When I call them up, they seem to find my house with relative ease within a reasonable time.  However, when I hail a taxi on the street or get one from a mall, they often have no idea how to get to my desired destination.  I cannot get over this no matter how hard I try.  From my experience, people in Southeast Asia generally don't know how to use maps or even have them in their vehicles.  GPS in vehicles has not yet penetrated this part of the world.  How is it possible that a random taxi driver who is in the car alone can manage to navigate the labyrinth of Jakarta to my front door but can't find a mall or landmark?

I often have to tell them each and every turn to my house.  Luckily, I know my way around town.  What is worse is when I am going to an area that I don't know very well.  In these instances, I rely on the map application on my phone.  I use this to tell the taxi driver where to turn.  I have lived here long enough to tell when a taxi driver is trying to earn a few extra Rupiahs and when he is truly lost.  Most of the time, they are truly lost, which makes me wonder how in the world they consistently manage to find my house, a place that is admittedly not that easy to find.

In these situations, I often daydream as to what their job interview was like.....

"So, are you from Jakarta?"

"No, I am from Bandung."

"So, how long have you lived in Jakarta?"

"Ummmmm, around 2 months now"

"And do you know your way around Jakarta very well?"

"Well, no not really, I know the area around where I live?"

"How are you with reading maps? Do you have any experience with that?"

"No, not really, I've never used a map before."

"Great, you are hired, by the way do you have a driver's license?"

Years ago, I felt rage when a taxi driver didn't know where he was going and I had no input.  These times would result in hour(s) long taxi rides.  Inaccurate directions from locals on the side of the road would propel my rage to even further heights.  Eventually, I learned my way around town (self proclaimed map nerd) and my Bahasa Indonesia improved.  Nowadays, I feel the utmost empathy for a taxi driver who is genuinely lost and has no idea how to remedy the situation.  You would think that they would be able to call some dispatch and ask for directions but that is simply not the case.  They are thrown into the middle of the urban sprawl with no map or lifeline.  Talk about a stressful line of work.  The only time I get annoyed any more is when a friend is attempting to find my house and, out of desperation, puts the taxi driver on the phone with me.  I will ask them where they are and they will say they don't know.  When I attempt to explain how to get to my house, they tend to babble on about nothing instead of actually trying to listen to what I am saying.

I have come to the conclusion that trying to find out how a taxi can find my house without any assistance is one of those questions that will never be answered, like the chicken or the egg.

Now here comes the warm fuzzy ending.  This is the reason why most people swear by Blue Bird.  I had some friends visiting.  One of them managed to leave their iPhone in a Blue Bird taxi.  The taxi had been ordered to another friend's house.  That friend called Blue Bird and asked if they had by any chance found an iPhone in the taxi that picked up X person at X address at X time.  Thirty minutes, they called back and stated that they did indeed have the iPhone.  They were very apologetic when they explained that they wouldn't be able to drop it off at my friend's house until the following day.  She told them that they were forgiven and the phone was returned the next day.  Luckily, they knew how to find her house.

Here are some websites and videos for your viewing pleasure.....

P.S.  I just realized that it is necessary to explain something.  The idea of giving somebody an address only to find any structure that is not a skyscraper in Jakarta is beyond ridiculous.  If I asked somebody how to get to their house and they gave me an address only, I would laugh at them.  Most directions go something like this.

From Plaza Senayan, go straight until you see a gas station, past the gas station, do a u-turn and then take your first left.  After you see a giant mosque go left and then left again and then right.  Go down the road until you come to a 3 way intersection.  Go right and my house will be the 3rd one on the left side address:  Jl. Impossibletofind #36.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Fall of Saigon('s Trees)

Below is a somewhat forced blog that I wrote on a recent trip to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).......

I have been reduced to sitting in the hallway of my Saigon hotel writing a note on my phone.

After a painful waiting experience at airport immigration, I managed to have a hassle free taxi ride to the main part of town last night. I found a very reasonably priced hotel with air con, a fridge, cable and hot water with little effort. A light rain mixed with a bad hangover and the reluctance to wander down dark alleys in a strange town at night managed to keep me in close proximity to my hotel on my first evening in town.

Despite it being Saturday night, these factors made for an early night and an early rise. The next morning, I found a lovely bakery that had amazing croissants and coffee, a rare treat for a seasoned Jakartan. The morning featured the same light rain experienced the night before.

I decided to wait the rain out in my room. After hours of forgettable television, I chose to go explore my surroundings. Leaving the hotel, I was faced with a slightly more intense rain. It was nowhere near the downpours I have experienced in Indonesia but still heavy enough to get wet quickly. I had another coffee at the shop across from my hotel and, once again, waited for the rain to cease. There was to be no such luck.

Dejected, I once again returned to my hotel and watched even more pointless television. Ironically, I was thankful to have cable in my room, a luxury for a cheap room in southeast Asia. After a few hours of sloth, cabin fever began to set in. I decided that it was time to explore.
Outside the hotel, I found the rain to be steadily increasing. The guy at the front desk gave me quite a large umbrella and I figured there was no stopping me. I decided to try to find the backpacker area that is supposedly close to where I am staying.

On my walk, I stumbled upon a road side sandwich stall, it was amazing. I was in a state of bliss with my baguette pork sandwich in one hand and my umbrella in the other. Then, the wind decided to rain on my parade, literally.

Once I hit a large intersection, the wind and the intensity of the rain increased. Since I had already made it this far, I decided to soldier on. During my walk, I was met by countless tourists donning giant rain ponchos and/or umbrellas. After 15 minutes of walking in unrelenting rain, I began to wonder if this was such a good idea.

A right turn on a street intersecting the one I was walking down was met with wind so intense that it blew my umbrella inside out. Getting out of this rain and having a drink suddenly seemed to be a priority. After going a block or 2 and not seeing anything, I spotted a corner cafe with a fridge full of beer. It turned out to be an ice cream shop that happened to sell beer.

The weather didn't really seem to jive with ice cream so I settled on a Tiger beer. Being right on the corner of a major intersection, I sat entertained by the constant blatant disregard for red lights, the right of way and basic common sense. It speaks volumes that these words come from the mouth (thumbs) of one who has spent years driving in Jakarta.
The highlight was a guy on a motorbike who managed to dump 8 or so cans of beer literally in the middle of the intersection. He tried to stop and pick them up but the other hundred or so cans stored in plastic crates between his legs made this impossible. To my astonishment, he soon returned on foot to the middle of the intersection to collect said cans. The fact that no passing vehicles had crushed a single can was even more astonishing. He struggled to pick up all 8 or 9 cans despite my mental encouragement for him to use his poncho as a bib, which would have easily cradled all of them. After managing to only be able to grab six with two hands, a bystander ran into the intersection and helped him pick up the remaining cans. I couldn't help but wondering if the unattended cans were being plundered.

After observing this debacle and downing a couple more tiger beers, I conceded that the rain was not going to stop. Once again, I donned my umbrella and went in search of the elusive backpacker area. After asking a few people on the street for directions to no avail, I decided to make a random left turn and try my luck. Further down the road, I saw signs of what looked like my destination to the right.

Upon turning down this road, I was met with a gust of wind that once again turned my umbrella inside out. Only this time, it nearly knocked me over. I gave up and decided to make my way back to the friendly confines of my hotel. The whole time, the wind was becoming more intense. This equated to sideways rain. After a few more umbrella mishaps, I arrived at my hotel with soaked jeans and a relatively wet fleece jacket.

Feeling that I had no choice but to hibernate, I removed my clothes and decided to have a beer from my fridge and watch even more television. 3 beers and a regrettable screening of "Eat, Pray, Love" later, I once again became stir crazy. A lack of beer in my fridge combined with my hunger made me decide to once again venture outside.

I knew there was a circle K convenience store and a few restaurants only a few doors down so the risk seemed minimal. The scene on the street was eerily quiet yet apocalyptic. I wondered if this eeriness is what it was like after this same city fell almost 40 years ago and ceased to be known as Saigon. The sound of strong wind and debris flying about heard from my room earlier probably added to this feeling.

There was a noticeable lack of traffic and pedestrians. Fallen branches were about, one even spanning an entire road. I managed to find what turned out to be an excellent noodle house only 100 meters away. After a lovely meal, I left and decided to go left down the alley to find a sim card for my phone, having saw a place the night before. I managed to stumble 5 steps to the left before once again being impeded by the wind.

I made my way to the circle K, stocked up on alcohol and decided to call it a night. Upon returning to my hotel, I realized that the power was out. After a brief yet awkward attempt at drinking in the foyer with 3 Vietnamese guys who spoke no English yet kept speaking to me in Vietnamese, the generator kicked in. I climbed the stairs back up to my 3rd floor room only to find that I had limited electricity, meaning that I had lights but no cable or air conditioning.
The heat, lack of television and the desire to smoke cigarettes forced me into the hallway.

That is where I sit at the moment, reduced to typing on my phone and smoking in a stairwell. As I write this, I can hear chainsaws cutting the fallen branches outside. I wonder if this is to be my fate in Vietnam, reduced to getting drunk in stairwells, getting soaked, knocked around and not venturing more than a few blocks from my hotel.

On the bright side, my fridge is still running which means the beer is cold. If the air conditioning does not come back on, I am going to have to drink until I pass out in order to sleep in this 3rd floor heat.

As fate would have it, the electricity came back on as I was typing the previous paragraph. However, I have become accustomed to my inebriated perch and am reluctant to return to my room. Here's to hoping that tomorrow has more to offer than Vietnamese cable and unrelenting weather.

The next day, there were downed trees and people with chainsaws everywhere. The weather for the rest of my holiday was hot and sunny. I found Saigon to be a lovely place that only added to my suspicions that I am living in a city that will one day be uninhabitable. Still, I find myself living in Jakarta and loving it on some sadistic level.