When I say I’m obsessed with all things travel, I mean it. I’m the type of person who will watch any movie or any TV show as long as it has something to do with travel. A bad horror movie that’s set in Colombia? Count me in. Andrew Zimmern is eating something bizarre in Peru? Hell yes! The Bachelorette is going to the Dominican Republic for a romantic getaway? Why not?
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that I’ve watched, like, every episode of House Hunters International. Maybe it’s because my mom is a real estate agent and I have an odd affinity for house hunting. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always dreamed of living in another country. Whatever it is, I just can’t get enough of that show. So as Aaron and I were apartment hunting in Jakarta a few weeks ago, I kind of felt like I was living an episode of HHI. We were shown a few downright scary-looking apartments – think tiny, musty and dirty – but we finally found a cute little apartment where we’ll set up shop for the next year.
But even though we’re settling into our new place nicely, it’s becoming increasingly clear that nothing fully prepared me for actually living in another country – not all the traveling I’ve done or all the TV shows I’ve watched. As I’m quickly starting to realize, there are so many little differences between life in the US and life in a foreign country.
5 quirky things about expat life in Jakarta:
1. Hearing the call to prayer – Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. With a population of over 205 million, roughly 88 percent of Indonesians identify as Muslim. And during my strolls around the city, this fact is not lost on me. It honestly seems as if there’s a mosque located on every corner.
The call to prayer typically occurs five times a day – the first is just before sunrise and the last is around sunset. It can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour depending on the day or if it’s a holiday. The hypnotic sound is something I learned to love during my time on Indonesia’s Gili Islands earlier this year. But if you’ve never heard it before it can be a little jarring at first, especially if your hotel room or apartment is located right next door to a mosque. The first night I spent in Jakarta I was jet lagged and exhausted, and I was not happy when I was startled awake by the blaring call to prayer at 5:30am!
Luckily my apartment is facing away from the mosques that pepper the streets of my neighborhood. But every evening at sunset I can stand on my little balcony and listen to the city echo with the melodic sound. Every time I hear it it’s a reminder that I’m actually living in Indonesia!
2. Unsafe tap water – Sadly, the majority of ground water is contaminated in Jakarta. This means that drinking water straight from the tap is not an option. It also means that I have to consciously remember to brush my teeth and rinse my veggies with bottled water, which definitely takes some getting used to. It’s stuff like this that I take for granted back home in the US. And it honestly saddens me that Indonesians don’t have access to clean drinking water.
Nothing irks me more than using plastic water bottles. After backpacking for over a year, I feel incredibly guilty for the hundreds of plastic water bottles I contributed to local landfills. Whenever possible I try to reuse and refill my water bottles, but as any traveler knows this isn’t always possible – especially in Indonesia. Since Jakarta is a hot and humid place, I find myself drinking tons of water. So in an effort to reduce my waste, I brought my Nalgene from back home and I refill it from my 5-gallon reusable water bottle (which costs $1.50!). Indonesia has little to no infrastructure for dealing with waste, so a lot of trash is either burned or thrown in the rivers and streets. So, now that I’m living here I feel it’s important to decrease my waste and do my part to help Indonesia’s growing trash problem.
3. The modest dress code – When I told my friends and family back home that I was moving to Indonesia the first question they asked was, “Do you have to wear a headscarf?” The answer is no. But I do have to be conscious about the way I dress. Most tourists who come to Indonesia travel to Bali. Bali is a primarily Hindu island which means it is culturally very different from neighboring Java, and it’s common to see tourists walking around in short dresses and bikinis. But Java is predominantly Muslim and very culturally conservative. The area I live in is popular with expats, so foreign women aren’t expected to cover their entire bodies. Actually, I’ve seen a few women wearing shorts, short dresses and tank tops – but that’s definitely not the norm. Luckily, I typically wear jeans anyway, but there’s one reason this modest dress code really bothers me.
My apartment complex has three beautiful and enormous pools. Not only is this great because it’s unbearably hot outside but it’s a wonderful way to get exercise. There’s just one problem – I’m too self-conscious to put on a bathing suit. And, no, it’s not because I’m insecure about my body. Since a lot of women cover their shoulders and knees – if not their full arms and legs – I’m not sure how cool it would be to sport a bikini at the pool. I’ve seen a few women wear one-pieces but a lot of women go swimming in their full clothes or what look like wetsuits. Perhaps I should invest in a one-piece…
4. Security checks – There are security checkpoints everywhere in my neighborhood. Cars are required to open their trunks when entering malls. I’m constantly walking through metal detectors, getting wands waved at me and having my bags rifled through. Sometimes I feel like I’m at an Oakland Raiders game or at an airport. Honestly, I don’t know whether to feel safe or concerned about the overabundance of security. And, from my experience, I’m not sure how effective these checkpoints actually are (read more here).
But given Jakarta’s history, the hyped-up security makes sense. Sadly, terrorism is a real threat in Indonesia. Most people are familiar with the Bali bombings that killed 202 people in 2002. But in 2009 Jakarta was victim to twin suicide bomb attacks – coordinated bombs exploded almost simultaneously at the prestigious JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels claiming eight lives and over 50 victims. Considering my apartment is located a quick stroll away from one of Jakarta’s major malls, it’s no surprise that there’s heightened security in the area.
5. Exotic fruits & veggies – On a more positive note, seeing all of these strange and exotic fruits and vegetables will never get old. I love that I can walk to the grocery store or venture to the local outdoor market to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables I’ve never seen or heard of before. Sweet mangosteens are my current favorite fruit and dragon fruit is a close second. But there are so many odd-looking fruits I have yet to try.
Durian is a fruit that I’m half excited, half terrified to try. It smells like the strongest garbage imaginable, but I’ve heard the sweet custard-like filling is actually quite delicious. Despite the fact that I’ve been to Southeast Asia four times now, I still haven’t had the courage to try it.
I’m also really enjoying picking up random veggies and cooking the best stir-fries and curries I’ve ever made. Cooking in Indonesia has been a true joy for this vegetarian!
Have you ever lived in another country? What are some of the quirky things you’ve noticed about being abroad?