Jakarta landlords play by their own rules

Bruno stands at the front door of our rental in Jakarta.

Bruno stands at the front door of our rental home in Jakarta

The first time someone asked me for two years’ rent upfront in advance my jaw dropped. I just don’t keep 55 grand lying around.

In my financial accounting class perhaps the most important principal was: Money now is worth more than money later. That is the whole idea behind paying interest and the reason people rent instead of buying, i.e., because you cannot afford to buy a house now, you rent, spending less today, but more over time. Here in Indonesia that principle does not exist.

Yes, all the landlords we met asked for one to three years’ rent upfront (many won’t rent a house for less than two years). This is standard practice in Jakarta. It is the fault of international companies that are willing to forward the capital for their employees’ housing  ­— which is exactly how we were able to rent our house.  Oddly, though the companies then deduct the rent from the employees’ salary (or housing allowance) monthly, no one has ever mentioned the word “interest.”

Paying upfront causes another problem, though. The landlord-tenant relationship is completely changed. When the landlord already has all the money, he or she has no incentive to respond to the need of the tenant or to solve problems. We have heard horror stories about the absentee landlord in Jakarta. Expats rarely have the knowledge to hire workers for home repairs, though most landlords are experts at this. But if a landlord has all your money and a water pump breaks (as happened to a couple we know), you as an expat are stuck replacing the pump — because the landlord won’t take your calls.

I was appalled by this system, so I built a little provision into our lease. Instead of paying the whole amount upfront, we paid only 80% and spread the rest out over a 5-month period. The provision has served us well, because in the first two months, our patio had a drainage problem, our water pump broke, our water filter system had to be serviced, pipes in our walls leaked, and air-conditioning units needed to be replaced, in addition to a few smaller repairs. The agent (who works for our landlord) knew most of these problems before we rented the house but probably hoped to leave the burden to us.

In the case of our agent, even when she does step in, repairs are rarely done well. Her workmen often lack the tools to do the job right, and then make a quick and temporary repair.  When our water pump broke and the workman told her that he needed $10 to buy a new part, I watched her hand him $5 and say it was enough.  Later, we discovered that a pipe in a concrete wall was leaking. After opening a couple of feet of wall and making quite a mess, they simply installed an ugly orange pipe outside the wall and left the corroded pipe inside. Fortunately I was at home and could insist on a certain level of quality some of the time.

Companies that fronted all their employees’ rental costs have enabled a cottage industry of absentee landlords to thrive, and left hordes of expat spouses to struggle with home repairs.


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Shine on for the appreciation of fellow bloggers

We were truly flattered to receive a nomination for the Shine On “award” from Every Day Adventure in Asia, a wonderful blog.  The nomination tells us that someone (other than our parents) is reading this blog and getting something out of it.

After searching for the origin of the Shine On Award, however, I realized it is better described as a chain letter. There are no judges, no final decision on a winner; there is no institution at all. Instead bloggers simply use a post to nominate other blogs. Each time a blog is ‘nominated’ they are instructed to nominate 15 other blogs.  That way the “award” gets passed around. I don’t know who invented the idea, but like any chain letter it  has spread like wildfire.

The blogosphere is a strange place, a mixture of real news sources, opinion, personal lives, and much more. There are legitimate awards with a variety of criterion, and with judges or voting system such as the Best of Blogs, or WebBlogs (just to name a few). The cynic in me therefore feels that people who put the shine on image on their blog are falling for a trick.

For many, though, the aim of blogging is just to share experience, and enrich the lives of others. Blogging has become a new form of community based on shared interests.  For us it is an opportunity to reflect on our experiences abroad and share them. In this sense then, an “award” like Shine On is a way for some bloggers to acknowledge those they appreciate. And it’s a way for blog readers to expand their horizons by seeing other blogs of interest. So, thank you Every Day Adventure In Asia. We will share the love by mentioning a few blogs of interest to us here below.

The image that has become a fixture of this populist "award", though I do not know where it comes from.

The image that has become a fixture of this populist “award”, though I do not know where it comes from.

The Unspun Blog: A local who likes to analyze the strange Indonesian media in English

Stumble Abroad: A family surviving Jakarta.

Letters on the wind: A young guy’s personal experience in Java.

Escape Artists: They have since left Indonesia, but her blog had some interesting anecdotes about this country.

CIFOR blog: Of course, I have to mention this fantastic blog, though it’s true that it’s part of Bruno’s work, it includes many contributors who deserve congratulations on the best forestry blog around.

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This cat is not meant to be a pet

At the Bird Market in Jakarta, you can find (and buy) hundreds of domestic cats. This cat is not one of them. The man who was selling it called it a “forest cat,” but we believe it’s an Asiatic Golden Cat, a species of small wild cats found in Sumatra. Though this species is not classified as threatened, its natural habitats are rapidly disappearing due to deforestation. The wild animal trade only exacerbates the problem.

This little guy is pictured with our friend, Jessica, a naturalist who thinks the cat is only a few weeks old. The cat — a nervous bundle of soft fur and sharp claws — was being held in a tiny cage at the noisy, polluted roadside market. You can read more about the market here: As birdsongs fill Jakarta’s streets, Indonesia’s forests fall silent

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As birdsongs fill Jakarta’s streets, Indonesia’s forests fall silent

At Jakarta Bird Market

At the Jakarta Bird Market

A noisy chorus of birdsongs enlivens Jakarta’s dirty, crowded streets. In this city, birdcages hang from telephone wires, tree limbs, and awnings. I see dozens of caged birds a day in Jakarta: canaries, thrushes, doves and lesser-known wild songbirds of every kind.

Oddly, this obsession with birds originates in an expression of masculinity. According to an old Javanese legend, to be a real man one must have a wife, a house, a dagger, a horse and bird. The horse is widely interpreted today as a motorcycle (or car, if you can afford it). But the bird is still taken quite literally (though its meaning may have been figurative, such as hobby or a source of music). Consequently, many Indonesian men keep birds in cages hung outside their homes or shops. An Oxford study found that more than half of the households in Java’s main cities keep, or recently kept, a bird. In some cities, households keep an average of five birds, usually songbirds or doves. Birdsong competitions are popular pastimes — the national Perkutut (singing dove) competition in Solo attracts thousands of people from every corner of Indonesia.

Though folklore may be at the root of this phenomenon, today people report other reasons for keeping birds, such as companionship. However, the top reason for keeping a bird, according to a survey, is as a reminder of the owner’s home village. Today, more than half the population lives in cities, up from 21 percent in 1980. As rural Indonesians have migrated to cities, so have Indonesia’s wild birds.

Tragically, this hobby is robbing Indonesia’s countryside of birds. Many of the most popular birds cannot be bred in captivity; instead, they are captured from forests around the country. Bird markets such as the one we visited in Jakarta overflow with wild-caught animals, including protected species. Cages are stacked on top of each other, and the animals are crammed together.While the streets of Jakarta ring out with the chirps and cries of imported birds, rural Indonesia increasingly falls silent. “Eerily, … there are precious few birds in the Javanese countryside, most having been caught by traders,” according to a paper from the Brookings Institution, a think tank.

A frightened owl in the Jakarta Bird Market.

A frightened owl in the Jakarta Bird Market.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature ranked Indonesia fifth in the world in terms of avian diversity. That diversity is vulnerable, though: Indonesia also ranks third in the world for the number of threatened bird species. Some species, such as the popular Bali starling, a striking bird with snow-white feathers and a blue face, are nearly extinct. According to the Brookings report, the starling population had fallen to 31 individuals. Then, in July 2012, “poachers coated a few trees with glue and captured six of the starlings in [a national] park, eliminating one-fifth of the population in the wild.”

The slow loris, and endangered primate, in the Jakarta Bird Market

The slow loris, and endangered primate, in the Jakarta Bird Market

Jakarta’s bird markets trade mammals and reptiles, too. Many protected animals slip through these markets undetected (or ignored) by law enforcement. In the Jakarta market, one man tried to sell us a slow loris, a small endangered primate native to Indonesia’s forests. It stared up at us with fearful large eyes. A local animal-rights NGO found that 183 protected species were traded at the 70 animal markets in Java. Many of these were parrots and protected songbirds.

Given Indonesia’s social and political context, the problem of bird trafficking is especially difficult to address.  The trade is estimated to contribute more than $110 million to Java’s economy each year.  Many Indonesians are so poor that they will accept the equivalent of 50 cents for a day’s work trapping wild birds, especially as the payout may be higher for a coveted endangered species. When Indonesian law enforcement does pay attention to wild animal trafficking, they are interested in stopping the more high-profile international trade in large mammals. One NGO leader told Brookings, “The bird trade is just too difficult [and] too culturally sensitive. Attempting to stop it could get us shut down or hamper our other operations.”

A typical scene on a Jakarta street

A typical scene on a Jakarta street

Birdkeeping is deeply embedded in the culture, linked to Javanese tradition and a sense of home (the village). In a country with high poverty, lack of infrastructure, major environmental catastrophes, etc., challenging tradition to protect wild birds is not a priority.

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A tale of two Jakartas

Beyond the white wall that surrounds a fancy mall in Jakarta lies a very poor neighborhood.

Beyond the white wall that surrounds a fancy mall in Jakarta lies a very poor neighborhood.

We have moved into our new house recently. We were lucky to find a gated community with good security and quiet streets that we could afford, but as Bruno and I peeked over the concrete wall that surrounds our neighborhood, we saw the vast swampy slum that lies just outside. Sadly, we, like many expats living in Jakarta, have built a wall between ourselves and the rough, dirty Jakarta known to the most residents of this city.

The gap between Jakarta’s rich and its poor is so stark that most people must learn to ignore it. I recently visited a mall that is attached to one of the chic-est high-rise apartment complexes in the city. I did something very unconventional when I opted to walk to the mall along its access road and peer through the gaps in the concrete walls along the roadside. What I saw was a vast slum of shacks made from plywood and cardboard where clean water is hard to come by and sanitation barely exists. The very people who live in the shadows of the high-rise may well work in it every day, perhaps cleaning or cooking for wealthy residents. They go home to eat rice and the bananas that grow around their shacks. They share their living space and their scraps with chickens and ducks to have eggs to eat. But visitors cannot see the slum as they drive in; the view is carefully blocked by a high conrete wall toped with razor wire. Billboards of beautiful apartments and fancy clothing help distract potential shoppers.

To understand Jakarta, one must note that it is the second-most populous city in the world (when accounting for metropolitan areas). With more than 28 million residents, it has more people than the entire state of New York, and more people than Texas. Those residents include Indonesians from all of the thousands of the country’s islands, as well as expatriates from around the world. Sadly, the population is largely divided along economic lines.

The Indonesian government will tell you that around 13 percent of Indonesians are poor, living on less than US$1.10 a day. However, around 50 percent of Indonesians remain clustered along that line, earning no more than US$2.50 a day, according to the World Bank. (The international poverty line is actually set at US$2 a day, but Indonesia uses its own standard.) The statistic is slightly lower in Jakarta, but the cost of living in this city is relatively very high. Regardless of exact statistics, the point remains that millions of people live in pockets of Jakarta under extremely poor living conditions. There are more than 100 such pockets in the city, where slums lie hidden in the shadows of high-rises or gated communities.

The causes and effects of this poverty divide are so numerous that I will have to cover them in future posts. This gap is a feature that truly defines life in this city.

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Jakartans mark end of Ramadan with family and forgiveness


Muslim women finish Idul Fitri prayers at our neighborhood mosque

Lebaran (aka Idul Fitri), the end of the Muslim Month of fasting called Ramadan, is finally here. Last night, Jakarta was full of sounds, with Koran readings blaring from the megaphones of mosques, small firecrackers popping in the street and larger fireworks lighting up the sky. Today millions of Muslims across Indonesia went to early morning prayer and returned home to their first day of not fasting in a month. Now those millions of Muslims are visiting with family and close friends asking to be forgiven for their spiritual and physical transgressions and forgiving others with the greating “Mohon maaf lahir batin.” (Forgive me).

Given my very limited knowledge of Idul Fitri (or any Muslim holiday) I have been fascinated by this tradition. So this morning I joined in visiting the local mosque at 6 a.m. Fortunately, just after sunrise, Jakarta’s weather is cool, so I didn’t mind walking around fully covered and in a headscarf — though I have come to appreciate how hot that must be for women who wear the head covering at all times.

When we arrived at the mosque, I learned that due to high attendance on Idul Fitri, the actual prayer room was full. So I was ushered into the large courtyard of the school adjacent to that mosque which had been designated as the women’s prayer area, while the men filled up the courtyard around the mosque building and eventually filled the surrounding streets.

When I arrived, about 30 women had lined up their prayer rugs at the front of the courtyard. After a very warm greeting from some of the women, I went to the back to be unobtrusive. I couldn’t believe the place would fill up. Women slowly trickled in, greeting their friends before carefully spreading some newspaper on the ground and then laying their prayer rugs over the paper. They entered in small groups, filling in row after row until the basketball court was full, and women were filling in the open-air walkways of the school. I estimated I was surrounded by at least 1,000 women and children.

The air was spiritual but not overly solemn; many of the women had brought children who played while they chatted in groups until the official prayers began. The service rattled out over loudspeakers from the front of the courtyard. It included a reading from the Koran — with the ritual prayer actions of standing, bowing, kneeling, and standing again — followed by a sermon.

As I left, I noticed a long line of people who looked like beggars outside the mosque. Most of them were disabled. They were waiting for alms, which the mosque leaders hand out after the service.

Symbolically, after the Idul Fitri service and the end of the month of fasting, Muslims are purified from their sins, giving cause for celebration. So, we did what most Jakartans do after the service: We went to the home of some friends for a traditional  breakfast of spicy beef renang, chicken livers, tofu and vegetables in coconut sauce, served with a special kind of rice steamed inside a banana leaf. It all seemed like too much heavy food at 8:30 a.m. for us Americans. But we were grateful to join in the festivities. After breakfast our friends headed out to the homes of their family members for more eating and sharing and to ask forgiveness for their wrongdoings.

In the Middle East, Eid Al Fitr (Middle Eastern spelling) is a single-day holiday, but in Indonesia, it lasts two days. Our friends assume this is because Indonesians have so many family members to visit and ask forgiveness from. We know other Indonesians who will spend these days going from one village to another to visit all of their family.

This means lots of holiday travel. Americans may think Thanksgiving is a difficult time to travel, but the days surrounding Idul Fitri represent one of the largest short-term migrations worldwide: Some 30 million Indonesians will be traveling within their country this week. For the first time since arriving in Indonesia, I saw a major street that was completely empty of people and traffic. We are rather pleased to be enjoying the quiet that all those travelers left behind in Jakarta.

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Doughnuts for Ramadan

ramadan Hiliday Donuts










Since Lebaran is pretty much the only thing going on in Indonesia for the next week, we will continue to share small tidbits about what it is like here. I think our comparison to the popular culture around Christmas continues to hold true in some rather humorous ways, such as Krispy Kreme’s marketing strategies (yes, Indonesia has Krispy Kreme).

We saw this poster yesterday for Ramadan doughnuts. Since it seemed so similar to the kind of ad one might see leading up to Christmas in the U.S., I decided to look online for a Krispy Kreme ad to compare it to. Then I realized in the U.S., advertisements rarely call the holidays that fall around the 25th of December “Christmas,” because even though everything is red and green and Santa-themed, Krispy Kreme knows it is politically correct to be inclusive of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, which usually fall relatively close to the same date. Here is your side-by-side comparison of a Ramadan and “holiday-themed” doughnut selection from Krispy Kreme.

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More Lebaran Cheer

Though camels are not to be found anywhere in Indonesia, they might remind shoppers of Mecca, the home of Islam. This one draws attention to a supermarket display of fancy dates.

Though camels are not found anywhere in Indonesia, they might remind shoppers of Mecca, the home of Islam. This one draws attention to a supermarket display of fancy dates.

In the interest of sharing a little more on the last post, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Lebaran” (see below), I thought I would share these photos of the Lebaran excitement. We took these one evening in a mall that stays open late to accommodate Lebaran shopping. To draw shoppers, the mall is holding concerts after the breaking-fast time every evening. At the supermarkets, many Lebaran decorations focus on the packages of fancy dates for sale, as these are the traditional snack for breaking fast, eaten right at sundown, along with sweet tea.

Concerts are popular ways of drawing crowds to this mall, which was packed from 6 p.m. on as families poured into the restaurants to break the fast. More shoppers continued arriving late into the night.

Concerts special clothing market are popular ways of drawing crowds to this mall, which was packed from 6 p.m. on as families poured into the restaurants to break the fast. More shoppers continued arriving late into the night.

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It’s beginning to look a lot like Lebaran

It’s that time of year again.

The atmosphere is festive. Little jingles play incessantly on the radio for the upcoming holiday. Malls are packed, their parking lots turned to traffic jams. People host festive dinners after work for co-workers and friends. Flush with their holiday bonuses, people get into the giving spirit, buying little gifts for colleagues and bigger gifts for family (and perhaps spending a little more than they should). Supermarkets are bedecked with displays of holiday-themed treats. Airlines and bus companies jack up their prices, and it’s still hard to find a ticket because everyone wants to get home to see their families. Banks and most offices close. At home, families exchange gifts, feast together, visit with neighbors, and of course, go to their places of worship.

 This sign on the door of a Honda dealership reads "Happy Idul Fitri... Forgive my physical and emotional (wrongdoings)".  Other sale signs suggest they still hope you will buy a Honda.

This sign on the door of a Honda dealership reads “Happy Idul Fitri … Forgive my physical and emotional (wrongdoings).” Other sale signs suggest they still hope you will buy a Honda.

If you are from the Western Hemisphere, this probably sounds like the week before Christmas. In Indonesia, it’s the week before Lebaran, the last week of Ramadan — commonly known in Islam as Idul Fitri (or Eid al-Fitr, as it is known in Arabic).

Like Christmas, Lebaran is a time of excitement. A jingle on Jakarta radio echoes the sentiment: “Deg-degán, deg-degán, dekat dekat Lebaran!” (“Excited, excited, it’s close, it’s close, Lebaran!”). The jingle, played as ceaselessly as any tired Christmastime tune in the U.S., leads into a live on-air quiz in which callers can win money to spend on their families this Lebaran.

Though I have spent a fair amount of time outside of the United States, I have never lived in a predominantly Muslim country, and any exposure I had to Ramadan among U.S. Muslims was muted. So it is a bit surprising to see long lines at the mall in late July (Lebaran, and Ramadan, fall in a different month each year). Even more surprising is to see the similarities between the ways this religious holiday and Christmas play out in everyday life. For example, last Sunday we made the mistake of going to a big grocery store to buy a few routine items. Every checkout line had at least 10 shoppers with carts overflowing. Would you go grocery shopping on the Sunday before Christmas if you didn’t have to? Probably not.

The week before December 25th and the week before Lebaran have two crucial differences. Muslims have been fasting from dawn to dusk for more than two weeks already, and they will do so until the last day of Ramadan. All those evening meals are for breaking fast, and are held punctually at sundown, which on the equator is always 6 p.m. Perhaps the excitement of Lebaran has as much to do with the end of the long, difficult days of fasting as as it does with seeing family and getting gifts. In addition to big sales, malls are also holding extended hours because shoppers prefer to shop once they have eaten. Another key difference from Christmas is that the actual date of Idul Fitri is up for debate among Islamic clerics until the very last minute, depending on the position of the moon. In Indonesia we expect Lebaran to fall either on the 7th or 8th of August.

Jakarta's Istiqlal Mosque - the largest in South East Asia- expects to reach full capacity this Idu Fitri, with 60,000 attendees.

Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque — the largest in Southeast Asia — expects to reach capacity this Idul Fitri, with 60,000 people

The religious significance behind these two holidays is quite different. Ramadan is intended as a time to focus on God, to repent, to fast not just from food but from all worldly indulgences, to respect the month in which the Quran was revealed. Idul Fitri celebrates the end of the fast and the success of having cleansed oneself from worldly “sins.” In fact, Muslims in Indonesia often greet each other on Idul Fitri with “Forgive my physical and emotional wrongdoings.”

During both the Ramadan season in Muslim countries and the Christmas season in Christian countries, people are more likely to give to the poor or to charities. And many followers, who do not attend their place of worship most weeks, will do so on these holy days. Still it seems that, much like Christmas in the U.S., Lebaran in Indonesia has been co-opted somewhat by commercial interests. Just as Christians do, Muslims get swept up in the shopping and the pressure to spend money for their biggest holiday of the year.

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Fed up with thuggery in the name of Islam, Indonesians push back

This year, during Ramadan — for perhaps the first time — Indonesians are standing up to a group known to terrorize the country during the holy month.

FPI members rally in Yogyakarta in 2012 (photo: Jakarta Globe)

FPI members rally in Yogyakarta in 2012 (photo: Jakarta Globe)

Members of the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) call themselves “defenders of Islam.” Most scholars, and Indonesians I’ve met, call them thugs. The FPI enforce the more restrictive laws of Islam by raiding bars, clubs, liquor stores, etc., usually damaging property and hurting people who get in their way. Last year they managed to thwart a sold-out concert in Jakarta by Lady Gaga on the grounds that the show would corrupt youths.

Most FPI attacks are actually part of a racket, as Fealy and White explain in “Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia.” The FPI target businesses, whether legal (bars, clubs) or illegal (brothels, gambling houses) that violate FPI’s own (fuzzy) interpretation of Islamic sharia law. This interpretation is neither consistent nor universally applied. Typically, FPI files an official complaint against an establishment, giving police time to inform the owner of the establishment. The owner can then pay off the FPI to avoid a raid, or pay the police to provide security for the establishment. According to Fealy and White, the police have cooperated with the FPI since the group’s beginnings, contributing to many Indonesians’ feelings of powerlessness against this mafia-type organization.

But this year, as the FPI carried out early-Ramadan raids, a grass-roots resistance seems to be growing.

The FPI started out Ramadan on the wrong foot with the Indonesian public. On a morning TV talk show in June, during a discussion about Ramadan raids, an FPI representative threw a glass of water in a university professor’s face. Losing one’s temper — especially in such a public setting — is a social faux pas in Indonesia. Several Indonesian Islamic leaders condemned his actions, arguing that the FPI is not representative of Islam and sets a bad example for the country’s Muslims.

Recently, a mob (reported at more than 1,000 people) attacked an FPI group carrying out raids in Kendal, Central Java. As FPI members fled the scene, they accidentally killed a woman by knocking her off a motorcycle, sparking public outrage. In response, police have arrested three FPI members. Actual police action against the FPI is rare, and so these arrests signal the severity of the public’s anger. Meanwhile, an anti-FPI online community is growing, and a petition for the government to disband the FPI now has more than 41,000 signers.

The current public response reflects a growing intolerance for the FPI. Last year, when FPI leaders flew to Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo to inaugurate a new branch of the organization, hundreds of protesters were waiting at the airport and prevented them from deplaning. The flight was forced to leave the airport with the FPI leaders still on board. Later the local government of Central Kalimantan officially rejected the FPI, forbidding them to establish a local chapter.

The public outcry against the FPI has an interesting civil-liberties twist. Writers and activists have suggested using a newly approved law, not yet in force, that gives the government the power to disband any organization that repeatedly causes social unrest. There is palpable public support for this tactic, based on social media and my own conversations with locals. But as a Jakarta Post commentator argues, the application of this law could be a slippery slope toward restricting civil liberties, specifically the right to organize and the right to freedom of expression. The Indonesian government has not had such a power since the time of Suharto, whose brutal 32-year dictatorship fell apart in the late 1990s.

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