I spent my birthday in Thailand, fleeing Indonesia for a week in order to renew my visa for the second half of my internship teaching English in Jakarta.
In Phuket, I watched sunsets set the ocean on fire. During the days, I trekked along the rocky coasts and lounged amongst the stones, staring at the ocean, swishing my feet in the changing tides to cool off.
I made very little effort to engage with the others around me. Phuket seemed comprised of 86% half-naked Westerners doing their best to be Westerners, and 12% locals trying to squeeze money off the eager creatures with promises of “hand carved buddhist statutes made in China.”
Those who really interested me, the 1.5.%, were the shadow boats lolling around the horizons. Fishermen and fisherwomen, living day-to-day, in stark comparison with the banana boat old men tanning on the beaches. I engaged with them only in my imagination; which was enough for me.
The last .5% was a tiny Thai fisherman who helped lead me out of the rising tides and taught me, through broken toothy English, a little about Thai buddhism. That is a story of its own, for a different day.
I left Phuket with a sour taste for my countrymen; impressed as I was by the sunsets and ocean, I was happy to return to crowded, sweaty Jakarta and see the faces of my teaching colleagues.
It wasn’t until I unzipped my backpack that I realized, along with remaining nationalism, I had left my Kansas jacket in Phuket.
That socked the wind out of me.
My Kansas jacket. A denim button-up with Kansas, The Grass Roots of America embroidered on the left side. It was my mother’s shirt, loaned to her by the Flint Hills Foundation to wear on trade shows to promote Manhattan, Kansas. While not technically hers, and intended to be used for trade shows only, I had discovered the piece one day in the fall and appropriated it for my own purposes.
The cut of the button-up suited me, made me feel adventurous, and could be worn with most of my clothes. So I wore it. With most of my clothes.
When I left for Indonesia, I gave my mother the puppy eyes and said, “Pwease? Something for me to remember Kansas by?”
After much pleading, she fell for it. It was safely stowed in my pack.
In Jakarta, a land of sweaty bodies and many eyes, my Kansas button-up reminded me of adventure. That I was a Kansas girl, grass roots, and that this was not Kansas. Adventure! I felt as if I had the approval of both my mother and my home state for this vagabonding mission around the world.
I promptly forgot it at the Chillhub Hostel in Phuket, a mere month into my mission.
That socked the wind out of me.
When I got to BINUS International School in Jakarta the next day, I begin my new mission of tracking it down and pleading for its return. The hostel was gracious enough to take the long road towards getting it back into my hands. They posted it through EMS, a “highly efficient post” (i.e more expensive), and it was estimated to take two weeks to land in Jakarta.
That was fine. I would be here for four more weeks.
The two weeks came—and no post. I had it addressed to the school I taught at, as I had overheard one of my colleagues saying he did that with all his mail. Furthermore, at the kost where I was staying, there were no letter boxes, mail boxes, boxes of any kind. I had never seen a mail truck or even bike the entire time in Jakarta. For all I knew, there was an underground postal system. Magically, letters and packages sprouted on the desks of my colleagues.
I eagerly awaited the blossoming of my own precious parcel.
The two week mark came. Every day after school, I would trek out to the far back gate of BINUS to ask the guards, through mimes and silly faces, if they had a package waiting for me. They didn’t. I heard them chuckling to themselves as I walked away. Every morning, when I would arrive at school, I would log in to EMS’s website with my tracking number and check the status of the package.
After two weeks and five days, I was rewarded with an “arrived in Jakarta—scanning” update. I revamped my back gate visits; twice a day, this time, once at lunch and once on my way home.
The three week mark came. “Arrived in Jakarta—scanning.”
The three week, four day mark passed.
I had one of my Indonesian colleagues call the postal office, to ask what “scanning” meant. After a long, long phone call, she put the phone back on the receiver, turned to me and said,
“It’s arrived. But it’s still scanning.”
I was to leave Jakarta, bound for New Zealand, in a week and three days. While that seems plenty of time to receive a package that has already arrived and been scanning for a week and a half—it was, apparently, not.
All of this endlessness made my love and attachment to the Kansas button-up stronger. I became frantic. Semi-obsessed. My colleagues grew worried, my hair grew wilder, my conversations almost always involved mention of the postal system.
It was Thursday. Friday was my last day teaching at BINUS. On Saturday midmorning, I would fly to Auckland. And still: no package.
I took Caroline with me to the back gate on Thursday after school, biting my nails on the walk out. We approached the guard hut, and Caroline entered to talk Bahasa with the three men. She was gone for a long time. Long enough for the sweat to saturate my olive shirt. She came back out. Triumphant, wild grin. Clutching a package.
My spirits sank.
“What’s that?” I demanded.
“It’s your package,” she said. “Look—it’s addressed to you.”
She was right, it was addressed to me—scrawled in pink gel-pen, my name against the brown package. But there was no way this could be my jacket. It was just a brown envelope. Fluttering in the little breeze. Tauntingly.
I tore open the envelope. There was a single sheet of paper inside. I gave it to Caroline, who translated:
“This—package—is—at—this address. The—office—is open—from—09:00 to 15:00—Monday through Friday.”
I couldn’t tell if I wanted to laugh or sob—I finally had a destination and a time, but it was yet another hurdle I would have to jump through to get my package. A few of us were going out to dinner to break Ramadan that evening, so it would have to wait until Friday before I attempted recapture.
On Friday, Joe, my British colleague, offered to drive me in his car to the address listed at lunch. He spoke Bahasa and knew how to navigate on the roads—saving me awkward miming with taxi drivers and a few hundred rupiah.
We took off from the teacher lot at 11:00. I wasn’t happy about spending my last day going on errands, but Joe’s excitement to get out of another day of work was infectious. It helped me to relax, and to remember: today was Reunion Day. One to tell my future children about.
The streets of Serpong, Jakarta are primarily one-way, with medians boasting great trees and flora. There was a break in the median every 800 meters for a car to pull a u-turn. We plugged in the address to google maps, and pressed navigate.
I settled in for an air-conditioned session with the most interesting colleague I’ve ever had.
Joe’s qualification for teaching English was an ability to speak English—being British and all—and this qualification was coupled with a very little palate for teaching itself. He didn’t care for our Southeast Asian colleagues, thinking them too nosy and ignorant to spend much time with.
I was the intern teacher, and my main task was to open the door of the teachers’ workroom for students handing in late assignments. I had usually had two slots of committed time during the day, and for the remaining six hours I was left to my own devices.
Joe supported my preference to not be door-girl, adding that “really anything is better than being surrounded by these idiots.”
He wasn’t that racist, really, he just didn’t like teaching. And he didn’t like being reminded that he was a teacher, which was what our colleagues were constantly doing. (Mostly by doing their job: “it’s not all about marking assignments and preparing for class, you know” Joe once told the grade 7 level head, Ms. Barbie.)
So often Joe would say “adventure?” and we would go for a tea at the coffee cart outside the library. It was an outdoor spot, shaded and caught the breeze well. I was happy to not be the door-girl. Joe was happy to not be a teacher.
While we sipped our tea and avoided responsibilities, Joe told me of his life. How his mother and father got divorced when he was young, and he moved to Jakarta with his father, who was, coincidentally, a millionaire in the oil business. When Joe was in his twenties, his father married a woman who was three years younger than Joe himself.
“Gold digger,” I said, between sips of tea. Joe laughed and patted me on the head.
“You don’t know the half of it,” he replied.
He proceeded to tell me that when his father died suddenly of a heart attack seven years ago, his step-mother stole all of Joe’s million-dollar inheritance and ran away.
“I hired a hit man in Singapore,” he said with a smile, as if recalling the punchline to a joke, or remembering that today was his birthday. “Unfortunately, the man was a cop. But I had used a mate’s ID and computer.”
I tagged Joe away as a character in a novel I might write.
“So you weren’t caught?” I asked.
He shrugged. Sipped his tea. “Nope.”
“What happened to your step-mother?”
“I met up with her in southeast India. She was staying at one of my aunt’s villas. You gotta understand, she was super hot and young—”
I made a face.
“—so I tried to seduce her. But it didn’t work, she saw right through me.”
I answered with something objective, non-judgmental.
“She left with millions of dollars from my father. He was in the Gulf Oil company.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. I settled for a, “bummer, man.”
“Yeah, it’s not all bad. Ended up stuck here. This country is pretty okay, I mean—everyone has a maid. I have like, four. I feel like a kind here. I couldn’t go back,” he said.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked Joe, as we swung through another roundabout. We had been driving for about twenty minutes, and it felt as if Joe were taking me on a tour of all the local Serpong suburb roundabouts.
Joe paused his story of drag-racing his buddy in the middle of Jl. Sudirman, to assure me that he did.
Google maps told us to take yet another roundabout.
Followed by another.
Joe’s stories stopped. His knuckles tightened on the steering wheel. We were instructed to take a u-turn. Then turn around at the next roundabout.
“Bloody goddamn hell!” he shrieked. I grabbed his phone before he could chuck it out the window.
“It’s just going in circles,” I said, shaking it.
“This is so annoying,” he seethed. The address listed on the brown envelope was outwitting google maps. I had thought that potentially, as Joe had claimed, he knew where he was going.
“I fucking hate Jakarta.”
It was not so.
We spent the next 20 minutes peering at google maps, taking round-a-bouts at double speed, and gazing at every street sign possible; there were three total street signs on this stretch of road. I was a bit too intimidated by my colleague to recommend we stop and ask someone for directions. I had gotten to know Joe quite well after spending many a lunch avoiding the teacher work room by sipping Thai tea outside the library. At least, I had thought I knew him well.
“There!” Joe’s finger scissored across and nearly banged into my nose. I followed his arm; he was pointing to a tiny orange sign hanging on a wooden post. This was an intersection we had passed three times already, I had seen the sign briefly before.
“Read it!” Joe came to a stop in the middle of the road. Buses and motorcycles honked at him and swerved around—it was common enough for cars to just stop wherever they pleased (or meander into other lanes of traffic without signaling).
I peered at the sign.
The EMS office has moved to Jl. Pemuda No 79, Jati, Pulo Gadung, RT.20/RW.6, Kota Jakarta Timur.
“Oh my god,” I said. “The post office sent me the address of the sign saying where the new post office would be?”
“I fucking hate Jakarta,” Joe seethed.
This time, the new address we had was one not too complicated for google maps. It took another ten minutes of u-turns to get there.
“I’ve gotta bone to pick,” he said. We marched into the offices, and Joe spat Bahasa at the vested man behind the desk. The man looked confused, partly because he had been enjoying his gado-gado in relative silence, and we were probably the first people of the day who expected him to be helpful.
After a long bout of Joe clenching his fists, the vested man scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to Joe. Joe stormed out of the post office. I waved to the vested man, who looked terrified, and followed.
“What’d he say?” I asked.
“He didn’t have it.” Joe handed me the paper, upon which was scribbled another address. “He told us that it was probably here.”
We entered that address into google maps, and it seemed legit.
We spent the next 25 minutes in silence, as google maps took us deeper and deeper into residential neighborhoods. At one point, Joe pulled over and asked a man selling durian fruits where this address was. The man, smelling like urine, gestured towards the next round of streets and assured us it was close.
We were driving through houses. House after house. How could a post office be here?
It had been two hours since we left BINUS. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was living out the movie Inception. An address inside of an address inside of an address. I told Joe as much, and he didn’t find it as amusing as I did.
“Let it season,” I said. “It’ll be funny in a week.”
We pulled over and asked a police officer about the address. He told us—forced to be more specific by Joe’s glower—to take a left, then a right at the next street and we would see the orange courier bikes.
I had never seen an orange courier bike in all my time in Jakarta, so I was skeptical. Joe was just angry. I thanked the officer in my atrocious Bahasa, which made him smile.
We took a left. Then pealed into the next right—
Orange courier bike. Right there.
Parked beside a garage. Of someone’s house?
“What?” I breathed.
We parked the car and I got out. The garage door was open, and there was a woman sitting behind a plastic desk calmly thumbing through a stack of post-it notes. She looked up at me as I approached.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“How can I help?” she replied, as if it were perfectly commonplace for people to come here, here, a normal house garage in the middle of a neighborhood.
I handed her the brown envelope and the new address from the previous post office. She got up, went into the house, and came back with a parcel large enough to hold my beloved Kansas button-up. I stuck out my hands like a child at Christmas, as if to say, it goes here, right here, just right into my arms thank you.
But before I could get at it, she sat down behind her plastic desk and scribbled on one of her post-its.
“20,000 rupiah,” she said, handing me a post-it.
“What?” My mouth dropped open. I had already paid for the package, a nice price for an “efficient service”.
“20-thou,” she repeated.
Joe was still in the car, which was good, because his already inflamed sense of justice would have torn this woman to shreds. I thumbed through my backpack and pulled out a green bill. I shoved it at her, and grabbed my package before Jakarta could screw me over again. I ran out of the garage, pulled open the car door, and squelched up into the passenger seat.
Joe pealed out.
“I fucking hate Jakarta,” he grunted.
“What about the maids?”
Peace and blessings,