Indonesia Expat
Featured Observations

Broken House Blues

rumah kampung
Broken House Blues

COVID immigration regulations have largely been lifted and foreigners are being allowed back into Indonesia.

This includes for business purposes. Should you be planning a lengthy visit and fancy a grass-roots cultural experience, one of your options is to ignore Jakarta’s luxury high-rises and instead rent a clapped-out house in a kampung (cheap inner-city housing area), placing yourself down among the common people.

I’d like to go through what condition you can expect this kind of “rumah” to be in, that’s to say the quirks and features that you might not find in your UK or Australian home. So let’s go inside. Watch your step. That stream of sludge running under your doorstep might look like a magical free-flowing mix of custard, chocolate and peanut butter but hold off with the spoon since it’s actually the contents of the open sewer.

The first thing you’ll notice about your new house with its battleship-grey walls and ineffective air conditioning is that it isn’t empty. And I’m not talking about the rats, mosquitoes, red ants, cockroaches, geckos, and other freeloading creatures that thrive here. There may be an elderly woman lurking inside waiting to greet you with the one word of English she knows. Don’t worry, she’s not an intruder. She is your pembantu, or maid, and she’s awaiting your instructions, most of which she won’t understand.

It’s the pembantu’s job to mop the floors and do the laundry among other tiresome chores. This kind and friendly woman usually lives locally, perhaps even next door, and custom dictates that she comes with the house like any other fixture, just as her mother did, and her mother before her, going back generations to when her distant ancestor first turned up and offered to extinguish the campfire in exchange for some scraps of dinosaur goreng.

Some sensitive westerners who dare to live in the kampung are deeply shocked to learn that they have inherited what could be considered a servant (in name at least). At the centre of this guilt trip is the misconception that domestic help is so cheap that the position must lack dignity. This belief is usually rendered immaterial by the realisation that washing machines are rare and piles of tropically sweat-stained clothes can become mountainous.

Employing maids is normal practice in Indonesia. Just be sure to remember they are only human and can make mistakes like anybody else. This was demonstrated when my former Canadian housemate was handed a large dripping clod of sodden paper by the pembantu. It was the remains of his passport, which had gone through the wash and hidden in the pocket of his jeans.

Next, let’s shoulder this door open and check out your bedroom. Reclined seductively on your bed you will find your new wife. Or more precisely your Dutch wife, or “istri Belanda“. This soft cylindrical bolster is not a common feature of Western beds. The popular story is that it was invented by lonely Dutch settlers who arrived in Indonesia a few hundred years ago. Lie down and give it a hug. Feeling sleepy?

Not far from the bedroom is your bathroom. Careful of how you tread. There are no shag-pile carpets in Indonesian bathrooms. The floors are tiled and inevitably wet. The shower, or if you’re unlucky the “bak mandi (a tub of cold water and a ladle), splash directly onto the floor. If your toilet is also in the bathroom, you’ll spend a lot of time shedding your socks and drying your feet going in and out, or else forgetting to and getting your socks soaked.

bak mandi
bak mandi

Don’t think that this bareness makes the bathroom fireproof. My housemate once left a candle burning on top of a plastic bathroom cabinet when he departed at dawn for the airport (yes, this is the same calamitous housemate as before with a new passport). Unfortunately, it burned right down as everyone slept and set the cabinet alight, toothbrushes and soap dishes and all, filling the house with black acrid smoke and the thumping footfalls of all the other occupants casting aside their Dutch wives and fleeing their beds in fear of being roasted.

And remember, the house doesn’t come with a fire extinguisher as standard, only a stomach pump (located in or near the kitchen). One last warning. The bathroom amplifies sound to an alarming level. Don’t break wind in here. The ceiling might collapse.

Now come along to the kitchen, and mind that wire. Don’t trip over it. Some non-traditional items you won’t find in this room are a microwave oven, a pop-up toaster, and cutlery other than spoons. What you will find is a glorified camping stove fuelled by a large Calor gas cylinder and more frying pans than you can shake a spatula at. Stop looking around for that washing machine. You won’t find it, just a bucket and a scrubbing brush. And don’t feel all guilty again when you see your pembantu perched on a stool not much bigger than a mushroom while she’s doing the laundry. You’ll feel different when she’s ruined all your shirts with that brush.

Now step out into your magnificent back garden. Gaze at that mango swamp, those tall trees with their ripe bananas. Just kidding! You’re unlikely to have something as rare and precious as a back garden. You’re not the president! You might get a small swamp, depending on the extent of that year’s rainfall, but it won’t have any mangos in it. Talking of rainfall, your house will have basic flood prevention measures, such as a roof, but I’d advise you to check your contract to make sure.

Now let’s take a look at the living room. If like me you grew up sitting unblinkingly in front of a TV set after school was finished, you’ll feel perfectly nostalgic here. And by sitting I mean with crossed legs on the floor the Asian way, not on a chair.

Interestingly, a British TV health programme claimed that an indication of your life expectancy was the number of times you placed a hand on the floor for support while getting up from a cross-legged position. Fewer was better. Zero times was best. This seemed unfair to me, seeing that Westerners are at a disadvantage from being more used to rising from chairs. But you might want to put in some practice if only to reduce the risk of your becoming stuck while using your squat toilet and having to call out to your pembantu to come and haul you to your feet.

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