Photo: Franshendrik_Tambunan/Deposit Photos
An apartment complex in Jakarta | 2,500 words | Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Mikael Johani
East Jakarta in late afternoon. The roads were chock-a-block with commuters. Cars snaked endlessly to the horizon.
The chaos on Jakarta’s roads was the first thing that struck me when I moved there. I spent most of my time in the national capital stuck in gridlock. Sometimes the traffic eased, but then minutes later I’d be caught again in its grip. Sometimes you saw the culprit — perhaps an armada of angkot, public minivans, idled on the left side of the road waiting for passengers, a long line of cars struggling to move past the ersatz barricade. Most of the time you were left none the wiser.
Nearer where I lived, the gridlock was usually caused by cars coming into the main road from a series of shortcuts, and a steady stream of ondel-ondel — gigantic dolls made from bamboo and dressed like a Betawi wedding couple, the long robes hiding the human puppeteers inside them — during rush hours. The massive dolls walked along the road languidly without a care in the world, paying no attention to the cacophony of car and motorcycle horns and angry shouts from frustrated commuters. Behind the dolls, a boy would walk equally nonchalantly carrying a boombox playing loud gambang kromong music.
The block of flats where I lived was showing its age; the paint was faded almost completely even though here and there you could still deduce the original bright colours, especially maroon and yellow. They were the survivors. The building had eighteen floors, making it one of the tallest in the area. It was a gated complex, only cars and motorcycles with parking tickets were allowed to enter.
Before moving to the flat, I had lived for years in a cramped kost, a tiny studio room, in Yogyakarta. I knew the move to the capital would be a big challenge. Why? I was moving in with my older sister.
If only I didn’t have such a bad breakup with my last boyfriend, maybe I wouldn’t have moved to Jakarta. I’ve had bad breakups before — there were another two in Yogya. But this last one had everything: an affair, gaslighting, and sexual violence.
I simply had to leave Yogya to save myself. I had thought of moving to Surabaya, but one day my sister called asking me to move in with her since she was expecting a baby. Taking care of the flat on her own while still holding down a full-time job was too much for her.
You read that right. She was pregnant and she lived on her own. Her husband worked out of town, on another island, and visited only on weekends.
So I cancelled my plans for Surabaya and began preparing for a new life in Jakarta. For two months I scoured the internet for jobs — scoring a couple of online interviews — hoping that I wasn’t just going to join the swelling ranks of the unemployed in the megalopolitan capital.
My sister had lived in her apartment for almost five years. Moving in felt like invading her private space.
I was given the spare room in the two-bedroom flat, right next to the entrance. It was tiny. There was only enough space for a single bed and a prayer mat. The book shelves were filled with my sister’s collection. There was no question of me bringing in my comics.
There was one good thing though: the flat had a balcony. Most residents used it to dry their laundry, and so did my sister, but on some quiet afternoons I would stand there and spend time watching the busy roads below. They weren’t joking around when they said the traffic in Jakarta was bad. Even before the dawn prayer started you could hear the shrill sound of car horns from below. On Saturday nights, I watched people crowd into the streets, as if in fear of missing out on life’s fun.
From the window in my room and the balcony I could also see a small burial ground right next to the block of flats. Its peace and quiet was such a contrast to the chaos on the streets below and the constantly moving hordes of cars looking for a space in the apartment complex’s crowded parking lot.
I might’ve had good intentions moving in with my sister — to keep her company during her pregnancy and to calm myself down after such a violent breakup. But in the end, we spent much of our time fighting.
We even fought bitterly over who should take out the trash. All the rubbish from each unit was collected in a big bin in the janitor room (there was one on every floor), which was not too far from our flat. But we were both too lazy to do it.
My sister was a neat freak, but she would often forget things. She would leave rotten food in the fridge and forget to wash her plastic lunch boxes. One day she puked her guts out and screamed at me after finding rotten salmon in the fridge. She forgot that she was the one who bought it and left it there.
As soon as she found out she was pregnant my sister had stopped cooking for herself. She would order food online and ask me to go down to the lobby to pick it up. I wasn’t the one pregnant, but I too would often be too tired to get off the couch after working all day. In the end though, I would always relent and go down to the lobby, all the while cursing my sister under my breath.
I would take the elevator and walk to the pick-up point next to the tower lobby, where the delivery drivers waited for their customers in front of a hairdresser.
Many delivery drivers had apparently walked right into the hair salon thinking that their customers were inside, so the owner put up a paper sign on the window that said ‘Delivery drivers please wait outside.’
Confusion reigned at the pick-up point. The drivers would stare at their phones and then quickly look up whenever anyone walked in their direction. They would shout at you asking who your name was and if you were the one who would relieve them of their package.
The spot was total chaos in the morning, when office workers like me milled around in front of the salon waiting for our rideshare drivers. Everyone in neatly-pressed office outfits, everyone anxiously checking out the number plate on every motorcycle and car that passed. A quick look at the driver’s name followed by a wave of the hand or quick nod, then: ‘Are you Mister A my driver?’
Later in the evening we’d be back in the same spot, this time in our pyjamas, waiting for our food orders.
We could also buy food from the rows of cafes and restos on the ground floor of the block. They’ve been a lifesaver during this pandemic. Before that, they were already one of the most attractive features of the complex. You can find almost everything on the ground floor. Minimarkets, coffee shops, whatever your heart (or belly) desires: you’ll never be found wanting of anything. The only thing that stopped me from spending all my money there were the price markups. The shop owners felt justified in charging more for the convenience, they knew most of us couldn’t be bothered walking outside to find better deals. Some of the cafes did offer decent food, but you could count their number with the fingers of one hand. I remember there was a shop that sold a passable version of nasi langgi, a Central Java specialty, rice cooked in coconut milk and tamarind, served with omelette, potato crisps, chicken, roasted coconut shavings, chilli sauce, and cucumber pickles. That was genuinely good. Pity the portions were minuscule.
Most of the cafes on the ground floor were too small to have a seating area for customers. I would get takeaway and eat it in my flat or by the swimming pool that was open to the public.
Some of the cafes were forced to shut up shop because of the pandemic, including the fried chicken stall right next to the apartment lobby. I used to chat with the owner, an elderly man, almost every evening when I would stop in to buy dinner. One day his stall was gone and I have not seen him since.
The swimming pool in our tower was still roped off. No one was allowed to come in, though it wasn’t clear if the restriction was part of Covid protocols or something else. Not far away there was a basketball court that was always full of people doing exercises, especially in the morning. Don’t expect these sporty types to wear their masks properly. Most just let them dangle under their chin like an afterthought.
“Is this elevator out of order?” asked a woman as we waited in front of the three elevators in the tower lobby. Asking if an elevator was broken for us was the equivalent of British people talking about the weather.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, trying to remember which elevators were working earlier in the morning. We both knew only two of the three would be working at any one time. One would always break down at random. There was never any rhyme or reason to it.
The lift’s door opened. We entered and tapped our access cards on the wall-mounted detector. The machine would emit a beep when we did so. But this time, there was no sound. Was my access card broken?
I tapped the card once again. Still no sound. I tapped again on its opposite side, harder this time. Nothing happened. I got confused and started panicking. Was it the machine’s fault or mine? Was I supposed to tap and lift the card or let it rest on the machine until it beeped? I couldn’t remember. And then I remembered the other people waiting to tap their cards. I felt so guilty holding them up!
The woman who had chatted with me outside the lift could sense I was nearing meltdown. ‘Just tap it once. It’ll work. The machine is hopeless, I haven’t heard it beep for a long time.’
I paused. For a second I felt like kissing this woman on the forehead for saving my life. But the elation was soon followed by annoyance. Why didn’t she tell me earlier? I must’ve looked so silly tapping my card on the machine over and over again. I wished this lift was equipped with a sink hole for me to disappear into!
I pressed the button for the 15th floor, which was right above number 12. Yes, the tower block out of superstition didn’t just get rid of number 4 in the lifts, but also number 13 and 14.
Getting out on the fifteenth floor, I was greeted by a dark corridor (the neon light must’ve gone out again) and my neighbour’s cute white cat. Supercute, except when it pissed all over my front door. Did I protest though? No. I didn’t know my neighbour that well.
There were eight flats on our floor and every one of us was perfectly happy to keep to ourselves. I never saw my neighbours talking to each other. The most ‘social’ activity I had was with the woman who was the unit supervisor every time she went around the block to do her periodic checks.
“Can I check your plumbing?”
“Can I check if you have uncollected rubbish?”
“Can I check if your drinking water tank has been cleaned?”
I answered yes to every question before signing my name in a list of flat owners the woman carried on a writing board. Her official title was ‘health and hygiene inspector.’ Her name was selected for the position from a list of residents who were considered more social than others. I never had any idea which unit she lived in.
I grew to love my sister’s flat as I got to know Jakarta more. I guess the whole apartment block became the one constant in my life at that time. I welcomed the fact there were no ondel-ondel on its grounds to annoy us, only the Madurese greengrocer who would try to strike up a conversation with you when you came into her shop. There was no designer label store, but there was the laundry woman who would wash and iron my clothes (and who would happily slide me to the front of the queue for a bit extra). She even looked like my mum. There were no fancy coffee shops with hipster baristas, but there was that traditional coffee stall in the corner whose owner would give you a discount if you’re new to the block.
Living in a flat in Jakarta can be an easy and hassle-free option if you’re lucky. No need to go out and brave the traffic to find your favourite iced fruit drink since a stall on the ground floor is bound to serve one. No need to worry that no one would be at the house when the postman arrives with your online shopping — the complex has a whole division dedicated to receiving packages for residents. There are some downsides, of course. The broken elevators; the airless basement parking lot; and good luck getting the apartment’s handymen to fix your leaky bathroom ceiling after you make your official complaint to the officials in their basement office.
A year after I started working from my new temporary home in Cilegon, where my husband works — yes, I’m now married, have been for a year — I’ve only visited my sister in her flat a couple of times. The block is as busy and as chaotic as ever. Each time I visited, I remembered how much the environment made me anxious and always tired; but I also remembered the quiet and contentment that I would feel once I stepped inside my sister’s flat. It was something worth fighting for.
© Aprilia Kumala
English translation © Mikael Johani