I am writing this on Saturday morning from Jakarta airport, where I am waiting to board a Garuda flight to Singapore, followed by a several hour stop-over at Changi airport before flying on to Shanghai. I will be arriving home around midnight tonight, not the nicest way to spend a Saturday. The reason I mention this is because many people seem to think that business trips are more like vacations than work. Sometimes they are, but more often a trip is very intensive and leads to double the amount of work: many new ideas and things to follow-up on plus a huge amount of work that is waiting to be handled because you’re out of the office. Combined with losing half a weekend on an airplane (and often also jet lags) it is not necessarily my favorite pastime. But it beats not traveling at all, during the 6 weeks before Elaine was born I only stayed in Shanghai and I was getting a bit restless. And it’s also a good way to catch up on sleep if you have a young baby 🙂
Anyway, this week I spent 2 days in Singapore at the AdTech conference and 2 days in Jakarta, to get a feel for the Indonesian Internet and mobile market and talk to some agencies and related companies. As some of my readers may know I worked for a couple of months in Jakarta in 1996, as part of an SAP implementation for Mercedes-Benz. Since then I have only been back to Indonesia 4 or 5 times, and the last time I spent a few days in Jakarta was in 2002 – on one of my last business trips before I left Daimler.
I used to love Jakarta when I lived there, and I still like the city a lot. Of course it’s hot & humid and quite unorganized/chaotic, but that’s also its charm. I guess that’s one of the reasons why I liked the place so much, after living in ueber-organized Germany for a while it felt like a breath of relief to do without rules for everything for a while. Indonesians were (and are) very relaxed, they enjoy life without focusing too much on hard work – a big difference with the Chinese. Not always easy when you want to accomplish something during work of course. Even though the people are still friendly and relaxed, I felt the city is not as livable as it was in the 1990’s. The main reason is the traffic, that has become unbearable. I am used to heavy traffic in China, but Jakarta is a lot worse. The toll roads that were built when I lived here are one big traffic jam during a big part of the day and it impossible to have more than 2-3 appointments in one day. Yesterday I spent at least 3 hours in traffic jams, which is a not the best way to enjoy a city.
I had hoped that the city would have improved its infrastructure, but that was not the case. Already in 1996 there were plans to build a subway from Blok M to Jalan Thamrin, but these were never implemented. I heard the plan is still there though. The only thing I saw where “Khusus Bus” (Only bus) lanes, where express buses could drive past the traffic jams. If they drive: yesterday I read in the Jakarta Post that buses stopped driving for a few hours because the bus company did not pay its fuel bills for 2 months and the gas stations refused to supply them with fuel! If I look at how Shanghai has been transformed over the past 10 years it makes you wonder why this cannot be done in Indonesia. A non-democratic country certainly has its advantages in this respect.
There were more visible changes to the city. I was surprised to see the number of new skyscrapers that had gone up for example. Also the bomb checks at every hotel and shopping center were a big change from before. The bombing of the Marriott hotel changed the relaxed vibe that was all over Jakarta in the 90’s.
Other things did not change, like a taxi driver that ‘forgot’ to turn on his meter. When I noticed it I decided to wait a bit before telling him (reducing my fare), and when I informed him the meter was not running he at first pretended not to understand me. I remember having this same conversation many times in the past. Also the sound of the mosques calling people to prayer were still there. I remember waking up by them while working in Jakarta, and if I could not sleep anymore after that (at 4:30 AM!) I sometimes went for a run around Kemang. This time I also woke up, but because my hotel was more sound proof than the villa I lived in, it did not bother me as much. The only time it really annoyed me was when I relaxed for 30 minutes after a working day at the hotel pool and suddenly from all sides the sky was filled with loud calls for prayer. I twittered about the fact that it bothered me, immediately leading to a sharp “I strongly disagree with you” from a Muslim follower of mine. Oh well, maybe it makes it easier for him to accept that not everybody enjoys the ‘singing’ if I tell him that I also hate church bells on an early Sunday morning in Europe. But these things are a fact of life in countries where religious beliefs are an important part of society, and they also add to the couleur locale.
I had an interesting trip, it was good to be back again and to see the changes. I still like the city and its friendly people, but after being used to the fast pace of change in China it takes a bit of getting used to the slower pace of change in Indonesia. But less changes means also more potential business opportunities, and in that respect the trip was certainly worthwhile for me.