Posted by: HK | March 25, 2016

Trials of a Caffeine Addict

Those of you who know me well will know that there are two things I need to keep me happy – chocolate and coffee.

Chocolate in Asia is a disaster.  Yes, I can pay a huge amount of money for Cadburys, but it is either from in Australia – in which case it is just about edible but generally disappointing – or Singapore – in which case it has wheat added to it and I can’t eat it – or Malaysia – in which case I would be better off eating a box of wax.  I basically rely on closely guarded and rationed supplies from the UK, which are sometimes sent by friends or brought by visitors, topped up with Snickers or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups when I need a sugar fix.

Coffee, however, has not been an issue.  Until, that is, I moved to Indonesia.  Indonesia is a country famous for its coffee – including the infamous luwak coffee made from civet poop – yet I just cannot find a good cup.

Part of the problem is that – whilst I have finally purchased a French press and some very strong ground beans for the weekend – I tend to drink instant coffee during the week.  Yes, I know, what do I expect if I insist on drinking processed muck?  However some Vietnamese, Cambodian and Malaysian instant coffee is actually very good and not a thing like the tasteless, over-processed granules that come in your Nescafe jar.  Not as good as the real thing, but definitely a substitute when you are running late for work and have a screaming 3-year-old blocking the route to the kettle.

Indonesian instant coffee is, however, terrible.  Weak, laced with sugar (many brands list sugar as the main ingredient!) and disappointing to taste.  However the very worst thing of all is that the powder refuses to dissolve.

Now I know that proper coffee needs filtering and so on, and that the ability of instant coffee to dissolve is a product of the terrible processing that instant coffee undergoes.  But it is also the whole reason why I choose instant over real coffee.  I don’t want to spend time filtering or brewing.  I don’t want to have to carry various pieces of equipment to work every day.  And I certainly do not want to have a mouth full of gritty coffee grains at every sip.

Why is Indonesian coffee like this?  I cannot find a clear answer online.  Most websites just seem to assume that it is normal for Indonesia.  One even suggests that it is part of a charming tradition of drinking coffee from an upside-down glass, sipping the liquid from the saucer whilst the coffee drains remain behind.  However that sounds to me more like a convoluted solution to a problem that really shouldn’t exist.  Other people suggest simply waiting for the residue to settle.  But, to be honest, if I don’t have time to make a proper cup of coffee, I don’t have time to wait for my instant coffee to be, well, not instant.

And so it is that I find myself in the most contradictory of positions: an instant coffee snob!

Posted by: HK | March 21, 2016

Sweat, Ships and Civet Poo – Part Two

You can always tell when I have had too much coffee, because I start getting twitch and wanting to write stuff.  However I’m not quite sure what to write about.  I’d love to write about miraculous, amazing, soul-winning events, but in reality life just plods on.  I could write about our nanny troubles (we now have a new nanny who is currently working well), or the ever-complex attempt to move house (particularly urgent now a chain smoker has taken up residence in the corridor outside our apartment door).  But there are too many people in the world without a roof over their head or the financial capacity to care for their children for my struggles to be worth more than a sentence.  I could write about Phalla’s studies, but if I say that he has just planned a 3rd-grade lesson on rhythm, then read a letter by Saint Jerome, and is now watching a YouTube video on graphing linear equations, that about covers it.  I could write about my school, but it mainly just consists of planning, teaching and marking; Grade 8 still drive me crazy (but I love them – in case any ever find this); and, again, life just plods on.

So I’m going to turn back time to those distant days of the beginning of January, and continue the story of our adventures travelling around Jakarta!

I left off the story as we emerged from the cross between a dungeon and a greenhouse that is the Transjakarta busway station at Kota, the Old Town, and managed to make our way to Taman Fatahillah, the central square.  Although we were disoriented at first, the correct direction actually became apparent very quickly – we simply followed the crush of people.  As we walked down a paved side-street, we found ourselves part of a river of people flowing towards the square, with occasional eddies as people broke off to examine one of the many stalls selling posters, key rings, t-shirts and other tourist trinkets.  By this time we were feeling rather ravenous, so we created an eddy of our own and paused outside a quaint Dutch colonial building, which had been converted into a very busy cafe.

Inside, the wood-paneled room was a heady mix of stale smoke, sweat and delicious food.  We found a table in the corner and ordered our meal: chips for Natty (of course), chicken for Phalla and satay for me.  The food was good, but best of all were the avocado shakes, which were artistically served in refurbished jam jars.

Feeling refreshed, we once again joined the river of people as it opened out into the ocean that is Taman Fatahillah on a public holiday.  Everywhere we looked, we could see people, bicycles, traditional puppet shows, food stalls, shows, statues, living statues, gigantic figures of traditional gods and, most bizarrely, an assortment of mascots from various programmes such as Doraemon and Masha and the Bear.  Phalla and I were mesmerised; Natty, however, was overwhelmed, and so we found ourselves at the other side of the square rather more quickly than I would have liked.

Due to the heat and noise, we decided that we were yet again in need of refreshment.  We dived into the nearest doorway, which turned out to be Cafe Batavia, one of the best-known establishments in Indonesia.  Whilst there, we decided that it was time to try one of Indonesia’s best-known drinks: civet poop coffee, or Kopi Luwak as it is more properly known.  At more than $10 a cup in this cafe alone, it is one of of the most expensive coffees in the world (and also, arguably, one of the most controversial).  We were expecting something miraculous; unfortunately, although it was definitely the strongest cup of coffee we’d had since arriving in Jakarta, we were left rather unimpressed.

Having recovered our enthusiasm for exploration, we set off away from Taman Fatahillah to find the Kota Intan bridge, the only surviving Dutch drawbridge in Indonesia.  We were expecting a short stroll along a picturesque riverbank.  Instead, we ended up dodging traffic along a dirty street next to an open sewer.  Disheartened, we took a Bajaj (tuk tuk), and peeped at the bridge through the window as we “sped” past.


Our final stop of the day was Sunda Kelapa, an old shipyard full of old fashioned boats.  Natty was in his element as he ran down the length of the dock, jumping over (and sometimes off) gang planks, smiling at sailors and spotting a variety of vehicles used in the shipping business.  After finally reaching the end and the sea, we threw stones and admired the lighthouses, before walking back again to revisit a few of Natty’s favourite sights (the dead gecko in a crack on a gangplank; a particularly large and muddy puddle; a gang plank that was just the right height for jumping) whilst watching drones fly overhead as people videoed the shipyards against the backdrop of the setting sun.

By this point we were tired, hungry and exhausted.  We refueled in Indomart, made a determined decision against attempting to find our way back by bus, and hailed a taxi.  We spent the ride home scoffing crisps and discussing the fact that we had actually enjoyed ourselves in a city where we normally feel so frustratingly homesick.  So ended a wonderfully crazy Jakarta adventure.

Posted by: HK | January 21, 2016

Don’t bury your head in the sand

I would like to apologise to the Foreign Office for all my past scathing comments.  The British Embassy in Phnom Penh have today shown that they are indeed good for something.  How would British people ever know to look after their belongings if it wasn’t for the wise guidance of their latest video.  Entitled “Beach theft: don’t bury your head in the sand”, it shows how simply putting your passport in a locker means that an evil Cambodian motorbike thief won’t be able to steal it when you go for a swim at the beach.

Before watching this video, I always left all my valuables unattended in public places, because I naively trusted that the simple, helpful, smiley natives didn’t even know what a mobile phone was.

Thank you, Britain, for keeping your nationals so safe.

Watch the video here.


Posted by: HK | January 17, 2016

Expat, Immigrant or Refugee

I often see people posting on Facebook about the difference between an expat and an immigrant, and the world is currently full of debates on the difference between an immigrant and a refugee.

Here is my simple guide.

You have moved from an economically superior to an economically inferior nation.  You have moved for adventure, for a fabulous lifestyle, to work in charity / mission or for a tax break.  You still see yourself as a national of your home country, however long you have been away.  You will be enjoying a life that is far superior to that lived by the majority of locals, and you probably, deep down, think yourself superior to them, too.

You have moved to a country that is economically similar or superior than your own.  You have moved with the hope of improving your future and your economic prospects.  You intend to make a new life in your new country, but will likely find that – at least at first – your status and lifestyle is inferior to that of the majority of the population.  You try hard to learn the language and culture, and to fit in.  However the locals still think themselves far superior to you.

Illegal Immigrant
You are an immigrant, only you are in the country illegally according to their visa and immigration regulations.  You are despised by everyone.  You are not to be confused with an expat who is creatively avoiding the immigration regulations of their inferior, corrupt new country’s government.

You have escaped from your home country after the situation there has made it no longer safe for you (and / or your dependents) and is threatening your basic human rights.  You attempt to enter a new country in search of safety and a place to live.  Instead, you are assumed to be an illegal immigrant, and consequently find your safety and basic human rights threatened in your new country as well.

Posted by: HK | January 16, 2016


During our recent visit to Cambodia, I was repeatedly asked the same question: “Do you feel afraid living in a ‘Muslim Country’?”  Every time my answer was the same – a very definite “No.”

On Thursday, a small-scale terrorist attack in Jakarta left two civilians dead and a number injured.  This took place approximately 15km from our apartment, in a busy area surrounded by embassies and popular with both Indonesians and foreigners.  The attack has been claimed by ISIS, and is believed by police to have been carried out by a linked organisation.

Obviously, on Thursday we felt scared.  There was a lot of fear and panic until the full details were made known and it was ascertained that the city was not under attack by motorists wielding AK-47 (although anyway, in Jakarta traffic, it would have taken them a good hour to cut a path to our location).  Now, too, there remains a fear that attacks could happen again; should we avoid visiting Central Jakarta or curtail our regular Mall trips?

Yet my answer to the question of whether I feel afraid when living in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world is the same: no.

Firstly, whilst an attack in Jakarta is scary and future attacks are a genuine possibility, the sad thing is that no city in the world is “safe”, and it is not just ISIS which has the potential for threat – the 2015 bombing in Thailand is one example.  And secondly, whilst ISIS act in the name of Islam, and there are incidents of violence against Christians carried out by Muslims in Indonesia and elsewhere, they are not representative of the vast majority of Muslims.  Yes, radical Islam and the use of Islam to achieve political gains through violence are to be condemned, feared even.  But a quick look through history shows that that is true where any religion or ideology is radicalised or used to justify political violence, including Christianity.

As to my day-to-day life living among normal Muslims, living normal lives, who are my colleagues and neighbours and students and taxi drivers and… Those normal Muslims who represent the vast majority of the population of Indonesia, and, I would assume, of Muslims around the world?  To be honest, I don’t even know why the question “do you feel afraid?” needs to be asked at all.

Posted by: HK | January 14, 2016

Explosions in Jakarta

This morning, at least three explosions rocked a shopping mall in Jakarta.  The blasts, plus subsequent gunfire, killed at least six people (as of time of writing).

We are currently all safe and nowhere near the affected area.  Indeed, the first I knew of it was when a Korean student checked his online dictionary during ESL class and it came up in Korean on his homepage – the wifi connection is terrible so we were all trying to work out what had happened as the news downloaded line-by-line and he did his best to translate.  Everyone is obviously feeling rather scared.

There are rumours – as I imagine is common in such situations – that other areas may be targeted, including a shopping mall we regularly visit.  Some of the rumours are clearly over-exaggerated, e.g. masked gunmen running across the whole of Jakarta with AK-47s.   However I think we will be laying low for a while!

As always, speaking as a UK citizen living overseas, one of the things that has shocked me the most is the complete incompetency of the UK Foreign Office.  The US embassy sent an update immediately to all US residents in Indonesia, who should be registered with them.  The UK Foreign Office placed a small extra paragraph in its website travel advice, which I was then notified of by update several hours later, and only because I signed up for updates via an obscure link on the website.  There is no way to register with the British Embassy here, or I believe in any country.  They just don’t care.

Posted by: HK | January 11, 2016

Sweat, Ships and Civet Poo – Part One

The New Year brought a new resolution to have adventures in our new country.  So January 1st saw us setting off to find the Seaworld aquarium at Ancol, a resort located on Jakarta’s coast.

We set off relatively early and, tired with Jakarta’s hideous traffic and the cumulative cost of taxi rides, decided to brave the Transjakarta busway.  My hours of online research had informed me that two buses would take us from Pondok Indah Mall – a short taxi ride from our house – to Ancol.  After surviving the first roller coaster ride, we disembarked at Harmoni Central Busway, where all the main lines meet.

We squeezed into the elongated greenhouse of a bus shelter and allowed the tide of people to carry us along as we searched desperately above our heads for the sign to Route 5A, the route for Ancol.  Eventually I spotted it to the right, and we did a quick dive into an available space nearish to the doors, where a handful of people were gathered.  I scanned the text for Route 1, to the Old Town, above the doorway, but no 5A route could be seen.  Inching back through the crowds, I looked again at the 5A sign in the centre of the room.  Next to it, where other routes had a final terminus and further information, was a suspiciously taped piece of cardboard.

There was nothing for it, we needed clarity, and that could only be found by locating a person.  We followed the current through the centre of the bus station, and after around fifteen minutes had travelled the 20m to the barrier where an attendant stood.
“5A?” I asked her, hopefully.  She looked blank.  “5A?  Ancol?”
“Ah, Ancol.  2.  Change.”
This is what I feared.  Instead of one bus direct to our destination, we would have to take another bus in the opposite direction and change at yet another station.
“2,” I confirmed.  “Dimana (where)?”
The attendant pointed to the doors closest to us, above which the route for line 2 was written.  Then she pointed at the queue.  Around 300 people stood between us and the doors.  Most of them were staring inquisitively in my direction – Natty and I were the only white people in the vicinity and were clearly a novelty.  I looked at Phalla.  Together we looked at the crowds waiting for Route 2, then back at the small group of people milling around Route 1.
“Want to go to the Old Town instead?” I asked.

Another bus ride – this one squished into a commuter’s armpit and clinging on to a pole for dear life whilst clutching Nathaniel and glaring fiercely at the selfish people who wouldn’t give him their seat – and we disembarked at Kota, the old centre of Jakarta.  As with all Transjakarta stations, the bus stop was in a greenhouse-like shelter in the middle of the road.  However this one was a large structure built around a grassy oval.  To reach the pavement on the outside of the road, we had to walk around the oval, down under the road, and up through another greenhouse.  The first stretch was the same as any mediocre, glass-walled walkway in the world.  The second was vaguely pretty, as someone had decorated the walls of the slope down with flowers, and there was a small fountain surrounded by people eating take-away-chicken at the bottom.  The final step was a suffocating crush of people in an airless tomb which stank of stale sweat; I actually thought I would pass out and be trampled underfoot before I reached fresh air.

Finally we emerged, blinking and gasping for breath, onto a polluted roadside.  Looming on one side were various museums, all closed for the public holiday.  Crowding the pavement were hundreds of street food stalls.  On the other side, cars and buses hurtled along at full speed.  People squeezed onto every available inch of ground.  Somehow, we managed to find a map, orient ourselves with a vague sense of direction, and follow the throngs towards Taman Fatahillah, the central square.  Our impromptu exploration of Old Jakarta had begun.

Now that we are more settled in Indonesia, we are trying to be more adventurous on the rare occasions that we have free time.  Jakarta, however, is HUGE on a scale that I am still trying to wrap my head around.  So, in an attempt to save money on taxis, we decided to check out the Transjakarta Busway.

According to Wikipedia (do NOT tell my students I’m quoting Wikipedia…), Transjakarta “was designed to provide Jakarta citizens with a fast public transportation system to help reduce rush hour traffic”.  Plus, at less than 50 cents per trip (of any duration), it is incredibly cheap.  And riding it is certainly an experience.  Therefore here, based on my extensive research of one trip, I present a Bule’s Guide to the Transjakarta Busway.

1) There is a very useful map available here.  Stations are helpfully colour coded and numbered.  However buses will also stop at random other stations on the way.  And the numbers are not always accurate; Harmoni Central Busway, for example, is given on the map as stop 22 on line eight, but is numbered 8-18 on the station itself.  As this stop came straight after 8-17, I’m not sure what happened to 8-18, 8-19 or 8-20.  Also, the stylized map makes distances look short and convenient.  In reality, Jakarta is very, very big.

2) Stations are in the middle of the road, accessible by a pedestrian overpass.  This is because the buses mostly stick to a designated bus lane in the centre of the road.  This is a good thing, not only because it allows the buses to avoid the worst traffic jams, but also because the stretches where the bus shares the regular lane are spent hooting at weaving cars, motorbikes driving in the wrong direction, and die-hard pedestrians.

3) Take extra care if you suffer from travel sickness.  Journeys are hot, long, bumpy, windy, and mostly conducted at a break-neck speed of at least 60km/hr.

4) Stations and bus doors are elevated from the road by several feet.  You will need to mind the gap, especially if carrying young children.  If you enter at the front door, there may be a guard to help you across.  However it is rather hit-and-miss which of the three plus station doors the two-door buses will stop at, and if you are at the wrong door you will not be let in.  But don’t worry, there’ll be another bus (or three) along in a minute.

5) Be prepared to stand.  The buses get very, very, very, very crowded.

6) Be prepared to change your timing, your route and your destination, depending on the number of cars using the busway; the immensity of the crowds at the stations; and whether your chosen route has been randomly cancelled without any visible explanation.

7) If you are claustrophobic, avoid the Harmoni Central Busway at all costs.  Unfortunately, this is the only way to switch between many of the lines.  However, given the length of time it takes to inch through the crowds from one end to the other, it is probably quicker to walk!

8) Be prepared to be stared at.  I didn’t see a single other Bule (white person) on the busway, even when sharing the Harmoni Central Busway greenhouse with several hundred perspiring travellers.  However, it may just have been my cute son that everyone was staring at, or simply the state of my hair after an hour’s knuckle-whitening ride!

Posted by: HK | January 3, 2016

A Sunday in Cambodia

This is my last post written in Cambodia for a while – and I did actually write it in Cambodia, although I can only post it now we are back in Jakarta and have wifi.

Sometimes ordinary life in Cambodia is just bizarre, although on a daily basis Jakarta is more surreal by far.  The Sunday before Christmas was one of those days.

We woke up ‘late’ – that is, later than dawn, when most people here seem to get up.  Breakfast was pork and rice, and then we drove to church.  It is so good to be able to travel by motorbike again, rather than being constrained by taxis.  Our church in Cambodia is a small, family church held in a specially built hall attached to the pastor’s house.  We easily fell back into our old pattern of Phalla playing guitar whilst I looked after Natty outside, Phalla watching Natty whilst I struggled to understand more than 40% of the Khmer sermon, and then one more switch for the closing prayers and songs.  After the service we made use of the pastor’s wifi, then came home for Sunday lunch of rice noodles in fish soup (a favourite!).

In the afternoon we took a tuk tuk to Aeon Mall, where I left the family to take Natty to the play area and joined a friend at the cinema.  She had VIP tickets to the new Star Wars.  I wouldn’t ordinarily bother watching Star Wars, but the VIP experience was worth the film choice.  Free drinks and popcorn were delivered to our seats by waiters doing the Asian “running in front of an audience” scuttle.  The seats themselves were huge recliners, and our private ‘booth’ was almost as big as our shoebox apartment back in Jakarta.  A pillow and a blanket made the temptation to sleep through the film strong, but the popcorn was sugary enough to keep me awake, and I have to admit to enjoying it more than the rest of the Star Wars films that I have been forced to sit through.

After emerging, blinking and disoriented, back into a reality where my bed does not come equipped with maid service, vibrations and surround sound, I met up with my family again and we went to see the Aeon Mall Christmas lights.  For some reason, it was decided to build a giant tunnel of twinkling lights.  This looked spectacular (by Cambodian standards) but played havoc with my dodgy sensory perception and caused me to run through the tunnel (at Natty’s insistence) with my hand over my eyes to prevent a migraine.

On re-entering the mall, we found the ground floor colonised by models for Vaseline’s latest whitening lotion.  Tall, beautiful, impossibly white girls were posing for photographs alongside mock displays.  Needless to say, Natty was in his element amongst all the srey sa’ard, and so many photographs were taken of him that he might possibly be the new face of Vaseline.  After all, he is white enough!


We had had enough Western excitement for one day, so we returned to the family house for dinner, Cambodian style.  This meant platters of roast meat and fish, eaten on the floor because there were too many people to use a table, with Natty wielding a pair of tongs on ice duty.  By the time we finally persuaded Natty to go to bed, we were all exhausted!

Posted by: HK | January 1, 2016

Happy Merry Christmas 2015!

OK, so Christmas was so 2015, however I am playing catch-up as I have been too busy enjoying myself in Cambodia to spend time writing.

We feel very blessed to have been back in Cambodia for Christmas this year.  Our visa issues were all resolved at the eleventh hour, allowing us to book last minute flights for the day after I finished work.  Due to new year flight prices and a short holiday, we could only stay in Phnom Penh for 20 days, which was definitely not long enough!  However it did allow us to spend  Christmas Day with Phalla’s family.  Of course, Phalla’s family don’t actually celebrate Christmas, but we always force them to and so my British “Christmas is a time for family whether you like it or not” attitude is satisfied.

Apart from that, in six Christmases I have not managed to establish any sort of routine, tradition or expectation to define Christmas in Cambodia.   I think I have posted about Christmas before.  In fact, probably every year.  But I forget.  So here is an overview of Christmas for the Korms since 2010.

Christmas 2010 – As I was not married I don’t think I actually involved Phalla much at all except to insist on present exchange.  I spent Christmas Eve eating Snow Yoghurt in an attempt to pretend it was winter, then spent Christmas Day with a lovely family.

Christmas 2011 – For my first year as a married woman, I decided to do things properly.  This meant a full English-style roast dinner, presents round the “tree” (thorn bush with lights), and Christmas crackers.  Phalla’s family were invited.  I spent the entire meal preparation with Mother and Grandmother peering over each shoulder and asking questions; the crackers didn’t crack; and the meal was eaten covered in chilli sauce.  Never again.

Christmas 2012 – This was Nathaniel’s first Christmas.  However, he was only 4 months old and far more interested in attempting to crawl than the tree (random pot plant), the presents and the roast dinner with good friends.

Christmas 2013 – Nathaniel got lots of presents, which we persuaded him to open once a day over the course of two weeks.  He spent some happy time practicing his new words using the Christmas tree on the balcony (“Ball!  Ock!  Ight!”).  We spent the afternoon at the Riverside where we treated ourselves to coffee at the newly opened Costa Coffee.

Christmas 2014 – Nathaniel again got lots of presents over the space of a week, most of which cost less than a dollar, or were actually the components of one item which I split up and wrapped separately.  He was very pleased with the cars, not so impressed with the single pieces of jigsaw… I bought a proper plastic tree, which Nathaniel decorated with our random assortment of Christmas decorations.  We had a lovely Christmas lunch filled with gluten-free deserts with the same family as in 2010.

Christmas 2015 – Nathaniel ripped open all his presents in seconds, except for the few that I persuaded him to save until after lunch (and these were all ripped open when I went into the kitchen for desert).  I insisted on decorating the family house (we sold the plastic tree so the pot plant was back in service); buying token gifts for each family member (including myself – now I know I am old!); and providing Christmas biscuits from a gluten-free cafe.  Christmas lunch was roast duck and steamed vegetables.  In the afternoon we went to the Riverside with Phalla’s family, then explored the increasingly surreal Diamond Island sculpture garden before heading home to Chinese Noodle fried rice and green beans.

We are hoping Christmas 2016 will be in the UK.  So things will be different once again.  At least it might actually be cold!

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