Maybe it’s because I was born and brought up in a tiny village – really, I do mean tiny, just fifteen houses – that cities have always fascinated me, especially chaotic Asian ones. Surabaya fascinates me.
I must be honest: I am not the norm. Virtually all foreign teachers living here agree that life is comfortable and easy, but few share my unbridled enthusiasm for this city; some of them even think I’m weird. But I’m always looking for converts, because as far as I’m concerned, Surabaya is a fabulous place.
Before I start talking about this great, earthy, multilayered metropolis I should make a few comments about the life of an English Teacher here. The job is a job; it’s a real job, with real responsibilities (in case you imagined you would be lounging on some tropical beach all day, raising yourself from the deckchair now and again to explain how to ask for another cocktail in English). You work for a commercial language school that caters to wealthy middle and upper-middle class people (in case you imagined you would be doing good deeds in some dusty classroom with no glass in the windows among endearingly impoverished but ever-smiling infants who can’t afford shoes). But as someone who generally doesn’t have a particularly positive relationship with “work” I think it’s a pretty good job. It can be fun; it can be rewarding, and it seems to me that the rewards are in direct proportion to how much effort you put in: the more effort you make, the more you care about it and the more you enjoy it – and some people really enjoy it.
As for life here, no doubts about that: it’s incredibly easy. I live in a nice house at the end of a quiet street in a middle class compound. I share it with a couple of other EF teachers; my rent and bills are all paid; if anything breaks I just call the office and someone comes out to fix it. All of those things that you have to worry about, all those forms that you have to fill in, all of the hassles back home, just aren’t issues here. Even my phone bill is deducted directly from my wages and my only overheads are the paltry monthly sum for the cable TV, food (minimal) and… ahem… the maid’s salary… that’s right, the live-in maid who irons my socks, cleans the house, and cooks for me five nights a week… I know, I know! I do have to pay her salary (split with my housemates), but it comes to less each month than I would spend… well, I don’t want to tell you what it comes to less than, because you might think badly of me, but before you go getting any moral qualms let me reassure you that I know for a fact that she makes well over the usual odds for a live-in maid here… EF pays all my domestic tax liability and I never even have to put my signature to a piece of paper; they take care of all visa and paperwork issues. My monthly salary is small by Western standards but very decent for Indonesia, and crucially, with all those living costs taken care of, is essentially pocket money for me to spend as I like on weekends in Bali, beer, whatever. Life is very good here, so much so that I get angry when I hear the occasional bit of grumbling from another teacher…
But now I would like to talk about Surabaya. For me this city is like an English lesson: the more you put into it, the more time you invest in it the more you get out, and the more you come to like it. Plenty of the teachers here concentrate on enjoying their relative wealth, focus on weekend trips and holidays, and to a large extent keep the city at arm’s length. I know people who have been here for three or more years, and plan to stay longer, but have never once explored the network of narrow alleyways of the Old City, never once ridden in a becak, or sat at sunset on the steps of the Ampel mosque and listened to the mournful Arabic of the call to prayer arching up in to a pale sky. There are people who have been here for years and have never eaten rich dark rawon setan at the wonky tables in the tent-café near the river, or sat drinking sweet, grainy coffee with working class students on the mats on the pavement of the Jembaten Merr Bridge; who have never looked out over the great sprawl of red-tile roofs, running to a curving horizon, from the top of the minaret of the al-Akbar Mosque or the roof of Tunjungan Plaza. Many of them have never breathed in the smoky air of the crumbling Chinese temples with their walls black from centuries of candle grease and incense, or bought dates and pistachios from the Yemeni traders in the Arab quarter. And I’m sure I’m the only one who knows his way from Pasar Atom, past the Chinese stonemasons’ shops near Kya-Kya, along the alley where a Madurese family work stitching sarongs, through the dog-leg streets of old shop-houses into the dark warren of Pasar Pabean, out into bright sunlight through the fish-market and into the Arab Quarter. And to be honest, that bothers me…
If I come to live in a new country, a new city, I want to drink up everything it has to offer. I could have taken one look at Surabaya through the window of the EF car as they drove me from the airport the day I arrived, decided it was hot, dirty and boring, and spent the rest of my time here in a select few top-end shopping malls, and a couple of bars and nightclubs. But I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: I do want to go to those malls and clubs because they are as much a part of the city as the all-night vegetable market at Keputran where the ground underfoot is a mud of squashed tomatoes, or the dark, grimy dangdut bars on that street on the high ground behind the graveyards. I want to see it all. And I want all the other foreigners who come here to see it too. I want them all to have watched the lone old woman in the flowery blouse going through her devotions before the Buddha statues in the afternoon in the Hok An Kiong Temple, and to learn to hear the difference between the Javanese and Madurese languages, and to taste goodsate kebabs grilled over coals from a street stall on Jalan Prof. Dr. Moestopo, and sizzling martabakfrom the hotplate, or oven-roast lamb in the Arab Quarter. I want them to move with ease from the designer boutiques of Galaxy Mall to the spice stalls in the great warren of the Pabean Market, and dammit – I want them all to learn Indonesian! It leaves me flabbergasted that anyone wouldn’t make the minimal effort it takes to gain a basic working knowledge of this remarkably simple language!
If they do all that, then like me they’ll find excitement in small discoveries, like finding out that there’s a little synagogue – the only one in Indonesia – on the street of the flower market, or that the biggest Confucian temple in Southeast Asia – all reds and golds and arched roofs – is not far from the traffic lights on Kya-Kya…
The standard answer to questions of resident foreigners about Surabaya goes something like this: “Yeah, it’s alright. Comfortable enough, safe, people seem friendly, bit boring, got everything you need I guess, decent shopping, good location, close to Bali…”
My reply is a little more emphatic; I wish theirs was too.
Tim Hannigan. July 2007