What It’s Like Living Under Terrorist Threat
When I accepted a job at an international school in Jakarta, almost no one was excited for me. I was in Shanghai at the time, so my coworkers were pretty adventurous souls. But everyone seemed to think living in Indonesia was a bad idea.
“Don’t go there now,” one Australian couple told me straight up. Which wasn’t totally unreasonable, given recent events.
So yeah, terrorists were explicitly targeting foreigners, and with some success. It wasn’t exactly the best time to be living in Indonesia as an expat.
During the job interview, I’d asked my new principal about safety. He’d reassured me that I’d live in a staff compound in the suburbs, far from the troubles downtown.
He also told me that this school had incredible career longevity, with some staff living in Indonesia 20 years or longer.
I figured those teachers didn’t have death wishes any more than I did. So I felt confident leaping in with both feet. Here’s how it played out.
The first thing I see when I get off the plane in Jakarta is a huge mural that says, “Welcome to Indonesia. Death to Drug Traffickers.” Yeah, from minute one, I’m thinking about death.
Pretty much everything I’ve read online about living in Indonesia has warned me to stay away from any sort five-star hotel in Jakarta. So I’m taken aback when new staff orientation is held at the Four Seasons.
One of the first presentations is on security. We learn that our campus has cameras planted in bushes, trees, and all kinds of places terrorists would never think to look. In fact, our school has better security than most embassies.
This news is clearly meant to be reassuring.
Almost immediately after that lecture, the HR director tells the single teachers to meet in the hall. He wants us to start thinking about who we want to room with at the compound.
Then he says, “I’ve got great news for Sarah. Since we’re short on housing, you get your own apartment.”
It’s like falling down a rabbit hole. They’d sold me on living in Indonesia by telling me I’d be safely in the suburbs with everyone else. Now, with no good explanation, they’re casting me out alone into the big, bad, anti-Western city.
My colleagues are rattled too. There’s a single man in our group. If we’re going to exile one of the singles, doesn’t the guy make more sense?
The HR director acts like this is ridiculous question.
The other newbies move into the staff compound. Since my apartment isn’t ready, I move into a hotel near the school.
Later that afternoon, there’s a welcome party at the compound. A van comes to pick me up. The ride out to the suburbs takes an hour. It looks like I won’t be seeing much of my colleagues outside work.
I spend most of the party staring into a drink trying not to cry.
On my first day of work, my boss offers to send a van for me. I tell him I’ll walk. It’s only two blocks from the hotel to campus.
Walking is harder than anticipated. There are no sidewalks. The streets are lined with treacherous concrete gutters. I spot a rat the size of a cocker spaniel riffling through trash.
I finally reach the gate, only to find myself face to face with two stern looking men cradling assault weapons.
For the first time, I entertain the idea that living in Indonesia is a huge mistake.
The next morning, I take the van. At the gate, a guard uses a wheeled mirror to check underneath for bombs.
As I’m unpacking my new office, one of the department veterans tells me about Isabel, the previous counselor. Isabel’s husband, also a teacher on staff, was killed in the 2002 Bali bombing.
Amazingly, instead of running immediately home to Australia, Isabel and her kids stayed living in Indonesia for another three years. I try in vain to imagine any American I know doing this, including myself.
Afterward, I sit alone in my office in what used to be Isabel’s chair and think about what these walls have witnessed.
I move into my new apartment in a high-rise near school. My balcony looks right down at campus. With its high fences topped with barbed wire, it looks less like a school than a supermax prison.
From this vantage, I notice that a second row of inner fences inside keeps everyone inside back from the main perimeter, lest someone try to lob a Molotov cocktail over the top. There’s only one neglected spot behind the soccer field where you can actually look through at the outside world. The street vendors hang out here and sell cigarettes to the high school kids through the chain links.
Desperate to make friends, I join a pickup game of touch rugby on campus. It’s a lot of fun until I collide with a large New Zealander and blood starts gushes from my nose.
I walk home, stunned. By the time I open the apartment door, I’m nauseous.
In Girl Scouts, we learned that when someone has a head injury, you’re supposed to wake them up every few hours to make sure their brain isn’t swelling. But who should I call? Despite all the reassurance about safety, no one gave me an emergency contact before banishing me.
To keep from freaking out, I take a Benadryl and pass out until morning.
It’s Saturday, and I want some candles. There’s a Carrefour just a few blocks up the street, but it’s on a busy road with no sidewalks. So I ask the front desk to call me a cab.
This is a mistake. The ride takes 42 minutes. Claustrophobia crushes in around me. If only there were a subway, a sky train, some easy way to get around the city, maybe I wouldn’t feel so trapped.
Things are going crappily at work. The department head is rude and dismissive to the rest of us in front of parents and our bosses.
I’m the “team lead,” meaning I get a small stipend to schedule meetings. My teammates are now lobbying me to set up some sort of intervention that will restore civility. I hardly feel up to the task. Living in Indonesia is sucking all my energy.
To maintain my sanity, I start jogging in a compound where many of my students and coworkers live. The homes here are towering mansions. But I can only see the third and fourth stories, because they’re all behind 10-foot walls.
In Shanghai, expat families hired maids and nannies. Everyone living in Indonesia has a guard manning the gate.
My boss is looking for some old records that should be in my office, but we can’t find them. With great excitement, I email Isabel in Australia.
For the rest of the day, I check my email every five minutes. But she doesn’t write back.
Her rejection feels ridiculously personal. I decide I can no longer use her as a source of strength and inspiration.
I haven’t left my neighborhood in over a week. Isolation and immobility are driving me slowly nuts.
I used to hash in Shanghai, so I Google Jakarta hashes. Surprise, surprise, they’re way out in the countryside. Because who wants to run in Jakarta, dodging minivans and hurtling Cocker spaniel rats and breaking an ankle in the gutter?
Hashing in Jakarta is clearly a sport for rich expats with cars.
Over beers, my partner counselor, Lyra, tells me about a student she’s working with. This girl’s parents are going through a terrible divorce, her brother just left for boarding school, and she has a learning disability.
“What are you angry about?” Lyra asked.
“Jakarta,” the girl said without missing a beat. “I hate this place.”
“Why are you angry about Jakarta?”
“It smells like poop. And the cats are all skinny and sick, and they have screwed up tails.”
We have a good laugh over this. Only kids would be silly enough to blame living in Indonesia for all their neuroses.
Finally, I meet a coworker who’s a hasher, and she takes me on a run with her.
We jog through rice paddies south of Jakarta. It feels positively life saving to be out in the fresh air again. But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “Is it dangerous to wear shorts?” And also, “Isn’t the village where they recruit all the suicide bombers from?”
Today we have our first lockdown drill at school. When the text message comes, I shut off the lights, close the shades, and crawl behind the couch in my office.
It only lasts 15 minutes, but it feels like 15 hours. I can’t stop imagining it’s real.
The other day, one of my coworkers told me that the school would be the safest place in Jakarta if there was ever a terrorist attack. Because not only do we have better security than the embassy, no one would think of attacking innocent kids.
“Don’t you think that’s exactly why they would attack it?” I said.
She didn’t answer.
I think about that in the dark.
Fall break is getting close. Back in August, I’d been so excited to explore Indonesia. But I worry about traveling this place alone.
Maybe I should go somewhere safe. Thailand, for example.
That’s when it hits me that I’ve lost something precious. Did I really let this place steal my sense of adventure and excitement? Am I really so lonely and stressed out and low that I let go of passion itself?
Time to fight back. I take out a no-interest loan from my school and order a car.
I head to a hash with my new car and driver. It’s in a village called Sentul that’s about 45 minutes south of Jakarta.
I leave late and traffic sucks. By the time I get to the start, everyone is already running. I take off following the flour trail.
About an hour later, I’m completely lost in the middle of a rice paddy. The sun is going down, and I can’t find the trail in the fading light. There’s not a house or a human in sight. And best of all, I left my phone in the car.
I sit down, preparing to spend the night alone in the middle of nowhere. And as I do, this weird peace washes over me. I’m suddenly overwhelmed with this feeling of faith, a confidence that everything will be OK. It’s a familiar feeling that I’ve always taken for granted, but somehow lost recently.
When it’s full dark, I see lights in the distance and realize I’m about half a mile from a road. I stumble through the paddies and wave down a van containing two Indonesian college students. They seem totally amused by the situation and actually drive 20 minutes in the opposite direction to get me back to the start.
When we get back to Sentul, the hash circle is in full swing. Everyone cheers when I get out of the car. Someone passes beers to the students and me. The faces around me are no longer random Indonesians and Canadians and Americans and Australians whose lives collided briefly while living in Indonesia. For a happy moment, we’re all just friends, singing and laughing and drinking together.
I guess sometimes it takes getting lost to find yourself.
For fall break, I go to Bali with my coworkers from the compound. We stay at a five-star resort just north of Kuta.
We visit the memorial at the site of the Sari Club where Isabel’s husband perished. I still shiver when I imagine that night. But its slowly losing its power over me.
During a hash in the countryside, we actually run through a house. (I presume someone knows the owners.) In the front door, down the hall, out the back. The whole family claps and laughs like it is the greatest thing that’s happened all month.
In this moment, the machine guns back in Jakarta seem almost ludicrous.
Isabel finally sends a short but sweet answer to my email. Sorry for the delayed response, but she’s been totally busy getting settled in Perth. And no, she doesn’t remember where the records are. But she hopes I love living in Indonesia as much as she did.
I read this with awe. There are so many things I still want to ask her. But I also feel like we’ve both moved on.
So I swallow and click delete.
I’m home in Cleveland during summer break. When I show friends pictures from Tana Toraja, Papua, and Java, they react with shock.
“You go around by yourself?” they ask. “In shorts?”
They tell me they won’t be able to breathe until I’m safe at home.
I remind myself that I used to have the same thoughts.
I talk to a teacher friend whose rural high school had three (real) lockdowns this year. Other than drills, mine has had zero.
My cousin’s kids want to go to Disneyland. She says it’s not safe to fly. This is almost six years after 9-11.
That summer, I spend a lot of time thinking about all the things we humans miss out on because of fear. And how stress and conflict and isolation make us vulnerable to fear and doubt.
After two amazing years living in Indonesia, I get a new job in Thailand. Practically everyone I know is wildly excited for me. They’re convinced I’ll finally be safe.
And they’re wrong. The next two years are hell in Thailand. Protesters shut down the airport for two weeks. They occupy downtown and build barricades. As a result, I spend the last two weeks of my contract evacuated to a hotel in the suburbs when the government sends in tanks.
Afterwards, my neighbor and I take a walk through the burned burned buildings and cars downtown. I pick up a slingshot left by one of the fleeing protesters. It travels home to America with me as a reminder of how everything we think we know about the world is wrong.
Living in Indonesia convinced that fear is worse than any terrorist threat. As a traveler, how do you strike that balance? Comment below to share.