Sunday, 3 October 2010

Borneo, Baby!

I've pretty much settled in now that I have overcome my jet lag and the worst pangs of homesickness. At the moment I am really looking forward to getting Rae and Oscar out with me so that we can become a family once again. (Since taking the position as Operations Manager five months ago I have only had four weeks with my family.)

So, where to start? Balikpapan is a very busy place with somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000 people. I'm sure someone knows exactly how many people live here but it's not Wikipedia or the CIA Factbook.

What is certain is that motorbikes outnumber cars 3:1, and driving is an experience. While I was working in Milan this summer some of the guys at Geolog joked that driving in Italy was good training for Indonesia. They don't know how right they were. The road conditions in Balikpapan are pretty good (I've seen worse road surfaces in 1st world European countries) and main roads are all dual lanes with a central reservation. The one major pitfall to this road layout is that there are no roundabouts or junctions which means that to go in the other direction you have to do a u-turn. Unfortunately the designated u-turn locations are not strategically placed so you could find yourself driving half a kilometre or so in the opposite direction before you can turn around. There are no real rules to the road and the only code of conduct is that you keep traffic flowing - if this means stopping to let five motorbikes, three cars and a handcart do a u-turn in the middle of a busy highway then that's what you do. At first (and second and third, etc) glance it all seems very chaotic until you learn the two basic steps that allow you to get where you are going - stay in the right lane and don't worry too much about motorbikes. The bikers are much better at avoiding you than you are of them, and by staying in the right hand lane you won't get stuck behind the small minibuses that hover around the kerb (and pull out without a moments notice) like green hummingbirds. All in all driving isn't that stressful as the Indonesians are not rushy-rushy people and are happy to pootle along at 20 or 30 kmph, and once out of the more congested areas it is possible to get up to 60kmph. Despite all of this it doesn't take long to get your confidence and after a day or two I was driving like a local, albeit a little faster than the average Indonesian driver.

The city has four or five shopping malls, ranging from 15 years old and full of dated shops to new and shiny with all the main Western outlets. Groceries are affordable if you don't rely heavily on the foodstuffs imported from overseas, but good meat is hard to find and you have to be prepared to do a bit of butchering yourself. There is a huge variety of clothing here, from traditional Indonesian designs to the latest Western fashions and none of it is expensive. For instance, I bought a 100% cotton shirt with a batik print at the low low price of USD 20/GBP 13. And this was one of the more expensive shops!

Eating out is very cheap; the local Indonesian restaurants have great food that is palatable to expats and there are a number of fast food places (Pizza Hut, KFC, Doner Kebab and A&W) in the city too. On the outskirts a number of expat friendly bars and restaurants have sprung up but these tend to be on the pricey side in comparison to the average establishment, and serve as a night out destination to allow expats a flavour of home.

Houses in Balikpapan are hard to describe. Firstly there are two populations catered for: those designed for local residents don't have what we would recognise as showers or baths, have outdoor kitchen that don't come with fitted cookers, and lack hot water on tap. The houses that have been built (or refitted) for expats do have all the mod cons we would expect but are considerably smaller than a Westerner would be used to. Large houses can be found and in some cases, like my own rental property, have "gourmet" kitchens, luxury bathrooms and enough space to swing a tiger by its tail.

The electrical supply is a problem in Balikpapan. Despite having a huge amount of natural resources like coal, oil and natural gas at its doorstep, the power station is not capable of generating enough juice to supply the whole city and brown outs do occur. Each business and residence is limited the number of watts they can pull from the grid, and quite often it is not enough to keep a property comfortably cool and lit. Generally each hotel and office will have a small generator that is sufficient to provide enough power to run ACs, computer, etc, while private homes have small generators that can supply enough wattage for a couple of hours until the power is back up again. Fortunately my house has ample capacity (5500 watts) to run 3 or 4 ACs, the TV, a computer, the cooker and fridge and most of the lights before the fuse trips. However we only have a small generator (2200 watts) so if the power does go out we'd have to reduce consumption for an hour or two. Thankfully the area we live in has a stable electrical supply and power cuts are only limited to 2 or 3 a month, and last for less than an hour.

As for water, you are never going to get everyone to agree whether it is safe to drink the local supply. Most, if not all the residents of Balikpapan, use bottled water for cooking and drinking, while some use a mixture of bottled and tap water for their everyday use. To be honest I've used the local tap water since the first day I got here and have had no ill effects yet.

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