Having spent my childhood first in the wilds of East Africa and then later in a small village in the Staffordshire Moorlands in the UK, I’ve never been a fan of big cities. I like my space and I love my fresh air. Interestingly, though, the older I get the more tolerant I’ve become of the noise and the madness of big city life and I actually quite enjoy the hustle and bustle now (though I much prefer it in small doses).
At the moment I’m spending the year flying back and forth to Indonesia doing short academic teaching contracts in Jakarta, which typically last for anything from 6 weeks to four and a half months.
If you’ve ever been to Indonesia’s capital, you’ll sympathise. It’s not the most hospitable city to find yourself dumped in and neither is it conducive to rest or relaxation. The traffic is horrendous, the air is thick with pollution, the uneven pavements run alongside open drains and are scattered with large potholes, and the huge divide between rich and poor is in evidence pretty much everywhere you go. The large metal bridges which crisscross the main roads are not only congested with scurrying commuters, but are also home to (mainly) women with young children begging for loose change, curled up in dirty rags with their hands out.
The first time I came here last summer it was new and different and I had that excitement I always get when I land somewhere I’ve never been before. After three months though, my enthusiasm had waned and feelings of isolation and boredom had snuck in.
I was going to the same places all the time, mainly in my neighbourhood, because the average cab ride to anywhere would take up to an hour. I couldn’t just go for a wander (which is what I’d normally do) because the roads were too dangerous and the heat and humidity was unbearable. So I spent too much time on the internet and so many hours in Starbucks that the staff began to greet me by name and prepare my order before I’d even walked through the door.
I’m back again at the moment for an 8 week stint and I think I’m just beginning to get the hang of it. I’ve worked out what it is I need to do to keep my marbles intact and I’m pretty sure these tips could be applied to life in any big city.
Don’t become a hostage to the craziness. Just follow my advice and be the embodiment of calm and contentment.
1. Always carry a book. This little accessory is worth its weight in gold, and if you’re the proud owner of an ebook reader then you’ll be carrying any number of books to dip into whenever the need arises. Having something to read can make getting stuck in traffic, dining alone, queuing at immigration or waiting for a friend (who’s stuck in traffic) not just more bearable but infinitely more entertaining.
2. Exercise regularly. This not only helps you to get out and about and meet new people (if you join the local gym, for example), but also helps you deal with the daily frustrations and annoyances that city life throws at you. I do an hour of yoga whenever I feel like I’m about to spontaneously combust and within minutes of finishing I’m relaxed and happy again, ready to skip contentedly through imaginary fields of daisies.
3. Smile a lot. Good humour is the key not just to surviving big city life, but to surviving life in general. Forcing a big fat smile onto your face will make you feel better (guaranteed!) and it also brightens everyone else’s day (bonus!). Walk with your head held high, make eye contact, smile and see what kind of reaction you get. It’s a sure-fire way of changing the course of your day.
4. Be generous and kind. The first time I came to Jakarta I did that whole ‘can’t give to beggars’ thing because there were way too many. How could I possibly give something to all of them? And besides, I was here to save money, right? So I gave to no one. And I felt like shit.
This time, I’ve taken a different approach. I make sure I give to one person every day. Whether that’s the old woman on crutches who stands on the bridge I cross to work every morning or the young mother who sits by the side of the road with her tiny baby lying in her lap. I give to someone every day and I make eye contact and I smile and they smile back and I feel good.
5. Get creative. This is not about being creative. You don’t have to be artistic or musically gifted or a fantastic writer. Just bring a bit of creativity into your everyday life. Take a different route to work. Bring your camera out with you and see what interesting things you can find to photograph. Buy a notebook and write down how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking. Put on your iPod and listen to music you’ve never heard before. Try new things and look at your daily life from a new perspective.
6. Build a community. This could be a virtual community online where you swap stories and ideas or a real-life community in the city, where you meet up for coffee and get to know new people, locals and ex-pats. Both of these provide companionship and entertainment and could lead to a whole new set of experiences.
7. Appreciate the good stuff. Yes, there are downsides to every environment but if you look hard enough (and sometimes you have to look really hard), you will find positives too. I love the fact that when I’m in Jakarta I never have to wear a jacket. I love the warm breeze on my face when I’m on the back on an ‘ojek’ (motorbike taxi). I love how friendly the people are and how cheap the food is. I love that it’s only an hour and a half flight to Bali. I love how every time I see someone begging I’m reminded of how bloody lucky I am to have the life I have. And I love how the staff in Starbucks always greet me by name.