Moving to Jakarta – A one month diary of a newly arrived Expat

family photo
Bec with her husband and their young family (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

Introduction by Jo:
Just over four years ago my family and I moved to Jakarta. Upon learning that this mega city was to become our new home and knowing little about Jakarta, I headed straight for the computer and began my search. Typing in, ‘Expat life in Jakarta’ I came across a couple of colourful and optimistic sites but significantly more which were less inspiring.. ok.. try different key words.. ‘Living in Jakarta’.. aha! more information but hold on, this was grim – ‘traffic’ and ‘pollution’ seemed to be the common themes. Then I sprung on a cute fruity reference, “Jakarta is known as *The Big Durian”, it said. I like fruit – this could be good. Reading on I discovered that the smell of this mysterious fruit can be compared to “rotten onions, turpentine and raw sewage”.

Not to be peturbed I continued my search, finally stumbling across a few sites that contained some useful information but none that reflected the personal experience of someone moving to Jakarta. Fast track 4 years and I’m just glad that we came to Jakarta irrespective of what I read all those years ago. We can truly say that we love living in The Big Durian! – But without a doubt a practical (and encouraging) blog post written from the perspective of a new Jakarta Expat would have been invaluable.. And that leads us to today’s post!

Over the Christmas vacation Rebecca Elworthy and her three children moved into our neighbourhood in South Jakarta. Bec’s husband had arrived on a work project prior to the family, and in Bec’s words, ‘to sort a house (with photo approval) and the tedious list of set-up jobs – so that we could hit the ground running on arrival’. So when we officially met Bec and her kids upon returning to The Big Durian on New Year’s Eve, we encountered a family so full of optimism and excitement about their new adventure that I knew immediately we had to share Bec’s first month in Jakarta on our blog, a Journey Bespoke.

Ps: * “The Durian” is in fact a term of endearment. Although Jakarta can sometimes be a little on the nose (like a durian), and a little difficult to negotiate (the durian’s prickly skin), in fact for many, once you get beyond this, you encounter a unique and memorable experience.

*Kenalkan: Rebecca Elworthy

Pasar Mayestik
Bec exploring the surrounding shops of Pasar Mayestik

: Hi Bec! Can you please tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a New Zealander born and bred, but have been living in Sydney for the past 20 years so consider both places to be home. I have recently moved to Jakarta with my husband and 3 children while my husband is based here for work.

I kicked off my career with a decade in marketing. With small children at home I then took the opportunity to study again, embarking on a new design qualification. I began my own business which gave me the flexibility to work from home and better manage my workload (in theory). I most enjoyed designing café and restaurant spaces, and family homes. Most of my work involved renovations of various scale.

design studio
Bec designing textiles in her Sydney warehouse (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

I also embarked on a series of importing projects – sourcing art from Africa and textiles from India which I wholesaled and retailed around Australia. I loved seeking out beautiful handmade pieces and supporting their makers.

Ali Lamu
The Ali Lamu work room in Kenya where fishermen transformed their old fishing boat sails into canvases upon which they painted and wrote poetry, creating beautiful works of art (image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)
Indian fabric trader
In her career prior to arriving in Jakarta, Bec sourced textiles and carpets from India (image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

My husband and I have always loved to travel and were keen to give our family an overseas living experience so we threw our hat into the work transfer ring last Christmas and unexpectedly landed on Jakarta.


Before we accepted the position I insisted on visiting Jakarta for a good week so that we could come and get a feel for the place. I visited schools, neighbourhoods and wandered random streets just soaking it all up. I also visited local markets including Pasar Mayestik – after which I was sold.

Pasar Mayestik
Pasar Mayestik is known as the best quality textile market in Jakarta
Rambutan at pasar mayestik
Pasar Mayestik isn’t only about the fabric. It’s also where you can buy fresh fruit and vegetables, as Bec discovered

Once confirmed, the first step was to decide on a school and then look for a home between school and work that was on the bus route. I also tapped into as many contacts as I could. Friends of friends who had lived in Jakarta or still lived in Jakarta who could give me a warts-and-all recount of life here. I was offered sage advice and words of caution, but I was heartened by their love for the place too.

Kota Tua
Bec’s three children enjoying a day at Kota Tua, Jakarta’s Old Town (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

We have 3 primary aged children and we made the decision not to bring them to Jakarta prior to moving here. My husband and I committed to the move, we sold it to them as an amazing adventure and arrived with them keen to come on board. So far that seems to have paid off.

We also decided to ship all our belongings and prioritised having their arrival coincide with ours. This meant we needed to pack up and move into short-term accommodation for 6 weeks before we left Sydney (versus staying in short term accommodation on arrival). The benefits in doing this were three-fold:
First, it helped soften the blow of leaving in that we separated ourselves from our home before having to separate from friends and family.
Second, with the packing out of the way it freed us up to allocate quality time to our goodbyes before we left.
Third, it allowed us to move straight into a new home on arrival which had everyone feel instantly grounded and got us off to a solid start.

swimming pool in the tropics
Cooling off in the lush tropical backyard (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

It didn’t feel helpful at the time, but in hindsight it was a blessing that my husband moved to Jakarta a few months ahead of us. This enabled him to sort a house (with photo approval) and the tedious list of set-up jobs: – security, internet, bank account etc – so that we could hit the ground running on arrival.

Rebecca’s first month in Jakarta – A week by week summary

Week 1

Summary: This week was largely spent unpacking our container and setting up house. We explored a new nook of the neighbourhood each day and did a few day trips – to the historic areas of Sunda Kelapa and Kota Tua, nearby shopping malls and cafes.

sunda kelapa
A grand phinisi boat at Jakarta’s Old Port, Sunda Kelapa
street theatre kota tua
Joining in with some street theatre at Kota Tua (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

Highlights: Our delivery men picking coconuts off our tree for the kids to drink. The kids realising they could safely ride their bikes in our street. Friendly locals and helpful new staff. Loving the new house with its welcome pool and tropical garden.

harvesting fresh coconuts in backyard jakarta
The simple pleasure of harvesting coconuts in your backyard (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)
bike riding in suburban jakarta
Who says traffic is a problem? Cycling in the neighbourhood (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

Challenges: It was a surprisingly positive week. I think everyone else was happy, but I admit to being a little homesick toward the end of the week as it was Christmas and I was missing my family and our usual end of year traditions.

Week 2

Summary: Settling in. The house is coming together and is starting to feel like home. We are enjoying learning the language and communicating in Bahasa whenever we get the opportunity. It’s rewarding to have (very) basic conversations and to be (semi) understood! The kids are missing their friends but are more upbeat than anticipated. More day trips – the zoo, the aquarium, Bogor. A spot of furniture shopping along Jl. Kemang Timur. Pinching myself that our lovely new Pembantu is actually here to stay.

Bec and Ibu Wati
Bec with her *pembantu Ibu Wati. Ibu Wati came recommended to Bec by a friend who was departing Jakarta (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

Highlights: Walking and lunching in Bogor. Plant shopping in Ragunan (streets of tropical plants at bargain prices). A wonderful massage! (I have been dreaming of this moment for the past 6 months). Meeting our lovely neighbours and enjoying New Year celebrations with fellow expats – Jakarta style (read plentiful food and fireworks).

Friends in Bogor
You’re never short of friends in Jakarta (or Bogor, in this case!) (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)
sparkler in garden
The New Year looks bright already (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

Failing to understand any of the numerous mail & text messages received. Making internet payments (credit card transactions somehow much more complicated). Getting used to the noise at night. Barking dogs on every corner and the frequent call to prayer present challenges for light sleepers. I fear I will never be able to sleep past 5.30am again!

Week 3

Summary: Husband begins back at work. Kids have announced that ‘it’s really starting to feel like home’. Our house staff are now in a comfortable rhythm and seem to have the day-to-day workings under control. More free time to explore, catch up on correspondence and even read the occasional chapter of a good book.

Highlights: Getting to know the people around us. Some in a similar situation (here temporarily – however long that may be) and others part of the ongoing landscape. And I have experienced my first ‘*cream bath’. A famous Jakarta ritual I would never have the time or money for at home – but which I intend to adopt and share with visiting friends and family. Life is extreme here but between the crazy rushing around and the many therapeutic rituals at hand, things somehow feel better balanced.

Challenges: Being able to ask the price of something but not being able to understand how many hundreds of thousands it costs. Not being able to find the ingredients I need for the meals I usually cook. Some things just don’t taste the same, other things I can’t make at all. Supply of certain grocery items seems to be highly sporadic. I wish we could all stomach the local soto ayam from the cart! Am wishing my children were older and more adventurous in the culinary department as there are so many great local ingredients I’d love to try instead. In time…

Kemang dalam
Some of the colourful sights in Bec’s new neighbourhood. According to Bec, ‘Being able to ask the price of something but not being able to understand how many hundreds of thousands it costs is a current challenge’ (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)
kemang dalam, south jakarta
A little warung and street food vendors in Bec’s new neighbourhood (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

Week 4

Summary: Kids start at their new school. Husband’s work is firing. The new routine is taking place and Bahasa Indonesia lessons have started.

Pak Deo Wisma Bahasa
Bec with her Bahasa Indonesia teacher, Pak Deo of Wisma Bahasa (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

Highlights: All 3 children seem happy and excited about the prospects of their new school life. The friendscape is different to what they know (my boys are desperately seeking out beach-going rugby-playing buddies but to no avail). Their new friends from Indonesia, Korea, Columbia and Italy invite them to play different (non-contact) games but ones they are beginning to enjoy. We have booked our first Indonesian holiday for later in the semester. Somewhere fascinating and exotic – all within an hour’s flight. And I have made my first street cart purchases. Fresh mangoes, pineapple and eggs all at our front gate and handed over with a beaming smile. Happiness is…

tukang sayur
Bec, along with other ladies in our neighbourhood making their purchases from our local ‘green grocer on wheels’. Ibu Nur has run her business for over 30 years (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

Challenges: Early starts. Tired kids. Me too – the constant heat and humidity make me unusually lethargic ? Greater expectations around school involvement. I’ve never had to be so tech-savvy in my life! At this stage we just have one driver between us – so not being able to jump in the car and zip somewhere on a whim is forcing unwelcome levels of organization and restraint.

AJB: At the end of your first month in Jakarta how do you feel? What have been you biggest stresses? Your biggest surprises? How do you feel about moving forward? What are you excited about?

I came to Jakarta with an open heart and low expectations regarding how our life might begin here. I was prepared for homesick kids, sore tummies, unbearable pollution and compromised safety. What I have encountered so far is excitement and joy within my family at the daily delights this city has served up. Touch wood, we have also stayed healthy and relatively dry. And we have experienced nothing but smiling faces and warm welcomes from the locals. The traffic will always be a factor here, though this is more an issue for my husband than for me. And while the air quality can be poor, we feel we can escape the smog (we may be delusional) in our very green oasis at home. My son who has always suffered from hayfever has been sneeze-free since we arrived too – which is a huge bonus. I know we’ll have plenty of ‘Jakarta days’ but in the meantime we’re savouring this exciting new chapter.

family at sundae kelapa
Bec with her eldest son at Sunda Kelapa, Jakarta (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

AJB: Based on this past month, and the lead up to your relocation to Jakarka, what advice would you give to anyone preparing to move to Jakarta?

  • Visit Jakarta before you move here so you understand what you’re signing up for.
  • Sell it to your kids and always stay positive around them. They will take their lead from you.
  • It’s a huge bonus if you can inherit great staff from trusted families who are leaving Jakarta. We found our wonderful Pembantu this way (through a friend of a neighbour) and it has resulted in a happy and seamless transition.
  • Take one day at a time and keep expectations realistic.
  • I’m glad we brought our belongings with us as it feels more like home and we haven’t had to spend our first weeks scouring the streets for beds and sofas. I also highly recommend a good removalist company to help ease the burden – especially when it comes to swift clearance through customs (we used Allied Pickford who were great).
  • My final piece of advice is to begin learning the language in advance, or as best you can on arrival. The better you can communicate the more clarity you will have. At the very least, just the basic greetings and pleasantries will endear you to new staff and locals.
    New Year celebrations Jakarta
    Seeing in the New Year Jakarta-Style! (Image supplied by Rebecca Elworthy)

    Are you new to Jakarta? Are you on your way here? Or, do you know someone who is preparing to move to The Big Durian? Then hopefully today’s post has been helpful. For more useful posts relating to moving to Jakarta, why not check out the following:

    ajb’s Expat Guide on How to thrive in Jakarta
    Expat Parenting – Raising little children in Jakarta
    Useful Words and Phrases in Bahasa Indonesia

    *Kenalkan : Let me introduce..
    *Pembantu: Helper (usually refers to House keeper)
    *Cream bath: A treatment available at hair salons and day spas throughout Jakarta (and beyond). A cream bath involves having your hair washed then smothered with a moisturising treatment which is massaged into the scalp. Whilst the treatment is processing, the therapist massages the client’s neck, shoulders and arms. Afterwards the treatment is washed out and the client’s hair is blowdried. Take it from us, it’s absolutely divine!

    Rebecca Elworthy & Jo Stevens Photography: Rebecca Elworthy & a Journey Bespoke


  1. Clare Peacocke says

    What an awesome Diary Bec and Jo. So beautifully put together. I am looking forward to following this families progress. One awesome and talented family. Clare

    • ajourneybespoke says

      Hi Clare, great to hear from you 🙂 I’m pretty sure if there’s a family that can do ‘expat living well’, then it will be this lovely family. Best wishes, Jo.

  2. says

    Loved this post! My family and I are moving to Jakarta this September and it was nice to read about an expat family’s experience. 🙂

    • ajourneybespoke says

      Hi Hinna, we are so glad that you enjoyed Bec’s story. She certainly is an inspiring newly arrived Expat to Jakarta (she’s actually been here 8 months now and told me the other day that the time is flying!) We wish you all the very best with your move to Jakarta and perhaps our paths will cross. Jo & Liz.

  3. Russ NZ says

    Fantastic blog 🙂
    We’ve just started contemplating a similar move (from NZ) for a year or two.
    We have a slight advantage in potentially having a place to stay but the cost of international schools seems super expensive (20-25K NZD/year each child) and i would have to find employment as im not being relocated.

    I know its been almost a year since you wrote this article but did you find it difficult to find employment without speaking the language and did your children settle into schooling ok ?

    Thank you.

    • ajourneybespoke says

      Hi there! So glad you found our blog and that you like it! When we arrived in Jakarta we had little to no Indonesian but this wasn’t a great hindrance, especially as we are based in the city where almost everyone has at least some (if not a lot) of English at their disposal. Regardless, both Liz and I enrolled in Bahasa Indonesia lessons almost immediately and continue to learn the language until this day and we feel that this has certainly enhanced our experience living in this beautiful country. Best wishes 🙂

  4. Liz says

    Hey there. I am so happy to read this blog. My husband has just accepted a job in
    Jakarta we arrive in a couple of months. I am
    So happy to read all of this wonderful information

    • ajourneybespoke says

      Dear Liz, how exciting that you’re on your way to Jakarta! We hope your moves goes smoothly. We’re so glad you are finding our blog to be useful. Take care & best wishes, Jo & Liz

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