Surabaya is Indonesia’s second most populous city, and is home to several English language schools. Described by Lonely Planet as “a hot and dusty, crowded city with precious little to see”, a description with which I would concur, you may wonder why I have spent almost two years here. Despite the downsides, this is a place where one can experience a real Indonesian city largely untouched by tourism. As a result, the locals see you more as a source of fascination and entertainment than as a cash cow. Travel to Bali or Yogyakarta, and you will be plagued by people harassing you to use their taxi, or buy their products. Often they will walk right up and interrupt you while you are talking to a friend, demanding to know where you are going and waiting impatiently for an answer. It can be very frustrating as one doesn’t want to be rude, yet offering even the most basic politeness in refusal will often lead to more harassment.
No such problem in Surabaya, where the local people have never had tourists to make a living from. They don’t rely on making as much as possible during high season to see them through the rest of the year. Instead when they see a foreigner, they just want to be as friendly as possible, and they are very easily amused. Some find this patronizing, but I find it quite endearing. It is not unusual to be “drive-by Hello Mistered” as I have termed it. You are walking along the street and hear “Hello” behind you followed by “Mister” in front of you as a motorbike whizzes past, its driver looking over his shoulder at you, evidently more concerned with addressing a foreigner than keeping an eye on the road.
Culturally a westerner can feel a little isolated here. If you are happy getting up early and being active, perhaps joining a 5 a side football team or going to the gym you may feel at home here. But for those of you looking for a variety of live music, art galleries and open green spaces; you may wish you had taken a job somewhere else. Surabaya does have its night-life, but it is important to remember that alcohol isn’t really part of the culture here. You might expect a city with a metropolitan area consisting of around 5 million people to have a dazzling array of late night attractions. Not so.
There are 4 or 5 nightclubs, oddly enough often found on the top floor of multi-story car parks in malls scattered in different parts of the city. Generally the play list in such places consists of twenty or thirty of the most overplayed commercial western pop songs, a fact that doesn’t sit well with me as someone with a background in performing all kinds of music. Drinking alcohol in these places, especially spirits and wine which suffer from astronomical import taxes, costs approximately double what it does in the UK. There are a handful of bars and coffee shops serving beer where you may see some alternative live music, but again they are few and far between.
Great Standard of Living
Alcohol aside, if you can get used to how spicy the local food is and are comfortable riding a motorbike, it is incredibly cheap to live here. The starting salary for an English teacher at my school is US $1100 a month, with free rent in a very large luxury house (with en-suite bathrooms, front and back gardens and a mango tree!) shared with other teachers, health insurance, and return flights. Even the bills are paid and maids are provided to do your laundry and dishes. All you have to pay for is the internet and for cleaning products for the maids. Considering a meal of Indonesian street food costs around $1, and a full tank of motorbike fuel around $1.50, you really can live well on less than a hundred dollars a week, with a couple of trips to posh Italian or Japanese restaurants, the cinema, gym membership and taxis.
This makes it very easy to save money, or to simply enjoy lots of holidays, or both. While living here I have managed to afford six holidays of a week or more, 5 weekends away and to record an album of my own songs, paying professional musicians to do as they are told, and I haven’t had to cut back on my standard of living. My school, K-elt, which I would highly recommend, is very generous in offering teachers 8 weeks paid holiday every year, plus around 6 or 7 national holidays which occasionally fall on a Friday or Monday allowing for a long weekend.
Amazing Holiday Destinations Close By
Where to spend all of this free time? Surabaya is located around a 1 hour flight west of Bali, where you can get very drunk with Australian tourists on beautiful beaches, or spend a romantic time together in more sedate and picturesque surroundings. Ten minutes longer will take you to Lombok with its famous Gili Islands, 3 specks of land just off the mainland coast, each around 2km in diameter, where the only ways of getting around are on foot, horse cart or bicycle as engines are banned. Guest-houses line the beaches with bars playing reggae music. Divers and snorkellers can see an abundance of turtles. Less than two hours will take you to Sulawesi which is famous for its dive locations, or to Kalimantan where you can enjoy a rainforest river cruise then drink rice wine with tribes deep in the heart of the Borneo jungle after coming face to face with Orangutans.
These wonderful animals can also be seen close up in the jungles of North Sumatra from the little resort town of Bukit Lawang, just west of the main transport hub of Medan, along with a huge array of monkeys, snakes and insects. A popular way to spend the day for tourists here is to start in the morning by trekking for 6 hours through the jungle to see the orang-utans, followed by returning to the town by means of rafting several kilometers down the river surrounded by the rainforest. Nearby is another popular spot for nature tourists, Tangkahan a stunningly beautiful place nestled atop a cliff surrounded by river and jungle, where visitors get to see elephants and monitor lizards close up.
Due to the large array of offers from the region’s airlines, plan your holiday carefully and you can reach any of these destinations for $50-70 for a return ticket. And for the weekends, those wanting to escape Surabaya’s dusty pollution can visit spectacular volcanic landscapes above the clouds, such as that of Mount Bromo, a 5 hour drive away, or Yogyakarta, Java’s art and cultural hub featuring the temples of Borobodur and Prambanan. With classes starting at 3pm every day, an extra night away before returning to Surabaya on Monday morning is easily viable.
Surabaya certainly isn’t for everyone, but find a job at the right school and you’ll find that the free time, earnings relative to the cost of living and the paradise which surrounds the city make this a worthwhile place to spend a year or more.
About the author: Davy Prendergast hails from the UK and is still out in Indonesia working as a TEFL teacher. You can keep up to date with his adventures by reading his regular blog: http://theopinionatedtraveller.blogspot.co.uk/