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The Dark Cracks of Kemang

“That old childhood saying ‘pick what you want from the tree of life’ simply not working anymore? Becoming a foreigner in Indonesia might be as good a stab at something new and rewarding, as anything…”

Armed with a teaching contract, some poems, and a guitar-playing buddy, Roberts discovers a potentially life-changing experience in 2013. And so the Bajaj Boys make themselves at home.

Indonesia is revealed as a challenging but welcoming land of ‘instant millionaires’, ‘beautiful rubbish’, abundant romance, powerful religion, and unnerving history.

Nasi goreng, alcohol, cigarettes, bajajs, motorbikes, a gentlemen’s club, poetry gigs, wild animals, and electrical storms weave together, as the dark cracks of Kemang open.

ISBN 9781922830050 (PB, 354pp);
152mm x 229mm
AUD $30 USD $24 CAD $28 NZD $33 GBP £18 EUR €20
ISBN 9781922830067 (eBook) AUD $15 USD $10 CAD $12 NZD $16 GBP £9 EUR €10


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A chronicle of interactions with expats and locals, interspersed with impressions of Indonesia, Roberts excels in short, sharp, observational verse. Ripe stuff indeed. You might find yourself simultaneously amused and repulsed. If you’ve ever wanted to be a fly on the wall at gatherings of expats, this is your chance.

– Kenneth Yeung, Indonesia Expat

In 2013, poet Jeremy Roberts did something few of us have the guts to do: he looked at his Auckland life, decided he’d supported his musician daughter on enough gigs, and dared himself to squeeze in some adventure in the third quarter of his life.

Age 53, Roberts agreed to spend a year teaching at NZ International School in Jakarta, a city of 10 million in a nation of 271 million. The move was pretty ballsy. In fact, The Dark Cracks of Kemang, published nearly ten years after his adventure began, is entirely a meditation about finding the beautiful exhilaration of daring oneself to live more adventurously. Why’d he do it, and why’d he write the memoir? Because Roberts is obsessed with rock ‘n roll. It’s his religion.

Roberts is today settled in Napier, running Napier Live Poets, various page projects, and regularly interviewing poets on Radio Hawke’s Bay. To stand up in the literary landscape, though, required a Hero’s Journey. Roberts found that to get the guts and the experience to become a poetry leader instead of a poetry follower required going all the way to a strange country, thrusting himself upon unfamiliar stages in an unfamiliar culture for countless gigs, and trusting a colourful Manchester socialist to be his on-stage companion, playing guitar while Roberts waxed poetry.

The name of the poetry duo Roberts created in Jakarta was The Bajaj Boys – named for the three wheeled tuk tuk taxis which thousands of expatriate international teachers like Roberts relied upon to get around a city so humid that Roberts’ leather jacket turned mouldy in the cupboard.

In the spirit of wild writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith and Sam Hunt – all of whom get discussed in the book (remember, rock is Roberts’ religion), The Dark Cracks of Kemang flits between English and Bahasa Indonesia and back again.

Just a couple of pages in, we get a description of the bum-washing hand-held bidet device known as ‘semprotan air’; then again, the book covers Indonesian food, language, clothing, customs, corruption, religion, attitudes – as well as taking an objective look at the attitudes of Roberts’ peer Western teachers, for better and worse (one teacher mourns the vibrators which Customs confiscated at the airport).

Each page is wide-eyed with fascination at the colourful country of 17,000 islands. You’ll find yourself engrossed in a first person personal poem about Indonesian culture before the camera lens zooms out and discusses what life is like for an expatriate classroom teacher, before Roberts veers back to his student days at Auckland Uni, to discussions of tropical storms, monkeys, and a tonne of cultural discussion told without any pejorative Western condescension. It’s pure fascination – Roberts is as impressed or unimpressed with Jakarta as he is Auckland, Napier or California (where – at the same time as Roberts is finding his inner rockstar, his famous daughter Eden Iris is doing the same in Los Angeles).

Want a book which takes you on a three-wheel motorised rikshaw tour through a huge segment of the world’s population whom Kiwis hardly ever interact with? And would you like your book to discuss Ozzy, The Stooges, the Smiths, sweaty palms, c-dizzle, sex, death, and explain the Bahasa Indonesian word for ‘boring’ all on page 138?

Read The Dark Cracks of Kemang and think about doing something exciting with your life, even if you’re 53 like Roberts. Write about it in steamy, sensual poetry. Record it and publish it on Soundcloud and YouTube – just like Jeremy Roberts has done.

Michael Botur, Award-winning New Zealand author

This collection of saucy tales and its contributing cast of misfits pulls back the curtain on the expat dream. A fascinating odyssey that titillated both the adventurous and depraved parts of me. I loved every second of it.

– Darren Shrek, JGC Hall of Fame

Jeremy Roberts

Jeremy Roberts is a resident of Napier-Ahuriri in New Zealand-Aotearoa, where he lives with his wife Asiah and daughter Alia. He MC’s at Napier Live Poets, is poetry editor and performance reviewer for the VINES journal, and interviews poets on Radio Kidnappers. He has performed and recorded poems with musicians in NZ, and overseas in Los Angeles, Austin, Saigon, and Jakarta. He posts videos on YouTube and audio recordings on SoundCloud. Jeremy’s work has been published in a wide range of journals in New Zealand and overseas. His first poetry collection was Idiot Dawn, comprising poems written in the 1980s. Cards on the Table (IP, 2015) was reviewed by NZ Poet Laureate C. K. Stead, who said – “I enjoy it all and find a lot to admire.” He won the Earl of Seacliffe poetry prize in 2019. https://www.read-nz.org/writer/roberts-jeremy/



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Check out Jeremy's first book with IP, Cards on the Table





Sometimes, you just have to laugh, given the choices – e.g., step on the rat shit or step on the bat shit. Shall I give my heart to this angel or wait for the next one? You find yourself speaking aloud – to the city. A city straining; a city of affluence and power, and every step below on a sliding scale of remarkable contrasts.

Many times, you are blown away by the humble kindness of the local people in your orbit.

Sometimes, you grit your teeth as you take off your shoes and socks, roll up your trousers and wade into the flood water. Hoping something isn’t going to bite your leg as you head for the stairs that lead to your comfortable apartment. Sometimes you wake in the morning, perhaps after an evening of sensory exploration in a room of beautiful marble tiles and immaculate white walls – utterly thrilled that you came – knowing that what you’re experiencing was never previously possible, and that the life you led before was indeed missing something.

Jakarta? Originally named Jaya Karta in 1527 before being taken over by Dutch colonists, who renamed it Batavia. Today, an enormous, heaving mass of humanity. Hojillions. Ten, 20, possibly 30 million souls – and rising. Bodies that got rid of the colonists. (Goodbye to the ‘Dutch East Indies’.) Wrapped in warm, steamy air – scented by spices and combustion smoke – and known to quickly turn into the loudest, most violent electrical thunderstorms you’ll ever experience. A King Kong vs. Godzilla vibe.

Jakarta is located at the western end of Java – the most populous island in the Indonesian archipelago – which famously contains 15,000 islands and now has a population of over 275 million. Part of a country with a geo-political history that would make most Western folk whinge and whine forever about how mean the world can be – e.g., the Communist massacre of 1965 which left as many as one million dead; the tsunami of 2004 which killed nearly 130,000 people in Aceh province. “Who’d be such a fool to trust the universe?” the ancient prophet said.

Indonesia has a socio-economic spectrum of enormous range: from extreme wealth to extreme poverty, not aided by the recent corrupt regime of Soeharto, who ruled like a sultan for 32 years while overseeing a far-reaching web of notorious cronyism.

After centuries of Dutch colonisation, Indonesians endured often brutal occupation by Japan during WW2. The Dutch then attempted a comeback, resulting in a war of independence that lasted over four years. New Zealand’s history seems like a far simpler story by comparison. Less bloody. More resolved? In Aotearoa, Māori might point to ingrained racism. What happens when a country gets rid of the colonists? Indonesia had famously captured the imagination of Europeans during the colonial centuries, with tales of strange and exotic plants and animals, alternative religions, and physical delights far beyond the palette of ordinary Western experience. For the average 21st century Westerner, that is probably still true. Many come to Indonesia for an extended stay – usually for work, but it might well be food, sex, and dabbling in the spiritual or mystical that will be remembered. And, as ‘The Bajaj Boys’ – me, a lover and creator of poems, and Derek Fraser, guitar player – will discover, those vibes are still in the air.

The initial pull for both of us to come here is the securing of teaching jobs at an international school – the Kiwi School. Single for the last three years, I’ve taken a leap into the unknown, even selling my home as a committed gesture to get outta Dodge.

“Why the hell would you spend decade after decade of your life in the same monocultural suburb when there’s a big, exciting world out there?” I blurted out one day to a group of teaching colleagues, sounding about 18. Yes, I’d done ‘the big OE’ (overseas experience) in my youth, and travelled a bit through the years, but I was fed up.

Aside from the joy of watching my daughter write and record songs, the fun of being a roadie-dad as she played gigs around the city, and hanging out with some poets, my life felt a little off. Close but no cigar, as they say. Especially after a string of lousy coffee-dates during the last couple of years. I was over Dorkland. Over, under, sideways – as the old Yardbirds song goes. It was time to change the backdrop, as Keith Richards once said about a trip to Marrakesh.

The teachers were surprised to hear that I was heading off to a place that only vaguely registered in their consciousness. To them, it sounded like the wop-wops – a place of long-drops and riots in the streets. It was definitely time to naff off. My ticket to Jakarta via Singapore was soon in my hand. It’ll be okay, I told myself. Take a chance.

Leaving Soekarno-Hatta Airport Terminal 2 on January 8, 2013, Derek, and I, along with two other teachers flying in tonight, are innocent foreigners ready to be shaped and moulded into standard expat models. Or so we initially think.

Arriving one by one on various flights, we are met by Principal Maree who welcomes us all, asking, “Are you looking forward to teaching in Jakarta?”

“Yes, absolutely!” is the collective, nervous reply – amid the noise of jet engines, honking horns, and loud, hustling voices going about airport business. Voices speaking words that none of us comprehend. A learning curve has announced itself. A school in Indonesia! Jakarta greenhorns!

Outside the terminal, a heavy blanket of warm air immediately wraps around us as we roll crammed suitcases towards a school van. An hour later, somewhere in the city, we gratefully fall asleep in strange beds.

We have a lot to learn, plenty to focus on with our new jobs. Why then, not long after meeting one balmy night in Indonesia, do Derek and I bother forming a guitar and poetry combo in a place where there is no ready-made scene? That very question is asked, by an expat of course, because the cosy, expat ‘bubble’ beckons to all. We can choose to stay ensconced in our guarded compound after work – relaxing, planning luxurious holidays, or just hang with workmates at Western-style pubs – the normal M.O.

But Derek and I soon look at each other as if to say, “What else?”

I started scribbling verse way back in ’80. Having suffered from reverse writer’s-block for the last few years, I have been dedicating Tuesdays to the Thirsty Dog pub on Karangahape Rd, Auckland – trying to pull a Ferlinghetti, shoot a few ‘albatrosses’. I’ve also been MC-ing, jamming with musicians, and spilling ink everywhere. And quite happy to leave my loneliness unbroken.

As I will come to learn, guitarist Derek (from Manchester-Middleton in the UK) is something of an oddity among the expat community. He’s a man with leftist politics and an eye for social and political inequalities.

So… if we’re all ‘going troppo’, pal – maybe there’s an opportunity here in the big J’. That ‘stranger in a strange land’ thing. Might as well get the notebook out of the back pocket. Who knows what might end up in there?

The suburb we will work and live in is called Kemang, named after a species of mango. Originally a kampung with Javanese mosques, it has been a gentrified, commercial area stuffed with expats for 30-odd years. Several highly active mosques are still present, though. Kemang’s leafy, green setting is appealing, but this – as we will come to learn – is offset by the fact that it floods quite frequently during musim hujan due to its location between two rivers.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world and I’m yet to find out what this will mean.

As we will discover, we love being on leave from our own cultures and can’t wait to ‘take a butcher’s’ beyond the recommended, conservative ‘safety-zone’. Most expats are buzzing with the excitement of being freed from the ‘curse’ of an average wage in a Western economy. Now, if you’re a teacher, it’s an average wage in a cheap Southeast Asian economy. But if you are ‘cursed’ by running a constant creative fever, you must find a way to scratch that itch!

So, we decide to offer The Bajaj Boys, unavoidably to a largely expat community complemented with full maid service. Will any of the expat teachers wash their own undies? Probably not.

However, before our little venture can begin – or in fact, be conceived – we must partake in a crash-course of ‘Jakarta induction’, along with all the other innocents. Some of it will be organised for us and some of it will be spontaneous and unexpected. One thing will become certain – Jakarta cannot be avoided.