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    Six Months In: Thoughts and Reflections on Living as an Ex-Pat in Indonesia


    When I came to Indonesia in the middle of January 2010, I came with a few preconceived notions:

    1. It was going to be hot;

    2. The food was going to be great; and

    3. The country had the largest Muslim population in the world.

    The first is a given, the second is largely subjective, and the third is a demographic fact. Other than that, I tried to keep my mind clear of expectations, hoping that doing so would help to mitigate whatever culture shock came my way. It was partly that attitude and partly the fact that I desperately needed a change in my life that resulted in my not feeling much culture shock at all. I settled in quickly and happily, reveling in my new job and in all my new experiences.

    After about three months, the shiny, new-car smell wore off a bit and it started to feel instead like this is where I live now. It was still fantastic and I was still really, really happy. I've had many opportunities to travel around West Java, one opportunity to travel to Sumatra, and one opportunity to take an amazing trip to Cambodia.

    Since half of my contract is now over, I think it's time to share some of my discoveries.


    Lack of planning: I am, by nature, a planner. I might even border on obsessive-compulsive behavior when it comes to planning. Here in Indonesia, it is almost impossible to plan too far ahead. Things change too quickly here. I can reserve an airplane ticket, but if I reserve a hotel room, it might be given away before I get to it. And it's always more expensive to book hotel rooms in advance anyway. In addition, things on the ground in a city are always different than I've been advised, by friends or even by the generally-accurate Lonely Planet. Once I arrive in a new place, I am almost always immediately approached by someone who can provide transportation, lodging, and information. So, I'm learning to live a little bit more spontaneously and plan a little bit less.

    The people: In general, Indonesians are warm and friendly. Lots of people stare. Even in a giant city like Jakarta, foreigners are not so common, especially if you live, like I do, outside of the main ex-pat enclaves. When I lived in Korea and people stared, it felt overwhelmingly hostile. Here, it feels hostile for a split second, until I smile and say good morning in Indonesian and the face of the person staring breaks into a toothy grin. Then it feels anything but.

    The diversity: Indonesia is a big country and Jakarta is its largest urban area. It is a country that purports to be, and mostly is, proud of it's ethic and religious diversity. If you ask someone where they are from, even if they've lived their entire life in Jakarta, they will tell you they are from the place that their parents or grandparents are from. There is a strong identity among ethnic and tribal lines, even where those lines are maintained only through cultural ceremonies because their economic and social importance has faded with modernization. The population of the country is mostly Muslim, but there are plenty of Christian and Catholic churches and Hindu and Buddhist temples. Judaism is pretty much non-existent and there are some conflicts between the religions as well. In the north of Sumatra, there is Shaira law. In parts of Java, there are some Muslims who want Sharia as well. But for the most part, personal choice, or at least family choice, is respected. In my classes, I have girls who cover and girls who don't and it doesn't seem to make one bit of difference in their social interactions with other students. I think one of the guys who cleans my house is a Buddhist because once when I was freaking out about a cockroach, he scooped it up, took it outside, and let it go.

    Natural beauty: Indonesia is a breathtaking country. I have seen some of the most beautiful beaches I could have imagined, just a couple hours off the coast of Jakarta. These islands are considered acceptable if you are limited to a weekend away, but they are hardly a blip on the list of beautiful beaches. I am looking forward to trips to Sulawesi and Bali in September and Lombok in December. If the beaches I've seen are "meh", I am prepared to be blown away.

    I've seen volcanoes. I've hiked half way up one dormant volcano through a rain forest and hiked across a long, flat plain to an active volcano that was belching sulphurous smoke. I've seen them from a distance and up close, solo and in packs, with domed tops and with cratered tops. Indonesia is rich with volcanoes and it is an education in the majesty of geology!

    I've trekked in the jungle to see orangutans in the wild. This was one of the best experiences of my life. The jungle is hot and sticky and a little bit scary in its wild unpredictability. But seeing a mother and baby orangutans, swinging through branches not very far above my head was simply awesome.

    I've also seen mountain views, river views, tea plantations terraced on hillsides and rice paddies stretching across vast flatlands. If you're into natural delights, Indonesia has pretty much everything except snow. My students say that they really want to experience snow. I tell them to open their freezers and stick their heads in. Same thing, really.

    The energy of Jakarta: Jakarta is a gigantic ball of urban energy, possibly on the cusp of becoming a world class city. It has some issues to solve before it gets there, but there are very few things I can't find or do here. Bars and nightclubs are open to all hours, restaurants offer the whole range of international cuisine, and the malls in Jakarta rival any malls I've seen in the States. There are museums, a zoo, an amusement park, a water park, and lots of neighborhoods with their own flavor that are fun to explore. I've lived in only three truly big cities in my life. I'm pretty sure Chicago will always be my number one. Jakarta, for me, beats out Los Angeles for number two.


    Lack of planning: I know I said it was good for me, but in general I think it's not good for Indonesia. The people here seem to live from one moment to the next and it causes some small frustrations as well as some larger problems. One small frustration is learning how to dole out information in little bites. For example, in a taxi, you simply cannot give the driver more than one task at a time. If you tell him, first we're going to this apartment building to pick up someone and then we are going to central Jakarta, he will only hear the last part and head for central Jakarta. Or, he will become confused and stressed out. This principle is applied at work too. If I ask for too many things at once, I don't get anything because the women working in administration get confused. At first I wondered if there was a language barrier but then I noticed the same phenomenon between Indonesians as well. It leads to larger problems when it comes to urban planning. Traffic is a mess, pollution is out of control, and people litter, which makes me absolutely crazy. But looked at through the planning-deficiency lens, it makes some sense. First of all, if I have trash in my hand, I want to get rid of it. I want to get rid of it right now and I can't think two steps ahead to decide where I might see a trash can. So, I drop it. Problem solved. When I say "I", I certainly don't me me. I stuff it in my bag and wait until I find a trash can, which sometimes means carrying garbage around all day. I also have to fight the urge to pick up litter and run after the perpetrator to say, "Hey, you dropped this."

    Lack of planning also makes Jakarta stinky. There is no central sewage system so mostly it gets washed out of houses and into the canals that run throughout the city. I can't look directly at them without retching and on particularly hot days, the stench is enough to make you lose your appetite for several hours. I've heard that the city intends to build a sewage system, but even if the construction starts on time, it won't be operational for fifteen years or so. That's a lot more poop in the water.

    Hawkers: I've got no problem with people hustling to make a living. Taxi drivers, tour guides, restauranteurs, and other vendors are a constant presence in tourist areas and I've become accustomed to being accosted as soon as I step outside the airport, train, or bus station. But I find it irritating that a polite, "No thank you" has zero effect. They will follow you for a long time before they give up, offering over and over and over and over whatever it is they want you to buy. This, for me, is one of the two cultural traits that I find difficult to deal with. I think it's a tenacity that comes from having to fight for everything in a country where people are abundant and goods are sometimes scarce. I try to remember that as a man walks next to me, sticking a pair of sunglasses or a bottle of water in my face as I'm trying to figure out on a map where I'm going. Even pulling out a map is a bad idea on most streets because it means that a gaggle of men will appear out of nowhere, asking where I am going and offering to take me there. I thought that once I could speak some Indonesian, I'd be able to communicate better and they'd leave me alone. No such luck.

    Bule rules: Bule, pronounced "boo-lay," was originally the Indonesian word for tourist. It has come to mean foreigner in general and there are certain rules that apply to foreigners here. Prices for goods and services are inflated and often times, taxi drivers will go in circles to run up the meter, thinking you don't know any better. There is a plus side to bule rules as well because bule from Western countries are afforded many privileges that most Indonesians aren't. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating when I have to pay extra, in time and money, to a cab driver that pretended to get lost.

    Racism/Sexism/Homophobia: It exists everywhere on the planet and it irritates me everywhere on the planet. The difference between Indonesia and the US is that in Indonesia it's not illegal to discriminate based on anything and that leads to some crazy-assed laws and ideas. I do not like it and I do not like that I am powerless to do anything about it. Enough said.

    Impatience: the same instinct to fight for everything you get that exists among the hawkers also exists in the general population. There's a sort of strange dichotomy here: one one hand, the populace exhibits a laid-back acceptance of things they think they can't change but that if they put their minds to it, they could (like not littering); on the other hand, they can't wait five freaking seconds. Many times, I have been standing in line for a toilet, patiently waiting my turn, and a woman will walk into the bathroom and breeze right past me to stand right in front of a stall door. I have, on a couple of the most egregious occasions, asked women (in English) if I am invisible. I'm not sure if they understood the words, but they understood the point, and my place in line was restored. The problem is that most Indonesians would never be that assertive, so lines get jumped by the most aggressive and the behavior is acceptable because nobody is rude enough ('cept me!) to point it out.


    Naked guys walking down the street: Twice now, in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world, I've seen naked dudes. Nobody except me and my bule friends seems to be concerned.

    Guys peeing wherever: I know this is also a phenomenon that happens in many places, but at least in the US, guys find a dark alley or a tree in the woods or some place where they aren't intended to be seen. Here, a man will stop his car on the side of the street, walk to the bushes, in plain daylight and plain sight, and relieve himself. Gross.

    The drug lord's island: White, English-speaking foreigners sometimes have a sort of celebrity status which can lead to strange opportunities. People are curious and want to talk to us, have us as guests, or be generally helpful to us. Once, I needed to catch a boat back to Jakarta from my favorite chain of islands. I was on the wrong island and there was no boat to take me and my friends back to the main island so we could catch the once-a-day ferry. We were talking amongst ourselves about what we should do. Some wealthy guys with jet skis and a yacht happened to overhear (or eavesdrop). They offered us a ride back to Jakarta on their yacht, which we happily accepted. But first, they took us to their friend's private island where we had an amazing lunch. All the guys were great and fun to talk to. But seriously, who can afford a private island? Shady, shady business.

    So, six months in and I am still enjoying Indonesia. There are things I do not care for but I generally shrug them off rather than becoming overly upset or angry, because there are both positive and negative aspects of every city. I try to understand the things that stem from cultural difference (like line-jumping) and to accept the things that don't (like rank and stinky canals). I'm fairly certain, at this point, that I will be spending at least another year and a half in Indonesia, so that I can continue to learn the language and to explore this crazy and wonderful country.




    Thanks for the update, O. It gives those of us too timid to do what you did an opportunity to live vicariously through you. Although I knew a little about Indonesia (e.g., that it has a large population and is majority Muslim), I confess that I didn't even know it had its own language.

    As to the language, it's really a dialect of the Malaysian language, which is generally referred to as "Bahasa" even though that is just the word for language. I'm not sure whether the language was spoken on the mainland or in the islands first. I'm sure each side would claim it for their own. There is a certain amount of good-natured animosity between the populations of the two countries.

    The best part of Bahasa Indonesia (as opposed to Bahasa Ingriss--or English) is that there are no verb tenses, which means no long hours spent memorizing and practicing conjugation. I go today, I go now, I go yesterday, I will go, I already go, I not yet go. That and the fact that it's a Romanized alphabet makes it pretty straightforward to learn.

    As for timidity, I think it's more about complicated lives. How many times in a life does one have the opportunity to just pick up and leave. Once, maybe twice, if you're extremely lucky. For me, luck is a much bigger part of the equation than bravery, I assure you!

    Thanks for this - I worked in Bandung (with plenty of trips to Jakarta) for about 6 months leading up to the KrisMon in 1997. It was a crazy, wonderful time. It was nice to take a trip back to the days of the buleh tax, open sewers, and the friendliest people I've ever met, along with great food and some of the worst desserts I've ever seen.

    I'm glad you like Jakarta - I always described it as the place I would use to film the sequel to Blade Runner; some kind of steamy, post-apocalyptic urban hell-zone. But it's a tough place to visit when you are used to the mountains in Bandung.

    I was going to say that I didn't think people were impatient; I just don't think the concept of queueing is really particularly well-grounded in Indonesia or many other parts of the world, so you just kind of fight for a spot, with no disrespect intended. That said, I also remember how you could never get in an elevator without someone pressing the button for their floor approximately one million times.

    I haven't gotten to Bandung yet, but I've been to Bogor, Bromo (the photo above), and into the mountains near Pelabuhan Ratu. It's amazing to me how much difference a few degrees make. I even get chilly in Jakarta when it drops below 85!

    I love your idea for a Blade Runner sequel. I think there are definitely some areas that would be perfect! Maybe impatience isn't the best description, but they are, as a culture, definitely ready to fight (metaphorically) for place. Traffic is another example. If drivers, especially on motorcycles, had a tiny bit more patience, maybe traffic would flow a little more, instead of becoming a five-lane-out-of-three, lane-crossing free-for-all.

    Then again, maybe it would just come to an utter standstill. I'm just thankful I don't have to drive.

    Orlando, I always enjoy your journals and you have a particular way of including the reader that many writers do not; I felt like I was right therenwith you -- orangutans, stinky canals, and the unexpected island adventure. I couldn't quite picture the naked dudes walking down the street...maybe next time (could you perhaps be a little more descriptive on this?) Thank you so much for this. I wish I had written more when I was traveling the world. Most of my writing was in letters I hand-wrote to friends and family. One good friend saved my letters and gave them to me for Christmas after a 2 - year stint. It was the best gift I can remember. Please keep sharing your thoughts and observations! So many people just can't forgive other places for not being "the same." Your ability to just take it all in will insure that you make the most of this opportunity. I may have missed something you posted earlier --are you teaching?

    Hi CVille! Glad to see you at Dag. Yes, I am teaching in Jakarta and I love it--the job and the place. I especially love September, because I am travelling a lot and working not very much at all! Thanks for the kind words. I will definitely keep writing about my Indonesian experiences when my holidays are over.

    For now though, here's a new tidbit. I spent last night at a hotel in Manado after a day hiking through a rain forest to see tarsirs (amazing!). I was the first one up this morning, so I went down to breakfast early. At breakfast, I met a man from Kelimantan (the Indonesian side of Borneo). For a while, he just sat at his table and stared at me while I tried to ignore how uncomfortable it made me. Eventually, he started talking to me. It was only 9 am, but he was already drunk. He asked me for my room number, which I declined to give him. I was polite, but I left as soon as possible. I got back to my room and then left again to get a drink of water. He was outside my door. Ick.

    After getting some water and agreeing to pose for a picture, he tried to kiss me. Seriously gross. Then, he flashed a thick wad of bills and offered to pay me if I slept with him. First time that's ever happened!

    In all seriousness, it was a little bit disconcerting. When I opened the door to my room to go back in, he tried to force himself in. I would never have opened the door if my friend wasn't already inside, but she was and she scared the crap out of him with a serious mom voice: "You CANNOT come in here, mister."

    Just another experience to add to the list. 

    Yikes. Glad you're alright, O.

    Yeah, me too. But I never felt in danger because I knew my friend could hear the whole thing and would have come to my assistance if necessary. He was just an old drunk and, although it's the first time I've ever been offered money, it's not the first time I've had to fend off advances.

    Also, did I mention tarsirs? So cute! And so tiny.

    Orlando -- I have every confidence in you....but just in case you should find yourself in that sort of situation again -- without a friend as back up -- please remember the sensible advice offered in self-defense classes: "PEKN" -- which does not refer to peeking, or looking at anything, but rather is a reminder to "Poke Eyes/Knee Nuts." I hope this is helpful.

    And, yes, the Tarsirs are adorable. 

    That is seriously frightening. Glad you are not traveling solo, and that your friend scared him off. Those little tarsirs seem to be worth the fright though since everything was ok in the end. Keep up the good work and I look forward to all you write.

    Thank you for sharing good articles, posts and more are waiting.I will read another time.

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