Thursday, August 06, 2009
  … la même chose.

Dear Jakartass

M. here, I thought I'd lay out my thoughts in response to your questions for your upcoming book (pub. October 2007). I hope you receive this as the appalling state of the internet here means I'm not at all certain anything will get through.

Anyway here goes, first of all the first "what the..?" moment. That's easy; it occurred within three hours of me arriving in Jakarta. It was Saturday March 29 2003. The night before I had been in Bali and the young lady who was with me expressed horror at the thought that I was going to Jakarta; she was convinced I'd be killed the moment I got there, it being such a dangerous town. I dismissed her fears but the next morning while waiting for my flight in Denpassar airport it was reported that a bomb had just gone off at Sukarno-Hatta airport - it was the GAM, they blew up MacDonalds - and my trepidation mounted. I arrived in a rainy Jakarta safely enough but was hardly cheered by the grimy streets around my hotel in Blok M, with the teeming crowds, as well as the dirt and pollution from countless noisy bikes and buses. All in all I rapidly came to the conclusion that this was one city to get out of as soon as possible.

On top of all that there was a massive demo in town that day, reports say over 100,000 people marched in opposition to the Iraq war which had started the previous week. I grew up in Northern Ireland so I knew the drill when confronted with large political rallies that can turn nasty at any moment; maintain a calm composure, observe the proceedings with an utterly dispassionate, neutral expression and slowly but steadily make your way home.

So it was that I found myself standing at the traffic island in front of the Ambhara Hotel when speeding down the street came a large open backed truck on the way to the demo. In the truck were a dozen or so young men, some with bandanas covering their faces and others wearing Palestinian style kafiyas (sp?) and waving triumphantly over their heads was a flag bearing the image of Osama bin Laden. As the truck approached the guy waving the flag spotted me and a big broad grin spread across his face and he called out the phrase that forever accompanies western men whereever they go in Indonesia; "Hallo meester!". The flag waver nudged his mates and soon all the wannabe jihadis were waving, giving me the thumbs up and shouting "Hallo meester!" as the truck lurched off into the traffic jam.

For me that incident summed up the dichotomy of Indonesia in a nutshell. A big, noisy, bustling country which to outsiders appears dangerous, malevolent and downright hostile but which in fact is populated by the nicest, most friendly, thoroughly easygoing, welcoming people anyone could have the good fortune to meet anywhere on the planet. From that day I was hooked.

How difficult is it for me to hang on to my culture? Not difficult at all, through the wonders of the internet and cable TV I am constantly in touch with news and views from back home and I can order whatever books I want online. My bookcase has half a shelf of travelogues and histories of Indonesia and the rest is full of western literature; novels, biographies and histories as well as political tracts. Reading is something that seems sadly not to be very big in Indonesia and the fact that I spend much of my free time with my nose stuck in a book bewilders my wife slightly. I remember picking books from my Dad's book collection as a boy and I hope my son does the same. I would love him to learn about the half of his ancestry that comes from outside Indonesia but perhaps I should resign myself to accepting that he's much more likely to end up being glued to the drivel and endless sinetrons that dominate TV here.

Miss about home? Not much really, otherwise I wouldn't have chosen to leave the place but if pressed I would say the change of seasons. Living in a tropical country always seems so attractive when it's a wet Tuesday in November back home but the cycle of change that marks the movement of the year is a very comforting thing, when February is just the same as August it can be a little monotonous. I suppose there is one other thing I miss; drivers with the slightest acquaintance with the basic rules of the road! Whatever about Shakespeare, I think the three greatest books in the English language are the King James Bible, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and Her Majesty's Stationery Office's The Highway Code. Nations and societies which adhere to the principles contained within those three books are invariably happier, healthier and wealthier than those which chose to eschew them, Indonesia would do well to look them up.

Other expats: my first reaction is that I make no real effort to mingle with fellow expats beyond a beer and a chat in a bar the odd night a week. However I considered it further and realised that a large proportion of my time is spent on the internet and much of that is involved with the blogs mostly overseas but quite a few local ones too - your blog, Indcoup's (now offline) and the Reveller's (now moribund) being examples of the latter. By joining in the discussions and engaging with the contributors I suppose I would have to say that I do make the effort to associate with other expats even if it is at a certain remove.

I don't agree with one of your contributors who said other expats were ignorant, uneducated and arrogant. Unlike most expat communities around the world I think those of us in Indonesia seem to be a more enlightened bunch. Maybe it is as a result of krismon but I don't think there are too many of the boozy bigots complaining how their maids don't know how to clean toilets properly over beers which they ordered by shouting loudly to the barstaff in pidgin English. Even the younger lads you see around the town seem to make the effort to speak a bit of Indonesian and the old hands generally prefer living in real Indonesian communities rather than in gated expat housing complexes. Although perhaps I have somewhat rose-tinted spectacles in that regard.

I came here on my own and have created my own family here so I have acclimatised just fine.

As regards what problems I still have with Indonesia I suppose I should say the corruption and inefficiency but to be honest they don't affect me on a personal level. My gripes are of a much more prosaic nature, I find Indonesian food disappointing. Given the amazingly mixed nature of the Indonesian people, their cuisine seems so unappealing, especially when compared to Chinese, Indian and even Thai food. Beyond noodles and satay the staples seem to be over fried chicken or fish, permanently smothered in horrifically hot sambal. I'm sure there must be fantastic Indonesian dishes but I never seem to encounter them. At the other end of the alimentary canal I still have a horror of Indonesian bathrooms, I'm sorry but forty years of using western plumbing have left me just too fastidious to fully enjoy the delights of squat toilets!

Finally what keeps me here? Well nothing really keeps me here other than this is where my wife's from and my son was born here (as were the next two) and this is where I have chosen to set up home and where I'm comfortable. More pertinent perhaps is what would make me leave.

I am not so starry eyed as to believe that Indonesia is a paradise; it's not and history has shown that Indonesia has a tendency to go tits up every couple of decades or so. I always have at the back of my mind the realisation that this is what we used to call a third world country. It also is mainly Muslim and the way things are today one never knows how that could develop. I know there is no real desire for Islamic fundamentalism here, but there are straws in the wind that indicate that Indonesian secularism is not as strong as we might have hoped. Afghanistan with its love of mystic poetry and small boys wouldn't have seemed an ideal recruiting ground for Islamofascism but we saw how that turned out and I fear that the next big crisis could transform Indonesia in a nasty way. I therefore realise that the time could come when life in Singapore or Perth might be the sensible, if entirely boring, option.
(M. is still here and a good friend.)



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