Culture Shock (alternate title: 101 Ways to Die in Indonesia)

There’s one word that keeps coming to mind every time I try to describe Indonesia: CRAZY.

Absolutely nuts.

Everything, really, from that first phone call three weeks ago inviting me to an interview in Madrid, has been crazy. Even finding out mid-journey that I was going to go halfway across the world was crazy. But actually being here, that’s the craziest of all.

A little geography lesson for everybody first:

Indonesia is HUGE. Little islands, you say? Yes, 17000 of them in all. In total, they take up more space than AUSTRALIA. Crazy! It’s bordered by Singapore, Australia, if you count “bordered” as being “the next-closest landmass that’s not Indonesia” and places like East Timor, which probably don’t help you get any sort of idea of geographical placement. I live on the island of Java, where Jakarta, the capital, is. Other well-known islands within Indonesia include Sumatra, home of orangutans (incidentally, I’m trying to learn Indonesian and Orang Hutan is literally ‘person of the forest’), Bali, home of Hindu temples and sun-worshipping tourists, and Komodo, home of the Komodo Dragon.

Also, it has the world’s 4th largest population. Never heard of Jakarta? Well, it’s about three times as big as Chicago, but without the nice grid system to help you navigate it. It’s a good thing we have a driver to take us everywhere!

In addition, it holds the world’s largest Muslim population. Don’t conjure up images of Osama or turbaned, bearded men in deserts. This Islam apparently allows scantily-dressed women to frequent nightclubs and do dances that are, well, let’s say, less than immaculate. Sure, some women cover their heads, but really, it all seems fairly liberal.

Climate: Indonesia sits pretty much ON the equator. Enough said. You may know it, if for nothing else, as the place that was ravaged by a tsunami in December 2004. In addition to being prone to hurricanes and rainstorms, the country sits over something like three different tectonic plates, making it a center for earthquakes. As if all that natural goodness weren’t enough, Indonesia has one of the world’s richest concentrations of biodiversity (yet, incidentally, the third-highest level of pollution) in the world, second only to Brazil’s Amazon rainforest….this translates into many very large and dangerous things that want to bite, sting, hunt, and kill you. They can fly, run, slither, swim, and some have more legs than God ever intended creatures to have.

Oh, and I almost forgot: the entire landmass is pretty much made entirely of volcanoes, most of which are active…and they drive on the left side of the road!

So, let’s recap: lots of people, heat, humidity, pollution, earthquakes, volcanoes, tropical storms, dangerous animals, and left-side drivers with little to no actual driving ability. Welcome to Indonesia!

* * *

My general first impression of the place is a vast and absolutely incomprehensible difference between rich and poor. Our hotel is swathed in black marble, polished to a high sheen that makes every surface reflective, and orchids pour out of enormous gilded vases on mammoth glass tables under glass chandeliers. There are men to open doors for you, sweep the floor after you, drive your car for you, clean your house for you, cook your food for you, pull out your chair for you, and take care of basically any other detail that might cross your pampered mind. Everything is “Yes, Miss” and “Excuse me, Miss” and bowing as you pass. Then you leave the hotel.

From the quiet calm of the hotel you step (rather drive, as you cannot walk anywhere in Jakarta, not only because of pollution but simply because sidewalks don’t exist) into a seething mass of humanity. Even along the hotel’s long palm-lined driveway, shabby warung, little street food stalls, crowd close together, food piled into their little windows, mostly involving fruits or unidentifiable fried pockets whose contents are anyone’s guess. The people sit under tarps or on the curbs, smoking, talking, laughing, admiring the motorcycles and 4x4s that whizz by at breakneck speed. Traffic is a way of life here, and I’m quickly getting used to the idea of spending an hour in the car to go not very far, people winding their way between the moving vehicles, helping “direct” traffic for a small sum, motorcycles honking to announce their itentions of cutting you off, and vehicles merging and swerving (as there are no marked lanes) with only centimeters of safety between them. It no longer fazes me.

It seems like you can pass the whole of the real Indonesia on your way from one sheltered universe to another. Something I read said that most Indonesians live on less than $2 a day, but you’d never know it as you step into one of the ubiquitous shopping malls, where the door is opened by a doorman complete with bellhop uniform and white gloves. The polished marble floor gleams under the lights of Banana Republic, Gap, Versace, and Gucci. Windows are spotless, garmets immaculately arranged. Malls are to Indonesia what central plazas are to Europe – where the people hang out, wander around, enjoy their free time. And really, from juice bars (mmm starfruit juice? durian juice? jackfruit juice? papaya juice?) to Brazilian steakhouses to French cafes to American cookie shops, you could live here and go around the world. There’s no excuse for any American to experience homesickness or culture shock here, when you can get everything from Campbell’s soup to People magazine to Pantene hair products to Gap clothes here….and yet I find myself stuck between sheer gratitude that these comforts exist, and a desire to experience the “real” Indonesia that the vast majority of the country’s people live daily. The closest I can get is when I can hear the call to prayer waft in through our floor-to-ceiling windows from the mosques around the city, barely audible above the screech of progress (i.e. nonstop construction on the high-rise next door). It’s only been a few days…the real Indonesia will take more time to discover.

Maybe a trip to Bali will help…


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