Indonesia Up Close
Posted on : 4 June 2013
Categories : Culture and Heritage
Indonesia is strange country. Indonesians – they are wonderful people. But Indonesia isn’t a country for everybody. It is a country for curious people. It is a country for the people with no barriers, for those who are the kings of compromise. Indonesia is a country of contradictions! That makes Indonesia incomprehensible, rich, challenging.
An abundance of concepts, an abundance of fundamental sociological categories, an abundance of everyday concepts from the European cultural heritage bare completely different meaning in Indonesia. Some of those concepts don’t have meaning there – or here!
I’ve got a story about how Indonesia looks like through the eyes of a stranger with no barriers, through the eyes of somebody who was, as my beloved like to say, crazy enough to go to the other side of the planet and somebody who was patient enough to fall in love with Indonesia.
I went to Indonesia thanks to Darmasiswa scholarship, offered by the Indonesian government to all of the young people from countries that keep diplomatic relationship with Indonesia. Program includes Indonesian language courses, traditional dance courses, lectures about Indonesian culture and traditional art. The purpose of the programme is to introduce Indonesian heritage, everyday life and what Indonesia could become in the future, to the rest of the world. My choice was Indonesian language course at Airlangga University in the city of Surabaya, the capitol city of East Java province. In the beginning Surabaya was a completely new world for me, but soon I started to call it my home.
Indonesia Raya – The Great Indonesia
In many things Indonesia belongs to the top two, three or four countries in the world. Google says that Indonesia has:
- 17 000 islands
- 240 million inhabitants, with the population growth rate of 1,9%
- The most populous island in the world which is at the same time one of the most populated areas in the world – it’s Java, with 138 million people which is 1 064 souls per 1km2. Even 58% of the whole population of Indonesia lives on Java.
- Indonesia is rated no.2 in the world for its biodiversity! That makes Indonesia interesting not only for those with cultural motivations, but also for those interested in natural sciences (in the recent times especially ecology, because there is quite a gap between natural resources and environment awareness.
- The most interesting phenomenon for me were over 300 ethnics with even more different tints of cultures, traditions, practices, whose richness is the fruit of huge population as well as of rich heritage.
History and culture in facts
Indonesian everyday practice, customs, thought and material cultural heritage are an amazing mixture of abundance of influences of the cultures that have passed through (or across) Indonesia. Around 2000 BC Austronesians came from what today is Taiwan and pushed native peoples towards the easternmost islands of the archipelago.
Three great dynasties marked the Middle Ages: Srivijaya, which brought Hinduism and Buddhism with its traders; Saleindra, which left the biggest Buddhist temple in Indonesia, so called Borobudur; and Mataram, which left famous Hindu temple Prambanan. Indonesians are also proud of the heritage from the time of the Majapahit kingdom.
The islamisation happened between 13th and 16the century throughout the islands of Sumatra and Java.
The first contact with Europeans was in 1512, thanks to the Portuguese traders who came with the intention to monopolize the trade of spices from Maluku Islands.
Dutch came in 1602 with Dutch East Indies Company, which was officially proclaims Dutch colony in 1800.
Japanese occupation meant the end of Dutch colonization and at the same time it strengthened the independence movement.
The rest is the history under Soekarno, Soeharto and others...
How does it look like to be a Whiteman in Indonesia today?
Being a white in Indonesia is a damn good thing! But in the first few months it is also terribly confusing thing... Culture shock is inevitable...
Indonesian are quite open, very curious about foreigners. The fact that they don’t speak any English doesn’t stop them to call after you: "Hello mister! Where you come from?“. Every foreigner is a mister. That’s usually the only English word that common Indonesians can say in English, and even for those words they can say they often don’t know the meaning. They love to talk a lot and fast, and since you don’t understand a word they say, you are both standing same.
Wherever you go you are the center of their attention and you are the real attraction. When you’re on the street or at some event, you feel like you are surrounded by paparazzi. The only thing they love more than taking photos of themselves is taking photos of whites. A Westerner, an individualistic and selfish spirit who requires personal spiritual and physical space, would often feel threatened and understand it as an attack to its integrity. That wasn’t a problem for me, because I was even more interested in Indonesians than they were interested in me.
Besides cultural and natural wealth, one more symbol of Indonesia is its people’s smiles. Every message goes with the smile, whether the message positive or negative. That’s why in Indonesia you always feel safe and like you’re not so far away from home as you really are.
Indonesians often laugh loudly behind your back. If you were selfish you would probably consider that making fun of you. But if you are not an egocentric, you would realize that Indonesians just love to make jokes, that they express their emotions spontaneously and honestly. As time passes by, you would adopt many of their models of behavior.
Friendships are made easily, spontaneously and everywhere when you’re in Indonesia. Indonesians are the best hosts in the world! Many of them will invite you to their house immediately, to sleep over, to eat with them, many of them will insist to take you out for a lunch or a dinner. What’s strange is that you’ve known those people for only two hours or two days!
Indonesians are very liable hosts. If you are their guest, they are responsible for all of the organization and they feel responsible for you. Indonesians are focused to the community and they are used to share. It is considered rude not to accept what they give. They love to give gifts to foreigners. I left all my stuff there and I came back home with baggage full of gifts I got from my Indonesian friends.
In their hospitality Indonesians are very proud of their country and their heritage. They are delighted to talk about their customs, ethnic differences and their attitudes. The thing they are especially proud of is their food. Indonesians can talk about food all day long, and they always ask your opinion about it.
Hierarchy is quite visible in everyday life in Indonesia. The society is huge, religion is the dominant cultural form, so the codes are conservative. A parent, a boss, a teacher are respected unquestioningly. Family values are the highest values.
Respect towards the elders is expressed through the way of addressing, greeting, talk and body language. Javanese language is the best expression of the importance of hierarchy in the society. It consists of three levels of talk, which are actually three completely different languages. Which one of them you use depends on who you talk to – to the servant, to the equal or to the elder or superior. Many gestures of respect include body or head bow.
Showing respect is important. Many traditional architectures, even in different parts odd Indonesia, have low entry, which, by demanding from the ones who are entering to bow, symbolizes request for respect towards the host, whoever the the guest was. Indonesian parole Unity in diversity has two meanings: first, many different cultures firmly and stably exist as the Indonesian ones. The second, inspite of strong hierarchy and big social differences, all of the people deserve the same respect.
The relationships among men and women are conservative. In Surabaya, female homestays are locked after 10pm or 11pm, while it doesn’t apply to the homestays for boys. You can’t see people kissing and hugging in public. That kind of love expression in Indonesia is absent.
All Indonesian believe in magic. The most famous war of magic is the one between people from Madura and Dayak people from Kalimantan. Actually, it was the common ethnic conflict between theme two ethnics. Indonesian are convinces that black magic was used in the conflict – that sabers and swords were flying and cutting heads on their own and that Madurese were using magic to distract Dayaks. The truth is that there are local stories about different ethnics and that Madurese people are considered sly and mercenary.
Santet is the name of Javanese voodoo. It is black magic. So called Pelet can be used as black or white magic. Indonesians love to talk about magic. Some of my friends were eager to prove that they had extraordinary seer’s abilities.
Religious and magical practices are interinfluenced in Indonesia. Rio told me about his uncle who had cured his liver problems with Islamic magical ritual. The medium during the ritual was a goat. The ritual was quite complex. It included reading of Qur’an, massage, drinking shaman ‘spit etc. The same was done to the goat, after which it was sacrifices. The success of the healing was read by the look of goat’s internal organs. Rio says that his uncle was completely cured after the ritual.
There are some places around Indonesia that are especially popular on magic rituals. For example, people who want to get rich fast and easy go to Kawi Mountain. That kind of ritual is called Pesugihan.
In accordance with their collectivistic mentality, Indonesian love fetes. They also love to wear costumes. Weddings and funerals are a must while you are in Indonesia. A lot of money is invested in weddings and funerals. In some parts of Indonesia, if the death finds family financially unprepared, they would keep the body sometimes even for a several years, till they save enough for a decent farewell. The most famous funeral ceremonies are those in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi Island. On the funerals of great men, several hundreds of bulls are slithered at a snap.
Preparation of a bride for the wedding is a special ceremony and it takes a long time, very heavy makeup and traditional costumes rich of colors and details. Wedding requires professional makeup artist who make quite a good business today in Indonesia. One of the pre-wedding ceremonies is so called Siraman, which includes something like our custom of buying the bride.
Collectivistic mentality – Everything is everybody’s business
Indonesia has a small-town mentality, in a very cute way in which there is nothing negative. In Indonesia everybody knows everything about everybody! Indonesians always comment on the others, and that often goes with all of those spices, fillings and anticipations which are implemented in the character in question. If you are a white, you are a kind of mystery to the Indonesians, so the space for filling and anticipations is huge – of course, with the most sincere interest and devotion.
Nobody is ever alone
In Indonesia nobody is ever alone. Everything is done in the group. I’ve lived in a rented house with eight Indonesian friends. We had seven rooms which comes almost one room per person. But we lived and slept in only two rooms, because there wasn’t a moment in which we found a reason to separate!
Help is always there
There isn’t a work that’s individualistic. Whatever is done in the village, in the city, in the family or in the group, it goes with the help of the others. If they slaughter a goat, five of them are holding it, two are cutting, four are right behind in a typical readiness pose with their palms on their knees, and six more of them constitute the audience in a typical squatting position.
You don’t need to ask for help in Indonesia, because you have a bunch of people showing up in the moment to help you. There is always somebody to give you a ride on a motorbike, to screw your light bulb, to tighten your breaks on the motorbike etc. They are there for you even for the actions you can easily do by yourself. Typical example is parkir mas, a man who parks your bike for you.
Sudah makan? Sudah mandi?
There are questions that stimulate everyday conversations, but to the western spirit those questions can sound irrelevant, needless, too intimate and sometimes irritating. For me those questions were just one more aspect of Indonesian orientation towards the others and towards community. Those are the questions: Have you already had your lunch, have you taken a bath... You can hear those questions uncountable number of times in a day.
Mau ke mana? Dari mana? – Where are you going? Where are you coming from – even complete strangers asking you that on the street. Though they ask these questions only to greet you or to make contact, they ask them with such an interest on their faces, the interest that requires the most precise answer, even the vindication for going anywhere. Misunderstandings with Indonesians usually come from the literal translation of Indonesian phrases to English. Translations are often under the influence of the structure of Indonesian language. Kamu di mana sekarang? – means Where are you RIGHT NOW? Time index right now, which is often input by Indonesian strengthens the request for the vindication that you even are somewhere, in the space!
Jam karet – Rubber time
In the long term, you feel like the time has stopped while you’re in Indonesia. It’s hot and humid throughout the year and temperature oscillations in dry and rainy seasons are insignificant comparing to our four seasons. It means you don’t need to hurry to finish all those seasonal works. That’s why you feel like the lord of time. Well, Indonesians often understand it literally, so they’re always late. They are late for lectures, they are late for work, planes late, boats late... It happens often that the promise to do something tomorrow stays the same literal "tomorrow“ promise every next day. When you spend some time there you realize that life is much easier to bear like that. The important things are always completed, the priorities realize themselves spontaneously. As a difference to our western paranoia about time organizing, the time organizes itself in Indonesia!
Indonesians walk slowly and they do everything slowly, which gives them a dose of dignity in whatever they do. Except form the fact that they eat fast and drive fast.
Belum – not...yet...
WordBelumis very indicative when it comes to Indonesian philosophy of living. Indonesians never respond negatively.Tidak(= no, not), negation is rarely used. If asked if something have happened, if they’ve done something, Indonesians would reply withBelum(= not yet). This kind of linguistic practice gives you the impression that everything is possible, it just still haven’t happened!
Indonesians love music. What we usually call exotic Indonesian music is mostly the music from Java and Sumatra. Traditional music from North Sulawesi, from Maluku Islands, from Flores Island often reminds me of Latino music. Again, music and dances that come from those communities who are more primitive and tribal, is based more on rhythm and less on melody.
Indonesians are extremely musical. The most preferred way of having fun in big cities is karaoke. Karaoke culture is one of many aspects of adopting American everyday culture, especially with huge shopping malls.
Lost in translation
No matter how good they can speak English and no matter how good you can speak Indonesian, you are often lost in communication with them. Though they understand my words, their expectations that I, as a foreigner, don’t speak Indonesian, block any understanding among us.
Indonesian sayings are irresistibly intuitive, so they are adopted easily and they easily mix with any other language you speak. Ya, iya, opo, apa, lo, la, ooo... Those expressions, altogether with characteristic tone, get into your skin and into your own language so fast. Many Indonesian words sound like some words in European languages, so once you learn Indonesian, you are not able to speak any other language without inputting Indonesian words. The examples are Bayar, which sounds like Spanish Bailar,Ini which reminds me on French Ici...
Many words duplicate in Indonesian. The influence of such a language structure is obvious when Indonesians speak English. They never walk, they always "walking-walking“, with this specific mixture of Present Continuous and all of the other tenses.
Nobody walks in Indonesia. Motorbikes are like extended organs, they are used for distances of 200m to 200km. Scooters are parked in houses, once I saw it parked in the living-room. Indonesians are virtuosi on scooters, they hold them up, pull them, and push them. What’s interesting is that they can hold up a bike five times heavier then they are, but still they can’t walk more then 15 min., cause they are not fit enough.
Five-member family on one small scooter isn’t a challenge... there were even six persons on one bike... You can transport anything on scooter, even big parts of furniture. Cubage of the cargo can reach up to three times the cubage of the scooter.
Bemo is the main form of public transportation. It is fascinating how many people can fit into bemo and on it. Indonesians love to pimp their bemo. There are key rings, curtains, toys and soft toys, stickers, and on Timor they even have cameras and screens. In bemo music is so loud that it outbalances the possibilities of understanding among people – especially on Timor Island. Drivers usually play dangdut – Indonesian version of turbo folk or extremely loud techno.
Travelling by bus is an amazing adventure, from my experience the most interesting on Sumatra. In order to be a conductor, a man has to be perfectly elastic. Conductors regularly hang upon bus doors, bus windows and roofs. Their role is to call for passengers during the ride, to wave aroundad nauseam with the purpose to ease the ride to the driver who is already and anyway on the climax of its car horn, though it’s all unnecessarily. Buses often offer live music, with the microphone and sound system as well...
Istirahat duluis a brainchild of great Indonesian peoples and it means Rest first. Indonesians often catnap and they can sleep anywhere. In becak (traditional rickshaw), at work, at bus doors, at the university library... They can sleep in any position, but the most famous is that with legs and feet facing up.
Indonesians sell everything everywhere to everybody. Local market is a heaven for those curious about everyday life in Indonesia. Among Indonesian people you can notice persistence and endurance in jobs that don’t have so much sense. Especially in selling. There are sellers in places where there’s nobody else except from themselves. And they always do theory job with dignity and calmness that we – Western „Sales Managers“ – should envy on. Every job is done slowly but sure –alon-alon asal kelakon, as Javanese people would say.
Indonesians love to watch other people. They find a strange pleasure in sitting around stalls or along the road and observing around. Every event, no matter how trivial and routine, has its audience.
Makan dulu is another Indonesian brainchild and meansEat first. When it comes tomakan, everything can wait. There’s food everywhere. At food stalls along the road, at traditional markets, on the wheels that go around the neighborhood. It’s really interesting how you can have a real home-made meal on those little wheels. There’s food in any time of the day and night. Those who spend longer time in one place will know precisely which part of the town smells on which food in which time of the day. The scent of food is another reason why you can never feel far away form home while staying in Indonesia.
Indonesian food is deep fried, very spicy whether it’s sweet, salty or chili. Indonesian cuisine uses coconut milk for boiling, peanut sauce for topping and shrimp paste as usual ingredient. Soya sauce and chili are found on every table. Chicken and fish are the most usual meals. Multitudes of local specialties are a real challenge for those interested in culture and culinary. Indonesians eat every part of the animal, even those parts that we can barely chew.
Warungis an institution, Indonesian version of Serbian kafana. It is a food stall or a restaurant along the street. Everybody eats at warung, and warungs make life much easier to Indonesian housewives – all they have to do in the kitchen is to unpack the food. Indonesians eat fast, smoke fast and leave the warung.
But, there is a special kind of warung for sitting and observing around. It’s so calledWarung Kopi– a stall which sells coffee, tea, juices and snacks.
Also a special kind of warung is so calledLesehan. Sidewalks (which nobody uses during the day) become a gathering place for youngsters in the evening. The sellers with their small portable food stalls put reed carpet along the sidewalks, where they serve delicious traditional soft drinks and spicy food. Musicians make the atmosphere even better.
Concepts and form
I have noticed that Indonesians are formalists. A concept is often fulfilled in a measure which is, according to our standards insufficient, they fulfill the form, so to say. But that doesn’t mean that they enjoy it less. On the contrary, it’s not only a form, it’s the whole procedure... Which is done with great patience and attention?
You can see the servant cleaning for hours something that could’ve been cleaned in 20 minutes. She’d do that with amazing patience, you’d think she’s enjoying it. When she finishes, you’d ask if she was there at all, because the results of her hard work are barely evident. However, her smile and the pride of her work when she tells you she’s finished leave you with the complete satisfaction.
The same tendency towards form is visible in sellers, who are walking around whole day long with some products, but in the places where there’s no way to find a customer for that kind of goods.
If you happen to ask for some information in the supermarket and the cashier tells you he has to call for another employee or a manager in order to precisely answer your question, my advice is to run away as fast as you can. Indonesian mania for assistance and the lack of sense of time are a bingo for the monthly doses of frustration – in only one day.
Surabaya punya gaya – Surabaya has style
Surabaya, with its seven million people, is the second biggest city in Indonesia, after Jakarta. It’s called City of Heroes, in memory to one of the most important battles for the independence.
Contrasts are insane in Surabaya. It is a city that gathers all of the differences and the richness of Indonesia. There’s always something happening in the city – from traditional dances, regular rock concerts, exhibitions, super-modern cinemas, to smaller events such as cock fights in the local market and traditional and religious gatherings in the neighborhoods. On one side you can see huge shopping malls containing brands we can dream about in Serbia. In the other side you can find a typical Indonesian ghetto, traditional markets...
Architecture of Surabaya also reflects the diversity of Indonesian spirit. There are typical small Indonesian houses along the dusty road, with porches covered with bathroom tiles, there are Chinese temples, there’s something resembling classical architecture, there are colonial parts of the city, there are luxury shopping and golf complexes...
Travelling around Indonesia isn’t only a cultural challenge, but also a universal enjoyment. I have travelled throughout East Java, Bali, Lombok, Gili, North and West Sumatra together with Mentawai Islands, Jakarta, Bogor, Central Java, Timor, Alor and Flores Island.
Indonesia has a vast number of heavenly beaches. You worry about the time of the day when it’s not crowded. Besides Bali, Gili's and other popular tourist destinations Indonesia has even more deserted and uncovered beaches that we dream about. The most beautiful beaches I saw in Karimunjawa Islands and Alor Island.
Indonesia has mountains, lakes, jungles, geo- and biodiversity which are the unique phenomena in the world. One among them is mountain Kelimutu, Flores Island. On the top of the mountain, there are three colorful crater lakes of unique beauty. Their colors change periodically at certain times of the year. The origin of the strikingly beautiful colors of the lakes and their change, isn’t yet clear. It might be the chemical composition of the waters or the microorganisms that live in those waters. Inhabitants of the mountain and the nearby village Moni believe that the should of the dead’s find their peace (or hell) in these mystical lakes.
Cultural heritage is rich and diverse – there are remnants of great religious practice, as well as traces of animistic and tribal life.
Art and handicrafts
Indonesians are masters of details. Bali is well known for its stone sculptures and Hindi architecture. Traditional textile painting called Batik is especially popular among visitors and among Indonesians as well. Textile is sketch with wax, then painted in colors and then again sketch and painted as many times as the complexity of the theme and design requires. Every part of Indonesia has it specific patterns and connoisseur of Batik could precisely recognize where certain Batik comes from. Eastern islands and mountainous regions produce traditional weaving called Ikat. Its designs and patterns are also diverse and recognizable for different parts of Indonesia.
One of my favorite motives in Indonesian arts and handicrafts are so called Wayang Kulit, or leather puppets. They are humanlike characters carved and painted in leather, used in traditional puppet theatre, representing great characters form Hindu myth Ramayana.
Every part of Indonesia has many traditional dances, which often are ritual or fighting dances.
The most amazing motive in Indonesia is its peoples! Many people, many tempers in Indonesia... They say that people from East Java are rude comparing to those from Central Java who are considered the most polite. Madurese people are considered thieves, and Batak people are evidently louder than others. Those from Manado like to have fun and celebrate more than anything in the world.
After you become fluent in Indonesian language, things become much more interesting because you can equally and self-confidently participate in everyday life.
However... It happens to some people, as it had happened to me, which it goes even further, till the complete indonesianisation. It means that:
- I can sleep anywhere, anytime, in any position you like, and that I feel amazingly fresh after only one short nap in a days
- I can eat that fried, oily, spicy rice for breakfast
- I plan to buy a scooter because it’s the best thing in the world
- I can squat for hours and feel comfortable
- I can talk about food for hours and in details
Indonesia isn’t a destination for me. I feel it as my home. I think it will never stop challenging me. There are people I love there. People who love me and who are waiting for me.
* This article was published in Travel Magazine, Edition May 2013, Duke & Peterson, in Serbian language. The article in English was published at Kedutaan Besar Indonesia di Serbia web site.