Commentary: Beyond Ups and Downs, Plenty Left to Discover in Indonesia

Jakarta. (ID Photo/David Gita Roza)

By : Mary Farrow | on 11:51 AM December 30, 2015
Category : Opinion, Commentary

This year the Indonesian government has injected millions of dollars into a tourism campaign to encourage Australians to travel beyond Bali. At the same time, tourists continue to receive steady warnings from the Australian government and others about travel dangers in Bali and around Indonesia.

When I accepted an invitation to speak at the Asean Literary Festival in Jakarta in March 2015, I was met with worrying frowns, warnings and cautions from many on the Australian home front. How could I possibly go there? Was I crazy? Yet, Indonesia’s crime rate is lower than similar crimes reported in many large, Western hemisphere cities. That statistic is relevant to me since I come from California which bears two of the top 10 most dangerous cities in the United States. As California has the death penalty, it is clearly not much of a deterrent as is evidenced by these statistics. In fact, the states without the death penalty are far safer.

Indonesia is often judged by the general Australian public as a very scary place to visit with worries about security threats, consular warnings, disease, murder, terrorism, disaster, corruption, executions, mishaps, violence, etc. These are not classic tourism boosters that encourage the planning of a 'no worries' holiday in the Indonesian sun and the fun. But do Australians consider crime when they plan a trip to the US, for example? In my experience it's the exchange rate not the crime rate which would be the determining factor for a US holiday adventure in most cases. Yet, the United States has more violent crime than Australia, although it rarely involves tourists. Mass shootings continue unabated in public places in the US. But that is different than terrorism, eh?

'Not for a holiday'

When I organized a visit to Jakarta this year, I decided to treat myself to the luxury of a travel agent to handle all of the arrangements. I had never been to Jakarta before and I thought I would just give this over to a professional. While I waited for my turn with the agent, I perused the holiday brochures.

Hmmmm, Jakarta, let's see.... No Jakarta.

We had Bali, Lombok, Singapore, China, Thailand..... But no Jakarta, or even Indonesia.

"Doesn't anybody go to Jakarta then?" I said with a smirk.  "No, not really, not for a holiday"

Yet, Indonesia is our nearest neighbor, is an enormous, populous country with over 250 million inhabitants, 10 times the population of Australia and the fourth-most populated country in the world, spread out over an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. The population of the Greater Jakarta metropolitan area alone is about 28 million. The entire population of Australia and then some would fit into metropolitan Jakarta. Think about that.

Death penalty

In January, there was also a national unease growing steeply for a couple of Australian young men and a few others who were facing certain doom as death row inmates, with bullets being firmly prescribed as a treatment regime for their economic crimes. I thought of their own ill conceived fitness for travel all those fateful years ago and what should have and could have been done differently if our people to people relationships had been stronger beyond the politic. Their journey had been metamorphic, changing also the journey of others toward an improved life upon release from prison.

Sadly, there were to be some very special travel plans to come for our Australians taking them to their final destinations including a full Indonesian military escort, flyover and armed storm troopers to ensure maximum security. It is no wonder that Australians and others objected to this ghoulish overblown exercise, with the Indonesian military clearly in apparent fear of some mythical Australian assault. They overeacted in a spectacular and costly show of force. This is not what we expected from a country that is trying to woo Australians to sample the delights of their archipelago. The entire event was incongruous to any national tourism strategy boost, at least one that was going to appeal to Australians. That left an indelible impression for sure.

Trapped in paradise

The hue and cry of fluctuating tourism numbers to Bali followed, along with a national economy in decline, interspersed with the ever-present protest from the surrounding volcanoes. Indonesia is after all geographically located on the "Ring of Fire" and contains the most volcanoes of any country in the world  some 76 are active. It's a wonder that any travel insurance policy would cover volcanic events in Indonesia at all. Australian holiday makers became full of dread and stress at being stranded by the 1000s, trapped in paradise.

"But I want to go home now, this is outrageous, not good enough, I am inconvenienced," became the common complaints of travellers with no resilience, camped out at the airport, leaving a bad taste of pumice in their mouth.

It could be fair to say that we might have expected a different outcome from our Indonesian neighbors if we had a better relationship with them at the community level. That would involve more than political strategies and official trade relations. Duncan Graham writes about the need for "suburban folk seeing for themselves how their neighbours live, understanding their values and appreciating what's really happening next door." Our current decline in uptake of Indonesian language and cultural studies in Australia is further evidence of the rift that is widening.

The fact is not many ordinary Australians know the first thing about Indonesia other than what the media offer up. It is hard to even locate a travel guide for Indonesia in Australia and even harder to find a Bahasa Indonesia language translation book. Some of the youngsters who travel to Bali on a schoolies holiday, courtesy of their worrying parents, don't even know that Bali is part of Indonesia. For many, it is their first time away from their parents and to a foreign country.

Language study

Where do our obligations lie, I have to ask? What are we doing in regards to language study and understanding of cultural diversity? Our blatant lack of preparation directly contributes to misunderstandings, bad behaviors and offenses that can and do lead to some pretty dire consequences. Are we too lazy to do the homework or do we need some leadership and investment by the Australian government, other than to issue travel warnings? We can and should do better than this.

There is certainly no requirement from me that Indonesia should understand my preferences, familiarities and cultural norms when I alight at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. It is my obligation to learn about their custom. While I am at a complete disadvantage from a language, transportation or communication standpoint, it is my responsibility to make the effort required to understand the environment. I have had the great advantage of meeting many Indonesians during my stays that were not only generous and friendly, but were concerned about the same things that mattered to me. I was embraced repeatedly by the youth, who were particularly warm, curious and keen to connect.

Speaking out in Ubud

Many travellers descended on the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in October this year from all over the globe. The increased foreign and domestic attendance illustrated that people continue to have a strong interest in the literary arts, freedom of expression and all which that encompasses. The controversy of censorship over not only the 1965 genocide events but also the Bali mangrove landfill discussion only increased the public's collective interest as reflected by the abundant attendance and the crescendo from social media. It was no surprise that the local government's censorship bought incredible promotion to the UWRF that money just couldn't buy. It laid the groundwork for continued robust subject matter to be included in all literary festivals. Clearly, this is the way forward now.

So while the official warnings circled like predatory birds overhead, there was a camaraderie of disdain and a rejection of the silence imposed. The forbidden stories oozed from dark corners like 'Texas Tea' from an oil well. Those that attended or intended to speak engaged in a wonderful creative objection that manifest itself every day in a different way.

These are the things that we need to learn about Indonesians — that there is a steamy, creative, spicy sweet relentlessness as well as an unease about the status quo and the unspoken histories, not only from those who have lived through it, but by the youth who are dissatisfied with the camouflage and cover-ups. Enquiring minds want to know. While not as blunt as a Californian style protest, their shape-shifting techniques and vocalization through the arts of their discontent was particularly inspiring to this product of the Civil Rights movement. This is how real democracies evolve with creative courage and fluid movements, steady resolve and visual excitement, as witnessed at the 2015 Jakarta Biennale or the haunting Rekoleski Memori in Jakarta at Taman Ismail Marzuki. The eyes are firmly on the prize.

Culinary delights

All of these experiences were strung together with the diverse culinary heritage which is Indonesia. Learning about geography though cultural dishes is an indelible learning experience. My Indonesian hosts made sure that I was treated to a different regional cuisine every day. From Makassar and Sulawesi, fresh fish with a dynamite sambal. Yes, I was cautioned and yes I survived its heat. I am from California after all, not your average Anglo Gringo. In fact I find Indonesia to have a similar socio-tempo, color and movement as the passion of Latino culture which is also synonymous with California.

The Sundanese experience was so good, we went twice. Local chicken, corn fritters, water spinach with garlic, fried tempe and again a different sambal. There was Padang cuisine with rendang chicken with a green sambal and cassava leaves. The peppery Acehnese noodles in a firey red sauce was certainly near the top of my list. Lip-smacking.

Just when I thought it could not get any better, we went to what was described as a working class Sundanese cafe downtown. The array of fried fish, towering pots of hot fish soups, crunchy whole prawn wonton-like crackers, banana leafed packets of tempe, tofu, chicken or mushroom fillings was endless. Huge tubs of hot rice, cooked or fresh greens and a stone bowl of ruby red sambal on every table made this my favorite place. It was serve yourself style and you paid by the honor system. Imagine that.

At home, I was spoiled with fresh fragrant fish stews, fried sweet potato, deep fried banana, French toast with honey and avocado, black rice with coconut milk and green bean breakfast. The local Maduranese chicken boy in the neighborhood reliably churned out char-grilled chicken satay on sticks for that quick drive thru pickup. No KFC and no Maccas. No problem. In all my travels, I rarely saw a Westerner and I certainly did not notice any local large oval shaped torsos waddling along. Clearly this diet of fresh ingredients prepared daily is a healthy approach. And I am more than happy to report (as is always the worry of Westerners abroad) that I did not get sick. Not even once. I was the picture of health.

I have been back from my second Jakarta trip now only a few days, have purchased my third round-trip ticket for mid 2016 and am fit for travel. When I started this year, I never thought that I would be making a trip to Jakarta. Now I have made two already.

I have wandered through the historical precincts, the markets, been stranded in traffic jams and wallowed in arts exhibitions. More importantly, I have met many Indonesians who hope for a more progressive and humane approach, freedom of speech and acknowledgement of history. I have been physically embraced by youth and have made friends for life with those who operate in a parallel universe to me, bonded by strong emotional experiences and a shared vision for a world in which we all want to belong. That's the kind of relationship we want to have, not just a partnership with nations but with real ties between people if we are going to progress in this region and survive political misadventures that periodically get in the way.

Mary Farrow is American writer and human rights activist. She lives in Melbourne and can be reached at mfarrow@iinet.net.au.

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