Well oops. As it transpires, my tumblog is not updating with my backlogged posts every few days. Sorry guys; maaf, maaf. I know enough Indonesian now to be at that annoying level of understanding where it’s fun for me to say things in my recently learned language to people who don’t speak it, and then to regard incomprehension with a certain nonchalance, as if to say, “Ah, but what to you know; you are more bule (crazy foreigner adj.) than I am.” My ex used to do this to me with Arabic, and an old Spanish teacher with his considerably larger vocabulary. I would usually respond with some Russian or Polish phrase, or perhaps some German sounding stream of syllables that I picked up from Rammstein songs, which would frustrate them back into English, or more decipherable Spanish. Now I have my revenge.
But let me take a break and tell you about Indonesia, why I’ve been off the grid, and what this year without sex, drugs, alcohol, or too much rock N’ roll is shaping up to be thus far (I’ll more likely be listening to unceasing calls to prayer from my local masjid). They have a saying in Africa: TIA. In the words of K’naan, a rap artist who has yet to cover the Lion King soundtrack (Sir, with all due respect, you should), it means, “This is Africa”, a phrase usually associated with an understanding that Africa is a place of harsh realities that most white people will never understand, like guns and unnecessary death. The phrase awoke in my mind while I was in a hammock in the Philippines, and I decided that the country deserved its own, “TIP”, which would represent the likelihood of being hit by a typhoon at any given moment. And then I got to Indonesia, and I immediately understood that there was a serious need for the mass popularization of “TII”, This is Indonesia, because, if anything has helped me to understand this country, it is the general relevance of a phrase like that. Because where other countries have general themes for people and culture that can be understood and seen, almost all of the rules that I’ve attempted to use in Indonesia for judging aspects of society have been broken, and another couple of weeks will sunder the rest. It’s TII, which means that anything and everything will happen. Lay aside all hopes of using logic in this country and just have fun; all of the Indonesians are.
Welcome to Indonesia, the most prejudiced country in the world against pedestrians. Want to walk? Try the sidewalks. They are slabs of concrete that have been set directly above the sewage lines. Every now and then, you might come across a gaping hole which will swallow you up if you commit the ultimate mistake of not looking where your feet are going. And even if you miss all of the holes, there’s also a good chance that it might just cave in under you feet, and you can say goodbye to your leg as it falls into the clutches of rats below.
Ok then, maybe I’ll drive or bike? Are you used to driving a car? Well you probably won’t be doing that here; Jogja is a city of motorbikes. And you’ve driven one before? Well that’s good. Maybe it will take you less time to figure out how to get around. Take Dallas rush hour traffic, packed together like sardines, and then insert pushcarts, falling debris, dumptruck collisions, running pedestrians, and motorbikes anywhere there is enough space to shake a stick. Now apply disordered and completely random motions, which are, in some places loosely regulated by traffic lights, and you’ll get close to traffic here. I had a lot of practice weaving my way through foot traffic at NC State, so I was more prepared than most for riding my bike here, and I’ve made it to the point where I race with the motor bikes. I’m looking forward to the day when I can just hang on the back of a bus.
Welcome to Indonesia, where buses don’t stop and old ladies run to jump through the doors of rusty contraptions called “tetanus” buses, where they will probably ride next to seats occupied by chickens. Where, in small mountain climbing guide posts you might find a collection of wall decorations including an Islamic plaque, a gold framed cigarette add, and a small square portrait of David Bowie, in his classic Ziggy Stardust jumper. Where it is reasonable that your car might smash into the back of a dumptruck which has stopped entirely on a highway, and where the foreigners in your car will demand that they be compensated by a cold bintang, a beer that costs maybe $3. And it had better be cold; none of that warm shit.
Welcome to Indonesia, where military security is extremely friendly, especially if you are friends with the commander of the mounted cavalry. Real Occurrence:
Major: So have these two had any military experience before?
Member of the Indonesian royal bloodline (a friend): No. They are both here studying on United States Department of Defense scholarships though.
Major: Oh, yeah. That’s really cool.
Commander: So, who wants to go drive a tank?!
Borens Kecil: Me me me! I do! I do!
Tank: RUUUUMMMBBBLEEEE…. BANG RUMMMMMMBBBLLLEEEEE
Major: Hop on in.
Welcome to Indonesia where some nights, you might get to have a chat with the king of a province, whose daughter is about your age. A member of the national Polisi unit from the capital, Jakarta, might give you an impromptu neck rub. The head of the Indonesian Journalists Society, editor of all three of the most important newspapers (the word for newspaper is “Koran”), will teach you slang in his room full of laughing women at two in the morning. If you want, the gardeners will run through the property looking for a cobra so that you can be bitten as a defense against other snake bites and “masuk angin”, a sickness where, literally, the wind enters you.
Welcome to Indonesia, land of eternal optimism, where you are not single, but “not yet married”, and the word for young is “muda” while the word for easy is “mudah”, pronounced pretty much the same way. People might look at you like you are Hitler in Israel, but if you nod, say mongo, permisi, or greet them with any number of references to the time of day, their faces will light up like yours would if someone gave you a copy of Spaceballs. Or maybe that would just be my face. Go to the roadside framed picture shops and watch as rotary saws are laid out along the sidewalk for their owners to use in frame cutting throughout the day. Batik shirts might look like some strange Hawaiian/50’s homemaker crossbreed, but in formality, they are the equivalent of a three piece suit, and if you’ve got long sleeves, a tux.
Welcome to Indonesia, where Universities not only delay school for the whole month of Ramadan so that students can complete the fasting outside of class, but where Ramadan itself (an entire month) escapes the notice of the university staff so that you only find out that school is canceled about a week before it was supposed to start. Here, you never say that you don’t have a religion; you can say deist, agnostic, existentialist, pastafarian, whatever the hell you want, but atheism is just not a part of the mentality, or the official forms one must fill out in order to get a long term visa. There might not be alcohol, and it might be a sin to make it, but Durian, a huge spiky fruit that will impale your skull and leave you dead on the ground if it were to fall on you, has fleshy hearts that ferment in the sun, and after a whole durian, you WILL be drunk off your ass. I think it was an army general from Timor Leste that told me, “If you eat Durian, and then drink alcohol, you are going to the hospital.”
Welcome to Indonesia, specifically my city, Jogjakarta, or Yogyakarta, where there are more universities that you can fit in a… normal city. Way more than 100 at least, the most prestigious of which is Universitas Gadjah Mada, where I take classes in language, sociology and political science, as well as architecture. UGM is called the “Yale” of Indonesia. On one of our first days there, Wyatt and I decided to take a picture with the big university name out front, and propped up the fallen letter “J” so that the “Gadjah” would be complete. In Jogja, citizens are fighting for the “keistimewaan”, or specialness, of the region, as the national government wants to remove the governing powers of the Sultan of Jogja, who is the only Sultan in all of Indonesia who is more than a figurehead and actually governs the city. During natural disasters, you can see him riding in circles around the city, sitting in his horse drawn carriage, protecting the city through ancient majicks that are known only to the royal bloodline. Our friend might get us tickets to the royal wedding of his daughter to a man of the house of Solo this October. The English descriptions of this wonderful affair describe it as “a royal Weeding to rival that of England’s”.
Welcome to Indonesia, where you might see some example of warnings against strange diseases, written in Bahasa Inggris, posted on buses and in malls, asking you to be on your guard against ailments such as “Sudden Happy Fever”. The number one killers of urban Indonesians (I’m surprised it has nothing to do with bike crashes) are diabetes and heart disease. I still don’t remember the word for “without sugar”, which is why I mostly cook for myself. Go to a gym and you will witness strangely buff Chinese Indonesian men who have no reservations about standing in front of the mirror you are trying to use to correct your deadlift posture and flexing their muscles for five minutes, trying to get the image just right.
Welcome to Indonesia, were out on the island of Bali, the majority of vacationing Australians, the dominant form of Balinese life on the island, are actually unaware that they are in Indonesia. You will cringe at the multitude of singlets, butt tats, and oddly carried rolls of fat, and for once in your life, you will be proud to be an American in a foreign country (Don’t get me wrong, I love Australians, it’s just something about Bali that turns them into… euhhgg). You might even share a bule crack with an Indonesian who will laugh and then look at you oddly, for, of course, you have white skin too.
Welcome to Indonesia, where everyone is striving to be whiter, to move up in the class ranking system. TV actors are all white. You will notice the distinctly whiter shades of people running for mayoral positions. In Apa Ada Dengan Cinta, an Indonesian film I watched, the teacher with the darkest skin is portrayed as the most laughable and least respected; he reminded me of Quasimodo or Gollum. There was one scene where he swept trash down the stairs while a popular female student demanded answers from him about her boy toy, Rangga, who had beaten her in a poetry contest and then decided to move to NYC. If you want to get whiter, there are special additives in lotions marked “lebih putih!”, probably titanium oxide, that will just whiten that skin up. Huh. Thousands of westerners trying to get a healthy tan any way that they can, even by spraying bronze juice on their bodies, and the developing Southeast Asian world would give anything for a melanin transplant.
And do you know what the strangest thing of all is? I don’t find any of these things strange. I like it here. In fact, I love it here. The unpredictability. The fact that whatever you do, you will probably be late, or someone will be late. Island time. Jam karet. I love the language that seems to be all about meanings, and when I get better with it, I might even appreciate it more than English, and I bloody love English. As for me, I haven’t even gotten started. I’m here for biodiversity, and as my language gets better, I am starting to reach out, understand things, and put together my project. Give me a month. I’ll give you a photo of me fighting a Komodo Dragon that has gotten a hold of some of my papers.