A Look Back at Indonesia
Indonesia… What a place, guys. It’s the type of country where you can see landscapes you thought only existed in National Geographic, and then down the road 100 feet you can find trash piles as large as a city block. It’s a place where you can feel more at home than anywhere else in the world, and where you can be so uncomfortable you don’t want to leave your hotel room. We live in a world full of discrepancies and of contradictions, but that dichotomy is at its most acute in Indonesia.
At its heart, Indonesia is a wonderful place, and if you are like me and haven’t had the chance to get over to Asia before, it will introduce you to a lifestyle and culture completely different from the west, which challenged many of my assumptions about life which I held from growing up in a western country. Then of course, you have the natural beauty which is pervasive in Indonesia, and is perhaps unparalleled in the rest of the world. Lastly, you have the people in Indonesia. It would be impossible for me to write anything about my time in Indonesia without mentioning the kindness of the Indonesian people.
In the one month we spent traversing Indonesia, we went from the famous beaches of Bali, to the rugged interior of Java, and from the sulfuric volcano crater at Kaweah Ijen to the winding jungle valleys of Lombok. It feels like a blur now looking back on it, but in that blur it’s easy to pick out the moments of clarity and happiness that stand out from the rest and define the month spent in Indonesia.
Personally, many of these moments came during much of the downtime in the quieter parts of Indonesia. In these quieter parts, the pace of life is slow and relaxed. There is no rush to do anything, and you unconsciously forget about what time it is or the day of the week, and your worries slip out of your mind unnoticed. It’s times like this when it’s easiest to appreciate the beauty of this country, and the friendly nature of the people.
As i have mentioned before, the beauty Indonesia has to offer in unparalleled in my experience. There are countless volcanoes, beaches, jungles, waterfalls, and reefs which would take a lifetime if you wanted to see them all, and it always seems like then next one is better than the last. If you are able to travel to Indonesia for an extended period of time I would suggest you apply for an extended visa. That way you will be able to explore much more of Indonesia, and get lost in it all.
On the flip side of this, it is very easy to get overwhelmed in the big cities of Indonesia, where it seems like there is always a bus to catch, or hawkers trying to hassle you once they spot you as a tourist. But in the cities too the true nature of Indonesia shines through. Many times when we were on the verge of being overcharged or getting lost, Indonesians would approach us to point us in the right direction, or to notify us of the “non-tourist” price for a taxi or bus.
The “tourist” prices for many items such as food, transportation, and other goods purchased informally in Indonesia is basically a raised price which vendors and ticket sellers can charge tourists who don’t know what they should be paying for a good or service. As a tourist, you can expect to be charged this price constantly, and it can be anywhere from an extra 5,000-10,000 rupiah (roughly $.50-$1) to double or triple the price of whatever you are buying (so maybe an extra $3-$5). Naturally, in situations when this occurs and there is nothing you can do about it, it’s easy to be frustrated, and to lose sight of the relative importance of $.50 to Americans and Indonesians. In Indonesia, where the official minimum wage can be as low as $84 a month, and where I imagine many make even less, a couple dollars can go a long way. In my opinion, as long as you are not getting massively ripped off or taken advantage of, reminding yourself of this will not only create less drama, but will make both parties in the transaction happy.
The wealth disparity between westerners and Indonesians is strikingly obvious, and is even more apparent when it comes up in conversation between you and locals. At Hotel Palloma on Bali, one of the staff, upon learning I was an American, told me that he wished he could visit one day, but didn’t think he would ever be able to save enough money for the flight. We heard this from numerous people, and even for those who might be able to raise the money, getting a visa is no easy feat. It might seem cliche, but hearing stories like that makes you realize how lucky you are to be an American, and how easy we have it sometimes relative to the rest of the world. On a similar note, almost all of the Indonesians I met, when asked where they were from, replied: “here”, indicating the city we were in at the moment. Again, this is due to the lack of money, and the absence of job opportunities in a new city. It’s another daily occurrence here that reminds us how lucky we are to be on this trip, and to make the most of it. Times like this also prove why travelling can be an education of sorts, and why it is such an eye opening and life changing experience.
It is also important to mention that despite not having very much, the overwhelming number of Indonesians we met, from all walks of life, seemed to be very happy, and always extremely friendly. No matter where we were, locals almost always greeted us with a smile, and were always warm and inviting people. It goes to show you that you don’t need to have all of this or all of that to make you happy, and that is something I keep trying to remind myself everyday here.
Besides the wealth disparity between America and Indonesia, you notice loads of other differences between the two cultures when you visit Indonesia. One of the most basic differences in both countries are the rules they are governed by. In these regards, Indonesia and the U.S. are on completely different extremes of the spectrum. After being in Indonesia for a month, you realize that in America we have a law for everything, and generally we all follow these laws pretty closely. In much of Indonesia, it seems like there are legitimately no laws, only unspoken rules. Sure, in the U.S. we go 10 MPH over the speed limit in front of a cop and feel like a badass for flaunting the law, but when you see a bus driver here pass 2 semis on a blind corner with a cigarette and cell phone in one hand, while talking on another phone pushed up to his ear by his shoulder, and counting money with the other hand, in front of a police checkpoint nonetheless, you realize things are a little different here. You can see it in the simple things like crossing the road even. In the U.S. sometimes we J walk if there are no cars coming and the intersection isn’t too big, and if we get seen by the police we get a ticket. In Indonesia, if you want to cross the street, you just start walking out into the traffic, since there are very few stoplights, and no one is going to wait for you. In all seriousness, crossing the road is like real life frogger, and the police would never do anything if they saw you.
Another difference which shows the straightforward rules we abide to in America, and the culture of improvisation in Indonesia, is price. At home, you have a set price for everything, the bus, lunch at Chipotle, clothing at the store, while here, you typically have your idea of what something costs, the seller has their idea, and you try to meet somewhere halfway. You almost never bargain in the U.S. but here it’s an everyday occurrence, and although it’s very intimidating at first, it’s pretty cool to see how you can try to dictate the price of what you are buying.
Initially, these differences and many others were all hard to fathom for me, and I found myself missing home and the set rules that life was dictated by there. But once you let go of what you knew, and fully jump into the unknown, that is when the real adventure starts, and that is when you can see the beauty amid the chaos of Indonesia. But it is truly a beautiful and liberating experience which words do not do justice, and which you have to experience yourself, so what are you waiting for??