By Virginia Tapp, JPP 2010
University of Queensland

You’ve all seen the newspaper headlines, the aftermath of the terrorist bombings and the DFAT travel warnings. So much, in fact, that the word Indonesia has gained the power to strike fear into the heart of many westerners. I know because I was one of them, with such little knowledge of the mysterious nation that the only way I could understand it was to fear it. So after receiving an email that informed me of my acceptance on a Journalism Professionalism Practicum in Jakarta I suffered anxiety attacks infrequently until the day I left Australian dirt and the misconceptions it harbored.

Why would I apply to travel and work in a place I admit being terrified of? Why would I subject myself to such uncertainty and apprehension? Because beneath the image I held of Indonesia which was built upon snippets of information from the news and overheard conversation, was a burning curiosity. I can also admit that my application was submitted with the same degree of hope one has when entering Ozlotto. I was being the person who says they’d sky dive right up until the point when they’re asked to jump out of a plane and then decide they’re not so sure anymore.

But I jumped, because I’m also the person who has too much pride to back down and most certainly cannot miss out on an opportunity, especially when it was one I had made for myself. I set about doing my utmost to familiarize myself with the place, but nothing can prepare you for the thick hot air that rushes up to meet you on the tarmac of Sukarno Hatta Aiport. Nothing will prepare you for the food, the stares, the prayer and the poverty, but most of all, nothing can prepare you to be stripped of every scrap of knowledge or understanding you thought you had.

Having studied, worked and lived in Indonesia for the past 6 weeks, I am yet to draw a single parallel between what I’ve seen on TV and the reality of Indonesia. Actually, I’m yet to draw similarities between Indonesia and anything I’ve experienced in my somewhat sheltered life so far. Imagine a place where people are fascinated by everything you do, are genuinely interested in where you’re from, and constantly try to please, and you’re still not even close. Albeit, there are situations where fascination and interest verge on obsession and the attempts to please become a last desperate attempt to drain some rupiah from your wallet. However, in general, the extra attention is pleasant and I’m not terribly excited about returning to a place where I’m not considered a wealthy princess by the majority of people.

I might even miss being woken at 4.30 am every morning by the call to prayer that echoes all over the city, or coming back from lunch with my mouth burning because I didn’t know what I was ordering once again. I’ll feel weird walking to the checkout in a grocery store without my fruit weighed, or ordering a glass of wine for under $10. The shop keepers will no doubt be confused when I start haggling and the taxi drivers will think I’m joking handing over $10 for a 40 min cab ride.

When something scares you but you do it anyway, nine times out of ten it will be rewarding. The one time it probably won’t work out is if a Bengal tiger scares you but you hop in the cage anyway, and much to my relief Indonesia was not a Bengal tiger. However, I did get pretty close on one of our many weekend adventures as we didn’t stay in Jakarta for longer than a few days at a time. It’s hard to stay put when there are volcanoes, exotic animals and ancient temples just a few hours drive or $50 plane fare away. White water rafting, volcano climbing, shopping, shopping, shopping, snorkelling, shopping, massages, pedicures and shopping made up the majority of our free time activities.

Shopping deserves repeated mention in the above list as it comes in many different varieties in Indonesia, from flea markets, to fake Louis Vuitton to genuine Louis Vuitton. Despite having a generally less wealthy population, Indonesian retail surpasses anything in Australia easily. It’s hard to resist anywhere, but here it’s impossible because as soon as you touch something the shopkeeper has already wrapped it up and is taking your money. You come to realise that people with nothing are sharing the street with people who have everything.

No, Indonesia is not how you imagine and for this reason has the power to change you in ways you won’t notice until you think about going home. Not just in terms of how much you expect to pay for dinner or your political views on how we should manage poverty, but your entire concept of living and life. My initial thoughts were: Why are these people so happy all the time? Why don’t they just say ‘no’? I couldn’t understand how the traffic continued to flow at any speed or how some of the buildings were still standing, but I soon learned not to question the chaos. Then it occurred to me that maybe it wasn’t chaos, that maybe they were right and I was wrong. At this point I stopped applying the framework of analysis I’d been using my whole life and started being in Indonesia, which meant surrendering to its ways. I’ll touchdown in Australia with no place for idealism or practicality in my heart, and a better outlook on life because of it.