By Michele Fois (Sem 56/February 2023)
SOAS University of London
Dear reader, I don’t know you and probably never will, but I’d like to leave behind an honest and somehow romantic homage to what I have learnt from my experience in Indonesia for those who are interested.
The following are just a reflection of my personal view that would probably tell you more about me than Indonesia itself, but isn’t reality just a projection of what we are?
Firstly, let’s talk about people. Turns out, not all humans are the same, who would have thought? Who we are, at least in some way, is influenced by the environment we are exposed to, so get ready to experience some “weird” things and to change in a way that you probably hadn’t anticipated.
People in Java travel at a different speed, as if the pressing rules of time and productivity typical of capitalist societies do not apply here for the most part. Whether you will be attending classes, engaging in volunteering activities, internships or just hanging out with some friends, keep in mind that time moves slower here. Be ready to cope with unprecedented lateness, flaky teachers or colleagues, century-long smoke breaks, unorganized appointments, and the like. Just take a deep breath, enter this new reality where time is just a Western concept and be ready to wing it whenever you have to. This inherited calmness also reflects on the way conversations may go. Sometimes, when talking to Indonesians I noticed how they can go way longer without speaking before hitting their awkward-silence threshold than I could. They would just simply look at you or stare at nothing without not only saying a word but also not minding it at all. They would enjoy my company and presence while I would be internally feeling uncomfortable looking for something to say. Well, again, I learnt to be more present, and my brain naturally slowed down matching their life pace.
It’s so enjoyable to see how different people in different countries operate in social settings. Indeed, any society has their own unspoken rules or normalized behaviours. Prepare to be asked the same questions all the time, which may result a little nosey sometimes, about where you are from, how long you’ve been here and why you are here. Remember they do not do it with a bad intention, they are just friendly and curious. If you want to have fun, after a while you could just try answering the complete opposite of what is true and have fun playing into a character for a while, at least that’s what I did most of the times with the time-bound gojek encounters so that I could practice my language skills talking about different things. Another acceptable behaviour will be the sneaky or deliberate act of taking pictures of you, sometimes completely going against your privacy but also just to have fun. Try to go with the flow, say yes, be a yes-person, but be careful when you do that in really crowded places, because once the first brave Indonesian asks for their face to be forever immortalized with yours, then a swarm of “fans” will be likely to approach you and perhaps make you wish you had politely refused the first request. It is cool and the funniest way to engage with the locals, do not get me wrong, but it could become overwhelming really easily. Why do they always want to take pictures of you? To this day I have no idea, but my theory is that they do not often see a foreigner and just think you are interesting looking. Do not think you are any special, this happens to everyone <3.
Now…the language. Oh gosh what a ride. If you have studied the language prior to arrival, what they hadn’t told you in class is probably that once you will arrive here, you will not be able to understand much but also you will feel like what you had learnt was not that useful. The way they REALLY speak here, outside the formal environment of class, is completely different. The locals, whether in a market, village, fishing spot or cock-fighting arena (maybe not?!) will most probably talk to you using a mix of Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa X (being any of the other 700 or so languages in the archipelago), depending on where you are. For example, in Java they would code-switch between Javanese and Indonesian, sometimes not even realizing which one of the two they are speaking to you and taking for granted you know at least a little bit of both. Instead, if you are lucky enough to talk to someone that speaks only Bahasa Indonesia to you, then they will speak an Indonesian that is pretty much 50% slang, so you will have to relearn certain things and change the way you speak. Well, if you have never studied Indonesian before, good luck. Take it easy, and please, please, please do not be the usual “bule” and learn at least the bases. It is fascinating to learn a new language. I found it stimulating and also awful at times, but at the end of the day language just adds a different color to the world and it is a really important tool.
What they will all tell you is to stay away from foreigners and immerse yourself in the real Indonesian culture, make Indonesian friends and bla bla. Of course this is what everyone should do, but let’s be honest: supposing it is your first time in Indonesia, you will be in a completely new environment, everything will feel different and you will be confused at first. So, do not be too harsh with yourself and indulge in some good ol’ english-speaking fellas if you feel the need to. Everyone does it, it is okay, we get it. Sharing your life experience with some other foreigner is also always useful to compare and learn more.
Once you will engage with Indonesians, you also need to know how things work here. Above all in Java, religion comes first. Indonesians are as a general rule of thumbs very spiritual, they would often be praying 5 times a day, and attend rituals, ceremonies and so on. Try to be respectful, to see the world from their point of view and be patient, especially when the call to prayer wakes you up at 4 am. Look for large patterns and ask big questions. Then, you need to understand that Indonesians celebrate EVERYTHING. From the most obvious things like weddings, funerals and births, to what we would consider less important stuff such as the opening of a new shop, certain months of pregnancy, as well as ceremonies embedded in their culture that promote good harvest, or are special dates connected to historical events or legends.
Oh, and do not get me started with legends! What a fascinating aspect of Indonesia. Every little place has their own story, sometimes real, sometimes less real, but always interesting to learn. Try asking the locals about them, you will get the most amazing tales in return. Generally speaking, everything for them is magical in some way, and every mountain, river, waterfall, stone could be a place of worship or the place of choice for a certain spirit or ancestor to dwell in. Forests are wild places where ghosts, spirits and whacky hermits can be encountered, the sea in the south is home of Nyi Roro Kidul, the Queen of the Southsea which hates the color green, and please do not upset the gigantic soul of the Mount Merapi because it could result in an eruption! Even if you do not believe in this stuff, Indonesians strongly do so and therefore you should never shy away from it. To give you a little teaser, if you will be living in Yogyakarta for example, you should know how the geographical territory according to Javanese tradition was created. A while before Java was even populated, it was just a world full of rifts and valleys and so to embellish it the god Bathara Bayu decided to lift up the Himalayas and to crumble it over Java resulting in four broken pieces. Such fragments then became what we now know as Merapi, Merbabu, Sumbing and Sundoro mountains. How interesting.
Now let’s talk a little bit about nature. If you are the brave kind like me, be ready to hurt yourself, maybe finish at the hospital a few times but have lots of fun anyway. If you are an Australian, well you are probably already used to deadly spiders, sea animals and lush forests. For me, a fella from Italy, it was such an adventure and always a discovery. But, after stepping on a stonefish and being unable to walk for three weeks I had to reconsider my position in nature. Nature has to be cared for, of course respected, but never underestimated. So be ready to have an amazing time here, enjoy the beaches, the endless coconuts available all around, the lush forests, the occasional monkeys, weird sounding birds, and many, many leeches. Always let ACICIS know where you are going (c’mon it takes a minute don’t be silly) and try to be aware of nature forces (and I mean earthquakes or tsunamis as well).
Finally, just try to enjoy the impermanence of things. You will meet people that will become close friends but then be ready to have to say goodbye to them, in the hope of meeting somewhere in the future. You will meet people that will make your day, teach you a new word, give you a cool-looking fruit, or invite you to pray with them. Enjoy these moments for what they are, create amazing memories and try to grow from this experience. I cannot recommend anything more than spending time in Indonesia, especially under the thoughtful care of the ACICIS staff, so if you are still thinking about it, I hope this gave you some food for thought and that you have a clearer idea in mind. Go outside your comfort zone, experience suffering and happiness, be human.
Feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org