Jakarta or Bali?

Body boards for hire at Dreamland, Bali

One of the first things that an Indonesian will assume about an expat, is that the reason that they are in Indonesia is that they love Bali. And one of the first things an expat may think about Indonesia, if they are more of the garden variety suburban types (such as myself) is that Indonesia consists of one main island, Bali, and on that island you can spend a lot of time on the beach, get a tan, find cheap beer, buy pirated DVDs, get your hair plaited and buy a colourful shirt with some geckos on it. And most people in Australia, from minimum wagers to those whose bank accounts are overflowing, can afford a trip to Bali at least once in their lives. You can see spot an Aussie easily in Bali – they are either sunning themselves at some fancy resort, or picking a fight with a bemused Indonesian at 3am after one too many arak attacks.

Before I left Australia to live in Jakarta, a friend of my brothers, who had studied Indonesian culture at university (thus knew more about Indonesia than just Bali) asked me what I why I was going to move my life to Jakarta. I told him (and I am cringing here) that I had been to Bali and knew that Indonesians were friendly people, so I guessed that the Indonesians in Jakarta would be friendly too. He asked me “are you living in Jakarta or Jogyajakarta?” and I responded, “umm, maybe Jakarta” and he shook his head and told me that maybe Indonesians would appreciate it a bit if I knew something about their country before I got there.

So I bought a book about Indonesia to read on the plane (a lot of preparation) and discovered that I was moving to an island called Java; Jakarta was in the west and Jogya was in the centre. Java was the most populated island in Indonesia, it used to be the centre of trade, and when the Dutch claimed it as their very own colony, they destroyed the kingdoms by pitting them against each other, took over the farmers land, and planted cash crops like sugar, all over the island and in turn eventually made the Netherlands, (who prior to “founding” the colony were on the brink of bankruptcy) extremely wealthy, and subsequently made Indonesians extremely poor, and with no land left and traditional ways of earning a living gone, millions of people eventually made their way to Jakarta with the hope of being able to survive there.

Yes, this is a crude rewriting of history, apologies if I am in error here. Even when the Dutch were here, Jakarta had become unmanageable; no infrastructure, no clean water, houses built on top of other houses, masses of people leaving their home land, or being removed from it, and winding up in Jakarta, people trying to find room to live; the Dutch did nothing to maintain the city, did nothing to educate Indonesians, so by the time they left Jakarta was a bit of a mess. And it still is.

But there is something special about living in Jakarta despite all this. It was when I went to Bali after a few months in Jakarta that I really realized why I love Jakarta.

When you go to Bali, particularly notorious areas such as Kuta, Ubud and Legian, the majority of people you will see there are expats. Every time you leave your room, although it has certainly changed since the days when the thousands of watch sellers would follow you down the street applying the pressure to buy a fake Swatch watch, someone will offer you something. And then you will get the same offer a hundred more times before you reach your destination. “Transport, transport, transport, transport…massage, massage, massage, massage”. It is said almost robotically and if you want to see a show choose a spot to sit in a café where you can watch the Indonesians say “massage, massage” etc and watch as the tourists jump a little, then veer off as far away from the Indonesians as possible onto the roadside, maybe shake their head a little and clutch on to their newly purchased fake Calvin Klein bag. Meanwhile, the Indonesians, unfussed, continue their conversations with their friends until the next expat comes along, and you can see them jump again.

Again, I may be making mass generalizations here, so you can refute me if I am wrong, but I have a feeling that the majority of tourists who go to Bali are actually bored shitless. I mean, it’s a great fantasy to go away and have an island holiday after a hard year’s work; to see yourself sunning yourself on the beach all day and sipping cocktails all night, but the reality is that when you have a week’s holiday; it is impossible to relax, you are too wound up. You sit on your banana lounge on the beach and sellers come up offering you their wares – they see you wearing sunglasses so know you like sunglasses and try and sell you more, they see you lay down your new Balinese batik sarong, assume you like those, so try and sell you another one (hey, buddy, I have one already, I don’t need another one!). So you can’t relax on your beach lounge so you decide to walk around and look in the shops; oh wow, they have a Just Jeans and Gap, just like at home, with the same prices. So you go to the market and buy a Bintang singlet and some souvenirs to make your friends jealous, but get scared cause all those people are trying to sell you more things you don’t want. So you try some watersports, go bungee jumping, get a massage, a pedicure, get drunk again and return home, go back to work, and look forward to the week end again.

On the other hand of course, there are people who find paradise there. If you love to surf you can hire a motorbike for peanuts with a surf board rack on the side (I have almost been wiped out several times by these mad surfers), enjoy the freedom of no road rules, cruise around looking for waves by day and at night cruise around looking for women (or men); and you will find these in abundance, alongside cheap beer, local (head pounding) wine and all night dance parties. You can befriend the beach boys (anak pantai) and they can take you to their favourite surf spots. Or you can befriend an anak pantai and take him home as your husband. Backpackers meet other backpackers, find a travelling companion or a holiday romance and spend the day seeking adventures. Yes, it’s a mixed bag.

The thing about Bali is, it seems to have been shaped by what tourists want, it is a tourist paradise, but in this world you, as a tourist, may find it hard to meet a Balinese person who sees you as more than a way of making some money. People who work in the world of tourists are a lot smarter than the tourists themselves, maybe those who have been backpacking for a while, the more ‘seasoned’ travelers, are wiser than the Aussies fresh off the boat, but you have entered their world, and while you may feel you have the power, you may find yourself after asking someone, “where is a good place to get some fresh seafood where the locals eat?” at a huge and expensive restaurant on the beach as traditional dancers sashay around your table, thinking “hmm, this isn’t what I had in mind”.

Bali is an island that is rich in tradition. Hindus have a festival for every occasion, people respect their elders, they have intricate layers in their society which they hold onto, every house has a temple to make offerings, they have a lot of gods to appease, they are fighters – you know, when the Dutch came to take over Bali, the Balinese fought them off – men, women and children on the battlefield (which their land had become), and when they realized that they were going to lose, they committed mass suicide rather than surrendering to Dutch power. But once you get there, maybe the Balinese are protecting the richness of their culture from outsiders; maybe they just want to show a little of what they are made of at public festivals or dance performances, but if you just visit Bali for a short time, anything more than this is hard to find. You are just there to help the economy. And that’s fair enough. But not always satisfying.

This is all of course a matter of personal opinion, so you can disagree with me of course, but my preference is to travel to new places to see what makes it tick, rather than go shopping, find cheap things or meet more Australians. I like random adventures, cultural exchanges and seeing things that you don’t see every day, that are really just normal for the local population.

That’s why I like Jakarta. The Jakarta experience is different. Jakarta isn’t made for tourists; it’s made for Indonesians. If people come to Jakarta on a stop over, they look afraid; they grit their teeth and try and wait patiently for their train to depart to Jogyajakarta. While in Bali, like in other tourist paradises, the locals may want to talk to you to eventually sell you something (and the more seasoned travelers are very wary of this so try and avoid contact), in Jakarta and (and Jogya and Sumatra and on and on) people just want to have a chat for chatting’s sake. They want to practice their English, to know that you like Indonesian food, to ask you random questions they had been wondering about bules (“do you only eat bread and cheese?”), and then they wave goodbye.

When Tash came back from a visa run to Singapore, she caught the shuttle bus from the airport to Blok M, and as usual, got talking to the people on the bus, one friendly man in particular, and when the bus dropped them off at their destination, the man’s family was there to greet him and they insisted on driving Tash to Kemang; mum, dad, brother and sister, driving out of their way to ensure she was safe; swapping phone numbers and facebook accounts, offers of dinners or any other help she may need.

This is why we love Jakarta. The treasure is not buried deep here. It’s everywhere.
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8 Responses to “Jakarta or Bali?”

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  1. Iain says:

    I like Bali because i have too many kids to do connecting flights. It’s that simple. Different strokes i guess. Holiday RooOoooAOooood.

    • Huh? How many kids do you have? Don’t you want to fly direct from Melbourne to Jakarta with Garuda? or do your hundreds of children that live in the shoe with you not want to come and suck up some poisonous air?

      • Dude who needs a vasectomy stat says:

        4. comment was more about other asian holiday destinations which aren’t quite as easy to get to. We love poisonous air.

  2. I love Bali and I pretty much wanted to refute every paragraph you wrote with some cleverly thought out argument. But you’re actually right with almost everything you wrote. If you choose to go to Bali for a week in kuta, you get a certain type of holiday that is not for me. But for other people it is perfect and I’m ok with that. The thing is that as soon as you get outside of the tourists towns, much like in Jakarta, you’re no longer treated like a tourist but a friend or a special guest. That’s what many people seek and fail to get in Bali and I think its up to visitors to do a bit of research and find out where this is possible.

    • you are absolutely right with your comments – my ideas were certainly subjective and some people are very happy in Bali and call it a second home and are happy to be treated like a guest. If I didn’t expect more from my travels, Bali would be perfect for me too! Thanks for your comment.

  3. this post is very usefull thx!

  4. Do you people have a facebook fan page? I looked for one on twitter but could not discover one, I would really like to become a fan!


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