Lessons from Jakarta

Careful of the footpaths on Kemang Raya.....

... more gaping holes on Kemang Raya....

A great thing about living in a new place is that it makes all of the things that you thought were ‘normal’ become ‘strange’. All of your habits, routines, rules that you live by; things that you think are valuable or of the most importance, often lose their sense of urgency or significance as you fumble around the new world you find yourself living in.

This is very true in Jakarta. As I have written about before; to become a bule is to become an ‘other’ and through an Indonesian’s eye, you can see the absurdities about yourself. For me, because of my culture and upbringing, I have a feeling that I don’t want to be in anyone’s way and that I will probably get in trouble at some point throughout the day. This trouble may come from one of the ever-increasing ways that our government has of sucking money from us; speeding fines, parking tickets, smoking in the wrong place, putting your feet up on a seat, no seatbelt, no helmet, crossing the road outside of the approved crossing area, not wearing protective clothing, having a broken light, eating food on the bus; the list is endless.

The other reason we often find ourselves in trouble is when we get in someone’s way; people are busy, they don’t have time for fools, for questions, for requests, and they have so many rules which they must follow themselves; so people have their head down and charge through, trying to avoid conflict, to avoid fines, to avoid knocking into someone.

So if we need to order something at a restaurant, we have our meals selected before we dare seek the attention of the waiter; if we have to pay for the bus, we make sure we have the correct change ready; if we have to line up at the post office, we have our envelopes addressed, our bills facing up the right way, and our credit cards armed and ready. At an airport, our luggage is already packed and labeled before we reach the counter. And for me, there is a slight sense of panic if I am not ready when it is my turn; panic that the people behind me will start breathing heavily, and the person at the counter will tell me off. It is very deeply ingrained in my conscience – or subconscious..is it?

When I first came to Jakarta, I held onto these rules firmly and added to my rules was the fact most people don’t speak English, thus my time at the counter would increase as I attempted to explain what I needed or ask questions with my very grammatically incorrect and difficult-to-understand level of Bahasa Indonesia. Once when I went to a restaurant, I already had the menu at home so I used google translate to work out what each thing on the menu was, and practiced saying “saya mau pesan sate ayam dengan nasi putih. Saya mau pesan satu es lemon teh” before I went to the restaurant. Of course when my script was finished, I had no idea what was going on, but I tried to be prepared.

When I walked along the roads, as there are no footpaths (or those that they do have here have dangerously large gaping holes where you look straight into the drains full of sewerage-smelling murky water, scurrying rats or plastic bags – one man told me that he was walking with his friend having a chat and suddenly his friend disappeared – he looked back and there he was knee-deep in sludge – it’s a common story), I would walk as far left as I could off the road so as not to get in anyone’s way; step through the mud and puddles and jump over holes rather than walk on the road. If you walk on the road in Australia, someone will think you are drunk, will definitely toot their horn at you, will maybe call out an insult and will sometimes swerve towards you just to freak you out and teach you a lesson.

But after living in Jakarta, there are some lessons that I have learned.

One lesson I have learned is being at work doesn’t mean that you actually have to work. In Australia, even if you have nothing to do you try and look busy (shuffling papers was my favourite one). Even though people are always inventive enough to find ways to slack off at work, if the boss comes you immediately flick your screen away from facebook back to the database; you stop talking and start typing, doing anything to look busy. But at my workplace in Jakarta, Indonesians sign in and then sit in the kitchen for half an hour and have breakfast and are amazed every day that I ate before I came. A large and important part of the day is spent chatting and laughing, with a little nap thrown in for good measure.

Although people here can work very long hours, the hours spent actually ‘working’ are very minimal (and for $100 a month, I wouldn’t work very hard either). When I watch the satpam at work or in other places; they work a bit to help people leave the carpark, or checking that the right people are going in and out; but the major part of the day is having a chat, waiting for the gorengan (food fried beyond recognition – my personal favourite is sinkong – enak sekaaaaali) to be delivered, smoking endless cigarettes, having a little nap, chatting some more, listening to their 2 favourite songs on their mobiles, and SMSing their families about what they want for dinner. They have mastered the art of nonkrong (sitting and doing nothing).

The Indonesian work ethic effects many things; for one, it is okay to not be prepared when the waiter comes, they will stand and wait patiently, either daydreaming or else chatting with you about what’s on the menu, Indonesians will ask a million questions about what is in each dish; where it originates from; if they cook it in sambal from Manado or Lampung; they are in no hurry to order and the waiter is in no hurry to take the order.

Here in Jakarta, you don’t wait until the waiter looks available before you call them over; even if they are balancing 27 dirty plates while trying to deliver 17 cups of steaming kopi susu, you still have the right to call out “mas” (for men) or “mbak” (for women) and they may come straight away. What I have learned is that you don’t have to wait for someone to be free before you request something. If they are on the phone you simply put your money on the counter and place your order; if you walk into a warung and the cook is busy taking another order or cooking up a storm, you just call out what you want.

When I first came Indonesian friends laughed at my style of calling to the waiters; it was a very apologetic “permiiiiiiiiisi (excuse me), maaaaaaaaas” (hoping that I wasn’t intruding in their busy schedule). Now I have learned that a quick and clear “mas” will be more readily understood and acted upon than my old style. And the eternal wait in a dark restaurant or bar for someone to see your pleading, thirsty eyes can be overcome by simply flicking your lighter on an off; it’s brilliant.

And waiting for someone to be ready just means that a thousand Indonesians will place their order or stand in front of you and get what they want while you stand there shaking and perplexed and getting annoyed that no one is paying attention to you, the good citizen doing the right thing.

It seems that standing in line is not an acceptable part of Indonesian culture, and what I am trying to learn is to be more assertive, to hold my ground in the crowd of people and to try and avoid the feeling that I want to knock over the person in front of me for pushing in.

At the airport, it is okay to not be ready when you get to the counter. In fact, you don’t even have to line up, just storm to the front and wave your piece of paper in front of the staff member’s face, and then repack your bag, ask questions about the weather in your destination, what you should do on your holiday, or else stand there waiting for the man you paid a tiny sum of money to wheel your trolley full of 30 boxes of oleh-oleh (you never come home without oleh-oleh – specialty cakes and biscuits from the place you visited are essential items), then recount it, wait for your family to come from the toilets, then take your 15 pieces of hand luggage to the next stage of the checking-in process. The people behind you won’t be breathing heavily, unless they are bules.

When I walk on the side of the road here, I no longer walk far to the right; I follow the Indonesian example and walk wherever I want to assuming that the cars and bikes and horses and food carts will go around me. This is the same when I ride my bike. No one has yelled at me yet or tried to hit me. In Indonesia people are always so close to each other; they fill up all of the space, and will make just a little bit of space to let you through. Cutting someone off on the road is a part of life here, not worth worrying or tooting about; you just take the space you can get and be strong with the conviction that you deserve that bit of space, and go on your merry way.

I was taught that when you turned right in a car or on a bike, or when you walked across the road that you looked right and left and “then if the road is clear of traffic, walk straight across the road, don’t run, walk straight across the road”. Here that just doesn’t work. If you are walking across the road, just put your hand out and shake it a little and hope that the car or bike hurtling towards you will stop, or on a bike or in a car, just wait (well there is no law saying you have to wait at all) for (maximum) the left side to be clear and then pull out onto the wrong side of the road then ease your way into the right side of the road. It’s brilliant. Those impossible right hand turns I hated doing in my home suburb which could take more than 10 minutes of waiting impatiently for the busy road to clear, now takes only 1 minute maximum in the most transport-ridden city of all.

Other lessons I have learned is that it is ok to fall asleep at any time of the day, it is ok to smoke where you want (no need to not smoke around old people or children), you only need to wear a helmet if you are driving on the busy roads and a helmet is never necessary on a bicycle. It is ok for your favourite musicians to advertise 25 different products (they are not ‘sell outs’), it is ok to buy pirated everything and to think that KFC is an ideal place to meet your friends (they have the most seats, wifi and rice). It is ok to buy your coffee at Starbucks and to think that Circle K is an Indonesian shop. It is ok to be over 14 and be a fan of Justin Beiber and to think that Bruce Willis is sexy. It is ok to listen to the worst romantic songs and to be moved to tears by a Jennifer Aniston movie. It is ok to drop your rubbish on the street and to burn piles of rubbish (plastic included) on a busy street.

It is ok to ask a thousand questions before you buy anything. It is ok to get the shop assistant to open up books and clothes and anything that is wrapped up; to take up an hour of their time and then walk away without buying anything.

What I like the most about the lessons I have learned, or am trying to learn, is that it is ok to be in someone’s way and it is ok to get what you want. Sometimes I don’t know why these things are so hard to learn. It is stressful to be a bule and to be bound by so many rules and expectations.

And I have a long way to travel before I can ingest the true “santai” of being an Indonesian.

Stay tuned for some more lessons from Jakarta as we fumble our way through.

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8 Responses to “Lessons from Jakarta”

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  1. Ayu says:

    Such a great story (may I call it story?)
    I’m not bule and yet I found it’s hard to understand how people thinking in Jakarta.
    Life goes on anyway, so we just enjoy it while we here.
    Oh, can I buy you singkong goreng? I know the best vendor in Jakarta 🙂

    • Hi Ayu! Thanks for your comment on my story – haha. Actually I have the same feeling that I don’t understand how people think in Australia, some things are just more familiar than others! If you know the secret of the best singkong goreng, I would love to know! My taste buds are tingling just thinking about it.

  2. Alyano says:

    ohh “santai”… i love to take the positive things from it, take easy on everything, cause you’ll always find the way to solve problems.

  3. James Clark says:

    I have often wondered how many people fall into those holes while walking along. I call them tourist traps because tourists are usually looking around at everything (myself included).

    • hahaha that’s hilarious – I like that! After walking around with dad last night on the way into Kemang and having to vocalise every trap we saw (watch out – hole, speedhump, small child, post that shouldn’t be there, another hole, rat), it would be quite funny if Tash did a whole series on tourist traps – there are so many of them here – no wonder there aren’t many tourists.

  4. Lis says:

    These stories were so refreshing to read. Though reading this one, I can’t help but thinking us Indonesians will get loads of troubles adjusting to the Westerners’ way of lives! As you said, we’re really santai here.. rules were made to be broken.

    It will be interesting to see how Indonesians try to survive in the Western World.

  5. Asiah says:

    aargh, it’s hillarious. im trying to stop myself from laughing, bust i just cant help. im giggling while reading your post. haha. 😀 though im exremely annoyed when others are doing that, sometimes im doing that too. and its so funny reading it from others perspective.

  6. Asiah says:

    ah, may i share the link to this blog? there’re so much hilarious piece i couldnt wait to share. i hope you forgive me for sharing the link onmy twitter.
    cheers 🙂