Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Think I'm in Love

...with an entire country. I just got back from a weekend in Indonesia and had the best weekend I've had in a while.

Friday I boarded my flight to Denpassar, Bali, from which I transferred to a commuter route from Denpassar to Jogjakarta. Sitting in the airport at Denpassar was, at first, intimidating and overwhelming. I felt much more like a foreigner than I ever did in Korea, the reason largely being the huge difference in standard of life. There was no culture shock coming from the US to Korea because it's essentially the same expectations, just with different window dressing. Okay, so I don't touch people on the head and sometimes I bow when I say hello. I still have a flush toilet and Interet (both wired and wireless). Here it was different, I could sense already—white people did not usually come here to work and share the same standard of living as Indonesians (which is exactly what white people do in Korea), but to spend money and be rich. That knowledge creates quite a wide gulf, and I was glad to have a friend there—Chris—familiar with all the ins and outs of not being an asshole tourist.

But being in Denpassar—all of a sudden, I was a tourist. The entire weekend, I kept drawing parallels in my head between me and Stella in A Passage to India (a book which I was never fond of but am slowly learning to appreciate, if not aesthetically, then politically). Not only was I clearly a foreigner, but I was (to my estimation) clearly a foreigner in an entirely different income bracket. Store merchants were nice to me but also distant; they worked a bit harder to push a sale, figuring that my lack of pigmentation was inversely correlated with the amount of money in my bank account. And, given the typical bule in Indonesia (at least, by Chris' description), that would be a pretty sound observation to make.

The crowning moment in the airport at Denpassar, though, was entirely unrelated to any other human being. Waiting for my flight, I sat across from a snack stand, with goods sitting in a free-standing cabinet pushed against a wall. I noticed a cloud of black fuzz and assumed someone, blocked from my view, was dusting the top of the shelfs. The fuzz moved further and further to the right, until it was clear that it wasn't any kind of feather duster but, rather, a rat. A rat at least a foot long, minus the length of its tail. It scampered across the shelves and disappeared into an air duct or hole or something.

"Well," I said to myself, "I'm definitely not in Minlak-dong anymore."

A few hours later and Chris (and his new beard) met me at the airport in Jogjakarta. I changed into shorts and sandals and we hopped on the motorbike he had rented for the occasion. Fortunately, I had packed very light and fit everything into my bright yellow messenger/grocery bag, so we didn't have to navigate some clunky, awkward luggage on what was, essentially, a dirt bike—though over the course of my stay I saw many motorbike passengers handling much larger parcels than mine. The first few rides I maintained a death grip on his shoulders (being accustomed to the "oh shit" handles on Peter's scooter) but eventually I managed to relax a bit.

Our trusty steed.

After unloading at the hostel, we hit up a cafe called Via Via's, where some open mic jazz was happening, very Beat. We met a couple of Chris' friends and I had banana porridge and a cocktail served in a coconut shell, then went out to a bar where we drank shitty Indonesian beer and listened to a pretty good Indonesian cover band who seemed to specialize in The Police. Since our hostel had a curfew (we later changed), we called it an early night and collapsed in our beds at about 11.30 or so.

The next day we first spent shopping, after brunch at an adorable place called Bedhot's with a really chill vibe and really crazy art on the walls. I picked up a lovely piece of gold and deep red batik and had it tailored into a sarong, as well as a bracelet for my partner teacher, Mina. We found another hostel—one without a curfew—and moved our stuff, and then went to a (relatively) nearby Hindu temple, Prambanan.

Prambanan was absolutely massive and awe-inspiring in both its size and age. I could practically feel the age of the place down to my bones; I was overwhelmed. Insistent Indonesians asked us for pictures with them, and we obliged. Prambanan suffered significant damage during an earthquake a few years ago, and as a result much of it is under (re)construction.

Not so much.

And yes, watching construction workers in the twenty-first century work to rebuild an ancient structure like Prambanan did, indeed, make me think of the "Ship of Theseus" problem in philosophy. Lucky enough that Chris was a fellow philosophy kid around to appreciate that.

We met a rather chill Australian girl named Sara(h?) and shot the shit with her for a while, then hopped back on our motorbike to catch a ballet performance of Ramayana, replete with gamelan music. But, an incident! Not five minutes from Prambanan, the skirt I was wearing caught in the gears of the motor bike and suffered a massive rip, necessitating a return to the souvenir stalls at Prambanan where I bought an "emergency" wrap skirt, more batik in sky blue and navy. Chris called it "part of the Indo experience."

The last known photograph of this skirt before it met its untimely death at the hands of a motorbike gear.

After the ballet, we returned to our hostel and I discarded my now-useless skirt. We bought some alcohol at the Circle K, wandered around Malioboro street, and then checked out a club called The Republic. For 50,000 rupiah we got entrance and a free beer. The club was, as Chris put it, "deader than disco" and not half an hour passed before we jetted and met a friend of his outside the post office, and followed him to another club—Moshe or something like that, I think. They waived the cover fee for me, on account of being a girl. Inside the club, a house beat played incessantly, becoming one ridiculously long song. The place was the biggest club I've ever been in—granted, not saying much, but the clubs in Seoul (or at least in Hongdae) are small hole-in-the-wall affairs; this was warehouse-sized, with two levels and screens projecting tripped-out shit and a raised stage for dancing. And it was packed. I lost myself in the music and the activity and zoned out. A quote from Shunryu Suzuki came to mind: "In activity there is calmness; in calmness, activity." A certain haze hung over the dancing and the drinking, something almost meditative. Maybe that was the alcohol talking.

I probably could have stayed at the bar and surfed on that haze all night, but we decided if we'd come to a club we'd better dance. After I downed a pretty strong screwdriver (my fourth and last drink of the night), we took to the stage and danced a while. I had caught a good buzz and enjoyed myself thoroughly. We biked back to the hostel and changed into sarongs for sleeping. One of the nice things about sarongs is that you can easily exchange them with another piece of lower-body wear (say, pants) without ever having to expose anything untoward changing in or out of them; Chris and I would literally take our pants off right in front of each other and it wouldn't even matter.

The next day was a repeat performance of the previous one in many respects: breakfast and chit-chatting at Bedhot's, motorbiking to another mind-buggeringly ancient site: Borobudur. We stopped to get a memory card for my camera, so I was no longer chained to my camera's internal memory or reliant on Chris for pictures. Again, we were approached incessantly by Indonesians for pictures. I came up with an idea for a bule-based video game, where you'd have to navigate some setting in Indonesia, striking a balance between politeness and avoidance tactics when encountering Indonesians. Stop to take too many photos, and you miss your flight/appointment/etc. Don't take enough and you don't get enough "popularity" points to beat the level.

As we approached the top of Borobudur, the sky turned grey and I felt a light sprinkle of water land on me. "I think we just lost your bule game," Chris said. It looked like it was going to start raining before we could leave. We booked it to the very top of the temple, took some obligatory photos, and beelined back down. Fortunately, Mother Nature didn't really follow through on her threat and it didn't do anything more than drizzle. We purchased a few souvenirs on the (relatively) cheap, thanks to Chris' passable Bahasa. We found the motorbike and made to leave.

The view from the top of Borobudur.

A commotion by the entrance/exit made that impossible, though. We left the bike and went to investigate and found ourselves witness to a parade. We still don't know what, exactly, it was for, since it could either be a Muslim holiday or a Javanese tradition. Based on the dress, I'm inclined to think the latter, but one never knows. We got some pictures and watched until (we thought) it ended, then hopped on the bike to leave.

But no; as it turns out, the parade hadn't ended but instead was turning around to back the way it came, which was exactly the direction we wanted to go. Efforts to pass the festivities proved fruitless, so we just motored along with the traffic on either side of the parade. Since we were probably the only bules within a five mile radius, and definitely the only ones on motorbikes, it seemed like we were minor celebrities as a result. People waved and took pictures; Chris handed me his point-and-shoot and I grabbed a couple photos from the back of the motorbike and if he doesn't post them I shall be very cross indeed.

Eventually, the parade turned down another street and we continued on the road back to Jogja.

"That was awesome!" I cried, or something like that. That was easily the coolest thing I had ever done in a foreign country. I was still buzzing about it for the rest of the ride back to Jogja, about an hour or so.

On the ride back, we passed a big tourist bus full of bules, most of them middle-aged or retired-looking. I stared as we motored by, wondering what their experience of Indonesia was and how it compared to mine. They were probably staying at one of the big hotels in Jogja that caters specifically to Western tourists, which means it has things like air conditioning, hot water, room service, and flush toilets. Did they just sit in the bus or mill about in groups while their designated tour guide gave them lectures about whatever they were seeing? Or did they actually get to investigate and engage in the country, merely riding the bus from place to place? I was inclined to think it was the former, but I recognized the egotistical desire in myself to posture them as somehow "worse" than me, as "missing out," in my estimation of their activities. Really, there was no way I could know.

Nonetheless, at the very least I was glad to be doing things exactly as I was doing them: staying in a hostel on the cheap, tooling around on a motorbike, talking and waving to people. Staying in a hotel, doing the bus thing—that all smacked of tourism in the highest degree. Phony, somehow. I wouldn't have gotten to know you that way, Indonesia. It would have been a sham, a fraud, a glitzy image you project of pure tropical paradise, instead of the all the flaws and nuances of a beautiful country with serious, serious issues.

At one point while we were waiting for a light to change (I forget where we were going to or from), an Indonesian guy on the back of a bike saw us and stared a bit. Chris was too busy looking at the road to give him much notice, but I gave him the best smile I could. He smiled back, somewhat sheepishly, and I shifted my gaze elsewhere. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the lens bit of a camera phone at the ready, but I didn't really press the issue. It was a long light, so I occasionally looked back and smiled or waved, which the other always returned. The light changed and they ended up passing us, and I could see him looking and smiling as they sped away, putting his cellphone away. That couldn't have happened if we had been in a car.

Chris got a text message from an ETA friend of his, asking him to look for some earrings for her. We motored over to the neighborhood where she said she had seen them and gave it the old college try, but nothing of her description could be found. There was a lot of beautiful jewelry to be had, though. We gave up, returned our rented motorbike, dropped off our souvenirs at the hostel, and skulked around the marketplace some more to see if we really couldn't find them. We couldn't. But struck by a sudden burst of inspiration, Chris picked up the necessary ingredients for a "Tim Tam Slam" and we went to get food. We had dinner at a restaurant with good food and a nice, mellow atmosphere—though most of Jogjakarta seems to have a mellow atmosphere. We shot the breeze over a dinner of nasi goreng and discussed any number of things, and I was relieved to be in the company of a good college friend for the first time since December. While I've finally found a "crowd" in Korea, the hurt I felt for lack of my typical sort of "crew" hadn't entirely lost its sting. Fortunately, that's why I have the Internet. But still, nothing quite like face time with a living, breathing human. Especially one who will get references to xkcd, Douglas Adams, and MST3K.

In addition to our dinners, we had ordered a bottle of Mansion House rum (Indo's own bottom shelf) and a cup of hot water for hot chocolate, so we could try Tim Tam Slams (the rum is not in any way related to a Tim Tam Slam, which is a non-alcoholic New Zealand traditon). We were causing a minor commotion in the mostly-empty restaurant, and another bule, intrigued by what we were doing, joined us and ended up conversing with us for an hour, at least. She was a rather pretty Dutch hairdresser named Daisy (who bore a slight physical resemblance to Aspie_Dev's sister) on vacation in Australia and Indonesia for seven weeks. Chris gave her some advice as to where to go and where not to go, as well as the number of a good travel agent. Periodically, an Indonesian named (I think) Krishna ("but not Hare Krishna") chimed in and joked with us, goodnatured and good-willed, and again one of the few times where I felt like an Indonesian was not being friendly to me because I was a bule with money to spend, but because he just wanted to be friendly, from one human being to another.

The last Indo supper, nasi goreng and chicken in peanut sauce.
The last Indo beverages.

Attempting a Tim Tam Slam; I was not successful.

At some point during the conversation, Daisy got a call from her mom and had to go. By this point, we were done with our food and our Tim Tam Slams, so we paid and left for our hostel, where we intended to drink rum and play Carcasonne. We passed her outside the restaurant, still on the phone. We waved and meandered back to our hostel, picking up some necessary things for rum cocktails: OJ, soda, and makeshift cups. You can get water in plastic cups at the convenience stores in Indonesia, something like Capri Sun, only instead of a foil pouch, it's a plastic cup with a foil lid you poke your straw through. Convenient when you can't drink the tap water. Anyway, the idea was to quick down the water and then re-use the plastic cups for our drinks.

This tasted like amaretto gone horribly, horribly wrong.

After rum cocktails (and a shot for me, to prove that the rum wasn't really all that foul) and Carcasonne, we hit up a warnet (basically an internet cafe, minus the cafe) to see if Chris couldn't transfer me some of his pictures and music (including the album he wrote and recorded about Indonesia). The PC was a bit of a dinosaur and we had to abort mission when it became clear that our time would be better spent resting so Chris could catch his asscrack-of-dawn flight.

At about midnight, we collapsed in our hostel, knowing we'd have to be up and out of the place in about three hours. The alarm went off, and I was groggy and disoriented. But we got our shit together (and I only left behind a cheap comb and a tank top) and checked out of the hostel. The cab ride to the airport was not as long as we expected, so Chris and I hung around the airport, spending most of the time working on a song about the weird food I've eaten so far in Korea—tentatively titled "(Just) Put It In Your Mouth." He also talked to the Garuda ticket agent for me, to see if I could transfer my ticket from a Jogjakarta -> Jakarta -> Denpassar -> Seoul ticket to just a Jogjakarta -> Denpassar -> Seoul one. Before he could finish, though, they announced his flight back to Makassar, so we had to part ways. We hugged and off he went to catch his flight, and I milled about, depressed.

I was leaving behind a friend and going back to my job, which, while not awful, was not as awesome as vacation, and I had forgotten the USB cable for my mp3 player so I had been unable to charge it after listening to it for pretty much my entire flight to Indonesia, (which was about 10 hours or so). I had also forgotten a book, though Chris stepped up on that front and loaned me one of his. Therefore, I had little means of entertainment and hours to kill that numbered in the double digits (since I had successfully transfered my reservation to a flight with fewer layovers that didn't leave until 7 pm). I slept lightly on the bench, clutching my bags to myself (one thing about you that I will not miss, Indonesia, is the prevalence of pickpockets, especially coming from the stalwartly honest Korea, but nonetheless I understand what poverty will do to you; Korea can afford to be honest), and alternated between reading, listening to rationed bits of music, and thinking about my NaNo '09 project or the song ideas I had about being a weigukin in Korea. At one point, rummaging through my bag for something else, I came across a pen that Chris had (inadvertently?) left me (we had been using it to write "(Just) Put It In Your Mouth" but I had put all of the supplies for that away in a hurry to talk to the Garuda Indonesia agent). I spent the rest of my time writing more lyrics and planning out my NaNo with ink and paper.

By this point, I was absolutely out of rupiah and unable to get more (my Korean debit card didn't work in Indonesia, and I had left the one for my bank account in America at home for safety concerns). Chris kindly spotted me some cash for the departure tax but I didn't want to spend any of that for obvious reasons. I paid the first one in Jogjakarta without any problems, but I ran into problems at Denpassar and could only scrounge about half of the amount. Fortunately, I could use my Visa card by this point.

No other airport I've seen exists for the sole purpose of selling crap to tourists that Denpassar does. The "gate" consists of just a bench or two and endless stretches of stores. I looked at the jewelry, bought some water with my leftover rupiah, and also picked up a Bintang tanktop.

I people-watched in the gate at Denpassar, and caught a glimpse of this little scene, which was just heartwarming:


The flight I was taking out of Bali was headed, ultimately, for Berlin, so there were a fair amount of Germans milling about the gate. This little German girl—probably the Platonic ideal of the Indonesian idea of "bule," or white person—made a quick friend of this Indonesian woman (as well as the other woman in the background, holding a baby), and they spent a fair amount of the time playing and making faces at each other, or making faces at the baby. It was the sweetest thing I saw during my time in Indo, probably.

And then, sad to say, I had to leave. My heart broke as I boarded the plane, sunburnt and probably looking ridiculous in my Lehigh football t-shirt and sarong (sarongs are either used in religious/traditional ceremonies, or really casual, "lounge-around-the-house" wear, plus mine was also rolled like a man's, since that was the only way Chris knew well enough to show me). But the heartbreak only steeled my resolve even further: yes, some day I would come back to you, Indonesia and Jogjakarta. I had done and seen much in my all-too-short time, but there was still so much left to do. Part of me is entertaining the thought of a year or two teaching there; we'll see how that goes.


  1. Have you ever had a chance to see Year of Living Dangerously? It's a Mel Gibson film from when he was really young - it would be cool to see it right after visiting Indonesia!!!
    Karen H.

  2. Heh.

    Now imagine that party every weekend for a year. And, for that matter,every weekday. It gets exhausting, but also hella exhilarating.

    I love Indo, and when you come back, let me know so we can do a repeat of last weekend somewhere else. I suggest Flores and Komodo.


  3. What, you're saying you'd fly all the way back out to Indo from wherever you are whenever I make it there next for another crazy-ass weekend? I mean that's (probably) a long goddamn flight.