The joy of solitude
When I first got to Indonesia over ten years ago, just after9/11, I have to say that I was utterly naïve, even ignorant about virtuallyeverything to do with the country. I knew not one word of the language, littleof its history, and less of its geography. That, of course, is largely why Iwas there.
I did know that Borneo was there; so were Sumatra, Java, and Bali. All of those places were virtually synonymous with exotic. That, combinedwith the fact that I had just finished a book, was at loose ends, and that I had been hired to help start up an English language curriculum school in a Jakarta suburb were all the motivation I needed to relocate to a place that was about as far from my then home as one could get without actually leaving the planet.
I got to Jakarta with a few days to spare and had decided to acclimatise myself to the country by staying in a downtown hotel for a few days before moving out to Bekasi and wading into my new duties. The hotel was a mid-priced Indonesian one that seemed to have been designed for middle-management business travellers. It was pleasant, rather small, and best of all, virtually deserted after the breakfast rush. Not yet accustomed to the Indonesian predilection for rising before dawn and being on the way to workwith first light, I always arrived at the breakfast buffet as the staff was considering shutting it down. This was no problem as I usually only wanted some fruit and several coffees, so the cleanup went on around me while I read the English language local daily and then tried to decipher one of the local Indonesian dailies. My routine then included a walk around one or another Jakarta district where I’d practice my fledgling Indonesian on shopkeepers and peoplewho would stop me out of amazement at running into a bule. During the hottest part of the days, the early afternoons, I would retreat to the completely empty hotel dining room and read or write or try to study the language.
That’s where I got my first real understanding of the difference between Indonesian culture and that with which I was familiar. On the very first day I had initiated this routine, a pretty little Indonesian girl wearing a kitchen staff uniform, and with a friendly smile indicated that she’d like to join me. I gestured for her to sit down and we had no conversation at all other than smiles and gestures. She stayed there showing no signs of leaving, and I had work to do, so eventually I let her know that I had to go. She smiled and acknowledged it and we said what passed for farewell.
The next day, the scene repeated itself; different girl,same conversation. I eventually learned that the whole scenario represented a fundamental aspect of the Indonesian culture. The Indonesian equates solitude with loneliness. The idea of a person sitting alone in a restaurant or bar, or anywhere else, for any period of time is just heartbreaking to the highly social Indonesian. There are adults who quite literally have never spent more than a few minutes alone in their lives. It seems that the hotel staff had become aware of my lack of companionship and as part of their hospitality had assigned a staff member to keep me company
That I would have preferred to be alone, that I was working,that solitude did not, to me at any rate, constitute a desperation for companionship…all these were entirely alien concepts. And, not to put too fine a point on it, that mindset is one of the things that it can be a relief to leave behind when one returns to the west.
In Indonesia, like anywhere else, no matter how much I care for people or enjoy their company, there comes a point where I crave simplybeing left alone. That doesn’t happen in Indonesia. One is always surrounded by immediate family, the house always is alive with friends and servants, and with the exception of whatever time one can spend in the bathroom, one is always being sociable. Even for that matter, in the bathroom you can’t count on solitude. In many cases the three or four times daily mandi is a social exercise. Being left alone to read would be unthinkable rudeness on the part of whoever caught you doing it.
Not only is solitude considered a social pathology, but thevery act of reading for no apparent purpose is considered decidedly bizarre.The most charitable remark I ever heard was from an Indonesian flight attendantwho, seeing that I had spent most of a three hour flight engrossed in a book,said, “It’s a good thing to have a hobby!” as though I were engaged within-flight lepidoptery or other eccentric behaviour.
And so the sea-change.
|Patrick Guntensperger (Pagun) hard at work (photo courtesy of Sylvie, waitress extraordinaire)|
Here I am in Parksville, sitting blessedly alone in a half full bar called the Rod and Gun Club, where I know many people and all the waitresses. I am left to my own devices except for the occasional refilling ofmy glass and friendly waves when there comes a shift change. I have my laptop, access to WiFi, a quiet but not stultifying atmosphere, and all the company Iwant if and when I want it. I have done more work in two days on my book than I did in two weeks in Indonesia and have posted for the first time on this blog since I left the country…all due to the respect people have for other peoples’ right simply to be left alone.
I miss my wife and I miss my little boy desperately. I even miss the extended family and to a lesser extent I even miss the people I sometimes don’t know who seem to hang around or wander in and out of the Manado house. But I am very glad indeed to have some autonomy over whether a rapidly developing misanthrope like me has to be sociable.