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Fear and loathing in Paradise

An unhappy country of unhappy people

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta Indonesia


For all of my bitching and whining about Indonesia, clearly the country holds some attraction for me. I have, after all, spent more than ten years here and have written almost obsessively about the place; it is my wife’s country of birth, and it’s where my son was born, too. Climate like you would imagine paradise has to offer, and in some, even most, parts of the country away from the big cities, beautiful beyond words.

Nevertheless, I do bitch about this place frequently and at length. But pretty much everything I find exasperating about Indonesia has to do with the people and their social behaviour… not the country itself. This could be a paradise on earth, but the Indonesian people are unhappy and seem to want everyone else to be; they certainly go out of their way to make themselves and everyone else miserable.

Unhappy people;unhappy country

The face of joy

On the face of it, an archipelago which is made up of 17,000, tropical islands, strung along the equator, only a fraction of which are inhabited and nearly half of which haven’t even been explored should be a tourist’s wet dream; it should be ground zero for ecotourism in the most benign climate on earth. A flight over the archipelago reveals island after island which would make a perfect castaway atoll; square miles of untouched jungle surrounded by white sand beaches protected by coral reefs, punctuated by lagoons with freshwater waterfalls and streams from lakes in the craters of dead volcanoes pouring into the saline inlets. Because of Captain James Cook and the Royal Navy’s policy of releasing a breeding pair of pigs (as potential sustenance for potential British castaways), on every uninhabited island they came across they have an indigenous population of wild pigs as well as monkeys, lizards of all sorts, and an unfathomable assortment of tropical birds. The fish, shellfish, and other edible denizens of the coral reefs surrounding the pristine islands are amazingly abundant, coconut palms predominate and the fruit trees on the islands are productive and enormously varied…you’d have to be a halfwit not to survive comfortably on almost any of these postcard little paradises.

What’s not to like?

 I used to believe that the Indonesian culture included an utter indifference bordering on disdain for strangers, or anyone outside of their immediate circle of family and friends. That belief was developed as the result of years of living within a society where people think nothing about elbowing others out of their way, pile into elevators without a moment’s hesitation to allow passengers to exit, where shouting in the hallways of hotels in the middle of the night is commonplace, where people simply toss their trash wherever they happen to be, and a thousand other indications of absolute lack of consideration for the convenience or even the existence of others.

 Recently I was stepping up onto a sidewalk with the intention of using an ATM. A woman was standing in the doorway of the ATM, holding it open, as in thought. She suddenly turned and shrieked at the top of her lungs to a friend across the street, but directly into my face with a voice that would have loosened Marlee Matlin’s bowels, close enough that I could tell that she had just eaten nasi goreng for lunch; had her mouth been open one more millimetre during her window shattering address to her friend, I could have told you what she had had for breakfast. She then irritably elbowed me to one side and repeated the bellow as I wiped spittle from my eyes and poorly chewed bits of rice off my face. I was in the way, you see, and I just didn’t register as a human being to her, let alone a human being deserving of at least the bare minimum of consideration, despite the fact that I was now handicapped by deafness and near blindness from the pong of sambal that acted as pepper spray on my air pollution-weary eyes..

Nevertheless, to be fair, I no longer believe that the Indonesian cultural imperative has to do with indifference to others. I believe it has to do with active hostility to others. It is apparent that there is, in Indonesian culture, an inclination to make life as uncomfortable for others as one can without (in many cases) actually mugging them.

 It is so common an observation that it’s no longer a joke that the motto of the service industry as well as the public service (one hesitates to employ the word “civil”) in Indonesia is’ “Why make it easy when you can make it hard?” Everything from retail outlets to access to buildings and the offices within seem to be deliberately set up in such a fashion as to make  life difficult for the person who wishes to make use of them.

 Try to buy a can of baby formula in one of the largest chain stores (Carrefour) in the country.

 Although the parent company is French, I’m willing to bet that in France, one doesn’t have to go through the following procedure: Ask three employees where in the store one can find that particular commodity and get three different answers, ranging from “We don’t carry it,” through, “We’re sold out,” to “over there, maybe.” Find the item on a shelf with a chain preventing you from taking it. Find a junior manager or security guard to find a junior manager who finally arrives with a key to release the chain. The item is handed over but has a security band with an electronic device attached. Take the item to a special cash register at the end of the aisle; find another junior manager or security guard to find a cashier for you. Pay for it in cash because their credit card reader won’t work with credit cards with a PIN. The junior manager then removes the security device, places the can of formula into a zippered canvas bag, much like a bank deposit bag, which she then locks with a key attached to her belt and hands you the cash register receipt. You finish your shopping and go to the lineup at the cashier which extends a few hundred metres down the aisle. Of course, although this is prime shopping time, there are only two or three out of perhaps thirty cash lines open, despite there being literally dozens of cashiers at their cash registers gossiping. They’re “resting” you’re told.

After about forty five minutes they start to run your purchases through; this time they take your card but it doesn’t work. You explain three times that you need to enter a PIN but the cashier shakes her head and says “Bukan, Mister!” She calls a manager. You wait. He eventually finishes resting, shows up, and tells her she needs to have you enter a PIN. It finally works. Then she asks for your receipt for the formula; she scrutinises it, calls the manager again, who resentfully returns from resting again, and scrutinises it even more thoroughly. Finally he reluctantly acknowledges that all is in order, produces a key attached to his belt by a chain, opens the canvas bag and lets you have your purchase.

 I have bought heroin in the Mormon Tabernacle with greater ease. There is less protocol and security involved to arrange a private audience with the Pope. On Easter Sunday. When he’s on his deathbed. Why make it easy when you can make it hard?

 The simple answer is that if you make things easy for people, they might be fractionally less unhappy; that would be intolerable in a country that is so dissatisfied with itself. Everyone is miserable; everyone tries to make everyone else as or, better yet, more miserable than they are themselves.

 I contrast this with other parts of the world that in some ways are comparable to Indonesia. The islands of the Caribbean, for instance, are about the same distance north of the equator as many of the Indonesian islands are south; their climates are virtually identical, the topographies mirror one another’s. If you were to drop blindfolded onto an uninhabited island in either location, you would be hard pressed to tell whether you were in the Java Sea or the Caribbean.

And yet, to take as an example my favourite Caribbean island, in Barbados, the people love life. The literacy rate is virtually 100%. Since the amicable negotiation of independence from her colonial status with Great Britain, every election has been peaceful although enthusiastically contested. There is a party atmosphere everywhere…not just in the tourist centres. The people are no wealthier than Indonesians, nor do they enjoy better lifestyles if measured materially. The people seem to love their island and make every effort to keep it clean, to recycle, to collect and process garbage, to treat the wilderness areas, including the surrounding waters, with respect. There is music everywhere, predominated

A somewhat less miserable country

by Bajan versions of Calypso and Reggae. (As opposed to televisions turned to the top volume and broadcasting weepy cinetrons, 24/7, plugged in to every power outlet available in every building, public or private.) But there is profound joy in the air along with the music; the smiles with which one is greeted are genuine and reflect pleasure in life and at making your acquaintance, they are not a superficial rictus intended to disguise discontent, hostility, and intent to separate a stranger from whatever money he might have.

 Indonesia needs to undergo a paradigm shift in its cultural outlook before it will ever be a pleasant place to live. If judgmentalism could be eliminated or even reduced in this country, there would be an immediate, palpable improvement in the oppressive atmosphere. Wherever one goes, there is a sense that one is being assessed and found wanting by Indonesian standards.

As I was writing a previous paragraph, while sitting in a hospital waiting room waiting to have a prescription refilled, a mother holding her five year-old’s hand stopped directly in front of me, spoke to the child and pointed at me; they were close enough that I could easily hear them, so she whispered in his ear. She laughed uproariously and nudged him in encouragement until he joined in the laughter. Now, he gets up from his seat by her side across the lobby every minute or so, runs up to me, points at me, and yells, “Bule, Bule, Bule!” (lit. Albino, Albino, Albino! An offensive term for anyone who is neither apparently Indonesian nor black – black people are blessed with their own offensive epithets). This is causing the mother and pretty much everyone else in the crowded waiting room no end of hilarity. It is delightful to watch the mother and the rest of the community teaching a child the 4th R — racism, before the child has a solid grasp of ‘readin, ‘ritin’, or ‘rithmitic. Here, racism is the 1st R, because it hurts people. The rest is secondary, because that kind of learning can help people.

If Indonesians could get the message that most civilised countries got years ago, that we are all human beings deserving of respect and courtesy, the country would be a marginally happier place; if it were even a little, tiny bit slightly happier place, many of the other irritants would be more acceptable; it would start a virtuous cycle that would gradually turn this country into a place with respect for others, tolerance, kindness, and some degree of contentment.

Indonesia, however, has a long way to go before that fundamental but profound shift will be made.


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