Sunday, December 26, 2010

My Impressions of Indonesia

Location: Bali, Indonesia
I'm not an extensive or exhaustive traveler by any means, but I did notice a few differences between Indonesia and the US, and I even picked up on a few differences between the many islands of Indonesia (of which I've seen four). I would like to touch upon those now.

To save water, simply bathe
during the rainy season.
The bathrooms: so far, we have never stayed in a hotel whose bathroom only had the squatting floor toilet. We've been to many airports where that was an option and a few restaurants where that was the only recourse, but not a hotel. Instead, it struck me as interesting that the entire bathroom is well-tiled and there's no bathtub or even a special shower area: the entire bathroom is also the shower. There's a tiled lip inside the door that prevents your bedroom from getting soaked, but everything else is waterproofed (except the toilet paper, but some hotels don't provide that so it's all good).

Pictured is our shower from Rama Villas, Denpasar, which was actually a very nice bathroom. Open-air with potted plants and a bed of river stones, and it was unique in that you could control hot and cold water.


Children glance at us disapprovingly
during a wedding "celebration" on
Lombok.
Bali's people were by far the friendliest we've seen in Indonesia. Even if you think they're scowling at you, you can just grin at them and greet them and they'll smile right back. That sounds pleasant and even something to be taken for granted until you leave Bali. On Lombok, there was a strange bitterness to everyone we encountered, and I don't know if that's because it's more strongly Muslim, if Bali spoiled us, or if they're just tired of tourists, but something dark was going on. Our hotel manager in Senggigi had a pattern of behavior with one of his staff that suggested they knew each other well and were comfortable with each other, but that she was clearly irritated with him and exhausted most of the time, and I couldn't gauge how much mean-spiritedness there was to his teasing. It was just uncomfortable and I was eager to leave the area.

We didn't interact with anyone enough on Kalimantan for me to form an impression. They're Muslim there too, but everyone we met in Pangkalan Bun was gracious and polite. In Banjarmasin, however, I would surmise they don't see many Western tourists, as one man in a djellaba nearly got himself into a traffic accident on his scooter, veering off the road as he stared at us, grinning with hilarity. The uniformed staff at Gramedia (book store) were polite in greeting us but giggled uncontrollably behind our backs as soon as we passed. Nervous? Derisive? No way for me to know.

Java doesn't seem to sufficiently
understand why this isn't cool to put
on a t-shirt (Malioboro Mall,
Jogjakara).
Java was downright menacing. Everywhere we went in Indonesia, traffic was a riot of scooters lacing themselves between cars, tailgating, snaking between lanes or along the shoulder, even into oncoming traffic when they thought the coast was clear. But on most islands they had a system, everyone worked well with each other and I never saw an accident. On our way to our hotel in Surabaya, however, our taxi driver gave a "love tap" to a woman on a scooter because he didn't feel she'd pulled up far enough at a red light and he wanted to be a few inches closer to cross traffic. He didn't bump her scooter: he drove the corner of his bumper into her thigh. She yelled at him and he responded in condescending, whining tones, clearly not taking her seriously, whatever was being said. Later that evening, my wife went to find a convenience store and a group of men catcalled at her. Nowhere else in Indonesia did we encounter such a thing and to experience it suddenly was especially threatening (consider that the sun goes down before 6:30 PM so most of the evening looks like the middle of the night).

So if you're looking to travel somewhere and not have it be a great challenge, I'd recommend sticking to Bali. We were fine on the other islands, we knew enough of the language to get around, and if you demonstrate a willingness to speak Bahasa Indonesia and you smile, you'll be okay. Bali is by far the pleasantest experience, however, very easy to wade into. Work up to the other islands but start with Bali--it will feel like its own unique nation in contrast to the other locations.

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