Thursday, May 5, 2011

First: Impressions of Indonesia

Location: Bali, Indonesia
Your Veneration,

I wish to thank you for your counsel in my time of need. Such a small thing for you, but it meant so much to me, and while I was pleased to help you practice English, in no way do I consider my service equal to what you provided. I don't know what could be, since you have none of the questions or needs with which my life is laden and I have nothing reciprocal to offer.

But instead, let me give you what I have, and that is an alternate perspective.

We were in Cambodia when we decided to cut our travels short--I'm sure no one will find this surprising--and in hindsight, of course, we should've waited until we saw Malaysia and Singapore before committing. On the other hand, perhaps it was the sense of time running out and the party ending that imbued our remaining days with such desperate appetite. Emblematic of this are the three hours we spent in Narita, Japan, maxing out our map-reading ability, our resourcefulness and capacity for improvisation, and what little nihongo I possess to make the most of our time. To this day I keep several yen coins in my pocket at all times, a kind of magical token that carries the promise I can still leave at any time, I can return to Asia any day, it will always be waiting for me.

I confess, I'm not "living in the present" with such thoughts in mind. Is it exclusively American, the urge to retain an ability to rewrite one's apparent destiny? You have worked hard to beat this impulse out of yourself, I'm aware, but sometimes I wonder whether it's truly unhealthy to harbor it. In small doses.

Indonesia was very laid-back. I think everyone says this. I only toured five of its islands but largely I think this characterizes things there. Absolutely, this is the defining characteristic of Bali, though in regions where Islam was more predominant it was not always the case. In my country, there is a danger in saying such things: one may appear intolerant of other cultures and become associated with a very undesirable demographic fighting for power in my nation. (Two problems with liberals are that either they do not fight or they fight each other better than conservatives can.) But the simple fact was that in parts of Lombok, Kalimantan, and Java, I did not feel welcome. I received disapproving glares from Muslims above a certain age (and curious glances from those under it), and when dealing with store owners or hotel managers of this faith I was quite made to feel like a second-class citizen, put generously.

And if that was how they represented themselves to me due to my apparent nationality (being Western was enough, even if they couldn't know I was American), my poor wife had it much worse due to one simple mistake she made some decades ago: choosing to be born female. It was hard for her to learn to keep her head down and not speak up, but several conversations with business owners and random strangers in towns impressed this discipline into her. Which is ironic, considering that anytime I confided any misgiving with this culture to her, she was the first to defend it and chastise me for any shades of intolerance. She certainly afforded them a respect that was in no way reciprocal, but this is not the greatest paradox of our world.

And I do not wish to represent that it was in any way ubiquitous. There is a Muslim party that is fighting hard to put all of Indonesia under Sharia law, rather than preserve and celebrate its diversity (watch the tourism revenue plummet once that goes away!), and that's why the inhospitable level of conservatism we see in frightful cities such as Aceh, but as with any rule there are exceptions. Our hosts in Pangkalan-bun were nothing short of delightful and warm. Throughout Bali, people represented themselves as Balinese first, potential friends second, and any religious affiliation was tertiary and incidental. For the sake of humanity and harmony, it is my hope that no fundamentalist, conservative group from any origin can put its stranglehold on Bali, and may love protect the rest of Indonesia as well.

That said, my experience with Lombok was not everybody's. One of my classmates returned to that island to seek work and vacation a little harder, and she absolutely loves it. Perhaps we happened to find the one town on the island where people are grim and unhappy, or perhaps we caught an ordinarily warm and gregarious town on a bad day. I lack the experience to say anything for certain, I can only react to my limited experiences. As for Java, I've heard of more travelers being surprised by the hostility and aggression there, so it's not just me.

I apologize for my pettiness, Your Veneration. Travel has broadened my mind but it is still not without borders. I aspire to better but fall far short, currently. Indonesia is of course lovely in its own way, and may love grant me the capacity to behold it. Until then, I am embarrassed by my shortcomings, but you showed me how to begin to cope with this, among other things.

More later. Best to you.

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