Thursday, July 15, 2010

Jakarta: Introduction to Pretending to be Indonesian, and Other Stories

When I think of Jakarta, I think of motor vehicles.

I think of mini-buses built in the 60's belching greasy, tar-colored smoke while men hang out the doorways, rapid-fire yelling the destination in auctioneer's staccato. Black SUVs with tinted windows sealed off from the airborne grime outside tailgate through the traffic at a snail's pace. Swarms of motorbikes weave around the larger vehicles, flowing through the street like water down a river. They buzz buzz buzz, a constant background drone eerily similar to the whine of a wasp's nest, rising to a harsh mechanical roar as they take off en mass from a cluster in front of a traffic light. Smog hangs over the city, clearly visible from the top of the National Monument, 150 meters above the traffic.

When I think of Jakarta, I think of heat.

Even supposedly air conditioned spaces are only marginally cooler than the smothering heat outside—I guess Indonesians get cold easily. As I write this, I'm sitting in an "air-conditioned" train car. A few rows ahead of me, an Indonesian man is wearing a wool beanie. My pant legs are rolled up and sweat is pooling in the small of my back. This morning, when Rheden left for work, he was wearing FIVE LAYERS to protect himself against the "morning chill." My glasses fogged up as we took our goodbye picture. Go figure.

When I think of Jakarta, I think of Rheden and his family. Dave and I researched couchsurfing/ homestay hosts in Jakarta separately, and out of the several hundred willing hosts, we both picked Rheden independently. He's in his mid-twenties, a teacher who describes himself as friendly with a mother who loves to cook. On our first night in Jakarta, he met us in front of Rumah Sawit Fatmawati on his motorbike. He looked at us—we are both bigger than him—and our backpacks—which are nearly bigger than him—and he laughed. Rheden laughs a lot. (We bottomed out the bike more than once. I didn't know that was possible on a motorbike.)

Rheden lives in South Jakarta, in a neighborhood of clay roofing tiles, children, skinny feral cats, and roving poultry. He lives in his parents' house, and his sister's house is 15 meters away, but the line between "his house" and "her house" is fuzzy and probably irrelevant. The blocks of houses are reached via small alleys punctuated by random ramps and stairs. The houses are extremely small by American standards. There is a living room, then a bedroom, then a kitchen next to a bathroom, where there is a water spigot and a non-flush squat toilet. The atmosphere is warm in both temperature and residents' temperment.

Back to the night we met Rheden. Our education in how to be Indonesian started right away with demonstration baskets of roots, leaves, and spices used in traditional Indonesian cooking, most of which were completely new to me. I carefully noted their names in bahasa indonesia on my notepad. We cooked fried rice and fell asleep on the floor of the living room.

Rheden wakes at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for morning prayers. Unaccustomed to the amplified wailing coming from the mosque, so did I. Around 6:00 a.m, he went to work, while I went back to sleep. Intent on ensuring that we'd have a complete instruction, however, he left an itinerary with his mother and sister for our day. We were going to visit a traditional market and a tofu factory, but our late start meant we walked at Indonesian pace (about 1 km/hr) to pick up Aldi, his 6 year old nephew, from school.

We stood sweating in the sun in the school courtyard while kids circled us, whispering. One bold boy shouted, "WAT IZ YOR NAME?" which touched off a chorus of giggles. In bahasa I responded, "Saya Nee-coe," and the laughs got louder. Dave pulled out a camera and asked, "Foto?" and the riot of jumping, squealing, and screaming began.

Of course, this level of interaction led to an impromptu bahasa and English jam session in the courtyard, reviewing the terms for "tree" and "shade" while sweat soaked through my shirt. And this, of course, led to us being ushered into a class of forty 9 year olds and, via gestures, encouraged to talk to the children. Even if I can't speak bahasa, I can entertain. So we continued our bahasa and English jam session, reviewing words from shoe (sapatu) to house (rumah). After an awkward, somewhat formal meeting with the headmaster—was she secretly annoyed that we interrupted her classes?—we were released into the steamy street.

That afternoon, we went to the city center to visit the National Monument (not worth the queue to go to the top) and the Istiqlal Mosque (worth every precious moment inside and around).

We took pictures with at least half a dozen random Indonesians, who apparently enjoy photos in which they appear with a white person.

We went out to dinner with Rheden and a friend, Cha Cha, to sample still more local foods and stopped by a fruit market to pick up local fruits for a tasting party. And, with Rheden and Cha Cha's help, we secured train tickets to Jyogjakarta. We fell asleep with a tired little Aldi in bed next to us.

Somehow, Rheden survives on a few hours sleep per night, but we slept in and planned on relaxing for the day. We spent the morning studying bahasa with the help of Dian, his sister, and "Bu," Mother. Dian and one neighbor speak a little English, but we're so far off the beaten path here that we were told that most of the children in the school have never seen a Caucasian in person before. The more bahasa we know, the better. After studying, Dian and Bu prepared us yet another delicious traditional lunch. Dave played badminton with Aldi in the street, but the shuttlecocks kept getting stuck on the roof.

We walked at Indonesian speed to the market with some of the neighbor women. It was like being on parade—everyone stares, a few people shout something in garbled English. Dave is the tallest person in the street, and I'm second tallest. At the market, we see a package of shuttlecocks for sale, and we conspire to return to purchase them as a gift for Aldi. Reverse the slow crawl to the house, a lame excuse about purchasing snacks for the journey tomorrow, and we're back into the street (although this time the walk takes 8 minutes instead of 30).

Being here is like being a child all over again. I'm learning to speak, what to say, how to say it, when to say it. I'm learning how to cross the street here (when in doubt, find a local and follow him). I'm learning how to eat like an Indonesian (mix everything together; enjoy chilis). I'm even learning how to go to the bathroom properly (no toilet paper here, nor a toilet seat). My mission to the market for badminton shuttlecocks was the final exam: could I find my way through the alleys, cross the busy street, correctly purchase and pay for the shuttlecocks, and beat the neighborhood gossip back to Aldi so his present would be a surprise?

I'm proud to report that our mission was a success, and Aldi loved loved loved his present.

On our final night in Jakarta, we enjoyed our fruit tasting party with two other French couchsurfers. I finally tried durian, the king of the fruits, with its reputation for being smelly but delicious. (It was somewhat smelly and somewhat delicious, but didn't live up to its reputation). My favorite was rambutan, which looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.

We left Rheden, Bu, Pak, Dian, Alex, Aldi, and Mutiara in South Jakarta this morning. Rheden and his family are amazing: I've never experienced hospitality and generosity like theirs. I think it will take a while to process and appreciate the experience fully, but I think it was the absolute best introduction to pretending to be Indonesian.

Photo journal:


  1. Great story and photos! I've always wanted to visit Indonesia

  2. Let me be the first to wigh you HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!
    Love the post, looking forward to our next skype.
    Love, Mummers

  3. Darling Nico this looks/sounds like such an inspiring place! I'm totally loving your stories and can't wait to hear more in person next summer!! Love and miss you both! ~K