I have a strange and conflicting relationship with Indonesia. How I feel about this vast and mind-boggling country is a little like how one feels about a lover. Like every love affair it has moments of fiery passion, frustration, confusion, tender sweetness and wonder. Although I have lived in Indonesia for more than seven years, and have come to slowly understand its people, language and culture, Indonesia still manages to astound me on a daily basis.
It's people have the character of Jekyll and Hyde, who turn from smiling and friendly into lunatics when you put them on a motor bike or behind the wheel of a car. They drive as if wearing blinkers. Talking to the person on the bike next to them, texting, smoking, and carrying anything you can imagine on a bike. From their shopping to ladders, wheelbarrows or even a gallon of water on their head. They assume the Bule (foreigner) will just get out of the way, and when they cut me off they just smile. Oh well.
Here children so young that they cannot even touch the ground ride motor bikes, often with no helmet. They travel on bikes from the day they are born. With their unerring faith in the Gods Indonesians have no fear, unlike me, a true infidel unbeliever! I think driving here can easily result in PTSD!
Indonesians are incredibly superstitious. There are lucky and unlucky days for birth, marriage, or death and any number of other ordinary events. Some days it is apparently best simply to stay inside as the Gods are against you! Religion in Indonesia dominates everyone’s life. Regardless of which religion they choose, Indonesians are fervent in their beliefs. Between time for prayer, sleep and sitting in traffic, there is little time left for anything else.
But Indonesians have extremely pragmatic attitudes to life. Since everything is in the hands of the Gods there is no point in dwelling in misery. Acceptance of the cards dealt by life means that every day is greeted with a smile and misfortune with a shrug of the shoulders.
Indonesian women are some of the strongest people I know in the face of a largely misogynistic society dominated by religion.
Muslim men are allowed to marry multiple women, and will often have several wives and numerous children all living under one roof. Hindu women cannot enter a temple when they are menstruating. Many activities such as kite flying, carrying the Ogoh Ogoh (statues representing evil spirits and bad habits) at Nyepi, playing dominoes (and gambling, which is technically illegal) are reserved entirely for men. Although nearly every Indonesian man smokes, I have never seen an Indonesian woman with a cigarette in her hand. Perhaps it is simply that women are smarter!
Women often do more physical work than men. I have seen women carrying heavy boxes on their heads up the beach from a boat, while the men simply load and unload them at each end. Female porters in Tulamben are famous for carrying two tanks at a time, with full dive equipment, on their heads.
There is segregation and inequality evident throughout Indonesian culture, perpetuated through subtle but deeply ingrained behaviours. If a man enters a shop the assistant will often stop serving a woman to help him instead. Some Indonesian women manage to break the mould and set up their own independent businesses, but it is not easy.
If you ask an Indonesian a question, you will always receive a smiling response, but no one will ever admit if they don’t know the answer. I have learned to take everything with a pinch of salt, as it might just well be made up or blatantly untrue. The same applies to language difficulties. So often things are lost in translation. I often end up wondering (often too late) how my words were interpreted. Even when I speak to someone in Bahasa (Indonesian) and I am sure I have it correct, there is potential for a complete misunderstanding.
In a country with 17,000 islands, over 300 native languages and multiple religions Indonesia is a huge cultural melting pot. Even in different parts of one large island such as Lombok, some Indonesian people cannot understand each other! No wonder Indonesia has a long history of conflict and violence.
Corruption is also an issue that Indonesians and Bule (foreigners) alike bemoan. In some ways it is the oil that makes the bureaucratic machine work more smoothly. Following the correct path for things such as vehicle licensing can be fraught with frustration and delays. To get an Indonesian license one must sit a test. The test is in Bahasa and has a time limit, and there is no English version. Virtually impossible for a foreigner to pass. However, if you pay the “agent” the correct sum of money, this step in the process can be bypassed. Sometimes it is faster, cheaper and easier to do things the unofficial way.
There are also instances where the opposite is true, and as a foreigner trying to set up a business in Indonesia, every step is a struggle. Everything is always unclear and subject to change. Even when you follow the rules you cannot be sure that they are the right ones, or that they are up to date. It is a complete minefield.
I have watched Indonesia rapidly change with mixed feelings. I arrived in 2012 to live in Gili Trawangan, near Lombok. On a predominantly Muslim island I adjusted to the calling of the Mosque five times a day. Incongruously, this quiet island has rapidly become a tourist mecca. The little diving paradise I first experienced has become a mini Ibiza. Bars, restaurants, huge 5-star resorts and even mainstream shops such as Billabong and Quicksilver have arrived on the island. It is now truly the party island it professed to be.
I recently returned to Gili Trawangan and Gili Air after almost a year absence. I anticipated huge changes following the traumatic destruction of the islands in a series of earthquakes. Government regulatory enforcement even before that had removed all buildings from the beaches around the Gilis. Despite my preparation I found both Gili Trawangan and Gili Air almost unrecognisable.
Gili Air has fared a little better out of the two islands. It now has a new sealed road running across the island, making if safer and smoother for horses and cyclists alike. The island is lush and clean and made me feel as if I had stepped back in time. It's quaint village atmosphere is filled with charm.
Gili Trawangan has seen a massive explosion in growth in the last year. There are several resorts on the western side of the island under major construction. The island has become even more saturated with people seeking debauchery and drinking themselves into oblivion on a daily basis. I am sad to say that this is no longer the peaceful paradise island I once loved.
However, even in Bali I have seen a lot of change. When I first moved to Canggu in late 2016 it was a village bordering on rice fields dotted with a few cafés. Surfers and the occasional digital nomad shared this quiet, slightly trendy upmarket part of Bali, that was a vast improvement on the craziness of Kuta or Seminyak. My favourite part of the day was a sunset stroll on the huge but largely empty beach.
After a year or so all that changed with the hipster and vegan invasion. With them has come hundreds of cafes, shops, barbers, and a hike in prices. Disappearing are the peaceful rice fields. Obnoxious travellers with man buns and loud custom motor bikes driving like maniacs just to be seen have taken over the quiet roads. The beach is inundated with tourists in tiny bikinis and surfboards (regardless of whether they can surf or not). Beach clubs and trendy bars are replacing the little shacks where I used to chill on a bean bag with a cold beer at the end of the day. Digital Nomads and wanna-be social media influencers sip organic juices and cold pressed coffee in the numerous co-working spaces that have opened to cater for their many and varied needs. Canggu has become far too spanky for my unfashionable, un-hip self.
So I moved to Sanur, which never really seems to change. It continues to attract retirees and families, neither of which I am. However, it means that things are quieter here. People still drive like nutters. The roads are too narrow for the SUVs and taxis, creating congestion and frustration. But the divers are here, and the real surfers also come to Sanur, to actually surf, not just to be seen. It might be nicknamed “Snore” but I don’t mind the slower pace of life. There are still plenty of bars and beach cafes to chill at with a happy-hour cocktail if the fancy takes me. Even better is to grab a Bali Hai beer at the local shop and wander down to one of the berugas (little chill out huts) on the beach for some quiet time in the golden hour.
I do miss the sunsets of Canggu – but the magic died when the hordes arrived. Instead, Sanur boasts white sandy beaches and is on the sunrise side of Bali, if I can get out of bed in time. If I really want tranquility, I go 5 minutes further north to the black sandy beach of Padang Galak. This beach is relatively undiscovered with only a few local people enjoying the sun and the waves. Almost the way it used to be.
I occasionally walk down to Taman Festival and explore the ruins of the abandoned theme park. It is an enormous place which never really opened slowly being reclaimed by the jungle. The crocodiles that were once kept in the man-made mountain were released 20 years or more ago and apparently roamed wild among the grounds. Local people think the place is haunted, but perhaps that is just caution at not wanting to be eaten.
Despite all the changes and the idiosyncrasies, the quirkiness of the Indonesian culture, her smiling ingenuous people, and the beauty of the country have made me fall madly in love with Indonesia. This is one of the most geographically varied and marine bio-diverse countries in the world. I have dived several parts of Indonesia and still feel that I have only scratched the surface (pun intended). On land I am even more remiss. I am still yet to climb an active volcano, hang out with the Orangutans, or see the multi-coloured volcanic lakes of Flores. There is so much more yet to explore and experience. Just as everything in Indonesia is uncertain, so is my future here. But I do know that my love for Indonesia is more than just a holiday romance.