Impressions Indonesia

Suman K Sharma

Destination: Indonesia. The first impression could have been scripted by Kapil Sharma of the popular TV comedy show.  The plane lands at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Jakarta, on the dot.  The passengers move on leisurely to claim their baggage.  The conveyor belt number 5 starts moving.  So far, so good.  The passengers are then in for a shock. No baggage for those coming from Delhi via Malaysia. Wait, wait, wait.  A burly Sardarji walks up to an official.  ‘Oye,’ he yells at the man, ‘I have been waiting here for my baggage for an hour and there is still no sign of it. Do you think it’s a bloody joke?’  In all seriousness, the bespectacled, smartly turned out man responds to him courteously, ‘Yes, sir, it is a bloody joke, sir!’  It turns out that the baggage was not loaded on the plane that has brought Sardarji and his fellow-passengers from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta. The folks have to wait for some three hours before the next flight of the airline brings them their belongings.
Big, flashy cars run on the smooth, bump-free roads. There are occasional Suzuki cars (sisters to dear old Maruti) and Bajaj auto-rickshaws too.  Buses ply on exclusive corridors. (TransJakarta Busway is the world’s largest Bus Rapid Transit system). There is no honking, no desperate overtaking and no muttering of curses.  Drivers wait patiently for the pedestrians to cross roads.  Only the bike-taxis, called ‘ojek’, seem to be in a hurry, as they deftly knife their way through the lanes and bye-lanes of the city.  Most roads here are one-way and it won’t be a surprise if a pedestrian outpaces her car-driven peer.  The latter may have to take several U-turns to reach the destination.
Jakarta is a city of shiny, spic and span high-rises.   The skywards expansion could not just be a show-off.  On the contrary, it is solid pragmatism to capitalise on the available land in the face of rising demand.  Going by the last year’s head-count, as many as 14,464 people inhabited every square kilometre of this burgeoning global city.  The locals make do – as everywhere else in the world – with their shanties and hovels; not the expatriates and tourists, who contribute substantially to the country’s economy.  Delhi, in comparison, has much higher population density at 18,287 per square kilometre according to a 2016 World Population Review. But very few of its high-rise buildings can match, if at all, those of Jakarta, either in height and splendour.  It is simple arithmetic.  Delhites don’t have the kind of resources that money-bags from China, Japan and Singapore gainfully invest in Jakarta.   In 2014, for instance, Jakarta reported a higher return on luxury real estate than any other city in the world.
Malls, hotels, offices and residential complexes – all speak of the good taste of builders and those who live or work there.  No effort is spared to beautify every nook and corner of the city.  As a corollary, poverty is kept out of sight.  Beggars are hardly seen anywhere.  People in general are decently dressed and have an easy smile.  Smoking is widely prevalent. Alcohol, is pricey but available.  Nights glitter in world-class clubs.  There is even a red-light district on the seaside. The youth in general is laid back. Mobiles and cameras seem to be an obsession with them.  Anywhere, anytime, young locals can be seen trying that one expression before the lens which would win them maximum ‘likes’ on the FB and Whatsapp.  Yet, all that joie de vivre cannot mask the stark face of poverty.  Underfed girls working at the malls, a half-naked vagrant in his thirties lying in foetal position almost bare to the elements, a middle-aged ojek-driver pleading with a foreigner to take a ride with him or else give him something as a handout heighten the contrast between the shine and the gloom that surrounds it.
Indonesians are a deeply religious people.  The Sunni sect of Islam is the predominant religion in the country.  Prayers are said five times a day.  Every establishment has an assigned room for prayers, with the facility for ritual cleansing attached.  In the mornings as in the evenings, when   the noises of the megacity of Jakarta are low, the skies are filled with the sounds of ubiquitous azaan. The religious zeal, though, has not swayed the nation to a sectarian path – as of now.  Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and the followers of Confucius live amicably with Muslims.  The credit for this goes to the natural temperament of Indonesians as well as the state policy they follow.  Indonesia has ‘Garuda Pancasila’ (Garuda Panch-sheela) as its national emblem and ‘Bhinneka Tunggal Ika’ (Unity in Diversity) as the motto.  To an Indian, therefore, azaan in Indonesia would sound no different from the syncretic sounds of aarati, shabads and azaan that emanate from temples, gurudwaras and mosques back home at the dawn and the dusk.
Given the predominance of Islam in Indonesia, an outsider may think that the women there are a cloistered lot.  The impression proves false soon after one lands on the airport.  Women form a significant part of the workforce in Indonesia.  Muslim women in country do follow the dress code of hijab, but they can be seen working as shop assistants, cooks and even taxi drivers.  While talking to total strangers they do not show undue reserve. The story of Dewi Puttari (literally, the second daughter to her parents) would be illustrative.  She works at a bar in upscale South Jakarta.  The second daughter of her parents, she was married at an early age.  Her husband divorced her after the birth of a son, whom she had to leave with her parents in the native village.  Dewi has also a daughter from a second marriage.  Living in Jakarta with her husband and daughter, she regularly sends money to her parents for her son’s nurture.  Asked how she feels working in a bar, she says it is a job like any other.  For women like Dewi, it is the economic necessity and not the restraints imposed by the religious leaders that matter the most.
Significantly, there is no dress code for non-Muslim women in the country.  They can be seen in sleeveless tops and shorts in public places.
Jakarta may be the capital and the biggest city of Indonesia, but it is not the be-all  and end-all of that country.  Comprised of 13,466 islands (out of which 6,000 are inhabited) and divided into 34 provinces, Indonesia is the largest island country in the world.  For tourists, Bali – the Island of Gods – with its beaches, the cultural park of Garuda Wisnu Kancana (pronounced Garuda Vishnu Kanchana), and famous/infamous night life – may be the most happening place.  Lesser known, but no less interesting is Yogyakarta (also known as ‘Jogja’) in Central Java that boasts of the world heritage temples of Borobodur and Prambanan.  The ninth century Prambanan is the tallest of the Hindu temples anywhere in the world.  It is in this temple complex that traditional actors perform the renowned ballet of Ramayana.  In the city’s ever busy street of Malioboro, people still enjoy taking supper the traditional way.  With live music playing on, they sit crossed-legged on mats before low stools.  There is a difference though. The ground on which they sit eating is not some homely kitchen, but a thoroughfare.
For adventure seekers, Yogyakarta offers paragliding, off-track driving and water-wading – the last named being a high-speed drive on a 4×4 jeep in a shallow stream.  Amid shreaks of joy, the riders are engulfed in dense white mist as their vehicle rushes over the stony bed of a crystal-clear mountain stream.
Now some information you can use if planning to visit Indonesia. The country sees two seasons – a dry season from April to September and a wet season from October to March.  May to August is the best period to enjoy the beaches in Bali.   We from India are among the people who do not require a visa for a 30-day stay. Expect the locals to be warm and friendly.  The younger lot  would be too happy to have a selfie with you.  Food – local, Chinese, Maxican and Indian – is cheap.  Don’t ask for a spicy meal unless you want it to be really hot. You will hear words like ‘puttari’, ‘roti’, ‘kursi’ and ‘maaf’ which approximate to the Hindustani words in meaning, but be not offended if an Indonesian tells you that ‘susu’ is milk. Taxi drivers speak rudimentary English and are open to negotiation if not running with their meters on. The temperature rarely rises above 30 degrees Celsius but the high humidity can sweat you out.  Air conditioners seem a necessity than a luxury here.
A tip on etiquette: ‘Right index finger should not be used to point a place, item or person.  Use the right hand thumb and fold the remaining fingers to be more polite.’ – From ‘Wonderful INDONESIA’ – a travel brochure.
Pack your bags!