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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Indonesia: How to Survive Indonesia

Mark standing in the jungle in some Balinese pyjamas
One way not to survive Indonesia is to invest in a matching set of local clothes; here I am modelling some Balinese pyjamas in the middle of the Sulawesi rainforest, and yes, I do look a total prat

It's downright impossible for a visitor like me to be fair in any commentary on Indonesia (or, indeed, Asia in general); the basic fabric of society is so different here that imposing western values is not only pretty hopeless, it's foolhardy. But as a part of the ongoing education that happens to all travellers – an education better known as culture shock – I've formulated a number of suggestions that might help when trying to cope with travelling in Indonesia.

  1. Always stay cool. If you lose your cool, you've lost the game. Sure, the bus might be massively delayed, and the man behind you in the bemo might be blowing cigarette smoke right into your face (when he's not coughing up half a lung, that is), but complaining or getting stressed is totally counter-productive. Not only will it increase your personal frustration level, it won't achieve anything, and will simply bemuse those who are used to life being this way.

  2. Accept that you will be ripped off. Some Indonesians (but by no means all) are out to make a buck at all costs. As a tourist – a fact that is rather hard to conceal unless you have local blood in you – you will be charged more, you will be harangued constantly while locals slip through the melee, and you will be told outright lies: 'No, that hotel has burned down, you must stay at mine'; 'This is the cheapest and best deal you will find'; 'Yes, this bus is going to Senaru'; 'No, we have no bread, so you can't have toast,' and five minutes later someone else gets served hot, buttered toast... that kind of thing. You will also be subjected to constant sniggering and hassle from a people who are so fascinated by foreigners that being one can feel like being an animal in the zoo. But if you know you'll always be stung, it helps. Which leads nicely to number three.

  3. If you have already paid for something, never, ever ask anyone else how much they paid. You will invariably be horrified to find that they paid half what you did for the same thing, which will, in turn, make you feel inadequate and a little miffed. If you have yet to buy something, then asking another tourist at least gives you a ceiling price, but I've found nothing but distress when talking prices with anyone other than obvious package tourists (who really pay through the nose when they buy tours from home or from tourist centres like Kuta). In this case, ignorance is bliss.

  4. Just eat it. All the advice is to be very careful about what you eat – always peel fruit, never eat reheated food, don't drink the water – and most of it, such as be careful with the water, is good advice indeed. However, you can take it too far, and paranoia is often more depressing than a bout of dodgy guts, so I say mellow out and try that fruit, eat at that squalid looking warung, and immerse yourself in the whole experience. Hell, if it's good enough for the cockroaches, it's good enough for you.

  5. Remember: if things get really bad, you can always fly home. As Stewart Copeland once wrote, 'Life was easy/When it was boring,' and the converse is true; good travel is often hard work, and the lows come thick and fast. Then again, so do the highs, and before you know it things are going well again, the world is rolling by as you march on to the next destination, and life is looking good. Still, knowing you have a safety net is a great asset.

  6. Never, ever drive in Indonesia. Not unless you habitually carry five pints of A+ blood around in your backpack, or you're one of those nutters who drive from London to Sydney every year (in which case hats off to you!).

  7. Get off the beaten track. OK, you'll probably still bump into Gunta and Friedrich from München on the way, but it's good to get away from the crowd. Ignorant tourists suck the life blood out of any society – watching people complain in public is a pet hobby of mine, but all it does is enforce the attitude of the locals that, as Asterix put it, 'These foreigners are crazy,' (tap side of head with finger) – and getting away from them is all part of the experience. However, the further you get from the infiltration of the paleface, the more of a centre of attention you will be, and the Hello Mister cult will become a way of life. How much this is worth the effort is up to you; sometimes I'd trade all the amazing views and cultural isolation in the world for a peaceful spot under a tree somewhere in civilisation, and sometimes I can't get enough of the insanity and amphetamine pace of life in Indonesia. That's the contradiction of travel here; at times it's invigorating, but at other times it's just incredibly wearing.

  8. But do come back to the beaten track every now and then. Without a fairly regular taste of life as we know it – beer, Pizza Hut, McDonald's, beaches, good music, English conversation – you will go quite, quite mad. And that rather spoils the travelling, if you ask me; immersing yourself in Australian culture is somewhat different to losing your bearings in the Indonesian quagmire.

  9. Don't believe your guidebook. Most people travel with guidebooks that are a couple of years old, and in Indonesia this means everything will be totally inaccurate. For example, paying for a bemo is easy if you know the price – just hand the readies over – but if you don't know the fare and ask how much it is, you will be told a fictitious figure that's at least double what it should be. I have a formula: take the price in the guidebook, if there is one, add about 20 per cent, and hand that over. If it's too much, look expectant for change; if it's not enough, he'll demand more. You'll probably still get ripped off – see rule two – but at least you'll be in the right ballpark.

  10. Detach yourself. I find that viewing life as if it was a movie is very handy in places like Indonesia. There's no way you're ever going to get really involved in the culture – even westerners who spend whole lifetimes in Asia can still find the ideas and attitudes alien – so just accept you're a tourist and go with the flow. In Australia and New Zealand I felt I fitted in, even to the point of being mistaken for a local on a few memorable occasions, but that can never happen in Asia. It's an experience, but nothing like the travelling I've already done; there'll be no whingeing about the bus and hostel option here, because it's pretty much the only way to travel.

  11. Never believe the times that you're given. This applies both to times of day and durations. On the ferry from Sumbawa to Flores I heard four different possibilities for the length of the voyage: six hours, seven hours, eight hours and ten hours (it turned out to be six and a half). And our bus to Bima in Sumbawa should have arrived at 2am, but turned up at 4.30am. This, apparently, is perfectly normal, and comes as no surprise when you look at the crappy watches the hawkers try to off-load onto unsuspecting tourists in Kuta.

  12. Plan your plan to fall apart. Nobody who lives their lives by timetables and strict pricing will survive beyond the first night in Indonesia. If your plan is 'Go from point A to point B', rephrase it as 'Go from point A to point C, which may or may not be somewhere near point B, and then make up a new plan'. If you don't, you'll lose your hair quicker than Sampson as you tear it out by the roots in frustrated clumps...

Follow these simple guidelines and your Indonesian trip will still prove to be as unpredictable and strenuous as a triple bypass operation. But at least you won't be surprised when, yet again, you find yourself wondering how Indonesia manages to survive as a nation, and you might even get into it. I do hope so... it's always worth the hassle.