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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Indonesia: Indonesian Habits

A driver asleep in his becak
As this worn-out becak driver in Ujung Pandang demonstrates, Indonesians can sleep almost anywhere

The Indonesians are amazing. The differences between western and eastern culture are sometimes huge, sometimes tiny; I challenge anyone to define the Indonesian mentality, as much as I challenge anyone to define the western mentality. One thing's for sure, though: apart from a few bad eggs, the Indonesians are a good people, always kind, considerate, interested and willing to chat. Yes, when the lonesome traveller is tired and wants some peace the overly keen Asian instantly becomes a pain, but compared to westerners, Indonesians are friendly beyond the call of duty.

1. Smoking

The Indonesians smoke an incredible amount, and there are, of course, absolutely no rules or regulations when it comes to the national habit. You can smoke anywhere, and the butts go on the floor, out of the car window, wherever; it came as no surprise to me to learn that, when I arrived in Indonesia, there were bushfires raging all over Kalimantan and Sumatra, because when the weather is dry (as it has been in this El Niño year) it only takes one carelessly discarded cigarette butt to spark a disaster. And there's no shortage of butts flying out of car windows in Indonesia.

2. Spitting

Ah yes, smoking and spitting, two Indonesian hobbies that go hand in hand. Along with the sweet-smelling smoke is the universal soundtrack; it starts as a cough, a black-lung rattler that makes you really appreciate the effect of tar on the bronchial tubes. This is followed by that deep throat-clearing sound that even the boffins at the Oxford English Dictionary can't transcribe using the letters of the Latin alphabet, and then comes the inevitable spit. It's pretty foul, and as with the smoking, there are no social rules governing the sport of spitting: it's valid anywhere, any time.

3. Staring

Yes, as your bus burns rubber through the tiny villages of rural Indonesia, people just sit there and let their jaws drop. Children flock out of the houses to watch the strange shiny box rumble its way along the road... it's bizarre. And if you're a traveller wandering into a small village in the middle of nowhere, everyone stares at you, as if they're waiting for you to do something weird.

4. Sleeping

This observation doesn't mean that the Indonesians are lazy; far from it. In fact I've never seen such a hard-working bunch in my life. Up at the crack of dawn with the 4am Muslim call to prayer, working hard at jobs that would drive westerners to distraction... they're an astoundingly conscientious race. But with this physical burden comes an increased need to sleep.

5. Speeding

I'm not talking drug abuse, but road abuse: the speed at which Indonesians drive is simply scary. Probably the craziest thing is that even the drivers have no idea how fast they are going; a sizeable proportion of bemos I had the pleasure of riding in either had no speedometer, or had one that obstinately stuck at zero km/h when it was pretty obvious that there should be a lot more needle movement. I suppose ignorance is bliss, but with the tyre screeches echoing round the streets, there's no way the bemo drivers can convince me that they don't know they're speeding.

6. Smiling

Infectious and irrepressible, the Indonesian smile is universal and a real joy to behold. The kids do it best, of course, but even adults spend a lot of time smiling, especially if you greet them with an ear-to-ear teeth rattler yourself. The Indonesian laugh is also pretty common, but without understanding the language, a group of Indonesians standing and laughing at you can make even the most confident person paranoid, but they're not being rude, they're just expressing their amusement and bemusement in the most natural way, something that the miserable sods on the London Underground could do with remembering.

7. Selling

The Indonesians have an entrepreneurial streak a mile wide, and they've worked out that all tourists are rich and just love parting with their money. As a consequence, a large number of conversations end up with them trying to sell you something, but after a few of these you get the hang of sweeping the offer aside with an off the cuff, 'I'm not interested.' To be honest, most people who end up talking to you are interested in talking for the sake of talking, but some locals, especially in places like Bali's Kuta, are little more than walking, talking salesmen.

8. Screaming

If you can't make yourself heard above the millions of other people in your crowded country, then shout louder than they do. Shout if you're at the market. Shout if you're on the bus. Shout if you're trying to talk English with a tourist. Shout if you're a becak driver who wants a customer. Shout if you're working in the kitchen. Or just shout for the hell of it.

9. Speaking

As already mentioned, the Indonesians just love to talk, especially if the object of their conversation is a tourist. I've come across a number of survival instincts amongst the westerners who have been subjected to endless hello-mister what-is-your-name where-do-you-come-from how-long-have-you-been-in-Indonesia conversations, such as telling them your name is 'Load of shit' or the name of some celebrity, and then carrying on the conversation regardless. It's a bit cruel – after all, 'Hello Mister' is what the Indonesians are taught in school to say to tourists to be polite, and most of them don't actually know what it means – but it's totally understandable if you've ever been subjected to hours of locals constantly being interested in you.

10. Singing

It's not just the colourful and delightful way that Indonesians spontaneously burst into song – whether they're walking down the street, sitting in a hotel or killing time on a ferry – but also the bad side to Indonesian music, namely that it's terrible.

11. Stamina

Indonesians have an astoundingly high boredom threshold, and are able to do things for hours that would send westerners totally round the loophole. They painstakingly tend rice fields. They carry heavy loads for hours up mountains, repeating the trip many times a week. They sit for hours, staring at westerners who are doing their damnedest to ignore them. They sit around when they're not tending the fields, talking and smoking lots. They make small talk to every foreigner they meet, repeating the same conversations every time, simply to practice English. You and I would lose the plot if we had to live the way the Indonesians live, and that's an important thing to remember when trying to comprehend a culture that is, effectively, so different that most westerners never really understand it.

1 MOR means Market-Orientated Rock, the record company acronym for music that shifts units because it's inoffensive and guaranteed to sell: Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard... the usual crowd. However, MOR is also known as Middle of the Road, because it treads on nobody's toes, unlike real music. But Indonesian rock is beyond MOR; it's just too terrible to comprehend. The chords are straight from the fifties, before The Beatles showed the world how to write songs, and the arrangements are from the electro-pop factories of the mid-80s. Thank goodness I can't understand the lyrics; I'm sure they're just as awful as they sound.