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.
Here, then, is a quick summary of face-value Indonesians, based purely on the observations of a fleeting visitor. Take it with a pinch of salt; I'm no anthropologist, but welcome to the eleven S's...
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.
Smoking is incredibly cheap, at least by European standards. A packet of 20 American cigarettes costs about 850rp, or around 18p, so it doesn't break the bank to smoke as much as everyone else does (they're called American cigarettes to distinguish them from kretek, the clove cigarettes that the locals love so much, which are even cheaper). Besides, without smoking there couldn't be as much of the following...
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.
It's not just a male occupation, either; women spit plenty, too. An added bonus is the effect of the betel nut, which a lot of Indonesians chew continuously, staining their lips red and giving their spittle a hue that Jackson Pollock would be proud of. It's mainly a rural habit, chewing the betel, but that's a good thing; if everyone in the city chewed betel nuts, the sewers would run red.
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.
But this isn't rudeness; it's simply the locals being interested in seeing something unusual and different. Before long they'll be talking to you and trying to find out all about you, and this is where learning the language comes in handy – even a few words of Indonesian can make things that much more interesting, as the staring changes into conversation.
But it's weird and unnerving to be stared at all the time, believe me...
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.
The amazing thing about the Indonesians and their sleep is that they can sleep absolutely anywhere. On the buses, on the street, standing up, sitting down... shut-eye isn't the problem it seems to be in the world of nine-to-five and insomnia. I've seen people literally sleeping on concrete, curled up on thin reed mats and snoring in a way that no soft-boned white man could manage; I've seen men crashed out in their tiny becaks (bicycle rickshaws), grabbing a few minutes' rest after hurtling round the backstreets, legs and arms sticking out of their tiny compartments like octopuses in a bucket; I've seen men drifting off in buses whose spine-shattering jolts would keep normal humans awake for the following three days; yes, the Indonesians have a talent for being able to grab forty winks whenever and wherever, which is a skill that all of us could use (especially when visiting Indonesia iself).
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.
Of course, the definition of 'speeding' is important here. Speeding, in the traditional sense, implies that there's a speed limit and that you're breaking it, but in Indonesia I only saw a handful of '40' signs (all of which were heartily ignored), so it's debatable whether the drivers are speeding, or whether there is no speed limit anyway. The answer to this is that any speed where the tyres leave the road when cornering is too fast, but when you only drive a car with the accelerator or the brake fully depressed, how can you drive any other way? Exactly.
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.
After all, a smile a day keeps the doctor away, something that's pretty damn useful when the doctor's probably on the other side of the island, and doesn't even know his plasters from his penicillin...
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.
If you can't make yourself heard above the millions of other people in your crowded country, then shout louder then 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.
Indonesia can be a very noisy place; the locals are either so laid-back they're mummified, or they're cackling around as if they were extras in a Shakespearian crowd scene. The women seem to be the worst culprits, shrieking across the road at other people at all hours; it seems that it's all in the delivery here. If you want quiet, go to the Australian outback.
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.
Another interesting runaround is to go up to complete strangers and go, 'Hello Mister,' in their faces; not too many locals bother with you after that. Or you can just ignore the small talk, but that's rude; after all, the reason that the locals want to talk is that they're genuinely interested in you, and the reason that it's an awful conversation is because you can't speak the language. Wearing or not, it's a part of Indonesia that you can't avoid, so you might as well revel in it. If you don't lose the plot first...
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.
By Indonesian music I don't mean classical ballet or old songs; those are the equivalent of western classical music, and you don't get too many new pieces, in the same way that you don't get so many new symphonies or choral masterpieces back in Europe these days. I mean that the Indonesian pop scene is about as depressingly awful as you can possibly imagine; their most popular artists are terrible MOR1 balladeers, inoffensive beyond belief, but simply depressing to anyone with a modicum of interest in modern music. Take Neil Diamond and suck out all his talent; or take the band from down your local pub and remove any vestiges of musical ability... and you're close. The best approximation to Indonesian rock that I've seen is the credit roll on Alas Smith and Jones from a few years ago, when they played a cringe-worthy electronic organ and bongo extravaganza to end the show. The difference is that, sadly, the Indo rockers are serious, and their records sell. Now that's what I call a culture gap.
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.
And that's probably the most useful thing to remember: it's OK not to understand Indonesian culture. This is their country, it's their culture, and you're the alien, which will be painfully obvious more often than not. Still, that doesn't mean we can't all get along...
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.