The Indonesian Effect: Eight Years On


For about the first year after returning I could think of nothing else.  Indonesia had gripped my heart and I tried to create any opportunity to bring a small part of it to the UK.  I would go to the local oriental grocers and stock up on imported Indomie noodles with which to make nasi goreng, order Indonesian films from the internet, and read books written by the 19th century explorer, Alfred Wallace, who had traversed the islands collecting the skins of exotic birds.  I would get cross anytime people mistakenly proclaimed that the likes of batik and satay sauce originated from Malaysia, and filled many notebooks with countless graphic accounts of what had happened out there so that I would never forget a thing.  No encounter.  No scent.  No awkward occasion of getting lost in translation. No entertaining bus journey.  I would forget nothing and kill no memory.

I was desperate to go back, and so I did go back – twice – but never to Padang, where I had stayed whilst volunteering.  Instead I went only to Jakarta, the capital, which was far less enchanting a place but which was home to several of the good friends I’d made.  After graduating, very few of them stayed in West Sumatra.  These were among some of the most determined and ambitious people I’d ever get to meet and they were keen to evolve from the humble lifestyle of rural homes to lucrative careers in finance, working in the country’s biggest and most modern buildings.  And that’s where they are now.

Catching up now is not the same as the original experience.  Of course it wouldn’t be; life changes and it changes fast.  Nowadays they tell me about their marriages and their children and the relatives I met who have since passed away, like the sweet old man who came to pick me up from Padang airport as I arrived into the country dazed and sweating my jeans off in May 2010.  They ask me whether I am married and I remember the tip from my guidebook that advised me to say “Not yet” as opposed to just, “No”.  It is very surprising to them; not because they think I am a prize catch but because over there, everybody gets married.  And they don’t hang about to do so either.

Whilst gossiping with a friend in front of a mosque one warm evening in 2015 – when I last visited Indonesia – she told me about her new boyfriend.  “We will marriage soon” she declared, “and then we will be able to sex”.  It reminded me of a conversation I had had with her five years earlier as we sat on the cool tiles of a classroom floor waiting for an Earthquake project meeting to start:  “Kak Sophie, do you kissing boyfriend with tongue? How does it feel?  Kak Sophie, what about sex?”.  Fortunately, she inadvertently timed her question with the moment that the meeting got underway and I remember feeling silently relieved that an answer was now redundant.  She has since married and had a child; so will at least know now the answer to her own question, and perhaps when we next meet, I’ll be asking her what childbirth felt like.

I am not being hyperbolic or mawkish when I state that Indonesia changed my life.  I said it countless times during that initial year after, when each and every day I would experience an intense longing to return.  Every time I bought those noodles or ignored the story lines of the Indonesian films in order to focus on observing the scenery I was trying to satisfy a need to go back that was emotionally hard to manage and was stopping me from feeling happy.  I was miserable because I didn’t want to be in England, but the truth is I probably did, I just wasn’t doing myself the favour of living in the present.  I taught myself some Bahasa Indonesia and dreamt of working in the charitable sector doing a job where I could help develop the part of the world I had fallen in love with.

Whilst I was away, I went from being somebody who didn’t really know what they wanted out of life to somebody who absolutely did.  I was able to identify the things that meant the most to me and conjure up plans on what I would do to keep those things present in my day to day life.  I knew I needed a career that wasn’t about money but about daily meaning and purpose.  I knew I needed to keep writing because it made me happy, and I knew that I needed to keep exposing myself to new things because it tantalised me.  Prior to Indonesia, I knew none of those things about myself, and that scares me.


The perverse thing is that these days I no longer have that same burning desire to go back.  Well, I do, but it’s an occasional desire to go back to the moment, not necessarily the place, and such an opportunity is – and always will be – impossible.  I am still in touch with my friends, though nowhere near as often as once was.  A birthday message here and there, the odd ‘Memory’ flashing up on Facebook, congratulating them when I see they have a new addition in the family.  It’s a world away from those deep conversations about life and dreams on the beach at night whilst eating barbecued corn, watching the moon shimmer on the surface of the Indian ocean.  When paths cross – which they fortunately do every now and then – we get together and reminisce, usually over a coffee or dessert, before we bid one another goodbye again, and that tends to be it.  But that’s fine.

It’s fine because no matter how occasional the contact, and no matter how much things change, nothing can interfere with the memories or the moment.  Nothing will change the fact that one day we had to wade through a rice paddy because our Leader knew of ‘a shortcut to campus’ that turned out not be a shortcut.  Nothing will change the time my host sister and I spent a whole bus journey home laughing together about two (unknowingly) different interpretations of the same sight.  Nothing will change the fact that one afternoon a group of us spent hours in the river in our t-shirts and shorts, or the way that when we started walking home one of the girls realised I didn’t have a bra on underneath my shirt.  Nothing can change the way she then asked a lady living nearby if I could get changed in her hut, next to her little baby who stared at me wide-eyed as I started to undress, in a situation awkward for both of us.  Nothing can change any of those things; but even putting the same people in the same places we would not be able to replicate those moments.  Our lives have changed too much for that, and the river that we once bathed in has since disappeared from the landscape completely owing to natural disaster.

Every now and then something might trigger the memories rushing back.  Bollywood songs like ‘Maahi Ve’ – though not Indonesian, but popular within its pastimes – will evoke graphic images of colourful wedding parties and the taste of luminous green pandan cake.  Sweetened black tea makes me think of waking up to Equatorial heat and having a plate of noodles topped with a fried egg for breakfast.  There will be fleeting sounds that remind me of extremely loud television sets with fuzzy screens blasting fast Indonesian speech into the dark evening air, or waking up to the sound of prayer as it reverberates around the neighbourhood from the nearest mosque.  And when the memories come back, so do the feelings.  All of them: The initial uneasiness, the awe,  the laughter, the paranoia that comes as part of spending time with strangers, but above all that feeling of “wow” that is so hard to define.  The thrill of being thousands of miles away from your comfort zone and realising that – even though it may not be easy – you’re coping.

Nothing will ever interfere with that, the Indonesian effect will always be there.

But I’m glad I think about and miss it less, because I will only ever be able to travel back to the place, not the moment.

IndonesiastrawberrryFriends Reunited – 2015

Song of the Day:  D’Bagindas – Apa Yang Terjadi

One of the few things to be the same in each of my three visits is the popularity of this band and songs like this that are played everywhere, and I mean everywhere.  In homes.  In restaurants. On buses.  At market stalls…