‘Indonesia’ – a name that will immediately evoke images of the exotic. An archipelago characterised by colour: blue seas, white sands, lush green palms and dazzling yellows of Durian flesh alongside the ravishing reds of the ‘rambutan’ (it means ‘hairy fruit’). Not to mention, of course, the ‘Angkots’, which are painted in bright purples, blues and oranges and zip dozens of huddled passengers wearing colourful hijabs round dusty streets whilst blaring out that same old D’Bagindas album from 2010 through speakers that crackle under the pressure of the driver’s desired volume. Sun-faded knick-kacks, accumulated over decades of travel, dance around on the dashboard, never failing to resist gravity with each sharp turn the vehicle makes.
…And the ominous dark grey skies that hang over the nation’s capital, Jakarta, as I sit alone inside a fast-food outlet at Arion Mall in the east of the city. Outside, the rain hammers down on traffic that will choke up the streets for hours to come, but the inevitable arrangement of horns thankfully cannot be heard from the refuge provided by this Mall. Instead, I am heckled by a quartet of teenage girls who marvel at the colour of my skin. Tourists don’t really come to these parts. I am here visiting friends who grew up in neighbourhoods not far from here, and if it weren’t for them, I doubt I would have come here either.
The young girls ask me a series of questions and take it in turns to pose with me in a picture. Picture after picture. The forced smile slowly dwindling into complete lack of expression with each flash from a Blackberry emblazoned with emoji stickers. I have humoured this contact for a while, but now I really just want to be finishing the half-eaten plate of fried chicken that sits before me. The girls ask for my Instagram username and when I eventually return to a place with WiFi I’ll suddenly see that I have four new followers. They’ll upload the photos from our meeting and decorate the captions with #foreigner.
Before I leave the Mall, I decide that it’s time to buy some Batik garments. I have always liked Batik, with its bright, bold colours and patterns. The clothes are always so unusual, and so unmistakably representative of the country I have come to love since completing a voluntary internship in 2010. An assistant with a huge smile approaches me. He is wearing a waistcoat and looks like he could be about to break into song. “Hello Miiiiss, can I help you?”
I immediately reply in basic and broken yet better-than-nothing Bahasa Indonesian that, “I like Batik. I look for Batik”
The assistant’s smile extends further and he begins to rifle through the collections passing me every single item of Batik to try on. He’s a natural salesman who no doubt has Rupiahs flashing in his eyes as I strenuously attempt to voice my approval of each piece using a very limited vocabulary of “Saya suka” (“I like”) or “Bagus” (“good”). Having trialled around a dozen or so garments, I eventually emerge from the changing rooms with the couple of dresses I have selected to go on and buy. The assistant eagerly waits by the door, enthused to hear about how I got on. He is pleased with the items I’ve chosen, but is also keen that I reconsider my decision not to buy a surprisingly rather dreadful-looking black and red piece. Whilst watching him redundantly point out all of its merits another dress catches my eye, and it looks like the size I see on display would fit me perfectly. I go and take a closer look.
“Errr maybe not this dress for you Miiiiiss as we only have this size, and errr you have fat”
For a second I take offence though it’s hard to continue to do so when it’s clear that none was meant. What amuses me most is the way in which a steadily growing rapport could suddenly cease due to a moment of lingual naivety. I smile at my new friend – my new attentive stylist – as he goes on to initiate the payment process before we bid one another Selamat Tinggal (goodbye) forever. Who could’ve guessed that this inconsequential scene, which lasted only 20 minutes and involved a man whose name I can’t even remember, nor probably never even knew in the first place, would’ve stayed in mind in the way it has all these years later? What is it about the characters we meet when travelling? Is it something to do with the language barriers, and how they enable us to view people in different ways? The smiles, the looks, the way in which any verbal exchange ends up holding considerably more weight because it took more effort? Maybe it’s to do with the scope for brutal honesty that is actually somewhat refreshing, for it is harder to maintain tact when you can only speak a few words of the language.
I go out into the rain and join the traffic on the Transjakarta busway back to my friend’s house. A five minute journey takes half an hour due to the clogged nature of the traffic. Equatorial rule dictates that daylight is limited, and so it’s already dark outside. It’s September 2015 and this is worlds away from the Indonesian experience of 2010, where I taught English to orphans in the beachside city of Padang, West Sumatra. Padang hosted a landscape much more reminiscent of the opening paragraph to this piece, but it doesn’t matter, because these real, rugged, unfiltered experiences are all just a part of the world I love. A world that hides beneath a map. A world that doesn’t make the guide-books because it’s not always deemed interesting enough, but a world that’s real and which leaves a permanent impression in the mind of a 29 year old (back then!) woman who originally set off only to eat some fried chicken in order to pass the time whilst waiting for a friend to finish work.
Song of the Day: D’Bagindas – Apa Yang Terjadi
The most apt choice. It would feel impossible not to hear this song at least five times a day whilst out and about in Indonesia, impressively during each of my visits there (2010, 2012 and 2015).