Indonesian Pilgrimage, Part VII

“Today’s Indonesia is home to one in every thirty of the people on this planet — 240 million at the last count. That makes the country the 4th most populous in the world. Jakarta tweets more than any other city on the earth and around 64 million Indonesians use Facebook — that’s more than the entire population of the United Kingdom. But 80 million live without electricity (all of Germany) and 110 million live on less than $2 a day (all of Mexico). Hundreds of thousands live without electricity on less than $2 a day AND are on Facebook.”
~ Elizabeth Pisani

Indonesia: magical, mesmerizing and mystifying…


As you all know, I have been here on the heritage trail of my family, but I am also here to discover Indonesia, a country I had never been before. Before going, I told my husband I was going to either love or hate it, and after almost two weeks, my inclination tends toward love, much love. 

In this particular blog, I wanted to write about some of our travel impressions with the disclaimer that I am not an Indonesia-expert by any stretch of the imagination and that I perceive this new land with very Western eyes. My Western sensibility also means that I may not have the antennae to “read” things properly: Indonesia is not an open book and much of the surface is still hieroglyphics, so I apologize in advance if I misinterpret or don’t see things in their proper context.

In a sense, this country is still very much an agricultural society that seemed to have skipped the Industrial Revolution and went straight to the internet boom and the digital economy, but the Indonesians are all entrepreneurs in a third world kind of sense. If they don’t have a warung (shop) or a farm, they dream of having one, yet loans are much more difficult to get than in the West, salaries are extremely low (and too low to save much money) and government assistance or any assistance or insurance are not available. You are on your own and you are generally poor, BUT you have community and family, like we don’t know in the West (anymore). I expected many more panhandlers and homeless people but the city of San Francisco has many more beggars and street people than I have seen in all of eastern Java and Bali…

My dear friend Melanie and I have been talking in the last few months about the erosion of community in the US: secularization, smaller families, and affluenza mean that we don’t support each other any more person to person, but that if we need things, we buy them and don’t expect them to be free. The service economy has replaced our sense of community but community is hard wired, so when it’s slipping we miss it and seem to lose a chunk of our humanity. That sense of community and family is alive and well on Java and here in Bali– you can simply see and feel it by watching one of the many ceremonial parades the Hindus have here on Bali: everyone dresses up in immaculate white, and young and old, hand in hand, march down the street, ogled by Western tourists who may scratch their heads and perceive it as some fossilized ritual when in fact it is our own loss of rituals in Western society that we should be deploring. They may be poor and struggling, but they have each other; their lives may be simpler, but their lives seem richer in many ways.  (Below picture was made in Eastern Java, on our way to the family plantation).

Their sense of resignation (versus our aggressive ego which US presidential candidate Mr. Trump seems to personify in all colors of the rainbow) and manifestation of grace in times of adversity is something I particularly envy from a personal point of view. Ambition drives us over the edge, and the murderous competition I feel in the US has triggered lots of stress in my family and I see it perpetuated in the lives of my children: they are going to one of the best high schools in California but that means that they are being put on a treadmill for success, which means getting into a good college and launching a glorious career. Along with good study habits and hard work, they need to develop a coping mechanism to channel stress and anxiety or it will lead to major health problems. That sort of pressure, stress and status anxiety seem entirely absent here, but I may be wrong because maybe it is present in Indonesian society in other, more subtle ways. Yet to give an example: the Australian couple from whom we are renting a villa here in Bali have staff but due to the many Hindu celebrations for which people have to show up, they can’t always show up for work. The mother of our Australian Airbnb host, protested and indicated that maybe they should threaten the staff with firing them, but even if you fire them, the couple explained, they just shrug, say it’s ok and leave… so family, community come before the job as it should… and that’s completely the reverse in the US.

But Indonesia has problems, too: this country has so many resources and a young work force yet the majority is poor and lives without electricity or running water. While the countryside IS paradise, there is trash everywhere, general inefficiency, debilitating corruption and higher education is too expensive. From one of my former students Izak who did his PhD at Berkeley and with whom we had a yummy dinner in Yogyakarta, I learned that less than 1% of Indonesian students goes abroad to study, and while he was at both Berkeley and Harvard, he now makes only $300 a semester in Salatiga, in Java. If Indonesia wants to lift itself out of poverty, the government needs to do a better job of providing more higher education or giving people the chance to go abroad. Also, while English has replaced Dutch as the second most spoken Western language– and they get English in primary school already– the level of English people generally speak is not great and to be a world player, you need to speak the world’s language, which, in the business world, is still English.

Indonesia is still a very religious country and the largest Muslim country in the world, yet I was pleasantly surprised to see many Muslim women in the workforce, driving scooters and being emancipated in ways that I have not seen in Muslim women in the Netherlands, for example. With fundamentalist Islam and the atrocities committed against women by Isis, Indonesia’s Muslims show a different and maybe more enlightened face of Islam where patriarchies do not determine that women can’t go to school or go to work. In a strange way, there is tremendous religious tolerance in this country, too. Izak pointed this out at the restaurant: in one of the corners there was a humongous Jesus statue: have you ever seen something like that, he said, in another, predominantly Muslim country? The Dutch always like to tout their knack for trade which came partly out of their embrace of religious tolerance but the Hindus already practiced religious tolerance on Java in the 9th century. Or as one of the Hindu guides told us: religion is like a many-colored flower: it’s only beautiful because there are so many petals with different colors. Islam does march on and the calls for prayers are everywhere in Indonesia (and even at 3 AM in the morning in Banyuwangi where we were staying), but religious diversity is something the country has strongly reinforced, and hopefully is protecting in the future. 

As a Westerner, however, I am mega self-conscious about the two-tier society of Indonesia as well. Driving through Bali, our driver pointed out the hospital for Westerners. Indonesians can’t afford that hospital… there is no national health care and while you can buy insurance, many can’t afford insurance. So… our driver told us that Indonesians go to mediocre hospitals and get mediocre care and take a longer time recovering…

In Bali, there are five star resorts that make you think you’re in Hawaii and where you see Westerners and Japanese tourists, served by Indonesians, while outside the hotel grounds, people live in shacks, without water, electricity, proper drainage and even proper walls… This, I realized, is the new colonialism: tourist colonialism. Sure, some may say, the Indonesians are grateful for the work, but has this society really changed since colonial times? 

In Pisani’s interesting book on Indonesia, Pisani is certainly critical of what she calls the “Dutch kleptocracy”, but she also says this: “I’ve found it interesting that though the Indonesians love to blame the Dutch of many things, they’ve done little over the last seven decades to change them. I suspect that’s because all the Dutch did was to exploit patterns of behavior that already existed when they first arrived.”

 So how do the Indonesians really feel about the Dutch? This became a recurring question on our trip. The truth is, many Indonesians will be evasive when you ask them directly because it’s impolite to tell the truth. My gut says that there is still a deep-seated anger against the Dutch and what they extracted but there is also nuance here and there, and a feeling of what is in the past is in the past. Johnny, our driver in Java, said this when I asked about the Indonesians’ feelings about the Japanese: “The Japanese just took and took from us; so did the Dutch, but they left us some things, too.” Moreover, the things that were left behind are often exploited to gain tourist dollars, like the anachronism of the Majapahit– likewise, when we were in Yogya and visited the old Dutch fort Vredeburg, there was an interesting diorama about the independence struggle: the Dutch were all portrayed as colonial leeches, and genocidal maniacs during the police actions (but not a word about the lawless killings and atrocities against the Dutch during the Bersiap) and then when Jon and I got out of the airconditioned rooms, and the humid heat descended upon us like a wet hot blanket, we strayed (or escaped is the better word here) into Vredesburg’s colonial restaurant which celebrated INDISCHE KOFFIE (I kid you not). This sort of thing pisses me off a little, or maybe, just maybe, this is indicative of the ambivalence the Indonesians are feeling about colonial times. I certainly feel ambivalent about it, too, and certainly when it’s presented as colonialism = bad, but tempo dulu (colonial nostalgia) = good. 

Our saving grace (besides tempo dulu apparently…) is the Dutch soccer team: when Holland plays (although they failed miserably recently to qualify for the European championships) all of Indonesia wears orange. Funny, huh?!

I have been a bit of a coward myself, hiding behind my American identity, so much so, that when I was sitting down at Borobudur and some seller of trinkets called from afar, I was startled when he screamed “Hollander!” No, I realized quickly, he doesn’t know my last name– he immediately sees I’m Dutch. I can’t hide. 

But I have apologized when I spoke to some young people of the Indonesian media when I was meeting with the Indo Club of Surabaya, and I will apologize again when it’s proper to do so. If every Dutch tourist can do this now and then, we might heal some of those open wounds and reconnect on a twenty-first century basis, as brotherly nations who shared a painful past but also shared a common history: I love the Indonesians but don’t expect them to love me back or to love me because I have tourist dollars. I also feel strongly, if the Indonesians let us (for the longest time they didn’t want to ask for the help of Dutch water engineers, to help them with the annual flooding in Jakarta), that we can help them build a stronger nation, lifting more people out of abject poverty. The Netherlands could also play an important role in allowing more students (and supporting them financially) to come to the Netherlands for higher education; universities in the Netherlands teach in English for the most part, so there would be little language barrier, and we’d be making good on a promise made during the Ethical Policy, to give more Indonesians access to quality education.

But clearly, all the fences haven’t been mended… yet. 
I am nearing 2000+ words– time to call it quits. When I speak to you next, I will tell you more about my visit to the family plantation. An emotional visit, so stay tuned!


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5 Responses to Indonesian Pilgrimage, Part VII

  1. Editor BDH says:

    I’m sensing a sequel to Silenced Voices….

  2. Melanie says:

    Your musings here remind me of when I was a little girl and we lived in Korea, which at that time was much like Indonesia of today. Seoul did not have any running water, carts and oxen were the main way to transport goods, etc. We would drive through the countryside and see whole communities living in whatever is the next level below a shack. My parents loved pretending they were part of some glorious colonial ruling class. My dad was an army captain and we had a cook, housekeeper and a driver/gardener. We even had a brass bell to ring when we wanted seconds at dinner, and our cook would come from the kitchen of our cheap army housing to serve us. Even though I was only 8 years old, and didn’t have the intellect to process it, the complex dynamics of it all made a permanent imprint on me. It’s just all so weird.

  3. Nora Valk says:

    You are the right person to express our feelings re that period of our lives. X NORA

  4. Laurine says:

    Mooi slot, deze terugblik op jullie reis. Hoe kolonialisme nog steeds zijn impact heeft op de huidige Indische samenleving; wij kunnen het gevoel, net als de Duitsers, helen door inderdaad sorry te zeggen en ze kansen te geven door scholing. Bijzonder hoe gelukkig zij zijn met hun(familie) leven… Ik kijk uit naar je volgende blog. Dank en liefs Laurine

  5. Ingrid McCleary says:

    Love this insight: This, I realized, is the new colonialism: tourist colonialism.

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