Notes from Indonesia

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Me looking silly in Jakarta

So. Jakarta. My notes from that portion of the trip are long overdue. Here’s what I’ve got:

Why I went
People have asked me why I decided to visit Jakarta — since Indonesia, apart from Bali, is not a typical Southeast Asian tourist destination. Well, first of all, I was close. I was in Kuala Lumpur at the time, and it was only a quick flight to Jakarta. Second, it was cheap – the round-trip flight, on the low-cost carrier Air Asia, was only about US $100. And third, I didn’t want to miss out on a chance to visit the world’s most populous Muslim nation. (In fact, Indonesia is not only home to more Muslims than any other state, but it’s got the world’s fourth largest population after China, India, and the US.) As war continues in Iraq and conflict — figurative if not always physical — between the West and the Islamic world rages, I wanted to see, first-hand, what an enormous, dynamic Muslim nation was really like.

And what was it like?
It’s easier to say what it wasn’t like, actually. There were no anti-Western riots in the streets. I perceived no hostility when I told Indonesians I was from America. (It was the same case in Malaysia, another majority-Muslim nation — indeed, the world over, my experience has been that while people tend to dislike American foreign policy, they usually like American citizens.) Given the manner in which the Islamic world figures in news stories that appear in the Western media today, it can be tempting to assume that many Muslims harbor a deep-seated hatred of the West, and that militant Islamic fanaticism is much more common than it is.

Seeing Muslims go about their daily lives — the simple act of eating with Indonesians, of chatting with them, of seeing women in headscarves consumed with laughter and men drinking coffee together and telling jokes — served as a counterpoint to my image of life in the Islamic world, as hard as that is for me to admit. People go about their lives in Indonesia, of course, just like they do everywhere else in the world. Indonesia is a nation of over 220 million people; while extremists no doubt exist there, my feeling was that that the vast, vast majority of citizens were apolitical.

While I was in Jakarta, I met up with a friend of a friend who’s an American Foreign Service Officer there. Part of her job is to interview Indonesians who’re applying for visas to study in the US. One of her questions, she said, is what these applicants would like Americans to know about Indonesians. Nine of ten respond along the same lines: “I want them to know we’re not terrorists.”

How not to be a sucker in a drug-smuggling scheme
Anyone who’s familiar with the Schapelle Corby case – or the dreadful movie “Brokedown Palace,” for that matter – will recognize the potential peril I faced in checking in for my flight from Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta. As I was waiting in line, a young woman – perhaps 25, clean-cut, and attractive – tapped me on the shoulder. Her friend, she said, was 15 kilograms over the limit for checked bags. Would I mind taking a bag for them, the woman asked, since I had only a small backpack and no luggage to check?

I politely declined.

The woman walked away. They didn’t look like drug dealers’ girlfriends, and that was one reason I was suspicious. I consider myself to be a good Samaritan, but carrying a bag into a Indonesia for two complete strangers is not something with which I feel even relatively comfortable.

People doing nothing
I observed something in Jakarta that I’d yet to see on this sojourn – and that, in fact, I hadn’t seen since my days in South America’s developing nations: people doing nothing. Men and women on the side of the street. Simply sitting there. In the middle of the day. All day long. Perhaps it was due to Indonesia’s high unemployment rate?

Tourists as novelties
It’d also been a while since I’d been in a place where people routinely approach me and ask to take photos with me. Part of it, no matter where I travel, is due to the fact that I’m tall and conspicuous. But there also seemed to be very few tourists in Jakarta, so seeing someone like me walking down the street was a rarity. In addition to the image at the top of this post, here’s another one — I was at the top of the Monumen Nacional when a father asked to take a photo of me with his child. Unfortunately the pic didn’t come out very well (but don’t miss the kid’s jaunty red sunglasses):

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Stray Cats
There were stray cats everywhere in Jakarta. One evening I returned to my hotel room at midnight and found one feasting on a fellow guest’s room service leftovers. The cat didn’t live in the hotel. And my room was on the fourth floor. An enterprising feline, indeed:

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Cartoon wars
Okay. Now this is bizarre. I didn’t know much about Indonesia’s ongoing conflict with separatists in the province of Papua. So when the Australian government accepted a boatload of Papuan asylum seekers during my time in Jakarta, I was surprised at the Indonesian government ‘s resultant anger. One local paper, in fact, ran a cartoon depicting Aussie Prime Minister John Howard and his Foreign Affairs Minister as copulating dingos. Not to be outdone, an Australian paper struck back with a canine version of a similar cartoon. It shows Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono mounting a Papuan. Wow.

More pics
Here’re the rest of my photos from Jakarta, though I regret that they’re neither numerous nor particularly exciting.

Published by Newley

Hi. I'm Newley Purnell. I cover technology and business for The Wall Street Journal. I use this site to share my stories and often blog about the books I'm reading, tech trends, sports, travel, and our dog Ginger. For updates, get my weekly email newsletter.

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  1. Thank you for not being the arrogant American in Jakarta. Too oftenI hear the arrogant American,Aussie or Englishman disrespecting the people,and culture of Indonesia.