Tomorrow we are leaving Indonesia and I’m a bit sad, I’ve grown fond of the place and the people since we arrived in February. Yesterday we took the train from Yogyakarta to Jakarta and whilst whizzing passed miles and miles of paddy fields I had 7 hours to think and write about what we have learnt and experienced during our time here…
There are rice paddies as far as the eye can see dotted with palms and men in lampshade hats, quietly working away scythe in hand. The water shines on the newly planted paddies, with neat terraces stepping up and away. In the long grass where the rice grains are visible, you see patches flattened, the most recent we pass looks as if a giant sat down for a rest and left an imprint of his bottom. Big brown, shallow rivers sweep through the land, scattered with rocks and some debris, colourful against the natural hues of the landscape. Areas of land are planted with other crops, bright lime green squares are woven into the patchwork, no space is wasted.
Men cycling with heavy fat loads of grass plod along the road, knees bent out, on ancient yet seemingly reliable bicycles. On completing my first 100km day, as the speedo clicked 100, seven men, loaded up in this same manner cycled by on the other side of the road. I was as amused seeing them in such procession as they were at seeing me cycling along on my bike. Wish i had a photo. As well as loaded bikes, we sometimes pass a horse and cart or more likely two cows and cart, going or returning from ploughing the fields. Along the roadside, big plastic sheets are laid out with grains of rice, spread out, drying in the hot sun.
Small tarmac roads run between fields into the villages. Subtly marked with stone entrances, the villages have their own little road network, invisible from the main roads. With few vehicles except scooters and bikes, children dominate these village roads. They play up and down the the street, sometimes on their bikes, in a carefree way, with few toys – with the exception of small kites which we see everywhere. Their mothers may watch from a distance, or not – they are more than likely busy with some chore elsewhere in the house. In such close communities, you sense that everyone looks out for the children, and each other. When we’ve stayed with people it generally been hard to tell who’s child is whose! Grandmothers are often seen with young babies in their arms and older children take responsibility by looking after their younger siblings, cousins, friends. Sense of family is very strong here and people live very openly together.
Those who runs shops and warungs usually have their children with them and at night the children sleep on mats near the back of the shop – nothing seems to close. Children sleep when they are tired, despite the background noise, TVs and comings and goings, but there is little evidence of what we might call a bedtime routine, no pjs, bedtime stories, brushing teeth etc though perhaps we just don’t see it, they appear to just lie down and go to sleep.
Mothers carry their babies by strapping them with a sheet of fabric to their body. It’s a different style to African women who carry their babies on their backs; the Indonesian mums carry them on the side or front in a sling-like piece of fabric that holds the baby’s bottom in place. Very effective and women seem free to do just about anything whilst carrying their little one. Babies are doned with little woolly hats and a couple of layers, held close to their mother’s body. Don’t they feel the heat I ask myself? They appear not too. We’re constantly surprised to see people throw on a jacket or tracksuit top (hoody) – it’s so hot, I couldn’t even contemplate it – were you born on the sun?
It’s interesting also to be in a hot country and for water to be so plentiful. I also associate heat with water shortages, droughts and the dreaded hose-pipe bans of English summers. With the amount of rain we receive in the Lake District I’ve often wondered how it is possible that we could ever be short of water in the UK! However the rain here is of a different nature. It rains everyday and it rains hard, instantly flooding the roads, the noise penetrates every building, and everyone points and tells us ‘Oojan, oojan’ yes we say with a welcoming smile – it cools us down after the heat of the day.
Strings of washing lines hang in the trees amongst the fields and houses, with bamboo structures used as drying racks. Its common to see women standing in the small canals, that run between the roadside and the houses, washing and scrubbing clothes. Women’s work is never done it seems… In larger towns LAUNDRY signs are common and at 5000Rp per Kg it’s a pretty good service. we tried it once and were delighted to receive clothes neatly pressed and smelling fresh!
Government and official public buildings are very grand – big clean, solid buildings freshly painted with big lawns and gardens. On first approach I often think that it must be a hotel and as we get closer i see the formal signage and realise that no, it’s an ‘important’ building. They exist in stark contrast to the houses and structures that the average person lives in, which can be very basic, and seems odd that they are so monumental and grand.
Rubbish is a big problem here, people just throw their litter on the floor and plastic bags and plastic bottles are huge issue. Villages and towns tend to have informal rubbish pits or dumps often by the side of the road, and it’s common to see rubbish being burnt by the roadside. Sweeping however is something of a national sport and despite the unsightly rubbish dumping, people make every effort to keep their home and surrounding area clean and well swept. People sweep in the morning and again in the evening. You are likely to woken up by a combination of 3 sounds sweeping, chickens and prayers.
The Javanese are always busy, there is always something to fix or build, it’s as if Java isn’t quite finished. The work is often labourious, what we might call back-breaking, yet things happen very quickly as many hands make light work. Indonesia definitely does not have an obesity crisis. It is rare to see anybody overweight and if anything we’ve seen more people who could be underweight (beggars/old men). Rice is eaten at most meals and vegetables. Sweets are sold individually wrapped, like penny sweets. Bars of chocolate are very hard to find, but wafer and biscuit based choc bars are common, are fave being ‘Beng Beng’ bars. Cakes and sweets food is generally hard to find. And only in big cities od you find Macdonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC. In Yogya in a nice, expensive shopping plaza, we saw more overweight people in Pizza Hut than we have in the rest of Java, but perhaps a coincidence?!
Whilst much of Java seems rural with the same age old traditions as ever, the new modern, technical world has very much arrived here too. Many Indonesians have a mobile phone attached to their hand, like an extension of their arm! When we meet with groups of school children or people in the warungs, photos are taken are on their mobiles, whilst we field questions like Are you on facebook?
Scooters are the transport of the nation, wherever you go armies of scooters will be there with you. At traffic lights they vie for the best spot, anxiously waiting for a green light. They then turn and see us and we are instantly in conversation ‘where you from, where you go? Nobody seems to walk anywhere, always the scooter. If we plan to walk people always stop and offer you a life as if we must be mad to want to walk. One of our favourite images is of a man perched on a rock by the sea fishing, but wearing his motorcycle helmet – only in Indonesia!
As well as scootering and sweeping, smoking is unfortunately very popular, especially amongst men. As a non-smoker and an even less tolerant non-smoker than ever due to our anti-smoking laws in the UK, I have struggled to tolerate the smoking culture here. Cigarettes are cheap and everyone smokes everywhere, sitting next to you chatting whilst blowing smoke in your face. You could be eating or resting and there will be smoke coming your way from some direction, it drives me bonkers. However it is very sociable, in the sense that people like to give cigarettes and smoke together, and few seems aware that it may be unpleasant for others. There are no smoking signs in some public places, but these are generally ignored and nobody enforces the rule.
The call to prayer, ah the mosques. Heard throughout the day and night the call and songs of the muzzein range form soulful, melodic singing and chanting, to woefully untuneful noise. In larger towns at dusk the number of mosques create a competitive mosaic of sound. Despite the panic over Islam and an increased fear perhaps of Muslim people in Europe and the US, our experience of moderate muslims has been positive and has probably dissolved any of the preconceptions I may have had. People we have met have been warm, friendly, open, good humoured and relaxed. Some of the liveliest reactions we’ve had have been from buses full of school girls, all dressed in long skirts wearing a head scarf, yelling and waving and laughing with great excitement as we cycle alongside them. Another was a few weeks ago, as we cycled passed a mosque during prayers and we heard over the tannoy ‘Good morning and don’t forget to smile’ It can only have been aimed at us and it did, indeed make us smile! Islam in Java is part of the way of life, the culture and runs seemlessly alongside their strong sense of family and community, sharing food, knowledge, labour and laughter, with an openness to strangers that is kind and of a genuine nature.
Overall the generosity and warmth of the people are what make this place so great. Our friend Eric said that Indonesia is the land of smiles, he is not wrong. Whilst it can seem like the wild west at times, especially on the roads, in general there is a lot of freedom and autonomy, there are not so many rules and health and safety is still quite a new concept. People are incredibly tolerant of each other and put up with things that we may consider anti-social or dangerous, however I admire the fact that amongst the chaos, common sense prevails and somehow it all works!