Restart button. Pushed it again. I don’t how many times you can push it before it implodes. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a real button? A big purple button, one push, and, like Super Mario Bros., a new adventure would start.
This time, the Restart button points to Indonesia.
The trouble with being spontaneous is that sometimes you don’t fully know what it is you’re getting yourself into.
It is also this from which it derives its charm. (I would say this is part of the no one would take vacations explanation.)
I bought my plane ticket on a Monday. I left on Tuesday. It’s probably the craziest thing I’ve done from the spontaneity school of adventure.
My friends had invited me to their wedding in Jakarta weeks ago. After quitting my job and uncovering no new leads in my search for the next gig, I was suddenly available. The cost? The timing? After checking the weather forecast for Barcelona, I jumped at the chance to attend my friends’ wedding and visit Indonesia for the first time, all while escaping the days of rain in Spain. (I had to say it. I just had to.) I didn’t see the opportunity presenting itself a whole lot.
I paid 20 Euros for a “visa upon entry,” which seemed to be as easy to purchase at the counter as a bag of chips – no one checks your passport when purchasing them. Passport Control, in fact, is the next counter you queue up for.
“There’s a lizard on the wall,” I said, pointing to the light grey body moving along the bathroom wall, about two and a half inches long.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Malin says, reassuringly. “They’re the good kind. They eat bugs.”
“Oh,” I reply. We’re not in Barcelona anymore, Toto.
I’m in Bekasi, a small town outside of Jakarta, on the island of Java.
The bathroom toilet is one of those on-the-ground basin squatting numbers – legit, I suppose, for underdeveloped and less modernized parts of Asia. I would have been more shocked, had I not seen it in South Korea when I was in grade school. It puts things into perspective. These past several months have been a tornado of perspective. Prague. Prague’s winter. Spain. Indonesia. This is not Spain. And Spain, is definitely not the US. Each has its own beauty and principles. But I am proud to say that I love the good ol’ US of A.
The first restaurant I went to was a place where I’d never bring my mother. (But, then again, she has, on occasion, surprised me with an unfazed reaction.) There were ants marching along in a line along the walls. It was hot and humid, and the casual eatery was completely open to the street – the kind of set-up you’d find in beachside snack bars. I already longed for the comforts of the US while I was in Spain – pushed them aside, of course, threw expectations out the window, as one does when bracing oneself for foreign countries.
My friend’s longtime friends show up in the restaurant. They are all from his childhood. Out come dishes of fried and grilled crispy duck, with banana leaf-wrapped rice and a few hot sauces. Small bowls of water accompany our dishes for a quick hand rinse before breaking bread. The duck is flavorful, tasty, satisfying. His friend is saying something to me in thickly accented English, and talking a lot – I’m already exhausted and my listening skills are begging for a break. I keep nodding, trying to be polite, but ready for a hot shower and hitting the hay. The air is humid and I’m sweating, wishing I had worn something a bit more breathable.
But hey, I’m the one who wanted to venture into new territory – sure, I’d read about it a bit and expected the heat – but it’s another thing entirely when you’re physically there, living and experiencing the stuff firsthand – this goes back to the not knowing what you’re getting into part. When you’re in a third world country, it is quite the eye-opening experience – forget foreign countries, hello, you’re in a poor country. Just research the cost of living in underdeveloped countries and you begin to get an idea. This is it, man. Just deal and make the best of it, I think. The almighty unspoken challenge is thrown down before you – does your happiness depend on life’s modern comforts, considered luxuries by other nations?
Let’s see. Let’s test you out, I feel like God is saying. The irony in all this, which hits me like a punch of espresso, is that my parents were born and raised in similarly humble beginnings in South Korea, and I’m sure, part of the reason why they emigrated and worked so hard in the U.S. was so that their children would never have to live in an environment like this one.
What is Indonesia like?
Ah, well, there’s the hustling. Vendors work the dusty streets as if there’s no tomorrow. On Thursday, my friends and I drive up to the mountains and check out the sulphur lake, passing the strawberry fields and the famously expensive Kopi Luwak coffee sellers en route. Strawberry vendors walking up to motorists. Park entrance attendants, tripling prices for foreigners. Predominantly Muslim population, as evident by the headscarves donned by women, and the mosques in every town and rest stop. Yes – even at the rest stops.
Traffic is horrendous, and Jakarta is a couple of hours out from Bekasi due to all the congestion. The air is dusty and a bit hazy from what I presume is from the pollution. I wonder if LA is worse, I think to myself. The local roads, paved, often don’t have clearly marked streets – how anyone knows how to get around is beyond me. Whole families can be seen on the motorcycles – oftentimes without helmets – mother, father, and kids on one motorcycle. Amazing. Men piled up in the back of a truck, and even men sitting on top of the truck, clinging on with their bare hands. I kid you not. This is not Spain, I think to myself, and definitely not the US. Dudes that, seemingly are just sitting on sidewalks, come up to your car when you’re pulling out, and then help direct you as you back out onto the street, and then ask for money for watching your car while you were parked, and of course you pay the man after he directs you out onto traffic. A 1000 rupiah here, there, etc. Men crouched down on their hindquarters, squatting in storefronts, making smalltalk and looking on at passersby. Intersections without traffic lights run by a single man in an orange reflector vest and a whistle, waving his arms and flashing his palms for the tri-directional traffic of cars, motorcycles, and trucks passing by. The occasional rickshaw pedals by, bicycles roll past.
We walk into an Alfamart convenience store. I buy a few toiletries. A man walks into the store with no shoes on. Because he can’t afford them? Because he can afford them and just likes walking barefoot? Could be either. He stares at my friend Malin, the non-Asian of our little group. She ignores the stares.
And, if you’ve ever been to South East Asia, or Seoul even, you may have felt the heavy air hanging on top of you, humidity blanketing over your skin. You’re sweating a couple of minutes after you’ve taken your morning shower; I ditched my make-up on the second day of the trip. The shower? A deep basin filled with cold water. A small bucket used to douse yourself with water from said basin. By Friday, it’s no big thing – after awhile, I figure, okay, just get in there, get wet, and get scrubbing. Sure, the water’s cold. By Saturday, I don’t even need to give myself the pre-shower pep talks. I think the priority in this particular locale is probably not having hot water pressure spray from a stainless steel shower head. It’s probably more along the lines of let’s-get-food-on-the-table.
At this particularly moment, I’m really appreciating the US. And my parents. And American customary practices. Little niceties like toilet paper in restrooms. And soap. These are all extravagant items which I’ve been completely taking for granted. Hot showers. Hell, I can’t even get a decent hot shower in Barcelona.
I’m scratching. Trying not to scratch. There are mosquitoes in Indonesia, and some of them have already gotten away with taking my blood. Some look normal. Others have blown up like somebody went to town on my B positive sangre. They itch something fierce. I rub some aloe on them that my friend gives me, and try not to think about them.
Thursday morning. I had stirred at the sound of singing – from the local mosque, I found out – and had gone back to sleep. A cup of coffee. Indonesian coffee, I learn, is made with ginger. I can taste it in the flavor, too; it smells good.
Lunch – we pass the strawberry fields on our way back down the hill and stop by a restaurant. It is completely open. We order and out comes our food with banana leaf-wrapped rice. I decide that I like anything that is presented in a banana leaf-wrapped package. (Isn’t presentation monumental?) There are these huge platforms within the restaurant – I find out that they are for napping – no, seriously – they’re for napping. After people eat, they can take naps right there in the restaurant. My friends tell me they are pretty common on other islands like Bali and such as well. We stop by a public pool – the water is green. I stick my hand in. The water is warm, and not filled with chlorine like the American swimming pools to which I have become accustomed.
The next day we drive into the city of Jakarta and check out some of the sights, the park, the monument, and a tiny little street where the tourists can be found, and my friend is not the only Caucasian woman present (she garners stares in Indonesia). In fact, I had gotten a few stares, but not as much as her, in comparison. I had gotten accustomed to a few stares in Barcelona, but apparently here, I could pass for a local. On the flight to Jakarta, the flight attendant had given me an immigration card that was in Indonesian, without asking.
It’s sunny and warm, and yes, humid, but at least sunny. We stop in a tourist-filled cafe and have a couple of beers – Bintang is the local brew. I order what quite possibly must be the best strawberry juice I’ve ever had in my life. I use the restroom and am grateful there is toilet paper and soap. Malin and Ungke are probably the most relaxed pre-wedding couple I’ve ever seen, I’ve decided.