South Asia has long held a fascination with Westerners for its rich cultural heritage, and one country in particular stands out today – Indonesia. It is the 15th largest nation in the world, with the 4th largest population. It is the largest economy in the South Asia region, a member of the G-20 major economies, and the “I” in CIVETS, the group of emerging market nations that are seen as promising due to their diverse economies, large youth populations, and financial systems that proved sophisticated enough to have weathered the global recession. Indonesia is rich in natural resources, with copper, silver, gold, coal, natural gas, and oil being the most important. Benefiting from high commodities prices, Indonesia also benefits from being closer to China and India, two of the world’s largest commodities consumers, than Brazil and Australia, the other major export competitors.
Home to some 240 million people, over 86% identify themselves as Muslims, giving Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim population, while Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Confucianism, and native religions all have their influences. Many centuries of cultural fusion between diverse indigenous groups and a parade of foreign influences – Indian, Arabic, Chinese, and European – has resulted in a complex conglomeration of somewhere around 300 distinct ethnicities, with 742 languages and dialects being spoken amongst different clans and tribes. Nearly all Indonesians are bilingual, though, as the Indonesian language is universally taught.
A total of 17,508 islands make up the country, over 10,000 of which are populated. One might get a better idea of the spread by looking at the areas on the globe it covers. From 11° south of the equator to 6° north, and longitude 95° east to 141° east. Another way to realize the scale of this South Asian giant is to consider that just the island of Sumatra, the largest island that entirely belongs to Indonesia, is larger in area than all of Japan.
Being firmly fixed in the tropic zone means that, rather than varying in temperature, the two seasons vary in degree of wetness, with the rainy season in Jakarta being from November to March and the not-as-rainy season, from April to October. The timing of these seasons varies somewhat across the vast region, while up in the highlands, (Indonesia has mountains and volcanoes, some of which reach up to 10,000 feet) temperatures will be cooler.
In this tropical climate, it is not surprising to find that the biodiversity matches the cultural diversity, as Indonesia is outnumbered only by Brazil in the amount of animal and plant species. And mirroring Indonesia’s unique cultural fusion, its flora and fauna are a combination of Asian with Australasian, where both on land and in the surrounding ocean waters, the amount of species that can be found nowhere else in the universe is astonishing.
The two main locations where expats live are Jakarta, the nation’s lively capital, and Bali, which is imbibed with a mystique that is irresistible to travelers and expats alike.
Mark and Luh in Bali
Bali has a culture unique to itself that has been formed by generations of Balinese Hindu traditions.
It is the one island in the Indonesian archipelago where Hinduism has flourished, and flourished beautifully. The visually magnificent festivals and celebrations feature elaborate costumes and dances.
Beginning in the 1970s, these celebrations, along with friendly attitudes, spectacular beaches, and excellent surf began drawing visitors from all over the world. One such visitor, way back in 1972, was Mark, a member of the US armed forces stationed in Thailand.
I recently had a chance to visit with my friend and his Balinese wife, Luh, and they agreed to share some of their experiences with us.
J.D: After your early visits to Bali, what brought you back?
Mark: I completely fell in love with the sights, smells and sounds of this culture. I was raised a strict catholic, and all the religious influences on everyday life here attracted me, probably because it was very different from what I had been brought up with.
J.D: I understand that you started bringing some of the Balinese handicrafts back with you to the US. Did you intend to make it a business at the time?
Mark: No, not at all. It went from bringing unique presents to my family in Boston, to bringing back enough to cover my stay in Bali, which went from 2 months in the winter to 6 months. After a couple of years, I realized that there was a ready market in “head shops” and import stores for Balinese goods, and I started to take orders, shipping them directly from Bali to the purchasers.
J.D: What type of merchandise did you sell?
Mark: Well, it started out with batik wall hangings and decorations, woodcarvings, incense, and eventually we got into clothing and jewelry.
J.D: Luh, when you first met Mark, what was your impression?
Luh: Well, Mark came to our village several times to purchase clothing from several families, and I had great respect for him. He was very nice and generous to everyone he came in contact with, always bringing presents to all the children.
J.D: Did you ever think you would end up married to him, traveling to the many places you have?
Luh: Initially not, but after a couple of years, when I was 19, Mark asked my father for permission to see me, which came as a big surprise to me, because he never treated me any different than my siblings. But I was very proud that I was the one he chose. There had been talk in the village about just such a situation, and several of the eligible girls expressed hope that he would fall in love with them.
Mark: Luh was so different from the other young ladies there. I had a girlfriend in Boston, but she was not at all interested in traveling with me. I had noticed what a beauty Luh was several times, as well as admiring her skills in dealing with me and other foreigners who were doing business with her parents. Her father put her in charge of taking the orders, figuring out all the details and making sure that we were served properly.
J.D: Mark, at what point did you decide to move to Bali?
Mark: It was in the late 80’s, business was booming and I had become a well-known wholesaler to businesses in the US, Europe, and Australia. I earned a good reputation by delivering on time and always having quality goods at competitive prices and a constantly changing line of clothing. That was when I decided to stay in Bali full time, so I took the big step of asking for Luh’s hand. Her father told me he was proud to have me as a member of his family, and preparations were made for an elaborate wedding.
Luh: Mark had waited so long to ask, that my father was wondering if he should offer him land and a house for us to live in, but Mark did not need any incentive. Our wedding lasted almost a whole week, and in the end my father did give us one hectare of land, but Mark designed the house himself.
J.D: How did the Asian economic meltdown of the late 1990s affect your business, what with currency devaluations and inflation?
Mark: Actually, it had no effect on me at all. All of my pricing was always in US dollars, regardless of where my merchandise was shipped. And in all the years of being in business here, I have only had one down year, and that was 2002. These days, my exports have created about 300 cottage industry jobs, and I make sure that working conditions are good and that the children can go to school instead of working.
J.D: As a whole, how would you rate your quality of life on Bali?
Mark: On a scale of 1 to 10 I would give it an 11. I am very happy here; I love the people, the climate and my extended family. I am glad that I chose this path in life, as it gave me an opportunity to give something back to the local people who have allowed me to live such an extraordinary life.
J.D: Do you see any drawbacks to your living where you do?
Mark: Other than natural disasters and the political upheaval we have suffered, there are none. Politics will be politics, and there is no more to do about that than natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis.
J.D: Thank you both very much for your time, and I wish you continued peace and prosperity.
Waymon in Bali
Waymon is another expat who has heeded the call of Bali’s mystique. He is a civil engineering consultant and construction manager whose international know-how takes him all around the world. But he is always glad to get back home. These are his views and experiences:
I am a 100% American born in the small town of Sylvania Georgia and raised just outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
In 2000 I was feeling really disconnected with life in the United States after the end of a long term relationship, being robbed at gunpoint three times, and just the American experience in general wasn’t working for me. A year or so prior I had met a young lady from Bali, Indonesia and she suggested that if I were to ever have a week or two vacation that I should visit Bali and that I would love it. On February 4th, 2000 I landed at Ngurah Rai Airport in Bali and on Feburary 7th I was calling my family and boss to tell them that I was quitting my job and staying in Bali.
Ever since I was old enough to imagine flying off to and living in another country I have always wanted it to be on a tropical island with white and golden sand beaches, beautiful trees and plants, friendly and helpful people and a slower pace, if not an altogether lazy lifestyle. I found all of those things on the island that I love to call home.
Believe it or not, there isn’t much that I dislike about Bali. But even though I have grown to love native Indonesian dishes and how to now cook most of them, I sometimes want a good American hot dog or need something that you can only get in an American supermarket. And I honestly don’t like the way that some westerners (especially Australians) disrespect the people on the island and use it as their personal toilet.
The most difficult thing for me to get used to here has been the cold showers; I am and will always be a hot shower type of guy, no matter what climate I find myself in. Another has been the unreliability of the electrical grid, but you get used to it and it can be quite romantic at times, with the right person.
Paul in Jakarta
Jakarta and its surrounding urban area are collectively known as Jabodetabek, which is the fourth most populous urban center in the world, home to a densely packed 23.2 million people. It is the political, economic, and cultural center of Indonesia. The port in Tanjung Priok Harbor, located on the northwest coast of the island of Java, has served strategic and trade purposes ever since the fourth century, when it was part of the Tarumanagara Kingdom. This area that has grown into present day Jakarta has served as the seat of power for Hindu and Buddhist empires, Islamic sultanates, and the Dutch East Indies through the ages.
Now it is known amongst the expat community as the Big Durian, a term that refers to a strange regional fruit with a penetrating odor that has been alternately likened to almonds, rotten onions, turpentine, and gym socks. Like the fruit, Jakarta’s sweltering mass of humanity comes on strong and is repugnant to some but heavenly to others. The infamous traffic, the dense air quality, the chaos, and the enormous income inequality are all part of the vibrancy and utter aliveness of this intense city – all of which is definitely an acquired taste for the uninitiated.
Paul is a youthful expat from Sheffield, UK who is currently living in Jakarta. Here is what he has shared with us:
There was no plan involved in my move to Indonesia.
I went on holiday to Malaysia and met a cute lady, and we got married a year later. When I asked if she would like to go to the UK with me, she refused, saying that it was too cold. Then I went to Indonesia on a 30-day visa and decided I liked the place. So I went home for three months to sell up and sort out, returning to Indonesia with no plans at all. Excepting a visa run to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I have been here ever since.
I like almost everything about Indonesia.
The food: If there was ever a gift from the Almighty, it’s sambal. That’s a form of chili paste made in various ways but could all be used my NASA to power the shuttle take off. I was quite a fan of spicy and/or Chinese food when I lived in the UK so Indonesian food is not such a shock to my system. There is little I dislike and lots I do. Fried tempe is a special favourite but the all time best is nasi gila (crazy rice). It’s especially hot and quite wonderful.
The people: Indonesia has the most friendly people in the world – probably (sorry to paraphrase the beer ad). The vast majority are fantastic.
The weather: There’s no winter, so I’m happy. A fan or air conditioner sorts out the heat indoors, but it doesn’t bother me even when I’m out and about. I love to wander on my mountain bike and snap photos with my camera. As long as I have my hat, I’m a happy bunny.
Cultural traditions: Indonesian traditional dance is elegant but not really entertaining to me. Same goes for traditional entertainment like puppet shows. I just can’t get into it.
More modern is dangdut. It’s a form of demi pop rock dance where girls, who can neither sing nor dance, have a competition to see who can dress in the most tasteless clothes and prance around on stage in a manner imitating being attacked by a swarm of bees.
The main dislikes I have about Indonesia are the roads and the internet.
The roads are unbelievable. If you could imagine the City of Chaos on a party night were everyone was smashed out of their skulls and high on LSD, that about describes a normal day on an Indonesia road. The internet is rubbish for the most part. It tends to be slow, unreliable, and expensive. Also, paperwork for visas and so on is a game, but it’s only once a year.
How to adjust to cultural differences in a foreign country:
Be open minded to new ideas and mix as much as possible with local people. I’ve found expats that live in expat bubbles never get used to living here and tend to complain about everything.
These expats take Indonesia’s marketing slogan to heart. The jury is out that the people of Indonesia are what make this place so special. And what the country lacks in advanced infrastructure, it more than makes up for with its exotic flavors and the unique experience that is Indonesia.
About the authors: Jamie Douglas is an Adventurer, Writer and Photographer with an amazing array of Nikon equipment, and a lifetime of experience traveling and documenting. He currently enjoys the great weather and fine wines of Mendoza, Argentina, and edits Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.
Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). Julie presently lives in the sunny wine country of Argentina, where she and husband, Jamie, edit Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.