Let me tell it to you straight, and you can decide how silly (or brave?) this blog author is – prior to this field season, I had never even been to Indonesia! It was, put simply, risky of me to bet my graduate career thus far and future dissertation on a location I had never even seen. I was incredibly excited to arrive in Indonesia and begin to understand everything that makes Indonesia, Indonesia. Several things stood out to me as a first timer, which are strikingly obvious to someone who has never visited the country before.
- Street food
- Street performers
- Hey, Mister!
- Malls (yes, malls)
Street food in Indonesia is the best thing ever. While there are a variety of great restaurants, the best and cheapest and tastiest meals that we ate the entire time we were in Indonesia (Jakarta especially) were eaten on the sidewalks of crowded streets and dimly lit back alleys. Bungkus (literally,
“to wrap”) is the Indonesian version of take-out. It almost always consists of a huge portion of rice, a dash of sambal (chopped and seasoned chilies), some veggies (usually kangkung, or “water spinach”), and fried chicken or fish all wrapped in a banana leaf and waxed paper. Bungkus are eaten by unfolding part of the outside wrapper strategically so as to fit in one hand without falling apart (no staples or tape here to help out), and using the other hand to squish pieces of rice, meat and veggies into small balls which you stuff into your mouth. Repeatedly. Because it is delicious.
(Two months out update: I’m still having dreams about a spicy, greasy, nasi bungkus).
While enjoying your meal on the street, you may notice people costumed as large effigies, known as ondel-ondel, or Betawi effigies. Betawi are a distinct cultural and linguistic creole group descended from slaves and workers brought in to work at the Dutch East Indies capital of Jakarta (then Batavia) during the 17th century. Performers costume themselves in elaborate puppets some eight and nine feet tall and amble along the streets dancing for passerbys, motorists, and street foodies. Traditionally, they danced at special occasions and to cast away evil spirits from villages. Onlookers are expected to pay the ondel-ondel for their entertainment, or else invite bad fortune. They are super interesting, I would highly suggest reading more about them (here https://goo.gl/AqG2F6, and here http://goo.gl/Suywc4). To fully get a sense of how massive and elaborate they are, watch them perform (https://youtu.be/V_LvRC6GDsc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HT0Vtacah7k).
Street musicians and singers are also very common. As bule (foreigners), expect to receive quite the evening show if enjoying street food (don’t forget tip money for the performers!).
If the street performers did not make it obvious to you that you are in a different country, residents of Indonesia are more than happy to do so. “Hey, Mister!”, or the occasionally gender specific “Hey, Miss” are common phrases throughout Indonesia, particularly in response to seeing a group of five foreigners (two of whom are tall even for Americans!) walking around the streets of Jakarta and Ambon. Part-greeting, part-colloquialism, equal parts flattering and disconcerting, this phrase was often followed by handshakes, hugs, requests for photo opportunities, and the occasional flock of children following you around town. As Americans, what we might think of as an invasion of privacy is really just polite manners and (as I interpreted it) an expression of extreme excitement for Indonesians. Just as we were interested in learning about Indonesia and its culture, Indonesians were curious about us and not afraid to show it. While this was probably the most difficult part of the trip for many of us to get accustomed to, it was an interesting reminder to us that Indonesia was no passive recipient to our research. Being “hey, mister”-ed became a huge topic of conversation over the course of our trip – how did that phrase get started? How did EVERYONE in Indonesia seem to know it? Is it part of the English curricula?? and so forth. The answers to which, we never truly did expose.
Malls. Yes. Indonesia has them. So much so that malls as talked about as a culture note in Indonesian class. I first learned how to ask all the important consumer questions (“how much”, “where is X”, “what floor”) through my Indonesian text book, which devoted the chapter to malls and their place of prominence in Jakarta culture.
To understand the importance of malls, please consider that air-conditioning is not standard in many areas of Indonesia. Indonesia is, also, a tropical climate that experiences only two distinct seasons – rainy season and dry season, with an average annual temperature of 28℃/81℉ and average humidity over 80%. Malls have air-conditioning. Malls have great, powerful, cold, life-giving, air-conditioning. Malls also tend to have nicer, up-and-coming restaurants, and the sort of mid to high-end shops that the younger generation of Indonesian consumers and tourists enjoy. Similar, but even more so than in America, malls are the social center for young families and Indonesia’s millenials.
And on that note, you know enough to survive your first day! Selamat datang ke Indonesia (welcome to indonesia)!