For most of my life, the entire sum of my knowledge of Indonesia could be neatly summarised by three dot points:
- Kuta Beach, Bali;
- Komodo Dragons; and
- Australia’s closest neighbour
I’d travelled to Bali with my family as a young child, but I don’t recall much of the experience other than having my hair braided and acquiring a wealth of Peter Andre and Backstreet Boys merchandise to bring back home with me. Having lived in cities like New York, Minneapolis, Tokyo and London, the travel bug had sent me far from home. And while I’d been back to Bali briefly as an adult, I didn’t have any plans for an extended stay in Indonesia, or even a return trip.
If it wasn’t for ACICIS (Australian Consortium for ‘In-Country’ Indonesian Studies), I probably would have never added anything more on to those three little points.
I applied for the ACICIS Journalism Professional Practicum (JPP) in late 2013 and on the 6th of January 2014, I arrived in Jakarta.
Having visited some of the world’s busiest cities, I was pretty confident that Jakarta would have no surprises in store for me.
That confidence was completely shattered by the end of the taxi journey from the airport to Semanggi. Jakarta traffic defies logic: hundreds of cars and twice as many scooters, all jammed along what Australian road rules would consider a two lane highway, and somehow merging effortlessly around each other without even scratching their paint jobs. All of this while pedestrians leaped out at any time with a hand raised, as if the gesture alone is enough to stop traffic (which of course, it is), further adding to the chaos.
Jakarta is a city full to the brim with surprises, smashing apart all of my expectations and assumptions within a few short days. This is the real Jakarta.
In many ways it’s a far more developed city than my home town of Perth. A fact that was perhaps illustrated to me best by the abundance of Starbucks in close proximity to one another. A novelty one can encounter in just about every capital city, everywhere in the world, except Perth. But there are other parts of Jakarta that you also don’t see in Perth. Houses built on vacant blocks from sheets of tin, surrounded by overgrowth and fruit trees, sandwiched between towering monoliths of steel and glass.
The people were amazingly friendly and helpful, especially for such a large city. When you smile and say good morning in Manhattan, you’re just as likely to be greeted with an expletive. I don’t believe there was a single morning where I didn’t exchange a cheerful “Pagi” (“Good morning”) with nearly every other pedestrian I encountered on my walk to work.
Smiles are a currency in Jakarta. Traded often and for free, they initiated a whole album of selfies I took with strangers on the street. We were friends for a moment, smiling for the flash and for each other like the daily sun-showers punctuating the oppressive tropical heat.
And the food was amazing. A smorgasbord of local culinary delights, literally outside your front door in the form of wheeled carts. The mouth-watering aroma of charcoal and satay and fresh sticky rice greets you whenever you step outside. I wisely chose to ignore my Mother’s well-intentioned advice not to eat from any carts on the side of the road. And thank goodness – Bubur Ayam and I would have never found each other if I hadn’t indulged at so many of Kebon Kecang’s (my local food precinct) bustling wartegs and warungs.
The first two weeks of classes at Universitas Atma Jaya flew past. As someone who arrived with no Indonesian language skills whatsoever, I was surprised by how quickly you could pick up the language. By the time I started my internship, my Bahasa Indonesia was good enough to order coffees and have a short conversation with my local barista. I even managed to interview some locals for an article commissioned by Crikey.com, albeit with some help from one of my English speaking Indonesian friends.
Thanks to the partnership between ACICIS and Atma Jaya, I had the opportunity to learn things I would have never known about the history, economy, political system, media landscape and cultural environment of Indonesia. Two weeks is not enough time for anyone to become an expert in anything, but the excursions and classes organised by Atma Jaya gave me a glimpse of what Indonesia has to offer. And it’s so much more than Kuta Beach and Komodo Dragons, as wonderful as they both are.
By the time I began work with the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC), I had fallen for Jakarta, and maybe even the whole country – hook, line and sinker. My internship was a rewarding and challenging experience that allowed me to take creative control of the UNIC Indonesia Newsletter. Covering the rollout of Indonesia’s Public Health System, interviewing an award winning photographer and writing invitations to the Foreign Correspondents lunch, were just some of the highlights of my whirlwind UNIC internship. It was too much fun, which was why I agreed to stay on and work a couple of extra days to cover the next event. Not only were my co-workers and my boss at the UNIC office some of the loveliest people I’ve ever worked with, I was more than happy to delay my farewell to the excitement of Jakarta.
Thanks to ACICIS, I saw more of our ‘closest neighbour’ than I even knew existed. The fastest way to build stronger ties with Indonesia & repair some of the damage of recent diplomatic blunders is through dispelling the myths and seeing the truth with our own two eyes. Organisations that promote cultural exchange and understanding, helping foster relationships between people at the grassroots level, fill a vital role in ensuring that everything we hear about another culture isn’t just what we hear on the news.
The eight weeks that I spent studying and working as an intern there were just the beginning of a love affair, which, eighteen months later, has me returning regularly to explore more of the vibrant country of which Jakarta is just a fragment.
In fact, I just got back from Yogyakarta. It’s got its fair share of surprises too.
For more information about what it’s like living in Yogyakarta, see Carly Gordyn’s article,