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I've decided the best way to thrive as a western foreigner in Indonesia is not to ask too many questions or worry about unexplainable things. Not because people are reluctant to tell you anything (far from it), but because even though many strange things happen here confusing to the western mind, questioning such things will often leave you far more confused than the event that prompted the question. Life here can be surreal - if you're not careful, you could develop a permanent look of bemusement, or a blank expression that makes small children stare at you pityingly. As an illustration of what not to worry or ask about, I'd like to share my typical Sunday in Indonesia.
My wife, who is Indonesian and is a Branch Manager for a large cosmetics manufacturer, asked me to join her on a company family picnic to be held on a Sunday up in the hills, in the middle of a tea plantation. Being the supportive husband I am, I agreed.
“Sounds fun,” I said, “how many people are going?”
“About twenty or thirty. We have to leave my office at 6am”.
We arrived at her office on Sunday morning the traditional 30 minutes late, to find the place was already teeming with excited people going in and coming out, and boarding and alighting from two old buses that said Steady Safe on the side. I hoped they were. After much organising by my wife, everyone found a seat and we set off. Outside Jakarta, we had gone about 5 kilometres along the toll road, when both buses stopped and people started to get off and stand on the verge, a dangerous place to be.
“Why are we getting off?” I asked.
“We have to, the bus is on fire”. Sure enough, clouds of black smoke were billowing from the engine compartment.
The driver helpfully advised everyone not to go too close in case it exploded, and chirped “We leave it here, lah! I'll get a new one soon. Now we all go in the other bus.” We all clambered aboard like sardines. Luckily, the air conditioner still worked. Being the only foreigner, everyone insisted I get one of the seats, so I was put next to the driver, with the gear stick between my legs. The driver kept jamming and wrenching the stick into gear perilously close to various sensitive areas. I notice a big lump of wood on the floor, which the driver explained he used to wedge under the wheels when he parked, because the brakes were 'not so good'. Seeing my concerned look, he added “But don't worry, we'll be going uphill. Mostly”. By now we were climbing the windy narrow road to the plantation. A bus behind us decided to overtake on the inside, cutting a swathe through somebody's front garden.
Strung across the road were hung overhead banners advertising villas for sale (many Jakartans own weekend villas in the hills). One looked a bit insecurely fastened and low; the bus clipped it and it spread across the windshield, completely obscuring the driver's vision. Someone screamed. One would expect the driver to slam on the brakes in such a situation (WHAT brakes??), but instead he nonchalantly opened his window, leaned forward and peeled it off, without slowing down. In that time we travelled about a hundred meters, but thankfully we were still pointing more or less in the direction of the road.
When we arrived, there were hundreds of people already there, all wearing similar tee-shirts, one of which I was presented with. More buses were arriving by the minute.
I asked my wife “I thought you said about twenty or thirty people were coming?”
“No, I meant about twenty or thirty buses-full.”.I guessed it to be closer to sixty. We were on a field about the size of three football pitches surrounded by mountains and tea bushes as far as the eye could see; there were tents and stalls and a stage with instruments, and everyone was excitedly greeting each other and busily organising each other and forming queues and changing the queues around. Every time I stood still, a queue formed around me and I had to move. Eventually, I realised that this had been going on for half an hour with no sign of stopping, but nothing had actually happened yet. Happiness is infectious, and Indonesians are never happier than at an event like this, so I didn.'t care that I was totally baffled about what was trying to be achieved. People at the front of the queues were wearing cardboard signs saying things like 'Midnight Mist' and 'Purple Pear'. Suddenly all the queues started wandering towards a mountain.
I couldn't stand it any longer, so I asked someone “What's going on?”
“Everyone's excited about the bicycle”, she replied.
“Huh? What bicycle? And why is everyone wandering off?”
“It's a walking competition, 4 kilometres, and the first prize is a mountain bike.”
“So, if it's a competition, why is everyone walking really really slowly?”
“Because they all want to win the bike”.
Aargh!! I never learn. A small truck carrying a mountain of shoe boxes unloaded by the stage and drove off. I didn't ask. A ladies football competition was arranged, using four shoe boxes as goal posts. After a few kicks, dangdut music started playing from the stage, and both teams forgot about the ball and began to dance. Everybody was ecstatic; I didn't know if it was supposed to be a football game or a dancing competition. Eventually, the walkers wandered back and someone was presented with a mountain bike, to much cheering. The shoe boxes were distributed, which turned out to contain a most welcome chicken and rice lunch and a banana the size of my thumb, with a dollop of red sauce that was the hottest thing I have ever tasted. I sat under a tree with my wife, until I noticed a dinner-plate sized spider above, that had wrapped its web around the entire palm tree.
“Don't worry, darling,” she reassured, “its not dangerous. It only eats birds.” I remembered the 'harmless' black flying thing that bit me last week, and moved. A nice lady wearing an enormous green nylon Stetson, sideways, approached me and cheerfully informed me in perfect English that I was sitting on a pile of horse droppings.
The girls singing beautifully on the stage turned out not to be well known professional singers as I had assumed, but lipstick sales consultants from Bandung. Here, everyone can sing.
Tug-o-war, sack races and various other games were played, dances were danced, photos taken, announcements were made and prizes were presented. A long round of kissing and handshaking and saying goodbyes took place, and then we went back to the bus park.
Some guys with plastic shopping bags on their heads were selling strawberries around the buses. I wasn't looking forward to the downhill journey, but the second bus had disappeared and two new ones were in its place. I expected to find the second one at the bottom of a ravine somewhere. Instead of Steady Safe, the new ones had Astaga! written on the sides, meaning something like 'Oh my gosh!' in English. At least they're more honest, I thought.
Our new bus had its brake lights inside the cabin, at the front next to the driver. I hoped there were more behind. We pulled away onto the steep windy road, and the driver immediately pulled out to overtake another bus right in front of a blind corner.
“Satu arah, sayang!” (One way, darling!) said my wife, reminding me that the police close the road to up-traffic for a few hours on Sundays, because of the volume of down-traffic. Still, you always get some guy who's previously stopped for a meal on the way up, and continues his journey, causing total chaos. People were asking each other where the smell of horses was coming from.
We passed the first bus still abandoned on the toll road, with all the paint burnt off its rear panel. Back in Jakarta, I vaguely noticed a bicycle tied to the top of a telegraph pole.
“Why is there a ... I started?”
“It's a prize,” said my wife.
Two in one day, I thought sleepily. I bit my lip.
At home, I fell into bed exhausted.
“Are you tired, darling?” asked my wife.
“Was it what you expected?”
“Yes,” I lied.
“Are you happy?”
“You bet!” I smiled. I was.
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