I recently traveled from Denpasar to Jakarta with many stops along the way. After landing at Ngurah Rai Airport, I proceeded to employ every conveyance imaginable; bus, train, taxi, becak (those little bicycle driven cabs), motorbike, and feet. About the only methods left unexplored were camel and hot-air balloon. Years of living in New York had made me soft, at least in terms of travel. Perhaps my new perceptions of traveling in the country of my birth were due to the fact that, for the first time, I was traveling with a bule (White man). This particular bule is my half brother with whom I share a Javanese mother. While I look Malay, my brother Hamid really looks like a White man. No doubt the experience of being identified as an American, or at least in the company of an American, had something to do with the reception we encountered. Traveling with my bule brother also gave me the opportunity to see the experience through someone else’s eyes. Hamid grew up in America and has seen little of this gracious land. I was very proud to show off my beloved Indonesia to my brother. However, the journey between splendors, like the waters between islands, was fraught with inconvenience and occasional peril.
Walking is not permitted in Indonesia. Anyone who has ever tried to take a leisurely stroll down a street in Solo or Denpasar will testify to this fact. We found ourselves in Kuta (not the most gracious face of Bali) and decided to take a walk after dinner. One after another, taxi drivers would say “Taxi, Boss?”. Taxi and becak drivers in large cities accross Indonesia will hunt you down like prey, following you as you get off a bus or train. At first we would politely replied, “Mboten pak, matur nuwun.” (No thank you, sir). After hundreds of requests that gets shortened to “No!” If we ignored them they would say, “Dubleg bekne!” (Are you deaf?) or “Lagi mlaku karo Landa bae wis gayane seje” (Just because you’re walking with a White man, you are acting arrogantly).
In major cities and in tourist areas, Americans are reduced to walking dollar bills in the eyes of the envious locals. Hamid wasn’t seen as a person, he was more or less an ATM machine and they wanted to make a withdrawal no matter what it takes. Once it was clear to the taxi drivers that we were not interested in a ride, the sales pitch would change, “Woman?” “You want a woman?” After about an hour of this my brother turned to a driver and replied, “No, leave me alone. I shan’t be riding anything and anyone today.” I felt embarrassed. I had spent years bragging to Hamid about how wonderful Indonesia is, and this was the first impression my countrymen served up.
It isn’t simply the level of harassment that bothered me. What does this say about our respect for ourselves and for our sisters? Talk about reducing people to dollars, this is a prime example. ‘Boss, would you like a cup of coffee or perhaps you’d prefer to abuse and dehumanize a precious human being? Just let me know. For a price, I’m here to serve’.
Taxi driver/pimp is an odd combination of professions. I’m not sure what connects these two jobs. Surgeon/plumber would seem more logical, at least on the surface of it. I have never encountered the combination of taxi driver and pimp in any other developing nation. Perhaps I’ve been sheltered, or many it was just that I had never traveled with a bule before. Perhaps the taxi drivers don’t pimp for people of color. Last year I visited Morocco and not a single taxi driver offered me his sister. The taxis are very crowded in Morocco. The driver often stacks people on top of each other. At times a sister or brother was sitting on top of me, but they never got paid for it.
Perhaps the taxi drivers in Indonesia are merely concerned for our well being. After all, walking in Indonesia can be quite death defying. The traffic has reached a new level of insanity. Also, the sidewalks in Kuta are intermittent at best. I have nearly broken my neck on them many times and I found myself playing mother to Hamid in order to prevent a broken ankle. There are holes in the sidewalks large enough to conceal all of the missing rivals of Suharto.
On our trip across Jawa, we found ourselves on a bus to Surabaya (we hit all the most glamorous and exotic locations). “Boyo, Boyo, Boyo!” cried out the kondektur (ticket-taker) on the bus to Surabaya, as he dangled dangerously from the rear door. Despite the fact that the bus was already full, the kondektur kept calling out “Boyo, Boyo, Boyo!” in an effort to drum up more business. Unlike America and Europe, they’re not paid by the hour. As they are renting these busses and have to pay a setoran (fixed amount) each day to the bus owner, they keep cramming the people in. After the horizontal space is full, they begin to arrange people vertically. Hamid accidentally steps on six people as he tries to get closer to me on the bus. He only speaks three words of Indonesian, Selamat Pagi (which he uses morning, noon and evening), Terima kasih and Maaf which seemed like the obvious choice for this moment. “Maaf, maaf,” he says as he untangles himself from an embarrassed sister.
Armed with this extensive vocabulary we wound our way across the verdant climes of Jawa. Proudly on the front window of the bus, in large Times New Roman letters, is displayed A C. To an American this means cool, clean air. To an Indonesian, AC means ‘Angin Cendela” (literally, ‘wind window’). This means that the windows can be opened thus enabling the hot breezes to enter the bus. Hamid made the mistake of actually opening a window. This caused quite a controversy among the passengers. The problem is that Indonesians are afraid of the wind. Indonesians believe in “masuk angin” (wind sickness). Our fear of the wind is second only in strangeness to our fear of walking. The lovely scent of diesel fuel drifted up from the floor of the bus. Half a dozen of my Indonesian brothers were chain smoking without the slightest concern for the health consequences, but the same brothers raced in terror to close the window so that none of that evil fresh air would come and take away our precious carcinogens. Twelve hours later we arrive at Surabaya. I’m a smoker, and quite accustomed to the rigors of economy travel in Indonesia, so the trip didn’t phase me. By contrast, my brother Hamid emerges from the bus looking like the morning after Christmas: green from hours of toxic air and red from the heat.
In the cold climates of the northern continental United States, where winter temperatures can descend to well below 0 degrees Celsius, Americans will often open the bedroom window before going to bed. They believe that the fresh air, even when subzero, is beneficial. When I lived with my brother in New York, his constant refrain was, “The fresh air will do you good”.
Nothing could be truer of Indonesia. Indonesians do business as if they are trying desperately to live up to the title of “Third World”. We grasp for today’s Rp 10,000 at the expense of tomorrow’s Rp 20,000. For example, I lived within the complex of Kraton Solo (a place that could do with a lot of fresh air). The moment that all of my neighbors in and near the Kraton found out that I had been living in the United States, they decided that I must be rich and ripe for the picking. I am neither, but I find myself constantly fending off the scams and ploys of my envious countrymen. Everyone wants my alleged money even when Hamid is not around, but with his visit came a fresh round of envy. Many merchants up their prices when they saw us coming. Once my unsuspecting bule brother paid Rp 20,000 (about $ 2) for the use of the bathroom. It isn’t simply that he was unaware of the proper price five cents (Rp 500). It is the mindset of otherwise honest Indonesians that they owe it to themselves to liberate this filthy rich tourist from his money. In other words, cheating is fine. The consequence of this, other than ethical, moral and spiritual (those I reserve for a different essay), is that people are less likely to want to do business with us.
In addition, I am talking about a profound lack of respect for ourselves and for each other. Make no mistake about it, we are doing ourselves a grave disservice. When I go to a restaurant other than the little warungs, I am often treated as a threat. Once in Kuta, Bali I was actually told to leave the Sari Club because they didn’t want me, “to bother the tourists”. I effected my hautiest gaze and said, “I won’t bother them if they don’t bother me”. They were disinterested in my assurances that I had sufficient funds to pay for my drinks and food. Security kept following me. Eventually, they literally asked me to open my wallet and show them my money. I left. Can you imagine a restaurant in New York refusing to sell food to a New Yorker? Yet this is not uncommon in the “better” restaurants and clubs in many parts of Indonesia. What does this say about our self-image? Until we learn to respect ourselves, we will always be a former colony instead of the proud nation I believe we are meant to be.
I fine example of our lack of self respect can be seen in the phase, “Export Quality”. This designation appears from time to time on merchandize in Indonesia. These products cost much more but we keep purchasing them in the unspoken belief that by doing so we will become equal with bules. “Export Quality” is a recognition that we usually keep the inferior merchandise for ourselves so that we can sell the good stuff to those bules whose money we so worship. To make it worse, today’s adds often use White models … and English. Stores even show bule mannequins. Hamid and I found that particularly strange. Indelicately put, we screw ourselves and we screw our unsuspecting bule brothers and sisters whenever possible. And, like the taxi drivers in Kuta, we’re getting paid for it, just not very well. Some might argue that it is worth it if it makes money. But I believe that this mindset is keeping us poor.
If Indonesians are ever to take their potential place in the world economy, they must learn the nature of business and how one operates in a service based economy. It probably seems mean spirited of me to pick on the bathroom attendants and taxi drivers. After all, it is the towers of Jakarta, Surabaya and Batam that are going to define our place in the world economy, not the becak drivers. But it is important to remember that the policies in Jakarta and other power centers create and influence the wealth and poverty of bathroom attendants. It is also important to remember that the experiences foreigners have on the street level can dramatically influence their willingness to invest and participate in our economic expansion. Contrary to the intended purpose, our lack of ethics and honesty are holding us back.
Americans are fond of saying ‘a deal is a deal’. In other words, once we have made an agreement, the terms and particulars of that agreement must not change. More often then not, one can count on this in America, and there is something very comforting about it. This tendency to live-up to one’s business agreements is one of many reasons why business is so successful in America. Stability breads confidence. Certainly, Americans can lie and cheat with the best of them. From the first shot fired at the Native population, to the broken promise of ‘40 archers and a mule’ offered to the freed slaves, America has made a high art out of breaking promises. However, when it comes to good repeat customers, Americans have learned that one’s word must be good in order to succeed in business.
The United States is in the process of redesigning its money. I was, at first, very disappointed by the unimaginative look of the new currency. The same figures grace the same bills with the same colors and many of the same design elements. “What a missed opportunity,” I said to a New York friend of mine. He replied, “American money means business! What you want is the look of stability, not flights of fancy.” He’s got a point. Like a billboard at the foot Wall Street, the dollar-green Statue of Liberty lifts a 24 carrot gold torch as if to announce to the world, ‘This is where a deal is a deal.’ I know it sounds unspeakably crass, but to many people in Indonesia, and the world over, money has come to symbolize liberty. And liberty (economic or otherwise) requires an ethical grounding. We must respect each other and ourselves if we are to succeed.
While we’re on the subject of symbols, it is interesting to note that America and Indonesia share a same national symbol, the eagle. The American Bold Eagle looks serenely confident and reliable. It often stands in a non-threatening profile with its talons resting firming on a solid surface over the Latin phrase, “E Pluribus Unum” (which means virtually the same as our “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika”). By contrast, the Garuda stares with bulging eyes and talons ready to grab you. While it is true that America and Indonesia share the same national symbol, the Indonesian version looks just a little too hungry to be trusted.