A Street in a Strange World

Originally posted to my research site in August 2012, from the beginning of a research trip in Indonesia. Apparently, I took hardly any photos during this Jakarta stopover, and so my revelatory first time eating tempeh is featured.

Jakarta, August 2012.

My first visit to Jakarta, completed.

It was not as bad as I’d expected, based on warnings. Though, I am not sorry to head off to Kalimantan Timur (southeastern Borneo) after several days tediously criss-crossing the city on the large-scale scavenger hunt to process my research permit as a foreigner*.

The traffic is…amazing. The pollution is thick and hazy. The city is immense.

And the smiles are fantastic. I read in a guide book that “Indonesians are great smilers” — it’s true.

I haven’t gotten to experience much of the city outside of various bureaucratic offices and the congested roads between them (oh, and a day trip during which I was somewhat scammed, but that’s another story). But still, I encountered evocative moments of lucidity while there.

*I would advise all others who might need to go through this same process to avoid doing it during Ramadhan, but the timing of my fieldwork was unkind to me in this regard. And I imagine the process has since become easier.


Jakarta snippet 1:
Have been feeling pretty homesick and lonely lately. It seems to be harder in the big cities, where I often am alone in transit to or from the warmth of my colleagues and field teams in more remote locations. It feels strange to be alone in such a mass of humanity. But I am not one of those readily jovial travelers, the ones described in a Lonely Planet language guide as “surrounded by locals, swapping jokes, email addresses and experiences…” Though I sometimes lament that I can’t muster the energy to be so instantly chummy, I also realize and accept that I’m not particularly gregarious when at home, either. Still, at the end of over a year of hopping between field sites, I am emotionally tired and the loneliness drags me down.

But I’ve often found that, when I find the loneliness getting to be too much, a kind spirit comes into my life, if only for a moment.

The taxi driver who gave me a free Bahasa Indonesia lesson as we waited in traffic. Another taxi driver who apologetically stopped to run into a convenience store so he could buy a drink after fasting all day, and then bought me a box of juice. The nice young men who shyly and politely took my poorly-placed food orders at the stalls near the B&B and who were wonderful examples of smiles and laughs transcending language barriers. The friendly couple who talked to me over dinner after amusedly watching one such food-ordering-transaction. The B&B watchman who gleefully recites sing-song basic Bahasa Indonesia greetings with me whenever I see him.


Jakarta snippet 2:
Rode in a mini-bus back to the bed and breakfast tonight, cruising along with the traffic, watching the motorbikes and cars and people moving along. People in taquiyahs, jilbabs, batik, in loose flowing modest clothes. The call to prayer. Bustling, brightly lit food stalls and miscellaneous small shops crowded along the sidewalk. I was drinking a local type of soda that claims to be medicinal (indubitably delicious), enjoying the breeze blowing through the open mini-bus door, enjoying the scenes passing before me.

Paul Simon starts singing in my head:

A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language
Holds no currency
He is a foreigner
He is surrounded by the sounds, the sounds
Of cattle in the market place
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says Amen and Hallelujah!

This verse often comes into my head when I’m traveling, even without cattle or angels (I’ve always thought it would apply most to Ethiopia, but that’s an aside). I think it captures those moments of awe that pops up when, in a very distant and new setting, you stop to think about where you really are and you realize how wonderful the present moment is. It might seem like a “strange” world as in “different from my known,” but it’s not so strange, it’s not so “other.”

Here I am, in the capital city of Indonesia. Life seems so different here, but it’s not so different.

I feel very out of place and alone, yet I also feel very at home and settled, in a strange way. In a “larger scheme of things” way.

I hopped off at my stop. The lane to the B&B is marked by a huge, sprawling pile of sad, hacked-open and emptied coconuts. Coconut is eaten as part of breaking the fast each day during Ramadhan, and each day I see a mountain of round & proud coconuts reduced to a dry, browning rubble of shells. The ground smelled of fermented coconut juice.


Website Built by WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: