July 2007: Sitting at the bar on a Thursday evening at the Cork and Screw Restaurant in Jakarta, I mused about what an oasis it was inside there in contrast to the noise, crowds, dirt and chaos of the city outside. The Cork and Screw is one of a growing number of smart restaurants popping up around the center of Jakarta catering to the up and coming professional set of the city. Next to me, a couple of early middle-aged, stylishly dressed women were warning me to only use Blue Bird, or Silver Bird Taxis to get around in the city. As they sipped their imported glasses of Australian Merlot, one of them related how she was actually robbed by a taxi that masqueraded as a Blue Bird Taxi. She noted though, that the robber's taxi did not have the signature identification card and picture of the driver on the dashboard, and impressed upon me that this should always be prominently displayed in a genuine Blue Bird Taxi. I replied that the staff at the hotel I was staying, the Gran Mahakam hotel, a chic colonial style boutique hotel and another oasis from the outside city, had also warned me about the taxis of Jakarta.
Refreshingly, they did not ask me, at first, where I was from. Having only been in Jakarta for about 8 hours at that point, I had already been asked that question more times than I had in the previous two months combined. I did not know it then, but this would become THE question that every single person that I came across, had contact with, or merely happened to bump into in the upcoming month of travel in Indonesia, would ask. This question would come to grate on me and test the limits of my patience in dealing with people with whom I would have only the most fleeting of an acquaintance. My first response to this question was to reply that I was from "LA or Los Angeles". However, quite often then, I would notice a blank look in the eyes of the person that had asked, be it a taxi driver, waiter, a person working in a shop that I had just entered, or a Pedi-cab driver. So, I came to reply, "California", which would sometimes elicit a knowing nod. Often though, I just had to say "USA or America", and the person would then nod and reply "Ah, America". And this, usually, was the extent of the conversation since the inquiring person's knowledge of English extended only to the words "Where are you from" and "Hello" (which of course, was better than my range of word in the Indonesian official language of Bahasa). Over time, in order to quell my growing exasperation with this interminable question, to have a little fun and because I knew that almost always no further conversation would ensue, I started replying "the Congo", or "Tonga". Since generally the inquirer did not know where these places were, any more than they knew where LA or California was, and that they had no real reason to know or care about where I was from, I figured it did not make any difference.
In fairness, it made sense though, that people would be curious about outsiders. Indonesia is a country of well over 200 million, spread out amongst literally thousands of islands, so diverse in composition, geography, climates, peoples, dialects, and cultures that it can seem to be a world unto itself. The vast majority of its citizens have never been out of Indonesia, with a large percentage of these people never having even been off the island in which they were born. Except for the wealthier and more educated people that I met, there was an insularity amongst those in general that I encountered, with a definite lack of knowledge of the outside world other than that seen on television.
In Bali to illustrate this insularity, for example, a young and well-spoken driver/guide that I hired for the day proudly pointed out the large and beautiful Banyan trees all over the central highlands of the island. He Informed me that they are considered a sacred tree, especially those that are growing inside one of the vast number of temples to be found all over the countryside. My guide also let me know that this special tree was unique only to Bali in the world. When I pointed out to him that we had Banyan trees in America, in Hawaii to be exact, he was genuinely surprised. He questioned how this was possible as the Banyan Tree was a holy tree unique to Bali, and so how would it then be possible that this tree could also be found in America? Because we had spent the day together and were on respectful and friendly terms, I mentioned to him that several things he pointed out to me that day as being unique to Bali, were in fact common to many islands in the S Pacific or SE Asia, such as the Star Fruit, and other fruits that he shown me during our tour.
Perhaps this general insularity amongst the people was a symptom of the rampant corruption that seems to hit every sector and level of Indonesian society, including the education system. A well-educated French expat who had lived and worked in Indonesia for the past 13 years, related to me that primary and secondary education is supposed to be free to all, and funded from a percentage of tax revenues that are supposed to be set aside for the school system. As seems so normal in Indonesia and depressingly familiar from my experience in other parts of the poor world, the Frenchman explained that these funds ear-marked for education just seem to disappear, with only a fraction actually going to the schools. Because of this, most families have to pay tuition to send their children to school. Worse, in addition to the tuition, it is not uncommon for ill-trained teachers to then extort funds from families throughout the school year, on the penalty that their child will not be taught properly if payment(s) for various contrived reasons are not forthcoming. In a country where most struggle to make ends meet, this means that so many in Indonesia seem to barely have education above a basic level because it cannot be afforded.
Corruption is a common topic of conversation and seems evident everywhere I went. A private guide I hired in Borneo (they call it Kalimantan here), railed to me about how the government steals much of the funds from the island, which should be considerable, in light of its large oil and timber extraction industries. One strong piece of evidence that this is apparently so can be in the poor condition of the island's roads. From what I saw, excepting in the few larger cities, the roads on the island, are crumbling or nothing more than dirt and rock paths, strewn with big craters that fill with water. Another piece of evidence of government misappropriation of funds (or outright stealing): In a country that has more rainforest left intact than anywhere else in SE Asia, and hence gets a lot of fresh water from rain, the water is not considered potable anywhere in the country, even to the locals.
A more day to day level of corruption was seen while I was with my hired driver/guide in Bali. In the morning while starting off by car on our day trip around the highlands, we were stopped twice within 1 hour by police roadblocks. There was no real discernible reason for the existence of the roadblocks. The police were merely stopping people in order to extract a not insignificant sum of money from their own fellow citizens that happened to be driving by. My driver calmly explained after we passed through the first roadblock that this was routine. There was a big holiday coming up at the end of the month (June) and the police officers needed money for their families with which to celebrate the approaching holiday. As we approached a second roadblock, I figured that I might be able to help my driver escape having to pay another bribe. When we were stopped, I made it very obvious that I intended to take photographs of the encounter. I figured that perhaps the officers involved would be shamed into letting my driver have a pass, or be afraid of possible repercussions should the pictures be shown to their superiors. But my naïve attempt to help had no effect. The officer, who extracted the bribe from my driver, did care a whit that I was prominently photographing him as he was taking his bribe.
The recent cover story of a well-respected Indonesian periodical that I happened to read while in-country (I read an English edition) was about yet another ongoing investigation into the massive corruption and theft of state funds that occurred back in the late 1990s during the Asian Financial crisis. The particular story focused on the owner of a large banking concern that allegedly lent out 600 million US$ plus to series of overseas companies owned by himself and his extended family and friends in the latter part 1998. This was done at the same time that the government was announcing its plan to bail out banks that had made "bad" loans. So, these loans, all made to this banker's family owned companies in a very short period at the height of the Asian Crisis, and of course all "bad" in that no effort was made by any of the recipients to repay them, ended up qualifying for recuperation through government bailout program! (This is just one of so many stories of massive corruption related to that time period).