The Indonesian Culture Shock Chronicles

The Culture Shock Follies

The start of a wild ride: My boarding pass to months of culture shock.

“If I can survive living without a toilet, I can survive anything.”

It may not sound like much of a pep talk but it was the only thing I could think of saying to brace myself for anything as I walked into Customs at the international airport in Denpasar, Bali. Having never been in a third world country, I had visions of the airport and the entire island being as crowded, confusing and unforgiving of foreign rubes as Morocco in “Casablanca”. It wasn’t, but what did I know? At the moment my plans didn’t extend beyond making it through customs, hooking back up with the Seattle couple and following them until I got my sea legs. 

It wasn’t a bad plan, really, but it was doomed from the start. Not only did the customs inspector in my line go on break just as I reached his window (after I had waited in line for 30 minutes), but the next inspector didn’t like the way I filled out the form and made me do it over and go to the back of the line. By the time I made it through, the Seattleites were long gone and I was instantly recognized as the perfect target for all the taxi drivers to prey on as soon as I hit the sidewalk. Rather than make a bad choice, I returned to the terminal, exchanged a traveler’s cheque for rupiah and consulted my guidebook. Yeah, I know it was like stopping a poker game so I could read the rules, but it was a smart choice. I never would have known to purchase a certificate from an airport stand to pay for my taxi ride into the city. If I had tried to hail my own cab, the driver could have charged whatever he wanted and I wouldn’t have known I was being gouged.

The certificate didn’t stop the driver from trying to make a few hundred extra rupiah, however. When I told him my destination was the Kuta youth hostel, he repeatedly tried to change my mind. He said it was terrible, dirty and an awful place to stay. Everyone he had ever taken there hated it. Not too surprisingly, he said he knew of much better places that he would be happy to show me. He didn’t say they were cheaper, however. My guidebook warned me about this practice, too. No surprise there, but, in a strange way, it was amusing to learn that taxi drivers are the same all over the world.

Despite the driver’s constant cajoling, I stuck with my plan even though I wasn’t sure if the hostel was a good place to stay, if there were rooms available or if I’d even like it. At worst, I figured I could always have the driver drop me there and I could walk to another guesthouse. My guidebook indicated there were plenty of them in the neighborhood. What happened when I got there was even stranger than I could have predicted. 

It was like a scene from a Three Stooges movie, only the hostel was one stooge short. First, the hostel owner rushed out to say there were no vacancies while the driver opened the taxi’s trunk. At the same time, the owner’s henchman had run to the trunk and was attempting to spirit my luggage away into the bowels of the hostel while I was busy freaking out over the fact that some little guy I didn’t know was trying to run away with my backpack. Then he and I had a tug-of-war over my bag while he and his boss argued about vacancies. As soon as the bigger man won, the little guy gave up and let go of my bag without warning, sending me flying backwards across the alley next to the guesthouse to the delight of all the children who had gathered to watch. Fortunately, the commotion had attracted the attention of a man who had a place to stay at his guesthouse just a block-and-a-half away down a side alley.

The losmen (guest house) named Surf Doggie wasn’t much to look at but it was relatively clean and, at $8 bucks for a double room including breakfast, the price was right, so I booked a bed, sat down in a chair on the porch and braced for a culture-shock filled afternoon and evening. 

That’s when the Canadians rolled in. I didn’t know who they were, but I remembered seeing them at the airport because one of them was complaining about the need to buy a certificate for a taxi while the other two were nudging him into the cab. I was tempted to talk to them at the airport but they didn’t seem approachable. They were irritable by the time they got to Surf Doggie because they had been to several other places they didn’t like in the interim, but were much more approachable once settled in and sat on the porch. After spending 20 minutes hiding behind my journal, I finally struck up a conversation with them.

Although they seemed as green as I was, Megan, Marco and Chris had already spent a couple of months traveling in Southeast Asia and were spending the last leg of their trip island hopping throughout Indonesia. This was all I needed to hear before all of us started grilling each other for information. They wanted to know the latest news from the west and I wanted survival tips for travel in the Far East. After about an hour, Marco and Megan left to meet another travel companion who agreed to meet back up with them in Bali. At the same time, Chris and I walked to the beach. 

The walk was an educational experience because it gave me a chance to ask about bathroom going, Southeast Asian style. The task itself is pretty much the same no matter where you go, it’s the accoutrements that make it puzzling. My room had little more than a vestibule with a showerhead coming out of the wall on one side and on the other what looked like a place where someone had dug a hole in the floor, inserted a porcelain bowl with little platforms for a person’s feet on either side and then cemented around it. This much was self-explanatory. Sit, squat, go. No shock there. What I was couldn’t figure out was why there was a spigot, a pail filled with water and a ladle as well as a wastebasket nearby. Since I knew it wasn’t safe to drink tapwater in Indonesia or most of Southeast Asia, I ignored everything the first time I needed to use the bathroom, squatted down, used the toilet paper when I was done and went on about my business. I didn’t tell all this to Chris, of course. And it’s a good thing, too. 

If there is such a thing as proper bathroom etiquette, I may have violated every rule in the book: I didn’t flush, I threw something down the toilet that didn’t belong and I also could have clogged the pipes. As it turns out, I was supposed to use the spigot to fill the pail with water (if it was empty), then ladle water into the basin to clean and flush the toilet (man I sure am glad I didn’t drink out of the ladle), and the toilet paper was supposed to go in the basket instead of the toilet. As unhygienic as it sounds, it’s healthier than having the toilet back up onto the floor near the shower because the paper clogged the pipes. 

The other lesson I learned on the short walk was the importance of the word “no.” As soon as we hit the streets we were set upon by every street hawker, taxi driver, cart pusher and merchant hoping to sell us all manner of items ranging from jewelry (which I don’t wear) to short distance rides in a becak, or bicycle rickshaw (which I didn’t see the point of). We heard the question “Transport?” so many times from so many people who spoke only small amounts of English that I was convinced it must be the first foreign phrase most children learn. We even had a few children come up to us and say “transport?” even though there wasn’t a becak anywhere nearby.

The conversation about travel, Southeast Asian style, ended abruptly when I heard someone at a beachside bar yelling, “Hey, Seattle guy!” It was Bjorn, the male half of the Seattle couple. Chris and I joined them for a beer or two and traded tales about our first hours in Asia. Even though they borrowed my guidebook most of the flight to Indonesia, they forgot to write down the names of any losmen. For all I know they may have been waiting for me, my book and what little expertise I could muster on the other side of customs, but left after they got tired of waiting. As a result, they had to rely on the advice of their taxi driver, always a dicey proposition. Like the Canadians, they had looked at several guesthouses before finding an acceptable one, but they ended up at a far more expensive place that was closer to the beach.

It’s worth mentioning that “expensive” is a relative term. While I don’t know the annual per capita income on Bali, or even any of the other Indonesian islands, I do know it would have been quite possible to live and eat quite well on $20 a day in Kuta’s backpacker district. Consequently, the $17 they were spending on their room seemed quite extravagant to all of us. 

As we talked, I noticed a female hawker working her way around the bar with a chest full of jewelry. By the time Bjorn and Alison realized they were paying too much, the walking jewelry store had worked her way around to my chair and asked me what I wanted to buy.

“I don’t wear jewelry,” I said as I showed her my ringless finger and watchless wrist.

“You can get it for your girlfriend,” she shot back.

“I don’t have a girlfriend,” I told her.

“You can buy for a friend,” she replied. 

“I don’t have any friends,” I volleyed. 

“I know you. You tell a lie,” she said. 

While it may be hard to argue with such sparkling logic, it still wasn’t enough to convince me to buy. It worked on both Chris and Alison, though. Both spent a great deal of time negotiating and bought identical pieces of jewelry for $5 each. Chris later told me he saw the same item in a store for $2.

As the sun set, we went our separate ways with me promising to meet the Seattleites for dinner in an hour while Chris went to join Megan and Marco so they could hang out with their old travel buddy. Despite having supposedly simple directions, I managed to walk by Bjorn and Alison’s guesthouse and didn’t realize it until I had walked more than a half an hour out of my way. By the time I finally found the place, they had already gone on to dinner, leaving me to fend for myself and find a place I thought would be a safe place to eat. I wasn’t quite sure if I was brave enough to visit a completely local restaurant, but I knew I didn’t want to go to Pizza Hut or any US food chain. The longer the process took, the more I waffled. The more I waffled, the more places closed, leaving me with fewer choices. Granted, there was a Western-style fast food place that was obviously a local firm trying to capture tourist dollars named California Fried Chicken, but I just didn’t want to eat at a place that used its initials as its logo, especially when those initials are CFC. Frustrated, tired and hungry, I finally gave up and went to another restaurant known by its initials — KFC– ordered a chicken combo plate that had rice instead of potatoes, then freaked out when I saw ice cubes in the cola I had ordered. So I fished them out and spent much of the rest of the night hoping not to get sick on my first day in Southeast Asia.

I checked the map in my guidebook as I left the restaurant to make sure I knew the way home, then set out on my final jaunt of the day. Despite the lateness of the hour, the hawkers and hustlers continued to work the tourist district, only now they had changed their rap. Instead of just asking, “Transport?” they now had a series of questions for passersby. 

“Transport?” one asked me.

“No, thank you,” I said. 

“Hashish?” he replied.

“No,” I repeated.


This one caught me by surprise, in part because of the arrangement of the questions. For example, I wondered if the hawker would have asked the other two questions if I’d said yes to the first. I also wondered about the thought process involved here. Was it that if the tourist didn’t want a ride, he probably wanted to get stoned and, if he didn’t want to get stoned, he surely must want a woman. Or maybe the questions assume the customer would want a ride so he could get stoned, then have a woman? More importantly, what did these guys ask women? “Transport? Hashish? Man?” Somehow, I kind of doubt it.