All Indonesia’d Out
“I’m Bob Runson, and I’m running for president of the United States.”
–Richard Dreyfus in “The American President.”
The adventure didn’t end when I got to Medan because I transferred to a local transport bu s and missed my stop by several kilometers. A woman who was leaving the van when I realized I’d missed my stop flagged down a passing police van, told the officer what had happened and asked what I should do. The next thing I knew I was being taken to a police station for the second time in less than 24 hours. I hoped the local constabulary would take me to my backpacker hotel or help me find the right van route.
No such luck.
After a brief interrogation, they called me a taxi. I’m still not sure why. I’d have been perfectly happy if they had just turned me loose and let me catch a bemo to the hotel, but they were reluctant. I wasn’t about to argue or seem ungrateful because, as I’ve said before, I’ve long had a policy of not challenging people who carry guns.
I did break one policy, however: My prohibition against doing stuff I could do at home, like watching American movies and eating Western food. After the last 24 hours I needed comfort food, both physical and spiritual. I quickly found a shopping center with a Dunkin’ Donuts and a grocery store and purchased a vanilla iced donut and a can of A&W Root Beer. It wasn’t the breakfast (or dinner) of champions, but my system was finally working again and I didn’t want to overtax it. As I saw it, watching an early evening showing of “The American President” was comfort food for my soul because it was in English, funny and a slice of home. It was just what the doctor ordered, even if he didn’t know what an esophagus was. I walked out of the theatre feeling uplifted, re-energized and ready to get up and do what needs to be done.
What I needed to do was get out of Indonesia, even if it meant paying extra money on my plane ticket to do so.
I was sure that Bukit Lawang was beautiful, but Medan was ugly enough to put me off Indonesia for the rest of the trip. It was hotter than Texas on a summer day with 100 percent humidity, louder than the back row of an auditorium at a heavy metal rock concert, more choked with traffic than a Los Angeles freeway after a 10-car pileup at rush hour and the sound and fumes spewing from machinery on the city’s many construction sites made the air even smoggier than Pittsburgh was when the steel mills were running. In short, I was not surprised two years later when I heard Medan was one of the cities swept by rioting in the midst of the unrest surrounding the country’s economic collapse.
The news at the travel agency where I bought my ticket for Singapore was almost as ugly. Unless I wanted to take a long bus ride and fly out of Jakarta, I wouldn’t be able to use that portion of my ticket or get a refund. I knew I was getting screwed, but $140 seemed a small price to pay to avoid another bus ride, so I jumped at it. Although I had to wait almost an hour for the travel agent to process my ticket, I didn’t mind because I spent the time talking with a beautiful 25 year-old assistant at the agency who, like everyone else in the country, wanted to know my life story. Then I asked hers. If I hadn’t been so burned out, I would have stayed an extra day or two and asked her out.
Considering how pretty she and many of the women I met in Indonesia are, I was surprised when I was in a swimming pool later in the day and a 20-something Indonesian man told me he wanted to marry an American woman. Then he asked if I could introduce him to any single American woman who would be interested.
The man’s request saddened me because he told me he considered American women the embodiment of ideal beauty. It didn’t surprise me that much, however, because it was a message that I saw each time I passed a department store cosmetics counter here. Instead of displaying pictures of Southeast Asian women, the displays typically pictured white-bread American models like Elle MacPherson and Christie Brinkley. What bothered me most was that the pictures made it seem like American women were the equivalent of perfection and forced Indonesian women to strive for an unrealistic goal because they couldn’t have peaches and cream complexions and blonde hair. I’m not saying Western women aren’t attractive, I just resented the cultural imperialism. Other than my experience in Badung Lampur, it seemed the more I traveled and tried to get away from my own culture, the more impossible it became.
The last thing I wanted to do before flying to Singapore was snap a few pictures of overcrowded local transport vans complete with passengers hanging out the side. I figured if ever I tried to sell a story on white knuckling through Indonesia it would be good to have a few photos illustrating my point. The simple task was complicated by young newspaper hawkers who kept trying to sell me a paper even though they weren’t in English. When they realized what I was doing they started posing for pictures, blocking some of my best shots despite my repeated polite requests for them to move.
I didn’t realize how burned out I was, how Indonesia’d Out I’d gotten until I started yelling at the young hawkers. I had had too much of an in-my-face culture, had finally snapped and these children were convenient targets. It isn’t as though they didn’t deserve a stern yelling at, but a noisy two-minute tirade with all the colorful language I could come up with (and a few phrases I made up along the way), was far more than they deserved.
At that point I knew the safest bet for me to stay out of trouble was to go back to my hotel, grab my luggage and go to the airport even though my departure was hours away.
As it turns out, my early arrival may have been the only thing that kept me from being detained by customs officials because I had lost a document I needed to show to leave the country. I got it from customs officials when I entered Indonesia and tucked it into my passport, but it had gotten separated from it when I needed my ID to cash a traveler’s cheque. In the weeks since the paper had appeared and disappeared in my backpack and moneybelt looking increasingly more ragged each time it surfaced. Each time I promised myself I would tuck it back into my passport and each time I completely forgot the promise until I came across it again and wondered why it was still loose. If anyone had ever told me how important it was I would have stapled the damn thing into my official documents and been done with it. Instead, immigration officials took me off to a side office and interrogated me while I assured them I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one. In the end they probably decided I was too big a fool to be smart enough to try any funny stuff and they let me go on my merry way.
I knew I was in the Western world the moment I stepped into the bathroom at the Singapore airport and saw a regular toilet. With toilet paper.
And it was good.
It was very, very good.