Friday, May 12, 2017


Ever wonder what it's like to be a foreign tourist on Java?  After being in Yogyakarta (the island's third-biggest city) for a few days, here are some musings to give you a taste:

1.  Channeling Your Inner J-Law

In some places you feel like a cross between a three-headed freak and a movie star.  People are staring, pointing, whispering and taking pictures of you and your family.

Then some of the bolder kids may come up and self-consciously ask for selfies. They're almost universally warm, welcoming, and very appreciative ("Thank you Mistah!).  No sense of hostility or mocking--they're just excited to get a photo with you.

Zaylie's not sure about all this

2. Language Barrier?  Just Smile More

In today's geopolitical climate, the attention also tugs an urge to act like an American good-will ambassador.  Mr. Topo, our guide at the ancient Hindu temple complex of Prambanan, suggested that the Javanese kids' fascination with our family is because they're probably tourists themselves, i.e. visiting Yogyakarta from a part of Java that rarely/never gets foreign visitors.

So they may have never seen a white-skinned person before, especially tall females with uncovered blonde hair like Megan & Zaylie.  We've all felt compelled to pose politely and be patient and friendly with the selfie seekers.  Kind of like "See? We're nice!  Americans  aren't all Muslim-fearing xenophobes!"

The staring and selfie-snapping isn't unpleasant, but it's a little intense for the kids.  Z's been a good sport, but it's a lot for an 8-year old to deal with so much attention from strangers. And what do they do with the selfies?  Share them with their friends on Snapchat? ("hey girl! Look who I met today! πŸ‘€πŸ‘„πŸ˜ƒπŸ˜.")  

3. But Stay on Your Toes

Learning about Javanese culture doesn't stop with guided tours.  From the moment we stepped off the plane to the mournful sounds of the 6:00 p.m. Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer), it was clear that Cultureshock 101 was in session.

First, there's the pervasive influence of Islam.  Java is more than 90% Muslim (most of Indonesia's Hindu population lives on the neighboring island of Bali).  There are six daily Adhan broadcast over Minaret loudspeakers throughout the day beginning at 4:30 a.m. (a good time to blog).  Nearly all women wear a hijab in public.  Indonesian national headlines are currently dominated by the blasphemy conviction of Jakarta's Governor.  Lots of reminders that 150 million Indonesians live happily under laws and circumstances quite different from ours.

We were actually first in line at this red light.  Then the scooters showed up.
Next, there's the unbelievable city traffic.  Having spent time in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur on this trip, we thought we had a handle on getting around in Asian megacities.  The driving in Yogyakarta is a different level.  Crosswalks mean nothing.  Getting across a busy street requires courage and speed.  If you're heading somewhere inside Yogyakarta, it takes an hour and a half to drive 20 miles.      

The scooter and motorcycle riders give zero f*#&s about traffic laws.  Scooters carry entire families and massive loads of goods headed to market.  They also go on sidewalks, wrong way down one-way streets, and generally flow around larger vehicles like water around rock.  

You also have to stay on your toes near shopping areas.  Indonesian touts are pushier than the laid-back sidewalk salesmen we encountered in Thailand.  Mostly it's smooth talking guys trying to get us to come see a Batik show or production facility.  They get a commission from the Batik shops for bringing in customers, and can be quite insistent. One fellow followed us for blocks on Malioboro street despite repeated "no thank you's." 

Another thing keep an eye on: misdirection.  Trying to find our way to the exit from the huge and beautiful Borobodur temple complex, the sidewalk meandered through row after row of tented stalls selling grilled durian fruit, soft drinks, toys, souvenirs, etc.  Periodic signs directed us to the exit:
Image result for keluar sign
One sign was smaller, and obviously hand-drawn.  It pointed the wrong way--back towards the vendor stalls.  Nice try!

All in all, a fantastic, beautiful and educational  experience so far in Indonesia. 

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