A rapid outlook on Indonesia society and lifestyle, after 7 months living in Yogyakarta, written and not too much edited as a flow of consciousness for a required essay titled "Harmony among Civilization" for Darmasiswa scholarship.
When I first started to do my researches to apply to Darmasiswa Scholarship and learn more about Indonesia and its culture, I was amazed to discover that what for me were some small islands somewhere in Asia, was actually a huge archipelago with hundreds of different ethnic groups, traditions and languages. It's not by change that the Indonesian motto is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” that can be translated with Unity in Diversity.
With this small essay I will not try to please the reader, official or non-official that is, saying just cheesy things of how much beautiful and nice Indonesia is: people are friendly, places are amazing and life is easy, but everybody knows that and repeating it doesn't bring any improvement.
In fact while I adore some of Indonesia’s features, there are some aspects that I find difficult to accept: I unfortunately tend to focus more on the negative ones, but that doesn't have to mark my experience as negative. Indeed I'm actually positive for the future of Indonesia as a leading country in the confrontation and mutual understanding of different beliefs, to serve as an example for the rest of the world.
I will start discussing about the proposed title of the essay, that gives me mixed feelings.
In fact Harmony is one of the dearest word to myself: if I would be asked what are you looking for in your life, I probably wouldn't answer love, money, happiness, or all of them. Most probably I would just summarize the goal of my life with that simple word: Harmony.
At the same time the word Civilization gives me a negative feeling, it's something that I want to run away from. The civilization that I experienced for most of my life, is the one that is alienating the individual beings part of the society, and that is exporting their civilization with bombs and soldiers. That's not what is civilization for me and it's difficult to see it associated to the word harmony. But that's just because of my past background, since the word civilization itself should represent instead the most meaningful core of each population and its era, the zeitgeist, something to be proud of and SHARE (not export or impose) with the others.
I'm studying handicrafts in the Indonesian Institute of Arts (ISI) in Yogyakarta, what is believed to be the cultural capital of Java, a big Island, as big as Greece, but giving shelter to 140+ millions people instead of the only 11 millions inhabitants of Greece. Not an easy life you would think, but actually this never ending agglomeration manage to grow together, mostly in peace, independently of its social-economalical status. What I loved to see here in Indonesia, is that while there is poverty is not as much accentuated as in Europe, and it's quite difficult to see homeless people. There might be many people that live a frugal life, but most of them still have all that they need and can have a respectable existence.
Life in Yogyakarta is cheap, easy and relaxed. There is not much stress compared to Italy, my original country, and western world in general, everybody is happy and smiling on the road. This is just amazing, and gives you great feelings in the morning when you wake up and ride your bicycle in between the rice fields with local villagers smiling at you and throwing a “Mongoooo” while you pass by. I value more this small aspects to be part of a good civilization rather than a super trendy and technological shopping mall.
But this doesn't mean that it's paradise here: it was quite difficult to get accustomed at the beginning to the toxic smoke of garbage burned along the road, the never ending flow of plastic in the rivers, noisy and polluted road filled with motorbikes, and little respect and knowledge about the environment.
Yogyakarta was supposed to be a cycling city according to its history, but while riding my bicycle I rarely found any cycling company apart from some random old folks riding a rusted bike older than them, with a big load to carry on the back.
While in Indonesia I've only managed to travel, so far, to Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and the surroundings of Jogja, so I don't have enough experience to judge objectively how the different groups live and behave between them, and my point of view if clearly biased by what I saw and did during these months.
It looked to me like sometimes there is too much segregation of the different cultures and ethnic groups: the Dayak in Kalimantan in example were mostly living in their own villages, building new one next to the Malay villages (or vice versa) rather than mixing with them. This is clearly good to preserve their culture and traditions, but at the same time is not helping the integration of different people.
Mosques are built in any point where foot ever touched the ground, even in remote locations inside the jungle, or in too close proximity of other religion’s historical complexes, ready to emit their noisy call to conversion, making it difficult to recognize in that tolerance rather than religious colonization.
It's also not pleasant to have an eternal feeling of being under threat of some extremists not accepting a different lifestyle and showing up to violently impose their ideas, as happened during movie screenings and celebrations in Yogyakarta.
Fortunately at the same time I was also positively surprised during my stay here.
In example for Chinese new year a dragon is usually shown and brought through the streets, operated by youngsters: it was really interesting to find out that most of them were actually Muslims, and they were training hard months before to perform during the event.
Another good memory is from the Balinese (Hindu) New Year Celebration in Prambanan temple complex, that was attended also by President Jokowi, a Muslim.
It was a good example given to its people of what Harmony among civilization means.
But dear Indonesia, I think it's difficult to think of a complete harmony when you are forced to choose between a selected number of elected religions, instead of being responsible in front of your own soul for what you believe in. And as far as I understood, the religion chosen by the parents at birth can have a big influence on your successive life, with job opportunities and careers opening or closing, according to your choice.
Do we really need to write on a piece of paper what we believe in order to be considered good citizens? Does following a religion constitute a necessity to being a good human? Do all believers of whatever religion are ethically superior to the non believer or believer of an unrecognized religion? So what's the need for that if not creating an occasion for discrimination? Think a little bit about that, dear Indonesia.
It's difficult to see a complete harmony also when you read news about West Papua, and how its indigenous people are treated in a disrespectful way to say the least, or how the Primary forest and its fragile inhabitants are disappearing at an incredibly fast pace (with the help of western corporations and their greediness). I guess there is something more to consider here before reaching a full Harmony, right?
I don't want to look too much pessimistic, I'm actually enjoying my stay in Indonesia, the people that I'm meeting and all of the experiences that I'm having.
If I point these things out is just because in order to improve and be an example, you have to start from your weak points.
So yes, there is a last but more personal aspect that annoyed me during my stay in Indonesia: the difference between foreigners (Bule) and locals.
This difference is sometimes positive, since we are treated with (excessive) respect, almost as if we are superior beings, probably a heritage of colonial time; sometimes we feel like rock-stars with everybody craving for a selfie with us for an extra moment of glory on their Facebook profile.
But being a Bule in Indonesia means also to watch out every step you take, to contract every single price and to fight not to be scammed. Even the state is legally scamming foreigners applying entrance fees to its attractions as much as 10 times higher than normal prices.
Well, not for us, since we have permit of stay (Kitas) and luckily we get Local prices, but it's still disturbing to see. I always think that it's probably a small share of “economical racism” that we have to accept for exploiting other's countries resources and trying to balance the distribution of money and go closer to a condition of equality.
Despite my negative outlook, in our daily life in Yogyakarta I've experienced mostly signs of tolerance and friendship among different religions and ethnic groups. This is what most of the people want, to live their life in peace and harmony, and hopefully we will one day be able to reach that point all together.