Snapshots from 7 days and 3 cities in Indonesia

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I recently got to visit Indonesia for the first time. For work. I wish I could talk about the project that I’m working on because it’s an exciting endeavor, but in choosing to make this blog anonymous and getting to write whatever I want (within reason), it’s better that I keep my professional life out of it. So here I’ll just share some behind-the-scenes photos and miscellaneous thoughts.

Travel in the time of coronavirus

People are kind of all over the place when it comes to the spectrum of fear/anxiety. Waiting for my flight in Geneva on February 7, I only saw two people wearing masks, both of them Asian. When I got to Istanbul for my layover, there were a few more people wearing masks, but they were by no means the majority. A large number of people, however, were noticeably sick with something; I almost jumped out of my skin every time the group of Russians behind me in the waiting area broke into hacking coughs.

When I arrived in Bali on February 8, there was a huge bottleneck right before immigration because everyone had to fill out a yellow form (“are you sick? Y/N”). You handed the form to an employee, who gave you a different yellow form in exchange. They were supposed to ask for the form back upon your exit from Indonesia, but by then I had misplaced my form, and the officer didn’t ask about it.

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By then an entry ban had been issued against Chinese nationals, so I was the only Asian traveler among a sea of young white backpackers. The immigration officer scrutinized every page of my passport. “When was the last time you were in China?” he asked. December 26, I said. That was good enough. I was allowed through without a temperature check or any further questions.

Throughout the week, I took four domestic flights: from Denpasar to Surabaya, from Surabaya to Jakarta, and then a roundtrip from Jakarta to Denpasar and back. Even though people on the streets weren’t wearing masks (“If we drink enough medicine in advance to prepare our bodies, then we won’t get sick,” someone told me), on each of the flights I started to see more and more masks.

I ended up getting a viral infection and had to eventually seek medical help at Istanbul airport on my way back. I was still pretty sick when I got back to Switzerland and worried briefly that I wouldn’t be allowed in, or that I’d be put into quarantine. But the Swiss seemed even more lackadaisical: at immigration, there was literally a sign saying there was no need to wear a mask. I tucked mine under my chin and was let through with no questions whatsoever.

Where I stayed

I found Indonesian hotels to be high-quality and affordable. I stayed at four different places in three different cities: Denpasar (the capital of Bali), Surabaya (the second largest city in Indonesia), and Jakarta (the national capital).

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Mahana Apartment in Denpasar.

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This was the place I stayed at in Denpasar. Nice little balcony overlooking a pool, though we had thunderstorms most of the time. I enjoyed the traditional Indonesian breakfast cooked for you on the spot.

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Kampi Hotel in Surabaya.

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The hotel in Surabaya had a more contemporary, minimalist vibe. Breakfast was a large buffet spread; good way to get introduced to a variety of Indonesian food quickly.

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Erian Hotel in Jakarta.

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The hotel room in Jakarta was tiny but functional. The window was heavily obstructed by concrete structures so this was the best view I could maneuver.

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Wyndham Resort in Bali.

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And finally, this place in Bali was the crown jewel of my entire stay in Indonesia. Unfortunately I couldn’t enjoy any of it. We arrived at the hotel around midnight after a long taxi ride from the airport, and then had to be up by 5:30 the next morning. It didn’t help that I was consumed by a fever and chills and barely conscious. I took a hot bath in the very nice bathtub to try to feel better, but that was the extent of any leisure.

Sightseeing

There was not much time to do any sightseeing, but here’s what we got up to.

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Watching this influencer trying to get the perfect shot on a giant swing in Ubud.
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I was fascinated to learn that Hinduism is actually the predominant religion in Bali.
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Pura Besakih, a large temple in Bali. I didn’t enter because I was on my period (not that they had anyone checking for that — it’s purely the honor system). I have a lot of thoughts on the stigma around menstruation in religion. Essentially, I believe it’s a) rooted 100% in misogyny and b) literally harmful to women’s health and wellbeing. Too much to get into here.
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In Surabaya we stopped by the Muhammad Cheng Hoo Mosque, the first mosque anywhere in the world named after a Chinese Muslim, if my sources are correct.

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In Surabaya we also visited the House of Sampoerna. I had no info on what this place was before going in. Turns out it’s a free museum commemorating a Chinese-Indonesian businessman who eventually grew into a tobacco mogul. He changed his last name from Liem to Sampoerna, which means “perfect”.
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The old factory where they used to roll the joints.

Other thoughts

I was surprised by a lot of the things I saw and experienced, even though I shouldn’t be.

One thing that struck me was that there seemed to be more interpersonal trust in Indonesian society in general. There were several times where we would take a taxi, and midway through my coworker would ask the taxi driver to wait for us for 5 to 10 minutes while we got out and did something in the vicinity, often out of sight. And the driver would actually sit tight and wait for us to come back, even though we totally could have just snuck away and bailed on the payment! Another time, I left my bag with all of its valuables and cash in a fairly crowded corner of a temple, where tons of teens were congregating. When I got back about 20 minutes later, all of the contents were intact.

I also realized that I had, at a subliminal level, been brainwashed by the “Eat Pray Love” stereotype of Indonesia: an idyllic island nation full of beaches and happy-go-lucky locals. When I first arrived, I even foolishly asked many people whether they thought Indonesians were happier than Europeans and Americans. There was always a pause before they answered. “Uh, yeah, I guess so.” If anything, my experiences have convinced me that Indonesians are not as a whole significantly happier. They are, rather, more thoughtful and reserved. In speaking to people, I frequently got the sense that they were sharing only 20% of their thoughts and holding back 80%. Which is totally fair — as an American, I’m more inclined to share my immature thoughts openly and freely (though sometimes I do wish I had a better filter between my brain and my mouth), but every cultural context is different.

Another thing that I thought was funny: people’s reactions when they found out I wasn’t Indonesian. I can usually blend in seamlessly in any Asian country (except Thailand), and Indonesia was no exception. People would start speaking to me in Bahasa, I’d be like, “What?”, and my coworker would explain to them that I wasn’t Indonesian. The reactions were always hilarious, with people putting on the most dramatic and apologetic displays of embarrassment I’d ever seen. It’s fine! I wanted to say. I am not offended, we’re all Asian! 

More moments of note

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I saw an eclipse on the plane.
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Hindu offerings spotted everywhere in Bali, from pharmacies to hotels.
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Row of motorbikes outside my hotel in Surabaya.
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We got this plastic-free lunch at a networking event and didn’t have time to start eating until like 4 hours later at the airport Starbucks. I still had half to go by the time I boarded the plane and was hesitant to start eating… then I remembered that I was eating an Indonesian meal surrounded by Indonesians in Indonesia. No one was going to smell-shame me. That felt good.
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I got a haircut at a Japanese salon in a Jakarta mall and then bought this shirt from an independent vendor afterwards. It was 200,000 IDR, or only about 14 francs!
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Fascinated by how the domestic departure gates at Jakarta airport are built to resemble traditional pavilions. Here’s what they look like from the outside!
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An Indonesian colleague gave me this traditional medicine to perk me up. It tastes sweet but there’s a strong kick that goes right up into your nasal cavity. “We take this before we go on a long journey,” she told me.
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Another plastic-free lunch!
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They are truly everywhere.
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Traditional Surabaya cuisine. Oxtail soup and… I forget what the other soup is. I learned quickly to be careful with adding spices.
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The hotel in Jakarta was the only one to provide refillable water.
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Sunset in Jakarta.
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A station for collecting e-waste and plastic waste at a vegetarian cafe in Jakarta.
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Back to Switzerland. I felt an unexpected rush of emotion coming home.

 

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