Jogjakarta’s tourist enclave has the same Westernised food devoid of spices and sauces, the same signs in Disneyish font advertising tours to waterfalls, and the same ubiquitous bottles of Bintang beer as Kuta Beach. On offer from the Lonely Planet tourism-industrial-complex is the same narrow frame for viewing Indonesia.
But here, at dusk, as the Islamic call to prayer begins and the sky turns pink and fills with small bats, groups of Indonesians emerge from narrow kampung streets, speak quietly and seriously among themselves, then, abruptly, enter the tourist cafés.
Several 10-year olds fire questions at tourists. How long are you here? What have you seen? What do you know about Indonesia? A kid in a blue school-blazer asks if I’ve tried gudeg, jackfruit stew. There’s a rustle in nearby foliage and his teacher appears, after surreptitiously watching his assigned task in operation. ‘I told them to ask questions spontaneously, not read memorized ones’, he says – ‘did they do it?’ The kid looks at me imploringly; I assure the teacher he did.
A clipboard-carrying university student enters, doing research on – wait for it – travellers’ diarrhoea. He’s studying causes, effects – the works. His choice of fieldwork site is astute: I’ve a trove of data for him. As he takes notes I take a satisfied swig of Bintang, glad to have contributed to scientific knowledge, surprised to have done it here. In Jogjakarta, even in a mass-tourism barnacle encrusted on the city’s edge, it’s possible to glimpse a very different Indonesia.
Most Australian tourists to Indonesia go to Bali. Impressions we collect on travels abroad shape our broader ideas about and attitudes toward foreign societies. Those impressions depend heavily on where in a country we go. Indonesia in many Australian eyes thus consists disproportionately of surf and sand, and is politely accommodating to foreign tastes – though there is a simultaneous inkling of something distinct, unknown, and likely threatening existing beyond Denpasar’s Burger King and Nando’s subsidiaries.
Now Indonesia’s government wants to create ‘10 New Bali’s’, ten new international tourist destinations elsewhere in the archipelago. Visitors to those places will potentially see other sides of Indonesia. One proposed destination is Borobudur temple: for that, most visitors will stay in Jogjakarta, or ‘Jogja’.
Jogja is a kota pelajar, student city – a centre of universities, colleges, and quality schools that draws young people from across Indonesia. Two schoolkids sit in a warung, a canvas-roofed cheap restaurant, stir noodles, gaze at calculus problems. A young woman buys Indonesian-language Dostoyevsky and Orwell from Togamas bookshop. A public library has an outside pot-plant-studded garden with banks of workstations – vacant seats are rare. Students and staff jog Universitas Gadjah Madah’s running track at dusk; leaflets plastered to buildings’ sides advertise public lectures. At Institute Seni Indonesia, a renowned arts college, I hear drums several floors up in a building, see a young man practising cello in an empty quadrangle.
Jogja is a young city in a young nation – half Indonesia’s population is under 30. Indonesian millennials are dreaming big, shunning the agricultural work that employed a majority of former generations, enrolling in higher education, planning lives of sharply-upward mobility. They are already driving cultural changes. Hiking and camping at volcanoes is popular with Indonesian millennials: inside Jogja’s many outdoor stores young people stand amid boots and tents, try backpacks on for size. Coffee has exploded in popularity; inside one café, on Jogja’s outskirts, young people tap on laptops, plugs in ears. The cafe sits amongst rice-fields: out the windows, mostly-elderly farmers in long sleeves and wide hats wade through green. Go-Jek – like Uber, but with motorbikes – speeds young people between Jogja’s campuses, cafes and kos’s, student boarding-houses. Selling speed, efficiency and mobility, Go-Jek captures the generational zeitgeist.
With youth comes activism. There have recently been environmental marches, people dressed as orangutans gathering in the city centre; women’s marches, one sign reading ‘Lelaki Berkualitas Tak Takut Ekualitas’ (Men of Quality Aren’t Scared of Equality); and protests against a university’s banning the cadar, full-face veil.
In Jogja the youthfulness, energies and ambitions of Indonesia’s youth are obvious. Lonely Planet Indonesia’s pages on Jogja highlight traditional culture – shadow puppet theatre, etc. Lonely Planet emphasizes rural over urban, traditional over modern. Jogja is a good place to discard Lonely Planet. When I asked my language teacher if I should see a traditional dance performance, as Lonely Planet recommends, she said: ‘It’s very slow. Three hours? I mean, who has the time? Most young Indonesians would say go to Jalan Malioboro and listen to hip-hop there instead’.
Xenophobic conservatism is growing across Indonesia – including in Jogja. Following the jailing for ‘blasphemy’ of Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaha Purnama, or Ahok, intolerance of racial, religious and sexual minorities has risen. Prabowo Subianto, a former general with authoritarian tendencies, seeks Indonesia’s Presidency leading a political coalition that regularly panders to such sentiments. Incumbent President Joko Widodo, or ‘Jokowi’, meanwhile, has selected a bigot as his running mate.
The longevity of this trend will ultimately be decided by Indonesia’s youth. There’s nothing inherently incompatible between such conservatism and urban, modern, aspirational lives: indeed, some studies suggest intolerance is actually higher among middle-class, more-educated Indonesians. Still, many observers are hoping Indonesian youth will arrest the slide.
How does a person get to know, beyond superficialities, a foreign society? In Jogja I go to language class; I read Kompas, Indonesia’s best daily newspaper, slowly, dictionary beside me. My deficiencies embarrass me unceasingly: I’m often ignorant of names of apparently-prominent politicians and intellectuals, assertions and assumptions I venture tend to be swiftly revealed as dubious. I often make unpersuasive analogies between Indonesian politics and the Western politics with which I’m more familiar – comparing, falsely, Obama’s and Jokowi’s electoral coalitions, for example. Sitting at a warung selling bubur ayam, hot rice porridge with shredded chicken, while doing language flashcards on an app on my phone, saying only please and thankyou to the gruff vendor wearing the white cap of the Islamic pious, my efforts can feel almost comically inadequate.
Living in Jogja is for me a novel experience, full of charms. But it’s surprisingly easy, while enjoying the city, to begin seeing it more rather than less narrowly, forgetting its many complexities and tensions – I’m continuously catching myself doing this and wrenching myself back. Taking Go-Jeks and meeting students who drive part-time, between classes, I hear their expansive dreams for the future. It’s easy to pay less attention to older drivers, 30, 40 years old, who say they attended university years ago and now drive full-time – evidence of Indonesia’s continued shortage of good jobs. Because people come to Jogja universities from across Indonesia and bring their own islands’ food, Jogja’s restaurants and street-stalls are highly-varied: there’s soto banjar, Kalimantan noodle soup, pempek, Sumatran fishcakes, and Acehnese cooking, all fire and spice. As with food cultures in other multicultural cities it’s tempting to simply laud the ‘diversity’ and ignore or deny evidence of frictions between newer migrants and the already-established – or between descendants of migrants and those who consider themselves pribumi, indigenous. Prejudice against Papuans in Jogja is high. A Suharto-era ban on ethnically-Chinese Indonesians owning property remains in place. Yet if I find that a curry-house has cooked rendang, if a Go-Jek driver takes a more scenic route through rice-fields on some sunny pre-monsoonal morning, such things can fall from my consciousness rapidly – I easily start seeing around me only what I wish to see. ‘Kuta Beach’ is a state of mind as much as a physical place, and we’re all tempted to go there at times.
Indeed, sometimes the temptation’s overwhelming to scurry back into an entirely Western bubble. In that, I am definitely not alone. Back in Jogja’s tourist enclave two Americans listen to several high-school girls nervously request an interview, then – impeccably politely, unselfconsciously cheerily – refuse them, and resume discussing tomorrow’s temple schedule. An Australian man’s conversation segues between thumbnail sketches of Melbourne suburbs and scene-by-scene descriptions of Netflix shows. I want to scoff – declare there’s a problem in America deeper than Trump, recall Michael Wesley’s description of Australians as ‘insular internationalists.’ But I’ve come to the very same place, have fled to this Western-style bar after a day of frustratingly fractured attempts at speaking Indonesian, telling myself I don’t appreciate – willing myself not to appreciate – the incessant playing of decade-old Coldplay singles. In the Age of Trump, tourist enclaves strike me as a phenomenon of significance, powerful evidence for people’s, all people’s, fundamental need for the familiar, the ‘known’.
For all these limitations, being in a city like Jogja – exposed to its rhythms and routines, communicating if imperfectly with its residents – means glimmers of insight come more frequently.
In Jogja I’m reminded of Indonesian patriotism’s continued pull. Murals or photos of Indonesia’s first President and independence hero Sukarno are common – sometimes a beaming, swaggering Sukarno, sometimes a clenched-fisted, fiery Sukarno. Before Independence Day, red-and-white flags are strung through Jogja neighbourhoods. On the day itself, I’m eating nasi padang, West Sumatran curries, in a restaurant while the staff watch on TV a flag-raising ceremony from Jakarta. One man turns to me, smiling, and asks casually what year Australia became merdeka, independent – stumping me totally. Many Australians associate the phrase ‘Indonesian nationalism’ with diplomatic obstinance or human rights violations. Jogja reminds me that it is, foremost, a frame for 270,000,000 Indonesians’ disparate dreams for justice, prosperity, and respect.
And I’m reminded of the speed and strength of Indonesia’s economic rise. On Jalan Kaliurang at night, everything spot-lit, pavements clogged with parked motorbikes, I see dozens of upmarket new cafes and restaurants, all polished wood furniture and manicured tropical gardens. A gelato shop, fridge of multi-coloured ice-creams visible from the street, is always standing-room only, women in hijabs perched on tall stools. There are old-style warungs, too – but many of their customers park and click-lock gleaming SUVs. There’s a lot of money here – and this is a mere provincial city, not a metropolis.
On a Go-Jek bike I ask my driver about construction of a large new mosque across a street – a mosque-building boom is underway in Indonesia which many interpret as being, in itself, evidence of rising conservatism. But the driver’s response makes me think: he says that while Jogja recently saw rampant development of malls and hotels, now there is a focus on more beneficial, meaningful development, like mosques. Looking at the mosque again I see it differently, noticing the beauty of the just-completed glass windows and dome. Then he, unprompted, condemns the growth of intolerance and insists it can be turned around – he extols NU, the Muslim mass organisation whose members, among other activities, guard churches at Christmas.
‘I support Prabowo’, I hear on another Go-Jek. Because he’s kuat, strong, my driver says – like Putin. I ask questions. The guy is young, still a student, unmarried, new to Jogja. He says he joined Go-Jek in part because he likes meeting and chatting to different types of people. He asks me what I think of both Putin and Israel-Palestine; I see him listening to my opinions, as I listen to his. He asks to exchange WhatsApp numbers. The conversation feels important, a ballast against temptations to demonize those who support ‘strongmen’ or populists. I don’t know if Indonesia’s new conservativism will wither or entrench. But Jogja is a good place to think about the question – and the question’s importance.
Laneways at dusk, green trees, kids kicking balls, mobile food carts pushed along dinging bells. A bright morning in a world of rice-fields and canals shockingly-close to Jogja’s centre, several Papuans rapping in a just-harvested plot. A lit-up church at night, singing inside – and outside, a motorbike revving its engine repeatedly, the young driver’s expression surly, suggesting conscious disruption. A young girl flashing past on a motorbike’s back, helmet on, one hand carrying school homework, the other gripping the seat. In such moments Kuta feels far away.