Some of my favourite topics to write about when travelling are also some of the most intangible: the things you see, hear, smell and feel on the street, when talking to people, or even looking out of the taxi window that are slightly different from what you’re used to. All the ways in which the country you’re in organises itself in ways that you don’t understand or recognise.
In many ways it’s this unfamiliarity and the learning that comes with it that really fuels my love of travelling. I crave that shake-up of my ordinary boring middle-class-white expectations and understanding.
… But that’s all very floaty. There are also plenty of things that just make me go ‘Eh?’
Here are ten things I’ve noticed about Java which fit one or the other of these categories. In some ways I’m basing this list on what I know about and expect from Indian street life — which is in many ways very similar; a lot more so than the UK’s.
- Motorbikes are all over the place. There are so goddamn many of them. I understand why you’d want to use them, I do. And I know that in other countries like Vietnam, they are even more common. But they take some getting used to, especially when crossing the street.
- Indonesians absolutely love English-language pop music. We are ten times more likely to hear Taylor Swift or Ellie Goulding (or any of the other Big Pop Stars) than any Indonesian music. This goes for taxis, shops, and groups of people. Matt made the good point that we might just be hearing it in touristy areas. But when on a tour from Bandung, our driver had a CD of the cheesiest pop that he played on repeat all day. And we’ve also heard it back-to-back on the radio.
- Teenage boys love to wander around with guitars, and either play them for money or for fun. I know a huge proportion of teenage boys play guitar, but not so many in public? And again, this doesn’t seem to be a foreign tourist thing — they don’t pay attention to us.
- Women are wonderfully and gloriously visible: on the streets, as shop owners, as students, and as restaurant managers. They are mainly absent from roles like taxi/rickshaw drivers, and they are also underrepresented in the groups of men who sit/lie around and chew the fat on street corners all day. (This is to highlight the difference with India as opposed to the UK — and because it’s obviously important).
- Chess is surely the national game. People (/men) are playing it on the streets every few hundred metres in every city I’ve been to so far. Often there are two men against each other and half-a-dozen hangers-on giving advice. It’s always the same board: big, with wooden pieces. I don’t know if they’re communal.
- Traffic lights are rare; instead, Javanese roads employ traffic conductors. I briefly mentioned this in my Bandung post — that they are gods.
As well as bright-uniformed ones with face masks directing huge channels of traffic aroumd an intersection, there are also more minor players. You might see them at a T-junction, or a less-busy roundabout. They’ve got little bright batons that they wave around to direct cars. And they also helped parked cars get out into the road in exchange for a handful of change. At one point I saw a guy doing this and making the ‘reversing’ beeping noise with his mouth.
- Indonesia is more developed than I expected, and malls / food courts are quite common. We’ve eaten in them a few times and walked around one. I distrust them.
- Fried chicken is for sale ohmygod everywhere. KFC is ubiquitous. We’ve also seen HFC, JFC — you name it — and other more obliquely-named places besides. It’s bewilderingly common.
- Pavements are pretty common in busy areas, and boardwalks-over-sewers are common elsewhere — which can take some negotiating. The pavements however can vanish at any point, and you’ll have to pick your way along the road. Fortunately crossing is very easy, if you’re brave: wait for a (small) break, stick your hand up at 90°, and go.
- Horses and carriages are pretty common as a mode of transportation. I thought this was only for tourists in the big cities — if not for Western tourists then for Javanese ones — but I also saw them in the Bandung countryside. I don’t know whether they’re just for people to have a jaunt on or if they’re a serious business asset.