Indonesia 2016

11 Things I Liked about Java

1. The majority of buildings, no matter how commercial or remote, have a prayer room or musholla somewhere. Muslims make up the majority of the population, and they need somewhere safe and clean in which to pray five times per day, wherever they are. This includes fast-food restaurants. The logistical outcome of this, however, is that the musholla is usually near another fundamental: the public toilets. There were so many signs for “Toilet / Musholla” that Matt thought one was the English translation of the other.

2. When signs wanted to say “This place is about this far away”, instead of just using the approximate distance, Indonesians use the +/- sign. It always looked to me like they were saying “It might be 100m over here, but it might be -100m — meaning it’s 100m in the opposite direction“.

An example.
A pedant? Me?

3. In English classes, Indonesian people are taught that the normal title to use for someone you respect is Mister. How do I know this? Because when I was alone, more often that not, that is what people called me. (Occasionally other people laughed and corrected themselves or the original speaker  — sometimes kids even corrected their parents. Sometimes they thought I’d taken offence.)

4. Bahasa Indonesian and Javanese can be written in either the standard Latin script or in their own scripts. The Latin script is common, which is tremendously useful for tourists because it means you can read signs (try India, where it’s utterly impossible), and it also means Indonesians can read English. But sometimes they get it wrong, much as we do when we try and read foreign languages in Latin script. The upshot of this is that it took me several different times hearing the word Moskee until I realised what it was. A mosque. Mosque-y. (In Indonesian, it’s mesjid).

This is the script I mean.

5. Throughout Java, especially in residential streets, men regularly walked around selling street food like dough balls, fresh fruit, bread, or other snacks. In order to get people to come out of their houses and buy them, they’d have a pair of tongs or some other metal object that they’d use to tap a little rhythm against their portable stall. I never bought anything from any of these street-sellers, but their little taps became a peaceful, comforting thing to hear in the distance.

6. Cycle rickshaws were everywhere. They were slow, didn’t cover you sufficiently from the rain, and I always felt bad about haggling too fiercely because operating on seemed immensely hard work. They look very different from the ones in India, which are much more like actual vehicles. But I loved them nonetheless. At the risk of sounding silly, anywhere that has rickshaws is a place that I will like.


7. The issue of how to carry a lot of stuff is an interesting way of organising the cultures of the world. We’ve all seen people carrying things on their heads; women with babies tied tightly to their backs, men pulling carts with nothing but the strength of their arms, and, of course, the ubiquitous donkeys, oxen, and motorbikes. In Java the way they did it was to use a long, flat piece of wood: they tied things to each end in big sacks, then rested it over one or both shoulders like the bit of a plough that goes over the oxen’s shoulders.


8. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the train system in Java is cheap, reliable, punctual, and generally fantastic. I got a handful of trains when I was in India, and there was a bing-bong pattern that played whenever there was an announcement. (I couldn’t tell you whether the UK has the same bing-bong, or whether it’s even standardised). That sound stuck in my head, and when I heard it again recently it brought me straight back to the platform in Varkala, south Kerala, near the end of my trip.

Why am I saying this? Because the sound that played in stations in Java was the sound Big Ben plays on the hour, just before the famous bongs. When we heard it Matt and I looked at each other with massive grins on our faces, because we are sad, and it was a little bit of home.

9. When in a rickshaw one day on my way out of Yogyakarta, I saw a group of people preparing to set off on some trip, with motorbikes and packs of this and that. One man was packing a box that was labelled ‘IUD kit’. Assuming it’s the acronym I mean it to be, this was an awesome thing to see, and I hope it was used on plenty of women, so that they can get a better education and longer professional life without needing to take time off for children, and suffer related health problems.

10. Hotels typically advertised their rooms with extensive amounts of hideous signage outside their buildings, often including a little neon sign with the current rates. There was one line of copy on one of the hotels that stuck with me: it offered a Honeymoon Suite with a special Love Lock. Reader, I would dearly love to know what it was about that room that locked guest couples’ love up forever, if indeed that’s what they meant. Suggestions on a postcard.

11. And finally: when in Jakarta I saw a little boy walking along the street and cradling a fully-grown, grey pigeon in his hands like a pet. I’d love to know what on earth he was going to do with it.