Europeans behave differently from the Indonesian people in many ways. In fact, you could write an entire book about the differences. The following hints should help you avoid the biggest misunderstandings.
Etiquette: Indonesian folk are extremely friendly and open. Wherever you go, you will be frequently greeted by children and even adults with the phrase ‘Hello mister’ (even if you are a woman!). The most important things to remember are; don’t get angry, stay calm and retain a sense of humour at all times. Indonesians see showing anger as a severe character flaw. A grin is your best weapon. Do not stroke anyone’s head or criticise people in the company of others. Indonesians are particularly sensitive about losing face, and being seen to be criticised will do this. Bad news or displeasure must be expressed in private.
Meetings/appointments: We come from a hectic culture where time is money and punctuality is expected. Indonesians do not share this pressure, although that is not to say that they will necessarily be late. Sometimes they may have nothing else to do and arrive an hour early. Indonesians live much more in the here and now, worry less about the future than us and have a lot of patience. A local saying sums this attitude up nicely; ‘jam karet’. This means ‘rubber time’! Flexibility is the key.
Hands and feet: Indonesians do not use toilet paper; they clean their backsides using water out of a bottle and their left hand. This is the reason why you never offer your left hand to shake, gesture or eat. This is considered filthy. Never touch anybody’s head (even children). Pointing to somebody is also considered rude. If you wish to indicate somebody, use a downward swing of the whole hand. Never put your feet up on a table and always take your shoes off before entering someone’s home, a mosque, and sometimes even a museum. When you sit, you must hide your feet. Do not cross your legs in a manner that leaves the sole or point of your foot pointing towards someone.
Physical contact: Although Indonesians do not particularly approve of open shows of affection between a man and woman, they do not hesitate to make much physical contact during conversation, even with a complete stranger. Do your best to tolerate this habit.
Clothing: Indonesians like to dress formally for particular occasions. They judge their fellow man mainly on appearance. Neat clothing is seen as a status symbol. Unwashed hair, body odour and unwashed or untidy clothing results in a complete loss of face publicly. Shorts are acceptable in the home or on the beach, although they are seen as inappropriate when worn publicly.
Visiting mosques/temples: When you visit a mosque or temple, look for signs which indicate whether or not you must take off your shoes. Show respect for the monuments by dressing appropriately and behaving calmly and quietly. Do not walk in front of praying folk, ask permission before taking photographs and if there is a ceremony taking place, make sure that you do not disturb it. When visiting a Balinese temple, you must usually wear a temple sash around your waist, and these are usually available on site.
Mandi: Indonesian bathing practises (mandi) are somewhat different to what we are used to. You will often come across the traditional mandi bucket. It is not for sitting on, the custom is to scoop water out of it with a small bucket and pour the water over yourself.
Curiosity: Indonesians are hospitable people and it takes little or no effort to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. Questions about age, salary, religion and other issues which we would consider highly personal are everyday conversation topics in Indonesia. The chances are high that you will find yourself in conversations with many locals, especially in areas less frequented by tourists. They will want to know everything about you, and may even wish to touch your hair to convince themselves that it is real. Other people may engage you in conversation simply to practise their English.
Women on holiday: Indonesia is a reasonably easy country for (respectably dressed) female visitors to travel in. That is not to say that you will not be hassled, although this is usually just innocent niggling. The best response is to keep your sense of humour about it. You will often be asked whether you are married and how many children you have. You will make your life much easier if you simply say that you are married. It is not wise to tell people you are divorced.
Haggling: Haggling is an everyday part of Indonesian life. You will be expected to haggle at the market, in tourist shops, in taxis which have no meter and for bicycle taxis (becak). If you require a becak for the whole day, it is better to agree a fixed price beforehand. On local buses with fixed routes, haggling is not necessary. The price of food (harga pas) in restaurants is also generally fixed. Take your time when haggling, especially for expensive souvenirs, and a good starting offer is around a third of the asking price. This does not apply for gold, silver and precious stones, where the margins are much smaller. Remember that haggling is a social activity here and not a matter of life and death! ‘Boleh tawar?’ means ‘may I haggle?’
Begging: In many cities you will be approached by beggars, who will ask you for money, soap or pens, and sometimes for sweets. Some beggars will immediately name an amount of money that they would like from you. You will be solving no great problems for them by giving them money. They have become dependent on this sort of income. In the larger cities, mothers with children are found on the street. Sometimes they lie in the street and look more bedraggled. Bear in mind that the children are often borrowed, to make it seem that the mother has bigger numbers of dependents than she actually has. A number of beggars use make-up, and they wash a number of wounds and scars off at the end of the day. Shoestring advises that you give no money to children; a better idea is to give them fruit or other food. If children earn a good wage begging, their parents will usually not send them to school and thus keep them on the streets. It is much more acceptable to give money to the elderly or to invalids. However, the reality behind every beggar is very varied; some genuinely beg for money to buy food, although more of them are forced to resort to begging to pay their rent. In the larger cities, the number of alcohol and drug addicted beggars is on the increase. You are better off giving money to reputable charitable organisations.
Dance and Drama
You will come into contact with dance, the art of storytelling and many forms of theatre in Indonesia. Dancers, shamen, actors, wayang puppeteers, storytellers, poets and gamelan musicians fulfil an important role in Indonesian entertainment, giving advice and teaching traditions to their fellow men. Dances are performed to prevent illness, drive away evil spirits, celebrate victories, to mark births, funerals, marriages, the onset of puberty and at annual celebrations usually related to farming and harvests. Sometimes a select group performs the dances, but the entire community often takes part. The musical accompaniment is provided by angklung (traditional instruments made of bamboo), flutes or an orchestra. During some of the dances, the dancers go into a trance. The most famous of these trance dances is the Balinese barong. This dance pictures the struggle between the forces of good and evil in the universe, symbolised by the good spirit Barong and the evil witch Rangda. Bali’s most popular dance performance among tourists is the kecak, which is sometimes performed by hundreds of singing, swaying men.
People with knowledge of textiles will agree that Indonesia has the largest variety of traditional textiles in the world. Every ethnic group seems to have had their own unique tradition of fabric artistry. The eastern islands are home to the ikat technique, Sumatra is home to songkets, and Java is famous for its stunning batiks. Batik still plays a part in modern Javanese culture. The creation of intricate batik requires a huge amount of patience. It must first be sketched, parts of the fabric require particular treatment with wax and the cloths must be dyed, washed and dried. The dying and wax treatment has to be repeated as many times as is necessary to create the desired number of colours.
Traditional handicrafts are one of the few things that the different islands have in common. The variety is once again as large as the variety of different cultures, from primitive carvings to elaborate cloth, cane and bamboo items, gold and silver jewellery and necklaces made from kauri shells. You can also find traditional items such as paintings, krisses (Javanese daggers), dance masks, wayang puppets and musical instruments. It is not at all difficult to find fantastic souvenirs.
Remember at all times that you are visitors in this foreign land. Their behaviour and customs are not bizarre, yours are!