After The Crisis: Indonesia in 1998, Part 1 – Indonesia

After The Crisis: Indonesia in 1998, Part 1
Bali and Surabaya, Indonesia

Blame CNN. That’s what I felt like telling Indonesians during my visit in the summer of 1998, when the country, still reeling from financial and political struggles that resulted in the ouster of longtime dictator Suharto, was snubbed by tourists. Despite a crippled currency that made the country a bargain for travelers, CNN images of Jakarta’s spring – rioting crowds and burning buildings – convinced the world the nation was no longer a tourist nirvana.

I’d followed news of the May riots closely as I’d been planning to spend July in Indonesia. After surfing the Internet and reading encouraging postings from travelers who’d been in the country during and after the unrest, I decided, despite the frightening media reports and U.S. State Department warnings, to go ahead with my trip.

I’m not especially brave or foolhardy, but I’m skeptical about State Department warnings and U.S. media coverage of international events. I’ve visited other countries the media have portrayed as menacing and the State Department has designated as dangerous and felt as safe as I’d be in the United States. If people believed everything they saw on CNN or read in the newspapers, they probably thought the entire capital (or country) was in flames, but May’s turmoil was, by and large, confined to a few sites – usually areas populated by ethnic Chinese residents – in Indonesia’s largest cities.

During my journey, I met two Dutch men who were living in Jakarta during the riots; they told me the only trouble they saw was on TV. And while the injustices of the Suharto regime hadn’t vanished in a matter of months, all was calm during my month-long sojourn in the country. The government’s institutions may have been reeling from “The Crisis,” as Indonesians dubbed the turmoil, but my only glimpses of a bureaucracy in disarray took place at the post office. For example, when I arrived in Bali, the exchange rate was 13,000 rupiah to the dollar. The cost of sending a postcard to the United States: 1,400 rupiah.

My first brush with The Crisis aftermath occurred at my hotel in Bali’s Kuta Beach. When I walked into reception, the clerk gave me a list of room rates listed in U.S. dollars. While I looked at it, he told me that these prices no longer applied and that the hotel was offering special discounts. So instead of forking over $45 for a single, I paid $14 – and I paid less than this at every subsequent hotel in which I stayed. The bargain rates were due to the devalued rupiah and the lack of tourists. Though the school holidays in neighboring Australia had begun and Aussies were numerous, Bali still had plenty of empty hotel rooms.

I’d visited Kuta in 1995, and it was a tourist trap then, but in the three intervening years, it had degenerated into a congested tourist hell. The city government may be proud of the designer outlets (Polo, Armani, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana etc.), fast-food restaurants (KFC, Wendy’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s etc.) and surfing-skateboard shops that line the streets because they provide jobs and suck in tourists and their money, but Kuta had become too crowded for comfort. The uneven sidewalks were thick with barely dressed tourists, vendors selling tourist trash, roving hawkers pushing hats, copy watches and copy perfumes. To make matters worse, the sidewalks have holes in them – a by-product of a primitive sewage system – so strolling down them was a bit like walking though a mine field as I tried not to stumble on a chunk of vertical concrete or let my foot slip into a hole while avoiding pushy hawkers shoving products in my face. I tried walking next to the curb instead, but this was too dangerous as motorcycles zipping in and out of the bumper-to-bumper traffic nearly mowed me down. Even the beach wasn’t immune from this overdose of capitalism; all manner of vendors roam the sand selling, selling, selling. Bali has more to offer than shopaholic Kuta, but the island was just a jumping-off point for me. Kuta’s excesses spurred me on to go west quickly – to Java and Sumatra.

I caught an overnight bus to Surabaya, Java, from Denpasar, Bali’s big town. While waiting for the driver to open the bus doors, I met a fellow passenger, Franc, a Frenchman who’d been traveling in Indonesia for six weeks with his Japanese girlfriend Atsuko. He warned me that Java’s economic situation was more desperate than Bali’s, that I’d see more beggars, more destitute people and evidence of the May riots. He and Atsuko had come to Bali from Surabaya by bus, and they, along with a third foreigner, had been robbed while they slept. The thieves, he said, were professionals who’d stolen cameras out of bags and money belts from fanny packs but covered their tracks well – they’d replaced the cameras with water bottles so the bags weighed the same and had sealed fanny-pack zippers with superglue. It was getting dark as he told me this. A small group of scruffy-looking Indonesian men drifted toward us and started asking questions. They seemed sinister, and Franc and I felt uncomfortable and moved away from them and closer to the driver, who was guarding the unopened bus door. Franc left to look for Atsuko, who’d rushed back to Kuta to retrieve a forgotten item from their hotel. I stood alone in the dark, hovering near the bus and remembering that day’s headline in the Jakarta Post: Number of poor people hits 79.4 m. The article said that because of The Crisis, about 40 percent of Indonesians were living beneath the poverty line. And a few of them were looking me over at that moment.

By the time the bus was loaded and on the road to Java, I was willing myself to keep my eyes open and defend my belongings. The driver flew through the night with wild abandon. I looked over at Franc and Atsuko. They were sound asleep. We were traveling on a better class of bus than the one they’d been robbed on – air-con, assigned seats, middle-class Indonesian passengers – and they told me, before they nodded off, that they felt safe enough to sleep. Maybe, I thought, I’m being paranoid. Around midnight, just when I’d started to lose my battle with drowsiness, the bus reached the port and stopped. I hopped off to find a bathroom. A beggar dwarf bolted out of the shadows and jumped up at me, demanding money. Startled, I leaped away, and by the time the bus drove onto the ferry that took us across the Java Sea, I was wide-eyed and alert and remained that way until we reached Surabaya.

Central Surabaya still bore scars from the May riots: boarded-up businesses, broken windows, Pro Reformasi graffiti splashed across storefronts. But that was just an unattractive backdrop to everyday life. Traffic filled the streets. A Wendy’s was open even though its plate-glass windows had been replaced by huge slabs of plywood. The city’s two enormous shopping malls were packed. I wandered around them, lingering in one to escape the hot afternoon sun. Little Indonesians and Chinese and Indians sped around the indoor ice rink one level below a cul-de-sac of pricey shops like Louis Vuitton and Bruno Magli. Bescarved women – I’d left Bali’s Hindu majority behind and was in the middle of Indonesia’s Muslim majority – window-shopped. After dawdling in a few cafés (where drinks cost 2,500 to 3,500 rupiah), I nearly forgot I was in a country in crisis.

Then I stepped out of the air-con comfort onto the humid street, where taxi drivers competed for business and old people begged on the sidewalks and nearby riot-battered buildings imbued the area with a war-zone weariness. I walked down the road to one of Surabaya’s most exclusive hotels, which was now charging $35 for $200 rooms, and had dinner in one of its elegant restaurants. Because there was only one other customer, the spacious dining room seemed cold and cavernous.

The next morning, while I waited at the station for a train to Yogyakarta, a chubby, well-dressed Indonesian man approached me. Though he didn’t look or act like a tout, I didn’t trust his business-like, forced friendliness and was pretty sure he wanted something from me. He spoke excellent English, asked where I was from, and I told him.

“IMF,” he said. “You know IMF?”

I nodded. The acronym for International Monetary Fund was well-known in East Asia and often used as a synonym for “economic crisis.”

“IMF helps my country,” he said. “Maybe you’d like to help, too. Individually. Buy me some milk or bread.” He gestured toward a food kiosk on the platform.

I hesitated, surprised by the directness and sophistication of his request, which sounded well-rehearsed.

“Uh, no.”

He said, “Thank you” and headed straight for the only other white people in the station, where I assumed he was making the same pitch. I’d expected beggars but not yuppie ones. Feeling guilty, I looked at all the Indonesians around me. None of them looked as well-fed or as prosperous as that guy. Heck, I didn’t look as well-fed or as prosperous as that guy.

Read Part 2

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