Whether getting muddy in the rice paddies; chomping on chicken feet in the food markets or finding your very own medicine man à la Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat Pray Love, there is no better way to experience Indonesia, than to live and travel like a local. Here are a few tips on ditching the tourist trail and finding your Indonesian alter ego.
Sample the street food
Eating like a local in Indonesia means hitting the streets. Luckily, warung – street stalls or carts – can be found almost everywhere and offer a wide range of cheap and tasty food. A mere dollar and a little haggling (westerners will often be quoted the ‘tourist price’) will secure you a freshly-tossed plate of Nasi goreng (fried rice & vegetables) which you can eat huddled in-between fellow patrons on wooden benches or stools set up beside the stall.
Popular dishes include catfish with Sambal Manis (chilli sauce), Sate Ayam (barbecued chicken skewers with peanut sauce), Tempe (a meat-like cake made from fermented soya beans), Lempur (sticky rice balls steamed in banana leaves and stuffed with sweet-soy chicken) and innumerable deep-fried delicacies. Food is typically eaten with the hands or a spoon and served with balls of sticky rice and complimentary sweet green tea. Street food can be hit and miss so always search out the busiest stalls – if in doubt, eat where the locals eat!
Respect the dress code
Despite a reputation as one of the more liberal-minded Islamic nations, Indonesia, with the exception of Bali, is still a Muslim country and it’s important to dress and act respectfully. For women, this means swimming in a t-shirt and keeping your chest, thighs and upper arms covered whenever possible. For men, it’s best to avoid walking around bare-chested unless it’s clear that the locals are doing the same. Alcohol is prohibited in most situations (particularly in rural areas), although that’s not to say it’s not available. Sharing a quiet beer with friends is condonable, but drinking at someone’s home (unless invited to) or drinking excessively would definitely be frowned upon.
The call to prayer sounds 5 times a day from the Mosque and it’s important to respect prayer times, particularly on a Friday (the Muslim equivalent of a Christian Sunday). Indonesians are largely inquisitive and open-minded but it’s still wise to avoid taboo subjects when addressing the elder generation – avoiding sex, religion and politics is a good start, at least until you are better acquainted.
Experience rural life
While the majority of tourists flock to the beaches, there is much more to Indonesia than prime surf spots and meditation retreats. Outside of the major cities, Indonesia is a landscape of sprawling tea plantations, tiered rice paddies, and traditional bamboo housing, although Western culture has seeped its way in through mobile phones and American pop stars (Justin Bieber is many an Indonesian teenager’s dream!).
To fully experience rural Indonesia, a home stay is a great way to immerse yourself in the culture and a few entrepreneurial country dwellers are starting to open their doors to foreign guests. Volunteer In Java is one such organization, offering home stays and volunteer opportunities for travelers in West Java. You can explore the floating fishing villages, shop for food at the local markets and for those not adverse to sweaty, muddy work, they’ll even arrange for you to help out in the rice paddies for a morning!
Indulge in a blind massage
Massage is the only vocational training available for the blind and is taught in rehabilitation centers all over the country. In fact, most Indonesians are so used to receiving their massages from the blind, that they often assume all blind people are certified masseurs!
Traditional Indonesian massage is a mix of deep-tissue sports massage and basic chiropractic realignments (if you’re not a fan of neck-cracking maneuvers, make sure you tell your masseur beforehand!) but some centers offer a wider range of massage styles. Almost every town and city has a massage centre run by the blind and any guesthouse or tour agency will be able to point you in their direction. Blind massage parlors may not offer the frills of a day spa, but they do offer highly skilled masseurs, cheap-as-chips prices and the added bonus of supporting a minority who are working hard to make a living against the odds.
Cure your ailments
Although western medicine prevails in the cities, many Indonesians still turn to local medicine men or Jamu – traditional Javan medicine – to treat their ailments. Using natural herbs, spices and extracts, Jamu makers produce individually tailored recipes to treat everything from the common cold to fertility problems, normally in the form of a brightly-colored drink. Of course, the medical benefits are debatable but many locals swear by the powers of these bitter tonics and it provides a fascinating insight into the local culture for the more adventurous tourist. First-timers might prefer to try the pre-made lotions and creams – popular products include a soothing paste for sunburn, a local tiger balm, cinnamon and rice facemasks and even a Viagra-esque herbal tea!
Via Via Café & Travel agency in Yogyakarta offers Jamu & Massage tours for 120.000Rp per person (at time of writing around US$14) or else hunt out the ‘pharmacies’ in the local food markets.
Use local transport
Road travel in Indonesia is equally exhilarating and terrifying, with motorbikes, bicycles, cars, buses, tuk-tuks, minivan taxis, horse‘n’carts – you name it, you’ll find it weaving through the traffic jams and whizzing over potholes. Safety concerns on long distance buses are usually quite minimal, but bank on long delays, bumper-to-bumper traffic and often unbearably narrow seating (long-legged travelers will soon come to despise Indonesian buses!). On popular routes bigger and newer buses may be used so shop around before you buy a ticket (often the rickety, slow school buses are the same price as the shiny new coaches). Get on early to secure a seat as they can fill up fast and tell the driver and a few other passengers where you want to get off as road signs and bus stations are rarities.
For short distances, moto-taxis are the cheapest and fastest methods of travel, providing you find a driver who follows at least some of the road rules. Insist on wearing a helmet – there are plenty of moto-taxis who carry passenger helmets so don’t bother getting on a bike that doesn’t. Make sure you agree on a price beforehand and hone your haggling skills, as price bumping for non-locals is pandemic.
Make some new friends
Outside of the cities, English speakers are few and far between and a few words of the local language can go a long way. Confusingly, Indonesians speak a range of different languages depending on the region – Balinese, Javanese, Sudanese, even Dutch in some villages – but Bahasa Indonesia is the official language and is widely spoken and understood. Bahasa Indonesia is a surprisingly easy language to master – it uses no tenses, phonetic spelling (just remember the ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’) and is one of the few non-tonal Asian languages. For starters, try ‘Selamat Pagi’ (good morning), ‘Terima Kasih’ (thank you) and ‘Nama saya’ (my name is).
The Indonesia Australia Language Foundation offers starter classes in several locations around the country or else ask at your guesthouse for a local tutor. If you’re planning to travel outside of the major tourist resorts a Lonely Planet phrasebook makes a worthwhile backpack addition.