Longform: Indonesian Dungeons (and Dragons) — Part 1

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This is the first dispatch in a three-part series. Find out what happens in Part 2 and Part 3.


FOR NEW SCIENTISTS, ENTERING THE INDONESIAN PERMITTING PROCESS RESEMBLES venturing into an omnivore’s lair: narrow openings, uncertainty, dank corners. I’ve known colleagues who have nearly abandoned their field research and forfeited grants, overwhelmed by the mire of archival complexity, bureaucratic pit-falls, and the occasional snarling official out for blood.

This is not exclusively an Indonesian phenomenon. Similar receptions await scientists in Bolivia, Tanzania, Tahiti, India, or anywhere the legacy of colonial regimes is reenacted in successive generations of government agencies populated by control freaks. Contemporary bureaucrats sitting in poorly ventilated offices may be wearing twenty-first-century clothing, but that is a ruse. Their true nature lies in management habits inherited from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century colonizers like the anal-retentive Dutch, supercilious French, or pompous Brits — this process the bastardized bequest of a former Crown commonwealth. Yet those foreigners from former Western powers passing through must admire their shrewdness. Sustaining masochistic bureaucracies is an ingenious way to extract revenge on the progeny of those blasted Whites who dominated indigenous landscapes for far too long. The petty withholding of papers or permits or passports is a highly specialized sport, the ultimate power play.

Exhibit A: obtaining a research permit (izin penelitian).

Procuring a research permit takes just as long in present-day Java as it did two centuries prior. I realized this after reading the 19th-century journals of the intrepid traveler Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who negotiated exploratory passage through Yogyakarta on the strength of an officious declaration with “many polysyllabic words in capital letters and the big gold seal” of the Smithsonian Institution, after her United States passport was tossed aside by the local authority. The primary difference nowadays is that gas-lit chambers have been replaced with fluorescent-lit offices playing endless Bollywood musicals or dubbed Chinese dramas on flat-screen TVs hanging from the ceiling. And you can bet those videos are going to get far more attention than your paperwork will, unless you can make your case much more enticing.


 My permit-hunting marathon began in the almost-but-not-quite-impenetrable Indonesian Consulate in San Francisco. My hard-won set of triplicate documents and passport notation allowed me to disembark in Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and not be sent packing back to my homeland.


I landed in a bewildering Jakarta chaos of exhaust-laden air, buckling asphalt, human potpourri, glistening high-rises, and patched-together ghettos encompassing ten million souls. Of which, at that point, I knew only three.


These papers were important, because by that time I had already forfeited my lease, packed my life into luggage, and armed myself with every tropical disease prophylactic known to science. Thanks to persnickety Berlitz language cassette tapes replayed ad nauseum during car trips between the University of California at Davis and the Consulate, I could recognize a few hundred antiquated words in Indonesian, endowing me with the verbal capacity of a toddler combined with the linguistic habits of a cloistered nun.


Within a year I would be fluent. But at that point – early April 1993 – I landed in a bewildering Jakarta chaos of exhaust-laden air, buckling asphalt, human potpourri, glistening high-rises, and patched-together ghettos encompassing ten million souls. Of which, at that point, I knew only three.

With torrents of monsoon rain turning the gutters into trashy rivers, an approaching three-wheeled, bright-orange bajaj (nicknamed “cockroaches” and popular throughout Asia but subsequently banned from Jakarta’s hub, these open-sided, 2-stroke, pollution-spewing engines could weave through stalled traffic and tiny alleyways with more dexterity than taxis) miraculously responded to my frantic Western-style hand-waving. I hadn’t yet learned the more culturally recognizable signal of turning the palm down, cupping the fingers and gesturing toward the body – a kind of pulling the target towards you. By rapidly waving my hand back and forth I was actually signing, “no, no, go away, I don’t want any!” instead of “please come pick me up!”

Thank you Shri Maariyamman Hindu Mother Goddess of Rain, the driver must have ferried plenty of clueless foreigners, because instead of zipping past me, he nosed the snorting bajaj, equipped with rumpled plastic covering the passenger compartment, closer to the curb, allowing me to hop into the back seat with minimal dousing. Tugging the protective sheeting back over the side door, I caught my breath, did a quick map check and asked the driver in minimalist Indonesian to take me to my destination: bisa pergi ke polisi? “Can you take me to the police?”


The first morning of my first day in Indonesia and I was heading straight to the cops. Immigration officials had welcomed me the evening prior with a passport stamp containing a stern deadline. I had 72 hours to procure a stack of official documents in matching, hand-typed envelopes, from a bevy of intimidating national institutions guaranteeing my right to pursue research. Miss the deadline and I risked steep fines, unaffordable on the budget of an unemployed researcher with a newly minted master’s degree.

Happily, the word polisi is one of the easiest words to remember in Indonesian, a close cognate to English. Everyone knew where the central police station was, and only later did I realize how accessible, friendly, and well-signed the Central Police Complex was, as I fumbled my way towards the rest of the government line-up. All I had was an unreliable map the size of a phone book and infantile language skills.

Numbers were assigned willy-nilly, 57 following 192 following 31, as if a group of mischievous preschoolers had tossed mathematical confetti all over the city.

But what of taxis? And taxi drivers? Ah, the perils of New World innocence. Before I was inducted into the Jakarta expat inner circle, who exclusively hail high-class, reliable Blue Bird or Silver Bird Taxis, I took any bloody taxi, and would often end up with the dreaded President Taxis.

This particular taxi line, in parallel with its namesake, was unreliable, poorly maintained, often criminal, and prone to being driven by unskilled, unlicensed men who didn’t have a clue of how to navigate in or around Jakarta. To make matters worse, in the bursting-at-the-seams Indonesian capital of the early 1990s, the main thoroughfares changed names every few kilometers, allowing for more independence heroes to be honored. Street address numbers did not follow any logical chronology: Jakarta was too vibrant, too iconoclastic to follow tedious customs like placing even numbers on one side of the street and odd numbers on the other, or limiting numbers to sets of one hundred per block, or to even bother with numerical order. Instead, numbers were assigned willy-nilly, 57 following 192 following 31, as if a group of mischievous preschoolers had tossed mathematical confetti all over the city.

Getting to the police complex, around the police complex (where I page-flipped through my phrasebook at every turn), and back from the police complex (it was even harder re-finding my apartment off a side-street in my haphazard neighborhood) exhausted most of the sunlit hours of Day One and sapped my strength.

In Indonesian, the word for when you’re so drained you can’t squeeze another drop of energy out, is lelah, which also translates to “feeling run down.” Tuckered out. If you are really tired, you are sangat lelah or colloquially, lelah bangat. To show emphasis, repeat the intensifiers, just like in English: very, very tired.

Sangat-sangat lelah, I collapsed into bed early that night.


Featured photo from Kelvin Dickinson.

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