Indonesia: Living in Minimalism

A month ago in Sri Lanka, an elderly Buddhist man told me that the more desires one achieves, the more desires one creates. I ponder this as we drive toward the airport in a van all too shiny for this Indonesian village.

Other vehicles tackling the winding, rugged roads are loud, withered trucks and mopeds. The occasional ox and cart cause a temporary halt. My driver, Umar speaks no English so in the early stages of our six-hour journey I put in headphones and relish the last of my time in South Sumatra.

Barefooted children chase one another inches from the busy road. One boy wears a shirt with Wayne’s World printed across it. I’m impressed, but I doubt he knows anything of Wayne & Garth.

Elderly men sit on their rickety porches. They wear singlets and saris, mindfully watching their village come alive at 9am. A small gasoline vendor services a row of motorbikes, using a rusted can with unleaded petrol spilling from its cracks. The monetary exchange is 20,000 rupees ($1.50 USD), and the verbal one leaves both vendor and customer in hysterics. Men sit around one of the many work sites and seem to have similar exchanges with similar results. The kids stop their death-defying dance to wave, smile and yell to me, “Hello mister!!” I gladly return a smile, and receive another from on looking parents.

Whether India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka or The Philippines, you may find little worry, little hurry, little stress and little complexity in the lives of their pleasant, Third World inhabitants. The predominant desires are quite simple; Men: Have a steady job; find a wife; have babies; provide. Women: Develop homemaking skills; find a husband; have babies; nurture.

What these locals desire is a part of something more than the ‘self’. It’s about developing themselves and their children for the greater good of the community.

As a 29-year old who has just kicked his banking career and set out for a short adventure through South East Asia, my goals and desires are heavier burdens. A chattering mind tells me to focus on finding a new career on returning to Perth. I want to write but will modern day journalism really give me the financial means that I’m accustomed to? I’m fantasizing about my guitar back home, and maybe a year of working on original music? I want to gain fluency in Spanish, and also get my surfing to an advanced level. I could go to South America? At the end of the day, I too want to find a wife and build a family. After the other boxes are ticked of course.

These exciting choices stare at me like selections on a 20-page menu in a Vietnamese Restaurant. But I am so far from feeling satisfied that I actually find frustration in having such options.

The rusted truck ahead delivers a flume of smoke through our windows. I wind mine up, and put the air conditioning on. Umar’s right hand moves from the steering wheel to his mouth. His cigarette shortens.

There’s nothing new about a westerner driving through Third World landscape but there is something refreshing to be learnt from looking out the window.

As of 2016, around 84% of males in Indonesia are laborers, so I am guilty of – but persistent in – generalizing hereafter. These workers are driven by each day’s paycheck. This affords the welfare of their family. There is no concern shared by these workers about what, let’s say, interest rates are doing. There is no speculation about the state of Indonesia’s economy. Their economy is a 600-person community:

The laborer buys vegetables from the village marketer, who paid the builder for the storefront, who bought gasoline from the fuel stand, which neighbours the village marketer.

The only superficial interruption to our laborer’s day is that he may wear long sleeves, pants and a hood in 35-degree heat, to improve chances of finding a partner when he next goes out in the city. Tanned skin says he is a laborer. Paler skin says he is not, which also says he may have money.

The contrast of east and west is seen in expats setting up shop in these locations. A wealthy Australian purchased land up the road from our surf camp in Krui, South Sumatra. He overpaid significantly with a $150K purchase price. Neighbours then reacted with the unrealistic expectation that their properties were worth just as much. This man built a mansion and visited once or twice a year. No respect or attention was paid to the community. He took no part in it, and as such is frowned upon. He will forever be a foreigner, unlike some expats who contribute financially, socially and physically to the neighbourhood. Respect is as much currency here as dollars are in the west.

There also seems to be no concern about opportunity cost for businesses. Whatever is sold is sold, and no sales pressure is applied. The host of our surf camp buys his beer stocks from a sort of ‘We Sell Everything’ store down the road. Buying in bulk leads to exactly the same cost per bottle as it would if each bottle were purchased individually. Therefore Jason only buys when he needs. The storeowner misses out on guaranteed sales of larger amounts of stock. But he cares none and his life goes on without stress. In Krui, a bottle of beer costs ‘x’; ten bottles cost ten times ‘x’. Why would it be any different? Jason is looked at like an imbecile when suggesting (with good intentioned sales advice) that it could be.

This reminds me of a parable called The Story of the Mexican Fisherman where a humble man understandably deems an American businessman’s life advice as superfluous. Have a read here.

Indonesia, and other great countries like it, could still learn from developed nations. Rubbish is often burnt here for convenience. Women do not hold a strong place in society, evidenced in the disfavour for having a daughter compared to the hope of having a son. That same daughter, working in one of the country’s many sweatshops, must prove she is menstruating in order to have a single day off. Healthcare is subpar, with doctors usually guessing a diagnosis. One even asked an Australian guest at my bungalow what sickness he thought he might have. Safety on the roads is non-existent, with speeding vans carrying school kids on their roofs. And almost everyone smokes.

Back on topic, the lesson here is that while still classed as developing countries, these nations see the transparency of traditional ideals. Meanwhile our moral vision can, and often does, become distorted. Sharing wholesome values gives strength to the idea of ‘community’, and humanizes its members in a way that is sometimes missed in richer parts of the world.

Anyway… I’m at Lampung airport now. I have my cappuccino and pasta on the way. I’ve picked up the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi too, so I’ll digest Facebook updates and Instagram photos. I’ll listen to Grizzly Bear’s new album and contemplate buying some wooden trinkets to take home for my nieces.

It’s the simple things that keep a westerner happy. The many, many simple things.

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