Busting myths and stereotypes about travel to Jakarta and the rest of the country

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The Big Durian has always been an incredibly apt nickname for Jakarta. Those who are familiar with the city (this goes for the fruit too) either hate it or love it, while those who are unfamiliar with it are either intrigued or intimated. These people are also usually misinformed about both the dangers and the wonders of Jakarta and the rest of the country. In this day and age, where the collective wisdom of humankind is easily accessed on a device that fits in your pocket, it’s surprising that you can still hear the line, “Indonesia? That’s, like, somewhere in Bali, right?” This is uttered with alarming frequency.

So, for those looking to travel to the archipelago themselves or who know somebody who might be heading to the big durian soon, here are some of the most pervasive myths and stereotypes regarding Indonesia that are plain wrong (or are actually a bit more nuanced).

Myth #1: Indonesia is a backward third world country

Okay, I might as well start with the most widespread cliché. Yes, Indonesia is a third world country, but in the historical sense that the nation was one of many which took a third option when the Cold War was in full swing. Heck, Indonesia started the whole I’m-making-my-own-bloc thing. But if we’re talking about Indonesia being a third world country in the “poor, unindustrialised developing nation” sense, then it’s not true. It’s actually quite funny how persistent this misconception is. Only several years ago, I heard about a college friend who finally got to meet her Japanese in-laws, who were astounded that she wore (gasp) shoes! Essentially, we have all the trappings of modern life in Indonesia, from decent Internet access (although speed-wise we’re still lagging behind some of our more obscure neighbours like Laos) to Uber (and the legal mess that comes with it) and a respectable aeronautical industry. And if you do find yourself in an area without 3G coverage, you’re probably there to get away from it all to begin with.

Myth #2: Corruption is everywhere

Yes, Indonesia’s legal system can be a bit of a joke, especially when it comes to state-level corruption. But it doesn’t affect independent travellers all that much. At least not any longer. Sure, tourists might easily encounter unscrupulous clerks and greedy cab drivers looking to make an easy buck, but even regular Indonesians who are all too used to cutting red tape with crisp red bills are now finding themselves having to deal with an increasingly incorruptible bureaucracy. Regular crackdowns, a streamlined administration and a line-up of no-nonsense reformers (including Jakarta’s very own Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, Bandung’s Ridwan Kamil, Central Java’s Ganjar Pranowo, and Surabaya’s Tri Rismaharini) has made abuse of power a lot harder to commit and much easier to report. Besides, it’s now simpler than ever to do a bit of online research into the prices of local goods and services before setting foot in the country, thereby minimising the chance of being fleeced.

Myth #3: Indonesians are super-friendly

Believe it or not, this one is still true, especially when you’re dealing with individuals. In general, if you’re courteous, people will go out of their way to be nice to you. Being mindful of local customs also helps. Of course, this can be quite tricky, but even in the most remote parts of the country, communities have evolved to the point that people will recognise a well-meaning attempt at civility for what it is.

Myth #4: The Indonesian language is easy to learn

Indonesian, or Bahasa Indonesia (please, please don’t simply call it bahasa) has relatively simple grammar and vocabulary. So, learning the Indonesian language is easy. Learning to speak in Indonesia, however, is a whole different ball game. By some estimates, only 20% of the population use Indonesian as their primary language, since most people talk in one of the country’s many local dialects. Colloquial Indonesian is also very different from formal Indonesian, mainly due to the influence of Jakarta’s Betawi language, and the different formal scales found in languages such as Javanese and Sundanese. That said, since tourism is a big part of many local economies, travellers can easily get by with English and some rudimentary Indonesian.

Myth #5: The food in Indonesia is super-spicy

And now for the most important bit: food. Yes, most, if not all, of the (arguably) best dishes from Indonesia’s many culinary traditions are spicy. It should be noted, however, that more often than not, spicy condiments are optional and the hotness of any dish can be adjusted — all you have to do is ask. But you can easily scrape away the chilies and sambal from many dishes and still end up with a delicious meal. Of course, food items that won’t burn you on the way in (or out) are also plentiful, from the simple and sweet cuisine of Central Java to the fresh veggie dishes of West Java. The latter is particularly suitable for vegetarians. But don’t forget to pay attention to hygiene when having a bite. Your stomach not made of iron? Best not eat from street-side stalls then, even though you’ll be missing out on a big part of Indonesia’s culinary delights. But who says life is fair? (JOSH GERARD)

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