On exchange in Indonesia

Here we print a guest blog post by Harrison Lowe who is currently on exchange at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. 

By Harrison Lowe

Before I came here I was aware that there was an upcoming election. When I arrived here, I was reminded of the upcoming election by the flags and posters that lined the streets. Months out from the election, and the campaign had quite clearly already begun, with flags of all different colours waving, and the face of a different candidate on every billboard or piece of fence.

I found it very hard to grasp the politics here in Indonesia. A lot of the source material is written in Bahasa Indonesia (the Indonesian language), of which I am a beginner, which meant I had to find the limited Australian sources freely available online, and even then, it was hard for me to fully understand the candidates. Through discussions with various teachers and friends, I was able to get a general idea about what each of the candidates stood for, however their election is not as left and right/conservative and progressive as I am used to. From my extremely basic understanding, the differences between the candidates came more from their backgrounds, and their perspective of the role of religion in society.

Aside from my limited Bahasa, another key challenge of learning about the election in depth was the fact that – as I am not a citizen – I am required to be politically neutral during my time here, which means not showing support for either candidate or any party. This made it a sensitive topic to talk to people about, as it was hard to establish if what they were telling me was factual, or perhaps biased. Because of this, I failed to learn as much as what I would have liked to about each of the candidates, and the election in general.

Despite my lack of knowledge, being perceived as politically neutral was at times difficult, and there were ways which even the most innocent foreigner could implicitly support a candidate, without even knowing. This happened to me.

Whenever you go to popular areas in Jogja, Indonesian people – usually children – will come up to you and ask you for a photo. The three Australian’s I am here with, and myself, were at the main street one night, early in our stay here. A group of boys came up to us and asked us for a photo, so we took one with them. In the photo, they all had one finger raised, so us four Australians did the same thing, trying to fit in with the Indonesian boys. As it happens, most hand gestures here represent a political party or figure, so, by copying these boys, we had inadvertently thrown our support behind President Jokowi.

It’s not a big deal, and everyone has been very relaxed about innocent mistakes such as that, but it was a good thing to learn.

Ramadan (09/05)

One of the biggest cultural differences I have observed whilst living in Yogyakarta (Jogja) compared to living in Australia is the position that religion has in society. I was quickly introduced to this, when my ‘buddy’ from UGM – who is Balinese – gave me a Hindu bracelet upon meeting me. Many people who have driven me around have copies of holy books in their car, or various other religious symbols or objects. They even have their religion included on their ID card.

The most dominant religion practiced in Jogja is Islam. Every day, at various times, you are able to hear the call to prayer, which is broadcast out of Mosques (Masjid), to call all Muslim people to prayer. You can hear it in Jogja at 4 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, 6 pm and finally, at 7 pm. I was told about this prior to coming, so I was able to get used to it very quickly, and I often don’t notice it through the day anymore.

This month marked the beginning of Ramadan, which is observed by many people here in Jogja. During Ramadan, Islamic people fast from the 4 am call to prayer, until the 6 pm call to prayer rings out. On the evening before Ramadan began, my friend had to get to bed early, and wake up at 3 am in order to eat before he began fasting. Those observing Ramadan are unable to eat or drink anything during the day, so I think it is respectful to try and avoid doing so as much as possible in their presence – something I have had to pull myself up on a couple of times. Whilst fasting, they must continue to go about their daily activities as normal, which is incredible, given they cannot even drink water, and I tend to go through a couple of bottles a day to deal with the heat.

At around 5.30 pm today, I went to a mall, which is on the main street of Jogja. As I was leaving, there were maybe 100 people seated on mats, right along the footpath. They had iced tea, and food boxes in front of them, yet none of them were eating. They were waiting for the call to prayer, to signify the end of fasting for the day. As the call to prayer rang out, they all started eating – breaking their fast together, in the street. This was a very profound experience, and unlike anything else I’ve ever witnessed.

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