A view from Indonesia - beyond Bali

What's changed in Indonesia over the four years that our correspondent has been there?

A man carries goods on his shoulder at a morning market in Bogor, Indonesia's West Java province August 1, 2013.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Every time I travel for work in Indonesia, I'm tempted to describe the journey. The road to (insert destination) was smooth or twisting or pockmarked and broken. I passed roadside stands selling fruit and fried snacks. The traffic was horrendous, more stop than go, or people passed us like maniacs, swerving at 75 miles an hour on snaking back roads.

Such details give a sense of place and remoteness. They also convey the vastness and contradiction that is Indonesia, the world's largest island country by population, and the dysfunctional state of its infrastructure.

They are not always essential to the story, which varies from the battle to cope with rising maternal mortality to deforestation to improvements in rural education – or lack thereof. But I like to think they paint a picture of a country that people tend to see from either the vantage of Jakarta's malls and high rises or its sweeping rice fields and volcanic vistas.

In reality, the scenery is neither one or the other. In the poorest villages a gaudy concrete structure (usually a government office or seldom-used health clinic), often stands as a tribute to economic and social development.

I have traveled far and wide to see the nature of this “progress,” to talk to people and learn what they think, how they live and how their lives are changing as the country does. 

While I don’t often talk about how warm and friendly the Indonesian people are, I often think it. When Indonesians ask me why I like it here, I don’t wax on about the culture (vibrant!), the climate (tropical) or how far I can stretch my American dollar. I simply say it’s fascinating – and that’s as true today as it was four years ago when I first arrived here.

I feel lucky Indonesia has let me stay this long and tell its stories. I have loved and hated it, but my feelings have never been lukewarm. I’ve been terrified, joyous, overwhelmed, frustrated, and scintillated. I have rarely been bored.

When I arrived in August 2009, Indonesians were still cheering the re-election of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as president. Now, as he prepares to leave office under 10-year term limits, pundits are calling him a lame duck who not only failed to meet a key campaign promise to curb corruption, but has let it infiltrate the Democrat Party he founded. 

Civil society groups have also lashed out at him for standing by silently while sectarian violence ticked upward.

In 2009 counter-terrorism police were still hunting for the militants behind twin bombings that rocked the luxury JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta, killing nine and injuring dozens of others. Today, after fracturing the country’s biggest terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah, police are fighting a war against militants targeting them rather than Western influences.

Four years ago the anti-corruption commission was boldly going after high-level politicians (it still is) and political analysts worried about attempts by parliamentarians to defang it (they haven’t given up). Bali had trash on its beaches, but less of it. There were more orangutans, tigers, and elephants in rainforests that have since been clear cut. 7-Eleven had not entered the market, shaking up the country’s convenience store craze, and Joko Widodo, the populist governor of Jakarta who has transformed Indonesian perceptions of good governance and is, observers speculate, preparing a run for the presidency, was still a country bumpkin mayor in a mid-sized city called Solo.

At small shops, vendors handed back candies when they were short on change. The exchange rate was averaging Rp10,000 to the dollar. Today, after years of more than six percent growth and an economy often called an emerging market “darling” by investors, the rupiah has weakened to its lowest level since 2008.

On Friday President Yudhoyono announced a fiscal stimulus package aimed at restoring confidence in the sputtering economy. During a late night coffee meeting, the country’s leading financial officials talked about how its rising wages and low productivity were driving investors away.

Brash young finance minister Chatib Basri, sprinkling his speech with slang, called Indonesia a victim of its own successes, while Hatta Rajasa, the coordinating minister for the economy, hammered home the need to preserve local industries and stem imports to rebalance a trade deficit that is to blame for the sickening currency.

None of that seemed to matter much by Sunday, as I zipped down a palm oil plantation-lined road from Medan to Lake Toba, where I’m on a reporting trip for The Christian Science Monitor. At one point my driver swerved onto the shoulder to avoid a collision with a van passing in the oncoming lane (our mirrors still clipped.) When we stopped for lunch an hour later I chatted with two well-mannered kids. They asked me what I wanted to buy (mau beli apa?). I asked them where they lived. Just typical Indonesian probing.

Another common question, which Saritua, the taxi driver asked me shortly after we met:

“Are you married.”

“Not yet,” I said.

“You should find an Indonesian man,” he replied.

And when I thought about what to say to that, I thought about how much time I’d spent these past years looking for a story, for sources, for a way to tell the world about a country that is neither failing nor soaring and I realized I had the appropriate answer to encompass it all: “I’m still searching.”

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