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23.5.11

Mimpi Indah-nesia

Since many readers don't speak Indonesian, the title of this article is a play on words.  Mimpi indah means 'sweet dreams.'

A lot of people thought I was crazy when I took the decision to move here three years ago.  Of course, many Americans are woefully ignorant of the world outside their borders.  Most of what they think they know about the world comes from media.  To be fair, much of the world views America through the media, as well, and have very strange ideas about what life is like there.

I had decided to leave the US shortly after 9/11.  I could not, in good conscience, live in a country with a government that would commit such an atrocity against its own people, and also use the event as an excuse to perpetrate acts of war against innocent nations.  Being surrounded with wild-eyed, unquestioning nationalism gave me little hope of agitating for change, as well.

I know that I wanted to move to Asia, since it was the only continent, outside Antarctica, that I had not explored.  Among the many factors I considered were: language, cost of living, culture, economy, opportunity, and location.

As far as language goes, Indonesian is fairly easy to get up and running with.  It is one of the few in Asia that use the Roman alphabet.  The necessary vocabulary to get around is fairly easy to learn.  The grammar is not overly complex (compared to English, for instance).  Furthermore, the mother tongue Malay, is the root of a great number of Southeast Asian languages, so learning one gives you a strong foot in the door for a great many others, including Hindi, which is the mother tongue of Malay.  Being a language hobbyist, I was excited to learn some new ones, since my entire repetoir was Euro-centric.

The cost of living in Indonesia is amazingly low, compared with many other countries, and especially the US.  As a rule of thumb, things are about 1/10th the cost of equivalents back home.  That seems to be changing slowly, as the dollar appears destined to reach parity with the rupiah (currently 8,500:1) at some point in the near future.  There's also a pretty steep inflation rate here of 6%-7% annually, but that is dwarfed by what is currently running in the States (though the official number is about 3%).

The average home here, in the larger cities, runs between $25,000 and $50,000, depending on size, location and number of 'western'-style amenities.  Many houses here have their own water wells beneath the house, which I find not only interesting, but incredibly useful.  Most houses are fully attached, like New York brownstones, and are built out of solid brick and plaster.  Almost not wood is used to frame out houses, and precious little is used inside.

Indonesian culture is very traditional.  Families still resemble 'Leave It To Beaver,' with mom running the home and dad beating the streets.  Women are not forbidden to work, they choose to stay home and care for the family.  Many run cottage industries from the house, such as sewing, laundry, cooking, and even more modern services such as computer work.

Crime rates are comparatively low and most are non-violent.  The people are disarmed by the government, which is a big draw-back, but so are the local police, which at least makes for mutual respect.  Yes, there is a lot of official graft and corruption here, but the difference is that it is illegal and in the open, as opposed to the States, where it is legal for certain segments of the populace, and deeply covered up.

There is a rich diversity of cultures here.  There are over 300 distinct cultural groups, each with different languages and traditions, that make for very interesting observation.  Nearly every inhabited island (there are over 20,000 of them) has it's own distinct food, clothing, music, traditions, and folk lore.  You can truly spend a lifetime learning all the various cultures within the country.  The national motto is Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, or Unity From Diversity, is quite appropriate.

One of the primary factors in choosing Asia, and specifically Indonesia, was the economy.  Indonesia has a predominantly reflexive economy, and by that I mean that it produces most of what it consumes.  It is rich in raw materials and energy sources, both renewable and not.  It has a year-round growing season and is a net exporter of food, with very rich volcanic soil.  The only real limitation to food production is a very dense population and strict limits on arable land.  However, it has vast seafood options and recent years have seen better regulation and enforcement of commercial fishing.

Indonesia also has a strong manufacturing base and solid protectionist laws to maintain it.  The dominant industry is textile/apparel, with shoes and clothing forming a significant part of the local economy.  There is also a strong mining industry, which produces a great number of precious metals, rare earths and industrial metals, as well as coal.  Agriculture is a major part of the national economy, with commericial farming actually a small part of it.  Most are privately owned and operated.

In a severe global economic downturn, Indonesia is relatively insulated by these factors.  Though the events of 2008 had a marked impact here, it was not nearly as severe as other regions because of the strong internal focus of the economy.  As a consequence, the country has attracted large amounts of foreign investment in the past couple of years, leading to a forecasted 7% growth this year alone.

The final consideration was location.  Being a traveler, I wanted to be in a position to have quick access to the most number of travel destinations.  Living in Jakarta puts me roughly in the center of Southeast Asia, India and Australia.  I can be in most any part of Asia in less than five hours, with the vast majority less than three.  Airfares here are relatively cheap, though the taxes can be pretty stiff.  However, $100 will get me a round-trip ticket to roughly eight or nine other countries.  The opportunities to learn about ancient cultures and exotic lands and peoples is virtually boundless.  This is outside of the many things to see and do inside of Indonesia.  There are world-class reefs, nearly deserted islands, boating, and of course, Bali, all within a couple of hours travel time.  Round-trip air tickets within the country can be as low as $10.  There's also an extensive train and ferry network, allowing more leisurely and cheap trips to a great many places.

I have not regretted for a moment my decision to move here, and I have thrived besides.  I found a beautiful and gentle woman for my wife, unlike anyone I every met in the western world.  None of this is to say that it is easy to radically change your life.  The first couple of years were quite chaotic, but once the routine is established and you begin to blend in (such as I can here), things become a great deal easier.  It's by no means paradise, but I don't worry about secret police busting down my door and spraying everyone inside with bullets, either.  There is a great deal of freedom here that has been lost in the US.  It could all change tomorrow, but that's true anywhere...especially at home.

All it takes is a sense of adventure and the realization that, just because you are born somewhere, doesn't make it the best place on Earth, only the most familiar.  But like my grandfather alwasy told me, people are only strangers until you meet them.

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