Glitz, Wilderness, and Dirty Hands: Indonesia's Top Three Contradictions

By: Katherine

Indonesia is a unique country of contradictions and contrasts — a place with extremes and seemingly no middle ground. Some clashes result from a mix of cultures trying to negotiate as one nation others from endemic corruption and poor policy. Though examples of these dichotomies seem endless, three stand out as the most overarching or emblematic. In my view, these are Indonesia’s top three contradictions:

1. Wealth vs poverty:

Outside of a 39-story high-rise complex with shiny glass windows reflecting its Olympic swimming pool, a man siphons gasoline into 1-liter Coke bottles, which he sells to motorcyclists willing to risk a dirty tank. Earning pennies on the liter, he is still better off than his neighbor, who stoops down to collect trash. The trash-picker throws a plastic wrapper into his makeshift cart. He picks up anything of value, mostly plastic and cardboard, sorts it and sells it; he lives on less than 1 dollar a day, along with about 40 million other Indonesians.

Indonesia is often touted as an early achiever of Millennium Development Goal No. 1 — Reducing poverty — and the country is known for is known for a steadily rising GDP. Now only 16 percent of Indonesians live on less than $1.25 a day, but they have not come far. The hidden truth is that 43 percent live on less than $2 a day. The gap between rich and poor is growing Indonesia’s Gini Index (a widely used measure of inequality) is growing.

The disparity between wealth and poverty leads in turn to other shocking contrasts. Indonesia’s wealthiest rank among the world’s billionaires — they own Ferraris and yachts; they live in penthouses or elegant mansions; they dine at sky-view restaurants, like the wealthy of any other country. Their counterparts live in cardboard shacks that flood when it rains, and survive almost exclusively on rice. While Indonesia’s wealthy are beginning to suffer from obesity, nearly 8 million children in the country are stunted (a condition caused by severe nutrition deficiencies in the early months of life). The wealth/poverty gap is a stunning contrast that runs through all aspects of life in Indonesia.

2. Crowded streets vs. quiet wilderness:

The density of Indonesia's biggest cities and most populous island presents a stark contrast to the nearly uninhabited landscapes found throughout the rest of the country.

Though the island of Java accounts for only 7 percent of Indonesia’s land mass, it holds more than 60 percent of the country’s population: With 141 million people alone, Java is the most populous island on earth. In terms of density, among similar islands, it is outranked only by one, Salsette, in India — home to Mumbai. Most of Java’s density is in Jakarta, the world’s second-most populous urban area and one of the world’s few “mega-cities,” with more than 28 million people.

In contrast, 11,500 of Indonesia’s 17,500 islands are completely uninhabited. Papua province in the east has a population density of 23 people per square mile (that’s slightly lower than Nebraska), in contrast to Jakarta’s 40,000 people per square mile. Indonesia boasts the world’s third-largest expanse of rainforest, which is inhabited sparsely by native tribes. (Indonesia’s non-human biodiversity is rich, with 12 percent of known mammal species and 17 percent of all known bird species.) In fact, new species are discovered in Indonesia’s wilderness frequently. 

Urban density leads to Jakarta’s most notable feature: its traffic. It is difficult for most foreigners to fathom how many vehicles clog Jakarta’s roads. The city’s traffic jams rank among the worst in the world, along with Mumbai and Mexico City. But what is more amazing is that not far away in rural villages across the archipelago, there are no roads and no cars; people travel by foot. According to the World Bank, 6 million Indonesians lack any reliable connection to the motorized transport network.

3. Wash your feet, but not your hands:

Hand hygiene is very poor here. Bruno and I have both noticed that few Indonesians wash their hands in public restrooms, but the statistics are astounding. According to USAID, 14 percent of Indonesians wash their hands with soap before eating; 11.7 percent do so after defecating; only 7 percent do before feeding a child. This leads to notable public health problems, so much so that hand-washing campaigns are regular activities for the UN, NGOs and government programs. But no one needs to persuade Indonesians to wash their feet: Most do so several times a day. (They are so conscientious that public sinks often need to advertise that washing feet is not allowed.) Washing one’s feet is common practice in the Islamic tradition before praying, as part of wudu (the head, arms and ears are also rinsed) but no soap is used. Foot washing is also part of the Javanese wedding tradition — a bride washes her groom’s feet as part of the ceremony. 

Of course washing feet but not hands is part of the clash of cultures over decades in this archipelago, and it is emblematic of a culture that is rich in heritage but sometimes misses the point. Another good example of this phenomenon is sexual health. Conservative religious and social values prohibit public displays of affection. Many women cover their heads in the Muslim tradition. Holding hands or kissing in public is not done. On Sulawesi island, women are even forbidden to ride on motorcycles with any man who is not their husband or father (creating a transport challenge in a land of motorcycle taxis). However, real sexual activities are simply hidden. Indonesia is one of only nine countries in the world where HIV rates are rising — from 7,195 cases in 2006 to 76,879 by 2011, according to the UN. Prostitution is surprisingly common and condom use is limited — not least because conservatives fear that condoms will encourage promiscuity. Again, tradition is clashing with modern reality and scientific evidence.

Indonesia’s contradictions are of course interwoven; poor hygiene is often a feature of poverty, and density and sexual conduct are often linked. Still, any visitor willing to scratch the surface, beyond Bali’s beach resorts or Jakarta’s shiny malls, will be surprised by the contrasts that they find.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingKatherine is an American expat living in Indonesia. Blog description: We are two Americans who started out our married life in Ecuador. Less than a year later, we moved to Indonesia. This blog is just about what it's like.
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