Alora.We’ve gone through the whole reel now really. Delhi was the First Love, Ankara the Big Love, Bangkok the Convenient Rebound and Jakarta was pretty much The One You Marry. Many say this is what happens in the trajectory of those who sailed around the world only to realize that her heart lay deep with a people she shared a common language, heritage, culture and belief system with. Because all of these things matter, don’t they? We gravitate towards the people we feel might understand and accept us the most. This has got to be a socio-anthropological truth, hasn’t it? Well in my personal life it hasn’t proven true but in the context of the countries I’ve lived in, the idea resonated with me.
Although less developed and ambitious than Bangkok, there was immediately something raw about the city of Jakarta which I felt not just a strong affiliation with but seemed like it was already apart of my bones for a long time. Language is everything I suppose. Having access to a population’s thoughts, feelings, expressions, aspirations, resistance… is surely a significant reason why I felt so at one with her. It was like living in my cousin’s hometown, and no longer a stranger in a foreign city. In a way I was of course, as the country is very much my mother’s lineage. And so there were many aspects of their national traits I felt I also grew up with in the house and amongst our extended family.
I love the poetic eloquence of the people. It is thoroughly common for a taxi driver or a hotel doorman to be able to speak elegantly of politics. When asking a taxi driver of his opinion regarding President Jokowi, who was a little less than one year in office by then, his response was ‘Rasanya, dia telah menjadi seorang pejuang yang kami impikan’meaning ‘We feel he has become the fighter that we dreamt of’. When commenting to a hotel doorman that there were too many demonstrations in Jakarta he responded ‘Tetapi bukankah demonstrasi itu bunga demokrasi?’meaning ‘But aren’t demonstrations the flowers of democracy?’. It’s possible that I’ve not had the benefit of conversing with taxi drivers and hotel doormans so freely in other countries because I didn’t understand the language but quite frankly I don’t remember anyone ever articulating their feelings about a President and demonstrations in such a way taxi driver or not and in a language I understood or not.
In the office, I was impressed by local colleague’s capacity to speak assertively but respectfully. There was a certain grace in their strength of opinion, the ability to push the envelope without crossing the line. There was also a sincere equality amongst the people – from the highest levels of management right to the new group of interns – everyone frequently sat together to share ideas professionally and personally on meeting objectives and each felt that they were in a safe space to express their dissatisfaction and propose a solution. This is also credit to the management styles of international staff of course, but by and large it is also the open, roll-up-your-sleeves and let’s get to the ground attitudes of the national staff that gave life to good management. And when the Rohingya boat arrivals came in droves, the feedback coming from both the local population and the local government in receiving, managing and protecting the influx was pretty amazing. Colleagues worked flat out on mission after mission, and did so with their characteristic gusto and joy. It was quite possible the most generous response in the region. I sometimes also feel that in this part of the world, the less you have the more you give to others with less than you, and this is the type of character trait I want to keep reaching for in my personal life.
One of my memories was of that one Ramadhan I experienced at the office. There was an iftar dinner to celebrate the security guards and the cleaners who worked hard at the office (I have never seen this type of event being held by any other office I worked in where our guards and cleaners were honoured and the gesture itself so impressed me with its thoughtfulness). So many colleagues came to bring food they made from home and people of all faiths came to honour the principles of Ramadhan. A good friend and colleague who coordinated the evening, began the evening with a speech about what a beautiful and blessed month it was, how grateful we were to the hardwork and service by all the staff. She then asked for a minute of silence to reflect or pray for the people in the world who couldn’t experience a Ramadhan as bountiful as this and as we fell into that minute of silence the call to prayer from a neighbourhood mosque came through. And it is just one of those one minute in your life moments that just leaves an indelible footprint in the valves of your heart. That we were all together, people of all faiths and backgrounds, united in expressing our gratitude to the backbone of an operation who are often overlooked, in a month that many spent in pursuit of spiritual elevation, and just to be truly grateful that we were able to enjoy so much love, companionship, goodwill and delicious food with each other when so many at that particular hour were deprived of even one iota of this. That evening for me was a reminder of the Rumi mantra – ‘Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life’.
Owing to the sheer mass of population (most populated in the region at 237 million) there is also less political regulation on the people’s thought and belief system. I noticed this in India too. It is an uphill struggle to control the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions unique identities, the better focus is to first manage their stomachs and roofs, and let that be their inspiration. I find freedom in this – as the years passed I started to understand that for me, a country that tried to control my thoughts, feelings and ideas was far more suffocating than one which didn’t have the best economic infrastructure.
In addition to all of these impressive discoveries about their generosity and political freedoms, I found the local people full of joi de vivre. There was this irresistible urge to always find laughter in any given situation. At the hotel where I stayed (for eight months), at markets where we shopped, conversations with taxi drivers and at the office of course, I remembered often wearing a Joker like beam or being in peals of giggles with others about something or the other. When we had an office retreat, one of my colleagues who had clocked up probably up to 10 duty stations by then remarked just how he has never had this much fun at work in any other deployment before and that was mainly attributed to the beautiful people of the country and I could not agree more.
I felt it was a place where I was free to be who I was, and a country whose soul I could understand and who could also access mine. Eventually of course, I had to leave and Jakarta was in fact one of my shortest stints but surely one of my sweetest. It didn’t squeeze my heart into a re-awakening, or intoxicate my intellectual and spiritual curiosities, but it embraced my heart, body and soul like a warm blanket. And indeed yes, I would agree that my access to the language and culture counted for a big part of my affection for the people but I guess this is also part of the reason why you end up with The One You Marry. You find in someone a place where you do not have to explain or justify who you are too much. You pretty much say ‘Understood, my love. Say no more’.