My Indonesia-Australia relationship


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Tomorrow night, screamy ranty Q&A will be broadcast live from Jakarta, though it will probably be more polite than usual and hopefully a bit less rage-inducing.

I’m sure the topics will revolve around the Indonesia-Australia relationship. According to Australia at the moment, this relationship is largely about ‘boat people’.

My Indonesia-Australia relationship is a bit different though.

I landed in Jakarta in 2008, aged 23, having fluked a job on an international daily newspaper that was starting up, straight out of the locals in Sydney and still feeling like the small town kid I was.

I knew nothing at all about Indonesia, despite having gone to school and university in Australia, studying hard, and widely consuming the mainstream media.

It’s a constant puzzlement to me that I had somehow failed to learn anything about the 240 million people living on our doorstep until I just rocked up there and started subbing copy.

My Indonesia-Australia relationship is great colleagues and great friends. Learning Bahasa Indonesia from billboards and taxi drivers in Jakarta’s heaving standstills. Riding speeding motorcycle taxis through backstreets bare legged in the night after drinking Bintangs in some hip bar with some hip creative types, all asymmetrical hair and American-accented English. It’s stone cold sober karaoke with colleagues where I’ve never laughed so hard.

My Indonesia-Australia relationship is riding through the Acehnese countryside with two strangers I met at a noodle stand who decided they wanted me to see the sapphire blue sea. Lunch with former rebel leaders with scratched faces from the tsunami and people telling me about their children that were snatched away by the waves.

It’s floating over coral on my own in some far flung island, after wandering down some dirt track and jumping off a rickety pier with a snorkel and no idea where I had even ended up. Sitting at temples in mist-topped hills in Central Java after hailing down a motorcycle taxi and asking them to take me somewhere beautiful. Driving six hours from Jakarta in the night to see the sunrise over the Indian Ocean, morning prayers from the mosques crashing into each other across the bay.

Hanging out with giggling teenagers on the beach in Padang being schooled on what music was cool.

Huddling in a stranger’s doorway in the Sumatran countryside for an hour drinking tea because I hadn’t made it back to town before the monsoon rains.

It’s being stuck in the crowded airport at Yogya with a family from Banjarmasin who had finally saved up enough money to take their first holiday ever, patiently swapping stories about the beauty of Borobudur and fielding questions on home while waiting for our delayed planes.

It’s wandering the dark dusty streets of Tuk-Tuk on Lake Toba while pretty boys strum their acoustic guitars under porch lights.

Volcanic lakes, sandy calderas and smoky sate on the street.

It’s Blackberry phones and Facebook, Instagrammed dinners, Islam and indie boutiques.

Kampung fireworks and cocktail bars.

Is it a perfect place? No, not by a long shot. Am I romanticising? Probably.

Do I feel conflicted about things, like Timor-Leste and West Papua, like corruption and intolerance? Of course.

But it’s certainly not ‘scary’, like people would ask me when I moved home. And most of my problems lie with those in power, not the people in the street.

My Indonesia-Australia relationship redefined my career goals. Redefined my interests. Redefined my understanding of my place, and Australia’s place, in the region and the world.

It made me more curious. It made me more confident. It even made me ever so slightly calmer.

It made me crave complexity. To dig behind culture, contested histories and everything you see on TV.

So I guess it’s about more than just ‘boat people’ to me.

9 Responses to " My Indonesia-Australia relationship "

  1. BRB says:

    I love this post, bravo, I had missed your writings on this blog.

  2. Eilish says:


  3. Mel H says:

    Beautiful, Ash xx

  4. Eric de H says:

    Great story,
    Now you can share your stories with others in the Australia Indonesia Association.

  5. With a past that includes disagreement over East Timor and the ongoing debate over issues such as asylum seekers and beef exports, the relationship remains complex.

  6. Emily says:

    Fantastic! I could really relate to your stories of Indonesia and picture the scenes you described. A great message. Well said!

  7. Hi,

    Very interesting post mate, thanks for sharing! will definitely get back to Indonesia one day.

  8. You have awesome experiences in Indonesia. Great post and thanks for sharing with us.

  9. Slamet says:

    Hi Betty,

    Nice post. You look travel a lot of places in Indonesia, much more than me as Indonesian. Hahahaha…

    I like your blog. 🙂