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An Indonesian Affair

Wedding photo taken in photographic studio, Semarang, Indonesia (That's Jennifer on the right).

Wedding photo taken in photographic studio, Semarang, Indonesia (That's Jennifer on the right).

Wedding photo taken in photographic studio, Semarang, Indonesia (That's Jennifer on the right). Indonesian children on a school bus in central Java. Locals celebrating a child's circumcision day. Indonesian school kids on their way home from school in Jakarta.

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  • Image © 2001 Semarang Studios

Step off the plane at Jakarta Airport, Indonesia, and you can be forgiven if you thought something was on - there are people everywhere. But no, this is just another day in Jakarta. Boasting a population of 180 million, Jakarta is the capital of Java, the central island of Indonesia. Most of the people here are Indonesian, with about 5% of the population being Indo-Chinese and the only Westerner being the one looking back at me in the mirror every morning. Jakarta is a third-world country; most of the Indonesians are either poor or very poor, comparing wildly with the opulent Indo-Chinese. There is no middle-class here. Picture people crammed shoulder to cheek on the side of the road begging as a sleek, straight-off-the-factory-floor Mercedes Benz purrs by and you'll begin to understand how surreal Jakarta can be. But hey, who was I to complain? I was the one in the Mercedes.

I was here for a wedding. Actually, I was here for two, although the same couple were involved in both. One wedding was to be held in Jakarta, the home of the bride's family; the other in Semarang, an eight-hour drive west of Jakarta and home of the groom's family. The couple were Indo-Chinese. The groom was my soon-to-be brother-in-law, my fiancée's older brother. How does one describe a wedding day in Indonesia? In one word, big. And obscenely expensive. It makes an Italian wedding look like a child's birthday party. At the first wedding, there were 800 people. At the second, 1000. Yes, different people. The cake rose from floor to ceiling. The six bridesmaids were hired. They had an international pop star sing at the reception. Hollywood couldn't have done it better. But again, who was I to complain? It wasn't costing me a dime.

This is a typical day of an Indo-Chinese wedding. Wake up before the birds to unbearable humidity and sausages and fried rice. No Kelloggs here. Get one of the household's drivers to take you to the beauty parlour to have your face numbed with iceblocks (to close the pores) and make-up applied with a spatula. Hair is either very high or very wide. I chose the former and was immediately elevated a metre in height. Get driven back to the house, hop in the Merc and go to the flashiest church in town. Spend 1.5 hours standing, sitting and kneeling during the Catholic mass, then go to the photographic studio. No outdoor shots here: the city doesn't cater for parklands. They need all the space they can get. Next stop is visits to the respective family's ancestral temple, usually within the family home, where photos of the deceased grandparents are worshipped and incense is burned. Extended families meet us here. Each family member must be greeted individually by the bridal couple. I counted up to about 60 relatives, then gave up. Lots of tea is sipped and red envelopes filled with money and jewellery are exchanged.

The bride is beginning to show signs of fatigue and I don't blame her. I admire her stamina, patience and adherence to tradition, and she smiles wanly. The heat is searing through all of us and the elderly are starting to wilt. I'm beginning to understand why the make-up needed to be applied with a spatula. Back in the cool interior of the Merc, we are bustled off to the reception, where every hand must be shook (yes, all 1,000) and every guest must get photographed with the now decidedly listless couple. It's all over in under three hours, and the exhausted newlyweds are shuttled off to spend their wedding night at a luxurious hotel. Consummation that night seems highly unlikely.

One of the things that struck me most about Indonesia was its people's joviality. And I'm talking about the Indonesian people here, not the Indo-Chinese (who, despite also being truly wonderful people, obviously have more cause to be merry). Despite the oppressive heat, the lack of work and the overall squalor, people were always smiling and waving, wanting a photograph, offering hospitality. Coming from a first world country and having the luxury of comparison, I guess I expected people in such apparent poverty to be miserable. Happily, that wasn't the case, and I experienced glimpses of generosity when travelling for several days through the scenic Javanese countryside from one wedding to the next. They allowed me to photograph them at work in the rice paddies, or during festivities. They offered the use of their homes during urgent pit-stops in the middle of nowhere. I was grateful and more than a little humble: there was no way you'd get this kind of hospitality at home, where we have more than these people ever would.

Another thing that struck me was their driving skills. On first glimpse you'd say it was erratic. More than a few would say suicidal. Bumper-to-bumper takes on a whole new meaning here, and jaywalking for either beast or human is at one's own peril. But on closer observation there seems to be a method to the madness. One of their methods is communication via honking. Honk if you're turning left, honk if you're overtaking. Honk if you're getting too close to someone, or they to you. Nobody gets upset about it, it's all part of driving etiquette. Passengers also play a part. They wave people around when overtaking, or stop them when there's no room. It's fascinating. I didn't see one crash.

Sadly, my ten days were over all too soon. The crowds, the heat and the incredible pollution were left behind as my plane banked above it. Da-dah, Indonesia. I know I'll be back in a heartbeat.

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Published on 3/20/01

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