Monday, October 01, 2012

Blogging from Indonesia: Politeness and motorcycles in abundance in Yogyakarta

by Salman Hameed

For the past two years I have had a chance to visit and conduct interviews with physicians and medical students in several Muslim-majority countries. In most cases, this was my first visit to that country. And it has been enjoyable to note down the first impressions.

So here we go for Yogyakarta (or Yogya or Jogja):  The city is small, but beautiful. The traffic reminds me of Rawalpindi - but with less pedestrians and somewhat inexplicably, with less chaos. People don't follow traffic lanes and get into traffic lanes more or less by forcing a game of chicken, and yet, there isn't that much honking or shouting or cursing. Now, this may be a total fluke of the past two days, but I have to pay close attention to figure out what is really going on.

And so if you are keeping scores, here is a ranking of traffic in 5 survey cities that I visited for this project. From worst to best:

5. Cairo (I think, I still have nightmares from that - and I grew up in Karachi!)
4. Karachi (didn't go to Lahore for this trip...but Karachi definitely loses out to Cairo)
3. Yogya (with an asterisk, as this is much smaller than all other cities in the sample. Jakarta would be a better comparison, but I haven't been there)
2/3. Istanbul (I know this will be disputed - but I think while there was congestion, there was a reasonable order most of the time)
1. Kuala Lumpur (I think there is no competition on this one...)

Now, that I have alienated people from all these cities for various reasons, I wanted to mention two other things that struck me in Yogya: First, I have experienced an across the board politeness here. From the airport to the taxis to shopkeepers, to the people I have encountered for the interviews. Now, of course, I imagine that this is certainly not true for everyone in Yogya - but this is one of the first striking impressions for me. It is certainly nice to be in a place where people smile when they see an outsider.

Second, there are a lot of motorcycles. A lot. And everyone wears an helmet. Here is a picture of street right across from my hotel, and you can see a whole row of motorcycles with helmets on top.

This sight is not uncommon. Parking lots are full of motorcycles as well. Of course, my first question was: don't people steal the helmets? Well, apparently they do, but it is not that big of a problem. By the way, you can also see my post from two years ago: Malaysia - Motorcycle helmets, modernity, and contradictions.

More from Yogya coming up in the coming days. But here is a kind of an evolution reference (center) in an ad at a cell phone company:

And here is one of our human ancestors in front of the anthropology department at Gadjah Mada University:


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