Through What Lens?
“The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't.”
-David Foster Wallace
We started talking about Indonesia in June. “No way man, I know a guy who went there last year. It was so hot that he played 5 games then retired. He was on a flight out of there the next day.” Sami and I were in Hong Kong, which just happened to be the hottest place I had ever played. Was I really ready to repeat this experience so soon? I was sweating through all the clothes I brought every two days. We brought up more legitimate concerns. How safe is it? Is there a terrorist threat to foreigners? How bad is the pollution? What about earth quakes and tsunamis? Do they have laundry machines there?
A week later we bought our tickets. Based on the schedule that month, we decided it was our best choice. It wasn’t a resounding yes, but we knew we could take care of each other. The planning was meticulous- entry requirements, hotel bookings, extra food packed, emergency medicine/phone numbers. I read and reread the state department warnings:
"Credit card fraud and theft is a serious and growing problem in Indonesia… 'Drink-spiking' and drink poisoning incidents are increasing…Indonesian police have noted an increase in burglaries and armed robberies in Jakarta… The general level of sanitation and health care in Indonesia is far below U.S. standards…There is no reliable emergency ambulance service in Indonesia… Community sanitation and public health programs are inadequate…. Tap water is not potable… Air, ferry, and road accidents that result in fatalities, injuries, and significant damage are common… Indonesian air carriers continue to experience air incidents and accidents."
The list goes on. Like, these are seriously just highlights. Who would even think of traveling here after reading that?
Jakarta. It was soon very clear the rules of the road were more like suggestions, and after a few other taxi rides we concluded there may actually be no rules at all. I wondered if the motorbike helmets were a good idea for car passengers too. Our airport taxi arrived at our hotel, but not before a routine security check at the hotel gate- taxi badge verified, license plate number recorded, trunk searched. Each day we would walk to the club, keeping in the mind the possibility of petty crime (or major crime) and walking through a haze of pollution (some of the worst in the world). We ate every meal in the hotel, not willing to risk food poisoning from some poor quality restaurant. We brushed our teeth with bottled water. I made sure to shower without letting any water run down my face. Each morning I was awoken by the first of five daily Muslim prayer calls, which unfortunately took place around 4am. It was as if someone with a boombox over his shoulder decided to park himself in the lobby. I felt really far from home.
The second tournament was on another island (one of 10,000 in Indonesia). We flew from Jakarta and spent one week in Makassar, a city known oddly for both fresh fish and particularly bad air pollution. I think someone said it used to be an old pirate hangout. We had left Jakarta, knowing that we would return after Makassar for the 3rd and final week of our trip.
What I found was not the same Jakarta as the week before. We overlooked restaurants with clean, open kitchens, and hip American city vibes. We were still on guard as we walked to the tennis club, but we stopped passing judgment on every person we walked by. The hotel employees were always greeting us and asking how the tournament was going. Like, all the time. And genuinely. I came away thinking Indonesian people are some of the nicest people in the world. During one practice I heard Usher blasting at a public track in between the daily prayer calls. We saw a woman in a bikini posing at the pool with her friend, dressed in a full cover Muslim bathing suit. What we saw in that final week was a city with parts in serious poverty; still, many people were smiling. A place with some traditional Islamic customs but also tolerant of other beliefs.
The lens through which I saw Indonesia the first week was stained by my assumptions. I couldn’t truly see what was in front of me, as my head was filled with news stories and state department warnings. Having left and come back, the mental baggage started to fade. While it is essential to be both informed and self aware when traveling to a foreign place, I couldn’t fully experience the city at first because I had already decided how the experience was going to be. In “This is Water”, David Foster Wallace talks about the ability to choose how you see the boring and mundane experiences accompanying our normal day to day routines. But I think the same holds true whether the experience is routine or fantastic. So what judgments have you made about something that might not be true? Through what lens are you looking?