PART III: Views of expats who chose to stay on throughout the pandemic…

(Photo/illustration by Alexey Hulsov via Pixabay)

IO – Many embassies in Jakarta have advised even instructed their citizens to leave Indonesia for fear of a worsening corona virus crisis here. Nevertheless, many expatriates have insisted on facing both the medical as well as the economic crisis together with Indonesians. One embassy is reported to have even told its citizens that Indonesia’s medical facilities are very limited and staying on during the crisis would be unfair to Indonesians for if they ended up in hospital they would be straining Indonesian medical facilities even more. On the other hand very few expatriates will probably catch the virus and even less will end up in hospital partly because many of them have already decided that the hospitals would not be able to help them anyway and they would prefer to try to recover or die at home. Many areas in Indonesia are experiencing economic hardship especially places that depended on tourism for their livelihood for nearly all tourists have left. The remaining expats are usually an asset to the the local economy not only through the food they buy and the rent and wages that that they pay but also because most are trying to help the community they live in by deliberately buying art objects or garments or sending small sums of money to people now out of work such as drivers, masseuses and hairdressers. Here are a few more stories of those who chose to stay behind: 

Sam Farmer on his beloved motor-cycle. (Photo courtesy of Sam Farmer)

Sam Farmer is a 46 year old New Zealander who has been a journalist for nearly 20 years. “It’s the only thing I’m good at,” he says self-deprecatingly. 

In fact he was good at maths and graduated with a degree in maths but he was never passionate about maths. Sam had however always enjoyed writing and even wrote two novels although he did not think them very good. So, he took a course in journalism to improve his skills as an author and found himself falling in love with journalism. 

In Christchurch Sam made friends with Indonesians who later moved back to Jakarta and in 2006 when he was on a holiday backpacking through Southeast Asia they invited him to come visit. He hesitated as he had not heard much good about Jakarta but his friends told him to come anyway and they would take him to visit family in Sumatra. So, he went to Sumatra, saw a bit of Jakarta and then went to Bali. Sam commented, “I liked everything: the hot weather, the spicy food, the friendly people, and – apart from the rubbish – Indonesia is so beautiful.” 

So, for 15 years Sam kept returning for work, for friends, for holidays, for a wedding. He really did not need much of an excuse. He says he came whenever he could. “In New Zealand there’s the long winter. The food is good quality but it’s the food I grew up with. Indonesian food is so much more interesting. Also for better or for worse in Indonesian society people are not left alone. Where I come from you can walk around the city all day and no one will say hello to you. The more you come, the more you love it. There is just so much to see in Indonesia. Finally, I thought, ‘Why keep going back and forth when I can just stay. I love it.’” 

Sam Farmer enjoying the view. (Photo courtesy of Sam Farmer)

He had been living 14 months full time in Indonesia when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. The New Zealand embassy encouraged him to leave as Indonesia was ill-prepared to deal with the COVID 19 pandemic. Sam’s greatest fear is that although he is not in a high risk group should he contract the virus and need a respirator there would not be any available and he would die alone. No one would be able to help him. “They won’t have respirators for anyone. Most will die,” Sam remarked quietly. “All my friends have left. I know 4 or 5 Indonesians who would come but I might infect them and they have parents and children and they could not save me anyway – so I would not call them.” 

He is alone and when he made the decision to stay he expected the worst. Sam thinks the government policy is herd immunity which would mean that in a worst case scenario up to 10 percent of the Indonesian population could die as hospitals would not be able to cope. Deaths would be in the tens of millions. It would be hell. So, why is he staying? 

“I am recording history. I have a purpose for being here. Future generations will make films and discuss this pandemic in schools and academic papers for centuries. By recording what is happening after 20 years of journalism I am finally doing something which is essential. I am not religious but I believe I am supposed to be here… doing this. It’s also a way of thanking the people of Indonesia for making me welcome and being so generous and kind. It would be easier and safer for me to go home and some may consider me a bule but I have lived here and worked here and I am still here… I would rather be with Indonesia…” 

David Parry meanwhile has a very different view. He is an Englishman with a very long career in Indonesia. His background is geography and by training he is a soil scientist. His doctorate was in the use and interpretation of satellite imagery in the mapping of soil, land use, geology, forestry, hydrology, drainage patterns etc. This was in the 1970s when satellites were first launched.

David Parry as a young man on the ridge between the Lasolo – Lalindu Rivers valleys in southeast Sulawesi with his counterpart, Ben. (Photo courtesy of David Parry)

In December 1969 David first came to Indonesia with a British aid project to rehabilitate the irrigation schemes of the Kali Progo area in Jogjakarta for 9 months. After that he worked for the FAO, the World Bank and later the Asian Development Bank in Africa, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India and then in 1980 he returned to Indonesia where he was based in Jakarta. In 1981 he married an Indonesian lady, his beloved, Sonja. They have no children but he says they make up for it by having lots of cats and dogs. 

At first David worked as advisor to the Ministry of Public Works with regard to irrigation projects and infrastructure. He also advised the Ministry of Agriculture and Plantationsabout soil science. In 1989 David became the director of Mott Macdonald and involved in irrigation, sanitation, water supply and toll road projects. He finally retired in 2009 and now works as a consultant. Since 2013 he also works for PT Nusantara Infrastructure. David was also an avid collector of antique Indonesian maps and wrote a book entitled The Cartography of the East Indian Islands of which he is justly proud. 

David and Sonja happened to be in Australia for medical reasons and were intending to return with Singapore Airlines on the 21st of March but the flight was postponed and then Changgi Airport was closed even for transit flights. David immediately called Garuda which had him on a flight home the next morning. They arrived on the 25th of March and had to quarantine themselves for two weeks. 

Sonja and David Parry in Nepal. (Photo courtesy of David Parry)

Why did they go to all that trouble to return? “It’s easy to answer. This is our home. We just wanted to be with our family and looking after our staff for whom we are responsible and our dogs and cats – and if things go pear shape then we’d rather be here,” explained David. “Also, I’ve been looking at what’s going on in Indonesia and I think it will cope because it has assets that other countries don’t. Firstly, it has a very strong administrative and social system from the president to the RT which helps instructions filter down to individual households. Here the RT and RW are making sure that everyone is following instructions regarding distancing, face masks, hand washing, checking temperatures. Added to that, Indonesia has a massive police force of 500,000 helped by private and government security forces and traffic control, babingsa etc. I cannot think of any other country with this strong an administration and social structure backed by an army of civil servants and police. 

There is also some evidence that a hot and humid climate while not killing the virus, weakens it. So, I suspect it will not be quite so virulent here. Then again Indonesia is an archipelago so distancing by geography should be easier. 52% of Indonesian are under 30 years of age which makes them stronger against the virus. Indonesian society is a collective society where community is more important and finally it is a very innovative society with scientists and a massed skilled workforce in factories. I’ve witnessed how Indonesia has been developing through the years and I like it, particularly its democracy. It has been managing well and one of its pillars is a free press that is responsible and not intimidated by the government. Indonesia has a good president, a man of the people who is humble. We are lucky to have him.” 

David who is 78 years old says, “There must be some higher being, an overseer of all this and perhaps it has decided that the world should stop and reassess. We should be sensible but not over react. Fear is a great killer and it can do terrible things to people’s psyches…” 

Rita Srivastav at home in Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Rita Srivastav)

Rita Srivastav is a convent raised lady from the home town of Nobel laureate Rabindanath Tagore, Kolkata. She studied chemistry and then became a tea taster – one of the first women tea tasters in India. Rita worked for the Goodricke Group which owned tea plantations in some of the most beautiful parts of India, the hill districts of Assam, Darjeeling and North Bengal. Her task was to regulate the quality of tea being produced by everyday tasting about 400 cups of tea. How does a person sleep after that one may well ask? Actually, tea tasters only take a sip from each cup, roll it around in the mouth and then spit it out; much like wine tasting, in fact. 

Until today her favourite tea is First Flush Darjeeling straight from the gardens. No blending! Her profession was surely one of the most exotic in the world. She recalls how one evening she was sleeping at the manager’s house of one of Goodricke’s tea plantations when she woke in the middle of the night and looked out of the window to find a leopard sitting on the lawn outside gazing back at her. 

One small reason Rita Srivastav wants to be in Indonesia is her darling cat Coco. (Photo courtesy of Rita Srivastav)

After Rita married she had to give up her profession as they frequently moved. Later she set up a leather manufacturing business in New Delhi which was a big jump from tea tasting. When pagers and cell phones began to hit the market in the US Rita produced leather pouches for them which became a big business. Then her husband received a job offer in Indonesia which was too good to turn down and she did not want to separate her family, so Rita moved to Jakarta. “Within one week I fell absolutely and totally in love with Jakarta. I loved the people, the houses, the warm climate and the malls,” Rita stresses and when asked about its downside she responded, “I come from India so traffic and pollution is no big deal for us! We also have the same family networks, warmth towards guests and general friendliness. Indonesian food has a lot of spices so it was not alien to me and we share the Ramayana and Mahabharata.” 

Rita sat at home for two months and crammed to learn Indonesian. She is very fond of the statue of Arjuna’s chariot in Jl Thamrin and the great statue of Hanuman representing flight and the Air Force in Jl Gatot Subroto. “I have never seen a Hanuman statue in India so I found it fascinating to see one in Jakarta.” 

When she and her husband received an email from the Indian Embassy asking them in case chartered flights were available to evacuate to India would they be interested they responded no they would not. “I love this place. Even during the Krismon of 1998 the thought did not cross our minds to leave. This is home. I was in India for a wedding and was supposed to return at the end of March but the Indian government announced a complete lockdown as of March 28th. So, on the 21st I took the last, Singapore Airlines flight back to Jakarta and now at home I feel happy. I am cooking, sewing, learning touch typing and making my own hand and spray sanitizers from natural products for family and friends. I feel bad for people working at the grocery shops. They are as exposed as doctors and nurses. The grocery shops need to regulate how many people go in and out. I think things will get worse before getting better. Perhaps in 6 months. Then I believe we as individuals and society as a whole will work out a better, cleaner, greener and more compassionate way of life.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read:
Part I :
Part II :
Part IV :