Indonesian Sign Language

By Amy Chavez
For The Bali Times

I spent my first three years in Bali on the back of a motorbike with my Indonesian boyfriend driving. As long as I had an Indonesian boyfriend, there was no need for me to drive, because we went everywhere together and an Indonesian man would never let a woman drive him around on a motorbike. No, no, this is just not done in Indonesia. The man always drives.
I spent so much time back there that it was becoming like a second home and I considered installing some kitchen cabinets. Or at least one of those display cases the bread vendor uses to sell bread from his motorbike. With one of those, I could just reach back and grab a danish when I got hungry. I also considered installing a shower curtain, to take advantage of the rainy-season squalls that everybody invariably gets caught in now and then. Maybe some drapes, too, for romantic nighttime drives along the beach.
But in the end, I didn’t do any of that. Instead, I figured it was enough to just lay down a welcome mat next to where we parked the bike overnight so that I could clean my feet every time I stepped into and out of my second home.
I learned most of my Indonesian on the back of a motorbike. It’s absolutely the most exciting place to study a language. But result was that my Indonesian was, quite literally, street Indonesian. A form of sign language, so to speak. I was soon fluent in rattling off anything that would normally appear on a road sign, such as “Hati Hati, Ada Proyek” (Be Careful, Roadworks Ahead) or “Ada Upachara Agama” (Religious Ceremony Taking Place).
While most foreigners would respond to apa kabar? (how are you?) with the pedestrian and mundane “bagus,” (good), I, on the other hand, could respond with “slippery when wet,” or “awas!” (look out!).
How my vocabulary flourished! If someone asked me “Mau ke mana?” (Where are you going?), rather than using the old standby “internet,” I could now say with confidence, “Potong rambut” (to get a haircut) or “Ganti oli” (to change the oil).
If someone asked me my hobbies, I could claim “cuci motor” (cleaning cars). I could tell them I liked to tinker with cars by throwing out a few mechanical terms in a row: “Pres ban, benkel, knalpot!” So what if it wasn’t true? I could speak Indonesian. After all, communication is the first step to fluency, right?
If a Balinese offered me something to eat while I was visiting his house, I’d say, “Masakan Padang” (food from Padang) or sometimes “Warung Muslim” (Muslim restaurant) or, if it was a special occasion, I’d show my eagerness to try Balinese food by saying, “Lawar Bali di jual” (Lawar Bali for sale). And at the end of the meal I would graciously thank my hosts by saying, “Bersih itu sehat” (clean is healthy).
If an Indonesian asked me, “Where do you stay in Bali?” I could respond with “Di kontrakan” (house for rent).
I also found that with my new road-sign vocabulary, it was much easier to strike up conversations with the locals. I could just throw out certain phrases to start communications, such as “mau sewa truk?” (would you like to rent a truck?) or “mobil murah?” (how about a cheap car?). Kursus Bhs. Jepang, anyone? (Japanese classes?)
Or if I wanted to turn to more serious conversation, I could ask, “Mau cari uang? (Want to find some money?) Makro is just 1 km ahead.”
I found the long wait at the traffic lights at Simpang Siur (the big roundabout in Kuta) a particularly convenient place to practice my newly acquired Indonesian phrases. And since all roads in Kuta eventually lead to Simpang Siur, I had opportunities daily to hob-nob with the locals.
Such experience has taught me that a family on a motorbike is always keen to communicate with a foreigner, especially if you make eye contact or say hello to the youngest child on board. A wave of the hand and “Halo!” does wonders. But why stop there? Those traffic lights are a long time changing and you’ve got all that time you could be communicating with a 2-year-old about road signs that he or she cannot yet read. It’s your duty as an adult to lean over and whisper in her ear something instructive like “Dilarang membua sampah” (No littering).
And I had the comfort of knowing that if I ended up mistakenly insulting someone, I could disappear in the whirlpool of traffic in the roundabout. A few laps around the statue and no one would know where I had spun off to.
Years later, when I gave up the Indonesian boyfriend and started riding my own motorbike, I found I missed that time in the back, where I could just observe and use the backseat as my Indonesian classroom. My benign road-sign vocabulary has now been replaced by more hostile, verbal interjections such as “anjing gila!” (crazy dogs!) and “Awas! Bus pariwisata lagi” (another damn tourist bus!).
But that’s another column.

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