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 didnâ€™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. Itâ€™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 â€œHati Hati, Ada Proyekâ€ (Be Careful, Roadworks Ahead) or â€œAda Upachara Agamaâ€ (Religious Ceremony Taking Place).
While most foreigners would respond to apa kabar? (how are you?) with the pedestrian and mundane â€œbagus,â€ (good), I, on the other hand, could respond with â€œslippery when wet,â€ or â€œawas!â€ (look out!).
How my vocabulary flourished! If someone asked me â€œMau ke mana?â€ (Where are you going?), rather than using the old standby â€œinternet,â€ I could now say with confidence, â€œPotong rambutâ€ (to get a haircut) or â€œGanti oliâ€ (to change the oil).
If someone asked me my hobbies, I could claim â€œcuci motorâ€ (cleaning cars). I could tell them I liked to tinker with cars by throwing out a few mechanical terms in a row: â€œPres ban, benkel, knalpot!â€ So what if it wasnâ€™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, Iâ€™d say, â€œMasakan Padangâ€ (food from Padang) or sometimes â€œWarung Muslimâ€ (Muslim restaurant) or, if it was a special occasion, Iâ€™d show my eagerness to try Balinese food by saying, â€œLawar Bali di jualâ€ (Lawar Bali for sale). And at the end of the meal I would graciously thank my hosts by saying, â€œBersih itu sehatâ€ (clean is healthy).
If an Indonesian asked me, â€œWhere do you stay in Bali?â€ I could respond with â€œDi kontrakanâ€ (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 â€œmau sewa truk?â€ (would you like to rent a truck?) or â€œmobil murah?â€ (how about a cheap car?). Kursus Bhs. Jepang, anyone? (Japanese classes?)
Or if I wanted to turn to more serious conversation, I could ask, â€œMau cari uang? (Want to find some money?) Makro is just 1 km ahead.â€
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 â€œHalo!â€ does wonders. But why stop there? Those traffic lights are a long time changing and youâ€™ve got all that time you could be communicating with a 2-year-old about road signs that he or she cannot yet read. Itâ€™s your duty as an adult to lean over and whisper in her ear something instructive like â€œDilarang membua sampahâ€ (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 â€œanjing gila!â€ (crazy dogs!) and â€œAwas! Bus pariwisata lagiâ€ (another damn tourist bus!).
But thatâ€™s another column.