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Indonesia’s culture and climate

As a tropical country, Indonesia is hot and humid.

The coastal and low mountain areas are generally around 28 degrees Celsius while higher in the mountains temperatures are a little cooler at 23 degrees.  Humidity is generally high, around 75% even in the dry season (driest between June and September).

Monsoons generally blow in from November to March.  Your day will be affected by the weather from the outset as rain determines the degree of traffic congestion in cities.  Many Indonesians bathe twice a day to cope with the heat.

Being near the equator, days are a similar length all year round, with sunrise around 6 am and sunset around 6 pm.  Indonesia covers three time zones.  The currency is the Rupiah (Rp), and inflation is likely to increase above the global average in 2019 (3.85% compared to 3.36%). Indonesia is the 16th largest economy in the world.

Indonesia is a predominantly (but not exclusively) Muslim democratic country, which is very tolerant of other religions and outside influences.  Indonesia has six official religions: Islam, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Confucianism. Nearly 90% of the population are Muslim (and nearly all of those Sunni Muslims),s Approximately 10% of the population are Christian with most of the remainder being Hindu or Buddhist.   Culturally, Indonesia has been influenced by Chinese, Arabic, Indian, and European connections.  This is evident in their architecture, music, dance, artwork, and cuisine.

Some parts of Indonesia adhere more strictly to Islamic codes than others.  In Aceh, Sharia law may apply to anyone travelling in or living in Aceh and is enforced by local Sharia police.  This includes laws against homosexuality, alcohol, gambling, and laws imposing standards of dress.

More broadly, however, conservative standards of dress and behaviour apply in many parts of Indonesia.  Many women wear headscarves. It is not appropriate for men and women to touch beyond a handshake in a social setting, while it is common for male friends to walk around holding hands with each other.  There is less personal space than in the West and people may ask seemingly intrusive questions to get to know you.  Privacy is less sacrosanct in Indonesia than in many Western countries. The left hand is unclean in Indonesia as in many Muslim countries, so always hand things to other people using your right hand.

People smoke everywhere all the time.  But drinking is generally frowned upon and you may give offence if you drink at official functions, for instance.  Burping is not considered rude, and people may not try to cover their coughs and sneezes.  It is offensive to display anger or hostility openly, whether by shouting or slamming doors or glowering. Floor seating is traditional at social occasions. Gambling is illegal.  Spectator sports are often associated with illegal gambling, but Indonesians are famous for their badminton.

Jakarta is a vibrant city, in which great wealth lives alongside great poverty, and this facet of city life is not always easy to get used to. Many expatriates enjoy a busy social life in Jakarta, with formal and informal social events.  

In the cities, walking the streets may be difficult due to poor pavements, heat and air pollution. In addition, like all major cities, there are areas that are not safe after dark.  Driving is the norm (hence the traffic problems in the cities).  Most foreigners do not drive, but if you choose to drive, always carry your international driver’s licence and remember that Indonesians drive on the left.  Many foreigners choose to use taxis or have their own drivers.

Due to the low cost of labour in Indonesia, many expatriates will have staff such as a maid (live-in or live-out), a security guard (a night jaga and a day jaga, sometimes doubling as a gardener, or a team of security guards).  Your needs will depend on your household and lifestyle.

Tipping is not widespread in Indonesia but it would be customary for foreigners to tip bellboys and porters 20,000 Rp per bag. Other service providers such as taxi drivers, waiters, hairdressers, nail technicians, golf caddies, and so on would also appreciate a tip of 5-10%.

Do join expat groups — this is not to isolate yourself from the local culture, but to enable you to find your feet with others who have also been through the transition.  This may be even more important in rural areas or areas with fewer foreigners.

Some important cultural events on the Indonesian calendar:

Ramadan: The fasting month of Ramadan is an important time in the life of a Muslim, being one of the five pillars of Islam. No drinking, eating, or smoking is permitted after the Morning Prayer until the breaking of the fast in the evening.  Most people in Indonesia will be fasting as a serious religious observance, even if not always strictly.  Non-Muslims are not expected to fast, but to be respectful towards those who do and to be discreet in their consumption of food and drink.

Balinese New Year: The Day of Silence for Balinese New Year (which was on 9 March 2016 and will be on 28 March in 2017) is a day of silence, meditation and fasting for the Balinese.  This entails no working, no leisure activities, no travelling, and no lighting of fires. This is a traditionally Hindu holiday but certain strictures apply to everyone in Bali on this day.

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