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You’ll need a compass in a land of no left or right


With all those stories about intercultural misunderstandings, we sometimes try to increase our feeling of security by reasserting that certain things in this world are not culturally determined, but constant – cardinal directions, for example.

The other day, however, I had to find out that even the assumedly simple north-south-east-west distinction now and then becomes a challenge for our everyday life activities. Having visited Indonesia several times, studying the national language (Bahasa Indonesia), and trying to understand a few cultural peculiarities and at least some words of a handful regional languages (there are over 700 of them – yes languages, not dialects), it caught me flat-footed while visiting the town Singaraja on the northern coast of Bali.

Foreigners can basically be grateful, as Indonesians are a fascinating people who are always ready to help when we are once again lost on the road. Yet, they have the strange ability of hinting the way using cardinal directions. If this sounds weird, let me guarantee you that it also feels weird when experiencing it for the first time.

Imagine being on a car moving southwards, trying to get some money. Asking for the next ATM, an Indonesian will not instruct you to go straight until you see the post office on the left-hand side of the street, where you should turn right until you find – left-hand side again – the bank branch. Instead, the description will look like this: “Go southwards until you see the post office on the eastern side of the street. There, turn west until you find the bank branch on the southern side of the road. And drive carefully ya!”

While explanations like these were confusing during the first months, after some time I got a better sense of cardinal directions (I called this my newly acquired built-in compass) and even started bantering with friends, asking them “Hey brother, is my eastern, western, northern or southern hand considered dirty after going to the toilet?” (In this regard, you should know that toilet paper is not at all common in Indonesia. Hence, locals wash themselves with water and their left hand, considering it unclean for that reason.) Strangely, none of my Indonesian friends ever gave me a laugh for that question. I guess sharing my sense of humour only works out when having the same cultural background (yeah, sure, that was it).

Now and then, when receiving helpful directive hints like the aforementioned, a small risk is that you will find a bank branch without an ATM. Actually the bigger risk is that there will neither be a post office nor a bank branch at all. While Indonesians are always ready to help foreigners, they do so even if they do not know the way, therefore sending you somewhere else rather than admitting that they are as helpless and lost as you.

Yet, if you are wondering now, “What is so hard about this cardinal direction thing? South is were the sun is shining and where it is warm, and north is where the snow is falling and the polar bears are roaming around,” coming back to Bali, it becomes slightly more complicated. Balinese language knows half relative and half absolute cardinal directions. The former are related to Mount Agung, the more than 3,100 meters (10,000 feet) tall volcano and highest point of the island, which forms the centre of Balinese cosmology. The latter are related to sunrise and sunset, and even in Bali, fortunately, the sun rises in the east (“kangin”) and sets in west (”kauh”). Directions leading towards Mount Agung are “kaja”, whereby directions leading away from it are “kelod” (depending on your actual position, “kaja” therefore can be north, south, east, west and everything in between, and “kaja” can even be the same as “kangin” or “kauh”).

Are you still with me? Good.

While Bali is not a huge island, its 5,600 square kilometres (2,100 square miles) land area still makes it pretty tough to see Mount Agung all the time. It is especially hard to catch a glimpse at the mountain at night, on rainy days, or if you are inside a building. Yet, even when you are able to have a look at the volcano or when you at least can guess where it is, this does not always help you.

So let us come back to my experience the other day in the town Singaraja on the northern tip of the island. After visiting the small harbour for some time, looking northwards watching the waves and the endless sea, and smelling the fresh oceanic breeze, I asked one market woman to point me the way to the main road junction so that I could get back to Denpasar, Bali’s provincial capital city in the far south. And I felt wound up when she told me to go eastwards and then turn north at the small cellular phone shop. After all, turning north at the shop would bring an immediate end to my journey by driving my motorbike into the harbour basin.

Fascinating, I thought, did I finally meet the first and only Indonesian person without the built-in compass? As it turned out, I did not. In fact, the helpful market woman simply used her Balinese concepts while speaking Indonesian language to me. Therefore, in her cosmology, Mount Agung was not only “kaja”, but also north, even though in our (Western) cosmology the slopes of Mount Agung rise in the southeast of Singaraja. All that happened just when I was sure that my built-in compass worked perfectly fine and that from now on nothing would keep me away from finding my destinations.

Sometimes, I guess, it is better to throw the compass away and listen to the built-in voice of reason. Otherwise you might end up in the wet docks.

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