Shopping in Indonesia 2009.12.02

Written by David Green.

Morenci native Thom Green and his wife, Ginny, recently began a two-year teaching stint in Indonesia. They’ve had to make several purchases to set up housekeeping in their new home, Jakarta. Ginny wrote the following report about some of her first shopping experiences.


ginny_samples.jpg Since any shopping trip in Jakarta requires virtually signing away the day to traffic jams, it’s kind of a big deal to shop. It's very useful to have target destinations, because adding even one more stop to a shopping trip can subtract hours from your free time. The idea of shopping for “fun” is laughable. Shopping takes on a different dimension, a sacrificial dimension of more than money.

Shopping is pretty far down on my list of passions, so put this story in the context of someone who really doesn't even like shopping. (Having said that, I did manage to spend a fair amount of money this week.)


There is a woman known throughout our school community as “The Sheet Lady.” She sews and embroiders cotton sheets, which are hard to come by around this city. Ibu Ria (“Ibu” is a title of respect for women) came to our house last Saturday to measure and look at our house (yes, a house call for linens). I had thought we were going to shop then, but eventually realized we were not shopping. Shopping was scheduled for Wednesday after school.

Indeed, she picked me up outside our locked school security gates, with her private car and driver. We worked our way to a shop that sells batik clothing and fabric, close to school but far by clock time. I forced myself to be decisive, and picked out batik for duvet covers and pillows.

The batik I chose is lovely, and will also better camouflage blood stains from mosquitos swatted in the night. Ibu Ria will sew the covers, and make white cotton sheets trimmed with the batik, all for well less than store-bought in the U.S.

She then drove me home (about 65 minutes).


After school on Friday, a well-established teacher invited some women over to meet “The Shoe Lady.” She had maybe a hundred pairs of slip-on heeled sandals spread across the white tile floor of this lovely house, as well as scraps of leather and various snake skins.

You choose a style, she measures your feet, and makes you shoes (about US $20 a pair). She also can copy any pair of shoes that you bring her. I’m thinking that Thom can get some of his high-price quadruple E shoes copied by her for a tiny fraction of the price. I made no purchases, but Thom’s future shoe happiness may be guaranteed.


The Shoe Lady also does handbags and wallets. It’s pretty mind-blowing to hear people designing their own wallets: how many zippers, how many folds, leather/snake, etc. Who can make all these decisions all the time? At what point is it too difficult to custom design everything?

Well, I customed a purse. I can’t bear the complications of leading a life that requires purse-changing to match outfits, so you know I use the same TravelSmith purse, black, all the time, year after year.

So my next purse is based on that design, but slightly larger, with an outside pocket capable of holding a large water bottle and hand phone. We found a bottle, and did measurements. I chose basic black leather again (python has no appeal to me whatsoever, although I am OK with dead cow).

With a birthday in two days, I felt that I was in the window of time for gift decisions. Although when the price of your custom purse comes in less than TravelSmith, what’s to justify? She even delivers and it will arrive after Idul Fitri (end of Ramadan holiday).

Meanwhile, this shopping invitational included snacks and good socializing with the womenfolk. It’s good to put out the social energies, because your school community is pretty much your life.


There is an organization in Jakarta called Xs that creates bags/folders/whatever out of labels stripped from discarded plastic packaging. The trash is “picked” by locals who wade through scary drainage canals, usually without waders, sorting through the multitudes of plastic and trash clogging the canals. They sell certain items to this agency, where the labels are removed and cleansed.

The labels are sewn into material used to craft items for sale to rich expats like us, but also to other groups with an inclination to do something “green,” either as a token or for real.

I toured the house where the trash is washed, sorted by color, dried in the sun, and sewn. Xs has a sincere and concrete need of funds to purchase sewing machines for women who are attempting to raise themselves out of most-dire straits into less-dire straits. I did a little Christmas and birthday shopping here.

For details, see


No decent whole grain bread is to be found anywhere. An expensive grocery catering to expats sells dubiously whole wheat bread, and I bought a couple loaves today, because what else are you going to do?

The idea of trying to bake here feels overwhelming, but maybe with time, it will emerge as a possible life-item.


I bought wine for the first time today, at a non-labeled shop, set far back off the street in a part of the city I had yet to visit. The windows were black, and there was no clue that the shop was full of infidels purchasing wine (or stronger).

Evidently, there are two of these duty-free shops in the city, but you could never find them without someone holding your hand, as was the case today. The aura of secretiveness was interesting. Can we still enjoy our furtively-purchased wine with dinner tonight?


Still waiting: a trip to the jeans store. Custom-made jeans in any style, in any weight denim, for around US $20. A group is planning to head there for tropical denim soon.


In general, be ready to sweat and exercise your patience muscle. Most options available for everything are massively unhealthy. Whole grain cereal, like raisin bran, is available if you feel committed enough to pay US $11 a box.

Trying to make granola, but the only nuts available are tiny peanuts; even the oats seem to disintegrate as you work with them. And then there is the challenge of getting the oven pilot light lit.

Bread, see above. Fruit: the only winner. Every day, watermelon, honeydew, papaya, pineapple. Green vegetables: hmmmm...they say no vitamins, plenty of toxins. And how effective is it to wash produce in polluted water, even if you rinse with bottled?

Gotta be alert (tough when it’s hot and crowded and you are white), because you can pick up a box of strawberries and realize later it cost $8. Good peanut butter: Smuckers can be found, but how enjoyable is it to eat something that is nearly four times the price of home?


Ramadan requires that Muslim people extend additional financial charity to others. This has been reflected by a substantial increase in the number of beggars wandering though traffic jams with little toy ukuleles, or along the roads with live monkeys that wear very creepy wooden masks.

While technically illegal here, and with newspapers reporting the large numbers of arrests of beggars, clearly there is much to be addressed.

The Xs organization described above has actually been forced to decrease production, as the trash-pickers have found it more lucrative during Ramadan to be begging. Thom reports that today he had two incidents of being hassled by beggars as he was out and about, the first time since our arrival.

Shopping days like today require an immersion in the beggar subculture. Angst, guilt, anger, sadness to contend with.

We’re getting some  things “sorted out," as they say around here (implies life can be sorted, categorized, neat piles made; very appealing), but it’s definitely a situation of reminding ourselves of our slogan: Little by little.

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