California Forum

In a leap from California city life to a rural hamlet in Indonesia, life laid bare

Floating markets at dawn punctuate Indonesian village life, and serve up a taste of existential discomfort for a California visitor.
Floating markets at dawn punctuate Indonesian village life, and serve up a taste of existential discomfort for a California visitor.

To the left of the bridge, there are boys swimming in the soupy canal, where stilts rise up like crutches to buttress their families’ shanties. Down the one-car lane, fallen trees go ignored, and women wash clothes from the banks where men toss plastic bags.

My first thought: Nothing ever happens. I wonder if the Indonesian villagers are satisfied with this provincial life.

My second thought: Is the California capital where I spent most of my life also just a village, once we peel away the decorations and props?

If you want a little existential discomfort, then a jarring leap from cosmopolitan California to idle Indonesia is one way to get it. On my visit to this island better known as Borneo, people sell potatoes from dinghies, and tin roofs hold up satellite dishes that are the size of two doors.

For lunch on the roadside, I do a poor job of scooping rice with my hand because spoons are not indigenous. The humdrum of the hamlets feels, in a word: meaningless.

But then I start to think – no, not that the simple life is all we need. I will not bore you and romanticize minimalism.

I start to think that when you leave the city for a one-horse town, you risk getting confronted with utter existence, without any filters or diversions.

In Sacramento, the hometown I left in 2012, I could pretend I was doing something. The morning drive on Business 80, the hours clicking away at the computer, the tipsy trivia at Fox & Goose, the home repairs on the weekend. Around ourselves, we construct little blocks of activity and toil away, filled with purpose.

But in this tiny corner of Indonesia there are no bars or theaters for distraction. You sell your bananas, fan yourself in the afternoon and watch the undergrowth spread, until your unpainted porch is green. This is life, laid bare.

Of course, I don’t imagine that the residents here are finding profound epiphanies in the ascetic life. They probably toil away, too, thinking that to sew clothes, go to mosque, and play cards make for a day complete.

I am not saying that rural survival has perks, compared to modern convenience. Life, wherever it happens, is complex for everyone.

I am saying that making that leap from one to the other, seeing the comparison, reminded me to question the things I did back home and what they meant to me. Maybe the office, the friends, birthday parties and barbecues at Folsom Lake let me believe life was moving forward, toward something, but I did not stop to think what that something was.

Partly these questions are a function of travel. In different countries, you notice that locals take trains not cars, or shop on sidewalks not the Galleria, and you can’t help but wonder about your own habits. In seeing the contrast, we see ourselves.

And partly, these questions bubble up just because time passes.

In the absurdist Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot”a city dweller’s cultural reference Vladimir and Estragon sit on a naked stage, stripped of all distractions except for a tree, a boot, and an occasional rope. They have barely the essentials as they go through the same motions in each scene, waiting, speaking nonsense.

The title lets us believe they are doing something, waiting for something. The truth is that, like so many of us, they never stop to think what it is.

Lien Hoang is a journalist and Sacramento native living in Vietnam, where she writes about Southeast Asia. Contact her at