Indonesia Kids

Source: Shutterstock.

JEWEL Topsfield was the Indonesia correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age from 2015 to 2018.

In 2016, she won the prestigious AUD20,000 Lowy Institute Media Award, which recognizes journalists who have deepened and enriched the discussion of global issues in Australia. She also led the team that won a Walkley Award for its reportage on claims Australian officials paid people smugglers to return a boat of asylum seekers to Indonesia.

Come Oct 29, 2018, she will be at The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2018 in Ubud on the Indonesian paradise island of Bali, where she will be speaking at What Indonesia Taught Me, The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and Dealing With Disaster.

Source: Greg Briggs.

Let’s get to know her a little bit better:

What were the challenges that you faced having to move to Indonesia for work?

When we moved to Indonesia, my son Ted was only 15 months old. I knew some people thought I was crazy taking on such a demanding role with a very young child.

I had heard horror stories about dengue too and would peer obsessively at mosquitoes to see if they had black and white stripes, which I had been told were the breed that transmitted the virus.


Jakarta is Indonesia’s center of economics, culture, and politics. Source: Shutterstock.

My husband also had to quit his job in Australia and because he was on a spouse visa, he couldn’t work in Indonesia. This can be tough on a marriage – the awful term “trailing spouse” is often used for the partners of expats – but Edwin was amazing and used the opportunity to study Indonesian at Atma Jaya University.

Tell us about your day-to-day work in Indonesia.

The work was incredibly diverse and often 24/7. I would sleep with my mobile next to my bed and sometimes worried that having a gin and tonic or a late night would tempt a volcano to erupt.

I arrived in early 2015, just before two Australians were executed for trafficking heroin, so my first few months were spent almost exclusively covering that story, which attracted huge interest back home.

I led a team that won a Walkley Award for our coverage of claims that Australian authorities paid people smugglers to return a boatload of asylum seekers to Indonesia.

Jewel Topsfield interviews a reformed child smoker in the remote village of Teluk Kemang in South Sumatra. Source: Jewel Topsfield.

I covered the blasphemy allegations against the Chinese Indonesian governor of Jakarta, known as Ahok, which ultimately stymied his chances of being re-elected and led to him being jailed for two years. I feel very fortunate in that my work enabled me to travel extensively around the archipelago.

What were some of the things that surprised you about Indonesia?

The access I was able to get as a journalist.

Journalism is a reasonably respected profession in Indonesia (I am told this is a result of a push for transparency in the post-Suharto era) and I was amazed by the willingness of everyone from street food hawkers to the President of Indonesia to speak to us. It was a great privilege.

I had braced myself for the traffic to be ghastly – and it was – but I was surprised about how easy the ingenuity of the Indonesians made life.


Go-Jek is an Indonesian technology startup that specializes in ride-hailing, logistics, and digital payments. Source: Shutterstock.

I still miss ordering something online and having it delivered by Go-Jek within hours. I had friends who even used to Go-Jek coffees but I decided that was peak-expat!

What do you think were some of the biggest misconceptions about the country?

Many people are unwilling to visit Jakarta because they consider it a filthy, traffic-clogged megalopolis, with no tourist attractions. However scratch the surface and it is a fascinating, buzzing city with a lot of history.

I think people are also unaware of just how ethnically and religiously diverse it is. Sure, the majority of Indonesians (around 90 percent) are Muslim but as a result of the size of its population, there are still more Christians than in Australia.

Visiting a school in Sukabumi. Source: Jewel Topsfield.

Although there are concerns about rising Islamic conservatism, there were some terrific examples of religious tolerance, including Muslims and Christians providing security at each others’ place of worship during Christmas and Idul Fitri.

Which is the most extraordinary personal story of your time in Indonesia?

Janet DeNeefe, the founder of the Ubud Writers’ Festival, invited me on a themed “Food as Medicine” cruise of the Banda Islands. The islands are a tiny speck on a map but they have the most extraordinary history.

For centuries they were the only place in the world where the nutmeg tree grew and such was global demand for this spice that the Portuguese, Dutch, and English fought brutal wars to secure a monopoly. I had written about this little-known history, so it was wonderful to actually visit the island and taste some of the famed nutmeg jam.

Banda Islands

Aerial view of the Banda Islands and volcano in the background. Source: Shutterstock.

If I ever write a book, I wish to do so at the exquisite colonial-style Maulana Hotel in Banda Neira, which was once a secret destination for the likes of Princess Di, Mick Jagger, and European nobles.

What are some of your biggest takeaways and learnings about working in Indonesia?

I realized that my approach to work in Australia is quite transactional. I am never rude but I am succinct. Indonesians spend longer developing trust and building relationships.

Over time I realized that my preconceived ideas about what Australian audiences would find interesting about Indonesia were too narrow. In the last part of my posting I wrote about topics I would previously have thought too niche, such as a crazy style of architecture called Jengki that flourished throughout Indonesia in the 1950s and 1960s.

Jengki Style Architecture

Jengki style first appeared with the development of new satellite town Kebayoran Baru. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

I got such great feedback it encouraged me to be braver in my choices.

What words of advice would you impart to curious travelers to best prepare them for their trip?

Travel beyond Bali! Too many tourists only ever think of Bali when they visit Indonesia. Add a side trip to Flores to visit the Komodo dragons or Lombok, which is just a short boat ride away.

One of my favorite trips was to Toraja, which is famous for its unusual death rites. The distinctive buffalo-horn shaped roofs of the traditional houses of the nobility are extraordinary. You feel as if you have been transplanted to a parallel universe.

Going down an illegal gold mine in Lombok. Source: Jewel Topsfield.

Other than that, bring mosquito repellent and some looser, long-sleeved clothing if you are going to more religiously conservative parts of Indonesia.

Tell us why this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival is not to be missed.

Well, the speakers are fantastic, but I would say that!

There is a great range of international names such as Hanif Kureishi (I am really looking forward to reading The Buddha of Suburbia) and Kim Scott and Indonesian authors such as Leila Chudori, whose wonderful novel Home I discovered at a previous festival.

But the location – Ubud – is a character all of its own. The venues for some of the events are exquisite, surrounded by emerald green rice fields. I remember being at the Elephant Bar, which has stunning views of a deep valley while listening to a panel of festival speakers and feeling blessed to be alive.

The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival is the major annual project of the not-for-profit foundation, the Yayasan Mudra Swari Saraswati.

It was first conceived by Janet DeNeefe, co-founder of the foundation, as a healing project in response to the first Bali bombing.

Stay tuned to their website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates.

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