Jakarta; or why is it so easy to cry on planes?

Beau Newham
5 min readFeb 1, 2018

I’ve left many cities over the past few years, and every time I do, it isn’t until my plane takes to the air that the weight of leaving descends upon me. You would think it would grow easier with frequency, but thankfully feelings aren’t like TV shows. They don’t wear thin or grow tiresome, but instead weave into each other. So now, instead of just saying goodbye to one city, I’m reminded of all the cities I’ve said had to say goodbye to. Of all the tight hugs and mentions of “it’s not goodbye, but see you again soon”. Of all the passengers who have sat next to me wondering what movie could possibly be so moving that it is causing discreet tears to be running down the hairy guys face.

It always feels easier to cry on planes. I’m not sure if it’s something about the air pressure or oxygen levels, but feelings feel closer. I get the same sensation on other forms of transport too (trains and long road trips) but it’s only planes that cause my emotions to bubble to the surface in uncontrollably. In response, I always find the most sentimental movie I can find to watch. A film that allows me to channel this outpour of emotions through time tested formulas. I sit there in my economy seat and bask in the cinematic catharsis of beautiful people feeling beautiful things, in the orderly way that only the cinematic universe can provide. Life itself doesn’t have the resolutions that cinema provides. Feelings are left hanging, goodbyes insufficient or absent. Perhaps I’m in one of the parts that is cut out of the film. The section replaced with the text “10 years later”.

People often talk about being uprooted when they talk about leaving a city, but for me the feeling is closer to a sense of division. That perhaps in the hours that I’m in the air there is two of me, one still in the city I’m leaving and one in the city I’m about to land in. For those hours I’m in twilight, the glowing feeling of neither here nor there. I’ve left, but I’m yet to arrive. When I do land, this feeling of division continues until I go to sleep. The moment of waking up after my first night’s sleep in Australia felt like pressing play on a life, a me, that’s been on pause. Living overseas can offer the opportunity for some profound change but that morning it felt like I had never left. Perhaps I have changed, but that gradual change that you never notice until someone else points it out to you and you see yourself at some distance for a brief moment. That morning was the firm realisation that Australia still feels like home to me, with all the comforts and mundanities that home brings with it.

Jakarta met none of my expectations. It holds to the stereotypes of capital cities. Intimacy is slow and hard. Big investments and sluggish returns. The immensity of Jakarta squashes any true sense of “knowing” a city. A few hundred metres off my beaten path and suddenly it was like being in a brand new city. Even in the parts I presumed to know, a gojek driver would go jalan tikus and suddenly a whole new world would open up down a street I never bothered to go down. Exhilarating and exhausting, it must only be the ojek drivers that can claim to know Jakarta — everyone else a fish in the ocean. My personal impression of the city is fittingly enough, an archipelago. A collection of social islands divided apart by long stretches of traffic and malls. Given time you can learn some of the islands well, but to know it all seems impossible. Instead you just accept your fate and stare out in awe of the immensity.

Like all my experiences of living somewhere, the magic always kicks in just when you know that you’re about to leave. I’m not sure if it’s the weight of expectation off my shoulders that suddenly made me lighten up a bit (and therefore be better company), but the last few months in Jakarta were filled with strong connections and the stirrings of the beginning of a new “home” (in the warm fuzzy sense). I am proud to see some of the projects I started there grow up and take on a life of their own. The Queer Language Club and my work with AMAN just came into their own in those last few months, so it was hard to say goodbye just as things were getting good. 1 year is not long enough it would seem.

Elizabeth writes about Indonesia being her bad boyfriend. A heady mix of passions stirred and profound disappointments. I found that comparison quite jarring since if Indonesia is anyone to me, it’s your grandmother. Forever checking if you’ve eaten, and when you’re getting married, her care for your base needs is explicit and emphatic. She has a core recipe for happiness, and if you are missing one of the ingredients then she worries. Maybe not personally, but you know, people will start talking so it’s best to stay on top of these things. In response, you build a collection of white lies, reduce your complicated selfhood to fit the recipe. This makes things easier and Indonesia appreciates the effort. The white lies are innocent enough, but en masse they start to feel suffocating. Plus in one of the world’s leading nations of social media users where the white lies start and end?

What inspires me in Indonesia, are the countless people I meet that are pushing against this national recipe for happiness. Who are trying to work their complications into the ingredients list. It may sound trite, but social concepts of what can possibly make you happy are powerful. They shape so much of how people respond to all your life choices, especially the choices of women and queers and so it’s these people are drive me to the inevitable return to Indonesia. These are the people that I think of when I’m that hairy guy crying on the plane.



Beau Newham

Beau Newham is a writer, development worker and queer activist based in Melbourne on Kulin Nation lands.