Makassar: An American’s Culture Shock in Indonesia

They say home is where you make it

(I wrote this originally in 2013. I’ve been back since then and must say a lot has changed in Makassar and that the general infrastructure of the city is much better.)

Most humans are creatures of habit. When presented with the option, most of us will grab the familiar over the scary and uncomfortable unknown. This makes perfect sense since we live in a constantly changing world, where comfort can be found in daily routines and understanding our controlled chaos. What I love about traveling is that we as people are forced to push our familiarity forward, growing in comfort with otherness, with change. Whether we like it or not, we’re creatures of adaptation as much as we are of habit. Soon enough, if you allow it, the uncomfortable and unfamiliar feeling of a foreign place becomes normal, known, and surprisingly rewarding. The past three years have been an amazing hodgepodge of countries and head-spinning experiences. Spain and France contrasted starkly to Texas and presented challenges, but navigating them seemed like cake compared to my current home.

I live in Indonesia now, more specifically, Makassar on the island of Sulawesi.

I don’t mean to be ugly or mean towards the city I live in, but the truth is Makassar is not clean or beautiful, Makassar is not necessarily fun and it’s not most Westerner’s dream city when it comes to being an expat. Having said that, I got past the obvious, I got past my inner temper tantrum and saw Makassar for what it really is – a one year opportunity that will never come again. So what brought us here? My boyfriend works for a chocolate company that’s building a factory from the ground up, and they wanted him to help. So, here we are in an industrial port city, in a country that’s the third-largest cacao producer in the world.

Home sweet home

Someone asked me how long I had been living here today. When I responded, “nine months”, I didn’t actually believe it myself. Nine months? How? I feel like just yesterday I was thinking time wouldn’t go by fast enough. At around six months of being here, Makassar actually started to feel like home. It’s amazing what time can do to your perspective and experience in a foreign country. After some really arduous months of adjustment, I found peace and enjoyment in my new home and unexpected blessings.

To start off, let me say that in a city where my largest indulgence of the day is an $8.00 massage, I can’t really complain. People who know me well know that my love affair for a good massage is basically an addiction. In the first two weeks of being here, stressed as can be, I had seven massages all for the cost of what one would cost in Europe or in the US. Life is blissfully cheap here.

Like any city, there are things that I could live without. Other things elate me with giddy joy and surprise me (did I mention the massages?). The obvious first impression here was that of CULTURE SHOCK and sensory overload. Add in the sticky tropical heat, high decibel hubbub, vibrant colors, polluted air, a new language, spicy food and visual overload to an already homesick me? Each day was flat-out exhausting.

A sunset view from the roof of our house.

We couldn’t have switched cultural gears more drastically than after living in Paris. I tried to do research on Makassar in Paris, but when I googled not much could be found. I stopped searching in an attempt to stay naïve. I thought that in this case, ignorance was bliss. After an exhausting flight, we arrived late in the night and were welcomed by staring eyes and giggles. The first week we stayed in one of the nicest hotels in the city. Come the first morning, as the sun illuminated the city below and I pulled the curtains back, I peered down into the cramped, dirty, buzzing streets and aluminum roofs. My heart sank. What had we done? From a bird’s-eye view, the industrial city appeared grey with the incoming storm looming above. I hoped there were some nice architectural sites, decent restaurants and cultural gems hiding behind the less than amazing façade.

This was certainly no paradise. I was warned, but with the jet lag and pessimism flowing over me, my start with Makassar was rather bumpy. I’d be lying if I said the transition was easy and that culture shock was for the faint of heart. Changing continents and hemispheres was the greatest starting over and test of our voracity for travel. So what can I say about Makassar, Indonesia, my home for the past 9 months?

Let me paint an honest picture for you. The good and bad of life here. Some of the frustrations and of course, the joys as well.

Challenges in Makassar

Walking around. This isn’t a pedestrian-friendly city and walking down the street in Makassar is a hectic and energy-draining endeavor. The disregard for pedestrians is startling for a newcomer. First of all, you have congested traffic most f the time. Here cars do not stop for pedestrians and although quite some people walk, it doesn’t make a difference. If you manage to be assertive enough and dart across the street in time, cars only slow down, trying their best to dodge you, sometimes missing by an inch. Women and children are no exception; they have to stick their hands out too, warning the motorbikes and cars to notice them and slow down. It doesn’t make it any easier that many streets have no sidewalks. If there are sidewalks, they are broken up by time and stubborn tree roots, forcing you to walk on the street anyway. The good news is I’ve since become a pro at crossing streets.

The attention. Plain and simple, expats are a pretty rare sight here. Makassar is the opposite of a city like Jakarta, so foreigners stick out. It’s impossible to walk down the street without the locals honking and shouting for your attention. Some choice phrases are, “Aye meeeester!”, “Meeeesis”, and “Where are you going”, though Meeeester is used for women more often than not. Some days it’s amusing and I just wave back, but other days it’s nerve-racking as everyone stares and yells from every direction. In the beginning, so many people would ask to take pictures with us, even police officers. I know it comes from a good place, but sometimes I’m just so annoyed at the giggles and the whispers when I walk or enter a place. I’d have to say this was really the hardest and most jarring thing to get used to.

Open sewers and trash. Makassar doesn’t have high sanitation standards and plainly put, it’s a dirty city. A drive down Jalan Penghibur and you’ll see what I mean. Dilapidated buildings, streets littered with trash and other unquestionables, this area has been dubbed by some expats as, “Jalan Bacteria”. There are parts of the city that are worse than others, but my first impression was this and the reality is this. Open sewage gutters are everywhere and the litter culture here is astounding. People aren’t shy when it comes to discarding their trash on the street or wherever they see fit, and I even I had women tell me to throw a finished bottle of water on her lawn once. Also, burning trash is a common site throughout the city as pickup services for trash are not widely available. For the trash that does manage to get put on the curb, street cats and rats get invited to feast on an easy meal.

Noise. Everything about this city is loud. From the honking cars, mosque prayers, to motorbike’s sputtering engines, the sensory overload proved too much for me in the beginning. The most foreign sound was the mosque’s muezzin calling out the adhan, call to prayer, five times a day. At specific times each day, mosques around the city chime in with their boisterous singing. The earliest prayer call starts around 4 am. Our house sits on a through street and it sounds like we’re sitting front row for every concert event and celebration in town. When it comes to music, Indonesians love blasting it through speakers in restaurants, malls, coffee shops and any public place as loud as possible. In the beginning, this cacophony of sounds really bundled me into a ball of nerves. 

Fresh fish at Pasar Central

Finding western ingredients and comfort foods. So, once again, for people who know me, food is my life. I’m a picky eater in many ways. I like good food, good restaurants and won’t eat fast junky food, Being here really has made me appreciate red wine, cheese, special meats and other long-lost luxuries that just can’t be found here. If you can find items you’ve dreamed of, be ready to pay an arm and leg for it (Kraft parmesan costs 12 dollars here). When we go to places like KL or Singapore, only then can we pick up some guilty-pleasures and goodies, (for example, I brought back 4 boxes of Pop Tarts just because I could!). When comfort food cravings creep up, there are a handful of restaurants in town that we go to satisfy ourselves. Granted, there’s not such a high demand for Western food here and Indonesian food isn’t bad at all. Options do get exhausted quickly and then I start to miss the foodie-verse of past days. Going to the grocery store became a task in and of itself. With a new language on fruit labels I had never seen before and limited choices of foods I did recognize, I was perplexed. I paced up and down the aisles, trying to make sense of it all. What would I cook each night? Pasta was the go-to-choice as you could probably guess.

The joys

30 minutes by boat, 45 minutes by car or 1 hour by plane, a nature getaway awaits. Rice fields, secluded islands, mountains, and waterfalls – Makassar is a gateway to amazing places. When the city gets to be too much, it’s nice to know that not so far away is a respite from the noise and pollution and calm in the beauty that surrounds. The city itself is not a hub for travel (you have to fly to Singapore or Jakarta) and is by no means my favorite city in Indonesia, but being so centrally located affords us the chance to see the rest of Southeast Asia quite easily. This fact alone makes the frustrations wither away and the complaints null. Weekend trips have a whole new meaning after being here as we’ve seen so many mind-blowing places. Overall, we work hard and play hard when we get the chance. So far we’ve been through Sulawesi, Java, Bali, Lombok, Malaysia and Singapore. Indonesia is beautiful and so worth the time it takes to explore and get to know it. Furthermore, being here makes me appreciate the rest of the country and simple luxuries I took for granted.

Spas/massages: Feeling stressed here is inevitable but so is my visit to the spa once a week. The cost of being able to pamper yourself is minimal and one of the greatest perks of living here. On average, you can get an hour massage for about $8-15, and I mean a good one. Compared to the $50-80 for doing that back home, I couldn’t be happier. Manicures? $5. At Family Spa, an hour massage costs $10 (tip included) and is three minutes walking from our house. Reflexology? $5 for one hour. I’ve discovered the luxury of frequenting a hair salon, not at all for a hair cut, but for the cream bath massage treatment where they basically just massage your head for an hour. Affordable pampering aside, Indonesians are much more gifted at giving massages then from anyone else I’ve had them from. They may not all be formally trained, but their intuition for what feels good and what’s needed for each person is amazing.

The fish, fruit, and vegetables: When I dug deeper, I realized that the markets are where you find the good stuff. I went bananas for the fruit here and the vegetables I had never heard of before. Indonesia surely has no shortage of delicious, amazing fruits and exotic vegetables, most of which were completely new to me. I for one was completely taken by surprise by Langsat, the most amazing fruit. Langsat come in clusters like grapes but have the skin of a peach, and the taste is a heavenly mix between grape, pear, and lychee. I couldn’t get enough of these when they were in season. There are also many vegetables that I love and can only find in Asia. This port city is famed for its seafood, so why go against the grain? Recently, I’ve developed a love for fish like Kudu-Kudu and can’t get enough. There’s an abundance of restaurants that serve every kind of fresh seafood imaginable but New Dinar is my pick. A feast of food at a place like this is cheap, delicious and something I will miss dearly.

The people
: Life is a little easier when people around you are happy and smiling. Say what you will about Makassar, but Indonesian people, in general, are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They are teeming with joy and ready to laugh at any given moment. Some magazines have voted Indonesians the happiest people on Earth, and I now know why. Always smiling, kind, easy to give compliments and positive, Indonesians have a sunny disposition and exude an easy-to-approach demeanor. I was lucky to get to know the people in-depth since I had to teach them every day. Earning my student’s admiration and respect was the most rewarding gift and it brought me intense fulfillment day in and day out. After leaving the gloomy and brisk attitude of Parisians, I truly appreciated this about Makassar, and this was the most redeeming quality on my hardest days. Even in some of the more abject situations of poverty or disability, people seem grateful for what they do have. We could all learn a little from this outlook.

The sunsets:
 Vibrant, impressive and full of mesmerizing hues, the sunsets in Makassar particularly do not disappoint. They even give Bali’s a run for their money. I’ve never seen such stunning tints of pink, orange, red and purple before. On Saturdays and Sundays, we make sure not to miss the sunset from our roof or from a restaurant on the Pantai Losari with a beer in hand. Best if viewed on the water, there’s nothing like ending your day with an introspective sunset. With the backdrop of mosque prayers in the distance and a breeze coming off the ocean, I’d say it’s especially spiritual.

The city is what it is, but the tight-knit community of expats is continually growing, the pace of life is carefree and traveling is the biggest plus if you can make it work for your schedule. Indonesian culture is vibrant, diverse and offers a real-life change for those willing to accept it. Getting culture shocked is a good thing; it’s a sign that we’re not idling in our comfort zone and that we’re truly living, learning and throwing preconceived notions out the window. When we’re not complacent in a routine, sometimes we find our biggest change is the most worthwhile.

Want to meet up and socialize in Makassar? Click below to connect with foreigners that live there or that are just passing through. Most expats hang out at local bars and restaurants like Numero Uno and Kareba. Feel like getting active while meeting great people? Join the HASH run, every Saturday, set in a different and beautiful location each time. Run through rice fields, villages and countryside and then have a drink after! Not too bad.

28 responses to “Makassar: An American’s Culture Shock in Indonesia”


  2. I really enjoyed reading your writing! I’m an Indonesian living in New Zealand and you definitely make me want to go home!

    I was googling expat life in Makassar for my work when I came across this beautiful piece of writing!


  3. God, I was searching about how foreigners think about living in Makassar and google lead me to your honest and nice review.

    I live in Makassar myself, I even born here. Like you said the street and the heat are crazy here, who the hell would enjoy living in that kinda city? Well at first I didn’t enjoy it, too, tho. haha. but then I left this city, to another city and it made me miss Makassar very much. I even miss the heat! haha.

    I love your review and I’m sorry for every disappointment you got when you live here, madame. Hope you enjoy living here sometimes again! (well, if you want to).


    • Hi Laqi!

      I’m so glad you found my blog. Although I rant a bit in my post, I really did appreciate my time there and even miss it now that I’m in Johor, Malaysia. I miss the food the most and the sunsets! Sometimes it takes leaving a place to really enjoy it, right? Indonesia has a special place in my heart and I’ll be back soon. Thanks again for reading, Laqi!

  4. Hola Monica, a link to this blog was sent to me by your grandfather Justo (my uncle) since I work for your uncle Jorge here in McAllen, so I guess you and I are related somehow. Uncle Justo called me to tell me he was going to email me some links pertaining to your blogs and for me to pass them on to my boss/cousin Jorge so he can read them too.
    I grew up in Matamoros (borderline with Brownsville) and reading is not a big thing growing up there but your writing kept me reading from beginning to end as I was able to understand a bit of and imagine how it is to live in Indonesia.
    Congrats on this article and hope you keep writing more about all the places you visit/live in.
    Your uncle/cousin: Carlos Castillon Ruiz

    • Hola Carlos! I’m so glad you checked out my site and that you enjoyed reading the article. My goal when writing is to make the reader feel what I feel about the places I’m living and luckily there’s more to come. It’s great to know we’re related – hopefully we can meet someday back in the valley…Take care! Monica

  5. I am going to be living in Makassar for 2 months from October teaching English at a boarding school and quite nervous about it! Thanks for your blog post for giving me some insight into the area.

  6. Hi Monica, nice writing. I’m Indonesian from Makassar. I miss that city so much!( foods and the normal people there ). We are living in Bali now and finding this place is terrible. Me and my husband can’t wait to move there. Like as we are mix couple we wish to stay with expat around and maybe you could give some advice where is expat compound?

  7. I feel the exact same way about Makassar! I had some great Indonesian food here, but I’m craving good Western food. Hope to try your seafood recommendation, New Dinar, before I leave. Thanks!

  8. Hi Monica, nice piece of work. I’m a Malaysian and has traveled to most part of Indonesia. I cant help feeling down the memory lane while reading your article, a very accurate description of the city, a far cry from most others. Great.

  9. Hi Monica,
    Guess what? I was googling Makassar and ended up at your beautiful blog. There is a high possibility we will be moving to Makassar for my husbands work and I was trying to get my head around the city and what it has to offer.

    And surprise! We are Malaysian as well and, wait for it…….living in Johor Bahru currently. Please write to me via my email as I would love to ask you more questions on living in Makassar. If possible we could even meet up in Johor.

    • Hello Brenda! How are you? I’s Sher Lynn and am a Malaysian as well, from Penang. I am actually planning to move to Makassar for a bit. Was there in July for about 10 days, totally loved the food, but hadn’t really had the chance to move around to many places. Since your husband is working in Makassar itself, just like to know what are the procedures for the companies there hiring foreigners as i really am hoping to get a job there. Would be good to understand more about their procedures and see if I stand a chance to be able to find a job there. Thanks and hoe to hear from you 🙂

      • Hi Sher Lyn!
        Wow so you will be headed to Makassar? We actually didn’t make it there as we ended up in Malaysia but down south now in Johor Bahru instead. Sorry I couldn’t be of much assistance ! Good luck in your new adventure!

  10. Hi Monica. I just arrived in Makassar with my husband.
    It looks like we will be here for at least 2 years. Looking for information about Makassar I found your blog and is very useful. I’m from Cuba and my husband is from Spain. We have been living around the world but this is our first time in Asia.
    When I started reading your blog and read how you were feeling in the beginning I would understand all that you wrote.
    If you are still here maybe we can get contact. Maybe you can contact me and give me some advices about the city.
    Once again thanks for your article.

    • Hi Aylendo

      My name is Karim and I just moved here a couple of month ago too am French I was looking for expat too to socialise if you wish to meet up sometimes with your husband please feel free to contact me I ll be glad to meet new people.

  11. Hi,

    Glad I found this blog of you. Really interesting to read Makassar from your point of view. First paragraph of this post really mezmerized me. Yes indeed, unexpected experience would be more rewarding after you embrace it and allow it.

    Some part of this post makes me laugh especially when they’re calling you Mister more often instead of Miss. Jalan Bacteria makes me ROTFL :))

    Anyway, hope you enjoy your bit of experience there. Makassar is not heaven for pedestrian of expat I believe. Bad pedestrian walks and confusing public transport system. But still, this city gives me good memories when I stayed there. Don’t forget to to the outskirting area like Bulukumba, Soppeng or Toraja, yes it gaves you many experiences from different POV.

    Cheers from Jakarta.

  12. Hi ! I’m indonesian.. I’m so proud when i read this one! You’re tottally right about indonesian!

  13. Hi Monica,
    Although I’m 3 years late to comment, I must say everything’s on point: the good, the bad and the ugly. Littering, yes; chaotic street, yes; good food, yes, the nice people, yes, the pink-orange sunset at Losari Beach; you mentioned it all. I know this because I was born and raised here.

    I’d lived in Jakarta for about 7 years and also 2 years in Hawaii but for some reason, I’m still here. I’ve always been in a love/ hate relationship with this city but the bad things soon dissipate as soon as you have your seafood dinner with the people you love.

    • Hi Q!

      I’m so glad you agree! Although frustrating at times, Makassar is a vibrant, lovely place overall! I went back last year and saw how rapidly it’s changing and even wrote another post about it. It was quite the shock 🙂 Thanks for reading and please enjoy some seafood for me!

      • Thanks for the in-depth review: I’ve been offered a chance to volunteer in Belopa U think it’s doable? I reckon that’s even more rural than Makassar and I’ll probably be the only Westerner in town !!! Ohh Geez I don’t know…I’m a regular drinker can alcohol be found easily and are there consequences as it’s sharia law province?… Cheers

  14. Thanks for the in-depth review: I’ve been offered an option to volunteer in Belopa U think it’s doable? I reckon that’s even more rural than Makassar and I’ll probably be the only Westerner in town !!! Ohh Geez I don’t know…I’m a regular drinker can alcohol be found easily and are there consequences as it’s sharia law province?… Cheers

  15. Hi! I’m a Malaysian originated from Penang and am planning to move to Makassar for a bit. Anyone knows of any MNC companies that are hiring and don’t mind hiring a foreigner? Well, I visited Makassar in July, and found myself swiftly indulged in the simplicity of the lifestyle the city offers. Simple yet rich with its culture, traditions and history, I love how nature wraps itself around the capital of Sulawesi where it is dotted not only by the breathtaking islands that offer white, powder-fine sand and crystal seawater surrounding it, but at the same time I am amazed by the charm of the greenery surroundings too such as Malino Highlands and Tana Toraja! And the Trans Studio Mall was one of the places I least expect to find in Makassar that the 3rd largest indoor theme parks in the world is located! Last but not least, it is the amazingly mouth watering local delicacies which has made me gained wight in only 10 days! I would definitely love to go back and further learn about the culture, language and traditions of Indonesia through this opportunity. Anyone here able to help? Thanks much 🙂

    Sher Lynn

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