Oleh-Oleh – Obligation Or Obsession?

August 7, 2011

Within minutes of arriving back in Bali after a short trip overseas, I am greeted with an astonishing display of affection from Indonesian friends. Complete strangers too. This is nice, I think – until I realise that they are not saying “Hello!”, or “Welcome back”, or “I have missed you so much”, or any of the standard clichés. Faces aglow with expectation, they are all chanting the same mantra “Oleh-oleh? Oleh-oleh?”

This translates roughly into “Where’s my present?” The first time it happened, I was a little nonplussed. After all, with our Western sensibilities, it is only children who cut to the chase so directly. But in Indonesia, it is part of the culture that returning travellers bring home oleh-oleh –  small gifts for those returning from work or holidays in far-off places. It is almost an insult to come back empty-handed. The practice is not unique to Indonesia either, being well-established in some European cultures as well. The equivalent term in Lithuania is lauktuves, a word that translates loosely as ‘a gift bestowed on family and friends as a reward for waiting patiently for a traveller to return’.

But in Bali, this cultural obligation seems to have morphed over time. Once, the expectation was that oleh-oleh would be produce, such as fresh fruit, specialty cakes and biscuits which were not normally available locally. Sometimes exotic trinkets or souvenirs from abroad would achieve the same purpose. Now, the practice seems to turning into a mini cargo cult of biblical proportions.

One problem is the unshakeable conviction amongst locals that we bules have unlimited amounts of disposable income with which to buy gifts. Another is the belief that we have unrestricted time to shop while overseas. Yet another is that we have the power to influence customs and quarantine officials to waive regulations on transportation of food. The most recent article of faith is that we can blithely bring an extra suitcase, stuffed with all manner of oleh-oleh goodies, without incurring the wrath of the stern guardians of the luggage check-in counters at airports.

Even before I leave Bali, I am deluged with requests – and that’s just from my household help.
“You bring me oleh-oleh, ya?”
“Ya”, I reply non-committally. Apparently that’s not good enough. I am encouraged to be more specific as to both type of gift, its provenance, brand and quantity.
“You bring me nail polish?”
“OK”, I say. Oops. That opens the door to Pandora’s Request Box.
“Cutex. Red and blue. And polish-take-off thing.” I assume she means nail polish remover, not an aircraft from Warsaw.
“Ya, OK, but …”
“… and chocolate, and hair clips, and swimming things.” I ascertain she means those upper arm floatie things to prevent non-swimming children from drowning.

I manage to stop the tirade of ‘requests’ before they escalate to laptops, Blackberries and iPads, and explain that I will have limited opportunities for shopping and that I have about twelve other people who must also be looked after. I wriggle out of making a firm promise as to what I will bring back with me, reducing it to a ‘maybe yes, maybe no’. The reaction is  much like that of the USA when Standard & Poor’s downgrades them to an AA rating – disappointed and a little bit pouty.

So when I do get back, somehow having managed to pick up a few little gifts for acquaintances in between a hectic work schedule, I discover that the response from the many recipients of my largesse is a little underwhelming. One accepts a proffered gift casually and says, “Is that all?” Another, when told to select one item from a bag of similar gifts intended for others, paws through the lot and says, “I want five. I have three sisters and one brother.” I am tempted to point out that her parents’ fecundity is not really my concern, but I wisely refrain. Yet another complains about the block of chocolate on offer, plaintively asking, “Don’t you have Toblerone?”

The core of the problem seems to be that expectations have risen to unrealistic levels. No longer are a few biscuits and sweets the preferred currency of oleh-oleh. Now, at least amongst those of the female persuasion here, I am reliably informed that expected gifts include jewellery, duty-free perfume and items of intimate apparel. I wouldn’t even buy that stuff for a wife or intimate personal companion (which sheds some light on why I don’t have either, I guess), much less casual acquaintances and employed staff. And the men, once happy with a simple key fob, now look forlorn if they don’t get Swiss Army knives and power tools.

Even friends of friends flock around after one of my trips – people I don’t even know – and stare expectantly at me, waiting for manna to fall from heaven. It’s my fault of course; I let it slip that I will be travelling, and of course, that sets the scene for the hordes to gather on my return like Doctor fish around flaky ankles.

Next time, I will tell no-one I am going, especially not the cheerfully expectant staff at my local eateries, watering holes and beach warungs. I will tell my own staff that I am decompressing in Amed, or somewhere else local – anywhere without shops. When I return, if people ask where I’ve been, I will lie shamelessly and assert that I have been in hospital with Typhus, or Dengue Fever, or a particularly virulent strain of Bule ennui.

Maybe they’ll feel sorry for me and buy me a present.



  1. Wow, your work envionment sounds pretty screwy. I bring back oleh2 for my secretary (a small stuffed toy), trainer (chocolate) and sometimes my driver (t-shirt). These are invariably bought in the airport and rarely cost me more than 30 bucks total. You need to nip this in the bud pronto.

  2. I only did this once. One of the “beach bar” owners wanted a multi use knife. I bought one in the upper middle market, took it over. His response? Silence, a sucking noise through his bared teeth and a sulky walk off. He wanted the top model Swiss Army knife…

  3. Its not about not telling people you are going away. Its about taking off that invisible costume that has been placed on you that you have accepted too kindly/readily

    Imagine a man outside a burger shop wearing a foam hamburger to advertise to prospective customers

    Well, now change that burger to a big fat wallet, and imagine your own legs, arms and head sticking out of it

    That’s how those ‘friends’ and ‘aquaintances’ see you

    Traditional oleh oleh rubbish.. you and I both know what it is Vyt … pure piss taking without a single thought or regard for who you are or what you think. They WANT… they want all the time and you are in that “suit”

    Now get your gear off

    • Hehehehe!
      There is more than a grain of truth in your words … 😉

  4. I think there’s a tendency for expectations to get higher and higher each time, just like with birthday gifts there’s always an expectation that this year gifts must be ‘better’ from last year, etc. without considering the fact that it’s the thought that counts.

    I’m quite surprised that Balinese are so rude, my West Javanese sensibilities won’t allow me to ask for oleh-oleh when someone who travelled comes back. I ask when they go and pray they remember when they come back. It might’ve been due to your ethnicity, but when I left Indonesia 15 years ago, the oleh-oleh tradition wasn’t as bad as you described however there’s an expectation that you will bring back something at least for your closest relatives (My mother always bought around 2kg Darrell Lea Rocky Road bars when she visits). If you don’t bring anything then your family may ‘forget’ to bring you anything when they travel (and that suits me just fine, I like travelling light–if they need anything I can always send it via post).

    The tradition has changed and varies as well. Traditionally when a person visits, the host will give a token or gift to the visitor, and this token was brought home as ‘oleh-oleh’ for the visitor’s family. I occassionally ask for ‘oleh-oleh’ from my workmates going overseas, but by this I usually meant a postcard with interesting detail about the place they visit or just photos. I get very excited for these things.

    Bottom line, you may have to consider not bringing back oleh-oleh at all? I don’t see why you have to lie about where you’re going.

  5. Handout culture full stop.

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