Category Archives: Indonesia

Flores, fruit and mantas

In Labuan Bajo, the westernmost city on the Indonesian island of Flores, I met my Spanish cycling friends, Hugo and Bego, and we decided to take a tour to Komodo Island.

The boat trip took several hours, but it was time well spent, gazing at island after tropical island with lush vegetation covering these volcanic outcrops that form the emerald archipelago.  The weather was bright, the water deep blue, and cruising towards the green island of Komodo I was imbued with a sense of anticipation as if approaching Jurassic Park.

yoga3

Learning how to fly on Pulau Padar.

After all the administrative hubbub at the headquarters of the National Park, and the parting of more money, we were guided to the Komodo dragons which were predictably found scattered around an open area in the forest. After a short introduction, our guide took questions and when asked if the animals pose any danger to humans, he told us how last year a worker, contracted from one of the nearby islands, was killed when repairing the toilets. With his back to the door he had let himself be surprised by one of the large reptiles. Looking at the animals that lay around lazily, sluggishly, in the shadow, it was easy to forget that they are, in fact, the apex predators of the food chain of this island.

manta

Manta ray, watercolour after a photo

From Komodo island we set course to Manta Point and we were not to be disappointed. The water was teeming with huge manta rays and snorkelling in the strong current we saw one after the other. Impressive and infinitely gracious… um..  fish.

It is a strange phenomenon that our most visual and therefore most direct experiences are often so difficult to write about in an engaging fashion. The reason for this I think is well worded in the popular expression: ‘one picture tells more than a thousand words’. Unfortunately I had no underwater camera.

After spending some rewarding days with my friends, it was time to say goodbye and I travelled to Ruteng, which, I was pleased to find, had a very agreeable climate. Although plenty of tourists come through here, for some of the people here, foreigners still seem to be a bit of a novelty. They want pictures taken with you and, not seeing any reason to refuse, I often comply. When I walk through the town children occasionally yell bule to me but I don’t think it is meant in a derogatory way, certainly not by children.

mangosteen

Delicious mangosteens are ubiquitous and cheap. And no, they are not in any way like mangoes.

 

 

Photograph above is of the King of Fruits, the spiky durian, which, when it comes to taste, has no equal. Unfortunately, it is fast becoming  my major expense as they don’t come particularly cheap.

Then I bought a strip of shampoo sachets and my scant knowledge of the language had the lamentable consequence that I now walk around smelling like an overripe strawberry.

Advertisements

Yogya and beyond

In Jakarta I woke up very early to catch my train to Yogyakarta. I was waiting for an ojek, a motorcycle taxi, to bring me to the train station. The boy who had checked me out of the hotel had an ojek-app on his phone and was patiently waiting for a response. Then he gave up. Drivers sleepy, he explained. So I took to the dark street by myself and started to walk in the general direction of the train station, but I hadn’t walked very far before a shadow called out: transport…  you need transport? Thankfully, I accepted the offer and after a swift ride on the back of the motorcycle I arrived at the station. The train from Jakarta to Yogyakarta departed punctually and brought me to my destination through the verdant heartland of Java.

The hostel I stayed at in Yogyakarta was like a museum. It was even better because I could move objects around to take better photos:

 

I can get very intrigued by old photographs like the one on the right where the girl is staring back from deep time. You can imagine her father fuddling with the camera. Shall I smile? No… just stand still. If… if I just get this thing to work….. Dad, can I go now? No! no just…. just stand still.
That was way before smartphones, now it is: zzzp….click! Ice cream darling?

Bahasa Indonesia is the national language of the country. Learning the basics is not very difficult and doing so acquaints one with some interesting features of the grammar. What I found most striking was that it actually makes a distinction between formal and informal address in both the first and the second person. For ‘I’ one uses saya and aku, respectively, and for ‘you’ one uses Anda and kamu for formal and informal use. ‘He’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ are all dia which is particularly easy when discussing babies: no need to know if it’s a boy or a girl, or animals, if it’s a he or a she. It also accounts for the common mistake that many Indonesians make of mixing up ‘he’ and ‘she’ when they speak English and which can be very confusing.

There are different words for rice:
padi – rice in the field
gabah – unhusked rice grains
beras – uncooked rice
nasi – cooked rice
ketan – sticky rice
goo – trampled rice pulp on the floor of a restaurant

Another interesting feature is the use of exclusive and inclusive forms of the personal pronoun ‘we’. It is something that I think would be very useful in English too. Exclusive means using ‘we’ for all of us except you, the person that is addressed, and inclusive, means all of us, you included. In Indonesian there are different words for ‘we’ in those different contexts. Unfortunately, many Indonesians don’t seem to use it in a very consistent way but if you’ve come this far in bahasa, most people seem to be happy to have you tag along no matter what.

Then the good news. There are no verb tenses, no verb conjugations, no gender and no number. It’s just a matter of putting words together in a meaningful way and most people seem to understand what you want to have along with your rice.
Still, one wonders how to express the future perfect continuous tense in bahasa, so, for example: ‘At twelve o’clock, I will have been waiting for half an hour’. Good luck with that.

Bahasa Indonesia is not the first language of a majority of the people but instead a unifying language based on a Malaysian dialect that had spread across the archipelago as a lingua franca during the Dutch colonial period. On Java, and certainly in Yogyakarta, many people speak Javanese (Basa Jawa) as their mother tongue and this language is staggering in its complexity. This is mainly because it is spoken in three different registers, Ngoko, Krama and Krama Inggil, that each has an entirely different vocabulary. It represents a sort of embedded caste system within the language and the use of each register is prescribed by the complex social mores of Javanese society. This means that to be fluent one needs to learn all three of these vocabularies and on top of that learn how to use them in different social situations based on your social status and that of your interlocutor.

No wonder many young Javanese have simply given up on it.

Yogya_food

Eating ayam betutu (photo above) was not the joy I had expected. The screaming Javanese music from nearby speakers added to the Stoic challenge of eating this eye watering dead chicken in dense tropical heat while at the same time being under siege by intractable stealth mosquitoes. Having dinner in Indonesia can be hard work.

Later I was having coffee and studied some graffiti on the wall at the other side of the street. It read: Love is.. but it was unfinished. We will never know what love is I thought.

Then it was time to move on and I booked a flight to the island of Flores further east. At the airport I learnt that it’s not okay to bring bombs on board the aircraft:

 

Thank you for your kind attention. The air hostess sounded like she  had something in her nose and had done her English classes in Moscow. During our short stopover on Bali the other passengers and I had to walk to our plane which stood quite far out on the runway. Most were taking selfies and they were all over the place. Security wise it looked like a nightmare. From the air I had a spectacular view of the lush tropical islands dotted in the sea below.

We arrived at Flores unscathed.

The Big Durian

The Big Durian, that is Jakarta, a metropolis of over 10 million people and navigating this termite nest is like walking through a throbbing swamp of consciousness with its swimming faces and a stream of molten cars moving through the streets and the pavements blocked with warungs, selling sate, soto, nasi nasi goreng goreng, gado gado and other greasy stuff no normal person would put in his mouth.
After I had taken a train to Kota in central Jakarta, I had to get to the other side of the street and it took some courage to just step in front of the careening cars that immediately came for me, surrounded by swarms of motorcycles, that could as well have been angry hornets, and then it came down to hoping none of them would be busy with their phone and hit me. It was an unnerving experience as I shuffled from one lane to another, frantically waving and making myself large, but I made it safely to the other side. There was actually a traffic light but it had no effect whatsoever… It was red but it might as well have been Daffy Duck.

Batavia

Gouverneur Kantoor Jakarta

In the capital I visited The Bank Indonesia Museum which is about money and I find money fascinating. In the National Bank Museum of Kuala Lumpur I had seen a replica of a Rai stone, which very much resembled a millstone, and was the currency of Yap, which is an island in the Pacific. It was mind-blowingly large and it was used (apparently still used) in rare transactions in the social sphere such as marriages and inheritances. It was less practical if you wanted to buy some eggs as it weighed well over a ton. Interestingly, when a shipwrecked Irishman arrived who started to introduce more effective methods of producing these stones, inflation started to rear its ugly head. No sooner had you acquired this wonderful valuable stone then they started to appear in all your neighbours front gardens. And then there was of course the matter of moving the stone, which you couldn’t… but you’re on an island and so your money was safe.  These stories I find very interesting and I was therefore pleased to find some more anecdotal fodder in the Bank Indonesia Museum about the early and chaotic stages of money production in independent Indonesia.
During the Second World War Indonesia was occupied by the Japanese who issued their own money in lieu of that of their Dutch predecessors. Not being very responsible, they printed as much money as they thought necessary and of course rampant inflation was the result, especially since the gold reserves were evacuated by the Dutch not long before, at an early stage of the war. After the end of the Second World War, during the Indonesian War of Independence, there was a bewildering array of money in circulation: pre-war Dutch money, Japanese money, Netherlands Indies Civil Administration money, and then national and even local rupiah, the last two issued by the aspiring Indonesian government. The Dutch administration at the time issued bronze and silver coins in the original pre-war denominations, but due to inflation, the coins were worth more as scrap, and many were simply melted into more useful household goods and silverware, so there goes your money. The incipient Indonesian government had limited printing capacity and it therefore focused primarily on printing its largest denomination, the 100 rupiah note. But then the limited supply of smaller notes led to the curious fact that the 100 rupiah notes were actually worth less than a combination of smaller notes. Widespread counterfeiting exacerbated the inflation of the Indonesian rupiah. Then, to make things more confusing, there were the local rupiah that were currency in some thirty different districts in Sumatra and around a dozen towns in Java.
Soon after Independence the government decided to deal with the amount of money that was in circulation in a way the became known as the Sjafruddin cut, so called after the then minister of finance, and which required citizens to cut their money, literally with a pair of scissors, in half. The one half was worth half the money and the other half could be exchanged for Bank of Indonesia bonds (which were presumably, the article doesn’t say, but I suspect, almost instantly worthless). A remarkable and certainly creative solution for curbing inflation.
Then after more unbridled inflation, a new rupiah was issued, deleting a number of zeroes and I was pleased to read that the one rupiah coin was already worthless at the time of issue.

Colonials

Photo of a Dutch family. Bank Indonesia Museum

 

After my visit to the museum I walked to the Sunda Kelapa, not quite knowing what to expect, but I gave up on the mad traffic, the tiring heat and the grime and the mud and the ugliness of it all, so I will never know what I have missed….

After dark, or rather, after it had become dark, the mosquitoes started to feast on my ankles and, despite the stifling humidity, I had to wear my only pair of trousers and put my socks on.

The National Museum which I visited some days later had a different story: the history of mankind. At the end of the 19th century, during the Dutch colonial time, Dutch paleoanthropologist Eugène Dubois found the remains of what has become known as the Java Man. What I found unbelievable was that he actually was looking for it as the missing link. That went back to the controversy between Darwin and Wallace, the first arguing that man had evolved from a common ancestor with chimpanzees and gorillas in Africa, and Wallace who thought that that common ancestor was rather with orang-utans and gibbons who were found in Asia. Dubois, as he was supporting Wallace’s view, set out to look for remains of that common ancestor and, quite extraordinary, he found what he was looking for.
The anthropological section is on the ground floor of the National Museum and small groups of tattering Indonesians were studying the displays. The fact that most women wore head scarves reminded me that these explanations of the human evolution were strangely at odds with the beliefs held by the majority of Indonesians. Even necessarily so as the Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but not from religion. In Indonesia everyone is required to have a religion. There are 6 affiliations to choose from under Indonesian law but atheism is not one of them. Most people are muslim.
Besides the famous remains of the Java Man, there were also bone fragments and a skull from the Flores man, Homo floresiensis. The discovery of this new hominid in a cave on the island of Flores made headlines in 2004. Because of its small posture and large feet, it was widely nicknamed as the Hobbit. It was even proposed as its scientific name: Homo hobbitus, though a reconstruction in the museum of what it might have looked like, bears very little resemblance to Frodo. Its feet were so large that scientists now think it walked much like a clown does with high lifted knees. It is thought to have predated on pygmy elephants, the remains of which have been found in the same stratus. Hobbits hunting pygmy elephants, you don’t make that up.
In 2004 famous Indonesian anthropologist Teuku Jacob contended that, rather than being a new species as was generally believed by his international colleagues, the hobbit could be a pygmy person with microcephaly. He caused a scandal by taking the remains to his own laboratory in Yogyakarta and subsequently failing to return a couple of bones that were hidden by his dogs and now he couldn’t find them back. He also broke the skeleton’s jawbone but craftily reconstructed it with some duct tape. In 2005 subsequent excavations at the site were blocked by Indonesian authorities to prevent Professor Jacob from being proven wrong.

 

 

Three photos of one skull of the ‘Hobbit’ that I took as I walked around it.

On the upper floors there were more odds and ends of the past:

 

 

Hindu gods were invested with multiple pairs of arms at the time, apparently because tables were not invented yet so they had to keep stuff in their hands. On the right some terracotta pot ornamented with um, what looks like, um, doesn’t look like anything… really. Well, anyway, it was ornamented which looks like a good start.

Next I am going to Yogyakarta.

Odds and ends

After going through  my photos of my recent visit to the Prambanan temple complex near Yogjakarta, I thought it worth to publish a few more of them in this post.

Left:       Restoration efforts
Middle: Suprisingly realistic portrait
Right:    Earthquake damage

For Dutch readers a small compilation of Indonesian words of Dutch origin:

kamar pas
kantor pos
gordyn
sprei
vitrage
spanduk
knalpot
asbak
handuk
wortel
duit

 

Left:      Toilet instruction at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Right:    No sumbanging in the park: VERBOTEN

On my return in  Malaysia there were some interesting stories in the newspapers. Because of censorship, the newspapers resemble some latterday Pravda with many stories about the booming economy and the general advancement of the nation. Maybe it is for this reason that redactions try to spice up the pages a bit:

It was reported by the New Straits Times that a monstrous python (7,5 m) was found near a construction site. However, shortly after it was caught by members of the Civil Defence, it suddenly died after laying an egg. The government spokesman suggested that the reptile had possibly committed suicide. The egg was handed over to the local wildlife department, presumably to investigate its culinary value. Nasi Goreng Special.

In another part of the country there were several schools which reported outbreaks of mass hysteria. An interesting phenomenon which doesn’t get a lot of attention these days. Several girls claimed they had seen a so called pontianak, a female vampire, in the toilets…. According to the paper: To date, more than eight ustaz, a bomoh and Islamic traditional experts have come to help.
An ustaz is a muslim scholar trained in Islam and Islamic law.
A bomoh is a Malay shaman.
And Islamic traditional experts are a bunch of bearded nitwits.

 

Yogjakarta

The flight from Bali to Yogja was painless. The captain was muttering pleasantries over the intercom while we were flying amid towering cauliflowers. The girl next to me was painting her face most of the time. It needed a lot of work, apparently.
Meanwhile, I had many fears. Mainly about the woman in the seat in front of me.She would crush my knees when reclining her seat. I would ask her not to. She would be  angry. I would be polite. She would not understand me. The person next to me might mediate. But eventually, none of this happenend of course.
There was a lot of turbulence and the captain asked us to remain seated. After that put the plane on the ground. We were in Yogjakarta.

Prambanan2

Sketch of Prambanan temple

On my second day in Yogjakarta I took the bus to Prambanan. The city’s public bus system is excellently designed and line 1A is very convenient as it runs from the airport to the city centre and stops also at the Prambanan temple complex, roughly 15 km outside the city centre. Foreigners have their own entrance where they are provided with a free cup of coffee. It seems a nice gesture but one pays dearly for the privilege as, naturally, foreigners pay a hefty surcharge for visiting this site.

After  exploring Prambanan I walked around to another temple further away that predates both Prambanan and the famous Borobudur complex. It is the Candi Sewu, which, in Javanese, means A Thousand Temples, which is a very generous estimate for what in reality are some 249 temples, though most of them are now merely piles of rubble.These are, interestingly, arranged in a so called mandala figure, symbolising the Buddhist universe. After Borobudur it’s the largest Buddhist temple complex in Indonesia.

MargeSimpson8

Marge Simpson

detail2

Sculpture at the Candi Sewu

 

This photo I took of  a sculpture at the Sewu temple seems evidence that 9th century Javans had knowledge of the Simpsons.

Paradise lost

After getting bored on Lombok I set off for Gili Meno, one of three small islands not far off the coast of Lombok. These backwaters were for a long time little tropical paradises, but, unknown to me, because of sloppy research that I soon came to regret, things have changed. Ever growing numbers of backpackers are being ferried now to the islands and these are now swamped with bungalows and resorts. The irony is unavoidable when seeing all these backpackers following the herd while still upholding the belief that they are ‘independent’ travellers. It’s hard to take that seriously when you see them being transported like prised cattle with stickers on their shirts that show their destination. In order to preserve my dignity, I took the public ferry…

GiliMeno1

Somebody else’s boat

The first day I entered the water at the small harbour and snorkeled to the south end of the island. It was only when I nearly stepped on it that I saw the turtle that, after the incident, wisely swam off to the open sea. Not much later I spotted  a cuttlefish and a small ray that I only could keep in sight for a couple of seconds before it disappeared under a coral table. How does that relate to happiness: you see something you really want to see, but you only see it for a couple of seconds??  Dunno. The cuttlefish was less perturbed than the turtle and I followed it for about ten minutes, utterly fascinated by it’s ever changing colours. I observed it prying in a small hole for prey. They are very intelligent and are much wanted for their mathematical abilities. Coincidentally they taste rather good as well.
On a side note: when researching cognitive skills of non mammals like this cuttlefish, although technically a mollusc , not a fish, I also found out that goldfish have longer attention spans than most humans. That’s why I break up this blog post in shorter paragraphs with a few photos, so as to allow people to check their Facebook accounts. For others: text continues below the photo.

GiliMeno2

Bir Bintang

On later snorkeling trips I saw more turtles and witnessed several of them coming up to breathe. Just before they reached the surface I would lift my head out of the water and then see the head of this prehistoric animal pop up gasping for air.

The cuttlefish made me ponder intelligence. Many people get excited about the search for extraterrestial intelligence while it is still difficult enough to find it here on earth.Even human intelligence is often profoundly overestimated and we have no way of knowing if cuttlefish not secretly calculate cubic roots when distractedly radiating their colour patterns in a very science fiction kind of way. Snorkeling also makes you realise how intensely two dimensional we are: restricted to the surface and if we dive it can be disorienting because we are not used to dwell in three dimensions. So next time we think about the fourth dimension we should remind ourselves of the fact that most people have difficulty even finding their way in three dimensions. Especially after a few drinks. When thinking these things over some time later in a restaurant, I noticed a few geckos that were running after each other to fight over prey and I realised these Gecko Wars were also very much in a two dimensional world.

One day I met a true Lamarckian when having dinner. When we discussed evolution theory he introduced the example of a swimmer who, after becoming a trained athlete, will pass his skills (enlarged lung volume, increased muscle strength, etc) to his offspring. No matter how I argued, I could not convince him.  In the end he held on to his heretic views claiming that he had a right on his own opinion. However, that begs the question if science is a matter of opinion…
Thinking is an activity that doesn’t go well with the soaring temperatures here. There seems to be some relation between the sweltering heat and this years El Nino phenomenon. Anyway, temperatures hovered somewhere around what must have been the melting point of human beings.

From Gili Meno I travelled back to Bali where I spent some time in the charming little port town of Padang Bai. Not far from the harbour I found a nice homestay with a terrace on the second floor that enjoyed a refreshing breeze from the ocean. When I was first on Bali, I made a few sketches of stone statues guarding a temple. Now I saw these same sculptures again and I realised that much of Balinese art is very conserved, the same patterns regurgitated over and over again. It’s almost formulaic in a Disney kind of way. Maybe it is better to compare it with ancient Egyptian art: very conserved over the ages. It seems to match Balinese religion with which it evolved: the religion is an amalgam of rituals. Many people seem not to know what the reglion actually encompasses, but is of key importance to perform the rituals according to very rigid schedules. Balinese religion is Hinduistic in nature, but it seems a far cry from mainstream Hinduism as practised in India.  More intriguingly, Balinese Hinduism is one of the official religions of Indonesia, which means that according to Indonesia’s constitutional requirements, it has to be monotheistic, which it is clearly not.

On Bali I booked a ticket with AirAsia to Java. First I had found a cheap ticket with Lion Air but they had a terrible safety record. They were banned from European and American airspace and had quite a few mishaps during landings in the last few years. Their latest feat was colliding with a cow when landing somewhere not far from a runway….

When writing this I have just learned that Tripadvisor has rated Ubud in its top ten destinations based upon bookings and reviews from travellers. This shows the utter absurdity of top ten lists like these…. Ubud is a very mediocre and overrated destination in my opinion and I cannot even begin to conceive how Ubud ended up in Tripadvisors top ten.

Next time I will write about an important archeological discovery I made….

Lombok

By crossing the Lombok Strait I have traversed the Wallace Line. If you have an attention span that well exceeds comprehending cat videos on Facebook, you might read up on its significance on Wikipedia, but it is somewhat boring I have to concede. Nevertheless, I have made an illustration of the Wallace Line to keep up with  my drawing skills:

Wallace2

At my homestay I rented a scooter and rode the fifteen kilometres to Mataram, which is the district capital, to extend my visa. It’s been a while since I last navigated a scooter and I tried hard to search my brain what it knew about  Indonesian traffic rules, but all it came up with was the advice to stick to the left side of the road. When I careened around a roundabout I was careful not to hit anything, which, after all, is the essential quality of a  good driver.

Scootering2

The immigration office was well organised and after filling out some forms, copying some documents and waiting the appropriate length of time, all the bureaucracy was done with and I was told to come back in 4 days. In the afternoon I toured around on my scooter, exploring some of the Island.
A few days later I was chatting with a Scotsman at breakfast who was going diving and after talking to the guy from the dive shop, who came to pick him up, I decided to join them. It had been some ten years since I last had dived and I was a bit apprehensive about the procedures, but it all came back to me pretty quickly. We set sail to the Gili Islands and after gearing up we plunged in. On the first dive we saw Green Turtles from up close and on the second dive we explored a sunken pontoon off the coast of Gili Meno. Though we were not technically certified to dive in a confined space, the divemasters apparently judged our buoyancy skills sufficient to allow us inside. It was exhilarating to pop up in the air bubble and take out our regulators to shout at each other some 18 metres under water…

diving4

How did that work again?

diving5

Where is the camera?

 

diving6

Feeling boastful…

Back at the immigration office, I had to pay 355.000 rupiah and in exchange they took my fingerprints and told me to wait. An American girl was fined more than 500 dolllars for overstaying her visa. When she was waiting for her turn, she confided to me that she was going to get married to the angry looking youth with dreadlocks who was sitting barefoot in a corner next to her.After she had collected her documents, she laughed at me, when she passed me, and said they would go to Boston after the marriage. Fuck Boston, the uncouth aborigine said, and followed her on her wait out.
When my turn came, I  was granted to stay another 30 days in the country.

Diving is very nice but it comes at an exorbitant cost and so, in the quest for an alternative pastime, I have taken a few surfing classes, which are far less ruinous to my budget.After some initial mishaps, I actually surfed and it was glorious to ride the waves.. Unfortunately,  the paddling on the board caused bruises on my lower ribs and it became quite painful, so I am not sure if I can pursue this career…