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.
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.
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.