SYNOPSIS:  About the pulse of this charming mountain town, about Japanese Tunnels,  about my new accommodations and a word about the culture of Islam and what that means for Indonesia.

Gone-by wealth was oozing out of every one of the ornately carved wooden panels in the parlor of the Minang International Hotel.  It was underscored by the worn carpets, the dated upholstery on the two dozen arm chairs, the fancy wedding alcove, and the silver trays on which tea was still served — all of which must have cost a fortune in the 1950’s when this traditional villa was built and furnished.  The villa tops a hill overlooking a gorge — a beauty spot formed by a volcanic eruption, which now serves as a public park.   

The framed portrait of the patriarch of the family was prominently displayed.  He is one of the early settlers of West Sumatra in the 1920’s and the founder of a bank —  It spoke of pride and success.  The daughter of the patriarch is the new patriarch and the grandmother of the house, living with two of her daughters and various grandchildren in three+ rooms on the main floor.  There is still enough wealth in the family to have two young men on staff, who clean, do yard work, and alternately mind the place. 

What made them call this a hotel and an international one on top of it is anyone’s guess.  There is nothing international here — there are no international guests (except me and I seem to be a big novelty) and nothing hotel-like.  Not a lick of English is spoken by the entire staff, which beyond the two young men really is the extended family of this estate.  It must be a no-star hotel.   I did not find it in any of the guidebooks I looked in.  I just found it walking by the first night.

This is a homestay of the most genuine kind with the three generations of the family living downstairs.  The five rooms upstairs have been converted into guest rooms but have kept their homey flair.  I have a spacious one with a closet, a desk, a table, two  armchairs and a wraparound balcony.  And still, there is room.  My pink tiled bathroom, though constantly smelling like cow manure — even sports a bathtub.  But I am not getting too excited as there is no warm water in the house…  In this cool if not outright cold climate this is a definite loss.  But the homey feel of the place, its location, and the balcony won me over.  Nothing is perfect and I will take this over any of the fancy, nondescript hotels which abound in town.

The Minang is three steps up from the homestay I had originally picked from the Lonely Planet.  In order not to ruin its reputation it will remain unnamed.  But for my last week in Indonesia, I wanted a place I could settle in, work in peace, spread out a bit, and feel comfortable.  The Minang turned out to be even better than anticipated.  I have been the only guest for almost a week.  When I moved in, the rooms were filled with Indonesian visitors.  All of them left last Sunday when school (and work) started again.  It has been quiet here.  I enjoy my view of the park, my balcony, and the use of the entire upstairs parlor.  There is even wifi here! 

The park is a landmark in town and  frequented by just about anyone who will visit Bukittingi as it contains one of three notorious Japanese Tunnels in Indonesia, built with slave labor at the end of WWII.  The tunnels add up to over 6 km.  About 1.5 km are open to the public.  Hundreds of Japanese soldiers were living down there, preparing for a possible end through an atom bomb…  Each of these three tunnels was built with imported labor; this one by Javanese and Balinese as the laborers would not be able to communicate with the local population.  An unknown number of them died during construction. 

Today, the park is also home to dozens of monkeys who at times seem bored over there and come to visit my front yard looking for scraps.  But they won’t find much, as the young men of the Minang sweep (yes, with a straw broom) the entire yard every morning, picking up every single leaf that might have fallen overnight.

To the center of town it is only a short 5-10 minute walk.  That’s where all the action is:  the trendy cafes, the restaurants, antique shops, the tour operators, the markets, the zoo, the museum, the remains of a Dutch fortress and the performance space for the preservation of local Minang music and dance (more on all of those in future blogs).  Bukittingi obviously is a favorite vacation spot for the locals and once also was popular with Western tourists.  The Lonely Planet mentioned that the ebb of foreign tourists dried up a few years ago, but did not give a reason.  I wonder if the 30-day visa restrictions are part of it.  Sumatra cannot compete with Bali and other famous places in Java, but for me, it was an ideal spot to finish my trip as it was cooler than anywhere else and yet another minority lives here.

Bukittingi is located in the heart of the matriarchal Minangkabau culture, with its unique architecture.  That’s why I came.  I don’t expect to get too close to any villages this time, but at least, I will get an introductory glimpse in yet another facet and yet another region of Indonesia. 

If you look at the map, you will find that this is very close to where I started, in Banda Aceh.  I could have taken a night bus from there, to come here.  But since I had Nicola’s visit to coordinate, instead of making my way down through Sumatra and onward from there, my trip now resembles more of a circle.  Indeed, I am coming full circle in many ways.  I started in the most strict Islamic province, moved through a Sultanate in Yogyakarta, continued to various islands with ethnic minorities (Kalimantan) and increasing Christian populations (Sulawesi, Timur, Sumba) back to a predominantly Muslim, yet not Sharia-ruled region which is fully embedded in the pre-Islamic matriarchal Minang culture. 

Yes, that is a conflict.  But to pre-empt a repeat of any discussions on the topic:  Indonesian Muslims practice what I will call a Culture of Islam.  They do not see any conflict with the Doctrine of Islam since they typically are not educated in the scholarly fine points of their religion.  From all I can tell, the typical (mis-) conceptions prevail:  Mohammed is the perfect man, the Koran is the unaltered word of God, Jews are the evil of the world, the West is full of conspiracies, and Islam is a guidance to be kind, tolerant, generous, and to practice self-discipline to ultimately reach heaven.  Anyone who differs with their religion still has to be respected and treated with kindness.

This culture of Islam creates a lot of doctrinal contradictions, but it has earned my highest respect as it has created a country with millions of people who are predominantly trustworthy, honest, and kind.  Crime rates and violence are at a fraction of what our culture has produced in the U.S.   And in Indonesia, it has created the framework within which to glue together multiple different religions, ethnic groups, and foreigners into a single, unified country.  My hat is off to those who came up with this concept and those who still manage to maintain it. 

It reminds me a bit of some of the cultural principles aspired to by the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.  Once the cork was out of the bottle there, all those ethnic and religious groups were at each others’ throats again.  I hope Indonesia can avoid that.

3 comments so far

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  1. Islam is an absolute and complete enigma…period.
    At the Democratic convention last night a Muslim American man, Khizr Khan whose son had been killed in Iraq, spoke. He wife, in full Muslim garb (not burka) stood with him. He was eloquent and gave a moving and beautiful testimonial to his son. I think everyone kept wondering why he kept putting his hand over his heart…well, in about the middle of the speech he reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a copy of the United States Constitution and asked whether Trump had ever read it, if not he would be glad to loan him his copy. Needless to say…that brought the house down. He was probably the best speaker of the night.
    Like I said, Islam is an absolute enigma!!

  2. What pleasant accommodations!

    Thank you for distinguishing between Islam and the practice of Islam, or, as you call it, the culture of Islam. How Moslems behave may or may not reflect the belief system of Islam, and, therefore, we really cannot prove anything about Islam by observing the behavior of Moslems. This holds true both for the peaceful Moslems you encountered as well as for the murderous jihadists. The only way to know anything about Islam, the belief system, is to study it. Yet, if I understood you correctly, even if the people are not particularly religious and are not particularly knowledgeable about Islam, they nevertheless believe some of the Islamic doctrines, such as “Jews are the evil of the world”.

  3. And, check this out: