2016
08.05

AIRPORT WARNING SIGN

SYNOPSIS:  A few brief reflections on this trip.

17,000+ islands, 300+ different ethnic minorities, 500+ languages and dialects, 5+ main religious groups — how can anyone even begin to comprehend this country?  Not a lifetime of visits or even living here permanently, can accomplish this.

Indonesia is by all measures the most diverse country I have ever been to, and one of the most intriguing ones.  From a modern metropolis like Jakarta to the backwaters of Boti — and I have not even been really off the beaten path or got even close to groups that are truly remote from civilization, such as can still be found in the jungles of Kalimantan, or on the island of Papua. 

Papua… I did not even set foot into, along with many other famous but smaller islands.  Papua is the second largest island after Greenland in the world.  I figured, it deserves an entire trip someday. 

But the island-hopping did accomplish what I had hoped for. 

Traveling for me is never just the destination or exploring the place I go to.  It is about gaining a new perspective on things.  And I got that.

From the positive surprise in Banda Aceh on how lax sharia law can be practiced in even the most strict Islamic province, to the disappointment about the loss of Dayak and other cultural traditions, I bring home many new insights and impressions.  Most positively rank the people from the poorest to the richest.  Their kindness, their welcoming nature, and their openness towards strangers were a breath of fresh air. 

The world is so big that with most countries I travel to, I know full-well that I will see them once only.  Iran and Israel captured my interest further and I hope that someday I will be able to return to either one of them for longer periods. 

Now, I will add Indonesia to that list. 

Thank you, for being with me on this trip!

See you next year in … we shall see. 

2016
08.04
NATIONAL MUSEUM OLD WING WITH ELEPHANT SCULPTURE

NATIONAL MUSEUM OLD WING WITH ELEPHANT SCULPTURE

SYNOPSIS:  About a day in Jakarta.  About a visit to the National Museum and a sermon at the oldest cathedral in town.

For forty five minutes I was screening every oversized ad lining the tollway leading into Jakarta as I have been screening every road for the last six weeks all over Indonesia  not a single smoking ad!    That was unheard of and quite unexpected.  I had hoped to add an image or two to my ever-growing repertoire.  In every mid-size town I have come through from Sumatra to Timur, cigarette ads were a sure bet; you could count on them in every village, too; but not on the main road leading into the center of Jakarta.   Instead, there was everything from the latest smartphones, expensive fashion, new cars, newly built condominiums, Western food, to vacation spots,  There even were two anti-terrorist ads, a couple of Islamic ads for Koran readings, an anti-illegal logging ad and two encouragements to go green; but no smoking ads!  Does that mean that the cigarette companies specifically target the rural population?  I would not put it past them.

I did not see much of or in Jakarta.  I had dreaded this town and almost cut out coming here altogether.  After villages and mid-sized towns like Banda Aceh, Yogyakarta, and Bukittingi, I was in no mood for a vast metropolis known for its heat, its pollution and huge traffic jams.  But how could I leave without seeing the National Museum of Art and Anthropology?  I would not have forgiven myself for not even trying.  My guidebook stated that the museum was closed on Sundays and Mondays.  Double-checking online on the museum’s own webpage, I verified that it was open on Sundays after all but only until 2:30 PM.  Contrary to all the information out there, the truth was that it was open until 5 PM.  That tells you something about Indonesia:  You just never know.  And what you find out may or may not be so.  You just can’t trust either the good or the bad news. 

A classical facade and a peristyle court seem to be the hallmarks of museums around the world.  The Museum Nasional of Jakarta is no exception.  The museum consists of two parts, the old wing, started by the Dutch, and a recent addition.  Focus of the collection is the ethnic diversity of the country, which is represented in various models of architecture, maps, artifacts and textiles.  Descriptions in both Bahasa and professional English — the only flawless English descriptions I have seen anywhere in the entire country — are both helpful and informative.  And it’s air conditioned!  Still, after four hours of this I was pooped.  What else could I do with a few more hours of daylight?

Outside the museum a bus stop advertised a free city sightseeing tour on a double-decker tour bus.  That sounded promising and I spent over 40 minutes waiting for a bus that was scheduled to come every 15 minutes.  Then, of course three buses came in a row.  But the tour was a waste.  No information in any language, just a roll down the three-lane highways, slower than I could have walked due to all the traffic, even on a Sunday.  When a promising cathedral tower appeared on the horizon, I got out. 

I found myself at the Cathedral of Jakarta, obviously a leftover from the Portuguese times in town.  It was shortly after 4 PM and quite a few people had gathered in the church.  Was a service to start?  I opted to hang out.  But when 4:30 passed without any sign of action I began to wonder.  But then the church bells rang — something was about to happen.  Why would people come so early for an ordinary church service on a Sunday afternoon?  I would soon find out.  Who would have thought that in the heartland of the Islamic part of Indonesia a full-sized Gothic cathedral would fill to capacity?  In fact, by the time the service finally started at 5 PM not a single spot in the church was left and dozens of people were standing at the back.  The brochure I finally got a hold of indicated that services had been held all day long; five of them already and one more at 7 PM was to come.  Were all of them this cram-packed full?  How many Christians are there in Jakarta?! 

This is not the only church by all means.  The oldest one in a different district of Jakarta dates from 1695.  I would have loved to see that and there are many more.  Just as I had stumbled on a church service in Banda Aceh on my last day there, I had stumbled on this one the very last day of my stay in Indonesia.  It felt like a good way of wrapping up my visit, giving thanks for so many good things and appreciating that church bells could ring here.   That outside, not far from the big Monument to National Independence and a statue of Sokaerno a huge monument to Arjuna, one of the figures of Hindu mythology had been erected, and that McDonalds was just down the road.

If museum collections, vendors, and monuments are any indication, their presence and proximity to one another speaks volumes about the spectrum of the mission of Indonesia, a mission I have seen manifested in many ways over the last 8 weeks. 

Viva Indonesia!

2016
08.03
BETWEEN DOOM AND GLOOM

BETWEEN DOOM AND GLOOM

CURIOSITIES:  A boring day in transiting from Sumatra to Java with nothing to report, so I will add a few curiosities here, mainly in the form of a photo essay. 

I saw some pretty funny signs and a few other things I photographed just because they caught my attention for one reason or another.

I also became completely fascinated by all the smoking ads I saw plastered everywhere and am posting some of them here.  Smoking is a national problem and instead of combatting it  I saw a single public anti-smoking ad and one video campaign at the airport  smoking ads are using everything from sex appeal to macho imagery with interestingly an all-Western cast.  Is the message here to live up to a Western ideal?  You tell me.

I think you will see in each one of them images what caught my eye.  I will also make titles that lead you in the right direction.  Enjoy!

2016
08.02
BEGGER - MUSICIAN

BEGGER – MUSICIAN

SYNOPSIS:  About a Zoo, a Museum, a Fort, and a bit more of Bukittingi.

The forces of nature spoke loud and clear:  On Tuesday and Thursday the weather was nice.  On Wednesday and Friday  both of the days which I had set aside for paragliding were cloudy, windy and unsuitable for that sort of activity.  I was deeply disappointed.  I had come so close!

Town still had a few things to offer:  There was a modest local history museum, a zoo, the remains of a Dutch fortress and there is always a stroll in the market if you have nothing else to do. 

The zoo was advertised in a nice, flashy poster.  Zoos are not part of the picture of typical Muslim countries, so I was curious to see what there was.  Indonesia has such a variety of flora and fauna that all animals were native.  Some amazing birds, bears, elephants, various types of deer and other more rare species such as tapirs were represented.  The poster promise however had little in common with the barren, concrete reality and the overall feel of neglect.  The place was clean, but I could not but feel sorry for these animals, who had no more than a fenced-in place to pace back and forth and to wait for food. 

But I had another thought about animals.  With all the slaughter I had observed in Tana Toraja, and the horror I had felt; with all the rough treatment I have observed when animals are sent to the markets or from one place to another, I have to admit that all of these food animals have something that most of our food animals do not:  They have a life before death.  Our food animals are force-fed, kept by the hundreds in cages only big enough to get them ready for slaughter.  And we are removed from the slaughter which may be quick and professional, but… The animals here are free-range animals without anyone making a big deal out of it.  They live among and with the people.  They share a simple life and often have to fight for scraps, but so do many people.  In many ways, this is the more natural and the preferable way.   The zoo however is another story.  Much could be done for very little here, to improve the lives of these animals.

The modest museum of local history was housed inside one of the traditional homes and had the usual costumes and tools and models of homes on display.  What was the most unusual exhibit was a number of misshapen animals:  two-headed goats, four-legged sheep, three legged calves and so on.  I had no idea how  common these creatures ultimately must be to have so many on display. 

I roamed some of the antique stores in the afternoon and found something I had been after for the last two months:  a book written on tree bark with astronomical signs and formulas used in ceremonies for predictions by the Batak, yet another native Sumatra culture that is concentrated in the Lake Toba area.    

For the blog pictures, I will assemble an array of images that show ordinary life in this mid-sized city.  In many ways, Bukittingi is typical for a mid-size town.  It has a center small enough to be managed on foot.  But it sprawls quite far into more industrial and residential zones without becoming overwhelming.  It has the conveniences of city life:  taxis, running water, malls and markets.  It has the flair of a city, with public monuments and some cultural institutions.  It even has luxuries such as music performances and racehorse training and novelties such as the Raflesia flower in its vicinity.  And Bukittingi in particular has the surroundings that make it suitable to be a vacation town with day tours. 

After so many blogs about villages, you might appreciate seeing ordinary images of city life.  In many ways it resembles our own ways. 

2016
08.01
BILLY AND HIS WIFE

BILLY AND HIS WIFE

SYNOPSIS:   In pursuit of more traditional crafts.  About textiles and a music performance.  A visit at my guide’s home.  About a girl who needs medical help.

Two nights in a row I visited a small performance hall in Bukittingi in which given at least 10 visitors in attendance nightly performances of martial arts and music were presented by a different crews of dancers and musicians.  Going twice was a good idea only when you have a point of reference do you know good from bad…  One night was definitely heads and shoulders above the other even though similar pieces were performed.

From traditional music accompanying the entrance of a wedding couple, to dances celebrating the life of local fishermen, from music expressing the romances of young couples, to sounding the traditional drum for a variety of occasions each drum beat signals a different event the 1.5 hour performance showcased a wide spectrum of Minangkabau instruments and the Minangkabau musical traditions

Once again, culture trumped religion.  One of the most spirited, foot-tapping dances accompanied by wild drumming was performed in celebration of the arrival of Islam in the region.  The Saudis would shit a brick, the Indonesians are having fun and seamlessly integrate foreign ideas into their own traditions, disregarding potential doctrinal conflicts.

To Western ears the music sounds somewhat out of tune and even a bit random.  The drums seem to be tuned in one scale, the accompanying flutes go their own way.  But somehow it all comes together in the rhythm and in a spirited affirmation of the love of life through music and dance, not to forget the ever-sparkling costumes.

In pursuit of more information on musical traditions I went on a bit of a wild goose chase  going all the way to Padang Panjang a nearby town with a Conservatory for the preservation of traditional performance arts.  A beautiful campus with auditoriums, a dance department, a music department, a theater, an auditorium, and lots of administrative and classroom buildings attested to the government’s financial support for this endeavor.  But, alas… the semester had not started and the campus was more or less abandoned.  However, Billy, who was driving me there, ran into a person who directed us to a nearby music store that sold traditional instruments to students and faculty.  And so I spent an hour with the owner who was eager to showcase his instruments, costumes, and his store in general.  He even dressed up for me for little videos playing some of the instruments at hand.   

One more traditional craft was on my itinerary:  Songket weaving.  It is an art particularly associated with the village Pendai Sikat, not far from Bukittingi.  It is a particularly expensive kind of weaving as gold and silver threads are woven into either cotton or silk fabrics.  Depending on how much silver and gold is used, the price of the cloth rises to astronomical levels.  These are showy pieces of fabric that are purchased by the wealthy for special occasions or by the middle class as dowry items or heirlooms.  Of course, I had to have a small sample of it. 

The weather was beautiful.  Why couldn’t it have been like this yesterday?!  I could have gone paragliding…  Well, I have one more chance tomorrow.

Billy had been asking about me coming for dinner to his house.  Both his pregnant wife and his mother-in-law were eager to cook for a visitor from so far away.  In typical Minankabau fashion, Billy lives in his wife’s home together with his mother-in-law and if need be, with younger siblings of his wife.  That is one of the surviving parts of this once fully matrilineal and matriarchal society.  His MIL owns a rather stately home with two full levels, a roof garden, and a balcony sporting classical pillars.  She has a small home-business of making traditional shoes and purses that she sells informally among friends and neighbors or presents one as gifts. 

My polite request before dinner was for the chili to be if at all possible on the side.  But no, the dishes were cooked in the typical, extraordinarily spicy Minang way.  I dutifully nibbled my way through each dish, tasting at least a tiny piece, breaking out into the unavoidable sweat, until I could settle on the white rice, calming down my spice-wrenched stomach. 

As expected, the wedding pictures were produced and shown off with great pride.  The women insisted on fitting me a pair of their homemade shoes as a “gift” which Billy was quick to add “would surely make me uncomfortable, that’s why I could pay them $10”. 

I did not fully appreciate this kind of sales tactic.  Sure, I would have paid the family something for the dinner anyhow, but to have a pair of unwanted shoes forced on me was another thing.  Language barriers are painful in situations like this and thankfully, I had planned on attending another music performance, which cut the evening comfortably short.

Billy presented me with one of his relatives, who is suffering from a horrible skin condition since birth.  She has been presented to numerous Indonesian doctors without any results.  The medical establishment is clueless as to how to diagnose her, let alone how to cure her in any way.  As uncomfortable as that was, I took a close-up of her face and am going to post it here in the hope that some of you perhaps can send this to a doctor you know.  If there is anyone out there who has any ideas on what to do, let me know.  The girl is pretty much confined to her home as she would on one hand be the ridicule of the neighborhood, but even more so, is too light sensitive to stand the light and the sun.  She has lived this way, shunned and kept from view for over 15 years…

She, more than anything else once again reminded me of what to be thankful for!