Here Thar Be Monsters!

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18.8.11

Selamat Hari Merdeka!

Today is the 66th anniversary of Indonesia's independence.  It's very interesting, to me at least, to live in a place where something like that is still in living memory.  There's still a creative force at work.  I felt something similar in the Czech Republic when I visited there one year after the Velvet Revolution.

The old folks can tell stories, if you listen.  They talk about the abuses they suffered under the Dutch military, which was then replaced by the Japanese military.  More of the same, but worse.  Then came the American military, with a kinder, gentler rape and pillage.

Finally, in 1945, Indonesians sloughed off centuries of domination by outsiders.  They cobbled together a nation of 20,000 islands that's about the size of the continental US, with about the same population, only most of it is water.

Soekarno, the George Washington of Indonesia
It's a fascinating place, really.  It is composed of hundreds of different ethnic and cultural groups, all with their own languages, who use a cobbled-together language to identify themselves as unified.  In so many ways, it's like the US was, a century before I was born.  There's still frontier here and places where it's probably true no man has set foot before.

Indonesia is a place all its own.  They still put feminine hygiene products in separate little bags in your groceries, so they don't touch anything else.  A man can legally have up to four wives, though for the life of me I can't imagine why anyone would want that many.  Women open doors and stand aside for men to pass.

There's places, like Ambon, where people wear only mud, to keep the sun and mosquitoes off.  There are places in Papua were men wear long wicker sheaths on their penises.  Some groups love dog and pork, while others are deathly adverse to both.

There are flowers the size of VW Beetles that only bloom once a century and smell like rotting corpses.  There are real live dragons up to 20 feet long sunning on the roadway in the afternoons.  There are miniature rhinoceri and tigers and monkeys everywhere.  There are types of voodoo that scare the hell out of even educated, cosmopolitan folks.

You can learn really odd bits of information.  For instance, tigers will not attack you if you look at them, so people wear masks on the backs of their heads in the jungle.  There are more than 15 kinds of bananas.  There's a kind of mutant coconut called kopyor that's very rare, very expensive and very delicious.  There's a kind of fruit called duren that is covered with mean spines and a thick shell and smells like rotten onions wrapped in week-old gym socks, and if you get one open, the fruit looks like thick yellow worms.  But tastes really good.

Half the people love their food spiced to the point of peeling skin off the roof of your mouth, while the other half can't stand even the smell of chili peppers.  Most of the really good food comes wrapped either in banana leaves or served on a teak leaf.  A small helping of rice is called 'cat rice', and there are as many words for rice as the Aleut have for snow.

Almost everyone is afraid of rain and many don't like to swim or even go in the direct sun, even though they live on tropical islands on the equator, where it rains six months of the year.  One of the biggest selling cosmetics is whitening cream, and shampoo with 'hair-fall therapy' is a huge industry...for women.  The folks here think flat noses, big lips and dark skin are ugly, though just about everyone has a flat nose, big lips and dark skin (at least compared to me).

The country has abundant natural wealth.  There's coal and oil, gold, nickel, tin, and iron, silica sand, teak wood, and dozens of other valuable things.  Food grows year-round and in boat-loads everywhere.  You can walk down the street in the middle of the city and pick a star fruit, or bananas, or any of a dozen other things. The soil is so fertile you don't dare leave your woman standing in it too long.

The language is a blast.  It's a mix of Sanskit (by way of Malay), Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and English, with a couple of dozen local dialects thrown in for good measure.  Some of the expressions are a hoot.  Someone who is coy is 'shy-shy cat'.  A cat-nap is called 'sleep-sleep chicken'.  Speed bumps are 'police sleeping.'  Your first puppy love is called 'monkey love', my personal favorite.  On any form of transportation, you always get up or down, never on/off or in/out, and if you want to tell someone that you just got on the bus, you say to them 'new up bus'.  And when parting for someone, always tell them 'liver-liver on way'!

It's a great country with great people.  They are warm, friendly and usually curious to a fault.  Indonesians have no qualms whatsoever about asking your religion, or how old are you (male or female).  There's a blissful innocence about Indonesians.  They hardly concern themselves with affairs of the world at large.

Sure they have their problems.  There's a lot of corruption, but it pales in comparison to somewhere like the US.  There are radical groups in places like Banda Aceh and Papua seeking independence.  There are simmering tensions among the many different peoples that make up this country, and sometimes they boil over.  The same with religious matters.

Overall, though, I can't imagine finding somewhere more challenging and fun and sometimes just down-right strange.  That's what makes this such a unique and fascinating place.  And it makes me laugh when my driver worries about white people moving into the neighborhood and bringing crime and unsavory elements with them.  The funny part is he tells me as if I'm not one of 'them'.  Guess that means I've made it to bule kampung status.

Happy birthday, Indonesia!  Land of my water that flows with my blood.  Here's hoping you get 66 more fine years.

Oh, and I was just about to finish when I got a reminder from my little buddy.  They have these cool little house lizards here called cicek that chirp like birds.  Took me six months to figure out what the hell was making that noise.  There's bigger ones, too, that make a whole different racket, and if you hear one, it's supposed to mean money is coming to you.  I need to find a dozen or so of them!

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