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Tanah Airku

Since it's the weekend and my first wife's birthday, I thought I'd take a little break from the usual rantings and ravings to offer a few insights into Indonesian life that one doesn't often find in guide books.  If you are planning to visit, these might come in useful, and if not, then maybe it will just be interesting to learn a few of the small cultural differences.

In many ways, Indonesia is a lot like the United States.  From the outside, it appears to be a single country stretching vast distances from the Indian Ocean to the open Pacific.  In fact, it is a hodge-podge of around 300 different cultures and languages.  Each island has its own style and people, and in the case of the larger islands, there are multiple cultures living in a kind of uneasy harmony.

On Java alone, there are the Javanese, Sundanese and Betawi.  Within those groups, there are multiple subdivisions, some with wildly different dialects.  Javanese has two primary dialects, halus and kasar (smooth and rough).  The smooth dialect is spoken primarily in the south, while the rough more or less corresponds to the north of the island.  Certain regions have their own sub-dialect, such as Tegalese, which is a mish-mash of Jawa kasar, Sundanese and Hokkien Chinese.  For the most part, they are unintelligible to each other.

Most South Pacific languages follow the same broad grammatical structure, including Tagalu, Austral-Indo and even Hawai'ian, but the vocabulary is widely different, with little cross-over.

Manners are rather interesting.  Around Java, it is always impolite to gesture to someone or something with the index finger.  One always gestures with an open hand, fingers together, and only with the right hand.  It's not uncommon to support the gesturing hand by placing the left hand under the right forearm.

The same technique is used when shaking hands.  The right hands are lightly clasped while supporting the forearm with the left hand, and bowing slightly.  After shaking hands, which can last as much as 15 minutes, then one touches the right hand to the heart.

If the two shaking hands are of opposite sex, then both hands are held together at the heels with the fingers slightly splayed and fanned out.  The two light touch fingertips and then both hands touch the heart.

This is all rather difficult for a Texas boy to get used to, since we are taught from birth that hand shaking is a stylized form of arm wrestling, with a death grip and some arm-wrenching pumps, and never more than 5 seconds worth.

To get someone's attention at a distance, you almost never yell or whistle.  You clap your hands.  Once you have their attention, then you gesture to them to come over by holding out your hand, palm down, fingers together, and curling the fingers repeatedly into the palm.

Food is absolutely the center of Indonesian life.  Everything revolves around meals, which are typically four to five per day.  It's even a common greeting to ask someone, "Sudah makan belum?"  Have you already eaten or not yet?  When one travels to other parts of the country, the folks back home expect oleh-oleh, which is normally a food gift unique to the other region.  Naturally, special occasions center around large meals, and at the heart of every meal is a mountain of sticky rice.

There are few if any manners specific to eating.  Typically, an Indonesian rests the left forearm on the table across the chest and uses the right arm to get as much food as he can before it runs out.  Utensils can be a fork and table spoon, or chop sticks.  However, the traditional way to eat is with the fingers.  One makes a ball of rice on the tips of the index and middle fingers, then uses it to pick up a bite of meat or vegetables and shoves the whole thing in the mouth.

One interesting type of cuisine is Padang.  The restaurants are ubiquitous and usually recognizable by the unique peaked rooves over the entrance.  The are no menus.  You either select a la carte from the steam table, or just sit down and a sample of everything in the restaurant will be brought to you on little plates that are stacked up precariously in the center of the table.  Eat what you like, and the rest gets dumped back in the pot for the next guy.

It's a challenge to get a handle on what meats are available where.  Central Sumatera and northern Sulawesi are predominantly Christian, so pork is readily available, though the butchering, display and preparation are done in separate areas.  On the other hand, Bali is predominantly Hindu, so beef is rather difficult to obtain and expensive to boot.  In some areas, dog is considered a delicacy, while in others, it is forbidden.  Other types of meats include squirrel, bat, monkey, and other little critters, as well.

One rather disconcerting aspect of eating Indonesian style is the use of things I would consider inedible.  One example is when I went to a roadside canteen and, in the interest of trying everything, I ordered sate usus ayam.  At the time, I had no idea what it was, other than it was satay, which I love, and chicken (ayam), which is wholly inoffensive.  It was the usus part that was intriguing.  So I ordered it.  I got chicken guts artfully arranged on a stick, dipped in curry sauce and grilled.  I choked it down, but never again.

Shrimp and crab are often deep fried in shell and the whole thing is eaten, from whiskers to tail.  Fish, such as pecel lele, a type of catfish, is deep fried complete with guts and fins.  Hardcore lele lovers eat every scrap.

One fun thing about Indonesia is you can get just about anything imaginable to eat at your door.  Nearly every restaurant delivers within their area, but in the neighborhoods, vendors go around with every type of cart, wagon and device cooking up the food to order while you sit on your porch.  This system is truly ingenious.  Some have motorcycles or bicycles that literally unfold into full kitchens, while others have fully stocked push-carts.  Either way, it's as much fun to order and watch, as it is to eat some very good food almost completely hassle-free.  You can even use their dishes and just leave them by the door to be collected later.

All in all, Indonesia is a wholly unique place.  You can go by train, plane or boat, and in just a few hours be in another world, literally and figuratively.  You can hike up the side of a volcano, dive on some of the most incredible reefs in the world, romp through tropical jungle with monkeys and real, live dragons.  Hear chirping lizards and see an astounding assortment of butterflies.

Most of all, you can meet a warm and gentle people who live in a world apart from most of us.  They live in eternal summer, where food literally drips off trees.  One learns about 15 kinds of bananas and mutant coconuts that are highly prized.  But mostly one learns that there really is life on the far side, and that even after four years deeply immersed in it, it never ceases to surprise and amaze.

With 20,000 islands and 300 cultures all for one visa, it's not a bad travel deal, offering something for everyone.  Just never claim that batik is Malaysian.  It's one of the few things that will get an Indonesian's hackles up.

Oh, and the title of this article: tanah air simply means "land water", but together like this, it is the equivalent of homeland, motherland, or other similar euphemism.  Until you learn that, though, it does lead to some humor, and the first line of the Indonesian national anthem is, "Indonesia tanah airku."  Directly translated, it says, "Indonesia land of my water."  A rather incongruous image.