Here Thar Be Monsters!

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Notes From The Far Side

It struck me, sitting here trying to dream up another 1,000 words with which to assault the internet, that I don't write a lot about my adopted country.  Oh sure, sometimes I twist off on the utter stupidity that can be found just about anywhere, but what about life here and why I choose to live here.

Frankly, Jakarta (a.k.a. the Big Durian) is a lousy megalopolis.  It has one of the highest population densities in the world, a worsening air pollution problem (though still far from Beijing) and almost nothing of any cultural or social interest to do.

Officially, Jakarta has about 10 million permanent residents, but that number jumps to around 20 million souls on any given work day, as commuters stream in from Jabodetabek, the name of the metropolitan area.  There are millions of cars, motorcycles, trucks, buses, trains, bajaj, and angkot that drag huge wads of people into and out of the city on a daily basis.  The constant epic traffic jams, combined with open burning of trash and certain tree leaves to chase away mosquitoes, gives the air an intractable brown sticky pall.  On top of all that, you can hit all the major tourist attractions in two days (Monas, Taman Mini, Kota Tua) and then you're stuck with malls, malls and more malls.

In short, Jakarta sucks.  But how about the rest of the country?

I've managed to visit a fair bit of the country, hitting well over two dozens islands in the process.  When I say that Indonesia is diverse, I mean in the true sense, not the whiny liberal sense.  From an amazing rainbow of critters to wildly differing people and cultures, this country never gets boring.

Indonesia is about the size of the continental US, though composed of about 20,000 islands (more or less).  Among the islands are over 300 distinct cultures and languages, several dozen religions, and lifestyles that range from Neo-Stone Age to Ultra-High Tech.  Incomes range from a couple of dollars a day to millions in a country that is literally awash in natural wealth and resources.  The wealthiest and most powerful island is Java (where I live), followed by Sumatera and Borneo/Kalimantan, with Sulawesi, Bali and others showing up in the Top 10.

When it comes to fauna, there is an equally rich supply of some of the most amazing creatures on Earth.  Every kind of reptile one can imagine inhabits the islands, from small chirping house gekkos to Komodo dragons (up to 10 feet long), as well as all manor of snakes, frogs and related critters.  There are all types of monkeys, from little wily suckers that steal your french fries at highway rest stops to the famed orangutans (orang=person, hutan=jungle).

Depending on which island you are visiting, you might encounter work elephants, mini rhinoceros or spotted deer, tigers, lemurs, and many other fun things.  In Sumatera, there is a popular collector's item - tiger masks (though most folks don't know what they are for).  Word is that tigers only attack from the rear, so the masks are worn on the back of the head in the belief that tigers will be fooled into believing its a face.  No idea if it works, but they've been around for centuries.

In the performance arts, there are all kinds of dance.  The celebrated Balinese forms descend from Hindi influences, while others are Arab-inspired, but there are many forms that are unique to their islands and cultures.  Wayang, a variety of puppets, are popular in many places, especially Java and Bali, and range from shadow puppets to life-sized costumes animated by people inside.

Indonesia is famed for its fabrics, and of those, batik is the most well-known form.  Versions of the art range across the country, but the most intricate version is found in Java, where the original prints identified a person's family, rank and status, as well as the village where one lived.  Java and Bali are the centers for this ancient art form.  Though the ability to read batik is quickly being lost and most of it is machine-printed now, batik tulis (hand prints) are still highly prized and can get quite expensive.

All that said, Indonesians are not very creative people, though they are amazing mimics.  Local craftsmen are extremely talented and can replicate just about anything in any medium one can imagine, but when it comes to original, or even interpretive work, one is hard-pressed to find examples.  There is very little in the way of innovation, with most art limited to endless replication of ancient traditional forms.  That is changing as more Indonesians travel and study abroad, but it is a long row to hoe.

One of the most interesting things about Indonesia, at least to me, is the dizzying array of languages.  It is possible in some areas to travel 10 miles and hear a completely different language.  Of course, bahasa Indonesia is the common language - a dialect of Malay, there are literally hundreds of unique languages, as well as sub-dialects all across the country.  In Java alone, there are four primary languages, Java, Sunda Bali and Betawi, with each being subdivided into dozens of dialects that are mostly regional, with some being influenced by colonization from other cultures.  For instance, the city of Tegal has its own dialect based on Jawa Keras, or "hard Java."  It is mixed with Sunda and the Chinese dialect of Hokkien, with a smattering of Dutch thrown in for fun.

While Indonesians are generally pleasant and open people, they have a number of annoying habits, at least as far as a Westerner is concerned.

Among them is the irritating habit of asking what I consider to be rather personal questions.  If one is walking along the street, it is quite common to be asked, "Mau ke mana?" (Pan maring Ndi? [Tegal], Mulak tu dia? [Batak], etc.), which means, "Where are you going?"  I have to resist the urge to snap back with a snide response.  They also have a habit of asking one's religion, place of residence and family details, even with perfect strangers.

Indonesians, like most Asian cultures in general, can build the snot out of anything, but have no interest in maintaining and managing things after they are finished.  This is not only annoying, it is rather dangerous when it comes to roads, elevators and the like.  I believe this stems from two cultural tropes clashing: 1) the habit of building things cheaply with low-quality materials, and 2) a complete lack of ability to plan ahead.

The lack of planning is a true phenomenon.  Most Westerners who live here for any amount of time run head-long into this problem.  I believe it stems from the fact that there is no winter, and thus no need to plan harvests or store for survival, but whatever the reason, as society gets increasingly complex, it becomes a genuine issue.  To find an Indonesian who thinks further than the next meal is truly exciting.

A final point, though by no means have I exhausted the list, is the Indonesian habit of slathering food with sambal.  Sambal is a condiment made from chillis that looks something like ketchup and comes in similar bottles, but can be rather spicy (for those who can't handle it).  To someone like me who like to cook and eat with a medley of herbs and spices, it is downright annoying that Indonesians glop sambal all over the meal before they've even tasted it.  I know some Western chefs who have fled the country, and others who literally scream in horror when they see this, since it stands as a crime against the delicate seasonings of fine cooking, given that anything with sambal tastes entirely like sambal.  No other flavor can compete.

All that said, why do I like living here?  Primarily, it's the challenge of surviving in a land completely outside my native experience.  Call it the Traveler in me.  I also have a deep and life-long attraction to Asia, so Jakarta puts me almost exactly in the center of everything, being about 5-6 hours from most of the population centers in the region.  Within 3 hours, I can be in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, or any of a number of exotic locations both inside and out of the country.

This country is also a puzzle full of unique challenges to one willing and able to learn.  From the languages and cultures, to the complex and ancient history, this land is a veritable treasure of adventures and knowledge - and one regrettably unknown even to the people who live here.

I have only touched on a fraction of what I have learned in the past decade, because to document all of it would take a book, maybe several.  Perhaps someday I will endeavor to do just that, though for now I have other fish to fry.

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