If CeCe’s posts were any indication, you’d think we were still upriver herding wildebeest or getting tribal tattoos or something. We’re not. We’re in Bali, light years away from the Indonesian state of Kalimantan on Borneo where we spent the first week of our Indonesian exploits. While in Kalimantan, we went ten days without seeing another Western tourist – I chatted briefly with a Japanese man at one point who was getting on the ferry we had just gotten off. Now, we can’t go 10 seconds without someone offering us a taxi or trying to sell us the International Herald Tribune. That’s Indonesia for you.
I freely admit to knowing almost nothing about this fine country before I got here. I knew Bali had had some incidents of terrorism but I’m not sure I could have told you Bali was in Indonesia. But I’m in love now. Indonesia has supplanted Laos as my favorite country and tops China as the place I most want to return to. First and foremost, Indonesians are supremely friendly. That’s no surprise as the Muslim-dominated places we’ve been have been the most welcoming (Turkey, Uzbekistan, Malaysia). Second, the food has been delicious everywhere. We’ve had only one bad meal, at the train station in Surabaya, but even ferry terminal food has been consistently excellent. (I have separate post in me on the food.)
Indonesia is also a wonderfully diverse place that seems to have done a pretty good job of holding on to its culture in the face of Western-influenced globalization. If you’ve never done so, I encourage you to take a good look at a map of the country. I had never done it until we were thinking about making the trip. With over 200 million people spread over something like 15,000 islands, all these different cultures had the relative isolation needed to develop their own languages, dress, and culture. And if Bali is any indication, Indonesians are determined to preserve the best pieces of their heritage.
We’ve naturally skipped the surfing and party scene in South Bali and came straight to the town of Ubud, the cultural heart of the island. In three nights we’ve caught music and dance performances that are as varied as bluegrass is from jazz and marching band music, or ballet is from break dancing. (Here are some videos of a few different types of dancing.) Yes, these were performances targeted expressly for tourists, but we get the sense that these kind of activities are happening all over the island even when tourists aren’t watching. In fact, today CeCe and I are off to eavesdrop on a traditional cremation ceremony which would be taking place with or without the vanload of tourists tagging along. I’ll report back.
And we’re only scratching the surface here of course. I admit to feeling the draw of the wild places (and coffee) of Sumatra and even more so of the remote people and places of Guinea and Sulawesi. Again, consult the map. I plan on lobbying CeCe to make Indonesia the destination for our next international trip.
What also has altered the way I think about things is the fact that Indonesia, 80 percent Muslim, is the world’s third-largest democracy. Yes, the country suffered under the hand of dictator Suharto for thirty years until the Asian financial crisis in 1998, and his legacy of cronyism and graft are certainly still a factor. Indonesia ranks 126th on the Corruption Perception Index tied with Honduras and Libya among others. (Its environmental legacy is likely worse. It ranks barely above China near the bottom of Yale’s Environmental Performance Index and I read somewhere that there more endangered species call Indonesia home than any other country.)
But I take the countless of political signs and banners festooning almost every public space as a vibrant sign of hope on the political front. 80% of Indonesians are expected to vote in the next elections on April 9. If a country this large and diverse and devout and logistically challenging with its recent history of terrorism can have a clean election, I think it bodes well for our future.
To close on a frivolous note, I’ve developed a serious lust for the political flags on display almost everywhere. There are 34 national political parties and all of them have flags of some sort. On our recent two hour bus ride through remote Kalimantan, I spotted signage for all 34. Some are red, some are yellow, but just as many are purple, green, orange, or black. More often than not, the designs are eye-catching and memorable, and they almost always prominently feature the number assigned to that party nationally. For example, Hanura is #1, PKNU is #34. The parties could be named more cleverly however. They have the PKP, the PDP, the PPD, the PNI, and the PKDI. The Republikans, Demokrats (sic) and Patriots are all have their parties. Don’t forget the PDI and the PDIP and the PPI and PPP. Mercifully there’s no PP, but there is a PIS.
And with CeCe’s reluctant acquiescence, I’ve resolved to try to collect all 34 banners before we leave. To date, I’ve managed to obtain seven somehow or another. Some were traded (although I’m down to our final three baseball cards), some were scavenged, and a few I’ve filched when no one was looking. That’s my option of last resort. I’ve added a up-to-date scoreboard to the toolbar on the right so you can play along at home.