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A love letter to Indonesia

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For if every true love affair can feel like a journey to a foreign country, where you can’t quite speak the language, and you don’t know where you’re going, and you’re pulled ever deeper into the inviting darkness, every trip to a foreign country can be a love affair, where you’re left puzzling over who you are and whom you’ve fallen in love with.

– Pico Iyer, ‘Why We Travel’

Indonesia tersayang, my dearest, you are often greatly misunderstood. Most do not know of your natural wonders – the coral reefs of Raja Ampat, where new species are being discovered even now – or your wealth of volcanoes, brooding mountains that give and take life in equal measure.

Too often your reputation is soiled by reports of corruption, sectarian violence, and natural or man-made disasters. They do not know that tolerance is a central part of your identity; your motto is “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” – Unity in Diversity – and I marvel at the sheer variety of peoples, cultures, languages and faiths spread across your vast, sun-kissed archipelago.

Others may laugh at our seeming mismatch; I am a Christian and you are the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, but when you fast for Ramadan and your holy men wail from the menara, I know, instinctively, that there is common ground. I see that faith is important for both of us, even if we do not express it outwardly at times.

Throughout your history you have always been open to outside influences, and I take delight in how your food reflects upon centuries of maritime trade. New World products like peanuts and chilli, brought by the Spanish and Portuguese, became staples of your kitchen, and you gladly adapted dishes from China; the proof is in mie goreng, siomay, bakso and lumpia.

Kecap manis, that gloriously sweet and sticky soy sauce, was always present in my mother’s homemade Hainan chicken rice – learned from our time in Singapore – but now I finally know its name. Last year it was with a bottle of sambal, cap ibu jari, that you taught me to embrace the fiery heat of chilli. Now I wonder how I ate before discovering sambal, for it has the ability to make everything lebih nendang, giving food more of a ‘kick’.

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On our latest meeting, you treated me as one of your own, and although I only have basic notions of your mother tongue, you still referred to me as “Mas” – the Javanese term for a brother. Thank you for reminding me to live and laugh, to let go and worry less. “Pelan-pelan,” you tell me – take it slowly – because there are so many beautiful moments to be had on each journey.

Terima kasih for the sunrise from the summit of a shattered volcano, for the fine grains of sand on an empty beach, for the noise of motorcycle engines and the comforting smell of kretek, clove cigarettes. Terima kasih banyak for the warmth and kindness of your people, for filling my days with your gleaming smile, and for introducing me to my best friend and travel buddy, Harinda Bama.

Today, August 17th, is your birthday, and I wish you good health, prosperity and many great advances in your 68th year of independence.

63 Comments Post a comment
  1. A beautiful tribute.

    August 17, 2013
    • Thank you, Angeline – I couldn’t think of a better way to round up my latest trip to Indonesia.

      August 17, 2013
  2. A touching ode to a country you love! I’ve had Indonesia on my “Travel Wish List” for longer than I can remember, and this just makes me all the more excited to visit someday (and the sooner the better!).

    August 17, 2013
    • You will certainly love the food, Andrew! And of course there are the people, the rich culture(s) and history, the incredible natural beauty and lots of hiking opportunities as well. If only you could spare two weeks in your latest trip, it’s all just a short hop from Singapore!

      August 17, 2013
  3. This reminds me of what blogging can do. Three years ago we barely knew each other, but after several joint trips including two times to Indonesia, I only want to show you more! What a touching letter for Indonesia on its 68th Independence Day celebration James!

    August 17, 2013
    • Makasih banyak Bama, meeting you has had a profound effect on the way I look at your beautiful nation! I used to say that Spain was my favourite country but it’s now tied with Indonesia. One more trip with you and maybe Spain will even slide to second place…

      August 17, 2013
  4. James, this is such a sweet gift to our country! Terima kasih banyak, mas! :))

    August 17, 2013
    • Sama-sama Badai! 🙂 Thanks to those two recent trips – and Bama’s guidance – I am completely in love with Indonesia.

      August 17, 2013
  5. Beautifully put! Indonesia and I are still at the flirting early romance stage… however there is indeed something utterly captivating! 🙂

    August 17, 2013
    • Glad you see it too, it’s been less than three weeks since coming back but I’m already itching to book another trip to Indo. Enjoy your stay in Jakarta! 🙂

      August 17, 2013
  6. Ah, Indonesia…

    August 17, 2013
    • I can’t wait to return…

      August 17, 2013
  7. So beautifully written, warm, and sincere. how could you know so well about our beloved country? i’m deeply touched while reading this. You got me. thank you for saying those words.
    Merdeka \^O^/!!!

    August 17, 2013
    • Merdeka indeed!! You can thank Bama for that – he was the one who got me hooked on Indonesia! I’m planning to come back in December, even if it’s rainy season. 🙂

      August 17, 2013
      • Hi james,
        i’m following his wonderful blog too. It’s rainy season almost everyday nowadays…i’m looking forward to the other wonderful stories…Borneo please 😀

        August 17, 2013
  8. Reblogged this on Little Orange World and commented:
    I love his love letter, i adore his point of view.

    August 17, 2013
  9. adieriyanto #

    What a touching letter, James. I’m happy knowing a positive perspective about Indonesia from foreigner. Make me proud of being Indonesian 🙂

    August 18, 2013
    • Makasih Adie, I often think Indonesia as a whole is hugely underrated – with the exception of Bali, that is! 🙂

      August 18, 2013
  10. James, you truly captured the mesmerizing essence of Indonesia – a nation I have loved since I first set foot in it. This is a beautiful tribute to a fabulous country. All the best, Terri

    August 18, 2013
    • Thank you, Terri – mesmerising is the perfect adjective for Indonesia. After my latest trip I could easily see myself living there!

      August 18, 2013
  11. LOVE the quote but I would say it doesn’t even need to be a “foreign country” – just a step out of our comfort zone into the unknown, wherever we are.

    August 19, 2013
    • That’s a very interesting take – and undoubtedly true in many situations.

      August 19, 2013
  12. a beautiful letter! thank you mas James 😀

    August 19, 2013
    • Makasih mbak Fiska! 😀

      August 19, 2013
  13. Nur Chariroh '14 #

    Reblogged this on Unlimited Limitation and commented:
    Great love letter, every single detail 🙂 keep writing!

    August 19, 2013
    • Appreciate it, Nur – makasih banyak for the reblog! 🙂

      August 19, 2013
  14. Wow! What a tribute! It’s quite obvious that Indonesia has stolen your heart!

    August 19, 2013
    • Oh, she has, Stephen! I’m already looking up Garuda flights for December…

      August 19, 2013
  15. Reblogueó esto en rocardozoreporty comentado:
    wow!!! Increible! I´d like to share this experience

    August 20, 2013
    • Gracias por darle reblog a mi post!

      August 20, 2013
  16. James, this is a beautiful paean for a country I have yet to visit! The first two paragraphs actually got me thinking about Indonesia’s neighbor the Philippines – which is another archipelago you have yet to visit. 🙂

    August 20, 2013
    • Actually Dennis, now that you’ve pointed it out, the first two paragraphs could easily have been meant for your home country as well! I know I would find the Philippines captivating, not just the scenery but also its unique blend of Asian and Hispanic culture. 🙂

      August 20, 2013
  17. A beautiful and touching tribute to a country you love! Indonesia has always been on my travel wish-list too. Hope I get to visit there soon. 🙂

    Thanks for adding to my knowledge as well. I didn’t know Indonesia celebrated its Independence Day on August 17 or that a major part of its population is Muslim.

    August 20, 2013
    • Thanks in turn for the kind words, when you get to Indonesia I’m sure it will all feel surprisingly familiar! Historically India has always been a major influence, so you’ll find evidence in the food, language (lots of Sanskrit loanwords) and even religion. The latter is especially true of Bali, which has remained Hindu for many centuries.

      August 20, 2013
  18. beautifully written! This makes me want to visit Indonesia.

    August 20, 2013
    • It’s my favourite Southeast Asian country – do book a trip there when you get the chance!

      August 20, 2013
  19. What a beautiful Independence day gift!
    I have enjoyed every one of your reports James. They have inspired me to move Indonesia higher on my bucket list! Hoping to visit in the next couple of years if all goes well.

    August 21, 2013
    • Thank you, Madhu! Having Bama there as my guide/translator/travel buddy made it even better – he’s taught me so much about Indonesia (including snippets of Bahasa), and travelling with him has given me something of an insider’s perspective. There was also the unexpected delight of being mistaken for a local on several occasions… which has never happened in any other country!

      August 21, 2013
  20. James, thank you for sharing your love of Indonesia with us. Although I couldn’t make it there on my recent SE Asia trip, your travels and amazing photos inspire me to get there one day soon 🙂

    August 27, 2013
    • You’re welcome Tali. Despite its immense size and diversity, Indonesia as a whole (well, with the exception of Bali!) remains strangely under-visited. And if the crowds get too much, you can always hop along to the next island. 🙂

      August 28, 2013
      • The under-visited aspect is definitely a part of the attraction for me. That said, I keep reading blogs of people visiting Indonesia so I’d better get there before it gets too popular! 🙂

        August 30, 2013
  21. Thanks for your post and it fills me with excitement.

    September 9, 2013
  22. What a beautiful site you have here, James. I’m grateful to Cheri for pointing me in your direction. I’ve not been lucky enough to make it to the Far East yet, but I can dream. 🙂

    September 12, 2013
    • Thank you Jo, perhaps you’ll get there sooner than you think! 🙂

      September 15, 2013
  23. I’m going there for the first time in 17 days to volunteer at a non-profit for disabled children for 2.5 months. I’m very nervous, but this has helped me feel less nervous. Thank you and this is very beautifully written.

    September 16, 2013
    • I’m glad my words have helped you in some way – what a privilege it will be to live (and serve) in Bali for those 2.5 months, you might just fall in love with the island and its people.

      September 17, 2013
  24. DCK #

    stumbled upon your blog for the 1st time and found this, sounds like you love my country more than i do? 😀 anyway, terima kasih banyak!

    September 28, 2013
    • Sama-sama! 😀 Well, I’m hopelessly addicted and obsessed – even now I’m trying to find ways to learn Bahasa. I’ve just booked flights this December for Bali… time to finally visit Pulau Dewata after four trips to Java and Lombok!

      September 28, 2013
  25. JoV #

    I don’t know how I could have missed this post but “Perlahan-perlahan” as we say in the Malay language of Malaysia, slowly I stumble across many wonderful and moving travel posts. This is brilliantly written, with so much heart.

    October 10, 2013
  26. JoV #

    I don’t know how you could go without sambal for all these years too! 😀

    October 10, 2013
    • Thanks for your kind words, JoV. I guess you can say I discovered sambal relatively late, but even when it’s not entirely appropriate (like mixing it with mayonnaise, for instance) I just can’t get enough! 😀

      October 11, 2013
      • JoV #

        Hmm.. Sambal with mayonnaise, I am not sure about that! But I’m curious, I’ll try it! 🙂

        October 12, 2013
  27. Lina #

    Many people can tell their story in their own way.. But the way you tell your story touch me… Very beautiful….

    November 19, 2013
    • Makasih Lina, glad it spoke to your heart. 🙂

      November 21, 2013
  28. thank you so much for writing a very beautiful tribute to my country. it’s touching my heart. well, we don’t need a reason to fall in love, right?

    January 3, 2014
    • Sama-sama Cerita, I guess I’m Southeast Asian at heart!

      January 3, 2014
  29. Apparently, I have to ( or “I must”, I guess ) say thank you very much for your kindness to write these lovely tribute to my country, Mas James.
    Glad to know that you have known pretty much thing about Indonesia 🙂

    October 23, 2014
    • You’re welcome, Mbak Wien. Suatu hari saya mau tinggal disana. 🙂 Each time I go back, I feel like Indonesia is home… and there is still so much to see and learn!

      October 24, 2014
      • Just call me Wien, without “Mbak”, I’m not that old 😛 Well, that’s right, you will see and learn so much other things. Keep wishing in it, and I will say ‘amen’ for that wishing 🙂

        October 24, 2014

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