A love letter to Indonesia
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’.
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.