Ask any Indonesian here in Jakarta about Medan and its people, and you will likely get one of several prevailing opinions. Some declare it a rough and aggressive place whose unruly residents speak with a coarse accent. Others rave about the food, particularly the non-Muslim fare of the Chinese and indigenous Batak communities. Still others might say the city has a reputation for crime: cue the Medanese friend who spoke of a break-in at his family home while his mother was around – the thief escaped after hearing her screams and realizing he’d entered the window of a room that had been locked from the inside. Then he told me of a cousin’s encounters with a (sympathetic) local mafia boss who was a regular at her restaurant. Few visitors – if anyone – would describe Indonesia’s fourth-largest city as beautiful, charming, or easy on the senses. But good food is not the only redeeming quality of the boisterous provincial capital of North Sumatra. Read more
Posts from the ‘Indonesia’ Category
Many moons ago, at the height of rainy season, I left the office in the middle of a howling storm. The lashing rain was blown almost horizontally in the wind, and my umbrella, now turned inside-out, was practically useless. This was, I thought, almost like the typhoons I had grown up experiencing in Hong Kong. Much of the usual route home was covered with murky, ankle-deep water; in nine months of walking from work, I had never encountered this much flooding. Read more
Two summers ago, while exploring the Central Javanese highlands of Dieng at the start of our six-month Spice Odyssey, Bama and I came upon an illustrated timeline inside a museum. It charted the evolution and development of the candi (pronounced “chaan-dee”), a catch-all Indonesian term for the ancient Hindu and/or Buddhist ruins scattered across the island of Java, and to a lesser extent, Sumatra. The great majority are quarried from volcanic andesite – whose color varies from tan to slate grey – with the most prominent examples being the UNESCO-listed temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Bama had been to both icons several times, but as he traced his finger over depictions of their smaller and lesser-known counterparts further east, he declared with a sigh, “I’ve always wanted to visit these temples in East Java.” Read more
“I’ve never seen an Indonesian working so fast,” Bama says.
Night has fallen in Malang, East Java’s second-largest city, and we’ve joined a small crowd of hungry customers at Puthu Lanang, a portable stall at the covered entrance to a street just wide enough for motorbikes. A five-person assembly line is churning out traditional sweets at lightning speed, led by the mustachioed vendor who takes orders, gives change, heaps the morsels on banana leaf before dousing them in palm sugar syrup, and wraps it all while we look on in amazement. Read more
“So, do you want to be Auntie Dhani’s son?”
Bama and I are at the table with his affectionate mom, Auntie Dhani, in the open-air dining room of his parents’ house. For the third consecutive year, I’ve joined Bama on his annual trip home for Lebaran, the week-long holiday marking the end of Ramadan. I’d considered flying back to Hong Kong to visit my own family, but by the time I looked up the flights, ticket prices had already gone through the roof. Semarang, a city of less than two million perched midway along the northern coast of Java, was an obvious alternative – not least because of Auntie Dhani’s home cooking and the warm welcome I would receive as an adopted member of the family. Read more
Once again, Indonesia has found itself in the international spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Jakarta’s no-nonsense governor – an ethnic Chinese Christian and a rare exception in a sea of corrupt politicians – has been found guilty of “blasphemy” against Islam and jailed for the next two years.
I do not think the negative coverage thus far amounts to fear-mongering, nor is the global backlash entirely undeserved. I’ve watched with alarm over the past few months, as bigots and powerful opportunists have successfully manipulated large segments of the populace under the guise of religion, blending their agenda with a toxic cocktail of racism and hatred. Indonesia may have gained its hard-won independence seven decades ago, but we are now seeing a new form of colonialism: a colonialism of the mind, of thought, fueled by a virulent form of religious conservatism that favors practices and extreme ideology imported from Saudi Arabia.
“No,” Bart said forcefully, “Not here. The view isn’t the one I saw in my friend’s photo. We have to go further.”
On a grassy ridge at the top of Gunung Prahu, the mountain shaped like a boat’s hull, I was getting exasperated. “Close enough,” I thought. We’d pulled ourselves out of bed at one in the morning, as the rest of the village slumbered peacefully under the brightness of the full moon. Captivated by the rugged scenery around Dieng, a fertile basin in Central Java’s volcanic highlands, our group had unanimously agreed to a sunrise hike some two days earlier. By this time, on the cusp of dawn, I had grown so tired and miserable I almost didn’t care. Read more
Handa stared at me in wide-eyed shock. Over lunch in the basement canteen of our office tower, another young coworker had told us a month-long trip to Europe was an exercise in self-discovery. I quipped that Jakarta – and Indonesia by extension – was the place where I’d found myself.
“How could you find your soul in such a soulless city?” Read more
Travelling into town from the airport in Semarang, Indonesia, I was struck by the familiarity of all that I saw. Bama and I peered out the window from the back seat, as the car sped past a slightly decrepit museum we’d entered a year before, then a magnificent Chinese temple painted in vibrant shades of gold and vermilion. Soon we arrived at the family home, fronted by the same green gate that played a musical scale when rolled back, and a slender custard apple tree with unripe fruit hanging from its branches. Read more
The outboard motor thundered and kicked up a fountain of spray as it propelled us between rows of water palms, their luxuriant fronds aglow in the early morning light. Just one and a half hours outside Makassar, the provincial capital of South Sulawesi and the largest city in eastern Indonesia, we were cruising a placid green river in search of karsts and prehistoric handprints. Read more