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
What if I told you impossible dreams could come true? Those of you who have been following this blog for a while know of my serious obsession with Indonesia, where I have taken eight trips (including a three-month stint) in the past four years. Through a series of fortuitous circumstances far beyond my control, I have left Hong Kong to start a new job in Jakarta. Read more
“Don’t be angry, sir!”
Bu Rosani says this with a hopeful smile, as we sink into the plastic chairs inside her family-run restaurant Rumah Makan Nusantara. At the next table a band of sailors roar with laughter and knock back a few bottles of Bintang, pausing only to puff on their cigarettes. Bu Rosani tells us their ship is leaving soon, and they must be served first. Read more
Under the veil of darkness, I saw little more than a hulking presence that towered in the distance. Our flashlights illuminated small details along the path: heavily worn steps, the edges of a gateway, and then a bell-shaped, perforated stupa. I had arrived with Bama, my longtime travel companion, and fellow bloggers Bart and Badai. All of us were repeat visitors to Borobudur, but none had yet witnessed the glory of a new day from its terraces. Read more
In a small restaurant down a nondescript Hong Kong street, I found myself with a group of friends discussing the merits of Indonesian cuisine. Three of us were quick to agree, but there was one dissenting voice. I looked on in horror as a friend wrinkled her nose and gave us a disapproving frown. “I think it all tastes the same.” Read more
Several years ago, while asleep in a bungalow not far from a beach in Lombok, Indonesia, I was rudely awakened by the shrill sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear. Bama and I eventually killed the thing, but I couldn’t forget what it said to me that night: “Uaaaaaang.” For the mosquito had been speaking a language I half-understood. Uang, it turns out, is the Indonesian word for money.
Fast forward to the summer of 2015. Two weeks have elapsed since the end of Ramadan, and we are back in Indonesia, in the wilds of Baluran National Park. Bama and I are transfixed by the sight of deer and peacocks congregating in the shade just below our perch. We observe them in silence from a nondescript observation post, its concrete parapet and makeshift barriers of woven palm leaf enough to disguise us from the skittish animals. Read more