Travel notes from Indonesia

Greetings all,
While Wendolyn and the boys are continuing to have adventures in Malaysia, I’m in the midst of my own 17 day adventure in Indonesia. If you are like I was, you can probably pick out Indonesia on a map, but not really say too much more about it. In fact, in the past couple of weeks I have read several books about Indonesia, and they all begin by saying something along the lines of, “Despite being the fourth largest country in the world and possessing a rich and vibrant culture, Indonesia remains little known to much of the world.” So if Indonesia seems a bit mysterious to you, don’t worry. You are not alone.
Here are a few interesting tidbits I have picked up about the country:
– It is made up of 17,500 islands. It includes parts of the islands of New Guinea and Borneo, the second and third largest islands in the world, respectively, and the entirety of the islands of Sumatra and Java, which are huge islands too
– Java is the world’s most populous island, with 58% of Indonesia’s population living there. In land area, it is slightly larger than the state of Mississippi.
– Jakarta itself has over 28 million people in its metropolitan area. That’s like combining the metropolitan areas of New York and Chicago (together estimated at 29 million people)
– the distance from one end of Indonesia to the other is larger than the span of the Atlantic Ocean; in fact it is close to the same as the distance between London and Baghdad.
– The country has some 235 million people from over 300 ethnic groups, speaking over 360 different languages.

I am staying on the island of Java, and yes there is more here than coffee (in fact I’ve come across a lot more jasmine tea than I have coffee so far). I’ll be in Jakarta, on the western end of the island, for a few days at the end of my trip, but mostly I am in Yogyakarta, in central Java. Jakarta is the largest city and capital, but Yogyakarta (called Jogja by everyone) is the cultural and intellectual center of Java, as well as the number two tourist destination in Indonesia, after Bali. Jogja has thousand year old Buddhist and Hindu temple, unique styles of batik, the long and continuing history of the kings of Yogyakarta and Solo, and is probably Indonesia’s biggest university town.

I’m not actually seeing much of these sights, though. I am spending pretty much all day, six days a week, in language classes. The Indonesian language is very similar to the Malaysian language, so this turned out to be the best place to come for me to do an intensive language class. It is important, worthwhile work, but honestly not much to blog about. Knowing the right time to use “bukan” instead of “tidak” feels like quite the victory to me, but I am not so sure I can convince anyone else to get passionate about it.

Still, hanging out in this little suburban neighborhood twenty minutes out from the town center by motorbike has its own charms and adventures. For instance, there are thousands of motorbikes here, streaming all over the place. I had never ridden on one before, but I’ve needed to a few times here to get out of the neighborhood, andi it is a bit hair-raising weaving in and out of traffic and all of the other bikes. What really made things interesting, though, was that this past Saturday was graduation day – for everybody from junior high through university. It seems that it is a tradition that for junior high graduation all of the kids get to ride a motorbike for the day, even though they are not old enough to have a license. Usually an adult leads the way, carrying a big colorful stick and the whole class forms a procession riding around town, and then afterwards the youth drive off in packs with their friends. The roads seem nerve-wracking enough for me with experienced drivers out there!

Oh, and of course I must mention that this is my first trip south of the equator. Yes, water in the toilet does flush the opposite direction. Don’t spend too much time watching, though, because you have to fill up the toilet again yourself – you get a big tub of water beside the toilet and a scoop. Makes you appreciate how much goes down the drain each time you flush.

Calling this area a suburb might be a bit misleading, although it is a well-to-do neighborhood a ways out from the city center. There are plenty of big busy roads around so that you know you are in an urban area, but then turn off to the side and you find yourself in a maze of alleys and trails. There are plenty of big nice homes along the alleys, but it also has chickens everywhere (the rooster across the street from my bedroom sounds just like a police bullhorn – I woke up the first morning thinking that I was being evacuated!). Turn any given corner, and you might just find yourself in a rice paddy. I was even walking down the street the other day and a runaway cow still attached to its plough came running at me. Everyone along the street came out to watch and laugh about that one, so I don’t think it is a normal occurrence, though.

I am staying at a homestay just down the street from the language school. I don’t actually see the family that much – life is busy enough for a family with three kids; they don’t need to be looking out for a clueless foreigner. They do put home cooked food out on a table for me three times a day, and the kids frequently go running by me. I don’t think people normally stay this long with them, because the first few days the meals were quite elaborate, but the last few have been quite simple – a soup of leftover vegetables, a bit of fried meat. It actually makes me feel a bit better to have the simple food – a busy family of five shouldn’t have time to make such elaborate meals every night. The mix is much more real. Anyway, I went to worship with them on Sunday. They go to a Catholic church up the road a ways. It turned out to be First Communion Sunday. I don’t really have much sense of what the church was like or too many details of the service, because we got there right before the service was scheduled to start, and on First Communion Sunday, that means we were sitting with about 150 other people outside the church building, listening over loudspeakers. Really, beside the change in language, a Catholic mass has a pretty recognizable form anywhere in the world, and after not being to a liturgical service in several months it was comfortably familiar.

I’ve got another week to go here in Indonesia, so if I have other adventures I will pass them along – as web access allows – before I return to Malaysia.

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