Saturday, September 22, 2012

End Of Indo

From Flores I caught the weekly ferry to Kupang in West Timor. I was unable to explore Flores all the way to its eastern tip as I would have liked because I had only one week left on my Indonesian visa and still needed to procure my East Timorese visa. Extending my visa was no longer an option for the frustratingly banal reason that I had no free space large enough in my passport to accommodate another extension stamp. I am, however, blessed with dual citizenship and so am able to carry on for the time being now that I've had my British passport shipped out to me. The West Timor immigration department has a wonderful website where you can apply for your visa online by filling out a form and e-mailing it to the address provided. The process has a single, but fatal, flaw. It doesn't work. I sent off my completed form four weeks ago and, despite several efforts to make contact, including a heart-rending sob story, could just have well have sent it into a black hole for all the feedback I got. So instead I had to resort to Plan B and turn up in person.

International man of mystery: which passport shall I use today?

Getting the visa authorisation proved to be an easy and painless process, and within a couple of days I was armed with my authorisation letter and all set to go. Whilst in Kupang, the main town not only of West Timor, but of all East Nusa Tenggara province, I had the good fortune to stay with Anna, an Indonesian girl who works for a community development NGO, and her flatmate Pam who is a Canadian volunteer with VSO. I have a lot of admiration for volunteers, particularly those of organisations such as VSO where people sign up for a two-year contract abroad, often in very tricky circumstances. I was even more struck by Pam's  age: at 62 she has temporarily forsaken her comfortable life to lend her skills and experience to help develop the capabilities of the local social service department. A great example of how age shouldn't be a barrier to doing anything if you set your mind to it.

Timor, like Sumba, is biogeographically apart from the main chain of islands of Nusa Tenggara. They are not volcanic islands (in fact Timor is part of Australia's continental shelf) and their topography is more gentle, whilst their eccentric position leads to a drier environment. Indeed the landscape is more reminiscent of arid Australia than tropical Indonesia: hardy, drought-resistant eucalyptus trees abound, bare kapok trees are laden with their grenade-like pods frozen in silent explosions of soft, seed-bearing fluff. Like other parts of Indonesia though there are rumah adat, the Timorese ones resembling haystacks, their thatched roofs reaching almost to the ground and their doorways barely two feet high. Throughout West Timor the villages I have seen have been the poorest and most miserable looking I have seen throughout Indonesia and many people don't even speak Bahasa Indonesia. It seems to have been a very much neglected corner of the country where only two or three generations ago inter-tribal headhunting (of the literal kind) was a popular pastime, that is until sizeable manganese deposits were found.

Having come to the end of my time here in Indonesia I feel a short summary is due for this astonishing country where I have spent more time than any other on this trip. Simply the fact that it exists as a unified country is astonishing enough: a veritable smorgasbord of islands, languages, ethnic groups and religions. And just like a smorgasbord each constituent ingredient is visible, identifiable, and possible to sample on its own, in isolation, before moving on to the next one, unlike the American melting pot where the fundamental parts have been homogenised leaving only a few, eroded lumps of original taste to remain.

That is the great resounding success of Indonesia: to bring such a disparate group of peoples together and forge a common identity without losing individuality (not that the process was completely smooth and without its casualties). The obvious manifestation of this is the universal and popular adoption of Bahasa Indonesia as the national lingua franca. (Probable reasons for its wholehearted adoption are its simplicity - there are no tenses, genders, pronouns or other such frivolities that make grammar such a headache - and it is a minority language, native to a relatively small group of people in eastern Sumatra.) The government has put a lot of effort into trying to create a nationalist historical narrative that is blatantly selective in its facts and views, even now, almost 15 years after the fall of Suharto and the introduction of many freedoms. The very diversity of Indonesia is its strength and attraction. A diversity particularly dear to me is the wide variety of foods and cuisines that call the archipelago home. From Javanese, with its sweet tooth and penchant for droning everything in peanut sauce; to Minang, with its mildly spicy and creamy taste; to tribal dishes with their love of pork and shredded vegetables; and underpinning it all, like a universal glue, nasi (rice). There is a popular Indonesian saying (although I must admit that I also heard it in the Philippines): "if you haven't eaten rice you haven't eaten." Be it steamed, cooked into porridge, fried, turned into flour to make pastries, or added to soup to give it bulk there is no getting away from it. Many Westerners grow sick of it and yearn for bread, but I will honestly miss my daily dose of nasi once I leave Asia.

One thing I will sorely miss from Indonesia: es buah. A cocktail of small fruit pieces, topped with a mountain of shaved ice and liberally drizzled with lashings of condensed milk. Mmmm, heavenly.

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