Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Big Durian

New York is known throughout the world as the Big Apple. I'm not sure whether it's for its sweetness, juiciness, or tendency to turn brown on the slightest contact with air. Whatever the reason I feel that Jakarta deserves its own nickname too. It is just as big and is quite the metropolis in southeast Asia. I have therefore decided to call it the Big Durian in homage to the local pungent delicacy fruit that locals love and foreigners loathe with a passion: the first impression is the smell (or perhaps in the case of Jakarta the haze of pollution on the horizon); at first touch it's a hard and spiky, seemingly impenetrable and not worth the bother to investigate further; once you've finally opened it up you discover that most of it is comprised of inedible, useless ballast with only a small percentage of fleshy goodness; and when you finally get to taste it then it's a 50/50, Marmite-like epiphany of either love or hate. Jakarta is a lot of work and you may not even like it at the end of it.

Is it a spiky, love-it-or-hate-it tropical fruit? or is it Indonesia's much-maligned capital?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Java: Stronger Than A Cup Of Coffee

Given my aching thighs and calves following Kerinci I was glad to spend a considerable amount of time on buses, trains and boats over the following week (although I was less happy by one of my drivers' enthusiasm for trance music played at full blast in the minivan at 2am in the morning). From the fresh, tea plantations of Kersik Tua I headed east to the hot and humid alluvial lowlands of Sumatra and the not-at-all-touristic town of Jambi. My main (only) reason for visiting was the remains of the capital of the once mighty Melayu kingdom that flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries after the fall of the nearby Srivijaya empire. It is this kingdom that gave its name to the Malay peninsula (which it also controlled) and, by extension Malaysia. This has led to friction between the two countries with Indonesians angered that Malaysia is claiming for its own cultural traditions and heritage that Indonesians believe to be rightfully theirs. The most notorious is batik, the colourful, wax-resist dying technique that is used to make intricately patterned clothes. Long ignored by Indonesian authorities Malaysia quietly stepped in claiming it as their own. This led to Indonesians protesting and quickly registering it with UNESCO as part of their intangible cultural heritage. Ever since then Friday has become batik day (the registration was announced on a Friday) when all office workers are obliged to turn up in garish shirts (the most popular designs often incorporating football team logos) in a sort of nationwide "up yours" to their northerly neighbour that they love to hate.

The executive ManU batik shirt - no self-respecting Indonesian office worker would be seen without one on a Friday.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Climbing Kerinci

Travelling down the interior of Sumatra you get a good sense of its size and relative wildness. The Trans-Sumatran highway is a joke: barely wide enough to let two trucks pass, winding along the hilly spine of the Bukit Barisan mountains and potholed, you'll be lucky if you achieve an average speed 40lm/h. It gives you plenty of time to watch the surrounding countryside go by. Small, dusty, farming villages with their adjoining rice fields, vegetable patches and banana trees alternate with large chunks of forest spilling down to the roadside from the wild, green mountains. Encroachment onto virgin forest is a problem as the human population of Sumatra increases and demands greater space and resources. Nevertheless this is still a haven of biodiversity and is the last refuge on earth of some of the world's largest and most majestic animals: the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran orangutan (slightly different to its Bornean cousin) and Sumatran rhino are found nowhere else on earth (actually there is a small population, estimated at 25 individuals, of Sumatran rhinos in Sabah). Naturally it's difficult to get out to the places where these animals live, and a sighting is as likely as winning the lottery. Instead I decided to just go for a hike in one of Sumatra's three main national parks.

Statue of a harimau (Sumatran tiger) guarding the road that snakes through the tea plantations to the Kerinci National Park and the iconic volcano that lords over the surrounding countryside.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dangerous Island

Sumatra is a dangerous place. It's not the inhabitants though, but the island itself. Something deep down in Sumatra, more fundamental, geological, doesn't seem to like people. I've already mentioned the Boxing Day earthquake, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. There have been at lest half a dozen serious ones since then claiming a few thousand lives. Slightly further back in time southern Sumatra was host to the largest volcanic eruption of the past 180 years when the Krakatoa (aka Krakatau) volcano erupted violently in 1883. The explosion, which was heard up to 5000km away, became the first worldwide media sensation, claimed the lives of over 36,000 people, plunged the world into an ash-induced winter for several years, and even had a film made about it.

Intricate decorations adorning a traditional Batak house in the Toba area.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Day The Earth Moved

Up until six and a half years ago Aceh was a name that few people knew. For years the region at the northern tip of Sumatra was a no-go area thanks to the Free Aceh guerrilla insurgency that was seeking independence for the region underpinned by discontent about central government appropriation of Acehnese resources (oil had been found offshore Aceh in the 70's), an influx of outsiders and a desire for a greater role for sharia in local law. The almost three decades of conflict had claimed some 15,000 lives. All that was to change on Boxing Day 2004 when the third largest earthquake ever to be recorded struck off the northwestern coast of Sumatra. The resulting tsunami spread far and wide, causing immense casualties in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia and even as far as South Africa. The brunt of nature's force, however, was borne by Aceh which experienced some 70% of the total 185,000 casualties and the capital, Banda Aceh, was almost wiped from the map.

The owners of this house probably weren't too pleased to find that someone had parked a boat on their roof despite the very obvious sign.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Hello Mister!

After a week with my friends in Cyberjaya it was time for me to move on. They had already postponed my departure by insisting I spend the weekend with them, but the easy life wasn't getting me any further, and so with a last farewell I set off for Port Klang, Kuala Lumpur's port on the coast. It seems strange to me that despite all the difficulties in getting by sea from one part of the country to another, Peninsular Malaysia has good maritime connections with several neighbouring countries, including Indonesia. Although I liked my time in Malaysia I find it a rather dull place to be honest. Whether it's to do with the rather staid, conservative Muslim culture favoured by the authorities, or whether it has to do with reaching a certain level of development and therefore eschewing the happy chaos of less developed countries I'm not sure. But a difference in chaos was certainly evident in the transition from Malaysia to Indonesia. Boarding the ferry at the Klang terminal was a muted affair, with slowly shuffling rows of passengers trickling through immigration. Disembarkation, on the other hand, was joyously raucous as porters, passengers and onlookers jostled for position on the jetty. The immigration hall was full of shouting, sweaty bodies and a dense fog of sweet kretek (clove cigarettes that have already become one of the hallmarks of my time here in Indonesia) smoke. Nevertheless the bureaucracy was dealt with surprisingly swiftly as people huddled round the immigration desk where the clerks were a blur of furious stamping. The crossing was also quite merry as there was a karaoke video of popular dangdut (the Indonesian music of the masses, best described as the bastard offspring between Polish disco polo and Romanian gypsy manele) songs, which the passengers sang along with when they weren't quizzing me about who I was, where I was going, and other personal questions.

Medan's crowded public market has possibly the largest collection of dried fish in the world. It also has lots of smiling vendors who seem to want to talk about Chelsea or the upcoming Euro championships.