Sunday, July 29, 2012

Born To Die

Some say that the most important event in the (pre-)history of mankind was the discovery of fire and how to control it. I would say that equally important, if not more so, was the day man came to understand his own mortality and it scared the bejeezus out of him. The former gave him tools, but the latter gave him purpose. Ever since then man has been trying everything in his power to escape his fate. The most obvious manifestation of this is religion. In its myriad guises, and its various messages about ethics, lessons on how to properly sacrifice animals, what clothes to wear, and whether you can marry your first cousin the one constant seems to be a reassuring narrative of some sort of life after death, whether it be reincarnation, a hall for warriors full of wenches serving mead, or some abstract heaven. Follow us, the religions say, and we will ensure that the curse of mortality doesn't befall you. Even Buddhism, which is seen by many to be a philosophy rather than a religion, has incorporates the idea of reincarnation.

Smoking's a killer. Torajan skulls left with cigarettes as offerings.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Stuck In The Mud

It seems that Indonesia is becoming a place of reunions for me. I have no idea why, but a number of people I know are in the country at the moment and so I'm taking the opportunity to reconnect with them. Almost exactly 6 years after meeting Erika in a gorgeous guesthouse in Yazd I found her again in Indonesia's second city, Surabaya. At the time she and her partner Robin were cycling from Scotland east, with no definite goal in mind, seeing how far they could get and learning about the places along the way. They eventually ended up in Indonesia where Erika is now teaching English and quite content with her more stable situation: having a good job, a cosy house in a pleasant kampung and a circle of friends. I was glad to meet up with her again and catch up on what we had been up to in the intervening years and where we saw ourselves heading (much less clarity there). I was even introduced to some of her colleagues as they were celebrating a very British institution: after-work Friday drinks. It led to the bizarre situation where I was in the company of four other Scots, something that has probably only occurred once in the past 16 years since I left Aberdeen.

Monkey business in the kampung. Itinerant entertainers with a monkey on a chain and some music go round from neighbourhood to neighbourhood entertaining the kids with simple tricks.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Java Man (aka Where Are The Muslims?)

Of the little we in the West know of Indonesia, the fact that it's the most populous Muslim country in the world, with over 200 million officially registered adherents (more on this definition in a later post), is probably the most widely known factoid, helped by the odd Islamist bombing and display of irrational intolerance that make great media headlines. However it is an Islam that wouldn't be recognised in the Middle East. Islam came relatively late to the Indonesian archipelago, some time in the 12th century, by which time Hinduism had already been there for a millennium and Buddhism about half that, and it wasn't until the late 15th century that it became the dominant religion. Such a long legacy of Indian religions cannot but fail to leave a trace, a trace that is most evident in the Javanese heartland, which, paradoxically, is also considered to be among the most conservatively Muslim parts of the country.

Smoking Mount Merapi (one of the most active volcanoes in the world) towering above the ruins of Borobudur (visible in the centre-right of the picture as a small point, though trust me, it's big) in the pre-dawn mist.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Old Smokey

Jakarta was too hot and humid and so I decided to do what many locals do and head for the hills. My destination was Bandung, Java's favoured hill station. The weather is certainly more pleasant than Jakarta's oppressive heat and humidity, but that's about it. Bamdung has now mushroomed into Indonesia's third-largest city and has much the same traffic and air-quality problems as Jakarta. Along with the weather most Indonesians come to Bandung either to study or to go shopping at the city's many outlet stores. Those of you who know me will know that neither of those could possibly be a reason for me to come. So what drew me to Bandung?

The smoking, sulphurous crater Tangkuban Perahu is Bandung's premier tourist spot and it's possible to drive right up to the rim in your car. Souvenir vendors do a roaring trade in furry hats as intrepid Indonesians brave arctic temperatures (well, it's around 10 degrees, which is freezing for them).