The following is based solely on my personal experiences and observations during a short four weeks of traveling in Indonesia and must on no account be taken as general fact!
A – Animals
Lots. Everywhere. Starting from starlings (they are home in every climate, the cheeky things, aren’t they?), to cats living in compounds and dogs living on the street, to ants living in sugar jars and geckos on ceilings and walls, to monkey living on the edges of towns to those deep in the jungle, all the way to those I know so little about: an abundance of birds and insects and butterflies and fish and more mammals and oh, so many more animals overall, with so many of them being in danger of having their habitats seriously damaged, and quite a number a long way down the road to extinction.
B – Bahasa Indonesia
Indonesian language. I don’t speak it and feel more bad for that fact with every day I am here. It’s not hard to learn. I will before I come next. Closely related to Malaysian. Lots of English derivatives that make me laugh. Often more sung than spoken, very lyrical-sounding. Second language for most Indonesians who usually learn the language of their cultural group first.
C – Coffee
Is grown in the highlands of Central Java, but also other places. Coffee is prepared by stirring the powder into hot water and letting it settle (sorry to all the Italians for the pain of that wince). I like it, better than the ridicuously overpriced international coffee shop chains that can be found in the bigger cities. Don’t get me wrong, I have used the free wifi of the Seattle-based one, but give me break, okay, I didn’t buy anything.
D – Durian
The bane of my Asian travels. Omnipresent fruit with baffling popularity. A smell that crawls into my nose and makes itself at home there for at least ten minutes. Smells like an overripe mango that has defected to the dark side.
E – Education
Free in theory. Quality of public education is questionable, private schools and education abounds. Schools are everywhere and school uniforms are the same gasthly colours as they are internationally. Next time, I’m going to look more into this issue.
F – Fitri
Friend. Wonderful. Best grin in the whole world. Unconditionally supportive. Consistently straightforward and honest. Wicked sense of humour. Amazing hostess. Reeeeeeeeeally loves food. Always has time to answer stupid or obvious questions. Can get very excited by snow.
G – Gado-Gado
Lovely vegetarian dish. Sometimes classified as a salad, sometimes as a warm meal – not sure about what it acutally is. Full of green beans and sprouts and tofu, served with a warm peanut sauce. I will master this recipe until it becomes a staple in my kitchen.
H – Help
Always available for the asking. Always provided, sometimes to the degree of too much help. One of the very few situations where patriarchy works in my favour as a woman – a hopeful smile, big eyes and a faint air of being wholly reliant on the person I asked for assistance always see me through. (None of these attributes are for show – I usually am wholly relying on that person!) … (Alright, I’ll admit that I play up the “innocent” look a little from time to time – don’t judge me!)
I – Indonesia
Huge. Highly diverse. Not sure how it was managed to instill a sense of cohesion in the first place, with different languages, histories, traditions, spiritualitues, etc. in the different regions, and some animosity and rivalry between different groups as well. But apart from a few regions, the national identity seems to hold strong. The flag certainly is to be found everywhere and one of the questions that children ask is “What do you think of Indonesia?”. If you tell them it is very beautiful and you like it very much, the enthusiastic response – to the extreme of handclapping and expressions of gratitude – speaks to a certain level of national pride and identity.
J – Juice
Fruit juices. Fresh fruit juices. Everywhere! Fresh as in, they take the fruit you want, put it in a juicing machine and give you the result. Pineapple is one of my favourites, but also avocado and papaya & lime.
K – Knock-offs
Shameless and ubiquitous. Anything that is considered successful is copied remorselessly, to the point of colour schemes, fonts, slogans – clothing, hotel concepts, foods, designs. All coffee shops, for example, feature wooden floors, chalkboards with all the same coffee mix drinks written up and the same selection of Western coffeshop-snacks. I wonder if they know in Seattle…
L – Lake Toba
Huge lake in northern Sumatra, filling the caldera of a supervolcano. The people traditionally living in the area are Batak. I really liked it there, but it is hard in hindsight to decide whether it was because it’s so beautiful and unique, or because it gave me the peace and quiet I needed to really sit down with myself and sink into the traveller’s state of mind. Where I started writing the diary for real. Very peaceful during the week, a bit more lively on weekends. Experienced true quietness there. Highland temperatures, so no excessive heat and no humidity, but sunshine and warm lake water and palm trees and astonishing thunderstorms in the later afternoon.
M – Makan
Means “eat” in Indonesian. (Yes, I’m cheating a little.) The food is sooooo amazing and it’s easy to eat very well as a vegetarian (as long as you’re okay with seafood). Even vegans could be quite happy with a bit of knowledge of the words to be found on a menu, even though they love eggs in their dishes here. Easiest and most fun for me is if I see the food being cooked, then it’s just a matter of pointing. Will definitely invest in some learning of basic menu items next time though.
N – Netherlands
Strong historical presence in Indonesia, first through the Dutch East India Company, then after 1800 until World War II the Dutch government colonized Indonesia. The relations seem pretty harmonious now, at least Dutch tourists are very welcome and quite a number of Indonesians have relations living in the Netherlands. There are some Dutch words left in the language, but all in all, surprisingly little. I was vaguely aware of the historical relationship, but learned much about it since visting Yogyakarta.
O – Orang Utan
Orang Utan was my first contact with the (big) wildlife in Indonesia, and one of the two things I wanted to experience here (the other being volcanoes). I was blessed by seeing and being able to watch for quite a while three mothers and their respective babies. I love the way they move – very gentle, very deliberate movements. Huge blinking eyes. Their habitats have been reduced so much in the past that they can only be found in two places in all of the large archipelago, and now those two places are under threat as well.
P – Palm Oil Plantations
The work of the devil, or of foreign mega corporations, which comes down to the same thing. Even if there are places where workers on these plantations are treated fairly (like, having a contract and insurance and sick leave) and earn a decent wage – and I haven’t heard of any yet – their ever growing presence in a region that is teeming with unique and endemic wildlife and plants is a serious threat to biodiversity and a fist in the gut to anyone who cares about these things (and everyone should).
Q – Quietude
Not to be had in the big cities, in very touristy areas (worse if it’s local tourists) or in the vicinity of a mosque. But deep, deep quiet can be found in rural areas and in nature. No planes going overhead. No motorway or busy street just behind the next hill. Just cicadas or rain or thunder or sometimes even just nothing.
R – Raffles
The guy who is recognized as founding Singapore also invaded Indonesia. Not sure if he was an okay guy in the framework of his time, or a powerhungry bastard. I bought a book on him and will read up on the matter. References to his name and his legacy can be found in many places though.
S – Selfies
Form of public performance art. Done everywhere and by everyone, teenagers in the lead, but bustling matrons not far behind. Can also be played as a game in which it is important to get that exotic foreigner into the picture with yourself, in order to gain coolness points. Asking for that favour takes two words (“Selfie, miss?”) and is inevitably linked to a fit of giggling.
T – Transport
Available everywhere. Works, after a fashion. Give up any hope of being in charge of where you’re going and how; trust in the process instead. Repeat where you want to go (look a little lost and helpless if you want). Be prepared to get up and close with your fellow travelers. Always pay the driver directly, or his assistant if you’re in the bus. Never the people who help you find the right bus. Repeat learning that lesson every time you’re tired or not paying attention. Expect bumpy roads. Take snacks on a longer journey. Always add at least two to three hours to the time you are being told the travel will take. Try and use every form of transport at least once and don’t be scared to use a motorcycle taxi – nobody goes fast and there are few accidents.
V – Volcano
Sooo many. Have been humming Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire under my breath for weeks. Many can be visited and they are all different. To imagine the power that built these things and makes them erupt in shorter or longer intervals is almost possible when you stand next to a crater lake surrounded by fuming sulphur holes. The ease with which people build villages on the slopes of an active volcano is startling. Deeply fascinated by the whole phenomenon and the idea of how this geography influences the society and the different cultures. Beautiful side effect: very fertile soil for farming, meaning amazing and fresh fruit and veg all year round.
W – Wedding
Fitri and Aji. The original reason that brought me here. So happy for my friend. Such a beautiful ceremony, even though very stylized and formal. But to see so many people so happy and so moved was moving in itself. Especially loved the long strand of fresh jasmine flowers fixed to the bride’s head and the symbolism of the ceremony where each of the newlyweds first says goodbye to their immediate family and then is being greeted by each of their in-laws. Also: amazing food in even more amazing quantities. Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of this!
X – Xenophobia
Nowhere to be seen. Rather the opposite. (Speaking from a position of privilege here, keep that in mind.)
Y – You
To all my friends who read this: I carry you in my heart whereever I go, and even if I make new friends, that will never diminish the love and affection I have for you. This writing is for me, but it is also for you, because I want to share the beauty and amazingness I see with you, to make you be a part of this. And your reactions to my writing have been so kind and so very inspiring.
Z – Zero
Too many on the money. Very confusing.