About 13 million people reside in the huge sprawling metropolis of Jakarta, a city lit up with bright neon lights by night, and overcast with monstrous smog by day. My lasting memory is of the wide boulevards which criss-cross the city, but which are crammed with standstill traffic for most the day and night. The city has no metro system, and even a trip a few miles away can take a couple of hours.
The city has South East Asia’s largest shopping mall (Mangga Dua), Indonesia’s largest mosque (Masjid Istiqlal) and the largest share of Indonesia’s population and economy. Quietly hidden amongst the skyscrapers are small simple mosques which are woven into the fabric of the city, but which are rarely front and centre. Except on Fridays, when a drum is beaten before the adhaan to announce Juma (Friday prayers), and streams and streams of people pour into and then back out of the mosques. Scooters are the vehicle of choice, filling up the scooter parks next to the mosques.
The mosques have space for women to pray – again a reflection of the relative ease with which women participate in public life. The scholars, politicians and activists which I met dealt with women in a natural, un-contrived manner. The respect was innate and natural. It was a non-issue.
Jakarta is also home to Mini-Indonesia, a drive-thru theme park that is home to traditional houses from around the country, plus a rather spectacular lake that has islands in the shape of the Indonesian archipelago. Built by Suharto’s wife it proved unpopular to start with as many locals were evicted to make way for the enormous site.
Next it was off to Yogyakarta, commonly called Jogja, a much smaller, gentler cultural town. It is home to South East Asia’s largest Hindu temple (Prambanan) and the largest Buddhist temple (Borobudur). The former was built around the 10th century and the latter in the 8th and 9th century, but they were quickly abandoned for unknown reasons. As the guide to the sites said, “These sites are Hindu and Buddhist, but most of the visitors are Muslim. This is Indonesia.” A statement that is the perfect summary of the respectful spirituality of this vast diverse nation.
This should have come as no surprise in a country where one of the five principles upon which the state is built is “Unity in diversity.” These five pancacila were the foundation of the new nation that declared its independence from the Dutch in 1945. The country was based on a theistic vision of statehood: belief in the one and only God. It also envisioned a just and civilised humanity, social justice for the whole of Indonesia and finally, and perhaps most significantly democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations amongst representatives.
It is this fusion of democracy and faith that makes the physical, spiritual and social landscape of Indonesia so fascinating. Jogja was a perfect example of this with the ease with the which the locals look after Prambanan and Borobudur. They are horrified at the attempted terrorist attacks aimed at destroying them.
Yogyakarta was heavily affected by an earthquake measuring 6.2 in 2006. Bantul, a small suburb of Jogja was almost entirely destroyed taking a hit of almost two thirds of the 3500 dead. I visited some house rebuilding projects being run by the British NGO Muslim Aid. I spoke to one family that had been housed. The father had been injured by falling debris in the quake and was unable to work to support his four children. Muslim Aid had given them a brick house with three rooms so they could re-build their lives. This was a huge boon to the family whose breadwinner is the mother. She earns their living by peeling garlic cloves by hand, for which she earns about 30 pence per day. Each house costs 4 million rupiah – a mere £240, in order to give a family a home, and allow them to get on with their lives.
I also went to visit House of Lawe, (“Conserving tradition, empowering women”) a local project not far away which gives people the resources to create yarn, fabric and handicrafts to sell in the local community and with which to support themselves. It is the oldest such project in the area, and the day I arrived was the launch of their new women’s handicraft project.
Earthquakes and tsunamis are not the only epic disasters to befall Indonesia. Set in the ‘Ring of fire’, volcanoes are widely prevalent throughout the country. Merapi is Jogja’s own volcano, and it erupted in 2007. Since this was still monsoon season, the path to the volcano was closed due to potential torrential rain and sodden ash in the path. On the way, we chanced upon a missionary church built in one of the poorer villages. It stood in the same style of rectangular thatched building used for mosques, town halls and prayer areas.
Before leaving town, I visited the local shopping mall, another ‘biggest…’, which was jam-packed with the same American brands wherever I turned – Starbucks, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Hard Rock Cafe. It was like home away from home (note the irony). What was surprising was that the prices were similar to those in the UK, in a country where poverty runs at approximately 40 per cent.
Next stop was Bali, the Ibiza of Asia. The Ozzies had popped over just as the Brits might have done to the Spanish coast. My base was Legian, just north of the infamous Kuta, made notorious by the Bali bombings of 2002. The public face of Bali was a body shock coming from quiet sleepy Muslim Yogyakarta. Bali is mainly Hindu, although quite different in flavour to Indian Hinduism. It is sprinkled with in-your-face adult entertainment and fast food joints. A gentle walk on the sea front led to a disconcerting number of offers for marijuana from dreadlocked Indonesians.
The spirit of the island changed heading further inland. The landscaped changed from frenetic building work to jaw-dropping green paddy fields with unbelievable curved terraces, with hot steam rising when the rains came pouring down. Hobbits could be seen traversing the greenery. The taxi-driver trailed me through batik shops, art houses, wooden carving joints, furniture shops and silversmiths trying hard to earn commission from any sales I might generate, but the quality was sadly too tourist-y. But then we reached Ubud, the touristic and artistic centre of the island which is replete with expensive shops, and fortunately balanced by a cheap bustling market (bargain hard!). I ventured nervously into Monkey Forest where about a hundred cute little monkeys bounced around chasing after visitors and snatching away any loose items.
I imagine that Bali was once what Lombok is today which was the next stop – an unspoilt magical island to the east of Bali. Affected heavily by the drop in tourism after all the catastrophic events, Lombok’s fledgling tourist industry took a downturn. As a result, top end hotels are a bargain (book your rooms now! Sadly I get no commission). The sands are soft, the sea is calm and deep blue, the food is tasty and cheap, the people are helpful and friendly. I felt like I was in paradise. Until a trip to Gili Trawangan, part of the Gili Islands. After an hour on a motorised catamaran across perfect inky blue waters, I really did find paradise. Perfect white sand beach. Perfect turquoise sea, perfect gentle breeze. I drank fresh lime soda stretched out on a sun-lounger watching the waves kiss the shore. Did I really have to come home?
Lombok is stunning. The roads wind dramatically along the coastline revealing mile upon mile of idyllic beaches on one side, and lush green palm groves on the other. It is called the Island of a Thousand Mosques, and lives up to its name with tiny mosques dotted subtly throughout the forests, paddy fields and small towns. The countryside is punctuated with small huts to allow for both shelter from the rain, but also for convenient prayer places. And this is the story of Indonesia. It is a country that seems at ease with its faith at a human ordinary people level. It is interwoven into the rhythm of life, not in-your-face.
Only ten years on from the reformasi and the country’s move to democracy, the nation is showing signs of an active civic engagement in democratic process. People are asking questions about nationhood, democracy and faith. I was asked many times – how do you reconcile your faith with being British – by people who were asking how they could create Indonesia into a country that was at ease with all its faiths as well as its nationhood.
Coming from a country where participation in the political process is at an all time low, the Indonesian vigour and enthusiasm at civic engagement was overwhelming. In Britain the shutters have come down on exploring our national identity in an open and progressive manner. In Indonesia I found the opposite – ordinary people, not just politicians – asking questions about the values that bind its people irrespective of faith and ethnicity, and how to deal fairly and intelligently with minorities. They do not have all the answers, and they are certainly far from perfect in many areas. In fact, their record in some areas is poor, and there are many trouble spots the country will have to negotiate through at a political and state level, extremism being at the forefront of everyone’s minds. But whilst extremism dominates the world’s view of Indonesia, at a local people level they want to be known as a people of moderation and peace (check out the video I will be posting soon).