26th October,  2003  Volume 10, Issue 15

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Inside Indonesia

By Asgar Hussein in Indonesiya

Indonesia, that vast archipelago of 13,000 islands, has through-out history experienced explo-sions. Located as it is on the so-called 'ring of fire', it has suffered from volcanic eruptions that have claimed countless lives.

Today, this country has gained notoriety for explosions of a different sort - bombs. The bombings in the resort island of Bali and the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta have struck a severe blow to its tourism industry.

It is indeed a sad fate for this incomparable destination for travellers. Its incredibly rich diversity of flora and fauna, scenery and culture must surely rank it as one of the best places to visit, a veritable paradise on earth.

The authorities here have tried hard to erase the negative image created by the violence wrought by Islamic militancy. However, for Indonesian tourism to get back on track, political stability and security are of utmost importance. This predominantly Muslim country now faces strong competition from its South-East Asian neighbours. Vietnam, once a war zone, is now a popular destination for Australian tourists who perceive it as a peaceful Buddhist nation.

However, for those travellers driven by wanderlust, the risks pale into insignificance when compared to what the country has to offer in terms of nature and culture. It is truly an ethnic kaleidoscope. The archipelago is home to 336 different ethnic groups speaking over 300 distinct languages.

For the Indiana Jones wannabe there are exotic places to visit - ancient temple ruins and tribes hardly touched by modern civilisation. There are animal species like the Komodo Dragon, the world's largest lizard which grows to a length of 10 feet. But beware! They have been known to occasionally attack and kill people.

The jungles of Indonesia are inhabited by such creatures as the Sumatran Tiger,  Javan Rhino and the Orang-Utan ('man of the forest').

North Sulawesi

A sample of the country's sheer variety can be experienced simply by visiting a region like North Sulawesi. One of the most interesting sites to visit here is the village of Sawangan. Gathered here are 144 stone sarcophagi or waruga. The oldest of these is supposed to be around 1100 years old. In the roof-like lid of some of the more recent sarcophagi are carved images depicting the life and occasionally the death of the occupant. One even depicts a woman giving birth - this probably means she died during labour.

One writer described this place surrounded by gnarled frangipani trees as eerie. This feeling of mystery and fear may arise from the knowledge that the deceased were not buried beneath the ground but instead kept in a foetal position within the vessel, squatting atop a China plate. This practice was banned by the Dutch colonial rulers following an outbreak of cholera and tuberculosis in the 1800s,  and many of the sarcophagi around the region were shifted to Sawangan.

About two hours drive from this place lies the village of Tomohon, which means 'people who pray.'  This is not surprising given the fact that it is nestled between two active volcanoes. One of these volcanoes, Lokon, is known to erupt often, and a little over two years ago poured ash on the surroundings. Predominantly Christian North Sulawesi - which is the only volcanic part of the island -  is noted for its many churches. The people here probably pray to God often to avert a catastrophic eruption.

Volcanic eruptions

Other regions of Indonesia have been laid waste by exploding volcanoes. In fact, 77 of the 167 volcanoes in this country have erupted in historic times. It has witnessed two of the most devastating eruptions ever.

According to the Guiness Book Of World Records, the highest death toll resulted from the eruption of Tambora in 1815, when around 92,000 people were killed or died as a result of the subsequent famine. The Miyi-Yama eruption killed 50,000 people. Much more well-known is the catastrophic explosion of Krakatoa in 1883. It destroyed 163 villages and generated tidal waves that killed 36,000 people. So great was the explosion that four hours later it was recorded as " the roar of heavy guns" as far as the island of Rodrigues, almost 3000 miles away. It has been estimated that it was 26 times more powerful than the greatest hydrogen bomb detonation.

However, let's get back to the marvels of North Sulawesi, which is also famed for the spectacular Lake Linow. Fed by a steaming volcanic spring, the waters here change colour from deep blue to turquoise, green and sulphur yellow.

Underwater paradise

The region's main attractions however are underwater - its coral and marine life. It is claimed that new species are regularly discovered in the reefs.

One of the most celebrated discoveries was that of the Manado coelacanth five years ago. This lobe-finned fish was believed to have gone extinct around 60 million years ago until a living specimen was found off South East Africa in 1938. Since then it was thought to exist only in the Western Indian ocean, but the discovery of a new species off North Sulawesi created a sensation. This coelacanth lives deep in volcanic caves.

Other discoveries in the region's reefs include tiny pigmy seahorses and mantis shrimp. The waters also have yet undescribed cephalopod species such as the mimic octopus, the 'wonderpus' and 'blandopus.' Scientists are reportedly collaborating with dive centres to properly describe them.

Divers will certainly consider North Sulawesi as an underwater paradise. In Manado and Bunaken there are said to be around 300 types of coral and 3000 kinds of fish. Another great area to see marine life is the Lembeh Strait which teems with bizarre sea creatures like the ornate ghost pipefish, neon coloured nudibranchs (a type of seaslug), mimic octopuses, flamboyant cuttlefish, the pygmy seahorse and frogfish. Humpback, sperm and pilot whales as well as dolphins regularly visit the strait which is also famed for its corals, critters, sponges and molluscs.

There have however been occasions when humans threatened the rich marine life here. For example, at one time, Taiwanese placed two huge fish traps on the mouth of the Lembeh Strait. They caught and slaughtered over 3000 dolphins, pilot whales, manta rays, marlins, whale sharks, leatherback turtles and dugongs. This practice supported by some military brass continued for nearly two years, until the Indonesian president intervened to halt it.

North Sulawesi is also home to a small, gremlin-like creature called Tarsius spectrum. This primate (which is about the size of a softball) with enormous eyes and large hairless ears, emerges at dusk to prey on insects. Mention must also be made of the maleo bird which incubates its eggs in warm volcanic soil. These eggs are eight times larger than those of a chicken.

North Sulawesi is part of Sulawesi - one of the main islands in Indonesia. It was formerly known as Celebes, which is said to be a Portuguese word meaning "infamous" and so called because many ships were wrecked off its coast.

The early Portuguese explorers initially believed that Sulawesi was a group of individual islands instead of a single land mass. This could be explained by its odd shape - it is split into thin peninsulas (divided by deep, contoured gulfs) which are so apart that the explorers could be forgiven for their error.

The other main islands of the Indonesian archipelago are Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan (the major portion of Borneo) and Irian Jaya or Papua (the Western half of New Guinea)

Sumatra offers the traveller a unique blend of culture and nature. Here live tribes such as the Minang hill people. Nature reveals its glory in the form of jungles, hills, lakes and beaches.

Fascinating plants

The world's largest bloom - the parasitic corpse lily (Rafflesia arnoldi) grows in Sumatra and attaches itself to cissus vines. The flowers measure up to three feet across and can weigh as much as 15 pounds. They are coloured to resemble rotting meat and emit a fetid odour to attract their pollinators - flies that feed on dead and decaying flesh.

Indonesia has many other fascinating plants, such as the carnivorous pitcher plant which consumes insects. In fact, the pitcher plants of Borneo are so big that birds and small mammals get caught, and unable to break free, are digested by the plants. So nature seems to have reversed the rules. Generally animals eat plants, but here plants consume animals!

However, it is humans who are threatening animal life in Indonesia. The country has the highest number of threatened mammal and bird species in the world - 128 and 104 respectively. One tour operator who places much emphasis on environment conservation even advises travellers -- "... leave nothing but footsteps and take nothing but photographs."

The island of Bali is relatively small but is Indonesia's most famous tourist destination. The mostly Hindu people here have earned a reputation for their art, architecture, sculpture and handicraft. The Balinese are a colourful people with interesting customs and rituals. Next month alone, they will celebrate two events in honour of their deities. On November 1, they will celebrate Saraswati Day, dedicated to the goddess of knowledge, sciences and arts. The strange part is that reading is prohibited on this day.

Then on November 15, the Balinese will celebrate Tumpek Landep Day, devoted to the lord of all metal implements - Sanghyang Pasupati. In every family compound blessing ceremonies will be held to give metal objects, including weapons and cars, magical powers and ensure they function properly.

The world-famous Buddhist stupa complex Borobudur is located in the island of Java. Built around 800 AD, it lay hidden under volcanic ash for a thousand years until it was rediscovered by the British colonial administrator Sir Stamford Raffles who was Lieutenant-Governor of Java from 1811 to 1816.

In the complex (which is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site) is carved a continuous relief portraying the Buddha's life and teachings. Borobudur amply demonstrates the construction skills of the ancient Buddhists of Indonesia.

Jakarta

On the Northwest coast of Java lies Jakarta, the country's capital of 12 million people. The diversity of peoples and cultures in this vast archipelago as well as its location on one of the world's busiest sea routes has made Jakarta a 'melting pot.' All kinds of ethnic and foreign influences are evident here.

The city is a shoppers' haven, with everything available from haute couture to traditional batik clothes, from electronics to local handicraft. There are mega-malls for big spenders and roadside flea markets for bargain hunters. The flea market at Jalan Surabaya will delight antique and curio collectors. Here, street vendors sell numerous kinds of items, including brassware, batak calendars,Chinese porcelain, wayang puppets, Dutch lamps and even old vinyl LP records.

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