Monday, August 10, 2009

Celebrating in Indonesia’s Great Outdoors

Posted by John
Ten days before our departure from Indonesia, Danielle’s field research drew to a close. During the past year and a half, she’s endured sizzling Sumatran summers and frigid Siberian winters and interviewed close to two hundred people from all walks of life in both Russia and Indonesia. These two societies are divided by a host of cultural and socioeconomic factors, but do share the common experience of recent democratization. After witnessing two presidential elections, a number of protests and political forums in large international cities and small villages, the time has come for Danielle to start searching for meaning in the data.

You’ll learn more when “Democratizing Citizens: Political Transition in Russia and Indonesia” hits the dissertation shelves in two years. But first, we’re celebrating the completion of field work by enjoying some of Indonesia’s world-famous natural beauty. After spending most of our time in smog- and soot-filled cities, the countryside has provided a breath of fresh air.

Our first stop was Bukit Lawang Nature Preserve in North Sumatra, home to orangutans and other primates. Our six-hour hike brought us deep beneath the jungle canopy (left, click on the photo for a larger image). Since the period of Dutch colonization, palm oil, rubber and other plantations have infringed upon Indonesia’s rain forest. The government has committed to preserving remaining habitats, and Bukit Lawang is one of the few places left in the world where you can see orangutan in their natural environment.

Virtually anything can grow in Sumatra’s equatorial heat and humidity—cacao, cloves, resin and rattan were just some of the crops we saw during our hike. What is more, the region’s natural bounty means creatures often become fruitful and multiply, growing to surprising physical proportions. Armies of varsity-sized termites crawled over felled trees, looking as though they could carry off a Buick when they pooled their efforts.

The unquestioned kings of the forest, however, were the furry orange orangutans we saw swinging through the trees above us (right). Within our first hour of walking, we came upon a mother and child some twenty feet above the path. A large group of European tourists rushed in to take photos and video, and these primates sought privacy rather than the spotlight. The Sumatran orangutan mostly stays in trees anyway, content to eat fruit and bugs and rarely coming down to the ground. The long-tailed macaques (left), smaller relatives from the primate family, proved far more sociable.

Humans and orangutan share 96 percent of their genetic material, and “orangutan” is Indonesian for “man of the forest.” You could see some of the simian resemblance when we used our free arms to grasp at tree branches as our hike reached particularly steep and slippery stretches. Some of the hiking proved downright treacherous, and we weren’t coming across any signs of orangutan after our brief initial glimpses. But just when we had almost given up hope that we’d have a chance to spend any quality time with our distant primate cousins, our guide stumbled across a female orangutan napping in a low-hanging tree. For more than 15 minutes, we had a chance to see the creature up close and snap a few photos, including this one of her hand reaching out as her nap ended (below right).

During our last week in Indonesia, we finally made it to Bali, often the only section of the country people outside Indonesia know anything about. With its traditional dance and music, Hindu temples and gorgeous beaches, this island of 3.5 million teems with tourists and occupies a prominent place in the foreign understanding of Indonesia.

Not that understanding appears to be the primary goal for the majority of tourists in Bali. Most come from Europe in search of sun and surf, and alcoholic beverages and topless sunbathers are far, far more common here than in any other part of this Muslim-majority country. We’ve enjoyed our two days in Bali’s warm and calm ocean waters, but hearing German and French conversations at a poolside bars make it easy for us to lose sight of the fact that we are in Indonesia. I almost did a double-take when I saw presidential campaign bumper stickers along the beach yesterday. Indonesian politicians’ discussion of poverty alleviation, the role of Islam in public life, and ethnic separatism all seem a world away from Bali’s beach volleyball courts. Yet spending time among well-heeled, white tourists has probably served as something of a halfway house to the reverse acculturation process that will happen when we return to the United States.

The beach has provided welcome rest and recreation, but we gained a fuller sense of Bali when we stayed for a few days in a Hindu village outside the town of Ubud. More than 90 percent of the island’s residents are Hindu, as Bali was the refuge for the Majapahit kingdom that fled Java during the ascendancy of Islamic kingdoms in the 14th and 15th century. Unlike in Java, Hindu temples here are not historical showpieces—they are still in active use. On the evening of our arrival, women carried offerings of fruit on their heads and various avatar statues outside temples were outfitted with black-and-white checkered sarongs. Life in this Hindu enclave proves a far cry from the other parts of Indonesia where we’ve spent time. We were almost surprised to hear very faint strains of a Muslim call to prayer outside Ubud one evening. After it had become such a regular part of our lives for three months, it now seemed almost out of place.

Away from the tourist strip along the beaches, most of the Balinese landscape consists of verdant rice patties that stretch out for miles (left). On one of our days near Ubud, we had a chance for an up-close view by walking in and around rice fields one morning. Danielle ended up with a bit of a closer view than she wanted when she fell from one of the narrow paths into the muddy rice field below, taking our guide down with her. Fortunately, everyone made it out without a scratch, but our guide managed to lose his shoes somewhere in the quagmire. “All part of the trekking,” he assured us, and led us another mile or so in his bare feet.

Our trip to Bali also coincided with Indonesia’s highest profile antiterrorism operation in years, the August 7 shootout with Noordin Top’s Jemaat Islamiyah cell in central Java. This group coordinated last month’s attacks on luxury hotels in Jakarta, and their campaign of terror began here in Bali seven years ago with a bombing that killed more than 200 people. Rumors circulated that Top was killed in this police raid, but police announced today that he was still at large. Everyone in Indonesia has followed the story, but perhaps nowhere as closely as in Bali, where the economy depends on convincing foreigners that the island’s beaches are safe for sunbathing. A high-profile counterterrorist coup could help restore Indonesian political stability and bring more visitors back to Bali’s shores.

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