Sunday, April 12, 2015


When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite books was The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois, published in 1947.  It centered around the eruption of Krakatau, and I was fascinated by the true story of the 1883 Eruption of this island. Years ago while I was a music major at Indiana State University, I was required to take a World Music course.  One of the topics we studied was the gamalan music of Indonesia. It was some of the most relaxing, beautiful music I’ve ever heard. It seems like there were little things popping up in my life that kept me interested in this island country. 

The name Indonesia came from the Greek word Indós, referring to the Indus River, and the word nésos, the word for islands. It’s also referred to as the “Indian archipelago.” The British were the first to call this island chain Indonesia, but when the Dutch took over this area, it was often referred to as part of the East Indies or Dutch East Indies. 

The country of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, is located in the south Pacific and is spread across thousands of islands. Actually, there are a little over 17,500 islands, of which only about 6000 of them are inhabited. This country straddles the Equator, giving it a tropical climate year round. There are several main islands and island chains in Indonesia including many that are well known: Sumatra, Java, Bali, Papua, Maluku Islands, Sulawesi, and Kalimantan (which is actually on the island of Borneo). It shares a border with Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor (or Timor Leste), but it is also close to the islands of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (India), Christmas Island (Australia), the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Australia), the Philippines, and Australia as well. Indonesia has one of the most diverse flora and fauna in the entire world. The islands are essentially the tops of underwater mountains and volcanoes; likewise, this area is highly susceptible to earthquakes and tsunamis as well. 

The Indonesian islands have shown evidence that it has been inhabited for nearly 45,000 years. Soon people learned how to cultivate rice here, and soon religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam began to spread throughout the island chain. Muslim traders had been doing business with the native Indonesians for centuries before the Europeans got wind of the spices produced in the islands. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to regularly visit the islands, followed by the Dutch and the British. The Dutch founded the Dutch East India Company, which controlled the spice trade industry in what they called the Dutch East Indies. Even after the Dutch East India Company filed bankruptcy and dissolved, the Dutch government stayed in Indonesia. During WWII, the Japanese occupied the island nation.  After the war was over and the Japanese retreated from the island, the Dutch tried to take it back, but they were met with contempt and conflict from the Indonesian people. Indonesia was granted its independence in December of 1949. Sukarno was the first president of the country (apparently it is a common tradition in Javanese to only have one name). He slowly turned the country from a democratic society to one with an authoritarian government. A 1965 coup put General Suharto in control of the country; however, it was still more of the same corruption that they had earlier. Financial and political struggles eventually led to Suharto stepping down and East Timor breaking off to become its own country.  However, the country is on a general slow upswing financially and politically (although there are disruptions here and there). 

Jakarta is the capital of Indonesia. Situated on the island of Java, Jakarta is the largest city in the country – and in fact, the Jakarta urban area is the second largest urban area in the world. It’s considered a global city and modern in every sense (even though it doesn’t have a high-speed rail system yet due to budget contraints). The city is home to numerous museums, culinary traditions (both haute-cuisine and traditional), media center, government center, banking and financial center, luxury shopping and local markets, music and theatre, and sports arenas.  

Traditionally, agriculture has been one of the main economic drivers. Indonesia went through periods of economic instability and was hit hard during the financial crisis in Asia during the late 1990s as well as the numerous times of political instability. Today, there are many manufacturing companies that bring a lot of revenue to the country in the form of exports, and the country receives quite a bit of foreign investments as well, especially in export manufacturing companies. And of course, its oil reserves used to be fairly significant, and they were once the only OPEC member in Southeast Asia. (They left the organization in 2008). 

Indonesia is a multi-ethnic country with many religions. Although their constitution does state religious freedom, the country officially only recognizes six religions (so, I suppose you’re free to practice any religion you want as long as it’s one of these six): Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Islam, and Confucianism. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. The government requires its people to prescribe to one of these six religions, regardless of what you actually believe, and it’s also against the law to marry someone with another religion, unless one person converts to the other’s religion.

Indonesia has more than 700 languages spoken among its islands. The official language is Indonesian, sometimes called Bahasa Indonesia, which is closely related to Malay (or Bahasa Melayu). Indonesian is the language in which education is taught in and official documents are written in, and essentially everyone uses Indonesian as a lingua franca. However, most people speak one other language; Javanese is the most spoken, followed by Sundanese and Madurese. Although Dutch was spoken here at one time, there are very few people who can speak Dutch today. There are actually a few codes of the law that are written in Dutch, so some people studying law find it advantageous to learn Dutch. 

Indonesia is quite a culinary country.  The big names in world cuisine TV shows almost always make a stop in Indonesia. One odd thing is that Indonesia exports nearly 3000 lbs of frog legs to France every year. (When I was a kid, I had no idea frog legs had bones in them. Frogs are squishy, why would they have bones? My mind wasn’t nearly as developed at age 12 as it is now apparently.) Indonesia is also known for the kopi luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee.  See, someone – how they figured this out is beyond me – thought to feed coffee beans to this cat-like animal called an Asian palm civit. When it poops out the coffee beans, it’s collected, washed, then made into coffee. It sounds absolutely, diabolically disgusting to me, but I’ve read that this unorthodox process takes out a lot of the bitterness of the coffee beans. I guess I’ll just have to take their word on it. I’ll just take my regular Sumatran blend. Although Indonesians have borrowed from many cultures in their cuisines, their customs, and their languages, there is one word we’ve borrowed from Indonesian into English: the phrase “run amok.” Originally from the word mengamuk, it means “to make a furious and desperate charge.” Today, it means closer to “behave uncontrollably and disruptively.”  But there will be no running amok once I serve the Indonesian dishes I picked out. I super can’t wait for this.

Up next: art and literature

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