Indonesia, the planet’s biggest island country lying between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, consists of more than 17,500 islands packed into 735,000 square miles, an area one-thirteenth the size of America. Two hundred sixty-one million inhabitants make Indonesia the world’s fourth populace country, with more than half of the population living on the island of Java. Nearly 90% Islamic, Indonesia is home to the world’s largest Muslim population. Considering the many immigrated cultures, religions, and 700+ diverse languages Indonesia harbors, it’s really a mystery how this archipelago ever came to be a single nation.
Centered in the middle of Arabian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese trade routes, Indonesia was surrounded by great commerce and power. Indonesia’s wealth began around the 7th century when Asia first discovered and settled along the islands of Java, Sumatra, and Kalimantan. To Asia’s surprise, valuable spices and pottery material were aplenty. In return, they bore gifts of forged metal, a new way of life, and new religions: first Hinduism and Buddhism, followed by Islam.
Christianity’s popularity grew later. For eight centuries the Asian powers controlled and held firmly their hand over Indonesian trade, until the 16th century. Hypnotized by the valuable spices and rare resources, Europeans such as the Portuguese, sailed across oceans, around continents, and unknown waters for the riches of the “Spice Islands,” taking over small ports along the way, eventually conquering Melacca in 1511. This was done in vain for once the powerful trade ports were conquered, nobody wanted to trade with them switching up trade routes. Eventually, after two years of spending money and losing lives, the Portuguese were squeezed out by the Dutch who gradually built-up trade with the locals and throughout the Indonesian archipelago and surrounding regions.
In 1595, the Dutch set-up the United East India Company (VOC) and eventually ended up running what is now considered Indonesia. Grasping tightly onto their specialty of spices, the Dutch and Indonesians produced many crops. Indonesia’s early wealth revolved around their most profitable export crops, nicknamed “black gold:” nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and black pepper, sought after spices in Europe, more valuable than gold.
As the years passed, the Dutch became more and more entrenched, but despite imposed death penalties, spice plants were stolen and planted elsewhere in the world. Bit by bit the Dutch controlled Indonesia spice monopoly began to crumble in the early 1800’s. Housing a large population and a declining economy, the future seemed bleak. The Dutch crown had to take over the VOC and then lost it to France and then to Britain during Napoleon’s wars. Control to the Dutch was restored in 1816.
The Dutch then shifted their export production efforts to feed the growing demand for rubber, developing enormous rubber plantation, “white gold.” Tea, medicinal plants, cacao, tobacco, sugar, indigo and coffee exports were also developed. Due to their complete involvement in the various Indonesian islands’ economy, the Dutch improved infrastructure adding railway lines, shipping services and roads even while violently subduing the working people.
World War II was the final straw for the Indonesian people. They were taken over by the brutal Japanese where neither the Dutch nor the English were able to help. When the war was over, the Indonesians declared their independence on August 17th, 1945 from Dutch colonization. After several years of war with the Dutch, they were awarded complete independence in 1949. Today, they celebrate Independence Day every year on August 17th. We were in Kalabachi, Alor during this year’s Independence Day and were amazed by their incredible ceremony reenacting the gaining of their independence and the following day’s regional parade.
In most recent decades, declining rubber exports have caused Indonesia to shift development toward petroleum products (gas (LPG), crude oil, coal briquettes), gold jewelry, wheat, and the most profitable of all—palm oil or “yellow gold.” In 2016 Indonesia sold $140 billion (USD) worth of exports, palm oil contributing a tenth of that sum. Indonesia is one of the few countries with a trade surplus, compared to the USA who harbors a debt of $783 billion (USD). Yet even with a positive income of $8 billion (USD) Indonesia lies in a pile of trash.
With a decreasing economy and low income, we found ourselves surrounded by piles and piles of trash. During my time spent along the coasts of Indonesia, I developed a sickness of heart as the result of the expanse of polluted beaches, oceans, rainforests, and streets. While crossing over bridges, I saw painful amounts of plastic trash discarded along the riverbanks waiting for the rain to flush it all out to sea. This floating trash makes it dangerous for boaters to motor in Indonesian waters for fear of catching a few plastic bags in the prop like our friends on s/v Ocelot.
In addition to polluted waters, hoards of fisherman struggle everyday, completely de-fishing their local oceans. Catching pre-mature fish, turtles, manta rays, crocodiles and sharks the size of your arm, these fishermen are relentless!
While passing nets 4 miles long and experiencing these haunting actions first hand, this traveling forces me to open my eyes to really see how humans affect their surroundings. Yet this traveling through Indonesia also brings me to appreciate the incredible beauty we have seen and been a part of.
But unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Like at home where precious resources have been squandered, Orangutans indigenous to Indonesia, are regularly killed and/or stolen for money. Palm oil implants destroy ecosystems full of endangered trees, monkeys, birds native to the islands along with the precious orangutans.
Yet in my three months of traveling in this region, the amount of “bad” in Indonesia doesn’t begin to measure against the overwhelmingly loving embrace the islands and the people give to total strangers like us. Exemplifying a generosity level of 100 percent, it’s hard to judge Indonesia just by their poor circumstances. Besides the trash and the loss of rainforests, it’s quite easy to love the culture and its people. With the hundreds of dinner invites and bonding photos with the local girls (etc.), I developed a great affection for the islands and their rich colors.
Due to the many quick visits during the rally, it was difficult to appreciate all of what the villages had to offer. There is so much more than we got a chance to see: Raja Ampat and Papua New Guinea for the diving, and the Mentawai Islands of Sumatra for the surfing.
In just three months of sailing around, we experienced orangutan feedings, river tours, incredible surf, jungle hikes, national holidays, local feasts, temple & mosque visits, drum troupes, traditional dances, elephant rides, deserted white sand beaches, and we made life long friendships. My time amongst the Indonesian peoples was truly a blessing in “5D.” From inexpensive delicacies and ethnic spices, to billions of treasured photos, there will always be a place in my heart for the beauty of Indonesia and its culture!
Variety is the one word that best describes Indonesia. From the clearest of waters to the darkest of forests, Indonesia exhibits diversity of all kinds, most noticeable in their many cultures made up of varied peoples. Through the eyes of a 16 year old who has now left Indonesia with a sad heart, my hope is that more travelers will see and experience the fullness Indonesia can offer.
Sources: Website – Wikipedia, Indonesia history; Book – Lonely Planet, Indonesia; Kandu – Traveling by sailboat through Indonesia Aug-Oct 2017.