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Indonesia: Flashback
Bangkok (Thailand), December 5th 2008

There are countries of which you have a very high expectation before you visit them, and from other countries, the expectations are much lower. Indonesia is an example of a country that set our expectations very high. We have travelled four months through Indonesia and visited the islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi. Unfortunately, Indonesia couldn’t meet the sky high expectations that we had before we took of to this country.

Let’s start with the subject that was one of the reasons why our expectations were set so high, the nature of Indonesia. During our childhood, when we were still sitting behind the school desks, the teachers told us about the huge forests that were still available in Indonesia, and other parts of Southeast Asia. The teachers spoke, without any doubt, the truth at that time (end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s). However, a lot has changed. The catastrophic impact is especially visible when you compare for example the satellite pictures of Sumatra at the beginning of the 80s with the pictures of today. Than you will see how big the impact is of the illegal deforestation that took place since then. Most of the forests disappeared and only small pockets of forests remain, areas wherein the once so mighty animals like the Orang Utans and Sumatran tigers fight against their distinction. It is very unlikely that these creatures will survive the next 25 years when things are going on like they do now. Indeed, some areas are transformed into national parks, but that does not mean that the illegal deforestation is stopped. Only the pace of logging slowed down a little bit in these areas. Because of the huge level of corruption, the illegal deforestation continues, everywhere in Indonesia. We have talked to guides in Gunung Leuser National Park that openly admitted that they are part of the illegal clearance activities of the forests during times that there is not enough work in the tourist industry. That the illegal deforestation activities are the work of local farmers in their search for more agricultural land, is only a small part of the story. The main forces behind the deforestation activities in Indonesia are the big fishes, like politicians, industrials and high ranked military officials.

A view into the depth from the volcano Kerinci on Sumatra

What us also immensely amazed during our visit to Indonesia is that we saw almost no birds outside the national parks. The contrast was so high, that we were conspicuous about the number of birds that we saw in The Netherlands, during our short trip home. It seems that Indonesians are huge lovers of birds in a cage. And not only one cage, but as much as possible. It seems to be some kind of a status thing. The biggest problem is however, that they do not use specially bred canary birds or parakeets, but the most exotic and rare birds that you can find in Indonesia. We got water in our eyes when we visited the bird market in Yogyakarta on the Indonesian island of Java. We saw birds in a cage that are so rare, that fanatic birders would fly over to Indonesia to see these birds in the wild. All these animals are caught by poachers that rob the forests from these beautiful exotic birds. And the Indonesians are not only interested in birds that sing very well, also birds like woodpeckers can be bought on the market for almost nothing. The natural environment in Indonesia is going through a crisis. Nowhere on the islands of Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi we had the idea that we were in an area that was once famous for its vast jungle. The country is well on its way to destroy a lot of its natural beauty. And the depressing thing is, that almost nobody in Indonesia seems to care. However, it not fair to blame only the (corrupt) Indonesians. Also the other parts of the world are part of the problem. After all, a huge part of the products that are the result of the illegal deforestation disappears to other parts of the globe (see also the article: the earth is being ruined).

Another aspect that set our expectations very high was the Indonesian cuisine. This cuisine is world famous, at least it is in The Netherlands. It probably has to do with former colonial ties between the two countries and the fact that a lot of Indonesians became part of Dutch society. It is a pity to say it, but for us the Indonesian cuisine was a big disappointment. The reason is maybe the fact that we mainly ate in out-of-the-way villages and cities, and in the smaller local and cheaper restaurants. But ok, these are also the places where you expect the real authentic Indonesian dishes. Of course, once in a while we got indeed a good Gado-gado, Babi-pangang or Nasi-goreng, but is was more an exception than a rule. Most of the time, the dishes were characterized by white rice with a meagre chicken leg, or some kind of fried meat whose origin was not traceable anymore. And of course, we also tried our luck in a more upscale restaurant once in a while. The price was a lot higher in these establishments, but the quality of the food wasn’t much better.

A farmer tries to sell its young water buffalo on the market of Rantepao
Finally, we want some things to mention about the people. As in many other countries, the kind of people you meet depends on the places you are travelling to. The people of Sumatra and Sulawesi we generally speaking, friendly. However, this friendliness goes hand in hand with a certain amount of restraint. Of course there are always exceptions in positive and negative way. In Java, we found the people less friendly. Already on the day that we arrived on Java, coming by ferry from Sumatra, we encountered a group of young men that treated us without any respect. It happened several times more on Java, especially in the places that are often visited by foreign tourists. In these kind of places local people gave us the impression that they find it normal to overcharge foreigners in a structural way. As far as social interaction with the local people is concerned, we found Sumatra and Sulawesi a lot more relaxed. On these islands you are welcomed as a guest whose presence is more important than the money you bring. At least, this is how it feels.

After reading this, you probably have got the impression that we had not a good experience in Indonesia. That is absolutely not the case. Indonesia is, and will be, a great destination to travel to. The country has a lot of beautiful places to visit, and the people are generally speaking warm and friendly hosts. However, the expectations we had about this country, after reading about it, were set too high. But like we said, we still saw a lot of amazing things that we never wanted to miss. Our favourite places so far in Indonesia are Gunung Leuser National Park and Kerinci-Seblat National Park on Sumatra, the Dieng Plateau on Java, and Bunaken Island and the Tana Toraja area on Sulawesi. But there is more to come. We definitely want to go back to Indonesia in 2009. There are still a lot of places to see, like Kalimantan, Nusa Tengara, the Moluccas and of course West Papua. And again, the expectations are set high!

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