A Month in Indonesia

I spent January in Indonesia, mostly in and around the urban sprawl of Jakarta. It’s a city that is in motion — things are happening there and I find myself returning to this place of concrete and boulevards again and again. The first time I was acquainted with Jakarta was in 2007 when I attended Pesta Blogger, a massive gathering of online innovators from all over Indonesia’s many islands. I went back in 2008 to work on a magazine story about urban flooding with my friend and colleague, photographer Jacqueline Koch.

Jacqueline invited me to go back once more, this time to delve into religion in Indonesia. There are so many little known facts about this dynamic place. It is the fourth most populated country in the world, and largest majority-Muslim country in the world. While it is difficult to get an accurate count, the number of Muslims in Indonesia is as many as, perhaps more than, the Muslim populations of all Arab countries combined.

We spent the month exploring the diverse religious practices of this country. Islam does not just come in the Saudi Arabian brand so ubiquitous in the American press, and a visit to Indonesia makes that fact clear almost immediately. We wanted to know what the future of religion looks like in Indonesia, and how the rest of the world might incorporate the diversity of the country into their often limited views of Islam.

There was never a dull day. I knew there would be no boiler plate explanation for how this country has changed in the last decade, and no easy answer to questions about where it will go next. But every outing and meeting brought something unexpected. We sought out a faith healer and found a very successful business man.  We visited a megamillion dollar mosque and a church that has found a comfortable home in a megamall. From suburban police officers to leaders of liberal thinking, transvestites to Islamic schoolgirls, Indonesia challenged us and challenged our expectations constantly.

I am going to write about the people and places Jacqueline and I saw bit by bit, but I’d like to introduce these stories with a familiar image across Southeast Asia, the kinds of things that I think make this region of the world spectacular.

Near the end of our stay in Jakarta, the traffic and concrete, the constant sounds of honking pierced by distorted calls to prayer from mosques on every corner began to ring in our heads. We got away for one weekend and chose a place neither of us knew much about. But we wanted something decidedly different from the city. If there is a place  that feels far away from Jakarta in Indonesia, it’s Batu Karas.

Click to see a larger map
Click to see a larger map

In Batu Karas, things just go easier. The food is simple, the businesses cooperative, and the lifestyle  laid back. You can walk the main street in 20 minutes or make a friend and hop on the back of their two-wheeler for a quicker ride. There is not much to do for a visitor except appreciate the world and have drinks and meals, surf and enjoy the black-sand beaches.

Batu Karas is a fish and surf town on the south coast of Java. Small mosques dot the coastline every few miles, emitting glowing lights when the call to prayer is sung at dusk. On a beach that was hit by a tsunami in 2006 — Indonesians all have tales to tell about battling natural disasters — local people, most of whom have day jobs in the rice fields or small construction projects, work together to pull in a large net, in a kind of around-the-world cooperative system. Women in straw hats and hijab — the headscarves worn by many Indonesians usually cover the hair and neck and come in bright colors — connect hooks to the ropes and walk backwards from the ocean until they run out of space, unhook and return to the front of the line. Men join the rotation and eventually walk into the ocean for the hard work of pulling the saturated nets, full of fish,  from the water.

The group shares most of the catch for their own kitchens and the proceeds from what they sell goes to the owner of the nets. The smallest fish make sambal, a kind of chili sauce, while the larger fish are used in main courses. They discard the “funny ones” and the blowfish, tossing them onto the sand. We buy a small bag of small fish for less than US$1.