Looking in from outside: A foreigner’s perspective of Indonesia (1)

Hi to all readers, you are reading this on my good friend Alaksir’s blog.  This post has been in the offing for quite some time now, from meeting Alaksir on twitter (relatively speaking) I have been learning more on Indonesia.  At one point I suggested writing a foreigner’s perspective, maybe an intro on some of the history and so on.  But snowed under with work, or trying to find some, I haven’t been able to finish it off until now.  For the record, I’m Caoimhín part of Clan Raven Cub, living at present in England.

So to begin what did I originally know of Indonesia – out of most of Polynesia I had thought quite a lot.  Java-Man, its location, its rich animal life and rain-forest like conditions.  I had even presumed that the native polytheist religions were quite strong.  And then a pause as I realised that was the length and breadth of my knowledge.  Some thoughts of Thailand fluttered into my head, mistaken identities, another culture I now also realise I know very little of.  And so this promised post had to start pretty much from fresh.

What to begin with?  Indonesia is one large island a set of islands in the Pacific.  Many people will know the names of individual islands, probably not associating them with Indonesia itself – New Guinea, Borneo, Java, Sumatra and Timor.  In this post I will talk to you somewhat about these islands and why they will, should or have stuck out in our mind.

Indonesia map

The island of New Guinea is the largest of the Pacific islands, entirely covered in rainforest with the greatest diversity of wildlife, according to the recent documentary season Pacific by the BBC.  Its not Indonesia’s alone but is shared with Papua New Guinea.  As a bit of a wildlife fan, it is one place I find absolutely fascinating.  Wildlife isn’t the only diversity–with the density of languages being the highest on earth with well over a thousand languages, owing in no small place to the massive number of different tribal groups.

Borneo, a name from the movies.  Although names like Timbuktu and Borneo used to be by-words for the exotic, the old classic films are fading and these concepts are no longer part of the pop culture of the youth.  For others of us, Borneo still conjures a mixing of worlds – east meets west.  I think perhaps the image of Borneo signifies the truly inaccurate image the West have of the region.  It is somehow believed that the Pacific is a half-way house between the far Eastern cultures of India, China or Japan for example.  Not thinking that perhaps it is just yet again a highly different set of cultures that share similarities due to proximity with its neighbours.  Borneo is a truly stunning island famous for its caves–back to my wildlife–and its bat population.  Borneo is predominantly animist with a large portion of its Malayan population being Muslim.

Sumatra famous for its coffee, here in the West.  It is an image that conjures up ancient eastern empires as it should.  The early kingdoms of Kantoli (’Kandali’ in local spelling) and Samudra spread Malay culture across the nearby islands acting as a provincial centre.  The majority of Sumatra is Muslim.

Yet again a centre of coffee Java is famous for sharing its name with coffee also.  While the entire region is infamous for its geology, being on the lines of continental plates has caused much disasters – such as earthquakes and the recent tsunami – Java was created by volcanoes, that still form an east-west line across the island today.  The majority of Java is Muslim and Java hosts the capital city Jakarta.  Java has had a varied past from being a Dutch colony–during the colonial days the Spice Islands of the east attracted most of the western empires–to holding high Hindu Kingdoms, Buddhist kingdoms and Muslim Sultanates.  As an archaeologist, one other significant comment on Java is Java-Man.  A form of Homo-Erectus that rocked the world and complicated the original Out of Africa story that had at the time been proposed as the origin of man.

Timor famous recently for its province, the unsurprisingly named, East Timor.  While the word east refers to the east of the island, the word Timor comes from Malay also meaning east, as Timor is on the far east of the archipelago of islands.  So it means east east.  East Timor had been a Portuguese Colony since the 1500’s but following Portugal’s withdrawal, Indonesia claimed the entirety of the island, even though the nation had declared its Independence in 1975.  Recently East Timor has been recognised as a sovereign state making it the first new country of the 21st century.  Not commonly known, but the entire island is predominantly Catholic making the country of East Timor one of a few centres of Catholicism in the Pacific.  This was presumably spread by the Portuguese.

So that’s the first of my posts on Indonesia, I’m hoping to start exploring from here on a bit of what makes Indonesia tick.  Or rather how it developed that tick.  Next post will be another geographical post filling in the blanks of other Islands.  If you liked leave a comment or drop me a line at clanravencub@live.co.uk.  I’d be particularly interested in seeing what ideas other westerners have of Indonesia and what Indonesians think of our views of their land.

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14 Responses to “Looking in from outside: A foreigner’s perspective of Indonesia (1)”

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