Yes, that’s me! Yes, I am petting a live Komodo Dragon! No, I am not in any danger. It’s a long story so give me a bit of a rest and I will tell all. 

I arrived in Jakarta without too much trouble considering this is the second largest urban area in the world. Another little snippet of information that I should have checked up on before I arrived. It was even more of a surprise that I managed to find my way to Elisabeth’s cheap little guest house in the centre, but less of a revelation that it is situated beneath the railway tracks and has minimal facilities. I guess that I can make the best of it for a couple of days.

Mother and son geologists, Yarra and Dekha (from our North Korea trip) found it easily enough and came to say hello despite the lateness of the hour and the fact that they would start the Ramadan fast on the next day. We went out for ice cream and I tried the Durian flavour! Durian is the huge, putrid smelling fruit so beloved of the Chinese and so revolting to just about everyone else. Not as bad as I feared. We discussed the fact that Jakarta may be about to get a Christian mayor, quite a breakthrough in this 90% Muslim country but no more surprising than the election of Siddique Khan in London.

After some difficulty in orienting myself next morning, I began the daunting mission of both catching the main sights and educating myself about such a large and diverse country. The former were quickly disposed of with a trip to the viewing gallery at the top of the National Monument (132m). I could pick out some of the civic buildings that surround the central plaza, endless vistas of skyscrapers emerging from the smog and, unsurprisingly, the Istiqal Mosque, largest in South East Asia. Despite the fact that it was extremely quiet at 8am, the horrible piped music broadcast at every level quickly drove me across the square to the National Museum.

The Museum’s other name is “Gajah” for the elephant statue in its forecourt and it was here, with the help of some splendid maps, treasures and a wonderful Dutch-Australian guide, that some of the mysteries began to unfold.

Where should I begin? The country consists of seventeen thousand islands spread across more than three thousand miles, over seven hundred languages, more than a hundred ethnic groups and countless indigenous tribes. This is further complicated by the fact that three islands, Borneo, Timor and Papua are actually shared with other countries. However, for administrative and representative reasons, the country is divided into thirty four regions. My visit to this Museum and the Taman Mini Indonesia Indah (Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Garden) in the east of the city helped me to get some idea of which ones should make it onto future “wish lists” if not to give me a complete overview.

Between the Sharia practicing Muslims at the North of Sumatra to the only recently reformed cannibals of the Papuan interior, lie many unique and diverse cultures crying out to be explored before globalisation changes life here forever. There are signs that Islam is being rapidly being brought into line with Middle Eastern practices, such as the adoption of the hijab and the conformist architecture of a proliferation of new mosques. What this will mean for the largest Muslim population in the World, apparently so used to plurality and individuality, I can’t begin to say.

Attempts are being made to preserve the unique Hindu culture of that small Island paradise of Bali in the face of an overwhelming tide of tourism, and Christianity still thrives in Timor and the heavily Dutch influenced Spice Islands. The Dayak tribes of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) are a matrilineal society that still lives in traditional longhouses while such tourists as actually do venture upriver into the jungle are more likely to be in search of orangutans. The seafaring Buginese people of South Sulawesi, called the Phinisi (Phoenicians) by visiting Europeans, still make the wonderful wooden boats that have explored and traded across these regions since pre-history.

I can admit to having already heard of the Tana Toraja people who keep their deceased relatives at home for a couple of years until they have saved up enough money for a proper send-off but even that sounds civilised compared to the Baduy. This is a small tribe of people of Sudanese ancestry, the name may even be a corruption of Bedouin. They completely isolate themselves from the rest of society in Western Java where they live in the mountains not far from the vast conurbation that is modern Jakarta. Healthcare? No. Schooling? No. Census? Apparently not. Representation is carried out by members of the so called “outer circle” or disgraced persons who can sometimes be seen walking barefoot to the capital. As I commented to Anne-Marie, my guide, there are cultures and there are cults. I’m all for the preservation of indigenous customs but I wouldn’t like to speculate on the health of these people’s children.

So now for the story of my encounter with Bima, the elderly Komodo dragon who rules the reptile zoo at Taman Mini, the aforementioned culture park. Since I got there just before closing time during Ramadan, the place was practically deserted and I was invited into the enclosure. Biong his proud keeper, explained that he lived on a diet of (already dead) goat meat and copious antibiotics for his lethally potent saliva and that he was pretty tame. Well, this hardly accords with the “back to nature” principals of modern conservation but, after all, he has been in captivity for many decades. If it saves me having to pet a croc when I get to the Northern Territories it was definitely worth overcoming my trepidation.

The rest of the park is a bit of a missed bag. Some of the replica longhouses and other types of stilt-dwellings were beautifully maintained, each having been donated by the region responsible, and they provide an opportunity to see the different types of construction at life size. However, the regions are also responsible for the upkeep and some have less resources to do so than others. Begun in the 1970’s, much of the rest of the complex resembles a rather tired theme park, with a monorail, ubiquitous snack bars and a miniature pink Bavarian castle “for the children”. But the staff took pity on me with so much see in so little time (early closing for Ramadan) and organised an unconventional back-of-a-motorcycle tour for me. I got some wonderful pictures.

Categories: South East Asia

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