Hello from the lovely (and superbly named) mountain town of Bukittinggi, I've just received confirmation that after several months traveling in archipelago based nations I will be happy to leave planes and boats behind for far easier overland travel. After booking 2 separate flights to Singapore both routes were subsequently discontinued and I'm now facing 30hrs of complicated travel to get to Singapore rather than a 2hr flight...
After paying $60 and finally escaping flag copying Indonesia (from Monaco, much to the Grimaldis chagrin) I arrived in the much better flagged East Timor. The world's 3rd youngest country, starting with it's appalling name (Timor means East in the local language) it has arguably the most tragic history of any country in the world.
Run as a Portuguese colony for over 300yrs, as with their other colonies around the world the Portuguese did absolutely nothing for it beyond Catholicism and when the Caetano regime collapsed in 1974 they pulled out virtually overnight leaving no economic infrastructure and less than 20km of paved roads. The East Timorese briefly declared independence but Indonesia effectively annexed it soon after and by handing over generous oil and mining rights received tacit support from the USA and Australia to do so. For 25yrs the notoriously brutal Indonesian army maintained an almost perfect human rights abuse record; not only did they ban the local language and clamped down on the culture, they imported thousands of Indonesians who took over all government posts and any businesses that were local owned, reducing the local population to little more than slaves with the women receiving much of the worst treatment. The East Timorese did however fight an ongoing guerrilla campaign and in 1999 the Indonesians finally pulled out due to the Asian currency collapse and mounting international pressure. When the Indonesians departed they had something of a 'blitzkrieg policy' where unofficially the line was if 'we can't run it then we'll leave a country not worth having' and destroyed anything they could as well as taking a terrible revenge on the human population. After 25 yrs of occupation an almost unbelievable 40% of the population had been killed.
...Therefore being in a country which had fought so hard and had lost so much was pretty humbling but to my surprise the sense of freedom I found quite invigorating too; I just loved it. One of the first things that struck me was just how different it was from Indonesia; instead of Islam it was Catholic and instead of the Asiatic features of Western Indonesians the population was made up of immigrants from all over the Portuguese empire. If anything it felt more like Brazil than Indonesia with Portuguese spoken, women having a more 'relaxed' dress code and a hill above the capital Dili even has a Christ the Redeemer statue beautifully staring sentinel like down on the bay ala Rio de Janeiro.
The capital felt very different from the rest of the country mainly due to the massive UN presence (country building/security programmes), UN vehicles probably comprise 1 in every 2 vehicles on the streets and I found myself somewhat surreally eating in restaurants with Bangladeshi engineers and having a beer with Croatian soldiers.
But outside the capital East Timors poverty (the poorest country in Asia, most families have a GDP of less than $1000) becomes quite obvious; trade is normally by barter and most people live in a hand to mouth subsistence lifestyle. Mimicking the use of agent Orange in Vietnam over 25yrs the hillsides were stripped bare by the Indonesian army to bring the guerrillas out into the open and so soil fertility is very low in this already parched island. The people are really happy to see you and whilst getting around is tortuously slow at times it was also great to be in the mythical mountain areas which are held so dear to the people due to them being the base of the independence struggle and the perfect empty beaches right across the North coast.
The reason so many UN staff are there is that East Timor has vast problems, centuries of non rather than underinvestment has left a legacy of terrible literacy rates, a family size of 7.4 children and the huge security presence is largely a deterrent against a repeat of the riots of 2006 where young people violently protested against the 45% unemployment rate.
The main story in the news for sometime now has been on how far East Timor should take trying to get justice for the war crimes, some feel they should let the past go but the extent of the destruction and indeed seeing the war criminals remaining in high ranking posts is hard to take for many. It's an indication of quite how corrupt Indonesia is that at the moment I'm seeing the smiling photo of General Wiranto who was in charge of the 'pullout' of East Timor in '99 as for the 2nd time he was on a presidential campaign ticket.
Moving forward economically is so hard as it also ranks as one of the most isolated countries in the world (flights to just 3 other cities in the world). Unsurprisingly the Indonesians have 'shut the door' on trade leaving Australia as its one viable trading option. The only problem is that their role in its recent history has been pretty appalling and so the Timorese don't like or trust them. After idly standing by for 25 yrs watching a genocide take place as long as it had its oil, after independence the Howard government tried it's damnedest to get hold of 100% of new oil and gas rights in return for security and infrastructure assistance. East Timor had to negotiate hard and eventually 30% was agreed to be granted to the Australians but as with other agreements in their sphere of influence in Nauru and the Solomon Islands, the Australians just haven't really delivered meaning the country is still really struggling.
As you can see by the amount I've written I really quite liked it there and as they move forward under a leader who resembles Che Guevara in many ways, it was somewhere I took to heart and found very satisfying to travel in.
To both get to and leave Timor I had to take a couple of long distance ferries which would have to rate as some of the more memorable journeys I've ever taken. Indonesian ferries are famous for never being full in economy class- one of the boats I took was 3 times over its official capacity of 900. No way will you get a seat of any sort, you just have to fight for a spot on the floor and watch as people step, smoke or whatever else over you. But even that seemed manageable, various Indonesians have told me stories particularly after Ramadan where they've had to stand up tube carriage style for 48 hrs- which I'd struggle to deal with. Since it's economy class they don't get too many foreign passengers and for the locals your presence is a bit of a novelty. I was travelling with a German couple and for 2 days we had a constant group of between 5-15 blokes just standing there watching us. They don't do anything other than smoke or maybe play with their phones and after 2 days I was pretty pleased to get to Sulawesi.
After stopping for a couple of days in the pleasant island capital of Makassar I went to the amazing area of Tana Toraja. Sulawesi is one of the few islands in Indonesia where there's no one dominant religion and in recent years amidst economic uncertainties the unfortunate consequence has been ethnic rioting and various grizzly murders. Tana Toraja however is bordered on all 4 sides by mountains and has developed a traditional culture very much untainted by more modern religions. It mainly revolves around death and buffaloes and leads to some amazing visual manifestations. When a person dies they're kept fully clothed in the family house for people to visit and 'chat with' until the family has earned enough money to hold the huge elaborate funerals involving feasts and buffalo slaughtering that will take place. They're then buried in either caves or hollows carved out of rocks high above you where wooden models of the deceased hang outside to greet you. These tombs are found everywhere but aside from being visually stunning are quite creepy with rotting coffins to step over and various bits of skeletons randomly lying around.
Unfortunately price inflation is kicking on for buffaloes (especially the prized albino specimens) and if you're a fairly well respected member of society you have to slaughter up to 24 of the beasts, which means people told me stories of families having to share rooms with dead grandparents for up to 2 years before they could afford the funeral. Nice.
Whilst I was there I did an amazing hike which was meant to last 3 days, I made quite good progress on the first day and ended up sleeping in a local family garden under a huge pair of ceremonial buffalo horns that each family has. In the night though I started feeling quite sick but being absolutely miles from anything resembling a road had to haul myself 35km along a walking path before I could get back to a road. About 3/4 of the way I practically passed out in a local village and when I opened my eyes found 71 kids (I counted) looking down on me as they'd just let school out. Someone gave me some water and I managed to continue but it took me some a couple of days to recover before I flew to wild Sumatra.
Sumatra is home to arguably the 2 biggest disasters in history, firstly the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa which aside from being the loudest noise ever made (heard in Australia) killed some 120,000 people and caused global temperatures to drop by over a degree for a year. However, my first stop was in Banda Aceh which of course was the 'epicentre' of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Not having any stories involving supermodels or offspring of knighted film directors it didn't generate any of the headlines or coverage that Thailand did but the damage here was far deeper. A quite staggering number of 220,000 people died and virtually the entire city centre was swept away. Well, with the exception of the beautiful central mosque which is being trumpeted by some as a 'miracle' but when so many people died I thought it slightly dubious logic. As I looked at the horrific 'corpse photos' of the aftermath in the museum it makes you realize that whilst most 'natural disasters' eg the flooding in Jakarta I wrote of in the previous email or even hurricane Katrina are actually largely due to human error, sometimes there's nothing quite like nature.
One side effect of the disaster has been the cessation of fighting between the Achenese separatist rebels and the Indonesian military. The history of Indonesia post independence is a fascinating one, after fighting for and gaining independence from their dutch colonial masters the army has always been heavily involved in the running of the country and are still incredibly visible today, despite Indonesia having no external enemies. General Suharto took over the leadership in a coup in 1966 and was the dictator here for 32 years. Unsurprisingly he's the biggest single figure in Indonesia's history and he did many positive things, from establishing successful population and infrastructure planning schemes to the growth in the economy which led Indonesia from a backward agrarian society to the more 'middleweight' status it has to day. But it was all achieved at great cost; East Timor was effectively allowed to become independent because it was already the poorest province in Indonesia and was just costing too much to control. Independence is a luxury that will never be granted to the Acehnese or the other big breakaway area of Papua. Papua contains the Freeport mine which is the largest gold mine in the world and Aceh contains the oil supplies which have led to the economic growth mentioned above. Indonesia is now the 4th biggest ol producer in the world and with a huge Exxon Mobil contract the USA and others have been happy to look the other way at the terrible human rights abuses by the army that have occurred all over Indonesia. In Aceh the damage from the tsunami was so widespread that any politics have had to stop in the relief effort but a couple of recent small scale attacks have shown the issue has not been forgotten.
Another of Suharto's legacies is that Indonesia has become one of the single most corrupt countries in the world; he died a multibillionaire and his extended family were granted monopolies on huge areas of the economy, from Indonesia's flour (his wife) to cigarettes (his son Tommy) and even airlines (his grandson). Buoyed by the nations resource wealth the amounts grafted or stolen in Indonesia were higher than anywhere else in the world and whilst the popular current president has just been re-elected on an anti-corruption ticket, corruption still runs very deep in the society. As a superb, extreme example that's been heavily in the news recently Tommy Suharto has been running for the leadership of the Golkar party (Indonesias biggest), despite the fact he's a convicted killer. When I was in Guatemala several years ago the president Alfonso Portillo was also a convicted killer but that was in a bar room brawl 20 years before, however Tommy Suharto ordered the killing of the judge who sentenced him after being found guilty on corruption charges in 2002. Despite being given a 15yr sentence he only served 4 and was allowed to run his multibillion dollar businesses from prison. He's now out and to see him being interviewed and saying that he couldn't see why there was a problem with him being possibly the next president shows just how much Indonesia needs to change to become more respected on the world stage, even the head of the anti-corruption commission was arrested on murder charges earlier this year.
As I've moved south down through Sumatra it's been a glorious last couple of weeks in this beautiful country. From staying on huge crater lakes you can swim in, to awesome wildlife Sumatra is just a fantastic destination. The city of Padang is home to the best food in Indonesia but it was also hit by a 7.9 earthquake a month ago and the area it is now in ruins. In the city itself they're still searching for survivors and 'tent cities' have emerged for the refugees. In other places there have been terrible landslides that have swept away whole villages and seeing the destruction makes you appreciate living in a country which never has to deal with anything like this.
I've also predictably climbed a few more volcanoes and a couple of days ago had 2 of the most terrifying moments of my life when descending the nations highest volcano Mt Kerinci. After getting to the summit visibility plummeted to only 10-20m and I slightly lost my way on the rocks going down. After taking a disastrous wrong turn I found myself in a gully with no other option but to first climb down 10m on a virtually sheer wall then after falling twice having to scramble 15m out of said gully on a surface which really didnt want to take my weight. When I got back to the nearest village the owner of my home-stay told me the details of the 8 people who've died since 2002 in virtually identical circumstances to how I got lost. I felt both very foolish and very relived to be hearing that rather than sitting with 2 broken ankles slowly dying in a remote gully!
As you can see by the amount I've written (sorry!) I've absolutely adored Indonesia. It' a truly fascinating country which I've feel I've been doing the proverbial in the ocean trying to describe in my short time here. Worldwide, perhaps only India can boast a greater cultural richness but it's this diversity which is arguably it's greatest weakness. It boasts more languages than any other country in the world, has a variety of different religions and ethnically the population varies from Chinese looking all the way to the almost black looking Papuans (Papua literally means land of the fuzzy hair). Indonesian politicians like to describe the nation as like the European Union but I think a better description is of a Javanese empire. The country wastes billions of dollars every year on maintaining a huge army which does little more than maintain control over people who don't consider themselves Indonesian, and virtually all resources, power and influence are centred in Jakarta and Java generally. In a country of 250million people and spanning some 17,000 islands over a huge area I don't think this model works for enough people, it's currently doing very well economically and there's talk it may even become an extra 'I' in the BRIC group of countries. However, about 10 years ago at the height of the Asian currency crisis the country was close to collapse and the splintering of the various islands into different countries. I think if a similar crisis occurs in the future I think the nation will struggle to maintain it's gargantuan structure.
So it's time to leave chain smoking Indonesia where the children ride motorbikes from the age of 7 and water buffaloes rule the roads. I'm gonna miss it greatly.
After going to the 'business Disneyland' (Singapore) for a few days I plan to head on up into peninsular Malaysia hopefully not being stuck in random ferry ports anymore!