It's all about the stories - As our Indo legs have drawn to a close (ahem), it's time to comment more seriously on the culture we've seen over the last month. After all, our trip isn't just about our stories; it's also about the stories of those we meet. And swapping a breakfast of rice and palm wine in a bamboo shack in Flores for a steak and Malbec in Singapore's Clarke Quay this week has certainly given us food for thought about the differences in our journey's chapters.
If Indonesia was a book, it'd be The BFG. It's a huge place, rough around the edges but in all the right ways, full of tremendously friendly people who genuinely want to help you (and not just for money), and with a smattering of odd warty green vegetables that could well be Snozcumbers. As the Bible According to Lonelynus Planetimus says: Indonesians have a smile for every emotion.
The numbers astound: 17,000 islands (hence why the locals refer to the country as Our Land and Water), 8,000 inhabited and more than 300 languages spoken. The population increases by about 2.5 million people per year (there was a national publicity campaign called Two Children Is Enough; we like to think the strapline was 'Just put it away eh son'). As the world's fourth most populace country, it's a land of so many cultures, people, animals, customs, plants, dance, artwork and foods that it's like 100 countries rolled into one. Of course, this at times brings opposing forces: Islam versus Christianity versus Hinduism; outer islands versus Java; rural versus urban; and modern versus traditional.
But, despite these challenges to social cohesion and the fact that the word Indonesia itself (a term coined by a Scot who couldn't be bothered to say Indian Archipelago) was little known until the 1920s, a strong national Indonesian identity has now emerged, both through better education under SBY's current presidency and the promotion of Bahasa Indonesia as the one national language. The national slogan of 'Unity In Diversity' encourages its people to share in each other's stories and perspectives.
And the people's stories are fascinating, largely as most areas are caught between tradition and the future. The village communities are oozing with history and centuries-long traditions but they now find themselves in the biggest battle they've ever faced: against the modern world and its attractions for the new generation. Many of the villages we visited are facing the same problem, with the youth being lured by television, money and new hope to the cities, leaving their old traditions behind.
Weapons in their armour, though, are the enormous sense of community, huge respect for others, and importance of family which - no matter how far the city's bright lights have drawn the young 'uns - still brings them regularly back together.
This was no more evident than at the house-building and resulting moving-in ceremony that we were lucky enough to witness at a traditional Flores village two hours' walk from Bena. The village housed four family groups; you can tell as they build a small thatched parasol (to represent the males) and a miniature thatched house (to represent the females) in the central square of the village per family group (i.e. there were four of each in this village). Half of the men in the village work on the new house for about a month, using only bamboo with not a nail in sight. The only interruptions are meal times provided by the mother of the family for whom the house is being built. We were invited to share their builders' breakfast of coconut rice with chillies and palm wine and a daily rendition of local tunes played on drums and metal lids to bless the building. A far cry from a bacon sarnie, sugary cuppa and Page 3.
The other half of the men continue to farm to provide food for the village and to sell at the market in Bajawa. They grow macademia nuts, cocoa, coffee, tomatoes, vanilla and cloves (we taught them a mulled wine recipe!). Coffee sells for 15,000 Rupiah a kilo; that's just one English pound. The women of the village sell ikats; not Apple's latest feline tracing technology but beautiful, traditional weaves made into scarves, skirts and blankets. It can take more than a year to make each one.
Once the house is complete, all generations from the community flock to the village. In bigger villages, this can be up to 1,000 guests. Each family - or clan as they call them - sing and dance in front of the new house, bringing a parcel of rice and either a live pig or buffalo as a gift. The animals are then slaughtered in the main square and their blood is used to paint the thatched parasols. The buffalo horns and pig jaws are then hung forever outside the new home as a reminder of generosity, affluence and - importantly - community.
The next one of you to move house better watch out for our welcome gift!
The ancestors of the house are also super-important. Whilst 80% of Flores is Catholic, many of the villages we saw have interwoven 'animism' into their daily beliefs, meaning they not only worship the God of the heavens but also gods of the earth, house, nature, mountain, river and animals. Within this, they strongly believe that the behaviour of the ancestors affects the fate of the next generation. Like a deferred divine retribution or inherited 'twat' tax. Someone dying 'by accident' such as a car crash, murder or even breast cancer is 'bad luck' in their eyes. These bodies are buried outside the village to place the 'bad luck' far away. Other relatives who die through natural causes or old age are buried in the front garden in very ornate graves. To us Westerners, this looks frankly spooky as you have to hop over grandad's coffin and a big picture of Jesus each time you pop out for a pint of milk. A local we met believed that the fact that his grandfather died from eating a poisoned mushroom (bad luck) was the reason he'd had three car accidents. Having been in the back of his Toyota, that's probably only part of the reason. And only after his family performed a long (and expensive) ceremony, did they believe the bad luck had turned into good fortune. Sort of like his 'twat' tax rebate.
Despite many people now living away from their home region and the role of women thankfully now extending beyond domestic duties to include career and study, there's still a level of respect for your neighbours sorely missed in England (no Next Door Strangers here, Team L&G). Anger or aggressive behaviour is considered poor form; a smile is constantly bubbling under the surface. The only exceptions are the Balinese villages where each family has their own kitchen. They used to have a communal kitchen but the women gossiped too much which led to arguments, so the men decided to minimise the chatter by building them separate kitchens.
On every bus, the minute a granny steps on, the young boys stand up to offer their seat or move a box of eels out of the way. We like to think this is out of respect, but it may also be because the grannies all have no teeth and look like they've slapped on uneven and clown-like smears of red lipstick, thanks to their betel nut addictions. In Bali village compounds, Granny Red Lips will live in the most important building, facing North, as a mark of respect. Newlyweds are allowed to spend their wedding night there and, delightfully, placentas are buried on the front doorstep.
Bali babies aren't named until they are 12 days old (even baby Leo beat that!) and they aren't allowed to touch the floor until they are three months old as they are believed to have 'bad blood' until then. Even from this early age, the young are taught to respect others and be curious about their stories, hence why the local kids bombard tourists to find out where you're from, are you married and what your name is. Though nine out of ten children complete the five years of primary school, only six out of ten get through secondary school. The government does pay for their schooling, as well as subsidising petrol to increase mobility, and the locals told us it's making a real difference to their daily lives and future opportunities.
But if the kids don't go to school, they (and we, it turns out) can waste hours playing with an old tyre and a stick. For sure, we saw a lot of comparative poverty, but we also saw tightly-knit families completely happy with their lot and having developed some ingenious ways of getting by with the little they have. That is, until the city life calls to the new generation and they try not to be the one in every two Indonesians that still lives on less than US$2 a day.
Whether they'll make it or not is another story.