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Lion City

View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

I’m back in Singapore. Five months ago I found it boring. Now, after four months in Indonesia, I am very glad to be here. Singapore: cheese; wine; wifi; English language cinema; English language bookshops; metro; Indian and other restaurants; cheese; hygiene; privacy; hot water; drinkable water; pavements you can walk along; cheese. A relative absence of: hawking and spitting (illegal); blowing your nose into your fingers and then flicking them; uneatable sugary bread; sucking your teeth loudly; litter (illegal); smacking chops while eating; malaria; hissing at someone to attract their attention; potholes; shouting ‘hello mister’ to any white face.

Here is a typical sign in Singapore.


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Flying into Jakarta this morning, the landscape looked very different from four months ago. The fields looked like flooded fens.

I recently read Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard. It is a fictionalised account of the author’s childhood experiences in Shanghai and in a Japanese civilian prisoner camp. It was perhaps even more interesting as an insight into the childhood experiences of Dirk, my roommate on the Papua tour. Dirk was born in the Dutch East Indies – his father was a Resident, or Collector or something – and Dirk was interned in a Japanese camp during the war. His father was interned in another camp and died during the war. After the war, the remainder of his family barely escaped the violence of nationalist Indonesia, sailing to Holland, where Dirk went to school with children four years younger than him, and learned to speak proper Dutch.

The book is beautifully written. Ballard describes a sunset thus:

The sun fell towards the Shanghai hills, and the flooded paddy fields became a liquid chessboard of illuminated squares.

It’s a nice image, and perhaps it works for paddy fields seen from ground level (padi, incidentally, is Indonesian for unharvested rice). From the air yesterday morning it did not work so well, because the fields lack the required rectilinearity. The dikes look more like the filigree pattern of a dragonfly wing, the fields like mercury.

This is an old photo, taken near Makassar; the fields were not so flooded here.


(And here is a cicada from the Baliem Valley, Papua, decorated in Australian colours.)


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Ack, gek, ptaw: durians are on sale on the street outside. I thought the season had finished for a while.

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I have been mildly worrying whether the butterflies I purchased in Sulawesi were protected by law. As I understand it, four species of Papilio and all Troides are protected by Indonesian law. The only one of my twelve specimens protected is the Troides helena. Actually, this one came from a butterfly farm, not from the wild, and is therefore the least objectionable of the specimens.

Which doesn’t quite make it all right.

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Who first formulated a theory of atolls? Charles Darwin. He suggested that an atoll started life as a fringing reef, around a volcanic island that subsequently sinks. The coral builds higher in order to stick close to the surface, forming a coral ring around a central lagoon. He was right. At Enewetak Atoll in the central Pacific, the volcano is 1,219 m below sea level.


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I wondered, a long time ago, why they drive on the left in Indonesia, which came under Dutch rather than British suzerainty. The answer seems to be that, while the Dutch were busy in Europe with the Corsican upstart, the British managed their possessions in the East Indies. Stamford Raffles was Lieutenant Governor of Java between 1811 and 1816, being appointed at the age of thirty. He published A History of Java in 1817 and received a knighthood in 1818.

Here is a statue of Raffles in Singapore, erected at the point where he landed in January 1819. In the background is the financial district. Although his name is for ever associated with Singapore, he only spent a few weeks here. He spent much longer in Java and Sumatra.


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The Republic of Indonesia has reasonably amicable relations with Papua New Guinea. The reason is simple: it is the policy of PNG that Papua, the western part of the island of New Guinea, should be part of an ‘integrated’ Indonesia. A border post between the northern towns of Jayapura and Vanimo should open early next year (although, naturally, people cross all the time and families straddle the border).

Although there are arguments about alleged incursions into PNG by the TNI (Indonesian army), and alleged harbouring of OPM members in PNG, PNG is actually the only neighbour with which Indonesia does not have a border dispute. Indonesia contrives to have two border disputes with stamp-sized Singapore, one on the west and one on the east side. It has dozens of arguments with Malaysia, especially over the border in the Melaka Strait and the Ambalat oil and gas field in the Makassar Strait (both countries have awarded concessions in the territory of the field). With Timor-Leste, most of the land border is agreed, but the sea border is not. Indonesia’s northern border, with the Philippines, is also disputed.

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While we were dining at Two Fish Divers, on Lembeh Island, a tiny gecko fell from the ceiling and landed on the table, missing all the food. Unlike its bigger relatives, it was entirely unafraid. Put anything in front of it and it jumped on to it: so it happily jumped on to fingers, heads, shoulders... and noses. It tickled.


Posted by Wardsan 09:30 Archived in Singapore

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