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A couple of days ago I managed to eat snake at last. I had failed to find the place on my own the previous night, so got a becak driver to show me. It was a typical warung - an ill-lit outdoor stall serving food - but there was a sign saying Sate Kobra.

As I walked in there was a cobra coiled on the floor. I said I wanted to eat, so they got a much smaller one for me. I took a photo and then into a sack it went. A few minutes later I am presented with a smallish glass of dark red liquid: snake blood and Red Bull. There was a long thin white object coiled up in the glass. I swallowed it all in a gulp. I do not know what the white object was, but given the extreme bitterness of the concoction I think it may have been the bile duct.

A few minutes later I am handed a plate with half a dozen skewers of charcoal-grilled meat. It is chewy, like crocodile. As to the taste of its flesh, I still do not know: the sate is served in a black pepper sauce that is also sweet, as if made with molasses. I suspect the snake itself tasted of little.

Some people do not want to eat an animal that they have seen alive, but I have no qualms. Eat meat, fish or mollusc, and an animal has been killed for food. Here and now, or earlier and elsewhere. Not that I want to see it being killed.


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The man who took me for that spot of herpetophagy was a Protestant. His sons are called Ezra and Jonathan. There are a few Hindus in the east of the island, but I am surprised to find Christians here. (Papua, on the other hand, is officially 99% Christian.) And next to me on the minibus coming to Yogyakarta, a Catholic nun.

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Indonesia is less wired than any of the other countries I have been to on this trip bar Laos, and I have had a news and communications blackout for several days. In Malaysia the Olympics were on everywhere; in Indonesia I did not see any.

Along with the rest of the population of Malaysia I watched the men’s singles badminton final between Lee Chong Wei, of Malaysia and Lin Dan of China, second and first seed respectively. Lee was on a one million ringgit win bonus. But, to national disappointment, he lost: Lin Dan wiped the floor with him. Every aspect of Lin’s play was superior: smashing (particularly), net work, mobility, precision. Lee did not help himself by lifting to Lin’s forehand all the time.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, you only use one name – the first one. Many people only have one name. I am therefore addressed as Mr Jonathan. I like it, except when there is another Jonathan staying at the hotel and I am given the keys to his room.

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Jakarta has a bad reputation. I spent two days there and can pronounce it not bad. Perhaps because it is not so touristy as Yogyakarta, the people are very friendly, and there are none of the parasites, manipulators and liars of Yogya. It might have got higher marks had I not fallen straight through the pavement into a drain thirty inches below. The flagstone revolved around its middle like Bruce Wayne’s bookshelf and I was badly bruised and half-flayed. Everything goes septic in the tropics, so I was very fortunate not to acquire an infection even after applying so much iodine it looked as though I had been bathing in blood.

Indonesia is much poorer than Malaysia – about a quarter of the income per head – but the centre of Jakarta looks much the same as Kuala Lumpur. The centre is vertical and vitreous, there are middle-class suburbs with trendy bars, and beautiful people with beautiful Apple laptops. (Wealth seems to be flaunted in Jakarta more than in KL, say.) In fact there are far more bars than KL: West Java is predominantly Muslim, but it is not ‘more Muslim than thou’ in the way that much of Malaysia is. There are plenty of decent restaurants and life as an expat might be pretty good, although it would be spent in a taxi.

(What is the country with the largest Muslim population? Easy: Indonesia. And the second-largest? Respect if you said India. It has 150 million Muslims.)

Wander slightly off the path, though, and it’s a shanty of zinc and breezeblock shacks. The docks in any city are insalubrious. But the docks in Jakarta – like Bristol, Rotterdam, Baltimore – were the whole point of the city for most of its history.

Before the Dutch came, the Hindu Sundanese kingdom had a port called Kelapa. In 1522 the Portuguese, who had recently conquered Melaka, obtained from the king the right to establish a trading post at Sunda Kelapa. The king, based in Pajajaran, wanted allies against the Sultan of Demak. But the Sultan defeated the Sundanese king in 1527 and renamed the port Jayakarta: total victory.

Nearly a century later the VOC, under Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen, obtained permission from the Sultan of Banten to build a trading post in Jayakarta. They built a fort as well. By this time the British wanted to play, and they besieged the fortress with the Jayakartans. Dutch reinforcements conquered and burned the town in 1619. They whimsically renamed it Batavia after an ancient Belgic tribe.

The walled city of Batavia became the capital of the VOC’s activities, which shows just how important the spice trade was: Batavia was on the way to the Moluccas, but surely out of the way if you wanted to go to China or Vietnam. (Melaka is much better positioned for that, but the Dutch only kicked the Portuguese out in 1641, by which time Batavia was established as the centre of operations.)

The VOC, like its later English facsimile, was not initially interested in land, just trade. In the seventeenth century it was fantastically successful, and brought vast wealth back to Holland. Chief among the spices were nutmeg and mace, from Banda in the Spice Islands, and cinnamon, black pepper and cloves. Nutmeg was fabulously expensive, but cloves were valuable too: at the beginning of the seventeenth century, a sack of cloves could buy a large house. And pepper is still a byword for expense in Dutch. The VOC behaved in time-honoured manner of a monopoly defending its market: when it found plantations of nutmeg elsewhere than on Banda, it burned them. And in his pursuit of a spice monopoly on behalf of the VOC Coen deliberately wiped out almost the entire population of Banda in the Moluccas. In Nathaniel’s Nutmeg he comes across as a pantomime villain.

While most of the goods went to Holland, the VOC also traded widely in the region. Each year it imported 6 million lb of spices back to Holland and sold 3 million lb in China, as well as pewter from Melaka. It sold Japanese copper in India, Javanese sugar in Persia, and took Indian textiles back to Melaka.

The port at Jakarta is still the busiest in Indonesia, although it is now at Tanjung Priok, a couple of miles east of Sunda Kelapa. The Dutch started building Tanjung Priok in 1883.

Sunda Kelapa is still where the phunisi, schooners from western Sulawesi, load and unload. Each ship has at least two masts, which appear to be functional. Sail-powered? I could not believe my eyes. Sure enough, they are the last sail-powered commercial fleet in the world. They have very high bows and sterns, are usually around 20-30 metres long, five or six metres in the beam. The two-masted versions can carry up to 150 tons, the three–masted up to 200. Surprisingly, though – given the outlandish collections of sails common in this part of the world, lateens everywhere – they look like conventionally rigged schooners, (gaff) rigged fore and aft, with three jibs.


The area is still heavily maritime. The people who live here are mainly Buginese and Makassarese sailors and fishermen. A lot of the shops are chandlers.


And, although banned from the main roads of the city, becak (three-wheeled rickshaws) are still to be found here. There is no limit to the numbers they can carry.


(I should probably explain the term bajaj in a previous post. They are like the result of miscegenation between the BMW C1 scooter and the Reliant Robin. Three wheeled, pointing down at the nose, with space for two behind the driver, spewing poison gas.)


While it is possible to use a boom as a crane, most of the loading still appears to be done by hand and back. Given the numbers of people available, it must be possible to load a ton in a few minutes.



Near the docks is a maritime museum, situated in a building used by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as a warehouse, and built from 1652 onwards.


Apparently, when the Dutch took over they built canals; if so, it was a truly fatuous idea. Even by the standards of the tropics, Batavia was pestilential. Malaria and yellow jack carried off Dutch by the score. Eventually Daendel decided to build a new town south of the mephitic vapours, in a slightly healthier location at Weltevreden.

The old town hall, which now houses the History Museum, was built in 1627. In front of it is a pleasant square, the Taman Fatahillah. Also on the square is the wayang (puppet) museum, which has an interesting collection of wayang kulit (leather puppets, used for shadow puppetry) and wayang golek (wooden puppets). In western Java, wayang golek predominates. Both types are used for puppet theatre, where traditional stories such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata are recounted to the accompaniment of a gamelan orchestra. In 2003 UNESCO proclaimed Indonesian puppets Masterpieces of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity, a thoroughly Soviet title.


Gamelan is performed by an orchestra of xylophones, kettle drums and gongs, together with a flute, harp and rebab (two-stringed violin). The word gamelan comes from gamel, hammer, and it is very old: it is depicted at Borobudur. I first heard of it watching a programme by Simon Rattle (then a mere citizen of the realm) about Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony. I have just listened to it again and Turangalîla really does not sound like gamelan at all, but was apparently inspired by it. The instruments can be tuned to five notes to the octave, or to seven, but it is not pentatonic in any Greek sense; the scale does not correspond to any of the Greek orders. In fact it is not easy to identify any melody; it is a wall of sound in quadruple or duple time, with slow chord progressions. I like it but find it a bit soporific. It is better as an accompaniment to ballet.

The wayang museum building itself would not be out of place in a square in the Low Countries, but in fact it was built only in 1912 on the site of the Dutch church, which held amongst others the remains of psycho Jan.


Also on the square, its second-oldest building, is the Café Batavia, redecorated in the 1930s, with an upper deck entirely of teak, white tablecloths, a good view of the square, and big band swing in the air. An atmospheric place, which could serve as a location for the game Mafia.


Another place well worth at least one visit is the National Museum. This was founded as a private collection of ethnographic objects in the mid-eighteenth century, and moved to its current location in 1868. It is known as the Elephant Building because of the statue of the elephant in front of it, given by King Chulalongkorn of Siam. He gave them to all his neighbours; this is perhaps the fourth I have seen. The bajaj driver did not know where the National Museum was; incredibly, he did not know where Independence Square was either. This is like not knowing where Trafalgar Square is.

The old building has a collection much as it has always been, I imagine. It is at its heart an old-fashioned but interesting museum with an extraordinary ethnographic collection, an aggregate of several Dutch private collections; the museum has 140,000 objects, of which only 5% are on display. Then there is a new wing, opened by Megawati in 2003. Upstairs is a floor of treasure, from two Javanese finds made in the last ten years, really well presented in a modern manner. The museum goes straight in at number two on the hit list, below the History Museum in Singapore and above the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi. Both of these get high marks for the presentation; Jakarta gets them for content. [I forgot to mention the Islamic Arts Museum in KL, which is also on the podium somewhere.]

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You see the Union Flag everywhere in Seasia. I believe it is not, on the whole, an expression of love for the UK, although it is not the worst nationality to possess around here (except in Surabaya, where British troops massacred the locals in 1945 in a bizarre attempt to prolong Dutch sovereignty). I think it is simply that the design goes well on clothes, bags, bajaj, scarves and lorries. We have the best flag and the worst anthem.


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I forgot to mention that after several months of flirting with it, I crossed the Line on the way to Java. For the fifth time, so no initiation ceremonies needed.

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Another book I saw on sale in Malaysia: Make Millions by Farming Swiftlets.

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I spent about six weeks in Malaysia and spoke no Malay at all other than the occasional terima kasih (thank you). There is no need; everyone speaks some English and some speak it very fluently, albeit incomprehensibly.

An hour after landing on Java and I am bargaining in Indonesian. What a facility for languages! Actually Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia are almost identical, aside from a few lexical and typographic differences. Shop is kedai in Malay and toko in Indonesian. Spelling differences include teksi/taksi, stesen/stasion, polis/polisi, masjid/mesjid; ogos/augustus, muzium/museum; bas/bis. So the difference seems to be comparable to that between English and Lallans.

Tom Harrisson says that Malay is the easiest language in the world, and so it may be. There are no cases, no gender, no plural and no tenses; the order is usually subject + verb + object + adverb; the script is roman; there are thousands of English loan words. It is not unlike the most famous English pidgin, but even in that it is necessary to add bilong to indicate possession; in Malay you place the pronoun after the noun possessed and that is all, eg nama saya, literally ‘name I’, means ‘my name’.

Here (in Malay) are some loan words: poskod, transmigrasi, konferensi, korupsi, toleransi, manajemen, bisnis, terapi, eksekutif, teksi, bas, kek, farmasi, sains sosial, optometris, asma, kaunter, tiket, botol, strawberi, epal, kopi, karipap, sukses, coklat.

Some words in Indonesian look as though they might be Dutch, or at least not English: halte (bus stop); apotek; kue (cake); rokok (cigarette); roda (wheel); kamar (room); sabun (soap); gratis (free).

Islamic terms, naturally, come from Arabic: masjid, Allah, Rasul, mihrab, madrassa, mimbar, syaria, kiblat, idulfitr.

Furthermore, pronunciation is easy and it is blessedly atonal. Vietnamese sounds like Chinese interleaved with a lot of glottal stops and Homeresque dohs. Half of every word is swallowed. In Malay, almost every letter is pronounced, and it sounds a bit like Italian and a bit like Catalan, so it is easy on the ear. It also means that I’m getting L2/L3 interference from Italian, saying things like “Ya, giusto.”

As with all languages in this part of the world, the complexity arises with the pronouns. And, as in Thai and Vietnamese, there are lots of ‘classifiers’, which you have to use when counting anything. The nearest equivalent would be ‘three sheets of paper’ or ‘two pairs of trousers’ rather than three papers or two trousers.

I have had ten hours of lessons in Yogya and the only difficulty is acquiring vocabulary. Aside from the loan words, there is nothing to hang on to when remembering the word, and no relation to familiar words. A lot of the words have 'men' or ber' in them, and most of them are long. 'Difficult' might be sulit, sutil, silut. Which is it? So it is difficult to remember more than ten new words a day; it will take a long time to acquire a useful vocabulary at that rate.

Posted by Wardsan 17:27 Archived in Indonesia

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Great entry. Loved this history on the Dutch East India Company. Hopefully your leg is better.


by GregW

Thanks Greg. I've also enjoyed learning about the history of my country frm your blogs!

by Wardsan

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