Indonesia, its people and the Ring of Fire

A month of sailing the Indonesian Archipelago has left a lasting impression on us. We have had the privilege of going up to Mount Kelimutu, diving in several places, including around Komodo and, best of all, learning about Indonesians through our very limited Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language).

We are now in Medana Bay, Lombok (one of the lesser Sunda Islands). “Ari” a chap from the local village came around on his boat this morning for a chat (and to practice his Bahasa Ingriss!). Ari had invited us for coffee at his house, an invitation we haven’t taken up yet, but also told us his life story in about ten minutes while hanging off the back of Sunny Spells.

Ari taught himself English while “on the road” and is the third-best English speaker we’ve met so far in Indonesia. His mama couldn’t afford to send him to sekhola after his papa died. He was told to “go fishing”. He is married and has two children. As his English is good he has a little transport business, carrying tourists from the local eco-resort to nearby points of interest (such as the islands of Gili Aer and Gili Trewangan) using his Indonesian style longboat with 25hp outboard. Today he had to decline the business because of engine troubles.

On 5 August last year an earthquake struck Lombok, causing destruction and mud slides (I looked it up on Wikipedia). The earthquake and its aftershocks killed almost 600 people and injured thousands. Ari’s house on a nearby slope was damaged in a mudslide and he has had to move to a house near the beach, exchanging mudslide for tsunami risk. We heard so little about this in Australian media that I couldn’t even recall the event. They’ve had aftershocks as recently as March this year.

Gunung Agung, Bali, at sunset from our anchorage at Medana Bay, Lombok

We’ve seen countless volcanoes in the last month as we sailed from Kupang to Lombok and we’ve subscribed to the Unesco tsunami alert system, conscious that, geologically, we are in a pretty unsettled and volatile place.

What I had not appreciated is just how volatile it is. In a particularly nasty eruption 74,000 years ago, Lake Toba apparently extinguished almost all humans from the face of the earth. Gunung (Mount) Tambora’s eruption in 1815 caused the “year of no summer” in 1816, after pumping 160 cubic kilometers (!) of ash into the atmosphere. The volcano killed 10,000 people directly, but the consequential deaths due to starvation and other causes is estimated to have pushed that up to 88,000. The Banda Aceh earthquake and tsunami on 26 December 2004 is still fresh in our memories. It is estimated to have killed 227,898 people.

Sangean Api belching as we sail between it and Sumbawa

Spread over thousands of islands in the “Ring of Fire” and with a rapidly expanding population (total population 270 million, median age 26), Indonesia has significant challenges. We were saddened by the toll that destructive fishing practices (explosives and cyanide) has taken on the reefs and fish stocks. Vast areas of reefs have been laid waste. These are the breeding grounds of small fish. No small fish means no big fish. There really is nothing bigger than about 2 inches to see around the reefs off Flores. It improves around Komodo, where marine protection zones are supported by tourism. It appears unlikely that the hundreds of little fishing boats out every night can bring anything home.

It is dry, and everything seems to be on fire. Everywhere. We read about the damage done to peatlands through extraction of bore water and burning to create rice paddys. This is not alarmist, tree hugging exaggeration. The pall of smoke is pervasive and I often wake up in the early morning hours when the cool air flows down from the mountains to the ocean, carrying the acrid smoke with it.

Packaging materials ends up in the ocean, and the density of plastic piled up on beaches such as Gili Banta was shocking. We read of Australia (and other countries) exporting recyclables to Indonesia and you have got to wonder. Part of the problem is supply of drinking water. Every drop of potable water comes in a container of some sort, primarily plastic bottles. And then there is so much processed food. Combine this with waste management that is not only inadequate, but hard to provide in a country of thousands of small islands and isolated villages and the result is inevitable.

Gili Banta anchorage with Komodo Island in the background
Beach at Gili Banta

All the above is a long way of saying that Indonesia is a tough and unpredictable place to live. Much of its population of about 270 million live in remote places that are accessed through inhospitable and mountainous terrain. They have few resources and many live subsistence lives based on fishing or agriculture. Despite this, we have been blown away by the friendliness, the kindness and generosity we have experienced throughout.

Like Ari, people often drop in by boat just to say hello and find out who we are. We have received numerous lifts on the back of motorbikes from complete strangers who saw us walking by the side of the road and stopped to help. Where we’ve hired people to take us places, like the trip to Kelimutu, it turned into a shared adventure with new friends. A trip to the local market on the back of motorbikes in Kupang was a hoot, with our Indonesian friends helping us negotiate prices and get the best products.

Crazy shopping experience

In the most remote little anchorages, children will row out in their dugouts singing out “Hello Mister!” as they approach. Yes they are always asking for something, but it always starts with “buku” or “pen”. They are friendly, confident in a way that helicopter parenting does not allow, and curious like all children. They love a cheery “sampa jumpa” (see you later) and were blow away by the image of fish on our echo sounder.

Papa with his kids (anak anak), selling coconuts at Potopaddu
Amazed by the image on the fishfinder/sounder

Tomorrow we head over to Bali’s north coast. From here the population density rapidly increases and Bali is Indonesia’s principal tourist destination, so we expect things to be different.