On a clear day I can see Indonesia from my house. I know Tina Fey/Sarah Palin pops into my mind too…but I really can. However, until last week when I visited Yogyakarta and Jakarta I could not have told you more that a few small facts about the country. What I learned both shocked an amazed me.
#1 Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world just after the US and it is the largest Muslim country (nearly 90% of its 240m people). During our visit to Indonesia the country felt surprisingly vibrant, moderate and progressive. Contrary to my perceptions, many women did not wear head scarves and those that did displayed their dress with an individual flare. The people were extraordinarily friendly. At several tourist areas we could not go three minutes without having our photos taken with fellow Indonesian tourists. This was at the Buddhist ancient temple Borobudur.
#2. Indonesia is extremely diverse but it is a democracy with an elected legislature and president. The country consists of 17,508 islands of which 6,000 are inhabited. There are 300 distinct native ethnicities and 742 different languages and dialects. In 1998 the people ousted their dictator of three decades, Suharto, and managed in a short time to form functional democracy. Of course there are growing pains but given the diversity of the population it is amazing that this somehow works.
#3. The economy is growing quickly and the country is very tech savvy.
Since the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998, the per capita GDP of Indonesia has increased by 500% in US dollars. Amazingly, today Indonesia has the second-largest number of Facebook users of any country int he world.
During our visit, as part of his work Andy had the opportunity to meet with many financial institutions. He remarked how entrepreneurial and optimistic the people were that he met. Some of the most interesting visits he had were with banks that give out microloans in Yogyakarta. The bank managers even took him to meet some of their customers. The people were so excited to have him visit they took photos and served food.
Andy noted how many women he encountered had positions of power. At one bank the managers were all women and the customers were men. Here is a photo of a women who used the bank loan to expand her business.
This man took a $1000 loan to by a few washers and dryers to start a laundromat to offer a better life for his child. Andy usually meets with people such as CEOs, who are removed from the receiving ends of the loans, so I think meeting local people was truly a treat for him.
#4. Natural Disasters are more common than I realized and more devastating. Our guide in Yogyakarta said the local people used to be known as “those that did not stop smiling, however since 2006 we have not had much to smile about.” Certainly I remembered Indonesia was so hard hit in the 2004 tsunami. However, I had forgotten or completely missed that Yogyakarta suffered a devastating earthquake in 2006 that killed 5700 people, injured 37,000 and caused $3.1 billion of damage.
There are also many active volcanos. This is a view of Mount Merapi from our hotel in Yogyakarta. It last erupted in October 2010. This was the worst eruption in 130 years there. As we drove around we saw evidence of the continued clean up efforts.
#5. Many Indonesians seem to really like the US. They are proud that Barack Obama was a student there. American movies and media are prevalent. The first Imax opened for commercial movies last week and “The Avengers” was a huge draw.
At a very modern mall in Jakarta I stumbled upon the @America Cultural Center. It is sponsored by the American embassy as a way to promote interactions with the Indonesians and Americans. I went in the center with the kids out of curiosity. Ironically they feature an American city every few weeks and this month was Boston. It was amusing to see photos of where we live and play posted on the walls of this Indonesian mall.
I am intrigued by Indonesia and excited about exploring this fascinating country more in this blog and in further upcoming trips.