Life Among the Volcanoes and Islands of Indonesia

Talking to the World Project

In March, I spoke to a young Indonesian woman named Hanifa. At the time, she was living with my neighbor’s family as a foreign exchange student. At the end of the summer, she returned home to Java.

Before meeting Hanifa, I knew little about Indonesia except what the internet provides. Indonesia is a country is made up of 17,000 islands. It is home to strange and wonderful creatures like the Komodo dragon, the brightly plumed Bird of Paradise, and the wild civet cat. Indonesia’s civet cats are famous for their part in creating the world’s most expensive coffee, Kopi Luwak. If you watched The Bucket List, you saw Morgan Freeman tell Jack Nicholson how this brew, commonly referred to as Cat Poop Coffee, comes by its special aroma and flavor.

When I asked Hanifa to tell me one of the most unusual things about Indonesia she told me about the world’s stinkiest flower. It grows in Sumatra. When it blooms, Amorphophallus titanum (the Corpse Flower) gives off the scent of rotting flesh. It is so putrid, the odor can be detected half a mile away.

Currently, Indonesia has roughly 130 active volcanoes. The eruption of the most famous Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa, is considered to be the deadliest eruption on record. When it erupted on August 27, 1883, it was so powerful that it ruptured the eardrums of sailors on ships 40 miles away. Ash from the eruption was sent 50 miles into the atmosphere. The pressure wave from the eruption rounded the earth nearly four times. The sky darkened worldwide and produced spectacular sunsets for years due to the amount of ash and material in the atmosphere. More than 36,000 people died.

About Hanifa

Hanifa lives near Bandung, West Java, Java Island, Indonesia. She is three hours from Jakarta.

Most people in Indonesia follow Islam, like Hanifa. Her class has 40 pupils. Of that number, only 7 are not Muslim. She can wear whatever she wants. Traditional Muslim dress is a choice, she said.

My Interview With Hanifa

Please look out a window in your home and tell me what you see?

The sunrise. Hills. Farms. I live two kilometers from the city, Bandung.

If I came to your house for dinner, what would you serve me?

Rice, with beef or chicken or fish. And cooked vegetables. Spice wise, it is usually hot. Like with chili. It is closest to Thai food. Thailand is not too far away. We have curries and satay, too. But our curries are different.

Recently, I read about the fires in Indonesia. Can you tell me about them?

Indonesia has very large palm oil plantations in Sumatra and Borneo Island. Every single year for the last 18 years, there will be fires across Sumatra and Borneo. I am on Java Island, so the smog didn’t reach my place.

The fires this year created smog that reached Singapore and Malaysia. The fires are mainly started on large plantations that burn palm trees. Burning the palm trees is the most efficient way to wipe out the old trees before replacing them with new trees.

Cities in Sumatra and Borneo are the ones who get covered by the smog for weeks, even months. People have to wear masks when they go out of their house. The visibility is so low that they have to turn on their vehicle lights when they ride. This year, at least four people died because of the smog. I also read about birds getting confused on their way to migrate. I don’t know about other animals. Since wild animals are not allowed on the plantations doing the burning, not many wild animals get caught in the fire.

This smog in Indonesia is a most powerful issue. More than 15% of the entire news in Indonesia is about smog. The government knows which places have the potential to burn. It happens every single year. There are patterns, but the government still can’t anticipate it. Part of the reason is also that the major players in these fires are big companies. They have money to bribe the courts, even if the police caught them breaking the law.

What myth or stereotype about Indonesia would you like to set straight?

People often ask me if I like to travel from island to island and I say no. Because my island is very big. It doesn’t feel like an island.

And sometimes people ask if we still have cannibalism in Indonesia. There is maybe one tribe, on the island of Papua, that might do that but I’m not sure. But not where I live. We don’t do that.

What is your ethnic background?

In Indonesia, we have 600 tribes. I am Java and Sunda. Those are the tribes that I am from. That is what I call myself at home in Indonesia.

In the world, I call myself Indonesian.

What brings you joy?

Reading. I love to read. Mostly stories like The Hunger Games. And romances.

What are your greatest fears? Hate. Hate. And hate again. Darkness. Being alone.

What gives you hope?

Reading. Music.

What is something I might not know about Indonesia?

There are a lot of scooters in Indonesia but there is a problem with 5th and 6th graders riding them. They aren’t supposed to be on the streets but they are. They are everywhere.

What is your opinion of the United States? Chicago?

I think that the U.S. is very powerful in the world economy and very advanced in technology. The people think highly of personal freedom.

Chicago has a neat city structure, interesting museums, good places to shop. It is a nice city to visit, but not to live. I feel that it is too crowded and too many skyscrapers.

What does Indonesia do well? Nature, food, clothes, animals. Culture.

What do you wish your country did better?

Fight corruption in government.

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Originally published at http://www.chicagonow.com.