Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries in the world, with over 17,000 islands spanning one eighth of the earth's circumference, 300 languages, hundreds of ethnic groups, and an impressive history shaped by Melanesians, Malays, Chinese, Hindus, Buddhists, Arabs, Europeans, and others. What region does one focus on for a vacation? After much agonizing, Usha and I have a plan.
Our journey will begin in Medan, the largest city on Sumatra, an island known for its biodiversity and wildlife, indigenous cultures, active volcanoes, coffee, and Srivijaya, the first major kingdom of Indonesia. Medan is comprised of Batak, Javanese, Chinese, Indian, Minangkabau, Acehnese and other ethnic minorities such as Sundanese and Madurese, who have apparently turned the city into a foodie's paradise. Close to Medan is Bukit Lawang at the eastern edge of Gunung Leuseur National Park, where we hope to see orangutans in the wild. We will then proceed to the town of Berastagi and hike up an volcano called Sibayak. Atop the rim and peering into the cone, will we see tell-tale signs of this not-yet-dormant volcano, or will the view be obscured by clouds? Our next stop will be Danau Toba, the largest volcanic lake in the world. We plan to stay on an island in its middle—Pulau Samosir—as big as Singapore and home to the indigenous Batak tribe, who mix Prostestant Christianity with animist belief, ritual, and powerfully emotive hymns.
The action then shifts to West Sumatra, to Padang and the cool and lush region around Bukittingi, ringed by three active volcanoes and home of the Minangkabau tribe, who are Muslim but matrilineal; property and wealth are passed down through the female line, and every person is identified by his or her mother's clan. We hope to hire a local to take us on a day-long hike through the countryside, visiting market towns, old Dutch homes, and soaking in vistas of terraced rice fields and Minangkabau village houses adorned by buffalo horned roofs.
The final leg of the vacation unfolds in and around Yogyakarta, a short flight away on Java island. One guidebook claims that if Jakarta is the financial and industrial capital of Indonesia, Yogyakarta is its soul. It is also the launch pad for Borobodur and Prambanam, perhaps the two most stunning archaeological sites in Indonesia. Borobodur, a colossal Buddhist temple and monastery with finely sculpted panels depicting scenes from ordinary life, was built between 760-830 CE by the kings of the Sailendra dynasty, who sought to recreate Indian pilgrimage sites on Java. Prambanam, the largest and most exquisite set of Hindu temples in Indonesia, is known for its sculptural detail, including scenes from the Ramayana. They were built by the Sanjaya kings between 8th and 10th centuries CE when Hinduism was all the rage. Centuries later, when Islam was introduced by Arab traders, the realm of Hinduism shrank to the island of Bali. At the open air theater near the temples, we hope to see a performance of the famous Ramayana Ballet, Java's "most spectacular dance-drama".
As is our custom, all we have booked are the flights. For the daily journey on the ground, we will have to rely on our wits, guidebooks, and the kindness of strangers. We have packed a mosquito repellent and I will definitely take lots of pictures.