Indonesia is rubbish

I’m always happy to see the Boys in Brown (in Indonesia that’s the police) supporting a good cause. Right now, they’ve decided to take on what I think is the biggest blight on this gloriously haphazard nation. Not corruption (that would be a stretch for the police), not a bloated and ineffectual civil service (ditto), but litter. Indonesians have gone from wrapping food in banana leaves to dressing food, drink, shampoo, sweets, virtually everything in shiny plastic wrappers. The national…



No country for animal lovers

My future is golden, according to the entrails of the chicken sacrificed on my behalf to celebrate the merapu new year. If I spend very much longer trailing around islands heavy with ritual sacrifice, it may also be vegetarian. Though I’m coming to respect the natural instincts of the animals that share every corner of one’s space in Eastern Indonesia. They sit under one’s feet on the bus, snuffle around under one’s bed in the village, find their way into…


Medicine man: a market education

Last year, the Wellcome Collection in London had a glorious exhibition of anatomical models, called Exquisite Bodies. They were accompanied by banners from the fairs and markets where these models used to be shown. In the prudish Victorian age, they were often the only glimpse people got of naked bodies other than their own. Part education, part pornography, all entertainment. In the country markets of Indonesia, these models still take pride of place, though I’m not sure “exquisite” quite describes…


A whale of a time in Eastern Indonesia

I’ve just spent a few days hunting whales in Lamalera, on the eastern end of Lembata island, off Flores. We didn’t have much luck, but last week, there was something of an end-of-season bonanza: in rickety wooden boats and using only long bamboo harpoons with rusty metal tips, the lads of Lamalera (and they are definitely Lads) brought in six whales. They get hacked up on the beach, which is littered still with spines and skulls….


Credit where credit is not due

You can tell a lot about a country from the sort of junk mail it circulates. Or, in the case of Indonesia, junk SMSs. Travelling in areas where a particular tree is designated as a “pohon senyal” or “signal tree” (hold on to the tree and you might just get enough of a signal of your phone to send a text or even make a call) I get quite excited if my phone beeps…


Indonesia’s antibiotic resistance mystery solved

Some years ago, when I was working on HIV prevention in Indonesia, we diligently treated sex workers for common infections such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, using national treatment guidelines. They were not cured. After much head-scratching, we sent some samples off for resistance testing. The results were pretty shocking. We found that 100% of our gonorrhea samples were resistant to tetracycline (marketed here as “SuperTetra!”), and 40% to Ciprofloxacin, the second commonly-subscribed antibiotic. (It took a shameful four years to…


Notional Networks: the realities of Indonesian Telecoms

In my proposal for Taking Tea with the Dead, I wittered on at some length about how fabulously plugged in Indonesia is. The world’s second largest Facebook community, some 18 percent of all Twitter traffic. Jakarta pulsates a glorious crimson on this wonderful Twitter heat map at most times of the day and night. But as Merlyna Lim reminded us in a recent report on democratization and social media in Indonesia (pdf), most of those people live in Java and…


Two fingers up for family planning

When I first lived in Indonesia, in the not-entirely-golden age of Suharto, family planning was one of the government’s core priorities. So much so, they’d take people on safari for free. These family planning safaris involved laying out the camp beds, slapping women down on them and shoving an IUD up them. Though the programme improved hugely in later years, it remained sullied by its coercive infancy. When responsibility for reproductive health devolved to the districts, it was a rare…


Graffiti, Catholic style

The Blessed Virgin Mary on a hill going out of Boawae, in Flores, made me homesick for the near-identical BVM outside the Priest’s House in Castletownshend, the prettiest village in Ireland. (I wonder idly where they are produced. There’s a smaller but otherwise also identical version in the garden of the guest house I’m staying in.) As I walked up to photograph her, this graffiti outside the dorm rooms caught my eye. I wasn’t sure whether to be shocked that…