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Tough to read. Apologies. Islands near bottom of map are Indonesia with Papua poking up from below. Big mass in center is Malaysia. Peninsula at top also Malaysia with Thailand above that.

This is, we think, the fifth state department posting to which we’ve followed my USAID-employed niece Erin, her husband Sean and daughter Caitlin. Bolivia, Peru, Kazakhstan and  (yes, we’re counting the in-country  posting as well.) Washington D.C. came before.

Though we were pretty much ignorant about the whole area before we decided to visit, it turns out that ignorance (as usual) is a mistake. Here we are in the fourth largest nation in the world (laid out across the U.S., it would cover from Alaska to tip of Florida), with the 16th largest GDP. Not incidentally, it is home to the largest number of Muslims in the known world and, to violate a stereotype, is not a habitual exporter of terrorism.

We’re here for fun and adventure, but it’s always good, we think, to travel with a little bit of history at our side. Apologies for any inaccuracies, but I think we’ve got the general shape of things right. Importantly from a western perspective, these are the spice islands. They were the only source of such tasty items as cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, et al. Europe came to depend on and love this stuff. Then the Ottoman empire cut it all off when they took Constantinople in 1453, renamed it Istanbul, and made it difficult to impossible to maintain that east-to-west trade route over the silk road.

Thus, Europe (including Columbus, of course) came searching for ways to exploit them by water. The firstest with the mostest were the Dutch, who arrived at  pre-nation Indonesia complete with a corporate stock organization you’ve undoubtedly heard of–The Dutch East India Company. They essentially colonized the whole area and held control for centuries.

Sukarno–Indonesian dictator 1950-1967
Suharto–Indonesian dictator 1967-1998

As in all these tales, their control eventually crumbled, but their colonial legacy lives on in the architecture and institutions. By fits and starts and regressions, this string of independent islands and tribes that stretches from the tip of Thailand almost to Australia inched toward nationhood. They endured a couple of 20th century dictators–Sukarno, in office 1950-1967 and Suharto, in office 1967-1998–then became an official democracy in 1998. Not long to have the vote, but they seem to be holding on to it proudly and solidly.

Jakarta, our home away from home on the island of Java, is the seat of government, but with all the islands spread hither and yon, the task of centralization is enormous and a work in progress. However, progressing it is, and we in the USA and rest of the world will do well to pay heed to what goes on here and in the rest of the 11-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


As for us, we are quickly recovering from the flood (see post Indonesia welcome #1) and jet lag and will go forth to explore yet one more exciting and different place on this planet we share.




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