Strait of Malacca

As I’ve written before (see post of 5.3), there are some places that you’ve heard of so often that you’re curious just to see them in the flesh. The Strait of Malacca, between the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, with about a quarter of the world’s trade, including a quarter of the world’s traded oil, passing through. It is also one of the most famous areas of modern piracy, although only smaller ships generally fall prey (50 incidents in 2006).

Faces of Indonesia

Some portraits from the Indonesian islands of Lombok, Flores and Sulawesi:

Boys under a tongkonan, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Sasak woman, Lombok

Boy in “peci” hat popularized by former president Sukarno, Lombok

Young boy collecting plastic bottles by the port, Flores.

Young Muslim ladies in cover


Girl in traditional dress at a funeral, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Boy in traditional dress at a funeral, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Older woman, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Older man, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Tana Toraja and Madagascar

Terrace farming, Sulawesi

Terrace farming, Madagascar

As I’ve said many times before, much of what is great about traveling in so many different places, especially within a relatively short timeframe, is that many connections can be made.

As you may know, the Malagasy (as the people of Madagascar are called), although they live just off of the coast of southeastern Africa, originally came not from Africa but from Asia. The Austronesian ethnic group arrived by boat from now Indonesia (across all those thousands of miles of Indian Ocean), and settled on the huge island of Madagascar over a thousand years ago. The island was not yet significantly inhabited by Africans from the mainland, who have arrived since to intermarry with the Asian Malagasy. To this day, especially in the highlands of central Madagascar, people look pretty much Southeast Asian. Even relatively African or dark-skinned Malagasy, as you find on the western coast, are quick to distinguish themselves from “black” Africans, who are thought of as a somewhat inferior race. (One man, who was to us indistinguishable from a black mainland African, when we said that we were American, remarked that we too had “red” people like him.)

Although we had not been to Indonesia or Malaysia prior to our Madagascar trip, some “Asian” aspects of the Malagasy were obvious to us. First, as I mentioned, many Malagasy look Asian. Second, they speak an Austronesian language that I understand is most closely related to a language spoken on Borneo. Third, they grow rice, and not the grains common to mainland Africa. Now in Tana Toraja in southern Sulawesi, I see even more clearly the genuine cultural closeness that the Malagasy retain to their Indonesian ancestors.

The most distinctive and telling of the new connections I have made is funerary customs. When we visited Madagascar in 2005, we had read much about the unusual local traditions, including the infamous famadihana, or the turning of the bones, in which the bodies of the deceased are disinterred so that they can be covered in a clean shroud and reburied. The custom may seem quite morbid to us, but it is really a huge celebration demonstrating the Malagasy connection to their ancestors, a continuation beyond death of the familial relationship. We were in Madagascar during famadihana “season,” but did not have the fortune to be invited to an event, which are, perhaps thankfully in this age of mass tourism, still largely private affairs.

We are now in Tana Toraja (the “land of the Toraja”) in central south Sulawesi, and learn that they have similar funerary traditions, including a ceremony remarkably similar to the famadihana. Again we did not see any such disinterment, but we were fortunate enough to be invited to and present for part of a Torajan funeral–alas, tourism here has caught up to tradition. Upon the death of a loved one, the body is left within the home for up to one year (and continues to be treated as a member of the family), until an elaborate funeral ceremony is prepared for after the next harvest. The Torajan relationship to the dead to be at least as intimate as the Malagasy one. Some pictures of a Torajan funeral:

The elaborately decorated coffin and the “emcee”

A team of women working a local drum-like instrument

The location of the funeral, a rectangular lawn surrounded by traditional houses. The people walking alongside the left of the picture represent one of many delegations paying their respects to the deceased, bringing with them gifts of livestock. One water buffalo has already been killed and skinned. We were not there for the day of the great slaughter, but were told that up to fifty animals would be sacrificed.

The Malagasy and the Torajans are also similar in their unusual choices of burial locations. We saw cliffside tombs in Madagascar, and, in Sulawesi, coffins in cliffs, caves and trees. All in all, most unusual.

Tombs cut out in a cliff, Sulawesi

Detail of the “tau tau” effigies protecting the tombs

Coffins hanging on the side of a cliff, Sulawesi

Tree tombs for babies, Sulawesi

Cave tombs, Sulawesi

Cliff tombs, Madagascar

There are many other connections. Both the Torajans and the Malagasy have caste systems. Both the Torajans and the Malagasy excel at terrace farming of rice. Both the Torajans and the Malagasy place great value in the ownership of cattle (water buffalo, especially albinos, in Sulawesi; zebu in Madagascar), the number of animals in particular being a primary indicator of status in excess of the actual utility the animals provide. If there was any doubt that the Malagasy indeed came from Southeast Asia… The persistence of culture over hundreds of years and thousands of miles is truly astonishing.

Zebu market, Madagascar

An albino water buffalo, the most prized of all, Sulawesi

Food in Indonesia

Why there are not many Indonesian restaurants all over the world is a great mystery to me, as Indonesia is one of my favorite countries in the world for eating, hands down. From the lesehan of Java to the numerous Padang-style rumah makan, delicious food is always steps away in Indonesia, dirt cheap and full of flavor. In this post, just a few Indo-staples, along with a couple regional dishes from our trip.

There are three “dishes” that I would consider the holy trinity of quick and dirty eating in Indonesia: nasi campur, nasi goreng and mie goreng.

Nasi campur, which means “mixed rice,” isn’t really a dish per se, but a sort of table d’hote–white rice served with whatever dishes are on offer that day. A nasi campur often includes some vegetables, fried tempe (a sort of meat substitute made of grains and pulses), flavored boiled egg, chicken curry or fried chicken and sambal. Nasi campur is the absolute most basic food that is available anywhere–since you are just served what is available–and cheap (around USD 1). It is, along with its Malaysian cousin nasi lemak, one of the tastiest, cheapest meals known to man.

At a restaurant in Lombok. Fried scallions are a common seasoning.

If you’re in the mood for something hotter/more freshly prepared, a good step sideways is Indonesian fried rice, or nasi goreng (literally, “fried rice”). Nasi goreng packs a bit more flavor than Chinese-style fried rice and almost always comes with a fried egg for extra protein.

Served on a leaf

Somewhat more simple and less tasty is mie goreng (“fried noodles”). Mie goreng is essentially a sort of dry instant noodle, often very salty but always appetizing.

A fourth typical dish, and Indonesia’s most common and unique vegetable plate, is gado gado, a plate of blanched vegetables served with peanut sauce and usually a shrimp chip or two. To be honest I don’t like it too much, but Derek does, comparing it to Chinese cold sesame noodles.

Some more localized specialties:

Seafood is common in Indonesia, with fish often baked in banana leaves. This dish was from Flores.

From Lombok, a spicy chicken dish, flavored in part with kaffir lime leaves

From Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, pa’piong, pork and chicken cooked in bamboo

Waria, or Transgendered around the World

In much of the first world, the battle for “gay rights” is largely won. Gay men and lesbians can legally marry (or enter into some contractual facsimile of marriage) in many Western European countries, as well as Canada and some of the most important of the United States. Even if public acceptance is not yet totally here, and some anachronistic laws remain, the overall trend seems clear, and young people today find little astonishing or controversial about sexual orientation (as Derek’s then nine year-old niece remarked, even SpongeBob is gay). This is of course not the case in many other parts of the world. Even if east Asia lacks much of the religio-moral condemnation of homosexuality, most gay men in Japan, Korea or China are deep in the closet, with “Brokeback” marriages the norm. In the macho-er parts of the developing world, gayness is perceived as weakness and shunned. In some parts of the Islamic world, homosexual activity can be a capital offense.

Some in the world may still try to deny the existence of hard-wired homosexual orientation, or its “legitimacy” to exist and manifest itself, but some facts of life are impossible to deny, and it is sometimes quite surprising to see how well-established the transgendered identity is in seemingly unlikely locales, including three on our itinerary: India, Iran and Indonesia.

Homosexuality as an identity in India may be just barely nascent–even the megalopolis of Bombay does not support one proper gay bar–but there is an ancient class of transgendered persons, known as hijra. Either male or intersex at birth, hijra assume essentially feminine identities, going so far as to “marry” men (either with or without having undergone castration). Some hijra work in the sex industry, but they are also known for performing a sort of exorcising role at births and weddings, to ensure the masculinity of male children and promote fertility. While hijra are not exactly “accepted”–they suffer a great deal of discrimination and are also feared as a sort of cursed race that may, if you offend them or refuse their services, curse your children to suffer their fate–they are a well-established community, a category of person, which has its defined (albeit difficult) niche within Indian society.

The second place on our itinerary that has a sizable and recognized transgendered population was, believe it or not, Iran. While Iran executes (or at least Iranian law calls for the execution of) gay men, Iranian doctors and theologians apparently have found no religious reason to deny the existence of transgendered people. Even if being a transgendered person is not exactly “well accepted” by society, the state recognizes it as a medical condition that can be “remedied” by the surgery of the sex change operation (partly covered by the national health insurance), and Iran is, after Thailand, a world center for that procedure.

Southeast Asia as a whole seems to have an unusually large transgendered population. In Thailand they call them kathoey or ladyboys, and many a male heterosexual traveler has mistakenly fallen for one (they can sometimes be, as U2 would say, even better than the real thing, in terms of sheer knockout beauty). The visibility of the transgendered population of these countries may have some genetic component or, as likely, may be due to widespread public acceptance, especially in Thailand and some of its neighbors. Indonesia may be the largest Islamic country in the world, but in terms of its transgendered population, and seeming acceptance of their gender identities, it is very much a part of Southeast Asia.

In Indonesia they are known as “waria,” which is an amalgam of the words for woman (“wanita”) and man (“pria”). I have read one estimate of fewer than 30,000 waria, but in a country of over 200 million it seems likely that the real number is far higher, and simply traveling about Indonesia one sees them everywhere, from the seedier parts of Bali nightlife along Jalan Dhyana Pura to quiet Labuanbajo on Flores to Islamic Makassar on Sulawesi. I have also read reports suggesting that many or most waria are sex workers or have at least engaged in the trade, and while of course there are some (such as the ones on Bali) who are, most waria I have seen in Indonesia seemed like regular people doing regular jobs. Waria are often quite friendly and outgoing with travelers. Labuanbajo had a sort of waria hangout (the Matahari–two English guys in our dive group seemed to hang out there quite a bit). We saw some mild teasing of waria by other locals but no open hostility, given the warias’ very open presence.

I am inclined to think that transgendered people, in India, Iran or Indonesia, or in some Native American cultures (whose transgendered people were at one point called berdache and now, “two spirits”), are accepted in part because of the indubitable existence of people who are born intersex. It is a fact of nature (up to 1% of all human births, according to some studies) hard to deny the existence of, that it forces the creation of a category. Presumably, once the category is created, it admits not only those who are born physically ambiguous but those who, psychologically, are transgendered.

I wonder: In societies where the transgendered identity exists and is tolerated, is there any pressure on non-transgendered homosexuals to try to squeeze themselves in? That is, if you are a gay male, would you be tempted to identify as a hijra or waria to be able to express your sexual preference? I would think not, because gender is a much more core aspect of identity than mere sexual preference, but it is clear to me that there are different “kinds” of homosexuals, and it is possible that some may be tempted by an open identification. If indeed culture helps shape sexuality, to what extent can sexuality be affected by the gender/sexual roles available in a given culture? Does the existence of the category of waria or hijra affect the number of people who may come to identify, in their adolescence or adulthood, as transgendered or homosexual? These are difficult questions, of course, but one thing is clear: “deviance” from the male/female heterosexual norm is incredibly widespread, and recognition of this fact has existed from time immemorial.