5 places that impressed me in Indonesia

Our adventure in the country of many smiles, great social capital, amazing nature and crazy traffic.

After Iran, Indonesia is our second main destination. It holds the 4th largest population in the world and it’s rapidly changing into a modern industrial developed country. It has an overwhelmingly rich history and culture: over 300 ethnicities live on Indonesia’s 17.000 islands and more than 300 languages are spoken. From its paradise islands, to lush rainforests to hundreds of active volcanoes, Indonesia’s nature holds the 2nd largest biodiversity in the world.

Can the modern developing society, the traditional cultures and the pristine environments coexist in Indonesia? Our investigation aims to take us across the Indonesian life, from capital Jakarta to wild rainforests; it will give us an overview of Indonesian society as well as an inside knowledge to problems that affect not only Indonesia, but our entire world.

Because of Indonesia’s sheer size – from Banda Aceh in Sumatra to Jayapura in East Papua it’s 13 hours by flight or 6000km on roads and boats – we decided to focus on a single island: Java. It is the most populated – 110 million out of Indonesia’s 240 million – the most developed, it holds the capital city Jakarta and the informal cultural capital Jogjakarta. So let’s dive into Indonesia’s heart.

1 Halimun Salak National Park

Halimun Salak preserves the most complete rainforest ecosystem in Java. Finding accurate information on how to get there is a bit of a challenge, but of course our friend Kestri was there to help and she also put is in contact with Mr. Pak Tri Siswo Rahardjo, the director of the National Park.

There is only 100km from Jakarta to Kabandungan, a small village where the Park’s Head Quarters is located. However on the crazy Javanese roads this means a full day of crazy travel. My Indonesian friend warned me about the „road madness” but I only understand what he meant while sitting in rusty minivan – improvised welding keeping it from falling apart – with 18 people inside, swerving on tight bumpy roads between trucks and motorscooters. We try to imagine what happens if you take a Norwegian driver and place him in the middle of this chaos…..: heart attack.

So it is late in the night when we get to the HQ of Taman Nasional Gunung Halimun Salak. We are welcomed by Mr. Pak Tri, the head of the park. We sit with him for a nice tea and a cigarette. He smokes four packs per day to compensate for a healthy lifetime in the middle of national parks and reservations. He told us about the main activities of his staff. One of his reserach teams is out in the park gathering data, even though it is one day before the New Year. While the park is pretty successful in stopping illegal wood cutting, the biggest problem is illegal hunting. The protected area of the park also hosts a few dozen small villages, mostly of rice farmers. The staff at Halimun Salak runs training programs for environmentally friendly farming.


2 Cianjur Floating Village

Let’s fast forward through another round of Javanese road madness and we get to Cianjur. The Lonely Planet Travel guide presents Cianjur as a small and untouristic village where you can experience the traditional rice farming. So we go there to find ourselves in the middle of a 200.000 people “village”.
What to do now? We go to an internet café to find the real village. I find the website of a community-based green tourism project3 and right when we’re about to stand up and go, a hyper active tour guide comes over. Meet Ben, our guide to Cianjur floating village. The floating village is a few kilometres outside Cianjur, in a real rural area. Around three hundred families live on this lake, in three hundred floating houses surrounded by hundreds of floating fish farms.

However the greatest part about this place is not the way it looks, and it does look amazing. It’s the people we met there. We stayed three days with a large family – around twelve people who very soon become our friends. We spent hours every day talking with them, getting to know their lives.

Most people on the floating village are fish farmers. They built a system of floating nets, keeping fish inside. They feed it with rice, which gives the fish a very sweet taste. Being close to Cianjur they have access to education and medical services. Here we also learned for the first time about a system that works in every Indonesian community. On one hand they have the official local administration system, connected with the government. On the second hand they have a traditional organization system, which includes a village chief, village people in charge of security and other matters and weekly community meetings to discuss current issues of the village. The two systems, official and traditional, complement each other. This village is quite prosperous due to fish farming and rice farming. The biggest problem we noticed, and it’s a problem present in all rural Indonesia, is the lack of water, sanitation and waste disposal systems.

The three days we spent with our family on the floating village were among the most pleasant in our trip, despite sleeping on wooden floors in an open space where ruthless mosquitos attacked us every night. But let’s not forget why we came to Cianjur, the rice village.

In the last morning we wake up early and our friend Ben takes us to a rice farm. You’ll have to give some small money to the farmer for his time, Ben warns us. No problem, let’s go! We meet the head farmer – he is the cousin of the land lord – with Ben acting as translator.

The farmers work from the early morning to noon. In a sunny day like this one it’s a hard job just standing in the heat. After noon the workers go back to their homes and have the rest of their day for chores around the house or selling in the local market. They are paid around 3 dollars/day for their work in the rice field. These fields you see produce around 16 tons of rice per crop, and due to Indonesia’s climate the farmers can easily grow two crops per year. 1 ton of rice leaves the farm for around $350… just 35 cents per kilo.

We’re getting ready to leave and Ben reminds us about the small money for the farmer. How much, we ask. Ben asks the farmer in Indonesian, and then tells us two hundred thousand (around $15). We smile, look at each other and hand the farmer twenty thousand. He smiles and welcomes the money. This points out something we faced all over Indonesia: if you’re white and traveling local people see you as a RICH man. We’ve been asked 15 euros for a kilo of grapes for example. Even our family on the floating village asked the price of 2 good hotel rooms for sleeping on their floor with no walls around. Of course we never paid what they ask for. Just smile and ask for a fair price, and you’ll get it.


3 Bandung

Bandung is Indonesia’s second largest metropolitan area with 2.4 million inhabitants. We rush from the rice farm in Cianjur straight to Bandung to make an appointment with Hani, a young volunteer who’s going to take us to her project. But first she takes us to her house, where we meet her nice family who quickly prepare food for us. Perfect, it’s 6pm and we only had time for breakfast.

Hani takes us to Save the Street Child, a project working with children who are rarely attending school because they have to earn their living by selling different products on the streets. The problem is that students have to pass a ‘’National exam’’ every 4 years: when they graduate primary, secondary and high school. Due to their attendance and poor studying conditions – provided by schools and families – they often fail these exams, which exclude them from the education system.

This project was initiated by a group of university students few years before. It became so popular among students that every time a generation of students was graduating, another generation took over the project. They have little funds from few sponsorships and personal contributions; therefore, they have no proper facilities to hold the classes. They teach one the streets and parks in the city, close to areas where the kids are selling their stuff. The classes are held twice per week, on Saturdays and Sundays. The curriculum was established by the coordinators of the project in accordance to the national curriculum and the needs of the pupils.

We get to the first area where there are more volunteers than kids. However, little by little, all the kids come and soon, more than 30 arrive. For that particular day English and Math class have been established. At the beginning we have the impression that the efforts of the volunteers are hopeless as chaos seems to reign over the place. In little time, the volunteers manage, by games and activities to capture the attention of almost the entire group of kids. Even the most difficult kids (who obviously had some emotional problems) soon become captivated by the classes. Our group also divides so that in each age group, 1 or 2 of us are present (as the kids are quite happy with our presence). The English lesson starts by simple things such as introducing oneself and slowly evolves to more complex description of our hobbies, likes and dislikes etc.

Hani is a special person who comes from a well off family that is able to provide her everything she dreams about. She chooses to reach out and help her community….if everybody would lend just a finger, not even an entire hand to the needy, the world would be a happier place.

It’s already dark when we leave Hani’s project and regroup back at her home. She’s also a couch surfer host, but she’s going out of town so we can’t stay. I’m sending a text to another couch surfer I’m in touch with. He replies: “Going to Garuda for rafting tonight, wanna come?” We’re dead tired but hey, let’s do it.


4 Gaia

Yayaysan Gaia is a BINGO with a special story. It was started by 5 people who used to work with Dian Desa, but who decided they want a different type of organization. So they left Dian Desa and set up seven profitable businesses in Jakarta and Java, from a PR consultancy to an IT company to a tourism resort. It took years to grow the companies and bring them into profit but this gives them now a steady cash flow to fund Gaia. It gives them total freedom to develop the projects they want, in the way they want.

We spent five hours talking to Yudhi about Gaia. He’s life story can become a series of movies. Here’s the synopsis: he studied in Jogjakarta, Paris and London, worked for Dian Desa, the World Bank, a series of multinationals, consultant companies, and now is one of the people running Gaia and their businesses. He has this speech that keeps you charmed and listening for hours and hours, five hours in our case.

Yudhi told us about the water and sanitation projects which Gaia also implements. They also have a scholarship program helping children get higher education. Being financial independent gives them all the freedom to practice capacity building. Gaia spends a lot of time in local communities collaborating with them. They have a great philosophy of sharing and using open source knowledge and services.

They still have a strong network of contacts so it happens that at the end of the year a friend from a donor agency calls to say “we still have some funds to distribute, I know you’re running some good projects, why don’t you write an application and submit it?” Most of these funds are used to provide disaster/emergency relief with the help of 600 of volunteers.

We ask Yudhi why he does everything he does. He believes in leaving a footprint on our civilization. We all wondered at one point if we can have at least a small impact on the world around us. When we say goodbye to Yudhi we are sure we can make a big impact on our world.


5 Sukunan Village

Sukunan is a small village just outside Jogjakarta. Most of its residents have jobs in the city and the rest are farmers. Here we meet Iswanto, the man who found the solution to Java’s garbage problem. Iswanto studied environmental health and medicine; he was a university lecturer at the time he designed his waste management system.

In 1997 farmers started to complain about big piles of plastic garbage lying in their fields. That’s what people were doing with the garbage: throw it in the fields. In 2002 Iswanto started to apply selective recycling in his house and his wife started to make hand craft products from used plastic. At a lecture in 2004 he met an Australian professor who funded the program implementation for Iswanto’s village.

Today we walk around the village with Iswanto and everything is perfectly clean. It’s like a tropical version of a Norwegian village. There’s a recycling station for every few houses. 80 compost stations across the village turn bio waste into fertilizer. 85% of the recycled plastic is sold, bringing income into the village. They also have a waste water treatment system installed by Dian Desa. Out of 300 families, 87% take part in the recycling system. Iswanto put a lot of effort into education. They organize educative competition and games for children and Iswanto goes door to door to talk with the people.

Iswanto works full time promoting his system in Indonesia and abroad. He receives support from the local government, JAICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency), universities, NGOs and other stakeholders. 190 villages around Jogjakarta replicate Iswanto’s system.

It is truly inspiring to listen to Iswanto as the takes us step by step through his program: from his house packed with recycling systems, across the village streets, to a meeting hall where Australian high school students learn about Sukunan, to his future plans for spreading the system.


This article was written by Vali, Alina, Alin, Iosif and Andras. Their traveling throughout Asia is the 3rd period from the Fighting with the Poor Program. Find out more about us and  our Programs on our website.


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