The people of Indonesia call their homeland Tanah Air Kita, which means Our Land and Water, and with good reason. It is a country of many islands, being the largest national archipelago in the world.
Indonesia straddles the equator from the Asian mainland to Australia for a distance west to east, farther than Los Angeles to New York, approximately 2800 miles, and north to south it spans a distance longer than Boston to Orlando, approximately 1300 miles. Admittedly, some of Indonesia's more than 13,500 islands are no larger than a tennis court. Yet Indonesia also has some of the largest islands in the world. Only about 6,000 islands are inhabited.
As you might expect, Indonesia also has plenty of water in its territory. It is surrounded by the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. The water is warm, the sea life abundant and the coral reefs vibrant, though not unaffected by the same damage and dangers of coral reefs the world over.
Indonesia has rich jungles and abounds with a plethora of wildlife, including monkeys, tigers, crocodiles, huge pythons and the world's largest lizard, the Komodo dragon. Orangutans - the large, intelligent, long-haired red apes reminiscent of the "Every Which Way But Loose" movies - can only be found in Indonesia. Many of Indonesia's islands are also a bird-watcher's paradise. In fact, the famous Bird of Paradise resides among the over 600 species of birds found here, some of which are magnificently colored.
As part of the well-known Ring of Fire, Indonesia has the most active volcanoes of any other region in the world. The island of Java alone is endowed with over 50 active volcanoes. But Java does not hold a monopoly on these rumbling monstrosities. Bali, as well as several other Indonesian islands, also have the dramatic backdrop of smoking mountains amid lush green vegetation.
One of the most famous volcanoes in the world is Mt. Krakatau, which was located close to Java. It blew up in 1883 and destroyed most of the small island on which it was located. It caused great tidal waves and dust clouds that drifted around the earth. Another eruption in 1928 produced a small island called Anak Krakatau (meaning Krakatau's child), which is still active. Volcanic activity has produced the most fertile islands in Indonesia because of the rich layers of volcanic soil. Despite the occasional fearsome danger of volcanic activity, these mighty giants have been kind to the people of this mystical land.
Unlike the familiar four seasons we experience in the Northern Hemisphere, Indonesia has only two seasons - the wet and the dry. The wet season runs from October to April, and the dry season from May to September. Tropical downpours are common, especially during the wet season. But there is abundant sunshine year-round as well. The plentiful rain and consistently warm temperatures, generally in the 80s, help to explain why two-thirds of Indonesia is covered with tropical rain forest, second only to Brazil. Unfortunately, the rain forests of Indonesia are now facing the same perils as those in South America. Man continues to erode the rain forest ecology with his plundering of timber and other rich and irreplaceable jungle resources.
The geometric designs of the lush green rice terraces that grace the exotic landscapes of Java and Bali are a delight to the eye and a photographer's paradise. The fertile volcanic soil of these mountainous islands, along with an intricate and efficient irrigation system, produces up to three crops of rice per year. As in most of Asia, rice is a staple food, and Indonesians regarded it with deep respect as a necessity for life. In Indonesia rice is considered as necessary to the dinner table as bread is at any proper European or American meal. The tropical climate is also conducive to cultivation of coconuts, bamboo, bananas, papaya and coffee, which are all grown widely throughout the Indonesian islands.
Known as the Spice Islands, the Maluku grouping is located in the eastern part of the archipelago. This was once the only place in the world where the spices of cloves and nutmeg were grown. But as soon as European explorers discovered these treasures, like a magnet, the Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch arrived here in what was then called the East Indies, laying claim to the lucrative bounty.
Right behind third-place USA, Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world, with a population of 217 million people. Among this crowd are over 300 ethnic groups and subgroups. Most Indonesian people are of Malay and Polynesian stock, but early immigrants from India, China, the Arab peninsula and Persia have all left their marks, followed by influences of the Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch traders and colonists.
The Indonesian constitution allows freedom of religion, though it is predominantly Moslem. The country's slogan "Unity in Diversity" was adopted because of the coexistence of the many different cultures within this single nation. Such variety culturally has given Indonesia a rich heritage of art and tradition, resulting in festivities, usually closely related to religion, held throughout the year in differing areas of the archipelago, but most notably on the Hindu island of Bali.
Bahasa Indonesia, which uses Roman script (the same letters as used in English), is the national language. However, there are actually over 500 different languages and dialects actively spoken among the Indonesian people! Even the smaller islands have at least one language that is uniquely their own. Western visitors are often relieved to learn that English is usually also spoken in the main cities and tourist areas.
Indonesia has a long and turbulent history, yet it is young as a country. Independence as a nation was declared on August 17, 1945, after more than 250 long years of Dutch domination. Even then, true independence did not come easily for Indonesia. More than four years of struggle was required before true independence could finally be realized. Today, Indonesia is still a developing country searching for true "Unity in Diversity."