Padang is a gateway to surfing sites west of Sumatra.
Padang is a gateway to surfing sites west of Sumatra.
Kirsty Motion
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In Indonesia

These Minangkabau girls in Bukittinggi, Sumatra, are part of the world's largest matrillineal society.
These Minangkabau girls in Bukittinggi, Sumatra, are part of the world's largest matrillineal society. (John Auchard)

At a bar near my hotel, another expat spoke of his visit to Bantul, where he, too, had gone to offer help. But less than 48 hours after the quake, and amid nothing but rubble, the mother of one of his workers was most of all upset that she had no chair for her son's guest. She ordered her boy to go into the debris and dig around until he found something their visitor could sit on. After kindling a fire with splinters, she prepared tea, and when she bent down to serve it to Steven, she apologized that her house was in such a state. There was in fact nothing left of the house. Three weeks later, the young Belgian businessman choked up as he recalled her courtesy.

Back to Life

Within feet of just such phantasmagoric rubble, the staff at the Duta Guest House kept up nonstop smiles as life was returning to their street. The Jalan Prawirotaman is lined with small hotels, galleries, bars, art studios, antiques shops and restaurants, and in good times it teems with tourists. During my days there, I mainly met international volunteer workers, and local artists including Arie Dyanto, who also dug through the ruins and found shelter for the homeless.

I talked with Arie about Indonesia and about the United States, where he had visited during a 2003 Ford Foundation exchange with some San Francisco urban mural painters. When I asked what had surprised him most about my country, he said that everything there was made in China. He primarily spoke of New York as the home of CBGB, the recently defunct punk club where the Red Hot Chili Peppers got their start. And when I asked him to name someone he would really like to meet, he said David Bowie. So I was surprised that he had set the goal of climbing the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to place his foot atop the concrete footprint of Sylvester Stallone -- his boyhood hero. Arie was appalled that Rocky's foot turned out to be smaller and narrower than his own. Sylvester Stallone, as I later discovered, has broad celebrity in Indonesia. Recent dictionaries translate the Indonesian verb "deRambo" as "to annihilate completely."

I was prepared to encounter Islamic fundamentalism in Yogyakarta, but I found a powerfully eclectic and open city. I had not expected that a commercial for a Barry Manilow CD would interrupt the local broadcast of "Desperate Housewives," or that a record store clerk would recommend an album by Matisyahu, the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic reggae/rapper from Brooklyn Heights. A university student who drove me around Yogyakarta had a big "I {heart} Jesus" sticker on her motorcycle helmet, and in the alternative-clothing store named Whatever!, a genial young clerk had "No Ejaculation" printed on his T-shirt. He was a hit with girls buying boots.

That night, when the Via Via Cafe reopened near my hotel, a pretty young Indonesian woman slid into Cole Porter's "Electric eels do it . . ." while a bass player with a shaved head grinned at her. Every Thursday night at an art gallery near Via Via, young artists, most of them dressed in black and all of them with exceedingly interesting eyewear, gather to unleash their fiery hearts -- into badminton. I had not known that a shuttlecock could travel 200 mph or inspire unreal frenzy among the congenitally cool. Then there was the conservatively dressed young woman from an Islamic university who objected when her friend, also wearing a full jilbab revealing only her face, told me that Britney Spears was her favorite star. Mild hell broke loose, in rapid Indonesian. Eventually the friend changed her mind: Oprah.

Perhaps an exceptionally volatile landscape has something to do with a winning taste for the dramatic that frequently struck me in Indonesia. During a short stay in Jakarta, from where I was to catch a flight back home, I asked my waiter if the Taman Ismail Marzuki Arts Center was near the restaurant. He had to think about it. "If I told you it was close," he said, "I would be lying." I nodded. "If I told you it was far," he added, as he hunched down and locked his eyes on mine, "again I would be lying." I waited a moment and then asked if it was in the middle. "Yes," he said, and he served me my chicken.

The Volcano

Until 1820, when Indonesia's Dutch colonial masters began unearthing it, Borobudur had been buried for centuries under vines, bones, orchids and volcanic ash. Built in the eighth and ninth centuries of 20 million blocks of stone, it was abandoned around the first millennium, probably because of the nearby Merapi volcano. On the outskirts of Yogyakarta and today a World Heritage Site, the Borobudur stupa, or shrine, is bigger by far than any other Buddhist thing in the world. Although it once served a magnificent purpose, today no one knows what it was.

Its high terrace provides a panorama of 400 Buddhas and the promise of arupadhatu, or formless calm, and aerial views reveal a precise mathematical balance few could have guessed from below. But from up close on the ground, Borobudur looks too charged for peace, and from there it shows best. Poised on a plateau like a stupendous spiky heap, it shoots out excrescences and it is threatening enough. The surrounding landscape is misty, mountainous, lush and boundless, and just over there to the right, the fantastic volcano spits up smoke.

There are many different kinds of volcanoes in Indonesia, and some can spit up other things than smoke and lava. Just two days after the Yogyakarta earthquake, the Sidoarjo volcano near Surabaya in eastern Java started spewing mud, up to 150,000 cubic meters of it a day, and eight months later this volcano has wiped out four villages, with no end to the eruption in sight. (Researchers report that the blowout was "almost certainly man-made," the result of a drilling expedition that was probing for natural gas.)

Whatever their peculiar expression, all of Indonesia's 129 active volcanoes have an unrivaled ancestry. When the greatest volcano in the last 2 million years erupted on Sumatra 70,000 years ago, the explosion was a thousand times the size of Krakatoa's (of higher publicity, because by 1883 there were newspaper reporters on site) and over 6,000 times that of Vesuvius. Toba's force left a hole of incomprehensible magnitude, and today the immense Danau Toba crater spans an area nine times that of the District of Columbia. When in 1815 Tambora erupted in central Indonesia, its blast was four times the size of Krakatoa's. Although tiny compared with Toba, Tambora spewed enough pyroclastic ash to circle the globe, blot out the sun and cause a "year without summer" that brought snow to London in August. When crops failed in Europe, there were riots in the streets.

North of Yogyakarta, in the elegant garden of Hani's Restaurant, I did not know that the Merapi volcano was even out there when a molten, swollen, orange surge suddenly appeared in the night sky. Everyone in the restaurant lifted their eyes above the looming jungle that bordered the garden, and everyone watched the spectacular show. I am weak on nature and know nothing of jungly vegetation, so when Merapi calmed down, I asked Alaster and Rani to identify the menacing plants. "Corn," Rani answered. This was a surprise. "Are you sure?" "I'm sure," she said. Naturally I informed her that corn was not indigenous to Asia, but in fact had come from the Americas. "I don't think so," she said. I insisted I was right. "I'll check," she said.

In a city of more than 50 universities, motorbikes outnumber cars 20 to one, and Alaster Thomas's SUV was soon in the middle of a wave of bikes that were just leaning into a curve. In the back seat, I was fretting about the history of the international propagation of maize and corn products. But a month to the day after the earthquake, the beat of life really was coming back.

I saw that on the traffic's outer edge, motorbikes were parting around a man who was standing in the road. His shirt was unbuttoned, his mouth open, his tongue a bit out, and he was looking up at the sky. As if unaware of the steady flow of traffic moving past him on a Saturday night -- hundreds of kids in flashy helmets, Muslim boys in baseball caps, Muslim girls in jilbabs -- he stared in the direction of the volcano and he stroked his belly. "How peaceful he looks," Alaster said to Rani, "showing his stomach to the moon."

John Auchard last wrote for Travel about Ethiopia. He is a professor at the University of Maryland.

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