"T here are a hundred ways you can die on this boat," the captain told us. The South African surfers squeezed their beer cans, and I recalled Samuel Johnson's judgment that being on a boat is like being in jail with a chance of being drowned.

When I'd met Chris McCarthy at the bar of the Hotel Batang Arau in the West Sumatran capital of Padang, he'd told me about his Laut India, a big wild boat modeled on a vessel sailed by the old Bugi pirates. (It is from them that we get our word "boogeyman.") The American expat said that in two days he was taking world-class surfers out to the Mentawai Islands west of Sumatra, to the best barrel waves in the world. He spoke of animist tribes and of old men with ferocious full-facial tattoos. He said that if I came along, I would eat fish that did not have names.

At the outset I wish to state that aside from McCarthy's advice not to fall into the sea at midnight, I felt no vibration of fear or any threat anywhere during my month-long stay in the largest Muslim country in the world. I was welcomed wherever I went. Although the first thing I learned to say in Indonesian was "Saya orang Amerika" ("I am an American"), when people asked my nationality, I sometimes made them guess. Only one man guessed right, perhaps because American travelers are now rare in Indonesia. The morning I made my way to McCarthy's boat, the schoolchildren (many Indonesians speak English, and children generally try) who surrounded me were thrilled to meet someone from the United States. When they asked if I knew "Little Bush" or his father, "Big Bush," I shook my head. They shot me tender, pitying smiles, slumped their shoulders in terrible disappointment, waved and walked away.

During a summer month when very bad news kept coming out of the Middle East, I was hit by an anti-American slur only once. Yes, it was only possibly a slur, but it really hurt. Standing at a busy Yogyakarta intersection, I was wearing a rock-and-roll T-shirt and super-cool baggy shorts from a local vendor. I had just put on reading glasses to check the map, and a salesman was on me. We chatted in English about nothing, and then the topic changed to batiks. Once he started, he wouldn't let up, and he kept at it until I made it clear I was not going to buy anything.

I was way too tough -- five weeks earlier, an earthquake had shattered his city. He looked me over one last time, gave up and turned away. "Oh, do what you like," he said. Then he stopped, turned back and delivered his heartless and pitiless attack: "Yes, do what you wish," he hissed, "Mister David Letterman!"

Outcast IslandsBali is the Indonesian island most people know, but there are more than 17,500 other islands in the 3,000-mile archipelago of the fourth-largest country in the world, which has a population of about 250 million. A city boy myself, I mostly wanted to see Yogyakarta, on densely populated Java. Indonesia's intellectual and artistic center, the city -- pronounced Joe-Jakarta, often called just Jogja -- is the home of world-class ancient monuments, theaters, dance, museums, music, many universities, and hip-hop bars. But since I recognized that a visit to Indonesia needed at least a stab at nature, I decided to start my trip on wild Sumatra, where in the local language, "orang" means "person" and "utan" means "jungle." I did not get far with the nature plan. I regret that. At my hotel in Padang, a businessman from London summed up his month-long trek (with a great guide) in the Sumatran rain forests: "I was bitten on the bum -- twice -- by everything that can bite you on your bum. But I saw astounding things and it was the time of my life."

A Henry James scholar in my day job, I had not planned for anything like a surfing trip with eight sunburned South African men and a stunning South African woman named Charmaine. That first night, I was odd man out as everyone downed beers and stroked their surfboards. McCarthy, a generous, charismatic American who could manage to put heart into just passing the salt, noticed me sitting apart (I was reading and had just learned that 19th-century sailors used pieces of rope as napkins, and when the ropes got thick with grease, they lit them as candles). He glanced down at my book and said he was really going to have to find me a boogie board.

That first night and then each night, after the fish were grilled and the dinner was done, after McCarthy's Indonesian crew had cleaned the kitchen and had tossed the stray bones into the sea, they had a few hours to themselves. While the surfers hunkered down over beer and talked about pig-dog barrels and 20-meter-high roof-riding floaters, the Mentawai Islands crewmen emerged on deck. A few of them had ancient animist tattoos traced on their backs. As the Laut India sliced through the Indian Ocean, they reclined on the cabin roof or climbed the masts, and they talked and laughed, and then sang almost forgotten island songs to the moon. The sea was infinite, the sky black, the stars amazing and the songs haunting. They all said they wanted to marry, and they all said, "But not yet."

The nine South Africans, and even McCarthy and his crew on their 39th voyage, knew such idyllic nights were precious, as did I. But when I got back to port in Padang, I was corrected on a couple of points. A travel agent there turned out to be the fiancee of McCarthy's Indonesian navigator, and she told me that not one of the crew was a Mentawai islander, and none of them knew any ancient songs. They were, Sheree said, probably singing lazy Indonesian pop. All of them, she said, were Minangkabaus from the Sumatran mainland, and all of them were Muslim. Since tattoos are forbidden by the Koran, the tattooed ones, the ones with the long floral ribbons burned into their backs, had sinned against Allah. They do it, she said, because surfers have them. They want to be cool, like them.

The MinangkabauSheree recommended that I leave the steamy coast and visit Bukittinggi, a hill town famous for the unique Minangkabau expression of Islam. Two hours by car from Padang, its main streets are lined with restaurants, jazz bars and fast-food joints. There were constant calls to prayer from the great mosque, and behind them persistent tunes from ice cream trucks. Otherwise, since the 2002 bombings more than a thousand miles away in Bali, this once-thriving and still-fascinating tourist center has been far too quiet.

Yusmarni Djalius, a professor at Padang's Andalas University, had spoken to me of Bukittinggi as the heart of the world's largest matrilineal society, the Minangkabau. "High property" among the Minangkabau -- the land and the long, buffalo-horned houses that best establish cultural identity and authority -- is always inherited by women. And Djalius said Minangkabau husbands are in fact considered invited guests in their wives' homes. They can earn money and buy "low property" for themselves, but they understand it will rarely approach the pedigree, or the bulk, of what their wives have inherited and will pass down to their daughters.

Four million Minangkabau live on Sumatra. Strict Muslims who find no conflict with the Koran, they claim authority for their tradition in nature, where the female is everywhere seen to protect her offspring, and therefore the larger community, more fiercely and with more care than does the male. Frequently given better educations than the men, Minangkabau women seem to run most offices and banks in West Sumatra. When Djalius was completing her own graduate degree at Michigan State University, an adviser recommended that she take a women's studies course. She responded that she would much prefer to take a course about men. She had been raised, she said, to think of men as rather insecure.

(Back on the Laut India, McCarthy's Minangkabau cook had called a Minangkabau husband "a fly on a buffalo's tail." Although he has married a non-Minangkabau woman, he is proud that because of his Minangkabau upbringing, he and his wife have not fought once. He likes making most decisions, even financial ones, and yet he admits that things generally go better when women control the money. He was kind enough to offer me another bit of Minangkabau wisdom, that if mama's not happy, nobody's happy.)

Sheree had recommended a day trip to the volcanic lake Danau Maninjau, two hours west of Bukittinggi. When I hired a cab, Ilhu, a friend of the driver, asked if he could tag along. During lunch on the shore of the splendid crater, a restaurant owner wore a porcupine-quill necklace and handed me a business card identifying him as "Mr. Porcupine." When he spoke of cooking monkey and porcupine, it unsettled Ilhu. After our meal, Mr. Porcupine gave no warning when he uncovered a vat of squalid whiskey in which a deer fetus was half-submerged. I flinched at the sight of the slimy waxen thing, but Ilhu, who had just announced that his favorite food was KFC, was horrified by it. When it was time to head back to Bukittinggi, Ilhu said he felt sick and asked for the comfortable front seat. As I slumped down in the beaten-up back seat, I doubted that Ilhu, now chatting happily, was sick at all, and so when the car lurched through a cloud of bats, I asked him if he ever "ate bat." "Only when I get hungry," he answered after a moment. "KFB," he added.

This sharp young man spoke of moving to Chicago and of swimming in Lake Michigan. When I asked what would happen if people like him left Sumatra, he insisted that "Minangkabau will never die!" He lost patience when I assumed that Minangkabau women might have ceremonial power in a Muslim society, but nothing real.

I paid the taxi driver and thanked Ilhu. But before I headed back to Padang for my flight to Yogyakarta, I sought him out at the restaurant he had said belonged to his aunt. Smiling, coy and pretty, the aunt greeted me warmly as a customer, but when she understood I was only trying to locate her nephew, she lost interest. Still, she remained vaguely courteous and giggled at almost everything I said. But it became clear that she understood no English at all, and soon she was off doing numerous clanging things. When I tried to explain that Il had been an excellent guide, she did not get it and laughed and fluttered off to set another table.

To her back, I futilely explained that I had wanted to thank him . . . and give him . . . some money. She stopped setting the table. It took time before her head began its turn, and now the eyes that slid over my face were cold. "Tell me," she said in crisp, clear English, "how much money."

The Earthquake The day after I bought my ticket to Indonesia, a devastating earthquake hit Yogyakarta, and that night I e-mailed my contacts to ask if at such a time it would be inappropriate for a travel writer to come. They said that they needed people to write about their city now more than ever. Earthquakes are brief hells, and the one that hit south Java on May 27, 2006, killing 6,000 people, destroying 100,000 homes and leaving 400,000 homeless, lasted less than a minute.

On my first day in Yogyakarta, Alaster Thomas, an English expat, told me how he had become an aid worker "in 54 seconds." I had just arrived from the airport, where I had been handed a pack of dust masks, for although the aftershocks were mostly over, there were still moments when the air went gray with ash and dust.

Alaster related how, minutes after the earthquake, his Indonesian wife, Rani, had left their infant son with her parents and had tried to get home. Rani believes but cannot recall that she was struck twice by motorbikes as she ran through the streets. Just north of Yogyakarta, the Merapi volcano had been threatening for weeks, and so panicking crowds began fleeing south. In cartoons you can run a few feet ahead of lava, but Indonesians know that volcanic debris and poisonous gas can scorch the air at 2,000 degrees and can travel up to 90 mph.

Even in this Muslim city, old beliefs do not die, and soon word spread that the spirit of Merapi had kept its peace, but the jealous Queen of the South had brought an earthquake under the sea. So, then, to escape a tsunami, people whipped around and began running north. Fleeing in opposite directions and passing each other on the streets, members of the same families got into arguments about which way to go to stay alive.

On my third day in Yogyakarta, Alaster took me around Bantul, a kampong, or village, where 95 percent of the houses had been destroyed. A family who had taken refuge in a warehouse thanked me for coming and introduced me to a smiling young woman who held up her day-old son. Although I knew that many people in Bantul had lost relatives, it was not until later that day I learned that the young woman's husband had been killed in the earthquake. When I got back to my hotel and looked over my pictures, I erased the ones of her and her child. I had missed what I now saw: that her smile was an exhausting attempt to convince me, her family, her child and herself that in some way she was happy.

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 LifeWithin 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 VolcanoUntil 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.