What Americans Should Know About Indonesia, pt. 2

Ian Yanusko
6 min readMay 11, 2021

In my last post, I argued that Americans should take time to familiarize themselves with Indonesia and covered some polite dinner table topics like religion and politics. In this post, I continue that line with quick intros to Indonesia’s unique biosphere, explosive natural history, and lovely population.

Ecological treasure

  1. Indonesia’s natural diversity is almost unparalleled. It makes up 1% of Earth’s land, but is home to 10% of Earth’s plant species, 12% of its mammal species, 17% of its bird species, 75% of its coral species, and 10% of its rainforest land. It’s also home to a number of endangered species, including some key megafauna.
  2. It is the only place on the planet you’ll find Komodo dragons in the wild. These prehistoric lizards make Komodo Island the closest thing to Jurassic Park you’ll experience in this life.
  1. It’s also the only place in the world outside of Malaysia you’ll find orangutans. In Bahasa Indonesian, “orang” = “man,” “hutan” = “forest.” Contrary to my beliefs as a 3rd grader, they are not called orangutans because they’re orange.
  2. Indonesia spans two faunal realms, with the Wallace Line going between Borneo/Sulawesi and Bali/Lombok. This means that in western Indonesia you find a collection of animals with Asiatic origins, and in eastern Indonesia you find animals with Australasian origins.
  3. Indonesia is home to Rafflesia Arnolda, AKA the corpse lily. At a meter wide, it’s the largest flower on Earth. It’s parasitic and smells like decaying flesh. Maybe change your ex’s contact to “R. Arnolda”?
  1. 51 percent of Indonesia is forested, making it one of the greenest countries on the planet. However, deforestation is a serious problem in Indonesia. The demand for palm oil has pushed slash-and-burn deforestation, and Indonesia is the second-fastest deforester after Brazil. This is problematic in its own right, but the risks of deforestation compound when you consider that deforestation increases the risk of massive peat fires, the frequency of which have increased in the last few decades. On some days, the carbon output from Indonesia’s peat fires alone has outweighed the same day’s output from the entire US economy (!).

Rocks, hot and cold

  1. Sitting smack dab on the Ring of Fire at the intersection of three tectonic plates, Indonesia is a place where Mother Earth displays her seismic power daily. It’s home to the highest volcano count of any country (147), 76 of which are active. In 2018, Indonesia averaged thirty earthquakes a day, with almost 300 breaking above 5.0 on the Richter. Eruptions and earthquakes have also led to massively fatal tsunamis.
  1. These volcanoes have changed planetary history. 75k years ago, the Toba volcano exploded, emitting 670 square miles of magma, larger than any of Yellowstone’s three super-eruptions and leading to a global cooling that may have bottlenecked humanity’s population growth. Today, the Toba caldera is large enough host an island the size of Singapore.
  2. Indonesian volcanoes are also responsible for the two largest eruptions in modern history. The first: in 1815, the ash from an eruption at Mt. Tambora caused the “Year Without a Summer” in Europe and North America. Besides massive famine, YWAS caused a bummer of a Lake Geneva retreat for Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, who used the indoor time to pen Frankenstein and A Fragment, respectively. Reminds you how you should have written that novel during quarantine, doesn’t it?
  3. The second: in 1883, the volcano on Krakatoa, an uninhabited island off the west coast of Java, exploded. It emitted what’s been called the loudest sound in modern history, with Australians 2,200 miles away noting the boom. The eruption caused a tsunami, killing 36,000 people, and entirely submerged the island. Since 1883, though, Krakatoa has been reborn as a new tsunami-generating volcano called Anak Krakatoa — literally, “Child of Krakatoa,” which seems like we‘re really begging for a sequel, but ok.
  1. When it comes to non-volcanic mountains, Western Papua has Puncuk Jaya, the tallest island mountain in the world and one of the Seven Summits.

Orang Indonesia

  1. Indonesians speak Bahasa Indonesian (literally, “Indonesian language”), the country’s formal language that sits atop over 700 living local languages. With no verb conjugations, genders, plurals, or articles, and spoken phonetically, Bahasa is a wonderfully straightforward language to learn — Babbel ranks it the sixth easiest for English speakers. It’s also one of the few languages in Asia that relies on the Latin alphabet. I’m learning day by day, and unlike some languages’ snobby speakers (looking at you, France and US), Indonesians are usually tickled when I try to converse. Speaking of…
  2. … Indonesians are extraordinarily friendly to foreigners. Happiness and laughter come easily. I’ve been on the receiving end of Indonesian kindness many times, like the time I left my water bottle at a restaurant and the waitress circled the town on her motorbike, bottle in hand, until she found me walking home. These stories aren’t universal — e.g., Wild-West style purse snatchings on motorbikes around Bali are relatively common. But all said, I find it much easier to befriend Indonesians than expats in Bali.
  3. Urban Indonesians love social media. You don’t understand. Jakarta is the most Instagrammed city in Asia by hashtag count, losing globally to only London, Paris, NY, Dubai, and Istanbul, and beating out Tokyo. I saw this in Jakarta when I went to a brand new mall, where around 40 people lined up to snap the same pic on an outdoor balcony, and 100 queued up to grab a coffee at the newest hashtaggable coffee shop. But Instagram is not purely social, it’s also economic: Indonesians lean on social media to start personal brands, buy from each other, and DM companies. If I want to buy something here, I don’t look for a website, I look for an Insta page or a WhatsApp number.
  4. Indonesia is young. The median age is 28 (compare to US, where it’s 38).
  5. Indonesians are very family-oriented. Anecdotally, and based on Indonesian friends’ responses to this question, most Indonesians who study abroad intend to come back to Indonesia in the short- or medium-term. It seems that family expectations drive a lot of this, especially for women.
  6. Finally, I’m convinced every Indonesian has a ghost story. This country is replete with tales of spirits and whispers of black magic, many of which I’ve heard recounted from friends. I experienced my own eerie mini-haunting in Bali, which I considered to be my formal welcome to the country. Neil Gaiman, please consider Indonesian lore as fodder for your next short story 🙏

There’s a lot more ink to spill on this rich, rich archipelago, but I’ll leave with that. I hope I didn’t overly generalize, but I also hope you’re planning your post-Covid trip here as we speak.

p.s. one unrelated Indonesia thing I learned this week: Monaco and Indonesia have nigh-identical flags. I haven’t been able to sleep since learning this, and during my insomniac internet fever-crawls I’ve discovered that the Netherlands and Luxembourg too have nearly identical flags. Why do both Indonesia and the country that colonized Indonesia have tiny European principalities copying their flags? The coders behind our simulation got lazy here.