Indonesia: It's not Disasterland

BOSTON — In Jakarta, Indonesia’s sprawling mega-capital, when the ground rumbles in that all too familiar way, everyone runs.

There is no order to it. There are no clearly marked emergency exits and people do not form lines as they calmly file out of the city’s ubiquitous office towers and malls. No, no matter where you are, you get out fast — women and children be damned.

There is no telling how many movie theaters I’ve torn out of, a full flight of stairs ahead of my Javanese girlfriend.

But when the tectonics settle, usually only a few minutes later, shoulders are shrugged and everyone meanders back inside.

For Indonesians, disasters are a part of their everyday life — a reality made starkly apparent this week when three of them struck simultaneously in highly populated regions of the country. So when news organizations around the world stumble to cover them ad nauseum, it often seems incongruous to those living there.

To many messages of concern sent from home during the time I lived there, I replied, “Why? What happened?”

This week a massive, but not uncommon, 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of the island of Sumatra, launching a tsunami into populated coastal atolls that has so far killed more than 300 people. And all the while, on the island of Java, the riotous Mt. Merapi repeatedly erupted, killing dozens and sending the tens of thousands who live on its slopes running from superheated clouds of hot gas.

Mt. Merapi is historically so volatile that its inhabitants rarely leave its slopes during eruptions. They sleep soundly despite the constant thundering of boulders flying out of the mountain’s crater, crashing into the slopes below. They wake up every morning and sweep the ash that has collected over night from their dirt driveways and go about their days as usual.

Despite government orders to evacuate, few do until they themselves feel it is necessary — after all, who can know the mountain better than the families who have lived on it for generations? And still others will never flee the volcano, whose fertile volcanic soil provides their livelihood. For them, to be killed or not killed by Mt. Merapi is simply God’s will, not something taken lightly by these devout, and deeply mystical, Javanese Muslims.

Consider Mbah Maridjan, the spiritual gatekeeper of Mt. Merapi. A man well into his 80s, he for decades appeased the volcano with elaborate ceremonies and prayers, and time and time again out-predicted scientists. This week, he finally succumbed, along with dozens of others, to the mountain’s famous volatility.

He was found burned alive inside his wooden home, one of the closest to the crater, bent in a position of prayer.

The next day, the villagers who evacuated began to trickle back, only to watch Merapi erupt again.
At Mt. Kelud in East Java, another temperamental towering inferno, villagers also rarely leave its slopes — even when the rivers begin to boil and the air becomes thick with ash.

“It is God's will,” Suroto Jarot told me in 2007. Jarot was a village elder on Mt. Kelud who ignored government warnings and remained at home to feed his livestock and protect the village from looters. “There is nothing we can do. This is our home. We have lived here for generations. I have never considered leaving.”

During the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake, which killed thousands and displaced upward of a million people in Central Java, an elderly woman standing outside her collapsed house smiled and said the Javanese equivalent of “what can you do?”

It wasn’t her first earthquake. In Indonesia, these things happen.

Disasters are so common, in fact, they don’t always make the lead story on local cable channels.
Not so in the rest of the world. When disaster strikes Indonesia, as it so often does, the whole world knows about it. Disasters make for good storytelling, striking photography and video, and ratings. For journalists based in Jakarta, their jobs can often feel like the disaster beat.

It’s not a bad thing. The coverage often leads to humanitarian donations that are often essential to rescue and recovery operations.

But the unflattering result is that to the rest of the world Indonesia is Disasterland and little else — a frustrating truth for anyone who has ever lived there.

Consider the facts. Indonesia is the fourth most-populous country in the world. From east to west, it’s as long as the continental United States, with a fraction of the landmass. It has more Muslims than anywhere else in the world. It’s a thriving democracy (for the most part) and is coasting atop an explosive economy (even more explosive than Merapi) — making it a prime candidate to join Brazil, Russia, India and China in the elite BRIC group of emerging economies.

The country is home to more than 17,000 islands at last count, the vast majority of which are so beautiful they make the Caribbean look like an urban water park. Bali is one such Indonesian island, and it’s far from the most picturesque.

But perhaps most significantly, it is home to an incredibly diverse population, which speaks hundreds of different languages and embraces countless traditions.

While Mt. Merapi is a disaster zone for the foreign media, for Indonesians the perfectly shaped cone of a volcano is something far more sublime. It is one of the most important symbols in all of Javanese culture — a fascinating mishmash of Hindu, Buddhist, animist and Muslim tradition that is a confluence of culture and identity found in few other places around the world.

There is so much more to Indonesia than its location atop earth’s most tectonically active region. But few will notice if everyone pays attention only to the country’s latest disaster.

Peter Gelling is a deputy editor at GlobalPost. He reported from Indonesia between 2005 and 2010.