I STEP from the ordered icebox atmosphere of Soekarno-Hatta Airport into the sweltering city heat, my head stuffed with armchair knowledge of Indonesia. The world's largest Islamic nation ... largest archipelago (13,500 islands scattered across Asia's equatorial belly) ... more plant species on Borneo island alone than in all of Africa ... the fifth most populous nation on earth (180 million and counting).
And it looks like a fair portion of the population has camped at the exit gate, jostling, sweating, and waving cardboard name placards. Squeezing through the crowd, I accept one of the clamorous offers of ``taxi misstar?''
My bags are heaved into the back seat. The driver, Achmad, lights a cigarette before starting the engine. His dusty Datsun fills with a sweet aroma that is to become an almost ever-present incense while in Indonesia.
``Clove tobacco,'' he explains. (These are the legendary Spice Islands.)
As we head toward Jakarta, one of the first roadside billboards proclaims ``Selamat Datang'' (followed in quick succession by Daihatsu and Toyota ads).
``Welcome. Selamat Datang di Indonesia - welcome to Indonesia,'' translates Achmad.
Something like 250 ethnic groups and languages abound in Indonesia. But Bahasa Indonesian, at the insistence of the government, has become the universal language. Similar to Malay, Indonesian rates as one of the world's easiest languages: no tenses, no genders, no definite articles, no ``to be'' verb to conjugate. For a guy whose tongue seems comfortable only when it's wrapping itself around English words, this might be my last shot at bilingualism.
During the hour-long drive into the city, I test my pronunciation of a few basic phrases memorized during the flight and pester Achmad to read each sign we pass.
``Gereja?'' I ask pointing. ``Church,'' replies Achmad. ``Are you Catholic or Protestant?'' he queries. Questions follow about the number of Christians and Muslims in the United States.
``I'm Muslim,'' he declares. ``Ninety percent Indonesia is Muslim.'' Then, with a reassuring smile, ``But religion is no problem here.''
Indonesian Muslims are not the radical Shiites known elsewhere for parading through the streets with burning effigies of Western leaders. Here the mellower Sunni form of Islam reigns. And Muslim beliefs are further tempered by distance from the Middle East, by underlying Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, and by a pervading native mysticism.
President Suharto, for example, is a Muslim but is known to practice a form of Javanese mysticism and occasionally meditate in a ``holy'' cave in Dieng Plateau of central Java.
Achmad is the first of several Indonesians who tell me they prefer to deemphasize religious differences. The authoritarian government, for reasons of stability, has a similar policy.
Indeed, the first of the nation's Five Principles or Pancasila is ``Faith in God'' without specifying Allah or Shiva or any other diety. Suharto has made the Pancasila Indonesia's philosophical spine and promotes it as the glue that holds this diverse nation together. The other principles are faith in world ``Humanity,'' ``Nationalism,'' ``Democracy'' (interpreted as village consensus or ``guided'' democracy), and ``Social Justice'' (equality).
At the mention of politics, Achmad becomes quiet. We're passing signs less frequently as we bog down in Jakarta's infamous traffic.
The island of Java, jammed with more than 100 million inhabitants, is twice as densely populated as Japan. Transmigration and vigorous family-planning programs are slowing the growth. On the outskirts of Jakarta, there are crowded slums and stinking open sewage canals. As we get closer to the city, grade-school aged children can be seen cooling off in dirty brown rainwater collecting in an unfinished fountain at the construction site of the 450-room Grand Hyatt Jakarta.
Still, judging from the airport drive - and later trips around Java - Indonesia appears cleaner and more prosperous than some African and South Pacific developing nations. Most homes have cement walls and roofs of terra-cotta tile. Outside Jakarta, I'm struck by the feeling of freshness and spaciousness lent by the miles of lush emerald rice-paddies. Four out of every five Indonesians still work in the land.
But in the city, the grubby face of poverty is there, evident in the streets. Yet the persistence and initiative of the poorest Indonesians are everywhere.
While our taxi idles at blocked intersection, a lad strolls past shouting, ``Qua, Qua, Qua'' to advertise his two jugs of ``Aqua''-brand bottled water. Other street vendors - selling newspapers, clumps of freshly picked peanuts, cigarettes - stroll between the vehicles. Parked along the roadside are push-cart petrol stations, motorcycle helmet hawkers, and women selling exotic fruits.
Indonesians work hard to feed their families. Achmad slips behind the wheel before the mango rays of dawn appear. He doesn't finish until midnight. He works a six-day week.
In a good month, he says he earns 250,000 rupiahs ($US 140). Monthly rent on his two-room home, shared with his father, two children, and a student friend, costs 54,000 rupiahs ($30).
Yet, when we pull up to the hotel, Achmad reaches into the glovebox and proudly presents me with a dingy dog-eared ``Inggris-Indonesian'' dictionary. A treasured posession bestowed on a stranger he will probably never see again. It's a touching gesture of Indonesian generosity that will be seen again in the days to come.
Recently Monitor writer David Scott traveled throughout Indonesia with other writers on a trip sponsored in part by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In a six-part series that begins today, he focuses on daily life in this country made up of thousands of islands scattered across the Indian Ocean between Asia and Australia.
1. Impressions of the capital, Jakarta 2. The person-powered `becak' vehicles of Jakarta 3. Haggling for wares in an open-air market 4. Why Indonesians point with their thumbs 5. A visit with artist Kartika Affandi Koberl 6. Bali, a piece of heaven on earth