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On Assignment

On Assignment
In Far-flung Indonesia
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.


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Map of Indonesia

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By Tracy Dahlby Photographs by Alexandra Boulat

Zealot-warriors and regional separatists force the question: Can this far-flung nation hold together?

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

“You can’t run a modern country like Indonesia by tradition,” said His Highness Hamengku Buwono X, the 53-year-old sultan of Yogyakarta, when I caught up with him at a fish farm in the ancient Javanese capital. The sultan, who serves as local governor, was calmly puffing on a cigar, advising rapt villagers on how to use the Internet to be competitive in the global marketplace. A man from one of the country’s oldest ruling families (whose name means “he who carries the universe on his lap”), he is considered one of its most progressive leaders.

“If decisions are based on the Javanese way,” said the sultan, “people outside Java call it injustice.” Furthering Jakarta’s tentative efforts to decentralize political power and share the country’s wealth more evenly, he said, was the best way to preserve the union.


Others were convinced that moving forward meant recapturing the past, even if it led to bloodshed. In West Kalimantan Province, on Borneo’s western shoulder, Dayak tribesmen had recently battled settlers from Madura, an austere little island east of Java, prompting reports of hundreds of deaths, some “spectacular beheadings,” and Dayak magicians invoking warrior spirits to spook the police and army.

So it was with trepidation that I drove through the port of Pontianak, its rivers gleaming darkly in the moonlight, to the deserted edge of town. There I climbed a creaky staircase to meet local Dayak chieftains, who had gathered to make plans for an independent republic. But when the door swung back, I found a light-filled room with a conference table and a cluster of smiling, distinguished-looking men. Dressed in batik shirts and slacks, they glided across the floor to shake my hand.

I asked why they wanted independence. “I used to love Indonesia very much, but everybody wants to separate now!” a young activist blurted out before the chiefs could say a word.

Reddening with frustration, he ticked off local grievances: Big farming and timber interests had driven the Dayak, semi-nomadic farmers, from traditional haunts along Borneo’s complex river network and into squalid towns. There the Dayak, now mostly Christian, had encountered enterprising, hard-nosed Muslim Madurese, who ran the shops and worked in the factories. The Dayak were chagrined by Madurese custom that allows men to carry the carok, a big curved knife, in public—a violation of Dayak adat, or customary law.

“They show they are the brave men,” said the young man. “They think the Dayak are cowards!”

One of the chiefs lifted a bushy brow and silenced him with a glance that might have paralyzed a small animal, then spoke up softly. The Dayak felt very Indonesian and didn’t want to leave the union, he said. “But there is rampant injustice against our community”—in jobs, education, and particularly in sharing the proceeds from the exploitation of Borneo’s natural resources. Unless Jakarta offered a solid plan to even the score, the Dayak had no choice but to go their own way.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

Sights and Sounds
View a slideshow of Boulat’s images while editor Bert Fox introduces you to a nation steeped in culture and conflict.

VIDEO French photographer Alexandra Boulat describes her experiences on assignment. Click Here

AUDIO-only —recommended for low-speed connections.
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Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of Indonesia is this month’s Final Edit.

How do countries with highly diverse populations remain united? Tell us what your country does or does not do to enfranchise all of its people.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Nutmeg is the seed of a willowy, fragrant tree known to botanists as Myristica fragrans. It is tall—up to about 65 feet (20 meters)—with laurel-like leaves and bell-shaped flowers. It produces fleshy, lemon-yellow fruits, which split when mature to reveal the mace, a crimson-colored covering surrounding a single brown seed, the nutmeg.

Fussy about climate and soil, the trees begin producing fruit eight years after sowing, reach their prime in 25 years, and bear fruit for 60 or more years. In nutmeg production the mace is removed, and the nutmegs are slowly dried in the sun, being turned twice a day for six to eight weeks. The nutmeg kernnels shrink away from the hard seed coats until the kernels can be heard rattling like marbles inside the seeds. Then the shells are broken and the nutmeg kernels are retrieved.

Nutmeg has a slightly sweet taste and is used to flavor baked goods, puddings, meats, sauces, vegetables, and drinks like eggnog. Nutmeg oil, which makes up 7 to 14 percent of each seed, is used as a condiment and to scent soaps and perfumes.

—P. Davida Kales

The Jakarta Post Online
Jakarta’s most renowned daily newspaper.

Living in Indonesia: A Site for Expats
An all-inclusive site for foreigners moving to Indonesia provides an overview about living there, as well as preparatory tips for the move, practical stories about life in the country, community organization listings, and much more.

Another great site for background information on Indonesia and all its individual islands.

Aceh Links
A site dedicated to this northern part of the island of Sumatra. It speaks to anyone interested in the geography, history, people, and more of Aceh Province.

Urban Poor Consortium
This organization’s homepage emphasizes the goal of the UPC: “To work with the urban marginal groups to develop strong people’s organizations capable of fighting for their rights to live a dignified and humane life in the city, to secure land entitlement, to have a healthy home and environment, and to shape the future of their communities.”

Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Project
Located in Balikpapan, Kalimantan Timur, Indonesia, the Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Project aims to support orangutan conservation through education and extension work.

Spice Islands Archaeology Project
This site reveals findings from an archaeology research project currently taking place in eastern Indonesia’s Banda Islands. You will also find information about what the islands are like today, as well as links to other related web sites around the world.

Resolution of the Second Papuan People’s Congress
Read the full resolution of this Congress, which took place in June 2000.


Cribb, Robert and Colin Brown. Modern Indonesia, A History Since 1945. Longman Group Limited, 1995.

Dalton, Bill. Indonesia Handbook. Moon Publications, Inc., 1991.

Frederick, William H. and Robert L. Worden. Indonesia: A Country Study. Berman Press, 1994.

Milton, Giles. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.

Ricklefs, M.C. A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1300, 2nd ed. Stanford University Press, 1993.

Schwarz, Adam. A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia’s Search for Stability. Westview Press, 2000.

Schwarz, Adam and Jonathan Paris. The Politics of Post-Suharto Indonesia. Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1999.

Scott, Peter Dale. “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967,” Pacific Affairs. Summer 1985, 58, pp. 239-264. Also can be found online at: www.pir.org/scott.html

Special Report: “Suharto Inc.” Time. May 24, 1999.


Brower, Kenneth. “Face to Face in New Guinea,” National Geographic Traveler (March 2000), 82-96.

Simons, Lewis M. “Indonesia’s Plague of Fire,” National Geographic (August 1998), 100-119.

Klum, Mattias. “Malaysia’s Secret Realm,” National Geographic (August 1997), 122-131.

Zich, Arthur. “Indonesia: Two Worlds, Time Apart,” National Geographic (January 1989), 96-127.

Green, Michael. “Adventure in Indonesia,” National Geographic World (January 1984), 3-9.

Schreider, Frank and Helen. “Indonesia, the Young and Troubled Nation,” National Geographic (May 1961), 579-625.

Moore, W. Robert. “Republican Indonesia Tries Its Wings,” National Geographic (January 1951), 1-40.

Jones, Stuart E. “Spices, the Essence of Geography,” National Geographic (March 1949), 401-420.


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