I am suddenly craving a return to Indonesia now that we are in the deep of winter here in Ithaca. I also have not been to Southeast Asia since 2014, which is the longest I have gone since my first trip to Thailand and Vietnam in 2006. I am overdue. Well, a return trip to Indonesia or elsewhere will have to wait since I am destined to finish the dissertation this semester. In the meantime, some nostalgia through these photos will have to suffice.
Pringo Atmodjo, a Javanese botanist at the ‘s Lands Plantentuin te Buitenzorg (Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens in present-day Bogor), collected this species of St. John’s wort (Hypericum japonicum) on 11 June 1904 in the Alaslands in northern Sumatra. He was surveying for plants as part of a Dutch military expedition through the Gajo, Alas, and Batak lands in Aceh. The brigades traveled across the highlands, from Lhokseumawe on the coast to the Batak lands south of Danau Toba, on a mission to pacify the interior of Aceh. The Hypericum above was collected just 3 days before Luitenant-kolonel van Daalen’s violent raid on the village of Koeto Reh. The colonial military massacred 313 men, 189 women, and 59 children defending their homes in Koeto Reh. It was one of the worst massacres of Indigenous people in colonial Indonesia.
Atmodjo and his laborers trekked through the forests along with the expedition in search of plant species unique to science. The dates and locations marked on his herbarium specimens follow the chronological order of Van Daalen’s personal journal from the expedition. Atmodjo compiled an extensive herbarium collection on the expedition, gathering 544 species in total. Porters on the expedition, mostly Javanese and Ambonese, carried and maintained his traveling herbarium. The forced laborers carried and maintained his traveling herbarium, but they are, of course, forgotten for their contributions to science in Aceh. Each month, Atmodjo sent the laborers with his specimens back to Koeta Radja, present day Banda Aceh, for storage. Researchers studied and catalogued the herbarium specimens at the Buitenzorg Botanical Gardens on the island of Java and today they reside at the National Herbarium of the Netherlands in Leiden.
This was the first colonial botanical exploration of the Leuser region. Atmodjo’s accompaniment on such an important military mission offers insight into the relationships between colonial expansion and scientific knowledge production. Bioprospecting for economic plants was essential to the imperial project. At the same time, his participation also reveals another phenomenon that is central to my dissertation; the role of colonial control, violence, and the military in scientific practices and the production of scientific knowledge in northern Sumatra in the early to mid-twentieth century.
An Indonesian friend recently asked me to describe Indonesia for him in one word. I thought for a bit about the incredible landscapes I’ve seen here– from smoking volcanoes and primary rainforest to white sand beaches and mountains covered in rice terraces– and about the biodiversity, the diverse cultures, delicious foods, crazy traffic jams in the big cities and the insanity of driving on rural roads, the humidity of the tropics, the monsoons, the dry lands of the eastern islands, and so on.
The one word that I came up with, however, unites the entire archipelago — KOSONG. That’s it, kosong. Kosong in this instance meaning “sold out” or “no more left.” Depending on where I am, I’ve also heard “habis,” but most often the person responds “kosong.” For the past six years (2008-2014), I have split my time between the US and Indonesia. While in Indonesia, I’ve been to thousands of restaurants and small shops in both big cities and remote areas from Aceh to the eastern islands. No matter the location of the shop it never fails. When I place an order for the most appealing dish on the menu or when I order a specific variety of durian that is advertised on the sign, the kind person waiting my table or from behind the counter always answers, “kosong.”
Rebakah and I both came down with a fairly brutal illness in Kutacane — the locals, obviously, diagnosed it as masuk angin (entering wind) from the recent arrival of the rainy season, one doctor guessed malaria, a nurse tossed out dengue, while an archeologist of ancient Aceh called it the “Arab flu”. We are normally accurate at diagnosing our tropical illnesses because we have had our fair share over the course of more than four years of living in various parts of Southeast Asia. Between the two of us, we have combined to get TB (2008 Thailand), dengue (2009 Bandung), E.coli (2006 Vietnam), almost had my lower left leg amputated in Miri (2008) after being bit on the knee by a poisonous insect in the Sarawak rainforest, life-threatening kidney infection (2013 Singapore), plenty of stomach bugs, respiratory infections, pre-term labor caused by tooth infection (Salatiga 2009 – Eliot was eventually born in the US, but just a week after landing), and so on. Our parents tell us to stay in the US because, like many Americans, they believe Indonesia is too dangerous. But Rebakah and our dog, Appa, both contracted Lyme disease from ticks last year in Ithaca!!
We left Kutacane on this Susi Air flight to Banda Aceh a few days earlier than planned to get tested for malaria just to be safe. The flight was a pleasant, albeit slightly nerve-wracking, experience across the length of Aceh. Seeing the expansive dense forests and jagged mountains from the sky paints a more hopeful view, I think, for the forests of Aceh than maybe what appears in the news reports.
Eliot stayed healthy the entire time, took care of us, and pushed us onward with an incredible positivity. He is the toughest research assistant around and continues to amaze us with his adaptability. So thankful for the strength this little guy has and the health he has maintained. Next stop is the Provincial Archive in Banda Aceh. I think I’ll stick to the archives for a bit and maintain my greatest chances of illness or injury from paper cuts, bruised toes from dropped bundles, or a cold from the insane levels of the AC.
It turns out that Rebakah did indeed have dengue fever, and I picked up an e.coli bug along the way, but we have since recovered.
Here is some basic info on Arsip Nasional in Jakarta:
Address: Jalan Ampera Raya No.7, Jakarta Selatan (+62 0217805851 ext. 128)
Hours: Monday – Friday: 8:30 – 3:30pm (Friday the archives are closed from 11:30-1:00pm). Closed on weekends.
Foreigners must have a research visa (izin penelitian) to enter the archives, but you might try working something out with the staff at the front desk if you are only in Jakarta for a few days. The linked document below lists all the information on the collections at the National Archives in Jakarta.
For additional information on the National Archives in Jakarta, please visit my detailed description on the Dissertation Reviews website: