Category Archives: Hugh’s Blog

Impressions of Indonesia (4)

The gentle side of Islam

Java is said to be at least 90% Muslim, and you do see and hear many signs of Islam being practised. The calls to prayer are of course the first thing that hit you, especially the early morning ones, at about 4/4.30… booming out from the nearest mosque, with 4 loudspeakers blaring the voice of the Imam to the four corners of the local area. Some sing rather beautifully, others chant, and others (speaking purely personally) should be offered re-training. Interestingly it is not just tourists who find the volume rather challenging! See story below…

Story on Indonesian mosque noise output

Ironically, the loudest call we heard was on Flores (which is predominantly Christian – thanks to the Portuguese colonialists and missionaries); we were staying in a convent school, and possibly because of this, thought we might have a quiet night. Well I did actually have a blissful night, but Julia and Partho could not believe that I had slept through the call to prayer, which apparently sounded like the loudspeaker was outside their window. So when we had our daily debrief at breakfast, they were disgusted that I had managed to sleep through the racket.

Anyway, I was surprised to discover that our partner Deddy gets up every morning at this early call to do his first prayers of the day. That means by the time he collects me at about 8.30/9 he has been up for 4 or more hours. He (like many others I met) then quietly excuses himself for 5-10 minutes around lunchtime for more praying. Homes, hotels, and businesses all have a dedicated space for prayer. It’s all quite modest and understated, but it is a deeply-rooted practice.

Many women wear a head-scarf, although the decision whether to wear one or not looks like it is a very personal one.

Ima, production co-ordinator with KWaS

Ima, production co-ordinator with KWaS carpentry factory


Rubina – finishing department at PKT, main producer of our Semarang range











Furthermore people will wear the hijab on some occasions and not on others. Both Deddy’s wife Desty, and our main weaving producer Pak Kisno’s wife, wore them when we first met them during this visit, but on subsequent meetings were seen in more relaxed, uncovered mode.

Mrs Kisno and her daughter

Our weaving partner’s wife Mrs Kisno and her daughter

Mrs Kisno weaving in workshop

Mrs Kisno weaving in the family workshop











I enjoyed seeing a number of clothing shops with window mannekins dressed in a wide array of head-scarves: this is becoming quite a fashion business! In fact there were signs in Jogya advertising the “second world fair of Islamic fashion – Sept 2016”. Given how stunning this model looks below from a previous show in Jakarta 2013, I’m sorry not to have been around to see the Jogya show!


Islamic Fashion show - Jakarta

Islamic Fashion show – Jakarta

Anyway, to finish my original train of thought… I was enjoying a quiet meal in a trendy Jogya restaurant called Mediterranea (French chef called Kalil!), when I saw two headscarf-wearing girls grooving and shimmying away to some favorite pop tune while they chopped vegetables in the kitchen. They looked straight at me, tickled that they had been spotted, but not in the slightest bit embarrassed: comfortable in their own skin. How delightful.

Moderate, giggling, gentle, and progressive Islam. What a tonic.


Impressions of Indonesia (3)

Staggering natural wealth and beauty

I have had the chance to see three quite different islands from the Indonesian archipelago during this visit: Java, Bali and Flores. What a wonderful variety of landscape, architecture and culture they have presented. Fabulous!

The dreamy view from Labuan Bajo harbour

The dreamy view from Labuan Bajo harbour (Flores)


View from Manu Lamu

Near Bajawa Flores

Flores is the least well known, and much the quietest of these 3 islands, but beautiful beyond compare.

Lush hillsides, covered in forests of bamboo, macadamia, and many other tree species; dramatic volcanic mountains, some still active, with crested hillsides falling away from them, often covered in cultivated terraces; rice paddy fields in the plains, but also in the most surprising and inventive spaces – quite incredible use of terracing skills. And all so richly verdant – 50 shades of green (or more)! See photo gallery below for further examples of Flores beauty…



Bali suffers from being Indonesia’s most well-known and highly visited tourist destination, but we still found attractive places to enjoy. The beach areas are over-run with surfing dudes

Lush valley outside Ubud (Bali)

Lush valley outside Ubud (Bali)

and holiday-makers from Australia, Asia and Europe, but the hinterland is much more charming, with mountains, lakes and rivers in the middle.

We explored the area outside Ubud on mountain bikes (admittedly a guided tour), and were delighted by the countryside, the villages, and a very beautiful river gorge (shown left).biking-3-ubud







Despite its massive population, Java is also full of amazing scenery. I have now been driven from North to South of the island (and back) several times, and the diversity of crops, bushes, trees and flowers is amazing. From the classic tropical fruits, herbs and spices, through citrus and tomatoes, up to strawberries, cabbages, carrots and lettuces in the upland areas!

produce-drying Wherever you go, you see the locals drying their crops on tarpaulins by the side of the road: rice, coffee beans, cloves, peppers, chillies to name but a few. Even in town, you see great sheets of rice drying by the road-side.

There is not much evidence of Big Agriculture here: compared to what we are used to in Europe, it’s very small scale and family-based, and provides livelihoods for a huge number of people.

With all this natural wealth on offer, it’s perhaps little wonder that the Portuguese, British and Dutch fought each other, and the locals, to gain control over these islands. The Dutch came out on top, and shaped and squeezed the country to their advantage for centuries. But what a terrible travesty of natural justice that was.

Thank God for independence. It’s been a long, hard-fought and painful battle for the Indonesian people to take back control of their own resources, economy and destiny. It’s also less than 20 years since a proper democracy was established… but they have a good and popular President in place, with a clear focus on anti-corruption, and economic growth. I very much hope they can find sustainable ways to convert this abundant natural wealth into better livelihoods for the majority.

Impressions of Indonesia (2)

People and motorbikes galore

Java is just over half the size of Great Britain (128K km2 vs. 230K km2), but packs twice the population of the UK into that space – that’s 145 million people on one island. So it’s not surprising that you see an awful lot of people wherever you go, especially in the cities.

motorbikes-parked-upThere are a staggering number of motorbikes on the roads – it’s the main means by which people get around, accounting for 82% of all registered vehicles. The roads in Semarang and Jogyakarta are dominated by motorbikes, which dart in and out of the main traffic flow in the most alarming way. They come at you from all angles. Furthermore many of the bikes carry 2, 3 or 4 passengers – it’s not uncommon to see a Dad driving the bike, with Mum at the back, and two kids squeezed in between!

The rules of the road are not spelt out in a detailed highway code, and the ‘system’ is not entirely logical. Cars are right-hand drive, and people drive on the left as in the UK, but that is where the comparison finishes. This is how the system works on the many dual carriageways:

  • the slow lane is the one nearest to the central reservation;
  • most cars and lorries overtake on the left;
  • but motorbikes stick together at the left hand side of the road.
  • So when you overtake you accelerate towards the hundreds of motorbikes which are going slower than you… nice and safe!
  • But when a car wants to turn left they have to slow down (in the overtaking lane) and wait for all the motorbikes to go past first, thus meaning everyone in the fast lane has to slow down and jam on the brakes.

I am not making this up by the way!!

On a normal two-lane main road cars overtake to either left or right of the car in front, sometimes on both sides at the same time…

There aren’t many motorway grade roads, but where there are, you get a wonderful hybrid of driving styles, with some lorries grinding slowly in the left hand lane, and others sticking to the traditional slow lane on the right… anyone wanting to overtake just has to weave in and out of the slower-moving vehicles. When I queried why the system was like this, I just got a smile and a shrug of the shoulders: “That’s the way things work round here!”

I have started to realise that this characteristic of ‘adaptive acceptance’ is a deep-seated trait in the Indonesian psyche… it’s quite difficult to cope with as a European, used to a culture in which we are encouraged to question and challenge everything!

on-train-to-jogyaEverywhere you go, you see more people doing things than you would initially expect: hotels, shops and restaurants are more than generously staffed; state-owned bodies like the post office and railway have an army of people working for them. On my train journey from Kutoarjo to Jogya, at Kutoarjo station I counted 6 porters, 2 security officers, 3 train cleaners, 2 station toilet cleaners, 4 ticket agents, 3 ticket controllers, not to mention 2 customer service reps and 3 railway police! And this is not a big station like Jogya; only 4 trains passed through in an hour and a half.

Another example: I went past a large ground-floor house on Sunday morning where a new floor and roof were being constructed. There seemed to be hundreds of people gathered round working on the project. I reckoned about thirty people stood on the ground level, mixing concrete and passing buckets to the bottom of a wide staircase. This had been purpose-built from bamboo and comprised about 12 steps. On each step there were at least 2 people passing the buckets of cement up one at a time to the next rung, so about 30 people were working on the staircase. Then another great bunch of people stood on top of the structure, moving the cement and bricks to their next destination.

Conclusion? Labour is cheap, and people are plentiful. It may not seem efficient by our standards, but in a strange way the job does get done. And anyway, who are we to judge?

Impressions of Indonesia (1)

October in Indonesia

I got the idea of coming to Indonesia for a whole month when I lost my wife in March this year. On previous visits I had always felt under time pressure to get back to the UK – because I am at heart a home-loving boy, not a natural adventurer: and although I enjoyed the visits, I was always in a hurry to get back to my darling Rachel and the comforts of the UK.

gang-of-3-borobodurBut when Rachel passed away, and I was struggling to find any positives in the midst of my grief, the idea of an extended trip took hold. I decided I had an opportunity to use my most unwelcome but new-found independence to see a bit more of the country where all our furniture is made. I also invited my daughter Julia and her husband Partho to come with me so that we could enjoy some time together exploring Indonesia. It seemed the right thing to do, and a potential source of healing for us all.

So I dedicate these thoughts and scribblings to Rachel, in the hope that she would have approved of this mini-adventure, just as much as she did of our overall furniture venture.


First impressions: “Heat, humidity, chaos…”

It’s a long old journey to Semarang by air. Over 24 hours travel time, and 16 or 17 of those in the air, with stops in Dubai and Singapore. So when you eventually walk off the plane down to the tarmac at Semarang’s small ‘international’ airport, the heat and humidity envelop you immediately. Big black clouds shrouded the hills behind Semarang, with puddles indicating a recent heavy downpour. The rainy season had started earlier than usual.

We queued in an orderly fashion for passport control, but had to purchase our visas and had no local cash. So the guy in charge of issuing visas escorted me out to the departure area to a cash-point.  That meant bypassing passport control. Can you imagine being allowed to do that at Heathrow?! (Excuse me Joe, I’ve got one here without any cash, I’ll just take him to a cash point alright? Back in a jiffy!)

But at Semarang airport, bags are security checked on arrival (as well as departure), so I had to fight my way through the queue for baggage checking, figure out how to use the ATMs, then fight my way back in past the customs officials, before we could purchase our visas. Only then could we start the official process of passport control and getting our bags through security and customs.

So when we eventually got to the arrivals side, where my business partner Tommy and his driver were waiting, I was bathed in sweat. Then the real chaos started…

semarang-airportThe parking and pick-up arrangements at Semarang airport have to be seen to be believed. I am recommending all students of transport planning have this as a case study of how NOT to do things. All cars and taxis coming into the airport follow the same circuitous route through the car park. Cars then park more or less anywhere off this route, so at any one time there are always cars trying to get into, and out of spaces. Then as they swing round and get nearer to the drop-off and pick-up areas, a few rows of parking spaces appear. This means that there are then 4 or 5 lines of traffic pushing to get to the front of the airport, to drop people off, and to collect arrivals, but at this point the road narrows down to a maximum of 2 lanes, most of which are obstructed by people parking up in the wrong place, then jumping in and out of cars… thus creating the log-jam of all log-jams!

To these insane bottle-necks, add a huge population of locals coming to leave or greet their loved ones, a furore of honking cars, a good dollop of shouting from taxi touts and uniformed traffic officials, the heat in the air, and the new smells of exotic food and people, and there you have it: your first alcohol-free mocktail of the holiday “Semarang sublime” (a.k.a. airport chaos!).

Welcome to Central Java!