I had seen too much in life to believe the pictures on the Internet …
… and yet the pictures mesmerized me. I would close my eyes on the plane and I’d be looking at swimming pools where the water surface appeared to meet a cliff’s edge, set in hillsides covered with a tropical jungle … white coral beaches fringed with palm trees … small huts where you can wind down after a year’s of hard work, massage, Jacuzzi, culinary delights … the cool water and the warm sun … shades of green and the colours of exotic flowers …
But you don’t travel around the world to lock yourself up in luxurious glass towers. I would open my eyes again and again to study my itinerary. It was the itinerary of a trip which was billed as an adventure and a holiday treat for my family, and an opportunity for me to learn about the people and their markets in yet another developing country.
If you were to look, with cool detachment and from a distance, at Indonesia, the country I’ve visited, you could say it is nearly a perfect market. Population: 280 million (the fourth most populated country in the world). Just over half of the people live in Java. Rapid economic growth (over a 4.5% rise in GDP in the second quarter of 2015) and falling unemployment – officially at the level of 5.81%.
No wonder then that consumer spending is up, coming as it does on the back of low unemployment: Indonesian consumers spent a record of 1201200 billion Indonesian rupiahs in the second quarter of 2015. Nothing for it but to take your cue from affluent Westerners and hole up in a luxury spa with a view of the sea and a tropical jungle.
Except that a closer reading of the spending figures shows a crack in this promising picture. Converted into the Polish zlotys the billions of rupiahs spent by consumers work out at no more than 330 billion. ‘No more than’ because we Poles, of whom there are 38 million, spend 273 billion zlotys annually. Cue the population of Indonesia again: 280 million.
A careful analyst (and reader) will also note that a figure of over a million billion in any currency worth of consumer spending is somewhat disconcerting. It sounds too much like being ripe for denomination or else indicative of hyperinflation. And right on cue, the June CPI (Consumer Price Index, or inflation in plain English) stands at 21%, according to the Trading Economics portal, a change from 13.5% on last year (2007 being the base year).
What I saw then was not daydream luxury straight from photo advertisements in holiday brochures or the Internet. Java, and Jakarta in particular, resembles India. ‘What do you mean?’ I hear you ask. Well, I mean that sometimes it breaks your heart: the very rich and the extremely poor – side by side – the status quo which surprises few out there.
But the dream still held true as regards nature on the many scattered Indonesian islands. Foaming mountain streams (navigable by inflatable dinghies – yes, white-water rafting is great fun); lush green jungles (accessible by canyoing and bicycles); noxious volcanic gases and lava streams illuminating the night sky (Tourists with night-time hiking experience welcome!); and the sea – the wonderfully soothing cool air and a yacht gliding noiselessly across from island to island in the breeze, but not to see another white beach under the canopy of the palm trees with sun loungers flanked by cocktails and sheltered under umbrellas (a rare but not an entirely unfamiliar sight). The beaches are vastly different: fringed by poor fishing villages whose inhabitants know that somewhere out there life is comfortable ala Western style, though they have never experienced it themselves. This doesn’t include the very touristy, but beautiful nonetheless, Bali, especially its southern part.
Are we aliens from outer space? Or are we the benefactors leaving a few dollars on each of the hospitable shores for our fresh fish lunch, coffee, coconut oil, souvenirs? Perhaps we only do so to salve our conscience, knowing full well that we will not be able to help these people in any meaningful way? Knowing too that if one of the 70 or so active volcanoes erupts (accounts vary as too how many are active) we will not be able to do much. Sinabung in northern Sumatra had been dormant from 1600 to 2010 (if you disregard some volcanic ash clouds it spewed out in the XIX century). 19 thousand people were evacuated when the volcano resumed activity, according to the BBC. After erupting again in 2015 the same volcano blanketed the entire region with noxious ash forcing people to wear dust masks as they went about their daily life. And most recently, Raung, on account of which I nearly stayed in Indonesia longer than I had planned (fortunately for me the smoke was blowing in the opposite direction and our flight was cleared for take-off, but the next one in the queue got grounded). What can you do?
Is there anything we can do for the Indonesian people in the face of the many dangers that lie in wait for them? They are surrounded by other volcanoes: economic, political, social. Social unrest following elections, harsh law in conjunction with the dominant Muslim religion in many areas. Traditional caste system. Falling commodity and minerals prices whose export props up the Indonesian economy. Devaluation of the Chinese currency, which upsets economic stability around the world …
There is one thing perhaps – open up the borders to international trade and ensure that the corporations we run act responsibly. The economic calculation is simple – 280 million people, large internal demand for both necessities and luxury items, rapid economic growth – the purchase power of such proportions (and still rising) guarantees handsome profits on the sales of just one telephone model.
We must remember however about the people whose cheap labour we reach out to procure, and whose kindness and hard work serve us so well in our rest.
Business Insider offers a glimpse of life on a volcano:
A full set of macro data on Indonesia, in Polish, can be found at:
Have a look at the map and consider how the fact of being scattered on 17 thousand islands and other geographical features can affect the economic growth of a country. Mountainous areas are not favourable to trade because they make transport difficult (high cost of road building). Large distances between islands hinder effective administration: