Indonesia is a vast, sprawling archipelago of some 17,000 islands, speaking over 500 different dialects and following a multiplicity of religious beliefs, yet what binds it all together is an unrestrained sense of patriotism.
Each year, on August 17th, the whole nation comes together in a riot of red and white for Independence Day. Leading up to the big day, there are literally millions of national flags and twinkling red and white fairy lights dangling from every building – from the tallest inner city high rise to beaten up bamboo shacks in the most isolated rural backwater.
For this solitary day at least, it is an excuse to forget any differences or quarrels and just let loose in wild celebration. Whether in tiny villages or the big city, Indonesians are social animals and the whole community gets together for a little madcap amusement.
After watching the ceremonial unfurling of the national flag by the President on live TV, it’s usually time for some quirky fun and games. There are numerous traditional games played that are familiar the world over such as inter-village tug-o-war competitions, sack races and musical chairs but then things start to get just a little silly. Here is a little taste of the Independence Day insanity:
Is there a more ridiculous sight than seeing grown men (often respected village elders) trying to play soccer dressed in figure hugging silk sarongs? Watching macho guys trying to run, let alone kick a ball in tight-fitting ‘skirts’ makes Mr Bean look like a master of poise and dexterity. If the shrieks and catcalls from the womenfolk weren’t bad enough, the Dangdut factor then comes into play. At various intervals during the match, the “referee” stops the action, turns on some raunchy Dangdut music and these men are forced to stop playing to show off to the whole village their best booty-shaking dance moves.
Played in virtually all towns and villages on Independence Day, this quirky contest involves climbing up a tall greasy pole or palm tree to claim prizes hanging precariously at the top such as a TV, Playstation or an envelope stuffed with cash. It is a mad, slippery free-for-all with men and boys clambering over each other to reach the summit first. Most immediately fall off in the mayhem and bruises and broken bones are not uncommon.
There are a multitude of other wacky games and competitions played out across the country, often with their own little regional nuances. Most involve playing with or gorging on food while regional capitals often hold loud and colorful processions and outdoor concerts. The big day comes at the height of tourist season and foreign visitors are always encouraged to join in the lunacy even if simply passing through a remote village.
You can get into the patriotic mood at Yogyakarta and Bali which host dance and music events while notable restaurants and hotels will always jump on the bandwagon with a themed Independence Day bash or two. Jakarta clubs and bars also go to town with wild patriotic party nights. While most of the country’s younger generation has little affinity with Indonesia’s struggle for independence 67 years ago, they certainly know how to celebrate in style.