Here I add sometimes my current travels at the time of the trip. It is between a diary and a research notebook as every travel for me is a discovery. As T. S. Elliot said “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”.
Beginning of Autumn 2015, South East Asia
I start this trip with a flight from NYC to Bangkok with AirChina: 20h of flight layover in Beijing, for 650 dollars round trip, bought only one week ahead…the advantages of globalization. Tonight I stay in Manhattan, is always great to come back to the Upper West Side, the old Bloomingdale Village, where my friend live between Broadway and Central Park, a place where once was shot the famous movie West side story. Tomorrow I will have the flight in the late afternoon, so I will have time to meet another friend just moved here from Richmond.
After one day of stop in Bangkok and one in Kuala Lumpur, I landed in Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh province. Aceh is known for the disastrous Tsunami of 2004, that killed almost two hundred thousand people and for its 30 years’ war culminated with a peace process and a status of autonomy given to the province. But not many people know though that Aceh is also identified with Lambri, or Lamuri, the ancient land that Marco Polo said to have visited on his travels to China, where he said in his chronicles “there are men with tails (…) Their tails are about the thickness of a dog’s. There are also plenty of unicorns in that country, and abundance of game in birds and beasts”(1).
Lamuri Kingdom actually was a kingdom in northern Sumatra, during the Srivijaya Empire, a thalassocracy, an “empire of the sea” (a maritime approach to the rising power, that today Indonesia wish to repeat) representing an important center for the expansion of Buddhism from the 8th to the 12th century. Aceh at the end of the day has been also the starting point of the Islamic religion in Indonesia, being the tip of an island that act also as a “tipping point”, leading and shaping the religious believes of the entire area, not only of Sumatra but of the whole archipelago of Southeast Asia. But Lamuri is also identified by some historians with Lemuria, a legendary lost continent sometimes called Atlantis, the Plato island from which supposedly all the human civilization started. Effectively the glaciations didn’t reach the Indonesian archipelago, leaving its forests and biodiversity intact and evolving after millions of years (unfortunately now also suffering a lot because of the palm oil plantations that require its destruction) and so Sumatra could really represent the ‘lost continent’.
But Aceh, with its past wisdom and challenges (for an economic and political development that still has difficulties to be realized) is famous also today for its application (the only region in the majority Muslim Indonesia) of the Sharia law. Canning for gambling or other forbidden actions under the Sharia law have been publicized recently and women have been forbidden to straddle on a bike or go out after 11pm without a male companion. But one thing is the law and one thing is the reality of the daily practice (as we know very well in Italy) and so on the streets of Aceh the women are still straddling on motorbikes, often with a baby on their arms (actually you can see sometimes bikes with several people, even 6 or 7, in a scaring situation for the safety) and are going out without necessarily a male companion after 11pm, not caring at all about the new laws. Nevertheless the fact remains that after the recent autonomy the Sharia’tization of public life and society has been used as a recuperation of identity for long time repressed but also as a political power tool, exploited by parties one against the other, in order to get the image of “the purest among the pure”. We don’t know where will go this trend of putting Islam back in the public sphere but one thing is certain, if Aceh region wants to build a sustainable development and a substantial democracy it has to do it with inclusiveness and tolerance, as otherwise the ancient Lemuri people will react to their politicians, taking back the lead in their hands as it has always been.
(1) See The travels of Marco Polo (in Italian: Il Milione) From: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Travels_of_Marco_Polo/Book_3/Chapter_11
See also: http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/11-things-you-may-not-know-about-marco-polo
Today we had a good day. I spoke at the University of Syah Kuala, where Professor Radhi Darmansyah, director of the Political Science department, organized a conference on democracy and political Islam in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. Around one hundred students came to listen and participate to the conference, with many interesting questions on the future of political Islam both from the Middle Eastern and Southeastern Asia perspectives. They even gave me a framed certificate and hang up a giant poster with my name and picture to publicize the event..never expected that! They said it was the first lecture on a series of lecture they plan to do on Middle East.
After that I met Mohammed Al Farisi, an historian expert of Marco Polo who told us about Polo’s visit to Lamuri or Lambri, today Aceh in Sumatra. He explained how, from “The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East” edited by Henry Yule in the 19th century, we can read Marco Polo saying that “the people have no wheat, but have rice which they eat with milk and flesh. They also have wine from trees such as I told you of. And I will tell you another great marvel. They have a kind of trees that produce flour, and excellent flour it is for food”(1). Al Farisi explained us that when Marco Polo asked for alcohol being a Muslim kingdom they didn’t have it, so the Sultan asked the people to do some kind of alcoholic drink for him and the people prepared the so called “Nira”, an alcohol beverage made with coconut water, called Ie Jeuk. From there the “wine from trees” that Polo recalls. Marco Polo also brought here presents from Kublai Khan, that unfortunately today went lost and so cannot represent a testimony of his passage here. Al Farisi explained how what Polo calls unicorns were the rhinoceros, not know at that time in Europe, and may be also the elephants, that were dressed in gold and wearing some kind of horn in their front head to send them to war, also not known in Europe at that time. Finally we went to visit Gampong Jawa Pande, the cemetery of the Raja of Darussalam, the “King of the house of peace”, called also Tuan (Master) di Kandang. There also Marco Polo passed but also this place had been visited by Odorico da Pordenone(2), the Franciscan friar that travelled to China in 14th century and also, like Marco Polo, passed from Sumatra, on his way to China (he mentioned forms of cannibalism and community of wives that were possible in Sumatra).
So these Italian travelers of the Middle Age, the first explorers from Europe, confirmed that Italy has always been a “land of poets, saints and navigators”. And today me too I keep with this tradition, passing on the steps of this ancient wayfarers, bringing my culture and ideas and learning from the local identity and customs. I have to say that I was surprised by the generosity, kindness and welcoming attitude of the Sumatran people, people that have suffered so much from the past but that are smiling much more than populations that have been protected and isolated from the geographies of pain and the histories of invasions. Thank you Banda Aceh, thank you for your dignity and humanity, will be back here in the future, may be to build a new route between the far ends of the Eurasian continents, going back to the first globalization times, those of Marco Polo, the silk road and the trade routes that brought so much exchange and learning and could do it again in the future.
2)Sopra la vita e i Viaggi del beato Odorico da Pordenone dell’ordine de’ Minori, Teofilo Domenichelli, 1851