The dictionary states that ambivalence refers to the existence in the same person of two conflicting feelings about the same object. This is exactly the feeling we have as we leave Indonesia. Our experiences in the archipelago go from one extreme to another (without forgetting the intermediate feelings either!). The cruelty of the markets of Tomohon on Sulawesi, where bats are sold for human consumption, clashes with the veneration with which they are treated on Goa Lawah, the temple of the bats on Bali. And between these extremes, there are the many bats that are kept in cages as pets.
The flying foxes, large fruit-eating bats, are – as far as we could see – the only bats that are actually eaten, but are also the only ones that are worshipped. A number of people explain to us what bats taste like, how to cook them and enumerate some of their curative properties. Fortunately, these tastes are not shared by everyone and seem to be less widespread amongst the younger generations who often turn their noses up at the idea of eating wild animals.
We visited the islands of Sulawesi, Bali, Flores and Rinca, and then head for Brisbane, Australia, where we hope to appreciate other aspects of the complex relationship between humans and bats. On all these islands we met people who eat bats, but also some who assured us that they had never eaten bats nor would never do so. Indonesia is a country characterized by a mix of religions and different ethnic groups, and this diversity is reflected in the sheer variety of distinct relationships between bats and people.
Both on Sulawesi and Bali, bats are sold for different reasons. Bat sellers remark that every year they have to go further to get hold of them. Now that local populations have been decimated, Borneo, the paradigm of a tropical jungle paradise, has become the chief supplier of bats to neighbouring islands. The few colonies of large bats that we see confirm the fact that bats in Indonesia only survive in totally inaccessible colonies, either because they are regarded as sacred or because the mangrove forests are completely impenetrable.