Indonesia: To see and to experience

The sun sets over Kuta beach, Bali. Pictures: Tammy Stone

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I'VE spent the last few weeks touring Indonesia, a country I'm visiting for the first time and which is so large and breathtaking I now know I'll have to come back and visit on many more occasions.

With over 255 million people, more islands and volcanoes than almost any other country on earth, and a whole slate of ethnic tribes, languages and religions (the predominant religion being Islam), Indonesia is impossible to summarise with any set of generalisations.

!I did, however, want to share a little bit of what I have seen and done, with the overall aim of encouraging the kind of travel that takes you out of the comforts of what you know back home and into the types of experiences that will gratify you, encourage cross-cultural communication, and amount to a highly memorable trip.

Taste Local Flavours: It would be a terrible shame to visit a country and stick to the Western Food offered by most hotels and tourist districts. For one, the Western food will often not taste quite like you remember it tasting at home, and for good reason: it's not the cuisine locals in a foreign country are familiar with! Simple foods like toast and a boiled egg will often come in unimaginably strange forms, reminding one that if you're in a country that doesn't eat a lot of bread, it's probably best to avoid it rather than be disappointed and have cause for complaint.

!How much more rewarding would it be to sample national and regional cuisine? While touring Java and then Bali and Lombok, I revelled in local delicacies like gado gado (mixed vegetable and egg smothered in delectable peanut sauce), olah olah (mixed vegetables with an unforgettably tasty coconut shavings) and drank bucketfuls of hot ginger, a tea-less concoction of hot water, sugar, and large chunks of soothing and cleansing ginger root.

!I would also highly recommend coming as close to locals' way of eating as possible. Early mornings I would find myself walking along streets in which people were just waking up and setting up shop, and stopped in at food carts that looked busiest. There, I would sit down with locals to drink divine, thick Java/Bali/Lombok coffee while chit-chatting about where I come from and what I should see in whatever town I was in, or feasting on local specialties while fielding an onslaught of questions from women and students eager to find out as much about me as I wanted to know about them. The opportunities I gave myself to talk to Indonesians made my culinary experiences all the more valuable.

Acknowledge Diversity: As I write this in Ubud, Bali, a heavy rainstorm just descended like an avalanche in an otherwise clear and sunny day. Such are the extremes of tropical climates so foreign to my Canadian homeland. It's a stark reminder of how gloriously diverse our planet is, and how fantastically humbling it is to awaken oneself to the natural environments that play such a big role in shaping who we are as people.

!Though Indonesia is much too vast to experience in one trip — especially if that trip is only one-month long, I have been fortunate to see an array of spectacular wonders. From the enormous shopping centres of Jakarta (okay, not a natural wonder but a feat of hyper-modernity at its best) and the ruins and temples surrounding Yogyakarta, a cultural city teeming with intellectual and artistic pursuit, I went on a tour taking me to a view of sunrise overlooking Bromo, an impressive and haunting active volcano.

The morning I was there, the sunrise was actually obscured by fog and mist, but this suited my sensibilities just fine — the heavy grey air soon lifted to reveal miles upon miles of the most lush, green forestry imaginable. Climbing Bromo itself and peering down into the live, sulphuric volcano was a mystifying experience beyond description.

!Bus and minivan rides through Bali and Java allow one to spend hours gazing at rice padies and other fields being harvested, and it's always great to remain on the lookout for the little, pleasant surprises. I got to talk to the navigators of a ferry while sitting atop their boat taking in the mountain ranges of Bali and Lombok, sample the delicious coffee served in Padangbai (one of Bali's port towns) while singing folk songs as an Indonesian musician strummed on his guitar, and wake up for several mornings before dawn to walk the entire length of Gili Air island, where I had almost the entire ground to myself — unless you count the grazing cows and goats, of course.

Be respectful of the local culture: There are a few hard and fast rules I try to live by when I travel in a foreign country. First, it's good to research where you're going in advance so you can be aware of certain things, like what type of clothes you need to enter religious grounds like temples and shrines, how things like bargaining in local markets work, and how to address people of either gender when engaging in conversation. Often a host of miscommunications can be avoided by doing this kind of basic research.

!Since I'm a photographer and pretty much always have my camera on me, I have to resist the temptation to feel I can take photos of anyone and anything I want, when I want. Although it seems the whole world by now is a stage and locals are used to tourists snapping away, I always do my best to ask people in advance if I can look around their grounds, or take pictures of anything that is on their property — including them and their families! It's amazing how showing the basic respect of asking to take a photo can generate yeses with wide smiles, and often really interesting conversation. Once, a woman saw me walk by with my big camera, eyeing her garden, and she drew me inside by the arm, posed for me and insisted she take a photo of me in front of her gorgeous flowers — a special morning indeed.

!Amazingly, there are still parts of even the most tourist-laden spots that are relatively untouched by foreign presence. While on the Gili islands off Lombok, I had the amazing privilege of spending hours walking through their villages, where it's not recommended you take photos but where the locals are among the friendliest people you can meet. Remaining quiet and mindful of the fact that you're walking amid families living their daily lives as you walk by, is a very gratifying way to experience what life is like for another culture in the absence of many tourists and their cameras, as they prepare food, mind their children, heed calls to prayer and of course, watch the odd football match on TV.

By sheer luck, I narrowly avoided getting caught in this downright heavy rainstorm on the way back to my bungalow after roaming through a local market, sampling rambutan and jackfruit, and having a Bali foot massage. On my way home, I passed by several Bali ceremonies taking place at temples and house compounds, stepped around offerings of flowers, rice and incense dotting the doorways of Ubud, and thinking about the endless fields of rice paddies I was going to walk through later in the afternoon. As I made this walk, I was consciously aware of how lucky I was to be able to travel to this country where everyday brings a dizzying array of inspiring experiences I will have with me forever.

The Brunei Times


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