“Today’s Indonesia is home to one in every thirty of the people on this planet – 240 million at the last count. That makes the country the fourth most populous in the world. Jakarta tweets more than any other city on earth, and around 64 million Indonesians use Facebook – that’s more than the entire population of the UK. But 80 million live without electricity (all of Germany), and 110 million live on less than two dollars a day (all of Mexico). Hundreds of thousands live without electricity on less than two dollars a day and are on Facebook. The list of ‘world’s biggest’, ‘tens of millions’, and ‘fastest growing’ statistics from Indonesia is long. And yet, as Indonesian entrepreneur John Riady said recently: ‘Indonesia is probably the most invisible country in the world”.
– Elizabeth Pisani. Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation. 3.
Elizabeth Pisani’s absorbing book, Indonesia Etc., proved an erudite companion on a recent trip to this multifaceted country. Recommended by a warm and inspiring backpacker whom we encountered along our journey, Pisani’s book outlines in prolific prose the woes and wonders of this vast, complex and ‘improbable’ nation. Comparing it to a ‘bad boyfriend’, she explains how Indonesia and its 13,500 islands have the power to simultaneously chew you up and caress you into a state of blissful consciousness. Her description is harrowing and accurate. It is indeed a paradoxical place.
Here, you encounter the stark juxtaposition of religions, societies, cultures, rituals and practices, poverty and wealth, beauty and decay, the old and the new. The West has ironed out its parasitic influence across Balinese terrain, with resorts and hipster-chic hang-outs overpowering its ‘hotspot’ coastlines, replacing a once rich and traditional heritage with landmarks of western capitalism. While I thoroughly enjoyed the retrospective charm of the predominantly Aussie-owned cafés, and indulged in a litany of poached egg and avocado breakfasts, I couldn’t help but lament on the nagging feeling that I had utterly missed out on experiencing the authentic face of Indonesia by a mere number of years.
Inflation has already crept in to the cost of travelling, with hidden ‘tourist taxes’ embedded in everything from a coconut to a boat ticket. As experienced from previous travels, the invention of ‘tourist prices’ is a commonplace occurrence. Indeed, it is a small price to pay for bombarding these beautiful countries in our backpacking droves. On one hand, the median between tourist and local price tags is widening at an alarming rate. On the other hand, one must choose their haggling battles wisely. Seeing one quarrel over a few dollars for the price of a taxi transpires as a pathetic campaign if they are sporting the latest Rayban aviators and a DSLR that equates to the driver’s bi-annual income. Nonetheless, inflation has indeed hit Bali, and unless you maintain the steadfast will-power to eat from local markets, and limit the bottle-count of your Bintang, you will see your cash flow diminish.
Apart from some alarming moments along our trek around the coasts of Bali, to the steaming rain forest of Mount Batukaru, the white sands of the Gili islands, and the paradise coves of Lombok, the overriding experience was heart warming. Each place and space along the way has certainly etched its aura into my memory, and I too have left a piece of myself there at each humble homestay, and in the heart of each gentle and inspiring soul that we met. Of all the trading you do when you travel, the most impacting and enduring is perhaps the trade of hearts and energies that you negotiate on your way. Be it fellow knowledge seekers endeavouring to enhance their understanding and appreciation of the world, or native traders and their bright-eyed children, the exchange of time, stories and laughter that you share on your travels are what will remain with you and enhance your very being for time to come. This is the sort of experience that cannot be bought. This is gold dust.
The images in this post are a select collection of the large archive I amassed on my trip. They mostly emanate from the island of Bali, and hopefully encapsulate the essence of the lifestyle that can be found there. From the colourful Hindu icons that line the streets of every village, city and road, to the piles of coconuts along the rice fields of Ubud, Balinese life is never without a polaroid moment.
For now, enjoy the colours of Indonesia.