Indonesia: 26 days of island hopping
Mis à jour : 3 déc 2019
I spent 26 days on Indonesia, managed to skip Bali and see less than 30 tourists. It was amazing. Almost every other day I managed to find myself outside of my comfort zone. I kept on learning about the world's fourth largest country and about myself. I will try and summarize my journey on five of the 17.000+ islands.
Food and accommodation Indonesian food is very cheap. Meals can be found for one euro, and there is a lot of variety. Each island has their own touch as well, so you can always try many new things. I tried bandrek - a ginger, honey and milk hot drink-, a sweet green bean soft drink, cheese-chocolate bread, tahu -a vegetarian fried snack- and many other things I forgot by name. Names I did not forget, because they were everywhere I went, were bakso, ayam, nasi and mee, meaning chicken, beef, rice and noodles. Rice and noodle meals can be found anywhere you go and even for breakfast. Actually rice and noodles will often be the only option for breakfast. One thing most food has in common, is how greasy it is. Everything has so much oil in it, that it is a tad too much. Besides the new things and the generally tasty food, I missed a healthy portion of fruit and vegetables in my diet and did not often find vegetarian alternatives to get protein. More often than not, I accepted there was no alternative and had to let go of my vegetarian values.
Just as the food, the accommodation was often very cheap. Prices can range from three euro for a dorm to seven euro for a hotel room. Traveling on a budget and choosing the cheaper option also meant giving up some comfort, which meant squatting on a keyhole toilet, giving up toilet paper, taking cold showers, sleeping on thin, hard mattresses and no internet most of the time. Most of these things were slightly out of my comfort zone, but after a while I had just expanded my comfort zone and got used to it. I actually had been wanting to take cold showers, spend less time on my phone and live more in the moment for a while. Life always got in the way and I never really got to try out one of these challenges to the fullest. Thanks to the lack of comfort, I got a chance to try and consequentially I also got to enjoy the benefits.
The language barrier As I traveled to several smaller villages, I often had no chance at all to talk English. To make sure I could manage difficult situations, I had installed an offline Indonesian dictionary on my phone. But even then, the word by word translations would not always serve difficult conversations. The essential words would often accompany some mining and facial expressions to get an idea across. This would sometimes be exhausting, but looking back at it, it was quite funny.
The best part for me was when I tried to communicate with kids. Even though we could not properly comprehend each others words and they would just talk to me non stop in Indonesian, there was some kind of understanding. If you interact with kids, you don't need language. They just understand a smile and playfulness. I could spend hours playing with kids without uttering a word. It made me understand how futile language can be. At one time I did not have my phone on me, so I did not have access to my offline dictionary. I was limited to my basic knowledge of Indonesian language which was soon exhausted. I started to prepare hangman on a piece of paper and tried to explain the game. As soon as the girl understood, we played almost for 2 hours, with Indonesian words of course. It was fascinating to be able to get along without the need to actually talk.
Spontaneous island hopping When I had arrived in Kupang, I realized finding another sailboat would take some time. Someone had told me island hopping with a ferry was cheap and doable, so I looked into it. Soon, I found out that it was not possible to book ferries in advance, which meant that each time I had to go to the office on the island to book a boat. Often the office only had limited information and was not able to give information about the next island. Boats might leave the next day or a week later, they might be sold out or cancelled, you never know. Even when I got to the office, the English knowledge would be limited, so it was hard to ask the right questions. This meant I never knew what would happen and I adjusted my plans each time to the ferry schedule. It was interesting but very unpredictable. In the end, it always worked out and sometimes the whole staff was very enthusiastic when they understood what I was doing and they were proud a European used their service. Besides the ferries to hop from island to island, I also went on a couple of 30 hour bus rides, rode scooters in the mountains and used rikshaws or tuktuks to get around.
Being the only tourist Most of my time in Indonesia, I did not meet other tourists. This was probably due to the less touristic destinations and the ferries I took, which is almost completely used by Indonesians. As I was the only tourist, I was often recognized and wherever I went people wanted selfies with me. Besides the pictures, I also found myself being shouted at as I walked in the streets. Continuously, people would shout 'mister, mister, mister'. Some people would shout to practice English, others would try to sell something and often people would just be curious and enthusiastic. One time I gave in to the proposal of a riksaw driver to take me somewhere. I knew he was selling the experience, but I had time and said yes leading to a strange misunderstanding.
I also noticed a difference in the way people acted in tiny villages, small towns or big cities. In the villages I would often be the local attraction and I would meet almost everyone for a short conversation. Interactions would feel genuine and sincere without a hidden agenda. In the towns and smaller cities, I would mostly be seen as the rich, white foreigner who came to spend his money. It would feel as if I was just a potential source of income and a lot of the conversations were part of a sales pitch. Once I arrived in huge cities, with millions of citizens, it was easy to disappear in the crowd among all others living fast-paced lives. These were all impressions of course and besides the general idea, I got to meet great people where I went. Nevertheless it was in the tiny villages, like in Lewotobi, that I lost my heart.
Health and safety One of the things I noticed very quickly in Indonesia, was that everyone was smoking all the time, that is to say, the boys and the men were smoking. I saw almost no woman smoking at all. When I asked why they didn't smoke while men did so often, the reply was often vague and they made clear they were not allowed at all. Later I found out it was all related to undiscovered pregnancies and the risk of affecting the unborn child's health. Since there is a lack of protected sex and thus a risk of undiscovered pregnancies, it seemed like a logical argument to prohibit women to smoke. However, when I saw a lot of men smoking next to women, children and babies, letting them inhale passively, the argument seemed way less valid.
When it comes to safety in general, the first thing that comes to mind is the chaotic traffic. People were driving without lights or helmets, driving way too fast and often in the wrong direction. This might the traffic very chaotic and dangerous. On my second day in Indonesia I was already confronted with the unforgiving traffic, when I saw a video of a child who had been hit by a car. It had happened at a place where I was just one hour before. The video was cruel, showing the open skull of a 9 year old. The image was so shocking it would not leave my mind for weeks. Only one week later I would find myself having a minor motorcycle accident as well.
Indonesia in a nutshell
When I was walking around in Jakarta, the country's capital, I was interviewed by a group of students. They asked me what Indonesian food I liked, how I had enjoyed my time and if I could describe the country in one word. Faced by that last question, the first words that sprung to mind were plastic, rubbish or pollution. This had been the one thing that had struck me the most but with the camera on my face and their eyes fixed upon me, I did not want to ruin their interview and enthusiasm. I asked if I could just explain in a nutshell what my time in the country was like. "Indonesia is, to me, a beautiful country with gorgeous islands, different fascinating cultures, tasty food and most of all warm and welcoming people."
I will definitely visit Indonesia again in the future but I cannot be certain if I will ever end up in Bali.