Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Musings on a tropical island

Currently I'm spending a few days doing very little on Kurimunjawa. These are islands six degrees off the equator, north of Semarang. Most of the people who live here originate from Java, Madura or Sulawesi and live a fairly simple life fishing or supporting the tourist trade which arrives in strength every weekend. The village is small, everyone knows each other, and it's pretty friendly, especially if you stay beyond the busy weekend.

One of the purposes of this 2 month trip was to trial long term travel, to see this short sojourn as an experiment in adjusting my mode and outlook to travel, and to test equipment. It's been a really good lesson and I'd love to share what I've learnt.

I've known for a long time that travel to strange places doesn't scare me at all, that I am not overwhelmed by difference but instead look for and find the similarities and then explore the new experiences. I never wake up feeling I am in a strange unfamiliar place, in fact the familiarity I experience often shocks me. I could be anywhere, yet feel perfectly at home.

This trip began with a list of destinations in mind, but as often happens with me, the journey becomes the experience as my priorities change, or some other option presents. This is only possible when you make no fixed plans, when you don't book ahead, when you trust that there'll always be a bed available somewhere.

My primary goal when travelling is not to see monuments and great scenery, but to meet and try to understand the lives and culture of the people who live there. It's not to say I'm not fascinated by the beauty around me or the history and culture associated with ancient buildings, but it isn't the primary goal. It's why I don't seek to associate with large groups of foreigners when I travel - in this case I am not looking for similarity with my own kind - but instead try to make myself approachable to local people. Travelling alone in Indonesia makes this very easy, because it is such a foreign concept for the locals that they instinctively want to include you. We in the west could learn a lot from the generosity displayed by complete strangers to foreigners that I experience on a daily basis.

When travelling for a fixed period of time, the destination based itinerary tends to be foremost, and in my experience most people tend to put too much on that itinerary. I like to absorb what I've seen, reflect on what I've learnt, not hurtle on to the next destination, and the next after that. I too am sometimes guilty of wanting to see too much in too little time, but on this trip I have curbed that tendency and slowed down even more, and not chided myself for "wasting time".

As a long term traveller, you just can't sustain the continuous sightseeing indefinitely. Packing and unpacking every day becomes a source of irritation, dealing with transport touts and bargaining for hotel rates becomes exhausting, and it's easy to lose sight of the reason for travel in the first place. You need days off to do absolutely nothing, to read a book, sit in a cafe, lounge on a beach or in a hammock, play with the neighbours children, whatever, but something that isn't about the inexorable onwardness that can make travel a chore rather than a delight. And if you don't plan ahead, when you find a place that feels right you just put your feet up for a few days, a few weeks, a few months.... and relax.

That's what I'm doing right now on Karimunjawa. As yet I have no idea when I'm leaving....

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