It goes without saying that people go on holidays for different reasons seeking different experiences. Now I am well past my 20s, I seek a quiet place, with lapping water, maybe a hammock, good food and overall peacefulness. That’s why I stay away from the party island of Bali, and don’t even go near the Gili Islands. I prefer my sunsets without house music or locals who are seeking a bule girlfriend who aren’t afraid to throw up horrible cliché lines such as “When I come to Jakarta, where will I stay?” (wink wink).
My most recent holiday was no exception. A few like-minded friends and myself were on a mission to find an idyllic place with beautiful water, a place to snorkel, a beach to relax on, and we thought we had found it – 2 planes, a car and a speed boat away from Jakarta in East Kalimantan. The pictures gave a promise of quiet, beauty, sea life, a bungalow over the water, all of the essentials. We had enough travelling experience to know that pictures aren’t always a good representation of reality, but we were prepared to be lower our expectations a little and embark on an adventure.
Our excitement wilted after a plane delay which meant we had to spend the night on the mainland and even further when our car arrived hours late after the driver had spent all night lining up for petrol. It seemed that Kalimantan was running low in petrol though coal was definitely in high quantities judging by the ships of uncovered coal floating down the river to the port. Our excitement turned to despair as we gazed out the window for our 2 hour drive to the port; whole forests lopped down and looking more like waste lands or war zones than anything resembling a rainforest.
A fast speed boat to the island shook off our gloom as we saw the paradise before us; bungalows resting over the water, a beautiful blue sea. It was true, it really existed, and even the sound of hammering and electric sanders didn’t spoil the mood. We meandered around town and found empty, sandy streets, locals not interested in us, not trying to call us over for business and we settled into island time. We wondered how any of the businesses made money in such an empty place, and then tried to stop the questions and relax. That first night we even watched a turtle dig a hole to cover its eggs on an empty beach. We were happy and let our guards down a little. This could be a perfect holiday. I just had to ignore the net outside my bungalow where the locals had a shark, a turtle and some other kinds of fish trapped so people could look at them. It was going to be okay.
We could see the boats arriving in the distance as we settled into deck chairs on the empty beach, but they failed to register properly on our radars. We were too busy looking at the turtles swimming around. Then they came – en masse. Indonesian tourists. My Indonesian friends always said that they hated to travel alone, and here was evidence. All of a sudden banana boats appeared from nowhere. A man with a ukele came cruising up the beach singing tunes, followed by boat loads of tourists, straight from Kalimantan on a once-in-a-lifetime trip paid for by their company. We were no longer invisible. I would come out of the bungalow in the morning and there would be a man at the door with his phone who wanted to take a photo of me. And another one with his wife. Babies were thrust into my arms for more photos. Pregnant women grabbed my hand and thrust it on their bellies asking god for their baby to have a nose like mine. This was all before a morning coffee.
I know I get cultural cringe when I see Australians on holiday in Bali. They are drunk, they are loud, they are having fights, they are bossing Indonesians around. They too are on their trip of a lifetime and the motto is the old “seize the day”. They wear Bintang singlets and fake watches, they get their hair braided. They eat cheap McDonalds and drink overpriced Starbucks. It’s paradise for them. Back on the island paradise in Kalimantan, my boyfriend (Indonesian) was even cringeing a little about the holiday behavior of our Indonesian neighbours, mostly because of my horrified face as I tried to sleep with them soberly partying outside our door.
On the second night, my favourite moment was eating at a tiny restaurant on the dusty street where the owner of the house next door had hired a karaoke machine for his son’s circumcision party. He had it turned up to full volume so the speakers were set to explode, then he set up his plastic chair in front of the television, which was facing the street, and proceeded to sing many out-of-tune dangdut songs. With his back to the street. It didn’t matter if anyone else was listening, he was just enjoying himself. We yelled at each other over dinner to make ourselves heard, and marveled at the skill of Indonesians to make as much noise as they wanted, as long as they were enjoying themselves. In Australia, an angry neighbor would have marched over and unplugged the system before tossing it into the water. No one has a right to impose on someone else’s peace. In Indonesia, people can make as much noise as they want and no one seems to be concerned. They just continue to nonkrong.
We went on an island snorkeling tour to escape the chaos and we arrived at a very small island with amazing stingless jellyfish. My stomach lurched when I saw a very large boat parked at the same place. The company was there and they were there jumping into the water, even throwing the jellyfish at each other. My head wanted to explode, all feelings of peace were destroyed. I watched the tourists walking over the coral, trying to catch the little fish and throwing them around. Back on our no longer peaceful island they were buying jewelry made from turtle shells. Buying actual stuffed turtles. They sat on the piers and threw their rubbish in the water, screamed and yelled all night. My friend said to me, “what did you expect, this is a holiday in Indonesia?” and I thought, god damn it you are right. They are having fun and excited about their holiday, so what was my problem? Where was my excitement and need to stay up all night partying and doing bomb dives off the jetty?
In a place where most people live below the poverty line, there is no room to think about what is good for the environment. If a stuffed turtle is going to make a family money, then they will stuff it. If putting cute nemo fish in plastic bags in the heat may bring in a few rupiah, then damn those little fish. As for the rubbish? Burn it or throw it in the water. It’s normal in Indonesia to toss your rubbish where you stand. No one has time to appreciate and protect nature. When another turtle came up to the beach to lay eggs, the conservation man texted everyone so all of a sudden the turtle was surrounded by tourist paparazzi. People were touching it to pose for photos. No one tried to stop them, no one was really concerned about the poor turtle. It was an attraction so it had to earn its keep.
As for me, I have given up trying to find a quiet place to go to in Indonesia. I have to accept that different people holiday differently. Most people seek adventure, not quiet. As people’s financial situations improve in Indonesia, then more people have a chance to explore their country, and they will be excited about it, and that is a good thing. But people need to be educated in how to respect the places that they visit. To look and not touch. To enjoy the beauty and not throw their rubbish amongst it. To see the contradiction of enjoying swimming with the turtles and then buying a bracelet made of turtle shells. And then if you see a bule attempting to enjoy a quiet time away from her busy life, please ignore her. She doesn’t want to star in your home video. Really.