Aaron Davis - Southeast Asia 2005 travel blog


I spent two weeks in Indonesia, and was absolutely floored by how well my brother Tyler and his girlfriend Leila have adapted to the area. They both speak Indonesian phenomenally well, whether the official language, or the local dialect. They navigate through the community like locals, bargain like veterans, and have genuinely integrated themselves. Its quite impressive, and more than a little inspirational.

The area is tropical and lush, though extremely polluted in the city of Manado. Tyler asked the people sharing their rented compound what they do with the trash. The answer amounted to "drive it far away"... aka: leave it in someone else's back yard. However, once outside of the city, Sulawesi and it's surrounding islands radiate the kind of beauty dreams aspire to invent. Sapphire waters gently wash onto white sandy beaches through emerald mangroves, the broad blue sky playfully painted with feathery wisps of clouds stretched between cumulo nimbus mountains. There are volcanoes visible in every direction, evidence of the island's dramatic origins, befitting their breathtaking beauty. I took a picture at sunset of one of the volcanoes reflected in the shallow waters of low tide. But for the effects of gravity, one could easily become disoriented, and lose them self in the mirrored image.

Because Ty and Leila have so successfully integrated, I felt inspired to find something beyond where they'd explored, if only in some small way. I succeeded... before I left, Tyler said of my visit, "sometimes you land on your feet." Actually, I feel like I landed a few feet off of the ground, and never looked down.

I arrived the same day they moved into a new house, and was able to join them on a tour of the city running the necessary errands that accompany any move: buying household items, etc... They showed me the very effective local transportation system, consisting of minivans traveling set routes you can catch for about twelve cents a ride. Leila loaned me a phrase book that came in tremendously handy on several occasions. (One great thing about Indonesian is that it uses the same alphabet we do, and does not have tenses. I never got close to needing them, but was able to pick up a few rudimentary phrases quickly.) After a mellow night spent catching up with each other and getting some much needed rest, we spent the next day meeting their friends and further seeing the town. Ty and Leila are members of a small community of researchers and ex-pat resort owners who are working diligently to protect the local reef system. Dinner with their friends that evening evolved into a prolonged discussion of the politics and personalities involved. Owing to the fact that I was only marginally interested in the details, I bellied up to the bar and made nice with the staff. I carried a gentle buzz out of the restaurant, and while the couples went home, grabbed the only other single guy in the group and headed out to explore the local nightlife.

Sasha (German PhD student) and I played pool for a while before meandering into what can only be described as a concert hall. The place was huge, easily large enough to hold over 500 people. However, when we got there, there were nearly as many people performing (10) as there were in the bar. The band was pretty good, running through covers of almost every song you'd hear on a Top-40 radio station, as well as their extensive repertoire of local ballads. We'd exchanged hellos with a girl at the pool hall who showed up at the bar a short time after we did, and immediately joined us for a drink.

This feels like the appropriate time to explain what its like being a tourist in Manado. Before I left, my dad and I had a discussion about the status conveyed to travelers in foreign countries. There is no doubt that foreigners are treated exceptionally well in most places, usually in inverse proportion to the number of tourists in the area. That's to say, if you are one of only a few people to visit an area, you instantly become one of the most interesting people there, and are usually welcomed by all with a great deal of enthusiasm. It is very much like being a celebrity (I chose the word intentionally, as will become apparent soon). We debated the relative merits of the popularity, and agreed that it is at least partially earned... after all, you are navigating in a foreign country, often without the language skills to communicate fluently, and (at least as we've traveled) are making a sincere effort to appreciate the culture of, and learn about, the people you're visiting. In Manado, you hear near continuous calls of "Hello Mister!" from people as you pass, whether in a car or on foot, and obviously excited conversations about the "boule" (white person). In Indonesian, the way to make something plural is to say it twice. For example, to talk about children, they'd say "child child". Ty told me that more than once he's passed by bars where, upon seeing him walking along with Leila, they'd play "Wooly Booly" on the stereo. It sounds a lot like "boule boule", which would mean "white people" in Indonesian. Its really quite funny.

Anyhow, our newfound friend quickly took it upon herself to introduce us to everyone in the place she knew, which was apparently everyone. We met the managers, the bartenders, the dozen patrons, and during a break, the band. As the night progressed more people filtered in, and we met nearly everyone, one of whom was introduced as a pop star. Christine was clearly popular in the place, judging by the reactions she garnered, but I was skeptical about the "pop star" label... what were the chances? Regardless, as these things occasionally happen, we hit it off, and ended up walking out together. She invited us over to her restaurant; she owns a small cafe along the waterfront called "Celebrities". Its decorated with a few posters of pop/movie stars, stays open 24 hours a day, and caters to the local population. I figured that the cafe was the source of her high visibility. I was wrong.

I quickly discovered over the next few days that she was in fact very much a local celebrity, as demonstrated by her being instantly recognized everywhere we went, especially where anyone was playing music. Christy was in several bands who played throughout Indonesia, primarily in Jakarta, and put out three solo albums in the 90's. Nearly every time we went to a bar, the band immediately called her up to the stage to sing. She's no karaoke-singing pretender, either. The proof, in this case, is in the pipes. She has a voice strongly reminiscent of Tina Turner's, with more than a little gritty soul, and all of the moves and stage presence of a seasoned professional. Add to that the fact that she obviously loves it (and absolutely eats up all of the attention), and you've got a very dynamic performer.

Now, for those of you who know me well... you know I'm a sucker for attention. (Hell, who am I kidding- everyone reading this knows that.) However, I've discovered that I much prefer the option of being anonymous. With Christy it was impossible, due in no small part to her propensity for jumping up on stage and immediately dedicating songs to me while pointing me out to the crowd. There is something tremendously weird about having everyone in the place look at you, especially when you're doing nothing more than sitting at the bar drinking a gin and tonic. Combine that with the fact that I was nearly always the only foreigner, and am twice the size of the average local, and I felt like a three headed alien with twelve eyes and purple hair.

Fortunately, we didn't spend all of our time in clubs. I was able to get out to a few places that Ty and Leila hadn't been able to explore while working. I went through little towns that specialized in growing cloves and farming freshwater fish (Sonder), making furniture (Leilem), growing peanuts (Kawongkoan), and a sulfur hot springs surrounded by a re-creation of the Via Dolorosa, complete with the 14 stations of the cross, and corn on the cob boiled in the springs... (Bethel Bukit Kasih Kanonang). I know, it's an odd combination, but hey, even pilgrims have to eat, right? The day we made it up to Bukit Kasih was Holy Thursday, the day Christians commemorate the crucifixion of Christ. During our well timed departure, we passed entire caravans of people making pilgrimages to the springs.

In addition to seeing a few places Ty hadn't visited, I did something no one in their right mind would do... I drove. Christy borrowed a friend's Toyota Kijang... sort of a cross between a Land Cruiser and a 4 Runner. It had everything you'd expect for a car on the opposite side of the world... I drove from the right side of the car, on the left side of the road. When I first started, I rationalized that by the time he was my age my father had driven in Mexico City for two years with his wife and children, so I should be able to take my life in my own hands. If another consenting adult was willing to join me, so be it... I was going to make a conscientious effort to keep us alive. The fact that the roads were completely unlit, barely wide enough for a truck, wound around hills and cliffs somewhat randomly, and were densely populated with cars, trucks, pedestrians, pets and livestock wasn't enough to deter me.

Tyler gave me the following synopsis of the rules for driving in Indonesia:

Big Pick No-See'um Chicken

1) The bigger vehicle has the right of way, regardless of whom arrived where first, or what side of the road they happen to be on at any given moment. (Believe me- the directionality of the roads is absolutely arbitrary.)

2) Picks, like in basketball, are used to execute any number of maneuvers, most often accomplished by sliding into oncoming traffic behind an obviously suicidal motorbike driver... This is the only way to turn right.

3) No see'um... any accidents are the fault of whomever saw it coming. Therefore, if you ignore the other guy, it's their fault... ponder that for a moment, then picture the entire driving community carefully trying NOT to see one another.

4) Chicken... hey, its an art form requiring nerves of steel and quick reflexes. I discovered its not the greatest game to play when you've been conditioned to veer right, while everyone else veers left. It does, however, add to the excitement.

Christy's advice regarding driving consisted of a story. A "bemo" (small, three wheeled vehicle with something resembling a lawn mower's engine, often grossly overloaded) was traveling in one direction while an enormous container truck was traveling in the other. As often happens in these kind of stories, they come upon each other head on, while the truck was in the process of passing a slow moving goat cart. The driver of the bemo leans out his window and shouts "Cari mati ngana??" which loosely translated means, "What? You wanna die?" Now, anyone paying attention will instantly recognize that if they were to in fact collide, it would be much more likely that the driver of the truck would barely notice, while the bemo driver would end up doing an impressive impression of a pancake. Never-the-less...

And that's how Indonesians drive. I made it through three days without even a scratch.

Christy told me the following regarding Manadonese people, and their eating habits:

"You know the story of Adam and Eve, the apple and the snake, and how it lead to our being expelled from the Garden of Eden? Well, if Adam and Eve had been Manadonese, we'd still be there, because they'd have left the apple, and eaten the snake!"

Despite my intention to try all of the local specialties, I ended up passing on the dog. I was up for it until I heard a story suggesting that to tenderize the meat, the dogs were placed in sacks and beaten to death with sticks. It sounded like a line to gross out foreigners, until I asked around and had it confirmed several times. Yuck!

I did eat lots of very tasty fish meals. Everything in Indonesia tends to come with chilies, which I like. Tyler eats food that boarders on liquid magma, and I can tolerate a respectable amount of spice. We definitely caused a stir by not shying away from the condiments... apparently they're more used to European visitors who eat such extravagant things as "toast", and sometimes "ketchup". During an interview, Leila asked a local man to describe the main differences between the locals and outsiders. "Well... you eat bread, right?", he asked. Then, very seriously, said, "We are small, brown, and eat rice." He wondered why she wasn't taking notes.

I left Indonesia with an incredibly long list of things I wanted to see and do. I didn't make it to Bali or Jakarta, and I didn't go diving due to ear problems. There are quite literally 101 things I'd like to see and do, and have every intention of making it back someday soon.



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