Indonesia – A Hidden Treasure Trove

With its incredible diversity, India is a feast for the senses for people around the world, with its colour, character, philosophy and organised chaos. All my life I have revelled in this and considered myself very fortunate to be a part of it. However, it has made my search for such diversity and vibrancy elsewhere much harder.

Having planned some time off to travel last year, my wife, Sophia, and I narrowed the list of places we wanted to visit to South America or Indonesia; and when a good friend related fascinating stories from Indonesia, it seemed like a sleeping giant that the world knew little about so we decided to go and see it for ourselves.

Consider some of these facts: The largest archipelago in the world with about 18,000 islands, Indonesia stretches along the equator for more than 5,000 km. Almost 60% of Indonesia’s land is forested and it has more than 500 volcanoes – 12% of which are still active! The fourth most heavily populated country in the world after China, India and the United States with close to 250 million people, comprising some 300 ethnic groups who speak an estimated 600 languages and dialects.

Part 1 Bali – the island of the Gods!

As a first time visitor to Indonesia, I was excited as well as a little nervous. It’s a massive country, spread over thousands of kilometres. So like India, yet so unlike India, with its endless islands forming a chain along the equator.

Indonesia to me was a slightly incomprehensible mix of a remarkably beautiful tropical paradise and danger; with communal troubles and civil disturbances, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes. During our trip we hoped to find a fascinating reality that lay between those two opposing themes.

The excitement stemmed also from the fact that we had a month to spend there exploring these marvellous islands; home to active volcanoes, spectacular beaches and unique wildlife, like the Komodo dragon.

We started our trip in the relative comfort of the well developed tourism infrastructure on the island of Bali. In fact only thing that was difficult was trying to get a reasonably priced flight from New Delhi, as we had left it so late! Everything worked out finally and an uneventful Malaysian airlines flight later through Kuala Lumpur, we landed in Bali at Denpasar airport. The landing was spectacular as the plane comes down close to the white sandy Jimbaran beach; as you fly in, all you can see is the sea coming closer and closer until a few seconds before touch down the runway is suddenly visible.

As Indonesia has recently relaxed its visa regime for Indians, it was possible to get a visa on arrival – as an Indian passport holder, it is still a novel experience to travel to countries and get a visa on arrival! Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong (interestingly enough one needs a visa for China though), Cambodia and Maldives are a few of the others.

It was a hassle free experience and one can straight away see the advantages it brings to tourism and business travel. This is even more important in light of the Indian Tourism Board’s efforts to push a similar proposal through for visitors to India.

Having pre-arranged some budget accommodation in the nearby beach town of Sanur, we hired a taxi to get us there. Bali’s excellent tourism infrastructure made it an easy and painless process, we didn’t even need the Indonesian we had been learning, a language much easier to learn than many.

Bali, appropriately called ‘the island of the gods’ is an excellent example of the religious and cultural diversity which exists in Indonesia, and consists predominantly of Hindu communities. By contrast the island of Java, where the capital Jakarta is located, is predominantly Muslim and the island of Flores (where we headed to later in our trip) is mostly Christian.

The widely spread islands with their mix of peoples, cultures and religions means that Indonesia has faced a similar problem to India in terms of language. Bahasa Indonesia is the national language but interestingly has faced similar challenges in many parts of the country to that with the adoption of Hindi as the national language in India. Indeed in Bali, Balinese is widely spoken.

The Balinese worship the various gods of Hindu mythology and are all as familiar with the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana as many Indians are. Each house is in fact considered a minor temple, adding further to the astounding statistic of some 20,000 temples on this small island of no more than two million people.

Offerings are made twice daily to the gods of the house and to the gods honoured in small shrines everywhere. As you drive around Bali, the sight of women carrying rice-and-flower offerings on banana leaves is common. Indeed, the word Bali, dating from the 9th century, means “offering.”

Sanur – rather unfairly nicknamed ‘snore’ by us – was a very sleepy town, that had begun to lose its charm through its efforts to pander to all kinds of tourists. Our sense of discovery, lead us to search for the real Bali and we headed to a small island, Nusa Lembongan, about two hours away by boat.

Nusa Lembongan is one of 3 islands that sit across the Badung Strait on the Southeast coast of Bali along with Nusa Ceningan & Nusa Penida. These 3 islands are somewhat impoverished, relying on seaweed farming, cattle and other low-return activities, with tourism the brightest light on the horizon. The boat ride across the Badung Strait was smooth to begin with, but as we had been warned, the straits are extremely deep and there is always a large swell in the middle -finely illustrated by the teenage girl sitting behind us unable to keep her breakfast away from the fish!

Although we had to get off at the main jetty, we had made up our minds to make our way to Mushroom Bay, an amazing white sand beach which we had spotted from the boat. Getting there meant either taking a small, but expensive, motor boat taxi, or hiking with our heavy back packs up and downhill for a couple of hours.

Of course, having decided on the water taxi option, we couldn’t find one until a booming Australian drawl asked if he could help. Indeed he was the owner of the water taxi company who had been living on Nusa Lembongan for years. Mushroom Bay was every bit as pretty close up and we booked ourselves into some Balinese style lodging for a few nights.

Breakfast by the beach is a luxury for anyone and we certainly indulged at the rather aptly named but predictable Bali Café. There was a sense of exclusivity to Mushroom Bay which was only disturbed at about mid-day for a few hours by day trippers from mainland Bali. We spent that time exploring the island and the first time around decided to do a walking tour. Incredibly greenery, and some stunning beaches, were our reward although after a while the humidity made the walk more of an effort than we would have liked. And, of course, temples and offerings were everywhere.

The next day we decided to explore a bit further by hiring a motor cycle, with my wife bravely (according to her!) agreeing to ride pillion. The roads were not great and extremely steep in places, but off we set off. It is hard to lose one’s way around the island and we made it to the other side of the island, stopping off to admire the views and when stopped by friendly inquisitive children.

Our plan was to visit the other two neighbouring islands, if possible, and were told we could drive our bike across a narrow bridge. The bridge was indeed narrow but what worried us even more was the approach ramp – a small miscalculation of a few inches and the probability was that we would miss the bridge and land in the sea. As not-so-brave adventurers, we decided that I try it alone without my passenger. Success!

Driving through Nusa Ceningan, it was apparent that the island was much poorer than Nusa Lembongnan; the difference was tourism. Residents of Nusa Ceningan survived mostly through sea weed farming and when the trade wasn’t going well they had a difficult life.

We stopped at a site where there were clearly plans to build a resort. Most of the structure and layout were in place, but now had been left to rot. As we were enjoying the views and thinking, how wonderful it would be to resurrect the resort, and would it ever be feasible, a man appeared from behind the buildings and came over. Suddenly worried that we were trespassing and that there was no other soul in sight, we tried to apologise and move away. But he was very friendly and told us about the plans for this place and how it had all gone wrong when his foreign business partner decided to pull out when tourism in Bali went into a tailspin after the bomb attacks several years ago. At last our few phrases of Bahasa Indonesia had come in useful! That, with English and body language had helped us communicate.

Having had a relatively quiet and relaxed introduction to Indonesia we were ready to make our way back to mainland Bali and get intrepid in pursuit of the Komodo dragon and to see whales in the remote village of Lamalera, in one of the eastern most parts of the archipelago.

To be continued…..
Sabung Ayam