After some 30 days of fairly hectic and intense travelling in Indonesia, I had totally lost the plot and was basically at the end of my tether. It's a travel trap that I've fallen into before; if you push yourself too far too quickly, you'll burn out, and the whole experience suffers as a result. When I got to Ampana, I was almost ready to throw in the towel and fly back to London. Let me elaborate.
For a few days, aided and abetted by my bout of intestinal hockey, a really bad feeling had been growing inside of me. I sat back and looked at my Indonesian experience to date, and to be honest, I wasn't that impressed. Despite the fact that I had found so much to write about, had had so many different experiences to describe and a constant battering of ideas and intrusions that had kept me on my toes, there was one thing that I realised when I got down to the nitty-gritty; I was in serious danger of getting bored of travelling in Indonesia. The novelty had already worn off.
I even went as far as to make a list of things that were really winding me up, as a kind of organisational therapy. I repeat the list here, to give you a peek into the mind of a long-term traveller, though bear in mind that these notes were jotted down under a black cloud of illness and travel fatigue, so take them with a large pinch of salt:
I came to Southeast Asia for the culture; after Australia and New Zealand I'm not too bothered by trying to find amazing landscapes here, but I want to discover different ways of life and different ideas. The problem is that I'm finding Indonesian culture rather hard to experience, outside of the neatly packaged cultural experiences like Ubud. Essentially, I can't find the culture I so badly want to see.
The effort involved in travelling in Indonesia is astounding. The constant and weary Hello Misters and JFOs, the tiring and eternal public transport... however good the destinations, sometimes you find yourself thinking that the gain is not worth the pain.
After about a week, the food becomes pretty damn boring. Constant rice and noodles gets pretty uninspiring when you're used to western food. I now find myself craving Pizza Hut and McDonald's, which isn't a good sign.
Pretty miserable, eh! On the other hand, rereading the above after the low patch had passed didn't make me press 'delete' and start again, something I normally find essential if this travelogue isn't going to be just a collection of moans and groans written at a bad time of the day. No, these whinges are pretty valid, and not the result of illness or exhaustion, so I've left them in.
A big result of the above discoveries was that I decided then and there not to bother with Kalimantan; apart from the fact that Borneo was pretty much smothered in choking smoke at the time, I realised that I simply didn't fancy hacking my way up another river to discover a jungle that's been logged, or a culture that's being swallowed by Coke and MTV. I decided that I'd try to go straight from Sulawesi to Java, skipping the bushfires altogether and heading for some guaranteed sightseers' delights.
After cheering up during my stay in the Togians, though, I began to see the other side to my complaints. Take the difficulty in discovering the real Indonesian culture; my initial problem was that I thought Indonesian culture was dead. Looking around, the biggest influences you see are Coke, English language slogan T-shirts, motorbikes, cars, television, and all the rest of the axioms of westernisation. This didn't surprise me one bit; Indonesia is a developing country, so western ideals and concepts will be greedily guzzled up by the populace.
But everywhere you go there are signs of the culture that are very different to the western world, it's just that it doesn't take long to become immune enough for you to begin to take it all for granted. Try the following everyday sights: people walking cattle down the street; bicycle rickshaws rattling over the stony roads; warung stalls dotted about town, selling cheap snacks and meals; colourful markets everywhere; Muslim mosques, Buddhist temples and Christian churches, all on the same street; lush vegetation and tropical palms just about everywhere; clothes like sarongs, Islamic hats, batik designs and so on; smiling and laughing, the likes of which you'd never get in a western city; a people who are always helping you find the right bus, the right boat, the right bemo, without expecting anything in return except a little conversation and politeness; yes, Indonesian culture is far from dead, it's just ingrained so deeply into everyday life that after a month, it's no longer new, so you get used to it. Actually Indonesia is culturally very interesting, and I've learned to look at everything with new eyes every day to appreciate the subtleties of the local psyche.
My whinge about the effort required in travelling through Indonesia is totally fair, and most western travellers I have met have to take regular breaks at places like beach resorts to regain their sanity. Which is exactly what I did in the Togians, and is exactly what I shall continue to do.
Finally, the food. Yes, it is a bit disappointing, no doubt about it. But there are plenty of other more exciting countries on my itinerary, and at least the food here is incredibly cheap. So I can't really complain, can I? Exactly.