12-2012 / 10-2013
Indonesia, the numbers astound even as you just go over them reading from the Lonely Planet guide. 17,000 islands (or is it 20,000?) 8000 inhabited (or is it 11,000?) 300 languages spoken (or is it 400?) The list goes on.
The world’s fourth most populace country – 240 million and counting – is a sultry kaleidoscope that runs along the equator for 5000km. It may well be the last great adventure on Earth. From the western tip of Sumatra to the eastern edge of Papua is a nation that defies homogenization. A land of so many cultures, peoples, animals, customs, plants, features, artworks and foods that it is like 100 countries melted into one (or is it 200?)
And we’re talking about differences that aren’t just about an accent or a preference for goat over pork. We’re talking about people who are as radically different from each other as if they came from different continents. Here every island is a unique blend of the men, women and children who live upon it. Over time deep and rich cultures have evolved, from the mysteries of the spiritual Balinese to the utterly non-Western belief system of the Asmat people of Papua.
Venturing through the islands of Indonesia you’ll see a land as diverse and unusual as those living upon it. Dramatic sights are the norm. During my time there I tried to cover as much area as I could but because of my work that wasn’t possible. My starting point and the base of my work was the Island of Gods. Bali may be small in size – you can drive around the entire coast in one long day – but its prominence as a destination is huge, and rightfully so. Ask travellers what Bali means to them and you’ll get as many answers as there are flowers on a tree in spring time. Iridescent rice terraces, pulse-pounding surf, enchanting temple ceremonies, mesmerizing dance performances and ribbons of beaches are just some of the images people cherish. If you manage to avoid the prepackage tourist resorts, Bali is a wonderful place to encounter the locals with as many things to fascinate you in their unique culture as the numbers of ceremonies that their Hindu religion has (almost one every day of the year). Small obviously doesn’t mean limited. The party scene of Kuta merges into the luxury and chic of Seminyak. The artistic swirl of Ubud is a counterpoint to misty treks up the volcanoes and spiritual trip in the Bali culture. Mellow beach towns like Amed, Lovina and Pemuteran can be found right around the coast with beautiful small settlements to choose as your base. Just offshore is the laid-back idyll of Nusa Lembongan. Although at work, Rochelle and I still managed to make something out of every day we had in Bali: day trips to Nusa Penida and Lembongan to dive and overnight trips to the far out National Park of Menjangan. Traveling overland in Bali we stumbled upon the offerings left all over the island by the religious locals as if by magic. We became witnesses of the tiny tapestry of colors and textures that make up the surroundings. That’s why Bali stands at the top of the list as a tourist destination in Southeast Asia. Besides all that I was working in Karma Kandara, probably one of the best resorts in the island. Bali really gained a place in my travel map top destination.
A visit to Bali means that you’re in the most visitor-friendly island of Indonesia. There are pleasures for the body, from a massage on the beach to a hedonistic spa treatment. Shopping that will blow your budget away. Food and drink ranging from the freshest local cuisine bursting with the flavors of the markets to food from around the globe, often prepared by chefs and served in restaurants that are world class. From a cold Bintang (local beer) at sunset to an epic night clubbing in Seminyak, your social whirl is limited only by your own fortitude.
Another destination that I had the chance to visit was Lombok and the Gili Islands. Rochelle and I escaped there for three days after the New Year’s celebration. Although predominated by Muslim religious people that call this area home, they have managed to find a formula to exempt foreigners without losing their own unique identity. It’s really a place worth a visit and for us as divers definitely a must do.
Further down the line, in Nusa Tenggara, we visited Flores. A fascinating, mountainous and remarkably beautiful island that has a volcanic topography which has longed shaped its destiny. A chain of cones stretches the length of this verdant island, provoking a complicated relief of V-shaped valleys and knife-edged ridges. The surrounding terrain was nearly impenetrable until recent years and that has separated the island into many distinct ethnic groups. Today, though Flores is overwhelmingly Catholic, rich indigenous cultures continue to thrive alongside mainstream religious beliefs.
Moving forward from religion though, Flores has the most remarkable sights in Nusa Tenggara, starting with the sublime multihued crater lakes of Kelimutu and toping up with the terrific beaches around Labuanbajo, and idyllic offshore islands with some of the world class diving. The island attracts a steady flow of travelers but it’s nothing like the tourist scene we came across in Bali or parts of Lombok.
The rugged nature of the island makes road construction difficult and Flores’ serpentine east–west road is impossible to traverse quickly. So you’ll need to draw on extra reserves of patience when the going slows, although fortunately you’ll always have remarkable natural beauty to wonder at along the way.
What I missed from the area visited in this country was definitely covered by my local fellow workers in Karma Kandara. Since Bali is really the heart of the tourist industry in Indonesia, here is where people from all parts of the country come to work. Having to do with people from Sumatra or Surabaya definitely educated me on their different culture although I didn’t have the chance to visit their unique islands.
Having spent more than four months in Indonesia, including work time, I still feel like I haven’t seen enough of this country. With so many different cultures and ethnic groups, with local customs and ways of living, it’s still on my things-to-do list. Come here with an open mind, leave what you know back home for a while and let the locals take you through their way of life. Let Indonesia get under your skin and you won’t be disappointed. Hopefully I’ll be back next year to complete my adventure in this really unique island country.
Check the other two episodes as well as my Raja Ampat post at