No, I'm not immune to culture-shock

For all that I’d tried to mentally prepare myself for Indonesia, I had failed. Our time in Malaysia had softened us. It had been a very welcome and well-deserved vacation from the jaw-clenching annoyances of travel in Asia, but it had made us lose our edge. Five minutes of sitting at the ferry terminal, no more than half an hour into Indonesia, as enough to convince me that my fears hadn’t been groundless. The staring was one thing. I hadn’t been properly, thoroughly stared at since China and I’d forgotten how irritating it is for the couple of weeks it takes to grow numb to it again. People here are good starers too. They do it right. Their eyes bug out of their heads and food falls from their open mouths. They’ll watch you vacant-eyed for hours. Occasionally a sort of spinal reflex will raise their hand to their mouth with more food, and their heads will track you if you move, but smiling at them or waving or greeting them often gets no reaction - you’re like television, turned to a disturbing but fascinating channel. They’ll never blink, because they don’t want to miss the moment when you start eating nearby babies.

It’s hard, as a traveller, to connect with people when these sorts of barriers are raised. But it works both ways. There are a lot of things I see when travelling that make me judge people - fairly or not, I leave it to you to say - and make me not want to know them any better. Staring, I admit, has become one such trigger for me. Another - and it’s a big one - is littering. I’m not sure - can you call it litter when it’s ankle-deep? As I sat and listened to the others chatter I watched the locals mindlessly dropping their trash as their feet, changing babies’ diapers or eating their meals and then walking away from the garbage without a backward glance - despite the trash bins no more than a few steps away by the terminal walls. It infuriates me. It’s vile and dirty and unnecessary.

The knee-jerk response is to indulge it on the grounds that these are “developing countries” and either they don’t know any better or they’re too poor to worry about it. A year of travel in Asia has taught me that neither of these things are true, however. The defence of dirtiness based on ignorance doesn’t hold up because it doesn’t take any brains at all to see the cause and effect relationship between the trash you drop and the fact that you’re living in a garbage-heap. And it’s nothing to do with being poor, either. In the case of genuine poverty, certainly - Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests that starving people aren’t going to worry much about trash disposal. But while Indonesia is poor by Western standards, it’s by no means poverty-stricken. And yet the people here follow the standard Asian waste-disposal philosophy; that is, drop it wherever you happen to be standing - and seem perfectly content to live in a knee-deep carpet of filth. In just a couple of days I saw more examples than I can count. On Pulau Weh there was a continuous trail of trash strewn to either side of the path between the village and the guesthouses, and in a circle around every bungalow. And while snorkelling one day we saw a Scuba-diving operator dumping trash out of his boat onto the reef while his customers were in the water. A dive operator! Based on my experience of northern Sumatra, that gives you a clue to the state of environmental consciousness in Indonesia. They know better. They just don’t give a shit. These are the people in charge of the delicate ecosystems of the reefs and rainforests - what’s left of them, anyway. I can only hope the situation improves as we travel further into the country, but I admit my confidence is low.

The other horrible thing was the smoking. I thought China was bad, when I was there, but it’s nothing next to Indonesia. Of course, here in strictly Islamic Aceh province, under Shariah law, women are forbidden to smoke. Small mercy, when every man on Sumatra chain-smokes twenty-four hours a day from cradle to grave. Not much hyperbole in that last sentence - we saw one man trying to teach a months-old baby to smoke. Every man here is constantly shrouded in a reeking cloud. It’s a smoker’s paradise here. A package of cigarettes costs something like $1.50, and there’s no place - no place at all - where smoking is considered inappropriate. On buses, while eating, in the shower, anywhere. It’s a hard place to be a non-smoker. My lungs, eyes and throat were burning and aching within an hour of setting foot in the country.

So my first impressions of Indonesia confirmed my fears that it was going to be difficult travelling and not much fun. Time will tell. Maybe I’ve given in to travel fatigue and cynicism, but I’m not here to make friends and experience local culture. I’ve been there and done that and as far as I can tell, people are more or less the same anywhere you go. Indonesia was never on my must-visit list. There are four reasons for us to be here: To see the orangutans, first and most important. Then in no particular order, reef snorkelling, volcano-climbing and rainforest trekking. If we can accomplish those things and get the hell out then I’ll be happy enough.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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