If you asked me the question ‘How has travel changed you?’ I might not give you the answer you expect. Yes, it’s made me more confident; it’s given me insights into cultures I couldn’t have got from books or television so it’s made me wiser (I hope), and it’s helped me realise how lucky I am to come from a developed country which encourages freedom of speech and offers free healthcare. I think, though, that by far the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from my years of travel is tolerance. It was a lesson I needed to learn and I was reminded of this last weekend when I took a trip to a tiny island called Pulau Umang in the south west of Java, Indonesia.
IALF, the Australian organisation I’m working for at the moment, pays for its employees and their families to have a weekend break once a year and I was lucky enough to be here in Jakarta for this year’s excursion. We were warned that the island was a six hour bus journey away so we were all prepared with iPods, books and other things to keep us entertained. Some of the other teachers were put off by this and chose not to go, but for me it was part of the attraction since I’ve always loved any kind of trip, whether it’s by bus, train, boat or bike. In my experience, I’ve found that physically moving through a country is the best way to see how people live, admire the scenery and notice the subtle changes that take place when you pass through towns and cross borders.
This journey was no different. Once we’d got out of Jakarta we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by rice paddies, swaying palm trees and little slanting wooden huts by the side of the road with people sprawled out on their verandas playing chess or hanging out washing with kids playing at their feet. I began to feel that I was finally getting to see the ‘real’ Indonesia and that was what I had come for.
Pulau Umang itself measures only five hectares and can be reached in about five minutes by boat. There’s only one resort on the island (www.pulau-umang.com) which means there are very few people to share the beach with. Each of the wooden chalets has a sea view and a small veranda with loungers to relax on and the food is served in the main building, which has a large infinity pool just outside. Swimming isn’t really possible unless you take a boat out to the deeper water since the seabed is covered in coral which can make it difficult to swim directly from the beach. It is, however, great for snorkelling. I decided to do neither and was content just floating by the shore in the crystal clear waters, letting the dirt and grime of the city wash out of my hair and allowing myself to get back to nature.
This all sounds great, I hear you say, so where’s the lesson in tolerance and understanding? Well, here’s the thing. The island was by no means ‘pristine’. There were plastic bottles washed up on some parts of the beach and crisp packets nestling between the coral. It wasn’t what you would call filthy, but it certainly wasn’t the paradise pictured in the brochure. I found the same to be true when I visited Lombok a couple of weeks ago and it gives you that sinking feeling in your stomach and a sadness that’s hard to shake. But when you see the poverty around you and the complete lack of awareness of anything remotely environmentally friendly, you realise that the people here have other more pressing things to worry about. Many Indonesians live without running water and bathe and wash their clothes in rivers which are already polluted by waste and sewage. It’s not a priority here to take your litter home with you because even if you do there’s nowhere else for it to go apart from the open gutters which line the streets and the roadsides.
As a foreigner and someone who is used to cleanliness and order, it’s tempting to start bemoaning the state of the country and insisting that something be done about it, but if you fall into that trap then you’re missing the point. You have to remind yourself that you’re here to learn about how other people live and to see first-hand what their day to day challenges are. Rubbish is not the biggest issue – clean drinking water and providing food for the family is way more important. Similarly, if you’re vegetarian, don’t expect a variety of dishes to be placed before you. Being able to pick and choose what you will and won’t eat is a privilege reserved for the fortunate few and will be regarded with wonder and bemusement in a country where any kind of meat is a luxury and treated as such.
On the first evening of our stay, the sky became ominously dark and loud claps of thunder ushered in a massive downpour which left us without electricity or running water for a couple of hours. When it did finally come back on and I was able to have a shower, I got an electric shock through the metal taps which was strong enough to persuade me that maybe my hair didn’t need conditioning after all. The staff at reception spoke very poor English and there was a mix up with our drinks bill. Lunch was served late on the Sunday which meant that we left an hour and a half later than scheduled and consequently got caught in all the traffic returning to Jakarta (I was recently told by one of my students that during the week the number of people in the city doubles to nearly 24 million. That’s the entire population of Australia). This meant that our six hour bus journey slowly and painfully dragged into a nine hour endurance test.
So the next morning when my colleagues asked about the trip, it would’ve been easy to have had a good old moan and say how awful everything had been. But I didn’t do that because it wasn’t awful, it was just different. It’s fair to say that most of those things would never have happened in my native England, but that, as far as I’m concerned, is a reason for appreciating and even celebrating them. What’s the point in travelling thousands of miles to another country and then complaining because it’s not what you’re used to? Travel teaches you to be patient. It shows you that there are other ways of doing things and it’s not always ‘your way’ that’s the best. Above all, though, it teaches you to tolerate the things you cannot change and appreciate the differences. The world would be an incredibly dull place without them.