Author’s Note: As a volunteer representing the International Division of the YMCA of the USA, I met with YMCA leaders throughout the Asia-Pacific region and the USA to help strengthen cooperation among YMCAs for technical, financial and human resource development. This is a series of highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries, including a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, and continuing through Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and then back to the USA.
Canoeists silhouetted against the morning glow moved out into the river. Standing balanced, paddling their long wooden dugouts – the original paddle boarders! A beautiful flight from the chilly highlands brought us to the border town of Wewak, on the northwest coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where we soaked up the welcome warmth of the sea.
Traveling with my brother Dave, the boatman steered us up the Sepik River to the village of Kambot — famous for its carved Story Boards. Wild, flat country, dusty and dry, and fortunately not too many mosquitoes. Staying in the village was very peaceful — bathing in the river, and the villagers were warm and gentle. But the food staple ‘sago’ — made from the pith inside the trunk of palm trees was a bit lacking in substance and flavor, to say the least!
From Wewak, our plane arrived in Jayapura, the capital of the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, where everyone on board promptly had their Indonesian visas canceled. Border disputes between Indonesia and PNG were common at the time, so my two-month Indonesian visa, obtained with considerable effort in the capital city of Port Moresby, was instantly reduced to three weeks – just to spite the PNG authorities. I was politely informed, however, that I could simply ‘buy lunch’ for an Indonesian immigration official anywhere along the way to have my two-month visa re-issued. Right…
But just one night in Indonesia, and the distinctive music, sweet-smelling clove cigarettes, pretty girls, good food, and cheap prices had us fired up for Asia! The Pacific is truly peaceful and beautifully simple, but the promise and excitement of Indonesia’s exotic cultural mix beckoned. My meeting with the Yogyakarta YMCA was not until the following week, so we set off to begin exploring some of Indonesia’s vast archipelago of roughly 18,000 islands.
Flying from Jayapura to the bustling city of Ujung Pandang on the southern coast of Sulawesi, we headed north by bus to Tana Toraja — a scenic mountainous area known for its boat-shaped houses flanked by rice paddies, and elaborate funeral ceremonies. But the roads further north were really bad – entire buses seemed to disappear into the cavernous ruts. So we retreated to Bali for some beach time, swimming, good food, and a massage before Dave returned to the USA.
Bali was much more touristic, but offered unique and fascinating expressions of culture at every turn including cremation ceremonies featuring enormous, elaborately carved pyres paraded through town and then burned. Food offerings are piled high and carried on women’s heads. Families often need time to raise the money for such elaborate rituals, so the deceased would be buried and then dug up later when sufficient funds were available.
The countryside was spectacular and great for hiking, with rushing cascades and sweeping arcs of rice terraces carved into the greenest hillsides. I often came across women bathing openly – as is the custom, and this simply added to the naturally beautiful scenes. I climbed smoky Mount Batur, an active volcano that rises dramatically from within two concentric calderas and a large caldera lake, and then skied back down on one foot through the hot, fine ash using just one rubber thong (the other one had broken on the way up!)
Reaching the base of the volcano, I entered one of the many naturally heated pools hidden in shallow caves at the edge of the lake – and came face to face with a young maiden who promptly invited me in to share her bath and a shampoo – and then led me back to her village for supper and a bed for the night in her family’s home-stay. No one in the family spoke English, but as I became more proficient in the Indonesian language, it was all becoming like something out of dream land.
After two fruitless visits to a local Immigration Office – well dressed, practicing my language skills, and professing a keen appreciation of Indonesia and its people – I was told that if I returned the next day wearing closed-toe shoes, I would have my visa. Apparently, my Birkenstock sandals didn’t cut it, and the shoes in local shops were all too small for my big foreign feet. Fortunately, another traveler loaned me his shoes – and I had my two-month visa!
Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Indonesia (Part Two), coming soon!
You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.
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