Five hundred years ago the people of Bima, Sumbawa grew crops in volcanic soil, built small fishing boats out of hard wood, and traversed the Indonesian archipelago under lateen sail in search of fish. In 1993 when I visited them, they still did. Sumbawa is fascinating, lying at a "transitional point between the Indianized 'high' cultures of Western Indonesia and the traditional pagan cultures of eastern Indonesia."
I had traveled eastward down the Nusa Tenggara from Jakarta, crossing Java, Bali, and Lombok, and in Bima I was interested in boat schedules for a Pelni ship that would take me back west to where a job and my next adventure awaited me. But Sumbawa was too good to resist - even the name was delicious on the tongue. Sumbawa is rough, rumpled, mountainous, and in 1993 at least it was delightfully untouristed. From bus windows I saw not entreaties for foreign visitors but simply farmers and fishermen doing what they’d always done. The hillsides looked wild, untamed, even unused. The hillsides drew my eyes most easily: steep and parched, draped over the higher summits by dark clouds that seemed unwilling to shed their watery loads. It was no wonder people turned to the sea. Drawing on my own experience in small boats on the Eastern seaboard, Sumbawa’s rumpled coastline looked like a paradise for a small, maritime gunkholer like myself. But Sumbawa was full of fragant sapan and sandalwood timber too, as well as tobacco and lots of grains.
I took a benhur (dokar) cart from my losmen into town. It was market night, and the roads were lined with merchants’ wares. I found piles of fishing nets and stacks of reproduced books in Bahasa and Arabic. I wound up talking with the seller of Korans: he had dozens of varieties of Islam’s sacred book, in gorgeous Arabic script, or Arabic with Bahasa side-by-side. Other than the muezzin’s frequent calls-to-prayer, it was my first close experience in Indonesia with the peaceful kind of Islam that had crossed the Indian Ocean and settled so easily into the Indonesian archipelago so many centuries ago. Even now, it seemed like a good fit for these hard working traders, craftsmen, and fishermen. In fact, Sumbawa is a deeply Muslim region, more prone to women in headgear than elsewhere in Indonesia, and an area where the call to prayer shuts down commerce more thoroughly than Indonesia's other islands.
Walking toward the outskirts of town I came across a small home; the family was resting outside on mats, drinking hot tea. The father of the family saw me and beckoned me over to join them. I counted seven children of all ages, but no shoes anywhere. The mother ducked inside their little home under a roof I noticed was of straw. The father spoke minimal Bahasa but I was grateful to note it was enough for us to connect. What do you talk about in such a situation? If you too grew up in myriad small boats, it’s simple: you talk about the sea, sharks, tides, fishing, small craft. He asked me if the Pelni ship Kelimutu were to sail to America, how many days’ sail it would take. I hazarded a guess of thirty or forty days, and he was taken aback. I gathered he’d never left Sumbawa, and probably never would. Maybe he wouldn't have to: with farmland, fish, virgin forests, and a healthy, trading economy, Sumbawa filled me with hope. It was also a lovely place to hoist my backpack over my shoulders and walk around.
Talking sailing with Indonesians somehow neutralized all the “hello mister” I’d gotten as I’d left Java. Indonesia was my first, serious adventure outside the United States, and there in Bima, Sumbawa, drinking scalding tea while seven little children eyed me nervously as I discussed tides with their father, I thought to myself, I could live here. Maybe some day I will.
“I am learning, as I make my way through my first continent, that it is remarkably easy to do things, and much more frightening to contemplate them." — Ted Simon, Jupiter’s Travels
Indonesia was just the start of my travels. Writing this twenty two years later, I realize I’ve spent most of my adult life living among the disadvantaged in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, and seen enough of the so-called developed world to know the difference. Even in my lifetime, the distinction between the haves and the have-nots has changed, and it will change farther still. There’s something to be said for an island where you have to slow down to avoid a herd of crossing water buffalo, where the markets are lit by the orange glow of kerosene lanterns, where the kids mind goats and chickens and ducks, where every meal is a blessing. I first noticed it in Indonesia, but have seen it everywhere since: happiness has nothing to do with possessions, and in fact it is frequently the simplest lifestyles that are the most rewarding: travel Indonesia with nothing more than a backpack and it becomes so clear.
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