Some people have known what they love doing since they were very young, but others find out about that one thing they’re most passionate about only when they’ve grown up, and I belong in the latter category. When I was little, I didn’t know that I would enjoy traveling so much. For me, ‘travel’ meant visiting relatives in other cities on Java, coming with my parents on my father’s work-related trips, or going on school outings. So how and why has traveling become an important part of my life now?
Looking back, I realized even though I didn’t grow up visiting foreign places, my exposure to the world started very early. One day when I was still in primary school, my father showed me a huge pile of stamps mostly from abroad. I don’t exactly remember how he got them, but I still recall that feeling of fascination when I saw those colorful small pieces of paper with perforated edges which allowed people to send letters. As I examined each and every one of them, many depicting imagery I wasn’t familiar with, I stumbled upon some that were emblazoned with names totally foreign to me. While I already knew Nippon is Japan and Norge is Norway, what was Helvetia? And Österreich? And how come there are two different names for Deutsche: Deutsche Bundespost and Deutsche Demokratische Republik? Since there was no internet back then to just look up things on Google, it took me many years to finally understand that Helvetia is in fact Switzerland, Österreich is Austria, and the two Deutsches referred to West and East Germany, respectively.
Stamps aside, my father used to make me watch the 9pm world news with him, and that was how I learned about Cyprus and the frozen conflict between its Greek and Turkish communities, among other things. He also mentioned Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, the Berlin Wall, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and how the United Kingdom and Argentina fought over the Falklands (better known in Indonesia as the Malvinas, like how the Argentinians call these islands). “The Argentines used the Exocet,” my mom added one night. I was (and still am) curious and amused that of all things it’s the French-made missile she remembers most about this war.
I also remember excitedly turning the pages of an atlas we had in our home with its rear cover displaying the flags of countries from all around the world (some of them have been redesigned since then). I even had some cutouts of those colorful national banners stored in a glass jar. My father also showed me a very thick book with hundreds of pages filled with words I wasn’t interested in reading, except for one page because of a black and white photo of a building printed on it. It was unlike any other structure I had seen before, and as I read the caption carefully, I learned that this seemingly magical and grand edifice is called the Potala Palace.
In the years that followed, my knowledge of the world expanded further thanks to the encyclopedias I read at the school library. Images of cities in the US, each one with a skyscraper-filled skyline, evoked that sense of wonder within me. So did pictures of faraway countries like Iran and Mauritania. In my university years, I started subscribing to the Indonesian edition of the National Geographic magazine and began reading The Economist for a more in-depth understanding of the world. However, it was only in 2007 – during my final year in college – when the opportunity finally came for me to go outside Indonesia and see the world for the first time.
One of my cousins who had been living in Europe for more than a decade was getting married with her then-boyfriend from Germany (they decided to part ways a few years ago). And as the wedding date was finalized, my aunt (my late father’s elder sister) called my parents, asking them to attend the ceremony in the groom’s hometown. But my dad had a different idea. “Instead of us going, what if I send Bama?” he called his sister back with his proposal. Not only would it be cheaper for them (paying the tickets for just one person as opposed to two: him and my mom), but he also thought about practicalities since none of them spoke any foreign languages. “Sure!” my aunt agreed right away. After navigating through the bureaucracy and all the paperwork to secure both Schengen and UK visas (we were planning to also visit the latter since that was where my cousin was actually living at that time), finally in the middle of July 2007 I took my first ever international flight aboard one of KLM’s old Boeing 747s. And this happened 15 years ago.
One and a half decades ago, I set foot on foreign soil for the very first time. During this month-long trip to five countries across Europe, I was amazed by how different things were from what I was used to seeing back home: clean rivers in city centers, quiet and almost deserted streets despite the large amount of parked cars, extensive and efficient public transport, and just the generally fresh and crisp air. However, there were quite a few awkward moments as well. I was surprised to see how many people blew their noses once they’d finished their meals. Although there’s no rule prohibiting people from doing that in Indonesia, it’s just something we don’t do, let alone see. And then, there’s European TV programs past 10pm. One night, when I was watching TV with my late uncle, suddenly an explicit sex scene appeared on the screen. “Wow!” was the only thing he said before changing the channel to a news bulletin. A very awkward moment, indeed.
In 2010, I wrote about my journey to (in a chronological order) Germany, Austria, Belgium, France, and the UK in this very blog, thanks to a couple of friends who encouraged me to document this European trip. You can read it here, but you will notice back then that I wrote very differently.
However, if you ask me if there was anything I didn’t expect to see/learn/experience from this trip, that would be how traveling actually helps to break stereotypes. In many conservative regions in Indonesia (and elsewhere around the developing world, I believe), children are often taught to be careful of Western cultural influences. Despite all the technological advancements, the West is often portrayed as morally inferior: Westerners are described as impolite compared to Asians, irreligious (therefore not good!), and very individualistic. It didn’t take long for me to see how wrong these notions were. In my first few days in Germany, I already noticed how courteous almost everyone I met tended to be. They greeted me first, and they were very helpful (even though some didn’t speak English at all) when I needed directions. It really warmed my heart to be treated in such a respectful way. Later I also learned about one of the most fundamental differences between the West and the East. In the former you are treated as an individual who has rights, while in Asia you are seen as a part of society with all the obligations that entails. Both have their own pros and cons, and understanding them will help us to be less judgmental toward one another, because honestly I don’t think there is a single culture/system/set of values that is 100% perfect. We can always learn from each other.
Since that very eye-opening trip, my wanderlust has only grown bigger and my desire to see more of the world has only become stronger. Although I have yet to return to Europe, I’m lucky for having been able to travel to quite a few places I could only dream of when I was growing up. Focusing almost exclusively on Asia, my travels since 2007 have been equally, if not more, fulfilling. They have added a lot more perspectives on how I see the world, made me learn how events in one place can result in unexpected repercussions in far corners of the globe, and constantly reminded me to think more critically of everything I see, because there is more than meets the eye. However, it’s not all about deep stuff. Of all places, who would’ve thought I’d touch snow for the very first time in the mountains of Lebanon? And try the best yoghurt ever in Bhaktapur, Nepal? And do some of the most exciting hikes in Hong Kong?
My last international trip happened in December 2019 when I spent the Christmas holidays in Hong Kong. And as we all know, a few months after that the world came to a screeching halt. Borders were shut, and movements were severely limited. However, there is reason to be hopeful more than two years later. One by one, countries have reopened their borders and are welcoming back tourists. Some restrictions are understandably still in place, although they differ from one country to another. For the first time in what feels like forever, we’re finally seeing the end of the pandemic on the horizon (i.e. the beginning of the endemic stage, although experts won’t probably announce this anytime soon, as they are still closely monitoring the number of cases and their severity). And for the first time since December 2019 I’ve started looking up tickets for international flights again. Nothing is finalized yet, but I’m thinking of going somewhere in the region (there are still a lot places in Southeast Asia that I haven’t been or would love to revisit). We’ll see how things go.
Until then, stay safe and healthy! And let’s start planning more trips again!