Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's oh-so-much-nicer coming home

I've just arrived back in Sendai after two weeks traveling in Indonesia and Malaysia, and since I know various people will want to know about those places, I thought I'd post with some of my thoughts on the trip. First, Indonesia:

Travel brochures often describe Indonesia as a string of tropical jewels sprinkled across a perfect blue sea, or in similarly glowing terms. They rave about its stunning natural beauty, fascinating and exotic wildlife, and enormous diversity of human cultures. It is true that all of these aspects are present in the country. It is not the whole truth, however. Indonesia is indeed incredibly beautiful, and largely untraveled by western tourists, but this unspoiled beauty comes at a cost - many places in the archipelago lack the infrastructure to accommodate tourists comfortably, and many of the inhabitants aren't used to interacting with them. It's definitely one of the more adventurous travel destinations to which I've been, and while I've formed some of my greatest travel memories climbing its mountains, trekking through its jungles, admiring its ruins, and diving in its clear blue seas, I've also had more than a few harrowing experiences there, and can say with authority that it's not a place for those without patience, flexibility, or an unwillingness to be discomfited or inconvenienced. Enduring exoticism comes at the price of inaccessibility, and if you're not willing to sit in a hot, crowded bus on a journey that takes five hours to cover 100 kilometers, shower by drenching yourself with well-water from a battered aluminum ladle, or share a room with a variety of insects and the odd tropical lizard, it's not a place you're likely to enjoy.

Me, I love things of that sort, so this trip was a blast. I saw lots of cool things - a sunrise from the top of Mt. Merapi, one of the world's most active volcanoes, the world's largest Buddhist temple at Borbodur, traditional artisans at work on hide shadow puppets, and untrodden tropical islets that could have played host to Robinson Crusoe - but the highlight was unquestionably the chance to attend a traditional Sumatran wedding. It so happened that a first-year student of my friend Haruka (who is living on Sumatra teaching Japanese for a year) was getting married at the time of my visit, and I was invited to come. The more I've traveled, the more I've come to value the chance to interact with locals and learn about their lives as much as the chance to see famous places, and this was an exceptional experience along those lines.

Gustin (Haruka's student), nineteen years old and from a devout Muslim family, was marrying her boyfriend of one year. The wedding was held at her house in a small village in central Sumatra, and despite the concerns of her family that because they were poor the wedding would not be very interesting, it was probably the one thing about this trip I'll remember most vividly when I'm old. Gustin's house was decked out for the occasion, no less so than the bride herself (who insisted on taking about three dozen photos with Haruka and I over the course of the day):

After the ceremony, the bride and the groom made the rounds of the village to call on relatives, accompanied by guests chanting and playing drums:

One of the best parts of any wedding is the food, and this was no exception. West Sumatra (and particularly the region around the city of Padang, its namesake) is famous for Padang cuisine, a buffet-style feast of assorted curries, soups, and stews served with copious amounts of white rice and eaten by hand. It's very heavy on braised meats and spices. The meats in particular are spectacular - some are cooked for days, until each strand of flesh falls off the bone and each minute particle explodes with flavor in your mouth. Gustin's wedding entailed not one, not two, but three separate Padang feasts (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), prepared by a huge cohort of female relatives who seemingly never stopped working in the rudimentary, semi-outdoor kitchen behind her house (it was up to the men to eat the food). I've seldom eaten so well while traveling, but all the spice left my stomach in a rather testy state by the time we departed.

I'll post the rest of the photos to my flickr account, as I get them sorted. And I'll try to say a little about Malaysia this week as well. In the meantime, it's good to be back where the evenings are cool and the tap water is safe to drink.

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