It is a warm night in Bali, and I am walking along the road eating tahu isi – filled, deep fried parcels of tofu – when I realise how grateful I am to be back in Indonesia after almost a quarter of a century.
I came to Indonesia in 1994 to study to become an anthropologist. I spent six of the most formative months of my life in the Tanimbar islands of Maluku, and returned to the UK to take a masters degree in anthropology. Things didn’t go quite to plan and eventually my anthropological aspirations crumbled away, and with them, my in-progress PhD. It is a strange story, of sickness, adat ritual law, upset ancestors, witchcraft, post-colonial unease and fevered dreams of sex and death, all of which I talk about in my book Stealing With the Eyes: Imaginings and Incantations in Indonesia.
But now I’m back. I’m here to take part in the British Council’s Wallacea Week 2018 celebrations, and then in Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. From somewhere at the back of my mind, the tendrils of my long-dormant Bahasa Indonesia are uncoiling, and slipping back into the language, chatting with taxi drivers and street-vendors, feels really good.
In Jakarta during Wallace Week, I was lucky enough to be at the National Library in discussion with the formidable – and absolutely lovely – travel-writer Augustinus Wibowo. Augustinus is probably one of the best, and certainly the most popular, young travel writers working in Indonesia today, and he is one of those people who immediately invites trust and confidences. His book, Zero, is a hugely moving account of home-coming, and of telling his tales of travel, Arabian-nights style, to his dying mother. Augustinus also shares an interest in East Indonesia, and is fascinated by local religions and belief systems in Indonesia and beyond, and the connection between place and belief: the way that these local religions resist the abstraction of universal religions, the way they are rooted in the soil, in the landscape and in concrete things.
In many ways, this trip is a return to my own past. After twenty-three years, re-connecting with the earlier version of me who came to Indonesia in the mid-1990s is interesting. An Indonesian friend who I knew in Tanimbar all those years ago wrote me a message this morning inviting me to stay with him in Maluku so that together we could bernostalgia — the Indonesian verb that means something like “to engage in nostalgia”, or “to reminisce”. I won’t have time to get to Maluku this time, but hope I may do in the near future (Stealing With the Eyes ends with reflections on the idea of returning to Tanimbar).
But this is also a journey to another, more uncertain, future. Last week, I finished packing my belongings in the loft and left my home in the care of new tenants. I have various writing projects on the go, and after Indonesia am heading to Myanmar for at least six months, along with my fellow-writer and collaborator Hannah Stevens, to do some work as a part of our Wind&Bones project. But after that, who knows? The whole world is wide open, and for the first time in a long time, I am without any game-plan.
It’s good to be on the move again. So I’m also making a mental note to update this blog as I go. I am trying to shake off the obligation to write about Big Important Things here, so that I can also post snippets, things that catch my eye, and stories about small-but-interesting things as well. And I’m also waging a person campaign to funnel the things I write away from Facebook (which has too much of a hold on my life) towards a platform that I control myself.
Anyway, this is the plan. Do stay tuned, and let’s see how it goes. But for now, I’m going to leave it here, and I’m going to fall asleep to the sound of the rain on the guest-house roof over here in Bali.
Photo: On stage at the National Library of Indonesia with Augustinus Wibowo.