The phrase “good from afar, but far from good” seems apt here.

During my travels I sought out more information about Indonesia. On train and bus journeys I pored over essays and articles and watched movies and interviews. I started my month long travels in the country with somewhat romantic ideas. I visited Bali first, where I stayed with friends at a chic villa, complete with a pool and a maid. Bali is paradise for visitors whose imaginations collide with the pictures they see on the pages of Lonely Planet Magazine or CN Traveler.

The articles about Indonesia that I read were full of images of beautiful women wearing intricate, brightly coloured batik prints or exotic dancers made-up with face and body paint. Fishermen on long canoes, cut from a single piece of wood, gliding across a smooth lake against the backdrop of a smoking volcano.

Ijen volcano's crater lake and sulphur mine in eastern Java, Indonesia.
Ijen volcano's crater lake and sulphur mine in eastern Java, Indonesia.
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java.
Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Java.

My imagination painted grinning, dark faces set amidst a nature rich in blue and green tones. Fascinating shamanic rituals performed by people in colourful sarongs, surrounded by the sounds of gamelan and the scent of burning incense. Luxurious gardens, lush tropical flowers blooming. Unfamiliar and unusual animals living in the depths of the jungle. Locals bathing in the rivers and lakes. Taxi cycles, painted in a rainbow of colours, with passengers on high seats in front of the driver seat. Beautiful Dutch canals, surrounded by fragrant tropical parks.

Man wearing snorkeling mask leaving beach with the his catch. Kuta beach, Lombok.
A man in a snorkelling mask leaving the beach with his catch. Kuta Beach, Lombok.
Woman opening sea urchins with her bare hands. Kuta beach, Lombok.
Woman opening sea urchins with her bare hands. Kuta beach, Lombok.

The stories and legends of the archipelago filled my head filled with fantastical myths about gods and ghosts, Komodo dragons and remote tribes living in jungle tree houses. My imagination was especially struck by pictures of the galleons of the Majapahit Empire, plying the seas and instilling such fear in the Dutch sailors, that when they returned home, they told their children: “Behave yourself, or the Javanese will take you away.” Ancient legends crossed the mountains of Asia, the deserts of Persia and the waters of the Mediterranean long before the birth of Christ and penetrated our collective consciousness. The very names of the legendary islands Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, enchanted the my mind. It was a land of mysticism and exotic beauty, an elusive treasure never found by Columbus — the fairy-tale princess, which Spain, Portugal, Holland, Britain, Japan fought for, but could never keep.

Rice paddies in Dieng, Java.
Rice paddies in Dieng, Java.

My expectations were high, probably as high, as those of the pioneers wandering the seas in search of trade. All this, with the exception of mountains and volcanoes, turned out to be an illusion. I should have known that what was written in ink and oil was left far in the past, and what is now printed in gloss, is solely to attract visitors and has little to do with reality. After all, following what’s been written isn’t always what you find.

Port in Banyuwangi, Java.
Port in Banyuwangi, Java.

The phrase “good from afar, but far from good” is apt here. I saw some amazing places, in Dieng, Merapi, Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, Ijen, on the islands of Bali and Lombok, and even in Yogya. I found the beauty promised by so many guides, articles and films, but in a much smaller quantity. In reality, Indonesia, which has gone through endless colonisations, wars for independence, ethnic cleansing, industrialisation, revolutions and financial crises, has been drained.

Kids covered with the sunscreen in Surabaya's slums, Java.
Kids covered with the sunscreen in Surabaya's slums, Java.

If Indonesia were a treasure chest, it would not be full of gold, but on the contrary, it would be full of poverty and devastation. A place where people have to fight every day to survive.

Slum in Jakarta, Java.
Slum in Jakarta, Java.

This was Jakarta and Probolinggo, Surakarta and Surabaya, where the aroma of cloves and flowering orchids loses the battle against the stench of open sewers. Where lush green botanical gardens lurk behind the rusty facades of rotting huts. Where instead of hospitable smiles there are tense, tired and numb faces. Where the colours of cycle taxis and the brightly painted batik are eclipsed by black, river channels poisoned by household waste and clogged with decomposing animal corpses.

From the window of the train I saw rows of shacks, stretching for many kilometres. I imagined how babies probably die in them from the lack of drinking water and poor sanitation, that adults and children suffer from terrible diseases from living in such monstrous conditions. I had seen poverty in other places before, when I slept in cold stations, on ferries with holes in the walls and in rooms of hostels for 20 people, where the homeless crowded in shabby jeans and socks without shoes. I remember the strong smell of their bodies, the stink so strong that my nasal passages caused snotted and teared at the same time. But still, I was not prepared for Jakarta, the city that showed me that Indonesia is a beautiful and ugly, graceful and vulgar, sublime and dejected country. That the line between these qualities is thin but the difference between them is great.

Jarkarta’s slums span miles
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