I Walk To Find Myself

They tried to persuade me not to cross
the curious hills, finally, shrugging,
called me foolish, stubborn.
That’s how it is, I said. I’m going
where my pig is headed.

These words, found on a greetings card, are the preface to the diary I started to keep when I set off on my worldly travels back in 1971. That was when I quit teaching in order to hitchhike through Europe, allowing happenstance to determine my destination.

One lift was to the Malataverne Festival held in a disused quarry far off the beaten track and billed as the French Woodstock.

Getting away was simple: you queued up at a table and found someone who would offer you a lift. Mine was a Parisian family, the Du Pasquiers who were headed for their weekend holiday retreat in Le Verdier in the Cevennes, a region of the Massif Central mountains towards the south of France.

The area was described by the 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet as offering “nothing but rock, razor-sharp shale. You feel the struggle of man, his stubborn and prodigious labour in the face of nature.” The family told me that their retreat was where Robert Louis Stevenson’s donkey Modestine died. That’s as maybe, because in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), RLS describes his sadness at having to sell her because she was no longer fit for further travel.

To get away from this very remote hideaway, I decided to walk into St. Jean du Gard where R.L.S. ended his long walk and probably sold Modestine.

It was a beautiful day, a blue sky and I began to feel calm and contented as never before. The road was empty of traffic. I was alone and felt free to sing The Happy Wanderer – something I never do in company. Some kilometres along the way, I rounded a bend and saw a man standing beside his Citroën deux-chavaux, the a-typical cheap French car of the time, and he was singing too.  We sang to each other for a few minutes, smiling all the time, until I took my leave.

A short while later, rounding a bend I came across a row of three-storied houses which faced across the valley. An old lady with a mongrel dog came up to me and said she seen me a few miles back. As no vehicles had passed me that morning, I figured that she’d been somewhere up on the mountainside.

She asked if I was hungry, to which I replied that I wasn’t but had “much thirst”. We entered the cool front room, she knocked on an inner door, and Monsieur le Maire came out and insisted that water tasted much better with the wine produced from his small vineyard. It did, and even mixed 50/50 was far stronger than any wine I’d previously tasted.

So, with many thanks for this unexpected hospitality, I set off once again with heightened spirits, followed by an arthritic dog.  Along the way I fed my hunger with ripe cherries picked from the orchards alongside the road, and stopped to sketch this amazing view.

Les Bocquelles 1.6.71.

Yes, I remember that walk of forty years ago with almost total recalll. I remember others too: the teenage rambles through the countryside of Kent, Surrey and Sussex, the counties south of London, and later the hikes across the Mountains of Mourne and Galway in Ireland (where I encountered the gun-runners of the IRA heading into Ulster). Later still, I explored the hills of the Yorkshire Dales and the Cumbrian Fells in northern England,

So how come I can’t recall much of the flights which have since taken me round the world and that I only have a dim recollection of the many long-distance bus journeys my long frame has had to endure?

One hundred years ago, before globalisation and the accessibility of world travel, the eager traveller would have committed him/herself to a lengthy and often eye-opening journey which would have involved numerous boat voyages, horse-back rides, steam trains and coaches, depending on the destination. This meant that the journey was a very important part of the whole experience, and this importance was not taken lightly.

Until the advent of the internal combustion engine and air travel, horse-drawn conveyances and shank’s pony determined routes, which generally followed the contours of the land. In the UK and much of Europe, one can be fairly confident that others have trodden the same paths. Two thousand years ago, the Roman invaders paved ancient pathways; some of which are still in use today, although motorists are most unlikely to think of the significance.

It is in walking for the sake of it that we truly discover ourselves: leaving a little brain space for potentially dangerous footfalls, we cleanse our minds of the commonplace and put them in synch with our bodies and the history of the landscape. We become whole beings.

Some folk, with more puff than I have left, aim higher and scramble up volcanoes. Dan Quinn, co-creator of Indonesia’s Gunung Bagging website and recently of this parish, says: “Being on a mountaintop can be a transcendental experience; what better way to temporarily forget the time, day, year, epoch in which you live? The trivialities which comprise much of everyday life can be viewed with some perspective and you almost always return home afterwards feeling illuminated in some small way.

Or, as Aldous Huxley said more pithily, “My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing.”


We Jakartans don’t have easy access to quiet rural byways. When strolling through the weekend retreats of the tea plantations of Puncak or along the southern coast around Pelabuhan Ratu, you could well meet your neighbours, and you won’t learn much about yourself or the cultures which have shaped the land.

For that you have to go further afield. Leaving aside major long distance treks through jungles and up volcanoes, these are a few areas I have wandered in comparative comfort.

Central Java
The vast Dieng Plateau, the caldera of an ancient collapsed volcano, can provide days spent hiking through the spectacular landscapes and exploring the mineral lakes, although be careful not to inhale the noxious fumes occasionally emitted. The plateau is also dotted with the ruins of seventh century Hindu temples.

Rumour has it that former dictator Suharto came here to pray for enlightenment.

Central Sulawesi
There are many splendid walks to be found in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, whose people were animist Bugis who settled the uplands and were mostly converted to Christianity by Dutch missionaries about a hundred years ago. The landscape is a mixture of mountains, jungle and farmlands. Rantepao, the centre of a diverse and fascinating culture, is a good base with fairly comfortable accommodation.

Tanah Toraja
West Sumatra
With its unique Minangkabau matrilinear culture, this is by far my favourite part of Indonesia with Bukittinggi as a comfortable base. Walk the 15 kms of Ngarai Sianok below the town, with fruit bats hanging from the tree tops on the ridge. Catch public transport to Harau Valley; if you climb to the top there are deep bat caves to explore and you may even spot tiger droppings as I did a few years back. For a laid-back couple of nights, backtrack to Lake Maninjau which is reached down a steep road with 47 switchbacks. There is little traffic along the lakeside road, so it’s ideal for a gentle stroll.

Entrance to Harau Valley

Robert Macfarlane, author of a trilogy of books about walking in Britain says, “Walk, and you will probably feel better.”

He’s right about that.
First published in Jakarta Expat 4th-17th July 2012
Next published in Jakartass with added links
This post can be downloaded as a .pdf file.

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August 1988

I’d taken a month’s leave in order to take Son No.1 along the backpacker trail of Indonesia, and this was to be our first major travel together. We’d already spent many weekends and weeks exploring France, but they were close to home and my French was a lot more than adequate. I’d only been in Indonesia eight months, knew very little Indonesian and what we experienced would be the first time for both of us.

Shortly before I left the UK, I’d taken Sam to London’s Heathrow Airport to prep him for what was to be his first flight, and because he was 11 he’d travel as an unaccompanied minor so needed to know something of the procedures. We explored the airport, chatted with some staff and spent some time on the viewing gallery. I wonder if he can recall watching Concorde take off with a beautiful grace which was not impeded by the accompanying loud roar.

He flew to Jakarta with British Airways yet he, and I, felt that he was not treated too kindly. Firstly, he would have liked a window seat, but for someone his age this was “against the rules”. I waited at Soekarno-Hatta airport for him to appear and figured that he’d speed through immigration because he’d already got his 60-day tourist visa in London.

I waited and waited … where the hell was he?

Someone else was waiting, the then BBC correspondent in Jakarta who was looking forward to spending some time with her boyfriend. She was angry because their planned short time together would be even shorter. I was panicking. Together she and I went in search of BA’s office where we demanded news of our loved ones and to angrily remonstrate about BA’s appalling lack of communication.*

It turned out that two passengers had been bumped off the Singapore-Jakarta leg, and we’d ‘won’ the lottery. They were put up in a hotel overnight and were collected the following morning. I was glad that the flights I’d booked for Bali were for a couple of days later or we’d have been doubly screwed!

When I returned to work several weeks later, I discovered that BA had in fact sent a message by phone to my workplace. Telecommunications were appalling to non-existent back then, and it was to be at least a dozen years before cell phones became mandatory for the chattering classes. BA’s message was routed through the reception desk, and was written down and had been left on a colleague’s desk, Colin’s, and not mine – Collins.

And he hadn’t thought to pass it on!

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Bali Hi (1)

Note: Son No.1 suffered from travel sickness, which was generally avoided with a diet of ginger nuts, but there are none to be had in Indonesia. This is strange because this country is one of the world’s major producers of ginger.
Ayu Cottages, Kuta
(Rp.15,000 per night)

Sam was sick in the taxi to the airport, or would have been if the plastic bag hadn’t been readily available and my rudimentary Indonesian up to getting the driver to stop.

We were hijacked at Bali Airport by a moonlighting civil servant: “Government workers aren’t paid much.” But for Rp.20,000 plus two fares for Rp.160,000 we’ve booked a Merpati flight to Labuhanbajo in Flores (Gateway to Komodo) for Sunday “pagi-pagi” (i.e. bloody early morning)

Now I’m already worried about a few things: Sam’s travel sickness and have we got enough money? The main problem, however, is that we’ve got to travel back overland and sea to Jakarta and one month isn’t long enough already!

3 hours later
A discussion, an agreement. We’ll forge ahead if, but only if, we can get info about ferries etc. tomorrow in Denpasar.
Our eaterie welcomed us with Shankar’s Song For Everyone, and the music has gone down since then; it couldn’t get better though!

It’s muddy in Poppies Lane, our accommodation is a building site, expansion for god knows how many Aussies et al. Strangely, they not much in evidence now. Perhaps the day’s rain and the evening cool mitigates against the pub crawls I’ve wanted to avoid..

Still, with snorkeling trips available at Rp.7,000, swimming trunks bought anew – from Rp.9,000>Rp.5,000 (“but they’re batik, mister“) – perhaps the holiday spirit is beginning to take hold. This evening, to go with my large bottle of San Miguel for Rp.1,600 I had a pineapple pancake; I could have had a banana one because that’s the circuit we’re on.

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Bali Hi (2)

Berlian Inn, Kuta

Our early morning dip was good, with reasonable body surfing. It was a long way out, a gradula helving, to the breaking surf; this meant that we were some way from our clothes, towel, my ‘spare’ (i.e. with a broken frame) glasses and Sam’s Swatch watch and his ‘North London Athletics Club’ vest. They were all lifted from under the bush where we’d deposited. them.

Tony Wheeler says in the Lonely Planet Guide that “most people who lose things at Kuta are idiots who leave things on the beach.”

We idiots changed accommodation. The Berlian Inn is quiet. It’s also cheaper by Rp.5,000, friendlier (tho’ that’s subjective), and prettier. Instead of the previous view of on-going building work we have well-maintained gardens which obscure the view of everything except visitors passing by, and they are few. (A smiling seller with a tray of I know not what balanced on her head calls by as I write this.)

I could get to like Kuta – if it wasn’t for the motorcyclists roaring up and down. And the beach. “Do you want to buy handcarvings, watches (not Swatch!), rings, beach mats, a massage, a set of six plastic spoons … eh??

We bargained heavily for T-shirts at the organised ‘craft’ market at the end of the beach, and a replacement towel. What costs Rp.4,500 at the Golden Truly supermarket is Rp.15,000 here, a rip off to replace a rip off.

Sam’s back is now a brownish red because he spent hours on the beach while I went Into Denpasar to get our Merpati tickets to Flores refunded. This was fine and good for the two American ladies who’d just been told that there weren’t any seats available for a week. They also discovered that getting back could be a problem, so maybe, yet sadly, calling off the Komodo trip could be very wise. Instead, we’ll explore Bali, leaving perhaps tomorrow or Sunday for Ubud, Mt. Batur and the beaches of the north coast.

Meanwhile, in half an hour we set off for a snorkeling trip.

Later: This wasn’t so good. Our ride didn’t turn up so we had to take a later one only to find that all the best equipment had been taken. We eventually got ferried out to the reef where other boats were parked. The current was strong and without my spare glasses to fit inside the mask I could see very little. Also it seems that all my duck diving has exacerbated my ear infection – pain and ooze. The Aussie girls on our boat seemed to be more intent on sunning themselves and chatting about their anticipated evening’s social activities.

Turtle Island had a crop of kids intent on diving for coins and the cockfight would only take place after “donations” for photographs. Exotic sights are somewhat tawdry and I hate being a ‘tourist’.

Yet I can’t say that I want to stay at home!

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Bali Hi (3)

Monday 7.8.88

When we arrived on Saturday we headed for Monkey Forest Road and checked out several places before settling on Nick’s Pension. This was because it nestled among rice terraces down the slope near a babbling brook which provided a pleasant aural backdrop.

That first day, we strolled down the (then undeveloped) road to the Monkey Forest, took a few photos and discovered the best eating places – Lilies and Otawaties (now long gone). We also bought our first souvenirs, a sarong for Sam and two temple scarves to be worn as belt sashes.

Day 2 was spent cycling, for Rp.5,000 each, which we thought a tad expensive when we could have hired a motorcycle for Rp.6,000.

Goa Gajah, with the cave entrance carved as a monster’s mouth, was impressive, not least for the snap-it-quick tourists. So we cycled on to Yeh Pulu through quiet country lanes lined with impressive, well kept courtyard houses.

Bali lanes
Presently, Yeh Pulu is still a small village attraction, past a well used washing place with similar wall figures of stone women spouting water at at Goa Gajah, to a frieze of figures depicting life some nine centuries ago. Ganesh is still worshipped ~ donations please.

At the end of the lane is a small homestay where the old proprietor proudly displayed his guestbook: few people had stayed there. Was he dreaming of new found wealth because of the lane below being being paved to cater for the expected influx of tourists?

We later cycled on to the old state temple of the Kingdom of Pejeng with its large single-cast bronze drum, made donations at the Museum Arkeologi and ended up at Pura Kebo Edan (Crazy Buffalo Temple) with its four-metre high statue of Bima with six (or is it four?) penises.

[fr. this website: The legend of this Bima is very interesting. Bima falls in love with a certain woman, and the desire to her has risen. However, the penis of Bima was too big for her. And, she has found another lover at last. Bima has found them making love one day. Bima that trembles with anger tramples and killed them.]

Perhaps I lack a sense of spiritual need but so many temples seem dead, lacking a sense of daily use or need. Yet the Balinese can be seen placating the spirits everywhere with offerings at every entrance, gateway or door, and their character is very friendly as if secure within themselves and at peace with their world.

When we cut back to Ubud through a newly carved road – built by the army, as an enormous monument to their recent (March ’88) endeavours told every traveller – we were only once asked for money, by an adult, for cigarettes. Some children did ask for pens, but it seemed a world away from the main thoroughfares. “A pillion ride? What’s your name? Where you coming from? Where you go?” asked in a spirit of curiosity and friendliness.

I am saddened by my sense of cynicism, a feeling of déja vu as the evidence of the impact of unfeeling, uncaring and unseeing tourists is everywhere. Little good has come from the meeting-clash of cultures. When cremations are turned into circuses and dances to celebrate life are turned into photographic displays, then awareness, understanding and empathy are lost.

Somewhere, possibly everywhere, roots are intact and the culture, the community life continues. I would sooner be seen as a welcome guest than as a voyeur, yet inevitably this is how we are seen and labelled, the same as those who’ve passed by before us.

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Bali Hi (4)

Tuesday 8.8.88

Still with our hired bikes, we walked across the suspension bridge over the Campuan River and up the steep hill to the Neka Art Museum. This was built in 1966 by Suteja Neka who attempted to gather together the best examples of local art and in so doing has served to give artists international recognition. Until the arrival of western artists to Bali in 1930s, traditional painting was limited to temple scrolls and calendars and the themes were exclusively religious. However, Neka houses a collection of ‘traditional’ paintings by young ‘naif’ painters influenced by the likes of Rudolph Bonnet and Donald Friend.
(According to his diary, Friend’s lifestyle would now see him locked up for years in Kerobokan Prison!)

My favourite painting is Mutual Attraction by Abdul Aziz

Although painted as separate pieces during different years, these two works later were joined together into a single piece in 1980 by Suteja Neka, founder of the Neka Museum, after he noticed that the man appeared to be admiring the woman. The figures seem to be leaning in doorways; their shadows painted on the actual picture frames add a three-dimensional effect. Plain backgrounds focus attention on the figures and the mutual attraction between them. Warm earthy tones emphasize this.

The Museum is a collection of separate rooms around a three sided courtyard which overlooks a ravine. Photo albums and books of press cuttings give a personalized and hospitable ambiance. It is a beautiful setting and a calm place to while away an hour or two.

The house of Antonio Blanco, above the suspension bridge below, is somewhat different. There was no-one at the entrance with a ticket kiosk, but the gate was partly open so went in and strolling across the lawn mmediately felt like trespassers. We went into a pavilion and gazed at his pictures. These were dedicated to wife, a Balinese dancer, and he seemed obsessive and ego-centric.

“Blanco is creator.”

The man himself discovered us and seemed quite charming: “Is anyone looking after you? We usually take a nap at this time.”

He then instructed one of his staff to put the shutters up. We unbarred the gate and tip-toed out, leaving a Rp.500 tip for the ‘government (non)attendant’.

Not finding the back route heading towards Batur, we biked back through Monkey Forest, swathes of rice paddies, villages of wood carvers and once again enjoyed the scenery.

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Bali Hi (5)

Wed. 9.8.88 Bangli

Bangli is a very quiet town!

We’re awaiting lunch ~ Sam’s first nasi goreng.

Artha Sastra Inn (Rp.9.000) is a truly delightful place, an old palace residence run by really friendly people. We’re in the inner courtyard area with a view of intricate carvings, especially the tall doors with reliefs highlighted in gold.

The journey here was by bemo, a people carrier overcrowded with market goers, school children, plastic artifact sellers and a radiant young couple dressed in traditional garb.

It’s nice to escape the droves of beach seeking young travelers and souvenir sellers. A German couple opposite “are only interested in culture” so maybe we’re going to experience a deeper reality rather than surface pretensions. It’s possible we’ll attend a cremation tonight or tomorrow, and I hesitate to be part of a package of Pentax flashing bystanders.

(We didn’t go, but I can’t recall why.)

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