Indonesia with its dozens of thousands of islands is like a great book waiting to be explored. What better way to love it than by getting to know it better?
Two journalists decided to do just that. One was Farid Gaban, a noted journalist with around 25 years of experience covering international events. The other, 20 years younger than Farid, goes by the name of Ahmad Yunus.
From June 2009 to July 2010, Farid and Yunus travelled across the country riding their motorbikes, hopping from one ferry to another, on a journey of discovery.
Their trip was an idealistic one, born from their yearning to know more about their country. They dubbed it the Zamrud Khatulistiwa expedition.
“I was born in the 1980s, and didn’t know much about Indonesia from Indonesian history. We have the feeling we know what the Acehnese are like, what the Dayaks or Papuans are like. But we really don’t,” Yunus, 28, said after a documentary of their one-year trip was screened at the headquarters of the Jakarta Independent Journalist Alliance (AJI Jakarta) in Kalibata.
Farid, meanwhile, said he had gained a lot of journalistic experience abroad over the years but didn’t feel he knew much about his own country. The former Republika and Tempo magazine editor had traveled from Washington to New Orleans while covering the 1988 American election. He had seen quite a bit of Germany, often spending the night in train stations, while reporting on the political ramifications of the fall of Berlin Wall. When the war in Bosnia erupted in 1992, he was one of the few Asian reporters who managed to get through the blockades in Sarajevo.
“However, despite all those exposure overseas, I felt I knew very little about Indonesia,” he said.
In 2008, Farid’s friends floated the idea of sailing across Indonesia using a Phinisi traditional boat. When it looked like the plan might not materialize, Farid joked that he would ride a motorbike across Indonesia instead. The Phinisi plan fell through. So Farid started preparing his expedition on a motorbike.
“At first, it seemed like a crazy idea. But, why not? I was used to riding a motorbike. I ride a motorbike every day in Jakarta, because it’s cheap, and handy to avoid being stuck in traffic jams. And I thought to myself, if we could handle the difficulties thrown at us in Jakarta’s dangerous streets, then else is there to fear out there?” he wrote in his travelogue on zamrud-khatulistiwa.or.id.
Farid explained Yunus and he both liked the film Into the Wild, a true story about Christopher McCandles leaving his worldly life to explore the wilderness of Alaska, where he eventually dies.
They were also inspired by Motorcycle Diaries, a film about young Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, who traveled across South America on a motorbike. The poverty he witnessed during his travels reportedly shaped Che into the revolutionary he became.
“We’re not Che Guevara. At least I’m too old to wish to be a revolutionary. Meanwhile, we had seen poverty in many places across Indonesia, including Java, and read about it in literature on development.
However, Motorcycle Diaries strengthened our conviction that we should travel by motorbike because it was simple, that we should backpack, meet lots of people and see their real problems,” Farid wrote.
They both owned modified 100-cc motorcycles, which couldn’t go faster than 80 kilometers an hour, according to Farid, but were more than adequate for the journey.
Farid and Yunus drew most of their inspiration for this trip from books: Mengejar Pelangi Di Balik Gelombang (Chasing the rainbow behind the waves) by Fazham Fadlil and The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace. Fadlil described how he returned to his hometown in Riau Islands after living in New York for 20 years by sailing across the Pacific Ocean on his own.
Meanwhile, The Malay Archipelago by Wallace is the British naturalist’s account of his journey across the Southern portion of the Malay Archipelago including Malaysia, Singapore and the islands of Indonesia.
Farid and Yunus took off in June 2009 and traveled for 10 months on a Rp 120 million budget each. They crossed the Malacca Strait to Lampung in Sumatra, and continued on to Kiluan, a bay that facing the Indian Ocean. There, they sailed accompanied by hundreds of dolphins.
In Bengkulu, they went to Pulau Enggano and hopped to Mentawai, which at first looked like a flourishing mangrove island. However they soon discovered how much it had been exploited when exploring it further.
In Nias, they slept in people’s homes and admired the 300-year old traditional houses made of wood Omo Hada, which had withstood 7.9 earthquake in Nias.
In The Malacca straits they saw pirates.
“We found that the public officials were the ones who acted as pirates,” Farid said.
In Mentawai, Farid lost his equipment — his laptop and camera —, which fell into the sea. In Kalimantan, the duo ran out of money and had to return to Jakarta “to busk”, Farid said, before continuing their journey.
They went to Eastern Indonesia; to Flores, where they visited the house former president Sukarno had been exiled to by the Dutch.
When they reached Java, they visited Sidoarjo and saw the devastation caused by the mudflow. “Our purpose was to go around Indonesia, not just to see what’s beautiful about the country,” Farid said.
Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Life | Wed, March 16 2011