Giving a voice to the voiceless

Underwater world: Farid and Yunus dive between Kaledupa and Hoga islands near Wakatobi, Southeast Sulawesi.
Underwater world: Farid and Yunus dive between Kaledupa and Hoga islands near Wakatobi, Southeast Sulawesi.

Ahmad and Farid kept a travelogue on, shot more than 70 hours of video tapes and took 10,000 photographs. They plan to write seven books from their journey.

They have recently finished Indonesia: Mencintaimu Dengan Sederhana. (Indonesia: Loving you in a simple way). Farid authored a number of books about mangroves as well as Indonesia’s coral reef.

How did these two prepare for such a trip? The first thing they did was get a diving certificate, Farid said. Farid put his skills to the test in Raja Ampat, Papua; Togean in Sulawesi and many other places in Indonesia.

Farid and Yunus also learned how to protect themselves from malaria, mostly by skipping day naps.

“Because when you nap during the day, you become food for mosquitoes,” Farid said.

There were not so many difficulties in their journey, Farid and Yunus said. Farid added that Yunus’ cooking skills came in handy, as the latter would cook for families they stayed with. It was the perfect icebreaker.

“We wanted to feel like they were strangers. We didn’t want to be trapped into thinking that ‘oh they’re indigenous people’,” Yunus said. “We didn’t see the people we met on our travels as isolated. We saw them as a humans and we tried to integrate into their lives. We tried to be as honest as possible with who we were and everything,” he said. “That’s when people started opening up”.

For Yunus, who was trained at media organization Pantau and worked for Playboy magazine, the journey was a way to apply one of journalism’s core principles.

“I saw this as an opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless. That motivated me to work more seriously. And for young journalists, this has to be one of the biggest challenges that can be taken on,” Yunus.

For Farid, the journey allowed him to witness first hand the sheer extent of exploitation in rural areas. He saw how important it was to be critical of public policy on foreign investment.

“Foreign investment doesn’t make sense if its benefits do not trickle down to locals,” he said.

Yes, the journey was a revelation for Farid, who said he discovered so much about the country through his travels.

“But even with this extra knowledge, there are still so many things I don’t know about.”

— JP/Prodita Sabarini

The Jakarta Post | Feature | Wed, March 16 2011

Learning through travel

The trip of a lifetime: A map outlines Farid and Yunus’ trip between June 2009 to July 2010
The trip of a lifetime: A map outlines Farid and Yunus’ trip between June 2009 to July 2010

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

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.

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“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

Tash Aw: Mapping invisible worlds

JP/Stanny Angga
JP/Stanny Angga

Malaysian author Tash Aw grew up knowing Indonesia was his country’s closest and most influential neighbor. But when he moved to England for college, he found there was little mention of Indonesia in the Western world.

“It was virtually invisible,” Aw said. This inspired him to title his second novel, set in 1960s Indonesia and Malaysia, Map of the Invisible World. “This was my way of drawing attention to Indonesia, of mapping it,” Aw wrote in an email recently.

Aw’s debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won the Whitbread Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel in 2005, and was longlisted for the MAN Booker Prize. Set in 1940s Malaya, The Harmony Silk Factory has become an important voice in telling a Southeast Asian story to an English-speaking audience. With his 2009 Map of the Invisible World, Aw returns to Southeast Asia, this time further south to Indonesia.

Map of the Invisible World tells the story of two orphaned brothers. A wealthy Kuala Lumpur couple adopts the older brother, Johan, while the younger, Adam, is adopted by a Dutch-Indonesian man. The story begins on an island east of Bali, where Adam witnesses Karl, his adopted father, being arrested by the army during the time of Sukarno’s anti-imperialist rhetoric. Adam is an orphan once again, and journeys to Jakarta, meeting Karl’s former flame, Margaret, a university lecturer, and her assistant Din, who entices Adam to join in revolutionary struggle.

The title of the novel recalls the plight of its main characters, Aw says. “All the characters in the novel are physically present in one place, but their emotional lives are caught in another place, another time — in another world that has ceased to exist, or which may never have existed, a world that is now invisible,” he said.

Aw’s characters view home as an abstract and fragile thing. He may have drawn this from his own life experience, of finding a home in another country while continuing to view Malaysia as home. Aw writes about Adam’s view of home: “In those days he did not yet understand that Home was not necessarily where you were born, or even where you grew up, but something else entirely, something fragile that could exist anywhere in the world.”

Aw moved to England when he was 19, to study law at Warwick University and Cambridge University. He stayed in England, working as a lawyer for several years while working on his writing — a childhood ambition. Aw completed a degree in Creative Writing in 2002 at the University of East Anglia.

Asked where his home is, Aw’s reply was: “Home — that is the million dollar question for me!”
Aw says he owns an apartment in London, which makes London technically his home. “But I spend a lot of time in Kuala Lumpur and the rest of Southeast Asia. I think Malaysia will always be my point
of reference.”

Aw’s story of two brothers setting off on different paths is also a metaphor for how Aw views Indonesia and Malaysia.

“The two countries were often thought of as ‘brothers’ — with a shared language and religion and set apart from the other non-Muslim countries in Southeast Asia. We share music, TV and film. But it also struck me that in many fundamental ways the two countries could not be more different, both in terms of history and everyday contemporary life,” Aw says.

“So I decided to write a novel about two brothers and two countries, whose differences were most clearly highlighted in the 1960s during the time of Konfrontasi. The 1960s were a very turbulent time for Southeast Asian countries, most notably Indonesia, which is why it seemed the natural starting point for the novel.”

Aw has traveled extensively in Indonesia, including to Lombok. Last month, Aw took part in the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.

Aw recognizes the love-hate relationship between Indonesia and Malaysia. The two countries have had bumpy relations, starting with Konfrontasi when Sukarno waged a war against Malaysia under the pretext that the latter was a neo-imperialist puppet.

In recent years, more spats have occurred because of misunderstandings about the use of traditional music and dance, or because of unclear borders. On the web one can gauge the strong animosity between the two countries, with harsh words and name calling on both sides.

Aw likens this to sibling rivalry.

“The animosity between Malaysia and Indonesia is, and always has been, a kind of sibling rivalry. I think it is the kind of tension that might arise if two children who shared much in common happened to have very different paths in life. Essentially I think it boils down to wealth, and how the two countries see themselves in relation to each other.”

Aw said Indonesia has had a much tougher time, particularly in the 20th century. “History has not been kind to Indonesia — Malaysia has had much more luck in this respect.”

Malaysia’s smaller size made its problems smaller in scale, he said. “We were able to become relatively prosperous and have more of a middle class earlier than Indonesia. But Indonesia has a much
older, richer and more varied history and culture — it is, after all, a far bigger country.

“I sometimes think Malaysia knows this and has a kind of inferiority complex that manifests itself in a kind of nouveau-riche arrogance,” he adds.

Despite the seeming animosity, Aw said ultimately there was more closeness between the countries than tension.

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Ubud, Bali | People | Thu, November 04 2010

Indonesia’s political parties gears up for next year’s legislative election

Checks and balances: The Democratic Party selection team checks documents submitted by would-be legislative candidates at the party’s headquarters in Kramat, Central Jakarta, on April 3. Eligible political parties have until April 22 to submit their legislative candidacy lists for the 2014 election to the General Elections Commission (KPU). JP/Prodita Sabarini
I covered political parties’ preparation in recruiting and selecting prospective legislative candidates for next year’s election.
Sometimes watching the people sitting in parliament feels like watching a comedy show, until you realize that no one’s joking. Then you realize it’s more like watching a horror movie, and you get spooked a bit, until you remember that what you’re seeing is not a movie, it’s real life. Anti pornography law? Remember the porn-watching lawmaker from the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party nonetheless – after they release the anti-porn law? And now all this ridiculousness on witchcraft and living outside of marriage being criminalized in the Criminal Code.
So, I was quite excited covering the whole process of choosing candidates of people that will REPRESENT other people in deciding how we run this country. Admittedly, a lot of people don’t care about who will represent them in the election. So many say they’ll abstain from voting because they don’t trust politicians. But maybe if we pay more attention to this, we’ll actually can get people who really do care into the parliament.
I got help from The Post new cub reporter in covering for this reportage. Here are the reports