In February the Australian government issued a warning that terrorists may be in the ‘advanced stages’ of carrying out a terror attack in Indonesia, and for Australians to be wary of travelling to the area. At this moment I could have reconsidered my need to travel to the country. As fear and stipulation swept their way through my mind I could have succumbed to it and, without hassle, chosen to visit any other country instead. But I didn’t, and here’s why.
I arrived in Medan Indonesia on Monday the 7th March almost two months after the grim attacks on Jakarta, acted out by violent extremists. The airport was full of people from all walks of life. Families greeted each other with warm embrace, groups of tourists from other parts of Indonesia gathered together with their guides, the occasional western tourist wandered through to currency exchanges and tourists information. It was business as usual.
Looking confused, a man noticed and approached me to offer his assistance. He pointed me in the direction of the bus to my destination. Our words met with kindness and efficacy as I found my way to where I needed to go. The bus ride was like any other, people gazing out the window at the passing city, minding their own business, pondering their life thoughts or drifting off into a light sleep. We passed through the busy city of Medan and I stared out the window at the hundreds of people that we passed each minute, drivers, workers, commuters, school children, elderly. Life was happening in this vibrant city, and although there might have been certain dangers lurking in it, those dangers were buried in the majority of people who were just like us.
I got to Bukit Lawang in Indonesia’s Sumatra only to be greeted by an opulence of smiles and hospitality. From the minute I conversed with the people there I felt no sense of fear or animosity whatsoever. The town was full of contentment and enjoyment. People sat out the front of their homes or businesses, greeting you with a ‘hello’ as you walked by. The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming, and I instantaneously felt at home.
Bukit Lawing in Sumatra is the main hub for visiting the Gunung Leuser National Park, one of the world’s richest destinations for biodiversity. The town people flourish off the tourism industry, and if visitors were deterred from coming here many businesses would suffer. It’s important to recognise the importance that tourism plays in communities like Bukit Lawang. If I was to deter my travels based on the government’s warnings it’s the good people who would be affected the most. My decisions would have no impact on the few people who find it in their best interests to sabotage the rest of the country’s reputation. How can we paint a blanket picture of a country of 260 million people based on the actions of a small few?
I travelled to Bali after Sumatra only to be met with the same friendly smiles and the same hospitality I had received while I was in the western part of the country. Bali is a place full of sociable, hospitable people. It is in their culture and they have welcomed tourists in with open arms for many years, having also thrived from the industry and the ability to share their Balinese culture with the world. Tragically in 2002 Bali had its own share of violent extremism which put a gaping hole in the tourism industry, and resulted in unemployment and loss of income for the local people. Again, the good people being punished for the atrocious actions of a small few. It took a long time for Bali to get back on its feet, and remains one of the worlds most popular tourist destinations for many amiable reasons.
During my time here the occasional anxious thought would run through my mind. In this dark era where we are dealing with such evil there is a certain angst that creeps around all of us especially when we venture from our safe homes, which arguably are no safer than the places we visit. If we give in to that angst however, we lose our ability to connect with people and help people. We must always remember to not judge the whole world based on one small stain in it. The wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert said in a recent article –
“To be sure, the world can be a scary place, and we all want to be safe, but here’s the thing—safety can never be found in isolation. Human warmth and openness will always be our only place of true safety. Be careful about hiding yourself away, because walls that are meant to be fortresses can quickly turn into prisons.”
Human connection is important now more than ever so we mustn’t give into fear, for our own sake and the sake of the good people in this world who need us the most.
If it wasn’t for my time in Indonesia I would have missed out on so many wonderful experiences and connections that I will now never forget,