Blissful Paradise Here, Biting Reality There

“I’m going away for a while. I need to disconnect.”

Rat-racing while being wired 24/7, only urbanites, like yours truly, can get burned out and suddenly need to temporarily disconnect. For years before Eat Pray Love book and movie brought in gazillion bliss-seeking tourists, my preferred hideout had been Ubud. I still have a go-to inn tucked next to perhaps the last paddy patch near the town center, but since now Ubud can get traffic jam on a mundane Tuesday, in addition to the mushrooming of free Wi-Fi, I can no longer completely disconnect there.

The far-flung islands of this world’s largest archipelago are where the disconnectedness remains, as I’ve discovered, for better or worse.

Let’s start with the “for better”. As I write this I’m nursing sunburn and cuts from adventuring last week all the way to Derawan Islands. I said all the way, because it took a 3-hour flight to North Kalimantan’s Tarakan plus a 3-hour speedboat ride on Sulawesi Sea into East Kalimantan. Once we arrived cellular signal was scant, and between snorkeling with turtles and jellyfish, sunset or dolphin chasing, cave jumping and accidentally being swept out of a lagoon against rocks into the sea, I managed to only worry whether our ride could race out the tides. I managed to get disconnected from how murkier our financial markets and politics have gotten.

Pretty much like last year in Maluku’s Banda Islands and the year before in Southeast Sulawesi’s Wakatobi Islands. Very few flights, a long journey on sardine-packed Pelni ships, limited road transportation modes and almost non-existent signals. Blissful paradise for adventurous tourists, biting reality for natives.

Biting reality is where “for worse” kicks in– as the natives must pursue education, earn a living, raise kids, and attain medical assistance with the limited infrastructure every single day, not just during a weekend getaway. Often there aren’t schools beyond junior high level, which means unless parents can afford off-island boarding costs there goes away higher education for their 15-year-olds and a fighting chance to lift him or herself out of poverty.

Tourists may well be ferried in chartered fast boats yet few of these islands have regular water transportation modes for their own residents, if at all. The modest water taxis among Banda islands would take humans and livestock (yes, I shared the ride with a goat, thankyouverymuch) but not motorbikes unless rented exclusively. Derawan Islands don’t even have any regular route that a student, who’d gone home to Maratua for a family affair, had to hitch in our speedboat back to his university in Tarakan, lest detour through Tanjung Batu and Berau for a full day.

Hospitals are even fewer than schools, so imagine if major medical emergencies occur. Even if you have telecommunication support to call for help, I doubt air ambulance is an option. Wakatobi had just opened a small airport on main island Wangi-wangi while Banda Naira’s was closed due to labor dispute when I came; now Maratua has an airstrip though the ATC tower is yet to be built.

Some travel buddies argue that the worse the infrastructures are, the longer the paradise remains. It’s logical and perfectly fine if the remote spots don’t house residents beyond employees of some self-sustaining resorts like, umm, on certain islets in Karimunjawa and West Sumatra. But if there are actual natives, don’t they deserve daily access and infrastructures on par with the visitors swinging in for a short sojourn?  Doesn’t matter what political leaning or economic ideology that you hold, and trust me I’m never be mistaken for a social class activist, but that’s social injustice in plain view.

So now that I’ve fretted, what’s next? Personal donations and CSR projects are abound, and I strongly suggest pitching in whenever an opportunity arises, but the natives need more fundamental and sustainable undertakings. The kind of undertakings only governments can initiate, coordinate, finance and execute. The new Village Law is supposedly disbursing up to a billion rupiah for any qualified village—but I wonder how much of that will be dispensed on basic infrastructures instead of some collective whims of consumerism. The village fund management will be an intriguing test case of democracy versus theocracy; only time will tell who’ll eventually get shorthanded within the community.

I get away to forget about my troubles, many say as they book a trip. Often I intend and manage to do just that, retreat behind my sunglasses to focus on the pleasantness in the full knowledge that just by coming I’ve already contributed to the local economy. But it gets harder as the inequality widens and I almost feel guilty scurrying around in chartered boats to swim with exotic marine animals while the islanders aren’t even provided with regular transportation rides, where their disconnectedness, as oppose to us visitors, is never by personal choice.

Blissful paradise here, biting reality there, my Indonesia everywhere.

As published:

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