I never dreamed of experiencing the Indonesian culture quite as intimately as we did on the island of Belitung.A friend of my mom's graciously offered to have us stay with her and her husband, and of course we jumped at the chance. Just the fact that they opened their home to 2 complete strangers says so much about the Indonesian generosity and we couldn't have asked for a more up and close view of the daily lives in the rural parts of the country.
We didn't know what to expect by visiting the island -- I had imagined white sandy beaches, snorkeling, boat rides -- pretty much a small intimate island with the typical tourist fare -- but what we got was much different. The only thing I had known of Belitung was what I had read from a handful of blogs, giving me the vision of a tropical paradise. The island does have the beautiful white sandy beaches and snorkeling, but having arrived in the off season, the usual tourist activities weren't available.
Our hosts picked us up from the airport and we began the drive to her home in a village called Kepulauan. Straight away, I realized this was not going to be the beach holiday I had imaged, but something much different. It took about 45 minutes to reach the village, which is near the center of the island. We drove through the main city, then out into the rural areas, which are interspersed with jungle, palm tree plantations, rustic homes and the ruins of many abandoned structures along the way. Much of the area was once run by Australian tin mining companies, but they have since left the area and now you won't see many westerners there at all. Instead, you will find families out in their yards, kids playing in the streets and people seeming to live a simple way of life -- with strong community and family ties.
The Australian tin miners left the area about 5 years ago (from what I was told) so many of the children wouldn't have any memories of them. Ollie and I were quite the sight walking around and we couldn't walk 2 minutes without someone yelling out "meester!" to Ollie, or stopping us to take a photo. I've never met friendlier or more curious people in my life. There were constant visitors to the home of people wanting to see the "bule" (white person), from young to old. A group of teenagers stopped by and after an awkward 20 minutes of trying to communicate with them while they sat on their phones, called their friends on facetime to show us to them, and giggled whenever we would try to talk to them; they finally got to what they really wanted -- photos with the bules. I heard one of the girls say "instagram" and so I asked her to tag me in the photo if she posted it (communicating through google translate, of course) and she did. It was a photo of me smiling like a total dork and her posing next to me with a caption reading "with bule" and a couple of laughing emojis. You can go to my tagged photos to see it if you like.
It was definitely strange to stick out so much but the friendliness and smiles that came along with the curiosity couldn't be faulted. It's actually quite nice that the people here don't have us westerners coming in and ruining their culture and way of life. The tourism that they do have is mostly Indonesians and some Chinese, but the island doesn't have the infrastructure for mass tourism at the moment. There are no taxis, buses or other ways to easily get around. I suppose you would need to arrange with your hotel to be picked up from the airport and perhaps rent a scooter once you are there. Not many people speak English, but they seem to love to take the chance to practice it whenever they can.
The home we stayed in was a traditional Indonesian home, if not on the wealthier side of the scale. It was big and airy and open, with high ceilings and all the windows and doors open to let the air flow through until dusk, when the mosquitoes come out in full force. I was given quite the shock on my first night there when I entered the washroom to prepare for bed. You can see some photos of what that looks like here, but I had personally never seen one before. I quickly looked around and noticed there was no sink, tap, or shower in there -- just a tub full of water and a bucket next to it. I stood there for a moment before going straight back out to ask what to do. It's not so scary once you know how it works, but I can honestly say I was out of my depths with this one. Afterwards, I began noticing there are no taps or sinks in the large kitchen either and when I asked about it, they explained that the water in the village comes from communal wells that can't support the same type of use that we have in other parts of the world. The systems haven't been created in these villages and so they work with what they have. Like I said, it's not so bad once you get the hang of it and I'm sure you get pretty dang good at showering with a bucket in no time at all. I wasn't quite there yet, but with a little more practice, I'm sure I could have been.
During our trip, the kids were by far the highlight -- we actually had our own little entourage of boys on bikes following us around and shouting out what words they knew in English. Before that, a family stopped us as we were walking past their home and asked us to take photos with them. Their two young sons were fighting with each other over who got to stand next to me in the photo and you can see their mother trying to break them up. As we were walking around the village, we were met with so many smiles, hellos, waves and meester!s that we couldn't help but get the warm and fuzzies. We did end up visiting a couple of the beaches and they were beautiful, but the moments that stick out the most in my mind are the ones from that 45 minute walk we took around the village. It truly was special and I don't think it is something I will ever experience again. It was just a short trip to Belitung, but one I won't soon forget.
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