Monday, September 17, 2007

Crunchiness and Granola

I've just come back from the cultural/spiritual center of Java, and while I can't say that I've learned any more or crystallized my thoughts on Indonesia, I did discover a few things about myself. For example, there's a reason I don't backpack anymore. It was all fun when I was in India and maybe even a little after I started working in Taiwan. But comparing my hotel room to the places where some of the Westerners I met were staying - well, there was no comparison. I was invited back to their place for some drinks (remember, it's Ramadan, so alcohol is hard to find) and quickly came to the conclusion that I would not be spending the night there under any circumstances. The fact that my 3-star hotel room was all of 300 meters away really wasn't an important factor in this decision, and I realize how much I've grown to enjoy my creature comforts. Like an actual seat on the toilet.

Also, I've become more firmly convinced in my disinterest - bordering on distaste - of Western tourists looking to find themselves in the spiritual centers of Asia. Yogjakarta (shortened to Yogja and pronounced "jog-ja") has loads of Hindu, Buddhist, and historical sites, as well as a cultural asthetic marred only by the commercialism that has crept in because tourism is a primary driver of the local economy. As a result, you get lots of people doing the extra-crunchy granola backpacking thing, something which - while I respect it - I'm not sure how much it's based in a realistic understanding of the people's lives.

I suppose that's partly the point - you go to these places to escape the rigors and stresses of the world. But at some point, I do wonder whether the travelers are mistaking the spirituality and "hush" lent to a location by virtue of it being a past religious center with the spirituality that in some sense should emanate from the people living in the location. It's hard for me to square the spirituality of the location with, say, the commercialism I mentioned earlier. So, India never struck me as the spiritual place that many of my friends thought it was, except in the Tibetan monasteries, where spiritualism was a way of life (the human element joining with the location). The same was in Yogja.

All of this is really me trying to say that multiple times, I felt very old. In a far different place than a lot of the college and post-college kids I met: much more firmly established and far less able to join in their conversations about things that, frankly, didn't seem at all interesting to me. This was even the case with some of the older individuals I met there. It makes me wonder about my time backpacking, and whether I was really as idealistic, perhaps even naive, as the individuals I met.

As for the city itself, it's a very pretty place with some great sights to see. The Borobhudur temple in particular is quite simply massive, and a monumental achievement for the Buddhist religion. I'll post pictures when I get back to the U.S. But like any heavy tourist spot, there were innumerable touts and people looking to sell overpriced handicrafts. This was a great contrast to Turkey, and I found myself longing for a place that is firmly used to the idea of tourists. So, as GF and I are planning a vacation next summer after I quit, it's a race between Southeast Asia and a Mediterranean tour. I think you know which one I'm going after.

And one thing I forgot to mention last time. Indonesia needs to cut off about three "0" off its currency. It's nice being a millionnaire, but the 9500:1 exchange rate - and the fact that things cost at least some multiple of 100, if not 1000, pre-tax - means that you get very large and unwieldy bills in your wallet.


HoBs said...

heh, for once, we are completely agreed, on western idealization of eastern spirituality and also of backpacking

I remember my last hurrah backpacking, was with R- for her requisite post-college backpcaking through Europe trip. But by then, I had already decided I had had enough of it.

hcduvall said...

I'll try not to get going too far on my typical ranty mcrant about slumming dilettante tourists. I will say that while given the option its mildly preferable to spring break touristification, most forms of vacationing are about visiting exoticism within confines, and people's thresholds are just typically tilt to comfort (or escapism). Even tourism of the latter sort by the worst of the Epcot guide to the poverty and spiritualism nature is usually finite for that tourist, even if that's not an acknowledged part of the mental picture, and for most who like that sort of thing, well they just go back to New York at the end.

I still like traveling light (backpacking) and being cheap, but am probably past wanting to stay in most hostels and fleabags. But the benefits of these habits are that I carry less and have more space, and I spend less have more money, it's not a mental gain in virtue.

Re: Money--What, no memories of carting boxes of paper bills and change to banks to exchange for the new currency of the month? A for life in financially stable countries.

HoBs said...

I'm just happy I got my 10,000,000 lira bill from Turkey right before they dropped six zeros.