Agustinus Wibowo is widely credited as the pioneer of travel writing in Indonesia. His pensive approach to travelling has allowed him to gain a deep understanding and insight into the places he has visited, all of which were off the beaten path.
He reflects on his adventurous journey to Afghanistan in the book Selimut Debu (A Blanket of Dust), while Garis Batas (Borderlines: A Journey through Central Asia) chronicles his trip to Central Asia. His travel memoir, Titik Nol (Ground Zero: When Journey Takes You Home), was released in English in 2015. Agustinus, who will be among the featured Indonesian authors at the London Book Fair in March, spoke to NOW! Jakarta about how travelling helped to shape his own understanding of identity and culture and shares some of his most memorable travel experiences.
When did you first discover your love for travelling?
I grew up in a little town in Indonesia as Chinese minority. During my childhood, I experienced some racial discrimination that left me traumatised. I was afraid to leave the house by myself because I worried that people would mock me for the shape of my eyes and skin colour. Venturing into the world was merely a dream for me. But this changed when I arrived in Beijing for the first time in 2000 at the age of 19. For the first time in my life, I could walk on the streets without worrying that people would pay attention to how I looked like.
In 2002, I traveled as a backpacker to Mongolia, the cheapest foreign destination that I could reach from Beijing. On my first day in Mongolia, I was robbed on the train. The second day, I was mugged in a park in Ulaanbaatar. My Indonesian travel companion was horrified and urged me to end the trip immediately and return to Beijing. But I thought that we now already had lived through the most unexpected and scariest experience. We never regretted that decision.
Travelling is a very rewarding experience, but can also be rather expensive – how do you manage?
I always travel on budget. I take the cheapest option of local public transport, or by hitching rides. I also rarely stay in hotels, as most of the time I stay with locals that I meet on the streets or through recommendation.
In 2005, I started a journey across Asia, with a budget of USD 2,000 in cash. I planned to travel continuously for five years and eventually reach South Africa all the way from Beijing – I was quite an optimist back then! But the trip only lasted for 19 months. When I was in Uzbekistan, the last of my money was stolen. Still, I didn’t want to go home, as I hadn’t reached the goal of my trip, to learn about journalism from a real-world experience. My Indonesian friends in Uzbekistan helped me out with some cash, which was enough for me to get a visa for Afghanistan and travel to Kabul. I arrived in Kabul with less than USD1 in my pocket. Luckily, a contact there hosted me and offered me a job as a photojournalist. Thus, very unexpectedly, I fulfilled my dream. I became a real journalist in Afghanistan, from 2007 to 2009. This period was very crucial in shaping my career. If my money hadn’t been stolen, my life would be completely different now. Therefore, I am really grateful to the thief.
You chose to travel to Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia – not your typical tourist destinations. Did you ever have concerns about your safety?
Those countries were the most accessible for me to reach overland, as I couldn’t afford air travel. Secondly, having been raised in Indonesia in an Islamic environment, I was always curious about Islamic history and civilization. I’m not a Muslim myself, but learning about Islam means getting to know another side of Indonesia, which in turn helps me to understand my own identity.
As I was raised as an ethnic and religious minority, the question of identity affected much of my thinking and spiritual searching. The ex-Soviet republics somehow mirrored this confusion of identity inside me. Learning about the issues of those countries helped me a lot in understanding the meaning of nation, nationhood, and nationalism. It’s the same case with Afghanistan. After learning to speak Persian and travelling intensively across the country, I became more curious about relations between its ethnic and religious groups. Seeing countries with identity problems is like seeing myself in a mirror, which helped me to understand my own self. Of course I had concerns about my safety. I fear many things, including death. But I don’t let this fear stop me from travelling.
Can you share one of your most beloved memories from your travels with us?
Once I was visiting the Thar Desert in south Pakistan. The desert was very dry, and in some parts it hadn’t rained for four consecutive years. The temperature reached 50 °C, and many people across the country died. At this moment in time, I got hepatitis. I was visiting someone’s house at that time – someone I barely knew. I was just arriving at the house, when I suddenly had to vomit and collapsed on the floor. My eyes and skin were yellow, and it was very obvious to my host that I had contracted this infectious disease. I thought that he would just send me to a hospital. But, no – he prepared the best room in the house and told me, “you can stay here as long as you want, because this house is your house.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The whole family was busy cooking special food and getting traditional herbs to take care of me. I ended up staying for three weeks until I fully recovered. I felt ashamed and told my host that I would never know how to repay his kindness. But he answered, “In this life, it’s not important how much you collect. The most important is how much you share, and how to make yourself meaningful to others.” His words stayed with me, and I think it’s one of the greatest lessons I have learned while being on the road.
You have published several books about your journeys and will participate in the upcoming London Book Fair. What are you looking forward to the most during this event?
This will be my second time appearing at the London Book Fair. During my first visit I saw that travel literature is still an important genre in the UK. What I admire about the UK is that it produced a great deal of travel authors with high-quality works. Travel writing is a new genre in Indonesia, so we don’t have many references. In my earliest phase of writing, I developed my own concept of travel writing by reading many works of Western authors, including those from the UK. There are many British writers whom I really respect, including VS Naipaul, Colin Thubron and Elizabeth Pisani. Therefore, the one thing that I’m most looking forward to at the London Book Fair is to get in touch and engage in deeper conversations with British authors and publishers, especially those who focus on travel journalism.
You are currently based in Jakarta. How long do you usually stay in one place before that feeling of “wanderlust”, the urge to travel, hits you again?
I don’t travel for “wanderlust” anymore. I usually start a journey with a question in mind, and the journey then becomes my quest to seek the answers for my question. Currently, I am working on an essay book on identity issues, so I recently visited places like Suriname – to learn about the complex identity confusion among the Javanese diaspora in South America – and Kashmir, where I tried to understand the roots of separatism. I also travelled around Indonesia for this research. So the urge doesn’t come from having too much time or being bored, but from questions I have.
What are some places or countries that you haven't been to yet but that you would like to explore?
Israel. It is home to some of the holiest sites of some of the biggest world religions that all claim to promote peace, but ironically, it’s also the location of holy wars and never-ending conflicts that affect the whole world, from the medieval era until today. I am really eager to understand the history and the reality of the conflicts, because much of the news concerning Israel and Palestine that we receive here in Indonesia is distorted and politicized. Unfortunately, Indonesia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, so getting a visa can be problematic for Indonesian passport holders like me.
Visit www.agustinuswibowo.com for more information.