I grab my backpack, clean it up from a layer of thick dust covering it, and put my clothes inside. It has been years since the last time I touched this backpack. Suddenly I realize I do not remember the last time I felt this kind of anxiety. Anxiety to face the Unknown and the Otherness.
Tomorrow, I will start my first trip out of Asia. Just few days ago, on Monday, July 21, I got the confirmation of invitation to attend the Byron Bay Writers Festival (BBWF) in Byron Bay, NSW, Australia, to be held from August 1 to 3. It is a literary festival in collaboration with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in the Indonesian island of Bali, which I have attended twice. Each year BBWF provides an opportunity for Indonesian writer for a special appearance in this international event.
As the confirmed invitation came up in very last minutes, I was worrying whether I would get my Australian visa on time. Australian visa usually takes five working days. But as Indonesia is celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr, the day of my departure coincided with the 4th working day after I lodged my visa application along with complete invitation documents and urgency requests. It’s kinda risky. Fingers crossed. I got my Australian visa just in two days. Yay!
Regarding this literary festival, I was invited to speak in two panels, all related to travel writing and memoir writing. As this is my first writer festival outside Indonesia, I am very excited by the opportunity to meet writers from other country.
It’s shame that I still don’t have any books published in English yet. Currently I am doing translation for my third book, Titik Nol, or to be called Ground Zero: When Journey Takes You Home in English. In fact, it was not a simple translating from Indonesian to English, but I have to rewrite the whole book to suit international readers. During this process, thanks to my kind translator-cum-editor Maggie Tiojakin, I realized that the mindset and culture of a nation affects greatly in the way of the people to communicate, to write, and to read. This is the reason why it has taken me almost a year in rewriting a published book, just to be published into another language. And I am still quite far from finish.
Anyway, despite of coming to a literary festival without bringing any books to share, this Festival is meaningful for me as it is a very valuable opportunity to learn from world authors, and to see literature from different cultural perspectives. I will share discussion panels with Vietnamese and Tibetan writers, of which works also talk about a quest of home, conflicts of identities, and migration—topics which I also covered in my books. I have been to Vietnam and Tibet, but I have never read any works from those areas, so I am very eager to meet them.
The other thing I am looking forward for this Festival is the “after-party”. The organizer initially provided me with a return ticket to Jakarta right after the festival ends. I just think Australia is just a little bit too far to go just to attend a three-day festival. Therefore, I need some other adventures after the event. I asked them whether it’s possible for them to change my returning ticket, instead of going to Jakarta I would love to go to Port Moresby—which should be cheaper to go from Australia. They agree.
So, this week is a week of unpredictability for me. And this is precisely the unprecedented surprises that I always look forward in any trip. A week earlier, I would not even know where I am going to go next week, and today suddenly I have to make all of my preparations in a total rush. I am going to a country I hardly know but its name: Papua New Guinea. It’s a country neighboring Indonesia, but just ask any Indonesians of what they know on Papua New Guinea. They would usually raise their eyebrows, and asked, “Isn’t that one of our provinces?” Information about Papua New Guinea is rare, if not non-existent, and the embassy here in Jakarta is also far from helpful. I have to call all the way to Canberra to get a confirmation that as an Indonesian citizen I can get my PNG visa on-arrival in the Port Moresby’s Jackson Airport.
I also have to grab its language. Tok Pisin, from the English word “Talk Pidgin”, locally known as “Better English”, is said as its lingua franca. It’s kind of creole or pidgin derived from English used as a communication tool of the Melanesian people of the South Pacific, as they speak myriads of languages. Papua New Guinea, with the size of only a half of the New Guinea island, have more than 820 living languages and is known as world’s number 1 in terms of the total number of languages. (With its 700ish languages Indonesia is world’s number 2, and merely on its side of the New Guinea island there are about 200 languages.) Tok Pisin is the uniting language of the Melanesians, based on English with very limited vocabulary and local grammars, and thus become a distinctive language which may sound funny. A baby talk, some would say.
Some examples of Tok Pisin (I change its spelling for you to see the relation with English):
- Name belong me Augustine, me belong Indonesia, me go along Papua Niugini along looklookim na walkabout.
- Me likim you true. (= I love you very much)
- Got bel (= pregnant)
- House sick (= hospital)
- House dog sick (= veterinary)
- Shit house (= toilet)
- Grass belong head (= hair)
- Soap belong grass belong head (= shampoo)
- Soap belong teeth (= toothpaste)
- Man belong talktalk (= a talkative person)
- Man belong fright (= a coward)
- Man i savvy cutim grass belong head (= a barber)
I have memorized plenty of Tok Pisin vocabulary and grammar rules (even a “broken” language has its grammar!), and by now me fright along English belong me bugger-up finish na by me no enough talktalk along normal English.
In addition to its fascinating languages, I am so much attracted by the whole Papua due to its mysterious atmosphere and that it seems living in a very different cosmology, just like another world. The journey to the two sides of the border in the New Guinea island, that is to the Papua New Guinea and Indonesian side of Papua (internationally known as “West Papua”), for me is to look at the outermost, wildest, and darkest side of my understanding of being an Indonesian. It is like a total blank spot in my mind, a total unknown filled by prejudice. Papua is an integral part of Indonesian slogan of nationalism “from Sabang to Merauke”—Sabang is the westernmost part of Indonesia, and Merauke is its easternmost city, located in the southeastern corner of Papua province. We always repeat this sentence, again and again, without really understanding of what is Merauke, how is life there, and what it really means to be united with the people there as a nation. This trip to Papua, I hope, will be able to give me some enlightenment of the meaning of our nationalism.
Along with this preparation of Papua trip, in one day and one sitting I finished reading a very fascinating book Savage Harvest, written by American journalist Carl Hoffman. This book is highly recommended! This book is an investigation on the death of Michael Rockefeller, son of the former US vice president, during his visit to Asmat villages in the Indonesian side of Papua (that time it was still Dutch New Guinea). Not only the author tells vivid details on how Rockefeller was murdered and how his body was chopped up and eaten by the Asmats, he also analyzes the cannibalistic culture of the people, the reason behind tribal wars, the complexities of Dutch politics to go along with American interference and Indonesian claim on the region which caused the case is almost forgotten for decades. Just before being killed, Rockefeller wrote, “Finally, I am in New Guinea!” This was the adventurous soul of the young man who stepped towards the Otherness, the Unknown, the Unpredictable, the Mystery and the Savage. And he surely enjoyed it.
This evening, I am occupied by the very same emotion. Tomorrow is a new world, a new story.