DemosNews: Slow Travel
Slow Travel
By: Anita Spertus

When I graduated university in ’67, Barbara Tuchman presented the keynote address. She found herself wishing that her daughter would book sea passage across the Atlantic just once instead of jetting, to get a sense of the real distance and flavor of the journey as people had for centuries (granted, those ships were a bit smaller and hairier.) But then she realized that that didn’t accord with the reality of these modern times. We’re destination oriented. Speed is an intoxicant and enabler to a goal. Time is money, they say. Had she only been able to fast forward to today! instant email communication; no more letters languishing months to be collected by the traveler at poste restante; instant ether browsing at booksellers anywhere on the globe; people buzzing to Brussels or Shanghai on sleeper planes as casually as they’d nod off at a hotel.

But slowness has its place and import. When we two first visited Indonesia, the long creep back and forth along switchbacks on a creaky conveyance to Java’s highest, sulphur scented plateau (Dieng), together with the stay there of more than just the day, affected our experience of that land’s most ancient and spare Hindu shrines. Pearly light at dawn and dusk, mists sweeping through, volcanic rumblings and fumes—no wonder that mysterious spot became the first toehold of the Hindu gods in the archipelago.

Over the years, we walked again and again into the tribal interiors of Indonesia’s islands, and out the other side six weeks later. At first it was the adventure in a pure, breathtakingly beautiful, nearly untouched, but peopled place that was the lure that attracted and delighted us: crossing a swaying rattan bridge over a deep river gorge, heavy pack on the back, a squawking chicken in hand newly bartered for an umbrella; an old person handed an Indonesian coin who didn’t even recognize it (never seen money); a child terrified at we two ghosts with pale skin and large noses who appeared suddenly at dusk in his tiny remote village, mingling and chatting easily in Indonesian with the elders; or having to sleep one night between villages on a little wooden bridge (freezing cold) with another local traveler, and lighting the requisite fire at either bank to stave off dangerous creatures.

It was the larger experience of that slow, subtle exposure, however, that changed our entire life direction. The peoples of interior Celebes, where we first walked, had kept their animist ways until the 1950s when they were obliged by force to adopt a ‘real’ religion: Christianity or Islam. Old persons told of the former festivals and rites with misty eyes, and still held old mythic objects dear. Handling those pieces, wondering about them, hearing the old stories and poems amid an architectural context of huge, deeply swaybacked clan houses emblazoned with mythic symbols, fired the art historical curiosity that drove our research on Indonesia for the next thirty years. Wherefrom this iconography? What ancient migrations, trade and religious flows shaped the differing styles and media of depiction, and contributed to their great beauty and aesthetic variety? What insights can one cull by considering this art and culture within the greater context of south Asia, India to China, and out into the Pacific?

Yes, we went on to spend endless research hours in museums and symposium chambers, and to amass an enormous specialized library. But I suspect the love and zeal would never have been the same had we not carried that whiff of the land and flavor there, and of the morés and dignity of the peoples we met.

© 2021 Anita Spertus of DemosNews

September 3, 2007 at 11:13am
DemosRating: 5
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Genre: Away (Tales)
Type: Creative
Tags: Indonesia, Celebes, , art, history

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