Indonesia is strangely underrepresented on the “travel literature” shelves. The merest glimpse at the map of the archipelago should surely be enough to tantalise any would-be travel writer. And yet, compared to similarly vast China and India, Indonesia seems to have been visited by relatively few literary wanderers. Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Colin Thubron, William Dalrymple: none of them have passed this way with pen in hand. Tim Mackintosh-Smith even managed to sidestep Sumatra in the final part of his “in the footsteps of Ibn Battutah” trilogy, despite the fact that the Tangerine traveller spent a very interesting sojourn there. V.S. Naipaul (whose mode of travel is more that of bad-tempered tourist than intrepid travel writer) did pass briefly by on his Islamophobic odysseys of 1981 and 1998, but given the malign influence of Naipaul on virtually every subsequent Indonesia correspondent with literary aspirations, the less said of him the better. In fact, the only instantly obvious contender for the designation “classic Indonesia travel book” is Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago – and that was written almost 150 years ago!
But in the last year or so there have, at last, been some worthy additions to the Indonesia travel shelves. Elizabeth Pisani’s Indonesia, Etc. finally gave us a proper, high-profile “portrait of the nation” travelogue – and thankfully, it came from a writer with a long and deep relationship with the country, rather than a passing member of the “posh white men” club. It’s brilliant, and has much to offer newcomers and old-timers alike. Then came a book which received far less attention, but which, if there was any justice in the world, would be winning prizes. Andrew Beatty’s After the Ancestors: An Anthropologist’s Story was, I’m pretty sure, the single most impressive book I read last year, better even than his previous book, A Shadow Falls. And then, to wrap up my reading year, came another travel writing delight: Mark Heyward’s Crazy Little Heaven, first published in 2013, but with a new edition apparently in the offing.
Crazy Little Heaven is essentially a travelogue, an account of a journey across Indonesian Borneo, from Samarinda in the east to Pontianak in the west, by boat, by road, and on foot. That alone promises the sort of off-the-beaten-track adventure of which classic travel books are made – the stuff which Redmond O’Hanlon served up in his journey Into the Heart of [a different, non-Indonesian, bit of] Borneo. You certainly get the adventure and the foetid jungle atmosphere in Heyward’s book. There are steamy mountain passes to be crossed, rapids to be ridden, leeches and bad food to be endured, and various human difficulties to be dealt with. But what makes the book so impressive is that the author hangs upon the framework of a relatively simple – albeit very engaging – travelogue all sorts of other, more complicated things.
Mark Heyward is an Australian by birth, but he has spent over two decades living and working in Indonesia. The journey described in Crazy Little Heaven actually took place early in that long stretch – in 1994. But by returning to his memories and diaries of the trip 20 years later, the author has been able to use it as a device to create a book that is at once a travelogue, a personal memoir, and a deliberately and affectionately subjective portrait of the country he now calls home. It’s quite a feat, structurally as much as anything, but he pulls it off – thanks in part to the clever decision to use a crisp, immediate present tense to tell the tale of the journey, and then a softer, more reflective past tense for the passages of memoir, even when the events described occurred long after the central Borneo adventure.
So, in this relatively slender book (250 pages or thereabouts), we get to visit Flores, Lombok, Java and various other corners of the country, as well as Borneo. There are also the illuminating passages on history and ecology that are de rigueur in travel writing, and plenty of encounters with orangutans – which is always a good thing! There are also compelling first-hand recollections of the turbulence that wracked Jakarta in 1998 as the New Order collapsed and the way for Reformasi opened, and more besides.
In many ways, Crazy Little Heaven makes an attractive companion piece for Indonesia, Etc. Heyward and Pisani have both known Indonesia well for around two decades; both have worked there and so know the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the civil state; and both are very well qualified to write a book about the place. But they take very different approaches. While Pisani remains, to some extent, a sceptical outsider with a critical and analytical eye, Heyward has a greater degree of emotional connection. He is married to an Indonesian; he has an Indonesian family; and that gives his book a warmer tone than Pisani’s. Indeed, perhaps the most memorable section of Crazy Little Heaven is a sustained passage recounting the customary journey to his wife’s home village in Central Java at the end of Ramadan – an immersive and deeply affectionate account, and one of the finest evocations I’ve read of the soft, slow-moving world in which most Javanese people still live, but with which so few foreigners connect. The warm tone is also evident in Heyward’s intriguing reflections on the idea of religion in Indonesia as “a kind of poetry” (this from the son of an Anglican vicar, who lapsed from Christianity, and then converted to Islam for marriage).
Make no mistake, however: this book is first and foremost a good-old-fashioned traveller’s tale. The 1994 crossing of Borneo frames the whole thing, with each day of the journey – seventeen of them in total – forming a chapter. And it’s in the descriptions of life on the river and on the trail, and in the smoky Dayak villages visited along the way, that Heyward’s prose is at its best. There is a delicate, deliberately descriptive style that captures the atmosphere of deep forest and ramshackle riverside townships perfectly, without lapsing into lurid exoticism. And there are fleeting moments of strange magic – not least the discovery of a pair of bleached human skulls in a crevice of a limestone outcrop. There is also a refreshing honesty about the challenges faced by any party of foreigners undertaking such a trip – the wrangles over prices with guides and porters and boatmen, the suspected thefts, and the frustrations that such things cause – though Heyward never for a moment descends to the petty whinging that can taint books by those authors less naturally suited to travel (Naipaul springs to mind, again).
Crazy Little Heaven is charming, insightful, and very well written, and it does something to address that paucity of decent travel books about Indonesia. And it is original and even innovative too in the manner of its telling. The idea of an author returning to the subject of a youthful journey in middle age is hardly new – Patrick Leigh Fermor and Laurie Lee both did it, and indeed, the aforementioned After the Ancestors is based on fieldwork Andrew Beatty conducted in the 1980s. But the combination of travelogue and broader memoir here is unusual. The appealing thing about this book is that, as you reach the final, seventeenth day of the journey it describes, with the sun setting over the South China Sea, you know that the author’s adventure is really only just beginning.
© Tim Hannigan 2016