Tana Toraja: death and life in lovely December

Tana Toraja is one of the most culturally fascinating places I’ve ever visited. It is a culture that has a totally different perspective on death. Funerals are a huge part of life here. The dead are seen off to the afterlife in hugely elaborate funerals. The entire village will participate and a number of pigs, chickens and buffalo will be slaughtered – in accordance with the deceased person’s status – the higher the status, the more buffalos that are slaughtered.

Torajan funeral: close family and friends lead the coffin down the road in a final parade.
Torajan funeral: close family and friends lead the coffin down the road in a final parade.
Torajan funeral: men carry the coffin.
Men carry the coffin.
Sacrificial buffalo part of the funeral precession
Sacrificial buffalo part of the funeral precession
Torajan funeral: the coffin is taken to its ceremonial position at the centre of the funeral ceremony.
The coffin is taken to its ceremonial position at the centre of the funeral ceremony.

More astonishing than the Torajan funeral ceremony are the weeks, months or years in-between the person dying and the funeral taking place. In Torajan culture a person is not actually considered dead until a certain part of the funeral ceremony takes place. Until then, dead relatives are seen as merely ‘sick’. They will be kept in a traditional house called a Tongkonan – their bodies treated with formaldehyde – and then continue to be cared for as a normal family member. Meanwhile the family will save up the money necessary for the funeral (often tens of thousands of dollars). I was told that some families have kept (and ceremonially cared for) the body of a dead relative in their house for up to forty years.
I couldn’t imagine living with the corpse of a dead family member for years at a time. From my cultural perspective it seems incredibly creepy and macabre – but to Torajans it is completely natural.

Traditional tongkonan near Sangalla village.  These houses are still in use today.
Traditional tongkonan near Sangalla village. These houses are still in use today.

Some of the major tourist sites in Toraja are family graves. Every family in Toraja has a grave and this is a place where the bodies will be taken after the funeral ceremony. You can see family graves in Ke’te Kesu’ and Londa (not far from Rantepao). Here coffins are kept in caves – the remaining skulls and other bones are piled together and relatives leave offerings (such as money or cigarettes) for the deceased. Walking around the caves can be quite bizarre as you have to be careful not to step on the human skulls scattered about the place.

Skulls at LondaBabies who died before getting their first tooth are not buried in the same graves. Instead they are placed inside of trees. It is believed that the soul of the baby will grow up with the tree and be taken to the afterlife. These baby graves can be seen in Kambira.

Baby graves in Kambira
Baby graves in Kambira

In addition to traditional beliefs, the people of Toraja are mostly devout Christians. As I came in on the bus from Makassar it was interesting to see the streets lined with Christmas lights as soon as we crossed into the Tana Toraja regency. The shops and houses were all decked out in Christmas decorations and Christmas songs were being sung in the cute little white churches around town.
The bus from Makassar was packed with locals all coming home for Christmas. The government has called this time of year ‘lovely December’ and is aiming to make it an annual celebration for returning locals and tourists alike. As yet there isn’t much happening, but hopefully over the next few years it will start to take off. No matter what time of year you visit Toraja the cultural sights will make it an amazing experience.

Christmas lights in Rantepao, Toraja.
Christmas lights in Rantepao, Toraja.

I found it most convenient to be based in Rantepao. From there I took trips out using various types of public transport such as, pete-pete (mini van), Kijang (4WD) and ojek (motorcycle taxi). Many of the most interesting sites are accessible by public transport (although some are easier to get to than others). If you want ultimate convenience, go with a guide. They can also help you to find a funeral ceremony and can be reasonably priced if you go with a small group. As of writing this the official rate per day is 350,000rp for the car hire and 300,000rp for the guide (entrance fees and additional costs are on top of this). Renting a motorbike is also an option and can be a great way to take in the beautiful villages around Toraja.
Without a doubt, Tana Toraja is a fascinating place. It is a cultural experience like no other.


English Language for International Development

seminar audience

Last Saturday the Makassar Muhammadiyah University hosted an International seminar on language teaching.  Guest speakers from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia spoke about ‘integrating curriculum, teaching and assessment in language learning’.

seminar 1

I was also invited to speak and gave a keynote on ‘English language for International development’.  It was based on my experiences working in International development – specifically in Indonesia.

Part I – Why English?

There are a lot of problems in the world.  Poverty; the destruction of the environment; violence; war; and inequality – just to name a few – so why focus on English?  Why is English important?  Why is it important that a poor farmer in a rural village learns to speak English?

Here in Indonesia English is seen as a luxury.  It is a status symbol.  Celebrities mix in English phrases with their bahasa Indonesia.  Rich kids in Jakarta can be heard chatting in English in the Grand Indonesia shopping mall.  On television, advertisements for luxury items, such as watches, expensive cars and jewellery are often in English.  The message is clear; the English language is for the upper-class.  Speaking English in Indonesia is the same as wearing an expensive watch.

What does a poor farmer in a little village somewhere in rural Indonesia need English for?  He doesn’t need the status symbol.  He is a simple man, down-to-earth, ‘sederhana’.  He needs English just as much as he needs an expensive watch… right?

This is the kind of perspective that I think needs to change.  English is not a luxury – it is not exclusively for the rich and it’s not a status symbol.  It’s not just for people who live in the big cities.

Participate in the Global Conversation

Learning English is important for everyone because English allows you to communicate with the world.

Research by the British Council suggests that there are 375 million native speakers of English; 375 million people who use English as a second language; and a staggering 750 million people who use English as a foreign language (for example, in Indonesia, people may speak a local language as their first language – Bahasa Makassar, Bahasa Bugis or Bahasa Jawa; and then use Bahasa Indonesia as their second language – in this case English is considered a foreign language).  According to these statistics 1.5 billion people use English to some degree: that is approximately one in four people on Earth.  Note that this research was done in 2000 and since then, the number of English speakers is likely to have increased.

English is an important communication tool for our planet.  Globalisation is bringing our worlds closer together; and the English language is helping us to communicate and understand each other.  When someone from Japan meets with someone from Russia and someone from Thailand – they can use English as a common language.  If you go to another country and you don’t speak the local language – try speaking English – there is a one-in-four chance they will at least know some English – even if it is just a friendly “hello mister!”

There are a number of major problems facing our world today:  climate change being one of the biggest; poverty being another.  These are major problems that affect all of us.  Climate change is not restricted to one part of the world – it affects all of us as a human population – things that happen in one country may have an effect in another. As such, we need to come together and find solutions to these problems as a global community.  We need a way to communicate; to understand each other and to work together to solve the problems in the world.  In many international organisations, the English language is helping us do this.

English is an official language of the United Nations; The International Monetary Fund (IMF); The World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

It is the official language of important regional institutions such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC); the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC); and is the working language of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

There is a global discussion taking place; and it is taking place in English.

So what does a poor farmer in a little village somewhere in rural Indonesia need English for?  Simple, they need English to participate in the discussion.  For the farmer, the effect of climate change is direct.  No one is impacted more directly than someone who works with nature and the environment every day.  Climate change affects their life and their livelihood.  Farmers are important people who need to be included in this global discussion.  They are the people that make it immediate, they make it real; they show us just how important things like climate change really are.  But they need English so they can have a voice the global conversation.

Every day, people in suits sit in offices and board rooms – and have discussions – they talk about things that affect the life of the farmer.  But the farmer cannot join the conversation; the farmer cannot understand the conversation; and the farmer doesn’t even know that the conversation has taken place.  This is something that needs to change.

Technology and Information

Technology is also important for International Development.

In 2010 a UN study showed that mobile phones were one of the most effective advancements in history to lift people out of poverty.  Former US president Bill Clinton wrote an article for Time magazine stating that technology is closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

A mobile phone in your pocket gives you access to an incredible wealth of information.  If that mobile phone has internet access then the amount of information is multiplied even further.  The average person on this planet now has access to more information than presidents of the past had access to.  But is access enough?

The majority of content on the internet uses English.  In April of this year (2013) W3Techs showed that 55% of the most visited websites used English as their content language.  To put it into perspective – Russian was in second place with 6.2%.  Only half a per cent (0.5%) of websites on the internet used bahasa Indonesia.

In addition to information found on the Internet – many academic journals and scientific papers are written in English.  English has become the language of academia.  It is a common language in which academics can discuss the latest ideas in many academic fields.  Researchers in Singapore can discuss their research with researchers from Germany, Russia and Japan.  With a common language academia can make great strides and we has a human race can make great progress.

Academics, professors, and researchers who do not keep up with the latest findings, are at risk of falling behind.  Businesses, organisations and even countries that do not keep up to date with the best practices too, are at risk of falling behind.  English language is important for success and development no matter your industry or profession.

Photo Credit: Firman
Photo Credit: Firman

Part II – My Experience in Indonesia

Teaching English in Indonesia, I have noticed a number of difficulties that students have.  Many students are too scared to talk with a native speaker; they freeze when the encounter a foreigner.  While at the same time, there is a belief that ‘learning from a native speaker’ is the most important thing in the classroom.  In addition, students who learn using rote methods (simply repeating what is says in the textbook) find it difficult to be flexible when they speak English in real-world conversations.

Despite learning English from primary school to high school – and sometimes even at a university level – many people find it difficult to speak English with a native speaker.  It seems that although students have spent ten or more years learning English – there is something missing from their education.  These students can easily recite grammar rules and rules for sentence structure – but when it comes to real-life communication – they do not have the skills or the confidence to have a fluent conversation. Many people are scared of making mistakes.  In many cases learners are so concerned with making mistakes that they don’t try to speak.  It is important that learners of English can practice their speaking – without fear of making mistakes.  In ESL terminology this is known as speaking for fluency as opposed to speaking for accuracy.

After meeting English language learners in Indonesia – I have notice that many of them say the same things, “I want to learn from a native speaker” or, “I enjoy learning English but I don’t have a native speaker to practice with.”  I can understand these ideas.  I know myself as a learner of bahasa Indonesia, it is far easier to learn with a native speaker.  But it is by no means a limitation.  There is a myth that you are learning English so that you can speak with a native speaker.  The reality is many speakers of English are not native speakers.  There are more people who speak English as a foreign language than there are native speakers in the world.  These days it is more likely that you will be speaking English with someone who is also a speaker of another language.  This has been referred to as ‘English as an International language’, or ‘English as a lingua franca’.  English language learners do not need to worry about practicing their English with a native speaker – because in many cases in the real-world – they won’t actually be speaking with a native speaker.  Practicing your English with a fellow learner or a foreigner from a non-English speaking country can be just as valuable.

Observing a few English classes in Indonesia – particularly at a middle or high-school level – I have noticed a tendency towards rote-learning.  The teacher reads from the text book and the students copy it word-for-word.  Instead of practicing their speaking the students practice their reciting.  The students parrot back the sentences that they have memorised from their textbooks or their teachers.  I once had a student practice her English with me by reading phrases straight from a phrase book.  She could recite the phrases clearly and understand my responses – but as soon as I asked her a question –she was lost.  Memorising conversations has its limitations because in real-life conversations we don’t know what the other person is going to say.

Five Key Points

There are five key points that I believe are vital to English language teaching for development  in Indonesia.  These five points are important for language learners and for teachers to keep in mind when planning an English language lesson.

  1. English is important (not just a status symbol).
    The English language can be useful for everyone.  It can open up doors and create opportunities for people.  English allows people to participate in the global conversation.
  2. Help your community by teaching.
    Many people in remote areas do not have the same access to education as people who live in the cities.  The next time you ‘pulang kampung’ share your knowledge and skills – teach an English lesson or two.
  3. Don’t be scared of making mistakes.
    Everybody makes mistakes – it is how we learn.  You cannot improve your English speaking if you are scared of making mistakes.
  4. You do not need a native speaker to practice your English.
    In many cases, you will be speaking English with someone who is not a native speaker.  English as an International language means that people from non-English speaking countries can use English as a common language.
  5. Teach using a communicative approach.  Use activities that mirror real-world situations.
    The purpose of language is communication.  Therefore it is important that English language lessons allow students to practice communication skills.  By practicing using real-world examples and a communicative approach, students will gain skills in using English for communication – not just memorisation.

Escape Makassar to peaceful Samalona Island

After living in the hustle and bustle of Makassar for three months – it was time for a weekend getaway.

A Thirty minute boat ride from the city of Makassar is Samalona Island. We caught a boat from the coast – close to Fort Rotterdam and bargained for a while until we got the price down to 400,000 rupiah. If you are an especially adapt negotiator (and perhaps a speaker of Bahasa Bugis / Makassar) you may be able to get the price down to 300,000, but this was the best we could do.

The boat ride was fairly gentle as our little boat cruised past the huge cargo ships that reside around the harbour. It felt great to get out on the ocean, away from the dust and pollution of Makassar and into the fresh air. I took in a lungful of sea breeze and instantly felt my head clear up.

Makassar Harbour

We were greeted at Samalona by a group of locals asking if we would like to check out the accommodation. The locals of the island are one big family and didn’t mind which house we chose – as there was no competition. The accommodation ranges from a simple room with a mattress, to a four bedroom house. Our bargaining skills must have improved because we were able to rent the biggest house on the island for 350,000 rupiah. The four of us would each have our own room, equipped with a fan. The house had a front deck, mandi (Indonesian style bathroom) and a living room with TV.

The four bedroom house we rented on Samalona Island
The four bedroom house we rented on Samalona Island

Before heading to the beach for a swim, we organised some fresh fish for dinner. Three large tasty fish brought in that day.

The beach surround Samalona island is okay. The beach facing Makassar has particularly nice sand. However there is a problem with rubbish. There is a lot of rubbish that washes up from Makassar and plastic bottles and other pieces of rubbish are everywhere. Once you get into the water it is fairly clean. The water is very warm and there are hundreds of little fish everywhere – you can even find coral if you go out to the right spot.

Makassar from Salamona

For me, this was a chance to relax. I had a great time sitting by the beach, catching up with some reading and having a lazy snooze. This is what time off in Indonesia is all about. That evening we shared a couple of Bintangs as we watched the sun set. Then we sat on our deck chatting as we ate our delicious fresh fish.

Samalona Sunset

Fresh Fish Dinner

Workshop Pengembangan Manajemen Kelas di Unismuh [Tribun-Timur]

Tribun-Timur ran an article about the classroom management workshop I ran at Makassar Muhammadiyah University on Monday.

classroom management workshop

The topic of the workshop was “Classroom Management” and was aimed at lecturers of the English Education Faculty – however we also had lecturers join from other departments.  There was a lot of great participation and sharing of ideas by all of the participants.

We plan to run a workshop every month, covering a variety of topics related to teaching English language in an Indonesian University.

You can find the Tribun-Timur article here:

Workshop Pengembangan Manajemen Kelas di Unismuh [Bahasa Indonesia]

Classroom Management Workshop

My experience as an AYAD

Last year I applied for an AYAD assignment in Indonesia.  AYAD stands for Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development and puts skilled young Australians into developing countries where they can help to build the capacity of a local host organisation.

I had previous experience teaching English in Adelaide, on Christmas Island and in Indonesia.  The assignment I found was a perfect fit – I would be working as an English language trainer at the investment coordinating board for the West Nusa Tenggara government (known locally as BKPM).


My office was located on the beautiful island of Lombok and my students were the public servants who work there.   Lombok is an attractive location for foreign investment and there are many foreigners who regularly visit the office.  My role was to improve the conversational and business English of the BKPM staff – so that they can be more effective in their interactions with English-speaking investors.


It was a challenging job at times.  Working with the Indonesian public service is very different to working with a group of fee-paying students.  Learning English is not the main goal of the staff – they are there to do their jobs.  My English lessons were seen as a novelty; an added bonus; or sometimes – when things are very busy – an unwelcome distraction.  Attendance fluctuated unpredictably and putting together any kind of class schedule was almost impossible.

Often it was a lesson in patience.  Knowing that things rarely ever run on time helped me to relax a little and become more flexible.  The locals call this jam karet which means ‘rubber time’.

Cultural factors also play a large part in the success of my teaching.  In Indonesian culture a workplace is like a family.  I have found that one of the most important parts of my job is simply socialising with my workmates.  Sometimes having a chat over coffee is a good time to sneak in an English lesson too.

Life in Indonesia is great.  The people are very friendly and welcoming.  They have mastered the art of ‘hanging out’ here – called nongkrong – and they know how to have a good laugh.  Being a white person is strange sometimes.  In the remote areas you will get a lot of attention.  But it is very easy to make people happy, and everyone loves posing for photos!

Daniel with Praya Kids

This assignment has been a very rewarding experience.  I have learnt a lot about the local culture; I slowly picked up the local language; and I have made many great friends.

The ‘AYAD experience’ is something that I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in international development.  It is a good chance to share your skills while learning from people in a completely different culture.  Check out their website at www.ayad.com.au

Mount Rinjani

Mount Rinjani as seen from Sembalun
Mount Rinjani as seen from Sembalun

Rinjani is the highest mountain on Lombok – it is also an active volcano!  Out of all the Indonesian volcanos Rinjani is the third tallest at 3,726 meters above sea level.

My goal was to reach the summit (puncak) and together with my friend Zi, we set off on a four-day adventure – starting from the village of Sembalun in East Lombok.

The climb starts out relatively easy.  A couple of hours walking through the grassy foothills of Rinjani will help you to acclimatise to the environment.  It’s enough to work up a sweat and you’ll need to bring a hat and sunblock.  Don’t get too cocky though.

We reached Post 3 and sat down for lunch.  Our porters prepared a tasty meal of chicken, noodles and veggies and we sat down to enjoy our meal.  Over a cup of tea Zi and I congratulated each other – “we’re doing it! We’re climbing Rinjani! This isn’t so difficult.”

Lesson 1: Don’t judge Rinjani by the first three posts!

From this point on – things got tough.  The mountain suddenly became very steep, my heart was beating like thunder and I instantly regretted how lazy I’d become with my exercise regime.  They call this point “regretful hill” (bukit penyesalan). Our guide told us of previous clients who had turned back here, “I came to Lombok to relax on the beach! Why am I doing this?” one had said.  But determined, I carried on.

This first day is long and exhausting.  I did my best to conserve my energy – no wasting breath on conversation – this was between me and the mountain.  Everyone climbs at their own pace and if you ever think it’s too difficult, just stop and take a look at the porters for a minute – you and your little backpack have nothing to complain about!

porters 3

It is a thrill climbing Rinjani.  It’s physically demanding – but it is exciting the whole time.  I remember one stage where I had just climbed pretty far – I took a moment to sit and enjoy the environment.  There was no one else around at that stage – just me and the sounds of nature.  I listened to the wind through the trees – drops of rain – the birds cheeping.  With the adrenaline, blood and excitement pumping through my veins – I felt as high as a giraffe’s backside.

After a full day of climbing – stopping every now and then to catch our breath and drink some water, we made it to our campsite.  The porters set up the tent – made our dinner – and then said goodnight.  We had to get as much sleep as possible before our 2am wake-up call.  If the weather was right at 2am – we’d be trekking to the summit.

The view from our campsite was breath-taking!
The view from our campsite was breath-taking!

At this stage I hadn’t decided whether I was going to go to the summit or not.  While I was lying in my tent, nice and warm in my sleeping bag, I listened to the rain and thunder over-head – secretly hoping that it would be too wet to attempt the summit.

I didn’t get much sleep that night.  I drifted in and out of consciousness – not knowing whether I was awake or dreaming.  The rain was very heavy and the flashes of lightning and booms of thunder danced around the mountain top.  Suddenly there was a blinding flash and a bolt of lightning hit my tent –crack!  My entire nervous system was buzzing… but it was just a dream.

Two AM came around far too quickly.  “Daniel… the weather is good – we can go to the summit.” I poked my head out to see a beautiful star-filled sky – no wind, no cloud… Shit! It was perfect.

Half asleep I drank some coffee; ate something; grabbed my bag; and followed our guide to the trail.  We were off again.

The trek to the summit is difficult.  There were many times that I felt like giving up.  In the coolness of the early morning it is easy to focus on the trek itself – but when the sun comes up – you can’t help but look down.  One slip over that edge and you’re a gonner!

The hardest part about the trek to the summit is the ground.  The pathway is scree (loose rocks) and slides backwards every time you take a step.  It is literally two steps forward, one step back all the way to the top.

Looking back at how far I'd come.
Looking back at how far I’d come.

Lesson 2: Wear hiking boots and take a walking pole (or stick of any kind).

Thankfully I had sprung for some decent hiking boots in Mataram – they covered my ankles completely and stopped most of the rocks from getting in.  But damn I wish I’d brought a walking pole.  Every step I took I would sink into the stream of rocks.

Looking up to the summit. Almost there!
Looking up to the summit. Almost there!

Words cannot explain the last stretch before the summit.  It’s the steepest, slipperiest, most dangerous part of the mountain.  It’s a battle both physically and mentally.  The only advice I can give is: just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll get there.

Eventually I did.  So relieved to be at the top – I collapsed under a rock and caught my breath.  One of the other climbers welcomed me with a handshake, “congratulations man, you did it!”


A panorama from the summit.
A panorama from the summit.

My third and final lesson was about water and sunblock.  The trek to the summit took longer than I’d expected.  We left in the cool darkness of 2am but didn’t get back to camp until 1pm.  When the sun comes up – it burns!  The trek back from the summit left me dehydrated and sunburnt.

Lesson 3: take more water than you think you’ll need; and apply (then re-apply) your sunblock!

Overall, Mount Rinjani was an amazing experience.  It was a real highlight of my time on Lombok and I feel so happy that I made it to the summit.

If you want to climb mount Rinjani – remember to respect the mountain.  Do some training before you go and learn from my mistakes.  The hard work is definitely worth it.  Good luck!

dan sitting up top

Orangutan: our borneo adventure

dan boat

Last week was an unforgettable adventure.  Four days down the river on a wooden boat – we headed deeper and deeper into the Borneo jungle.  As the boat slowly chugged along we watched the trees for one of the great primates – the orangutan.

This Borneo jungle is part of Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan.  It was established in an effort to protect the orangutan and other species now endangered due to extensive logging and deforestation.  It is home to both wild and rehabilitated orangutan and is an ongoing research centre.

As we slowly head down the river our boat is flanked by lush tropical trees.  Big green palms line the river’s edge and tall, thin trees tower over them.  In the tree tops you can see flashes of colour as small birds bounce around.  There are no sounds but the hissing and chirping of forest bugs – until suddenly, screeching monkeys start fighting.  The small monkeys crash and bash around as they hustle for the best position on the high, tree branches.  Every now and then they take a leap of faith – almost flying as they jump from one tree to another.  In the waters below lurk crocodiles.  They are seldom seen, but the threat is very real.  Before starting our journey we were told of the ‘arrogant tourist’ who defied the warnings and decided to go for a swim – moments later he was swallowed up by a croc.  Just as we get settled and relax into one of the comfortable armchairs – the boat stops. “Orangutan, orangutan!” shouts the deck-hand and we all scramble to our feet.  Looking up to the trees we see him: a beautiful big-faced male orangutan.  Dark skin and dark red hair, he was sitting peacefully atop the canopy.

male orangutan in tree

This was the first of many sightings.  All along the river we saw orangutans – big males, mothers and babies – sitting around munching on fruit and leaves – throwing branches down at us if we got too close.

Later we pulled up and went for a walk through the jungle.  As we headed towards the orangutan feeding station we were swamped by the intense heat and humidity.  I was wearing 80% DEET cream to keep the mosquitos and other bugs away – but a brave few still hung around me.  On the ground was a trail of fire ants.  A few days later I got bitten by one of them – an intensely painful experience – lucky for me it was only one ant.  The guide brushed it off, “don’t worry – it only hurts for ten minutes”.

At the feeding station we sat and waited.  The park ranger brought out a big bag filled with bananas and dumped them onto the wooden platform.  Then he called out to the orangutans, “uuuuuuuuughhhh!”  It only took about five minutes before we could hear the crashing in the trees.  The tree tops swayed as a large orangutan mother and baby approached the platform from above.  They sat and dined out on the raised, wooden platform – as we gawked at them in amazement and took as many photos as we could.

banana - baby orangutan and mother

It was an amazing experience.  We travelled down the river stopping off here and there to trek in the jungle.  We visited three of the national park’s feeding stations and visited the main research centre at Camp Leakey.  It was rough at times.  We ate and slept and showered (sometimes) on the boat – the jungle heat was intense and the night-time mosquitos were relentless.  Lucky for us, we had a great crew.  Our guide Kres had worked in the national park for years and had a great respect for the orangutans – the captain and his deck-hand were experts in manoeuvring the boat (and keeping us safe and dry) – and we also had an amazing Ibu chef – who cooked us delicious meals three times a day.  The whole trip was something very special and something that I will remember for a very long time.

the boat front

orangutan cute

Nyepi: from monster parades to peace and quiet

ogoh ogoh meditasi

Om swastiastu.  Last Tuesday was Bali’s silent day – Nyepi.  This is a day where everything shuts down.  Even the airport!  No one is allowed to leave the house and even the television stations go off the air.  At night, the lights must remain switched off.  It is a time for self-reflection and meditation.

I have wanted to experience Nyepi since I first heard about it last year.  A part of me couldn’t believe that the hustle and bustle of Indonesia’s favourite holiday destination could simply close up shop.  Surely there would be exceptions – surely tourists couldn’t be expected to do nothing in their hotel rooms – surely Bali doesn’t close itself off to the thousands of tourists that arrive each day.  But yes, it can and yes, it does.

Nyepi is a time of peaceful reflection, where you can hear the sounds of nature and remember a time where – when the sun goes down – it gets dark!

I was lucky to experience this ceremony with my Lombok family.  Being of Balinese origin they have many relatives on Bali and we stayed in their home in Ubud.  It was great to see this tradition through local eyes and get a better understanding of Hindu and Balinese culture.

We arrived in Bali two days before the silent day and the ceremonies had already begun.  These ceremonies are called Melasti and are a ritual cleansing (and in many cases a physical cleaning) of yourself and your environment.  At Tanah Lot – a temple and rock formation in the ocean – many Hindu people gathered to conduct this ceremony.

Melasti Tanah Lot

The next day we drove into Denpasar to watch the ogoh-ogoh parade.  Ogoh-ogoh are large scary looking sculptures designed by the artists in each community.  They are used to scare away the evil spirits in preparation for Nyepi.  In Denpasar there is a competition and only the best twenty ogoh-ogoh statues are chosen for the parade.  At four o’clock that afternoon – the streets of Denpasar fill up and everyone hustles for the best position to watch the communities parade their ogoh-ogoh around the city square.

ogoh-ogoh denpasar

Ogoh-ogoh parades then happen in every village around Bali.  They take place at the cross-roads – which is symbolic of the balance between good and evil and mirrors the Hindu swastika.  However, this also makes driving around impossible.  We tried driving back from Denpasar to Ubud – but had to stop and pull over every ten minutes as another village swayed their giant monster statues around the streets.

ogoh-ogoh di malam

The next morning Nyepi arrived.  Perfect silence.  No cars on the road.  The TV had nothing but static.  And the sounds of birds, bugs and wind returned to Bali.

I had initially planned to follow the Nyepi tradition closely.  No technology and no electricity.  But I didn’t even make it until 8am before checking my phone.  The most devout Hindus will fast for the twenty-four hours of Nyepi and cooking is forbidden for everyone.  All the food for the day is prepared beforehand.

To be honest, it was harder than I expected.  The internet on my phone went out at about 11 and didn’t come back.  No shops were open and you’re only allowed on the streets if it’s an emergency.  Being a techno-junky who needs constant stimulation it took a while for my brain to adjust to the new environment.  However, I did enjoy sitting in the peaceful backyard of the family compound.  The traditional Balinese household has a beautiful temple and garden – all perfectly manicured.  I really enjoyed just sitting outside, listening to nature and quietly chatting with everyone.

That evening after the sun went down.  Everything was dark.  We ate dinner using emergency lights carefully placed so that they were not visible from the street.  And then went to bed.  With no lights and no electricity – no fire, no candles – there was nothing else to do but enjoy the darkness.

Wednesday morning at six o’clock, everything returned to normal.  The buzz of motorbikes from the road returned.  The news was being read out on the television.  I could check my Facebook.  And the shops opened for business.  Bali was busy again.

pura keluarga di ubud

Bau Nyale: A beautiful princess, thousands of motorbikes and millions of sea worms.

Lombok Sth Coast

This weekend was Lombok’s infamous Bau Nyale festival.  Following a Sasak legend thousands of locals flocked to the beaches along Lombok’s southern coastline in a quest for sea worms.

Statue of Princess Mandalika
Statue of Princess Mandalika

Many years ago there was Sasak Princess called Mandalika.  She was the most beautiful woman anyone had ever seen.  All over the land, men would compete for her affection.  Jealousy and violence spread throughout Lombok causing chaos amongst the many villages.

Mandalika was so distressed by the fighting that she climbed up one of the highest cliffs and flung herself into the ocean.  Many men dove into the ocean in an attempt to save the princess – but she could not be found.  Instead they found thousands and thousands of Nyale – sea worms.

Since that day there has been an annual pilgrimage.  Locals turn up in droves, fishing nets in hand, hoping to collect a bucket full of sea worms.  This is called bau Nyale – Sasak language for ‘collect the nyale sea worms.’

The event lasts all night.  Those who turn up early can enjoy a picnic on some of Lombok’s most beautiful beaches.  There is music, food and dramatic re-enactments of the Princess Mandalika saga.


Thousands of motorbikes just kept arriving until about 4am
Thousands of motorbikes just kept arriving until about 4am

Later that night – more and more people start to arrive.  They come by car, by motor bike, they come in truckloads… and they just keep coming!  Thousands and thousands of people flock to the area all through the night – filling the beach with noise and heavy smoke from old motorbikes.

Everyone is carrying fishing nets and buckets to scoop up the sea worms.  Later they hope to eat them.  Apparently they are a great source of protein.


At about four o’clock in the morning I sat on the rocks in the ocean taking in the scene. I watched as the droves of people passed by me – all of them heading into the water.  I could see many small dotted lights all around the ocean as people collected the worms.

Finally the sun rose to reveal hundreds of people still in the water – scooping up the last of the Sea worms to take back to their family.  The sea worm migration was over until next year.

Nyale Sea Worms
Nyale Sea Worms


Gili Nanggu: a relaxing small island getaway

Indonesia is country of some 17,000 islands.  These range from the big and well-populated islands of Java, Sumatra and Bali – to the smaller and sometimes uninhabited islands that lay scattered around the country.  Last week was a public holiday for the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (Maulid Nabi Muhammad), so some friends and I took the opportunity to explore one of Lombok’s lesser known islands: Gili Nanggu.

Approaching Gili Nanggu
Approaching Gili Nanggu
Setting off with our young captain
Setting off with our young captain
This small island is located to the South-West of Mataram; near the village of Seketong.  It is the perfect size for a quiet getaway.  To get there you can take a boat from the mainland – we paid a local family 300.000 rupiah for a return trip on their little boat, which, for a group of four people was quite reasonable (it works out to about $8 Australian each).  The trip itself took about 15 minutes.
The accommodation on Gili Nanggu
The accommodation on Gili Nanggu

Gili Nanggu is tiny.  You can walk around the entire island in about 20 minutes and as far as facilities go, there is only one place to stay: the Gili Nanggu Cottages.  This place contains a handful of simple bungalows and a restaurant  The bungalows are nice – very simple and is currently being fixed up – but be warned: this is basic accommodation.  If you are in need of 5-star facilities – Gili Nanggu is not for you.  The room contains a bed with a mozzie net; and the bathroom contains a saltwater – yes, saltwater – shower and toilet.  Underneath the bungalow is an area to sit down and relax.  We spent most of our time sitting on the beach, swimming (and snorkeling), and playing beach volleyball.  There are most things available for hire but we brought our own volleyball net and ball.

Yes, this place has swings!
Yes, this place has swings!
This is the perfect place to sit and relax, read a book or go for a swim.  The panorama from the beach is beautiful and it doesn’t take long to forget about the rest of the world.  At night you can fall asleep listening to the waves gently crashing on the shore and wake up with the rising sun to another day of beach and relaxation.  A reasonable breakfast is included with the accommodation.
Gili Nanggu is perfect for a snorkelling day trip – or a one-night stay, as we did.  Anything longer might be a bit much to take – unless you’re really serious about leaving the rest of the world behind.