Belitung and Jakarta 2
1st July to 3rd August 2020
Getting to know Belitung, local friends, a new passport
Henrietta and I are not accustomed to long stays anywhere. We like to be sailing. ‘Rolling stones gather no moss’ (or, moving bottoms gather no weed) is our mantra. To stop is to stagnate; the mind grows dull, the body weak; not to mention poor Henrietta’s nether regions.
In the five years we’ve been together, we have never stopped for more than a month anywhere – until now.
Now, things are rather different, as we all know. We’re seriously restricted in how we follow our desires and dreams, wanderlust suppressed, plans tattered. Apart from one sail to Jakarta and back, and, for me, two flights to Jakarta and back (more later), we have lived in Belitung for over two and a half months. When you reach an age where you know that life is finite, that’s much too long a time.
And yet, and I stress this because it has surprised me, I have really enjoyed a more settled existence. It has been a rare pleasure to appreciate a slower and less demanding pace. I am happy. This is especially so as Belitung is friendly, fascinating and often fun; and central to this, it is open to free movement, albeit usually masked.
I’ve become a ‘local’ in as much as any Westerner will ever be local.
Folk know or know of the ‘strange Englishman who’s living on that sailing boat out there’. (Henrietta is prominent as the only boat anchored in a wide bay off over a kilometre of sand and coral).
I have my favourite local shops and ‘warungs’ for lunch or coffee, begin to know my way around the capital (40 minutes motorcycle away) and have explored much of the island. Even the local turtles seem to come and check up on me. (We share advanced distaste for the passing jet skis, their dangers and the noise – their insistent angry growls and roar – and the wash)
Belitung’s wealth, such as it is, derives from tin mining, palm oil, kaolin and sand export (good building sand is barged to Jakarta), fishing, boat building and, in more normal times, local tourism (when over 2,000 visitors, Indonesian and a handful of foreigners, fly in each week on up to a dozen flights a day).
It may lack the spectacular volcanic mountains of Java, Sumatra and Bali but the beauty of its beaches, clear seas, unique rock formations had it strive for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (It lost out to Langkawi in Malaysia).
Given a healthy historic mix of peoples from all over Indonesia (including Malay, Java, Bugis, Sumatran, Chinese), and a handful of resident foreigners (at least a dozen), there is a happy acceptance of everyone.
One incidental outcome of this tolerance is Indonesia’s largest selection of beer (ie. fizzy lager), and Franky’s wife runs a small bright bar at their hotel that has stocked over a hundred varieties from around the world.
People have, almost without exception, been friendly, polite, inquisitive and helpful. Locally, Erpan and his wife Penny have helped with taxi services, rental motorcycle, laundry, and all round advice and information. Johnny in the capital helps with visa paperwork and officialdom.
More than anyone, the lovely local businesswoman Erny and friend, Muromotosan, have always included me with outings around the island and paddleboarding (or for me, kayaking) to nearby islands. It has been a treat to meet so many of their friends, and see places I’d never have found were it not for them.
Travelling alone on rented motorbike, or with Erny and Muromotosan by car, I’ve rarely had time to fester or succumb to melancholia.
Rather than give you day-by-day accounts of what’s gone on, here are a few odds and ends, edited as I feel necessary. Much of this would have been tricky without the contacts, and the energy, enthusiasm and encouragement of Erny: –
Seeing with Franky the undeveloped southern parts of Belitung. A tireless young businessman, his interests include tree plantations for plywood production, land speculation and development, a hotel, an eco-resort, herb production (whenever he talks I learn of another venture.)
Regular visits by paddleboard and kayak to Kelayang Island where we feed bananas to the one resident macaque, fatten ourselves with hot banana fritters, and swim and snorkel.
Pizzas and happy family gatherings with Alex, Rosa and children, Bambang and Cecilia. Alex is an enthusiastic, patient and knowledgeable animal-lover who’s made Belitung his home.
Hydroponic salad eco-farming
Honey production at Hendra’s home.
A palm oil refinery, where William, the general manager, explains the processes between harvesting from 30,000 hectares of palm trees to shipping processed oil and other products to China, Myanmar, Bangladesh, South Korea from their own shipping jetty…..He’s been in charge for nearly 20 years of this 24 hour, 365 days a year operation that employs around 3,000 people. Fascinating and he’s going to show me around the refinery later this week.
A day out on the private island of Leebong, where luxury villas are available for those more affluent than me. Now of course deserted apart from the owner’s family and friends.
And then, to test my stamina and powers of patience, I’ve been ‘getting-a-new-passport’, the old one unexpired but after five years rapidly filled with stamps and visas that accompany sailing around half the world. I cannot even leave Indonesia without a new one.
Should I or should I not castigate the UK Foreign Office in this post? An open letter to the Foreign Secretary perhaps? I’m tempted – but you don’t want to read a grumpy man’s rants.
Passport application processes are aimed at people who live more normal lives: those who travel overseas to work or for holidays, for example. Us sailors are clearly not considered normal; we don’t usually have a local address, or local British professionals to vouch that the photo is of us, or even know where we are going next, or even when we may go! And we often don’t live in places with reliable postal services. Our homes are our boats.
Of no interest to most of you who read this stuff, I’ll just tell you that wherever you are in the world, U.K. Passport renewal is done in Britain. In Indonesia an agent in Jakarta handles it. First trouble arose when I found that the Passport agent was shut for three months of Jakarta lock-down. (i.e.passport could not be renewed. You’re stuffed)
The Embassy doesn’t want to talk to anyone unless ‘emergency’. Phone calls to local Consul refer you to Britain where, even if staff have heard of Indonesia, they do not know anything of local realities. Enough…my little bit of hair turns grey, blood pressure off the scale.
And so, to spare you sharing any more of my grumpy-man anguish I’ll simply say that once Jakarta lockdown ended and the agent reopened I was obliged to invest in two return flights to Jakarta.
That’s four flights, two covid blood tests (needed before all flights), 14 taxis, two nights in hotels…..But at last, after all that and with a wallet that’s very much thinner, I have a new passport (big thank you to the staff who actually do the work – which does not include Foreign Secretary or embassy – and turned it round in three weeks).
In theory I can now move again.
I cannot do anything about the sad fact (sad for me anyway) that the new black (hint of blue maybe) passport is one of these half-hearted ones with a new title – it reminds us we shall no longer enjoy the privilege of unfettered travels or life or work in the EU. (But I shan’t start on that source of anger and irritation. Also, I do wish to remain friends with some lovely folk who think quite differently from me.)
This is turning into another ramble of ill-considered thoughts, so I’ll stop. As I said, I’m happy and healthy, and consider I’m very fortunate to be in Indonesia. I hope to leave in a week or so.