A traveler’s letter

I’ve been traveling for about 6 and a half months, starting in Dubai, then India, Singapore, Bali, Australia, back to Bali, Manila, Bangkok, and once again back to Bali.(I’ve attached a map).

In Indonesia, craft production is still concentrated in villages, often fairly remote. We’ve visited villages specializing in wood carvings, silver, ceramics, copper, paintings, ceremonial swords, and more and of course, bought a few things along the way.

In Dubai, which has got to be one of history’s most tolerant societies, women in full traditional head to toe coverings walk by provocative displays of lingerie and bikinis in Dubai Mall, as well as alongside women in contemporary, often revealing, dress. Alcohol is limited, and the Internet is censored, but in all other ways people from all over the globe mix without much constraint and with little or no friction. And the way that Dubai had developed from barren desert to a highly developed, very sophisticated world city in the space of two generations is miraculous.

In Bali the relentless hordes of tourists have somehow not managed to corrupt the unique culture of Balinese Hinduism, completely different from the far less colorful version of Hinduism you see in India. In Bali, everyone seems to be going to some festival every day to bless something. But it’s a colorful and fascinating society, with a great crafts tradition. 

Muslim Java has far fewer tourists than Bali, and far less English is spoken. It’s also much more conservative, though nothing like, say, Saudi Arabia. Most of the girls here wear headscarves, even very young ones. As we’re often off the beaten track, as a tall white man with long hair I’m much of an oddity, and often get a lot of stares. I like to wink at the schoolgirls in their headscarves as they stare at me, which often elicits a shy smile, but I’m sure at some point will get me decapitated if I’m not careful. 

It’s always fun interacting with the kids, and I was really touched by the kind of greeting that young children in Java give their elders when my hand was kissed by a young girl in a village here. As always, the kids are curious; the older adults are sometimes wary but usually friendly.

While Bali is mainly a visual society, in Muslim countries it’s about the sounds; the 5 times a day call to prayer, which is a haunting sound when the calls from different mosques become mixed together, as they usually do. The call to prayer also takes place at 4AM, which is not so bad if you’re used to it. 

The type of thing you never quite get used to is when you see a boy on the back of a scooter, carrying a goat in his arms on the way to slaughter for one of the religious festivals. In fact, a great book would just be photos of adults and kids on motorbikes, which are more common than cars in Indonesia. It’s not unusual to see both parents and two kids on one motorbike. And traffic in India; that’s both a miracle and a nightmare. 

The world has changed a lot since my first visit to Asia about 3 decades ago.  For the rich, every capital city has some super deluxe mall carrying all the same international brands; Valentino, Gucci, Tom Ford, Hermes; and the language of these malls in usually English, even when they’re in a country in which very little English is spoken.

The skyline of Bangkok now looks much like Manhattan at night, and the SkyBar on the 54th floor of my Bangkok hotel is more glamorous than anything I’ve seen in the Western world. But outside the richest parts of the capital cities, life has often changed surprisingly little, with livestock in the middle of cities, roosters running wild, primitive sanitation, and old men and women carrying produce on their backs as they  have for centuries. 

One thing I would note is that in six months of travel, I have not encountered a single overt act of hostility. I have often been scared, but only because of the insane traffic and the way people drive.

I smile a lot, and I’m genuinely sympathetic to the many different ways in which life for so many people is so much harder than it is for me. Of course, I stay in 5 star hotels and I travel in comfort; my world as a traveler is a very insulated world, and I would be the first to admit that by no means are my experiences representative of every traveler’s experiences. 


John F. Groom

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