Perhaps all travel writers should come home in the end.
More than 70 percent of the thousands of documented migrant workers who depart Indonesia for overseas jobs each year are women. The reason for this remarkable statistic is simple: the well-established demand for Indonesian housemaids in the wealthier countries of the region, particularly Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Around 45 percent of registered foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong are Indonesian; in Singapore the figure is 60 percent.
Each generation of British travel writers has its preeminent court jester. In the 1930s Robert Byron did much to forge the genre’s comic tradition; Eric Newby began his long career in the 1950s; and in the 1980s it was Redmond O’Hanlon who gained the highest profile with travel-writing-for-laughs.
Commentaries on Islam in Indonesia—especially those attached to major political events such as the recent presidential election—often deal in simplistic binary terms: a uniform mass of apparently ascendant “conservative Muslims” is ranged against similarly uniform blocks of embattled urban liberals or rural traditionalists.
Travel-writing can sometimes seem like a genre stuck in the past. Writers are forever setting out in the “footsteps” of more illustrious predecessors, or embarking on journeys focused on the history of person, place or thing. According to some scholarly critiques, this tendency is symptomatic of travel-writing’s fundamental “belatedness”. It is, the argument goes, a genre ill at ease in the modern, globalized, postcolonial world; the figure of the travel-writer is fundamentally anachronistic. As far as critical scholars are concerned, it is in its attempts to overcome this belatedness that travel writing is sometimes guilty of echoing—unconsciously or otherwise—a colonial attitude. There is the endless quest for the “authentic” and “unchanged” in an effort to fix the places described in an exotic past; or alternatively, there is a melancholy nostalgia and a frantic hunt for the last traces of “tradition” before the shopping malls take over.
In the introduction to Soul Catcher: Java’s Fiery Prince Mangkunegara I, 1726–95, MC Ricklefs notes that fifty years ago the prospect of writing such a biography of a pre-20th-century Javanese figure would have been unthinkable. That such a project is now possible is surely in no small part down to the remarkable work that Ricklefs himself has done in the intervening half-century, opening up a wealth of archival sources as one of the foremost international scholars of Javanese history.
Pakistan was once prime territory for Western travel writers. It offered an attractive combination of subcontinental color and Central Asian romance, plus a lively history and a hospitable population speaking excellent English. Geoffrey Moorhouse, Dervla Murphy and Wilfred Thesiger passed this way, among many others. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux even pondered the attractions of Peshawar as a place of retirement.