So close, yet so far
Ternate Harbour, Indonesia
The way in which we all experience travel is evolving. ETG travellers are increasingly seeking out the authentic stories that lie behind the glossy brochure images, and which, we like to say, reveal the fabric of a destination.
This story tells CEO Sam Clark’s experience of Ternate Harbour, Indonesia. Usually, we like to tell stories of individuals in Asia, of connections we’ve made along the way. But as a traveller, those moments of ‘otherness’ can sometimes feel just as powerful….
Ternate harbour might be remote, but it’s an exciting, busy, historic and connected place. East of Sulawesi, west of Papua and north of Ambon, it forms a sea junction of Indonesia and is, as such, an important centre of commerce. It was once a source of fabulous wealth in the Spice Islands’ heyday and the port which much of the world’s cloves, nutmeg and mace passed through when they were among the world’s most valuable commodities (in a world without refrigeration, spice masked rotten tastes and made salted or dried food palatable).
In the way of harbours the world over, it feels like there is something going on everywhere you look. People are coming and going, saying goodbye, doing deals, legitimate and shady. There are dodgy characters, hawkers and business people. Sailors taking suitably raucous shore leave. There is an air of fun, excitement and, if not quite illicitness, certainly something akin.
Our taxi driving guide was a little concerned when I tried to disappear into the crowds alone and was visibly relieved he gathered us back together. Despite his concern I was largely left alone, save for some good-natured banter about my height and a few obligatory selfies. I was content in my reverie, thinking back to a short story by Somerset Maugham I read in my teenage years, dreaming of travel to places just like this.
Before I was able to strike off on my own, I travelled in my imagination with writers like Somerset Maugham, Graham Green and Norman Lewis. There was something about the atmosphere they created: they evoked an Asia that has lingered on in imagination even as it fades from the page as modern life seeps through the cracks. It still exists though; that sense of encountering worlds unknown, as does the feeling in the reader that the best travel writers evoke.
Sometimes they describe a moment that we’d all readily recognise from our own travels: that moment you make a connection across cultural and language barriers; an unexpected encounter; a shared look with a stranger, or unexpected common understanding and experience.
More often, though, these writers describe that feeling of ‘otherness’ travel can evoke. I love that feeling; that one where you almost feel unconnected with the movement of people around, removed to one side and a pure observer. A feeling that’s almost impossible to capture at home in the everyday. When there is so much going on that all you can do is look, drink it all in and perhaps get a little glimpse of another perspective on the world. It’s a feeling you can’t quite get on demand; you almost need to squint and like one of those magic paintings, it just appears.
This was one of those moments…
Where was that girl going with her mother? On which ship? Why was she wearing a warm coat in 34-degree heat? What were those men discussing and what on earth were those people laughing about? What were the policemen doing? What was the hawker selling and what was the lady carrying? The man joining the small cargo ship with a large suitcase – where was he off to? What was his story?
For now, my questions remain unanswered. Maluku islands are relatively new territory for ETG, and we’re still building the connections that would allow us to delve, respectfully, into the individual lives of the harbour’s regulars. In some ways, I like that it’s all still shrouded in mystery. But I’m certainly left curious – and wanting more.
Maybe next time…