Less is More

In­done­sia is con­sis­tently ranked among the world’s hap­pi­est places and its se­cret is in find­ing har­mony through paired-down sim­plic­ity and grat­i­tude.

Bespoke - - INDONESIA -

In­done­sians are happy. In 2016, the Happy Planet In­dex de­clared In­done­sia the 16th hap­pi­est coun­try in the world. By Fe­bru­ary 2017, a re­port from the Varkey Foun­da­tion noted In­done­sian youths were ac­tu­ally the hap­pi­est in the world. So there’s clearly a joie de vivre in this ar­chi­pel­ago of is­lands but where does it stem from? And how is it pos­si­ble that hav­ing so lit­tle can amount to so much? We needed to go to In­done­sia and find out.

Life at Sea

Our trip be­gins at sea. In­done­sia has around 17,000 is­lands, so I hop on a boat with Seatrek Sail­ing Ad­ven­tures that will take me from Flores to Bali. En route we stop at vil­lages and vol­ca­noes, is­lands filled with Ko­modo dragons and fringed with red or black sand. Oc­ca­sion­ally boats of In­done­sia’s no­madic sea peo­ple slide along­side our own, un­furl­ing pouches of knick-knacks along the side. It’s a kind of mar­itime equiv­a­lent to trad­ing at a land-based mar­ket. “Western­ers think of the sea as this empty thing,” says Peter Lape, Pro­fes­sor of Arche­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton, one night over some cold beers. “But for In­done­sia’s sea peo­ple, it’s the space they know. It’s their land.” We ar­rive at Moyo Is­land. The day is hot and hu­mid and mos­qui­tos fly in on the scent of mud. Houses are made from tim­ber, bam­boo, thatch and fi­bre and put to­gether with wooden pegs. (“They’re easy to take apart and load on a boat,” Eva Vil­la­grasa, the Seatrek tour leader, says.) Lo­cals line the path, wav­ing, and oc­ca­sion­ally chat­ting. We hike up to a water­fall with a swing and we watch vil­lage boys fling them­selves up, flip, dive,

bod­ies small and strong. One grabs the rope and holds it out. “They seem happy with very lit­tle,” adds Vil­la­grasa. “I don’t know if it is a sim­ple life, prob­a­bly it is a dif­fi­cult life, but they have noth­ing. And they don’t worry about what they don’t have. You see them smil­ing, play­ing, there’s a strong sense of fam­ily and com­mu­nity.” Later in Lom­bok, a young woman walks us through rolling rice plan­ta­tions and dense jun­gle filled with co­coa and co­conuts. At one point she stops, grabs a leaf and breaks the stem. “Watch,” her eyes glint and she leans in, blow­ing gen­tly. Three bub­bles pop out and float in the sky. We laugh and she laughs and we try to fol­low suit, fail­ing, but it doesn’t mat­ter. “There’s a sim­plic­ity in In­done­sia of liv­ing in har­mony with the tides and the sea­sons,” says Michael Travers, mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant with Seatrek. “You just have to get among it and see that life doesn't nec­es­sar­ily need to be com­pli­cated.”

The Big City

While In­done­sia’s smaller, more iso­lated is­lands are co­cooned in si­lence, el­e­gant with sim­plic­ity, Bali buzzes with en­ergy. This pop­u­lar tourist haunt of­fers ev­ery­thing from tem­ples on the hill ( Uluwatu) to trendy ocean­front stops ( Potato Head Beach Club) and five-star re­sorts (far too many to name) to surfer-shack hos­tels. “In a way, yes, Bali has changed,” ad­mits Lina Sury­ati, mar­ket­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager for Kata­mama. We’re seated in a bar lined with the house brew, in­fused arak (the lo­cal spirit), while chicly dressed staff serve plates of Span­ish-ba­li­nese fu­sion food next door. Ev­ery­thing about the venue drips cool — and new. “But Bali still main­tains its tra­di­tions,” con­tin­ues Sury­ati. “Young peo­ple still learn to dance, play lo­cal in­stru­ments, and speak Ba­li­nese. They also put out of­fer­ings three times a day.” We’ve seen these ev­ery­where around the city: small palm-frond square parcels, of­fer­ings are filled with any com­bi­na­tion of flow­ers, food, cig­a­rettes and gifts. “Some­times if peo­ple for­get, they put parts of their food aside be­fore eat­ing. It’s for the spir­its of their an­ces­tors.” It all comes back to har­mony, Sury­ati adds. “Har­mony with na­ture, with hu­man­ity and with god. It’s how they keep bal­ance in their life.” We try to find our own bal­ance at a tra­di­tional soul pu­rifi­ca­tion. It’s hosted by The Ritz-carl­ton Bali, a sprawl­ing prop­erty in Nusa Dua that wraps mas­sive vil­las around pri­vate pools. At 7am on the beach, a shaman sits be­side us, chant­ing. He flicks wa­ter. He dabs our fore­heads in rice, smears paste be­hind our ears, ties a rope around our wrists and drapes one on our toes for pro­tec­tion, flicks more wa­ter. We find our­selves think­ing of some­thing Pro­fes­sor Lape had said days be­fore: “I feel like such a neo­phyte here. Al­most every day there’s some­thing sur­pris­ing or fas­ci­nat­ing or weird. At the same time, it’s easy to con­nect with peo­ple in­stantly. There’s a real tra­di­tion of car­ing for strangers, of open­ing up.” The shaman tells us to sip the wa­ter. We tip our heads and drink. Later that week, we ask Ringga Salim, a Bali-based Java-born In­done­sian, about the hap­pi­ness stud­ies. “In­done­sians are happy,” he con­cedes. Salim is show­ing me around the Four Sea­sons Re­sort Bali Sayan, one of two Four Sea­sons in

Bali, this one in the jun­gle. Rice pad­dies line a river and ev­ery­thing, be­ing in­land, is green. “Think of the phi­los­o­phy of In­done­sia,” adds Salim. “It’s eat or don’t eat, as long as we’re to­gether, we’re happy. When they gather, they just chat through the meal. Even if they don’t have a meal, they can chat for days. We don’t com­plain a lot about life.” We visit a lo­cal mar­ket with a chef from the other Four Sea­sons, the Four Sea­sons Re­sort Bali at Jim­baran Bay, step­ping over pud­dles while fish glint from many tables. The space is dark, roofed, and in­cense mixes with the salty scent of the sea. Then, back at the beach­front ho­tel, I help him cook. The fish is served be­side heaps of rice and a co­conutin­fused dessert and we chat with other guests and the chef. “The cul­ture here is so strong,” Salim says. “Ba­li­nese peo­ple won’t lose their iden­tity. It’s some­thing you can’t see, but it’s some­thing you can def­i­nitely feel.”

A Char­i­ta­ble Fo­cus

Yet there’s an­other side to the beauty of In­done­sia, one tied to poverty and scarcity. “It’s not al­ways an easy place to be,” says Pro­fes­sor Lape, who has been study­ing In­done­sia for some 22 years. “Peo­ple live very sim­ply. But there’s a com­plex­ity to that too, man­ag­ing fish­ing, farm­ing, fam­ily, sur­vival, in­deed they have a good tol­er­ance for deal­ing with tragedy.” On the beau­ti­ful Sumba Is­land, lux­ury surfer-meets-honey­moon re­sort Ni­hi­watu is try­ing to help via the Sumba Foun­da­tion. The char­ity arm of the ex­clu­sive re­sort, Sumba Foun­da­tion is work­ing to pro­vide bet­ter wa­ter ac­cess through wells and pumps, bet­ter nutri­tion through school lunches, malaria pre­ven­tion through a clinic and ed­u­ca­tion, and as­sis­tance for preg­nant moth­ers. We walk through one of the tra­di­tional vil­lages. Chil­dren stand be­side stilted homes, gig­gling when we look at them. Four men play a game of cards, one with an an­i­mal jaw­bone dan­gling from his ear. Is there any elec­tric­ity? we ask. There’s some. But no phones, no ra­dio and no TV. “With malaria, an im­por­tant el­e­ment of what we do is teach­ing lo­cals they don’t have to ac­cept the ex­ist­ing cy­cle of get­ting sick, then death,” says Kenny Knicker­bocker, Gen­eral Man­ager of the Sumba Foun­da­tion. “It can be treated quite eas­ily.” As we walk, two chil­dren fol­low us down the path. We clam­ber into the Jeep and they laugh, beam­ing, wav­ing, of­fer­ing a slow “Daa! Daa!” in good­bye.

Off the Grid

More iso­lated than Sumba is surfer heaven Mentawai. We take two flights, a seven-hour ferry and a two-hour boat to reach Kan­dui Vil­las. Mangroves spill into the ocean, while crabs weave be­tween co­ral on the beach. “Some of the hap­pi­est peo­ple I’ve ever seen are in the jun­gle here,” says Jor­dan Heuer, mar­ket­ing man­ager for Kan­dui Vil­las. He’s brown from the surf and his words mix with the sound of waves. “The na­tives, the shaman in the mid­dle of Suburu [a nearby in­hab­ited is­land], they re­ally don’t have any­thing ex­cept the jun­gle, but I haven’t seen any­one hap­pier in my life.” Maybe, he muses, it’s be­cause they have no need for money. They live sim­ply. “The jun­gle is their su­per­mar­ket. They hunt and gather and smile and laugh.” Fam­ily is cru­cial. Money isn’t. “We live our whole lives wor­ry­ing about money, stress­ing about money. But that’s not what makes them happy. They’re sim­ply happy with life.” Here, for the first time dur­ing our trip, we have no phone sig­nal. Wifi is frus­trat­ingly slow. And we feel our­selves re­lax­ing, un­furl­ing into the easy is­land vibe we’d heard so much about. We might not have cap­tured the joy of the In­done­sians for our­selves — but sur­rounded by palm trees and si­lence, it's not hard to imag­ine how we might.

Above: The 241-square-me­tre two-bed­room Sky Villa at the Ritz-carl­ton Bali, which is lo­cated in Nusa Dua, a pur­pose-built com­plex of gated lux­ury ho­tels in the south east of the is­land. This re­sort is sleek, su­per-sized (with 313 suites and vil­las) and chock-full of fa­cil­i­ties.

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