To say that Indonesian travel writer and photographer Agustinus Wibowo has a passion for adventure and linguistics is an understatement – he has spent most of his life travelling to the far reaches of the world and currently speaks 16 languages.
In his latest book Zero, his travels bring him home to spend time with his dying mother, a woman who lived her entire life in one small village.
For those who haven’t read it, what is your latest book Zero about?
Zero is my story of homecoming. After ten years wandering the world, I had to go home, to face the reality of my home. My mother was on the brink of death, as cancer ravaged her body. The only thing I could do was sit next to her, reading my travel notes from faraway lands – China, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Just like Scheherazade who reads through one thousand and one tales over as many nights, I wished that every story may prolong her life for one day. Along with these stories, my mother finally found a voice to recount her own life journey. This book is fragments of lives of a mother and a son, two distinctive roads spanning time and distance converged to become a tale of love and survival.
Why did you rewrite your book Zero rather than simply translating it into English?
I believe that translating is not simply converting from one language to the other, due to the differences of the way we convey ideas in different languages, and also the different context of the readers with different languages or cultural backgrounds. I realised this when I read the first draft of the direct translation of Zero from Indonesian to English, which was not as readable as expected. The translator and I found that there were too many expressions in Indonesian that couldn’t be simply translated literally to English, and there were many other details that needed further explanation for non-Indonesian readers. The translator suggested that I do some adjustments. After I attempted to read just one chapter, I found the tone of the book has changed, and therefore it was necessary to adjust the whole book accordingly.
Why do you travel? What made you first want to travel?
Travel for me is like seeking reflection. From the stories of the people I met on the road, I find a reflection of myself. It’s like how our eyes and mouth are located on our face, but we can’t see our mouth without a mirror. Thus, the more I travel physically, the more I understand about myself, and the more I dig into my inner being. I always start my travel with questions, and the journey is to find the answer to the questions. In my earlier phase of traveling, which I recount in Zero, the questions were: Who am I? Where do I belong? My childhood was haunted by conflicting identities, and thus I was dreaming to find a place that I can call home.
Do you feel that the more you travel, the more your concept of what and where ‘home’ is changes?
Indeed. At the beginning, I thought home is the place where you were born and raised. But raised as a Chinese-Indonesian in Indonesia under the anti-Chinese Suharto regime, I could hardly say that Indonesia was my home. Then, I thought the place of where your ancestors come from should be your home. Therefore, I went to China. But I found that I don’t belong there either. Then I traveled to distance countries, like Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the hospitality of the people made me feel at home. At that time I thought that my home can be anywhere. But, when your home is anywhere, it also means that your home is nowhere. In the current phase, I feel that home is not external; it starts right in your mind. When you have made peace with your past and future, you are at ‘home’. Location doesn’t matter anymore.
You have travelled all over the world, whereas your mother had barely ever left her village in Java – did you always wonder why she had never travelled? Did she understand your love of travel?
My mother was a typical Chinese-Indonesian woman who had passed through the troubled years of Indonesian history, and thus spent most of her time looking after our family shop so that we could survive financially. She believed that one needs to work hard to be successful in life. She also believed that every single penny came from hard work, and therefore, was not to be wasted in vain. I used to think that my mother simply disliked travelling, because she didn’t want to spend money. But after sharing the last days together with her, I found that she also dreamed to travel. Her stationary life was in fact a sacrifice for the family. My mother understood that I love travelling, and she took it as a priority. During my years of travelling, to my surprise, she even attempted to hide all the troubles happening in our family as much as possible, as she worried that it may disturb my concentration in travelling.
You said you fell in love with Afghanistan at first sight – why was this?
My initial image of Afghanistan, as what I learned from the media, was simply a war zone full of sorrows and deaths. But when I came to Afghanistan first in 2003, I felt I was thrown into a time machine and came to a world from centuries ago. Wars had locked Afghanistan in time, but the people were still happy to share even their last bread to the visiting guests. I travelled intensively in Afghanistan in 2006, and spent in total more than three years in the country, and my love of Afghanistan developed into an admiration of their pride in their homeland. The Afghans call their land ‘khaak’ – dust. No matter how worthless and destroyed it is, they are ready to sacrifice their life to fight for their beloved homeland. Their love of their country requires no reason – and that’s why Afghanistan and the Afghans have always captivated me.
What are some of your other favourite places to visit?
So far, the region that I have visited frequently is Central Asia – especially along the Silk Roads cities in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. I am attracted by the richness of Central Asian history, the diversity of races and languages, and also the hospitable culture.
Indonesia also never stops to give me surprise. Even though I was born and raised here, the diversity of islands, races and traditions made me always find new things in my travels across the islands – as if I was travelling in several different countries.
For some spiritual experiences, I would choose India and Burma, where I learned some meditation techniques that had unlocked the journey to my inner self.
Who are your favourite travel writers?
Ryszard Kapuściński, because of his style of ‘literary reportage’. His penetrating observation and sharp description has created vivid images of the places, people and events he’s encountered. I love his Shah of Shahs and Imperium. I also learned a lot from V.S. Naipaul’s nonfiction works, especially because of his critical view, concise use of words and cold humour. Most of the travel writers I love are journalists who stay in a foreign land for a long period of time and are able to look beyond the place. Some other names are Christina Lamb for her Afghanistan reportages, Colin Thubron for his Silk Road journeys and Tony Horwitz for the hilarious work on the troubled Middle East countries.
What is your next project?
I am currently doing a travel narrative book on my own country, Indonesia. The country is so huge, diverse and hardly understandable. Therefore, I travel around the country’s borders and some far-flung places to understand the meaning of Indonesian nationalism. I started in 2014, when I travelled to the Papua New Guinean border and lived in the Free Papua Movement camps to learn why they want to be independent from Indonesia. I also travelled to Aceh to see the implementation of Sharia law after the separatism conflict ended, and Toraja, to see how local religions survived under the pressure of modern religions. This project has brought me 18,000 kilometers away to Suriname, to learn the attachment of Javanese diaspora to their land of origin. To complete this project, I plan to go to East Timor, the Spice Islands and West Papua.