We are expected.
On the rough jetty between rickety stilt houses, a guard of honour is forming. Kids from the Jang Island school beat out a deafening rhythm on hand drums as our open pancung boat pulls up and we file ashore.
Twenty students, two teachers and a visiting Australian author have come to do a writers’ camp at Telunas Beach Resort, in Indonesia’s lovely Riau Islands, a couple of hours across the water from Singapore. Each morning we set off on a different adventure. Each afternoon we gather back at Telunas to discuss and write about our experience.
There is never a shortage of material.
I’ve been to Telunas Beach for these writing camps many times since the resort opened in 2004. I think this is number 14, but I’m losing count.
I do love it there. The first difficulty in stimulating students’ writing is overcoming their inhibition, the idea that they have nothing worth writing about. The beauty of Telunas is that the activities organised by the staff always throw up many possible starting points for stories.
‘Marooning’ the writers on a desert island across from the resort leads to tall tales of shipwreck, survival and heroism. A hike into the jungle is a good stimulus for poetry and drama.
By arrangement with neighbouring villages, we are able to enjoy an ‘ethnotour’ which brings visiting westerners into contact with local people. We are accompanied by Indonesian guides who show us how to act and dress appropriately (most of the Melayu people are Muslim), teach us some basic greetings in Bahasa and act as interpreters.
The Telunas organisation is involved in community development projects and employs a lot of local people. And since there is practically no other tourism in the area, the contact is strictly non-commercial. The village people are happy just to share their lives with us for a short time so that we can learn together.
It is a great experience for everyone.
Jang is a small island with a population of about 2000. There is a boat-building yard and some small cottage industries, but fishing employs nearly all the men of the island and provides most of the income.
The first sight of Jang village can be a little confronting, especially coming from the obsessive neatness of Singapore. Litter is strewn everywhere, cats and chickens forage in the garbage and the houses look as if they are about to fall into the water at any moment. Electricity operates for only a few hours each evening. There are few motorbikes and no cars.
But there are noticeably more TV satellite dishes than a few years ago and the children wear immaculately clean school uniforms. If some are a little shy to begin with, everybody is very friendly and welcoming to their visitors.
After some formal introductions and greetings at the school (do those microphones really have to be turned to ear-splitting volume?) we divide into smaller groups to learn drumming and dance from the students. Yes, even the visiting Australian writer is hauled to his feet to do his best.
The visitors are given a lesson (and a sound whipping) at takraw, a version of volleyball played with a wicker ball.
Presents are exchanged. The visitors have brought footballs and a volleyball for the Jang School, who reciprocate with some of their drums and a takraw ball. Perhaps with a bit of practice the away team will be more competitive on their next visit.
In the village, we visit the house of Ibu Rapiah to learn how to make fish chips, a form of krupuk and a popular snack in this area.
Then it is time to say farewell to our new friends at Jang Island…
…and to head back to Telunas for our afternoon’s writing session.
After a debriefing from the guides, I ask students to put themselves in the place of someone they met during the visit and try to tell the story from the other’s point of view. To walk a mile (or at least a few yards) in their shoes, so to speak.
If your school or group is interested in doing a writing camp or ethnotour in Indonesia, I’m sure the Telunas Beach people would be delighted to hear from you. You can contact them HERE.
Telunas Beach also offers accommodation and activities for families and independent travellers.