Thoughts on Hospitality

Village on Serua island
Village at Serua Island, Indonesia

At this time of year, when so many of us are preparing to open our homes to friends and family, my mind keeps going back to an experience that I had in an unlikely place this past September.

With eleven other passengers and a crew of fifteen, I was motoring through some of the remotest islands of Indonesia on a traditional two-masted phinisi schooner.  We’d been making slow headway through our two-week sailing trip, hampered by a cranky engine and stormy seas that had us reconfiguring our route on a daily basis to avoid the worst of the swells.

The Katharina at seaAs darkness settled over the deck on Day 7, the captain decided to make for Serua by morning. This tiny volcanic island had once hosted a community of five hundred people on its saddle ridge – until  a 1968 eruption caused villagers to be evacuated to Seram, some 400 kilometres to the north.  Over the decades, about a hundred of the villagers had trickled back to the island to rebuild a scanty village near the shore – their numbers limited by the lack of a school or medical clinic, but the green fertility of their island making a homing call too loud to ignore.  The ruins of the church were still visible on the ridge – offering a destination with which to stretch sea-weary legs for those of us able to tackle the steep trail.

Before daybreak, our ship radio crackled to life.  “Phinisi! Phinisi! Are you coming our way?”  Ships were a rare sight in these parts, and in the pre-dawn light we’d been spotted on the horizon by Seruan fisherman.  Before we’d even announced our presence, the village kepala (headman) was extending an invitation to come ashore.

A Serua welcomeNo sooner had we dropped anchor than several village men approached in wooden canoes, bearing the gift of a grouper for our dinner, and offering to motor us safely to the slip of a gravel beach.  Here a dozen other villagers waited in welcome and curiosity.

At the kepala‘s house,  plastic chairs were pulled out for us under a tarp stretched across bamboo poles.  A tiny cloth-draped table offered drinking water and banana chips.  When we expressed concern about making the ridge before the heat got unbearable, the family waved us on, with promises to return when we’d finished our climb.

Trail to the ridge -web
Photo credit – Christian Romsy

We followed the villager assigned to lead us up the trail, past gardens of cassava and sweet potato and papaya, and through the biggest banana forest I had ever seen.  As we rested near the ruined church, shouts from the forest let us know that some of the men had taken a break from the clove and nutmeg harvest to pick young coconuts for our refreshment. The sweet coconut water restored us in the soaring heat like no sport drink ever could.

We got our formal welcome to the island when we returned to the kepala‘s house, and the kepala‘s wife plied us with fresh, hot pisang goreng (fried bananas).  Our enthusiasm for the cooking meant the pisang goreng kept coming – and with it, photos and stories and smiles and laughter.  With our sketchy Indonesian, much flapping of hands, and some translation by our crew, we talked together of food and family – universal things. At some point, the conversation devolved into gentle bawdy humour (another universal tendency, it seems).

Photo credit – Christian Romsy
Photo credit – Christian Romsy

When the time came to leave, the kepala‘s wife produced a big jar of banana chips for us to share on our onward voyage. We dug into our packs for reciprocal gifts – Canada flag pins and gently-used clothing.  In a shower of hand waves and terima kasihs (thank- you’s), we climbed back into the canoes and headed for the ship.

Although I’ve been treated many times to Indonesian hospitality, this was as genuine and generous a welcome as I’ve experienced anywhere – and I tried to describe it to those who’d been warned off the trail and had stayed on board.  But it was a fellow traveller named Geoffrey who said it best:  “This is the place you go when you need to restore your faith in humanity”.

Serua Island welcoming committee
Photo credit – Margaret Cole

It’s those thoughts and images that are forefront in my mind this week. The gift of opening one’s home unreservedly to others.  The recognition that the opportunity to connect is valuable and fleeting and we should drop everything to embrace it whenever it turns up.

This is where I’m supposed to vow to follow the lead of those Seruan villagers – to shelve time, ego, and image for the higher principles of spontaneity, connecting, and community building.  But I’d be disingenuous if I did.  Perfectionist that I am – prone to introversion – with a streak of competitivenes… yeah, it’s not going to happen.  Irritability seems my go-to reaction to the unexpected. The best that I can do is to prepare thoroughly and lovingly for the arrival of my extended family this weekend – and make detailed plans for hosting friends in the new year.

But I did want to take time to offer kudos to those whose doors are always open wide.  You have my utmost respect and admiration – and I am truly blessed to call some of you my friends.

PoinsettasMy thanks to the villagers of Serua island.  And my thanks to those of you who are of a similar ilk. Yours is the generosity of spirit that would prove the undoing of so much that has gone wrong on our planet – if only more of us had the selflessness to do the same.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all – and may 2018 bring as much to you as you give.


Text and photos © 2017 Catherine Van Brunschot (except where noted)


Bali 2002 Remembered

Bali Bombing Memorial

Fifteen years ago today – on October 12, 2002 – a bomb ripped through a crowd in Bali, Indonesia. Three bombs, in fact:  the first, inside a small, busy pub in the chock-a-block tourist district of Kuta; the second, across the street, outside a nightclub where revelers gathered to celebrate their participation in a rugby tournament; the third, near the Australian and U.S. consulates – underlining this clear message from Al-Qaeda that their war on Western “infidels” continued.  As wooden structures blazed and thatched roofs fell, hundreds fled through the flaming corridors and alleyways.  When the smoke cleared, 202 people were dead.

I lived in the country’s capital, Jakarta, at the time.  Was one of the Western “infidels” who made the emergency phone-tree calls, alerting other parents to the closure of our international school.  Listened to them react: first to the attack on beautiful Bali, more often than not their planned destination for the upcoming school break; then to the crater that now existed in the street where they and their families, too, might have walked.

Bali Bombing Memorial - Jamie WellingtonI watched staff and students mourn the death of Jamie Wellington – a popular math and phys.ed. teacher, avid rugby player/coach, husband to a school counsellor, and father to two toddlers.  I attended the funeral of fellow Canadian, Mervyn Popadynec, and listened to young widows of other rugby players speak about what they had lost that day.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other funerals took place in Australia, Indonesia, and 20 other nations – and 209 people returned home from Bali with injuries sustained in the bombing, including burns and amputations.

Bombings targeting foreigners continued in Jakarta and Bali – in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2009.  Hotels and malls responded with blast walls and bomb-detectors; international schools became armed fortresses; tourists and expats (like us) left the country in droves.  Terrorists were caught, brought to trial, executed.

Two years after the initial Bali bombing, a memorial to those who died there was opened by the Indonesian government on the site of the former pub.  Photos showed it to be a small, tasteful plaza, featuring a lotus-shaped fountain and a tall stone carving of a Balinese kayonan depicting the tree of life.

Now, quieter times have returned to Bali and so, too, have the tourists. I was one of them last month, and together with my husband, made my way for the first time to the Bali Bombing Memorial.

Bali Bombing Memorial - CanadiansAll 202 names are etched in black marble there beneath the tree of life, divided by country of citizenship.  We searched for the names that we knew; shed a few tears for their loss – and for the loss, too, of our own naivety.  The 88 fatalities listed below Australia reminded us again of the enormity of that country’s bereavement.  The 38 Indonesian names detailed the cost to those who dared to work or fraternize with “infidels”.

We were not alone in the plaza.  Tourists paused to peruse the names, to take pictures; others with their own personal memories of that day leaned into one another, brushing fingers across the gold letters that represented a life.  While we lingered on the street scanning the new shops and the bumper-to-bumper traffic, visitors continued to come, in clumps of two, four, eight.  I was amazed at the numbers, given the 15 years that have passed.

And I wondered how many lives still bear scars of this day:  family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances of the 202 dead, of the 209 injured.  And the friends who, in turn, supported these survivors in their pain and loss.

From this one attack on this one day.

In a world where bomb blasts occur almost every day, in countries all over the globe.

I stopped doing the math.






Text and photos © 2017 Catherine Van Brunschot