On Being a Tourist: My Poem “Village, Batanta Island”

January 19, 2013

Children on Batanta Island, Indonesia. Photo by the author

Children on Batanta Island, Indonesia. Photo by SE

There’s a difference between experiencing the world as a tourist and a traveler.

In my work with organizations like The Nature Conservancy and Ashoka, I’ve had occasion to do both and to notice the differences.

As a traveler, you become part of the landscape, access the culture in a way that changes your own perspective on the world, and if you can’t quite become native to the place, you at least get to know real people and have deeper experiences.

As a tourist, you are more an observer and your experiences are from outside rather than within. It feels more superficial and distant, like you are collecting experience rather than living it, if that makes sense.

A donor trip to Indonesia in February 2005 was more of a tourist experience than other trips I’d taken where I stayed with locals and worked with colleagues and partners on strategy over longer periods of time.

Not to say that traveling as a tourist isn’t valid. Sometimes you can observe things more clearly as an outsider rather than as an insider living in a place. During this particular donor trip, I wrote a poem about a visit to a small island in the Raja Ampat region of far eastern part of the country.

The poem appeared in OCHO #24, which was edited by Collin Kelly and included poets who were active on Twitter (you can find me there @greenskeptic).

Writing about poetry and technology in The Best American Poetry Blog, poet Julie Bloemeke, writes, “In ‘Village, Batanta Island,’ Scott Edward Anderson creates a world where children interact because they can see themselves in a digital camera.”

I’m not sure how often tourists visited that island or how frequently its children interacted with the likes of us. The exchange we had was genuine and fun, but like the picture I took in the moment (see above), there was definitely a fence between us, both real and imaginary.

Here is my poem, “Village, Batanta Island”:

To the young girl staring at me,

in a village on the island

of Batanta, I have an amusing,

open face; my big eyes,

skin paler than her experience.

I catch her looking at me.

She turns, giggles, whispers

to her friend. Funny gringo

in Ex Officio.

About twenty, twenty-five kids,

crowd around us; all under the age

of ten, most under five.

They pose for pictures

with our digital cameras.

Their scrubbed faces and hand-washed

clothes make neat subjects.

They giggle at the pictures

captured on the viewing screens;

tuck in a stray hair or shirt,

teasing each other.

A long, driftwood fence

lines each side of the one path

through the village. Whitewashed

church, houses with careful,

ornate carvings on the facades.

Neat rows of houses with neat

rows of cassava planted out back,

mango trees and papaya; sand

as white as those houses.

The villagers eat fresh-caught fish

from the sea behind their houses.

One of the men says they must now

go further out each day to find a good catch.

How many people can such a village

support before reaching its limit?

One of my companions,

a businessman from Jakarta,

quickly answers, “One thousand.”

–One thousand. What happens then?

He does not answer; I too am silenced.

Now he turns to the children,

speaks in bahasa Indonesian,

steadies to take another picture.

Ten yards away,

by a thatch-roofed house,

stands another girl,

not more than sixteen,

laundry tub at her hip:

already she is pregnant.

–Scott Edward Anderson, OCHO #24

3 Responses to “On Being a Tourist: My Poem “Village, Batanta Island””

  1. Lee Langbaum Says:

    Scott,

    I love to travel but never stay in one place long enough to be called a traveler! You have certainly had some amazing foreign experiences…..do you miss that life?

    Reading your poem reminded me of a trip Rick, Teddi, and I took in 1987 to Kenya to meet Sam…. Studying there for her Junior semester abroad. Rick had a tape recorder with him and he taped and played sounds of the Simburu tribesmens voices for them. They couldn’t believe that their voices could be caught in a tiny machine!!! And asked Rick to play the tape of their voices over and over. A memorable event in my travel life.

    Enjoy the Patriots game tonight….. Xoxo

    Sent from my iPhone


    • What a beautiful story! Yes, I do miss that life, but my life is so full of abundance now I wouldn’t trade a moment.

      Samantha told me some other travel stories she said I’ll have to ask you to tell…

      XO

  2. Julia Says:

    I think being a traveler is more interesting and enriching than being just a tourist. Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I enjoyed it.


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