Paul Sochaczewski is not your ordinary travel writer. His first visit to Southeast Asia was to the East Malaysian state of Sarawak when the 22-year-old took a life-changing tour of duty with the U.S. Peace Corp assisting elementary school teachers. He later worked at the WWF helping to create global campaigns to protect rainforests and biological diversity. In the years to come, Sochaczewski penned four books set in the region: Soul of the Tiger, Sultan and the Mermaid Queen, An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles and Redheads, along with some six hundred bylined articles in leading international publications.
Although he has spent over 40 years crisscrossing Asia, his favorite area of travel is Indonesia. His slender book Curious Encounters of the Human Kind-Indonesia portrays the archipelagic nation as you’ve probably never imagined it, full of startling events, inscrutable inhabitants, unexpected moments of intimacy and introspection, excitement and solemnity as well as profound disappointment. In these stories, we learn why modern Indonesian sultans continue love affairs with a mermaid queen, why the island of Flores is Ground Zero for Hobbit sightings, how a now-neglected spice caused historic mayhem among greedy Europeans, why discovering a new species can be almost as good as sex and what is the allure of Waltzing Banana Island?
This veteran writer/traveler understands that the real attractions of Indonesia aren’t the supermalls and hyper developed tourist destinations like Bali and Jakarta, but this watery nation’s rich, varied and arcane cultures and customs. He seeks out largely unexplored outlying islands, sacred forests and deep interiors, the domain of elephants, orangutans, wild rivers and remote tribes.
In the story “In Search of the Lost White Tribe of Halmahera,” Sochaczewski sets out to find giant white cannibals on the New Jersey-sized K-shaped island of Halmahera. These tall, naked and intensely xenophobic cannibals, known as Orang Togutil, were believed to kill unwanted visitors by hurling stones at them with their feet and eating their victims raw. After finding the 3000 ethnic oddities in the isolated hills on the far side of the seldom-visited island, the curious Togutil turned out to be neither white, nor tall, nor nasty, nor lost.
Sochaczewski has a predilection for hanging out with people who rely on nature for their main sources of cash by selling products of the forest or sea like edible bird’s nests and sea cucumber. Many of his narratives depict people who admire us for our possessions while we admire them for their simplicity. In “We Better Collect Bird Nests Before the Outsiders Get Here,” he heads into the jungles of Aru Island with men carrying only bows, arrows and dogs who return several hours later with a deer.
An ardent conservationist, Sochaczewski is incensed at the rampant environmental destruction he witnesses everywhere he goes – the dynamiting of coral reefs, the wholesale slaughter of birds, sea life, mammals and endangered species for economic survival and to supply the global marketplace. He never ceases questioning, probing for the truth. He shatters the myth that local indigenous people make good stewards of nature. He commiserates with the problems of the little man, wong kecil, who are pitted against government bureaucrats, Javanese overlords, Chinese merchants and petty but all-powerful village chiefs.
Another tale recounts how an American marine biologist by pure chance stumbled upon a big ugly fish in a fish market in Manado, northern Sulawesi. Dubbed the “Dinofish,” the coelacanth was first discovered in the Indian Ocean north of Madagascar in 1938. This living fossil had previously only been known from fossil records and was assumed to have gone extinct some 70 million years ago. Other stories relate how the writer struggles up muddy slopes in the Arfak mountains of Papua hunting for bowerbirds, patiently awaits green sea turtles crawling ashore to lay eggs on isolated beaches, embarks on a plant collecting trip on an impossibly remote tiny speck of an island in the Raja Ampat Sea to find out how it got its unlikely name.
In “The Man with the Pins in his Lungs,” the author meets an Indonesian dukun (shaman) who tells him a secret about his family that shakes his smug Western cool to the core. In the same story, we learn of a man whose X-rays showed that his lungs were full of needles; of a man who passed blood in his urine for three years as a result of a spell cast on him by a younger man who wanted his job; of a woman who cast powerful spells that made herself irresistible to men by means of black magic.
It seems that every Indonesian has had a close encounter with a spirit (djin), a ghost (hantu) or has experienced unexplained phenomena, either personally or through a relative or friend. These mystical occurrences defy black and white categorization. Myth and reality are blurred. Sochaczewski suggests that visitors to this complex country should not question things too closely nor examine them with a Western eye. The shadow world loses its definition when the light is turned up too brightly.
This collection of personal travel tales is as good as any in Sochaczewski’s whole “Curious Encounters” series of five books. Each story goes off on an unusual subject of research, a hidden corner of a country, a curious tangent, a nostalgic reflection, a provocative assertion as the author sallies forth on yet another adventurous escapade. There are frequent and surprising infusions of history, humor and social commentary. Not shy of tweaking his readers, Sochaczewski discusses a diverse range of topics in essays that are edgy, witty, entertaining and captivating.
Along the way the writer discovers scoundrels, celebrity monks, fortune tellers, prophets, hard-to-find holy men and other extraordinary, eccentric and memorable characters. Sochaczewski’s long stints in Southeast Asia give him a unique voice and perspective in tales that combine storytelling, fact-filled biographical portraiture and lively personal travelogue. After each story, I felt more enlightened about a country that I’ve already been exploring for 45 years. Curious Encounters-Indonesia is for those who believe that the world is an endlessly curious place where strange events occur without any plausible explanation. Safe in the hands of this competent chronicler, the Mysterious East is alive and well.
Curious Encounters of the Human Kind – Indonesia: True Asian Tales of Folly, Greed, Ambition and Dreams by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski, Explorer’s Eye Press 2015, ISBN-978-294-057-3042156 pages, dimensions 13 cm x 20 cm.
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