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By the way: Why I’m not a multi-millionaire

Frank Palmos

The Jakarta Post

Perth, Australia  /  Thu, August 29, 2019  /  04:55 pm
By the way: Why I’m not a multi-millionaire

Illustration of a person writing. (Shutterstock/Maxim Krivonos)

A surprise email about a travel book I wrote in 1975, Indonesia Do-It-Yourself, went viral on Facebook recently, it was named one of the 10 best books on Indonesian travel.

A review of Indonesia Do-It-Yourself ( 1976 ) by Stephen Yeung from Jakarta says: “‘Guide books […] should be regarded as a perishable good and not something lasting. After many years they attain a certain historical value and sometimes it’s good to look back at the beauty of a now destroyed place, or the cheapness of a tour through Java in days past".

“So wrote Australian journalist and historian Frank Palmos in the prescient introduction to his irreverent and insightful guidebook to Indonesia. It’s nearly impossible to find a copy these days. With a bit of luck, this book will be republished as an Indonesian classic.”

My memorable events in 58 years working as a journalist then historian in Indonesia dealt with the exciting days when then-president Sukarno kept the new Republic of Indonesia in world TV and newspaper headlines.

By January 1965 Hotel Indonesia was overflowing with foreign correspondents from North and South America, Europe and Asia.

As the dean of correspondents and the president’s honorary interpreter to the foreign press and diplomats, my other task was to make welcome more than 40 overseas journalists, so AFP’s Frank de Jong and I founded the Djakarta Foreign Correspondents Club in May 1965, a year of menace and Cold War turbulence.

By late 1966 peace had returned, the communist threat was removed and the modernization of Indonesian society began.

I wrote several travel books to entice tourists by taking the mystery out of travel, showing visitors how to travel cheaply to the world-famous destinations of Bali and Yogyakarta by listing inexpensive homestays, bus and train travel.

It was the first self-help series on Indonesia and costing just US$2 each they soon became best sellers. Soon after, Lonely Planet started and a decade later expanded into a worldwide series, purchased by the BBC. However, I had by then ceased travel writing for a very personal reason.

Compared to serious foreign correspondent work, travel writing is utterly bland and quickly outdated. But that was not my main reason for returning to correspondent work.

After the last of my travel books, I returned to a favorite Legian Beach village to find that my favorable review had brought great harm to the original villagers.

Within weeks of my Bali book being printed, the Padma area village had been inundated by hundreds of foreigners and seeing profits in its appeal to tourists, wealthy locals bought into the area.

They ripped out a score of coconut palms, built new brick homestays and created a noisy parking lot for cars, tourist buses and motorcycles.

Most of the original villagers left and the new owners opened warung (foodstalls) where radios played night and day.

What had been a tranquil seaside village became a semi-slum; because the palms had been removed from the path to the beach, the ocean soon eroded the sand.

I had destroyed a village and with it the tranquil life of many villagers.

The original idyllic setting of palms was removed, the Balinese homes made from timber and native materials were replaced ugly “modern” buildings and a wide, fine sanded beach eroded almost to bedrock.

I canceled my next trip to the interior of Bali, fearing more damage would follow my now popular books and yet more idyllic villages in harmony with their natural surrounds would be forever lost.

I turned to writing history, preferring books on how the Republic was formed (Student Soldiers: diary of Hario Kecik, and Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory, both published by Obor Jakarta), which I am certain is a much better way to repay the Indonesian people for their kindness when I was a poor student, 1961-62.

I never regretted my decision to let go of my number-one status as Indonesian travel writer, nor have my ideals altered. (ste)