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Traveling to discover our common humanity

Sebastian Partogi

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Jakarta  /  Mon, February 25, 2019  /  02:25 pm
Traveling to discover our common humanity

Wanderlust: Journalist, copywriter and travel writer Famega Syavira Putri poses for a photograph in Central Mongolia, on the sidelines of learning to ride a horse in the country’s savannah area. (Courtesy of Famega Syavira Putri/-)

An Indonesian female travel writer covered three continents to mingle with people and experience the healing power of kindness.

For many in the largely patriarchal Indonesia, a woman traveling the world alone may be unimaginable. The very idea may bring a number of concerns to mind, especially regarding safety. Among female adventurers, the most common apprehension is probably sexual harassment.

Journalist, content writer and travel writer Famega Syavira Putri knows this only too well. As a professional journalist, her curiosity is unbridled and her yearning to explore the world unrestrained.

Born on July 11, 1985 in Magelang, Central Java, she pursued her Bachelor’s degree in the School of Psychology at the Yogyakarta-based Islamic University of Indonesia.

She has worked for various media outlets — detik.com, Tempo, Yahoo! Indonesia, Rappler and Liputan6.com. She also worked as a content writer and freelancer. Currently, she works with BBC Indonesia as a broadcasting journalist.

In 2018, she launched her debut travelogue, titled Kelana: Perjalanan Darat Dari Indonesia Sampai ke Afrika (The Adventure: A Journey from Indonesia to Africa by Land) published by Comma Books, Jakarta. The book tells of her four-and-a-half-month journey through 16 countries across Asia, Europe and Africa by land and water.

Her epic journey encompassed Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Switzerland, France, Spain and Morocco.

To begin making her dream of becoming an adventurer come true was not easy.

When she traveled to Iran for three weeks in 2016 — her first extended journey overseas — she experienced sexual harassment on the road. Local men followed her around, a traumatizing experience she won’t forget.

“I shared my experience in a Facebook group comprising people who have traveled to Iran, but many men posted victim-blaming comments in response to my story,” she said. This was when she became aware that a lot of male travelers were actually somewhat insensitive when it came to the vulnerability of women travelers to such harassment.

She began comparing blogs written by female travelers to those written by their male counterparts and this divide became even more apparent. “Most male travelers who have visited Iran described their experience as being near perfect, while almost all women who have gone there have become victims of some kind of sexual harassment.”

She convinced herself not to let her Iran nightmare deter her from quenching her thirst for knowledge about different cultures and ways of living through traveling.

Upon her resignation from Rappler to become a freelance writer, she planned an even more ambitious project: to visit 16 countries across Asia, Europe and Africa by land and sea. She had saved enough money to embark on the journey from her freelancing jobs. Besides, as a freelancer, she had an even more precious asset: time.

Grueling train ride: Exhausted passengers occupy a train heading from Beijing to Nanning in China. On the trip, Famega could only get a standing ticket for a 24-hour long ride because all the seats had been occupied by the time she booked her ride.Grueling train ride: Exhausted passengers occupy a train heading from Beijing to Nanning in China. On the trip, Famega could only get a standing ticket for a 24-hour long ride because all the seats had been occupied by the time she booked her ride.

“Many journalists have asked me, ‘Why did you decide to embark on this journey across the world? Is it because you were heartbroken?’” she said, laughing. “Not at all.” She was tickled by the simple-mindedness of the questions. Obviously, not all female travelers followed in the footsteps of Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert.

“It is simply because I’m curious about other parts of the world. After all, after years of working as a journalist, I hadn’t gotten a chance to travel extensively; I could only do it during my years of freelancing.”

To plan this trip, she carried out meticulous online research on transport options and visas. She decided that this time she would only study female travel bloggers’ experiences, especially on the safety aspect.

Famega would not travel by air so as not to exacerbate climate change by the massive carbon footprint emitted by the aircraft. She loves traveling by land and water because it allows her to enjoy landscapes and interact with fellow passengers — things that do not normally happen when you travel by plane.

Planning a four-month trip covering 16 countries across three continents is obviously not for the faint-hearted. The devil of planning an overseas trip by land and sea lies in the detail. You can see in her book the suspense of having to apply for a visa to many different countries and booking ferries, buses and trains as well as accommodation only four days ahead of arrival.

The language barrier is another thing. Because English is the only foreign language she speaks, she struggled with communication in countries where people do not adequately speak the language. In Russia, she had to communicate with a hostel’s receptionist with the help of Google Translate.

“The biggest challenge I faced during my travel was loneliness, particularly in Russia, due to the language barrier,” she said. “Fortunately, thanks to the mobile travel application Couchsurfing, I was able to connect with several Indonesian students there and followed them around all day long.”

Other than that, she was always able to find a traveling companion through Couchsurfing or by striking up conversations with strangers in public places. Her multiple years of working as a journalist had helped her with a gut instinct to differentiate honest strangers from the suspicious ones.

“For instance, you can always tell when a stranger is acting suspiciously too kind to you,” she said. Thankfully, for this trip, she was safe. “I was a more experienced traveler this time around. I knew that in Europe it was safe to roam the cities at night but not so much so in Mongolia, for instance.”

At the end of the day, she was overjoyed by the common humanity she discovered among people of different colors and cultures through the kindness of strangers she met on the road. When she had to travel standing on a train during a 24-hour trip from Beijing to Nanning in China, several passengers were kind enough to lend their seats so she could take turns to sit down.

“People who live as far away as the mountains in Siberia, who might not even know that a country called Indonesia exists, still treated me kindly,” she said. “While people who live in the same country called Indonesia seem to always highlight differences, whether it has to do with religion or race. How come foreigners from other countries seem to treat each other better?

“This compels me to become a better person after this experience,” she said.

“I also became aware of how little I know about this world after traveling so much. Now I have become even more curious to learn about so many different things: I want to learn to speak Russian, study the history of Spain and Mongolia as well as the history of colonialism, among other things,” said Famega, the lifelong learner and avid reader who enjoys the writings of Russian Nobel laureate in literature Svetlana Alexievich, Yugoslavian author Ivo Andrić and Indonesian poet Avianti Armand.

Can I join you? A male backpacker stands in front of a building in St. Petersburg, Russia, looking for a ride to Cambodia. During her travels in Russia, Famega met a lot of hitchhikers who traveled to Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, on a shoestring budget and, thanks to good fortunes, were able to get a ride to the faraway region.Can I join you? A male backpacker stands in front of a building in St. Petersburg, Russia, looking for a ride to Cambodia. During her travels in Russia, Famega met a lot of hitchhikers who traveled to Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, on a shoestring budget and, thanks to good fortunes, were able to get a ride to the faraway region.

Photos courtesy of Famega Syavira Putri

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.