An American in Asia: Indonesian Edition

My most recent place of travel outside of Singapore was to Yogyakarta (pronounced like “joge-gee-karta”), Indonesia. It is in the southern part of the Central Java province. Many people do not know this, but Indonesia is the most populous Islamic country in the world in one of the most populous parts of the world. A friend shared with me this map on our way there:

world map picture


It reads: “there are more people living inside this circle than outside of it”. It is essentially a map of the ever-growing region of Southeast Asia, and Singapore is nearly directly in the center of it.

We certainly encountered cultural differences in Indonesia when compared to Singapore. Noting the culture, we packed long skirts and long pants, primarily. Still, we were regarded differently in our Western clothes. Still, one of us was asked to change in to longer pants at the airport.

The differences continued. We noticed an arrow pointing to Mecca in our hotel room. This is something I probably should have seen before in my 20 years of life, but had not. Note: I had never been outside of the U.S. and Mexico before traveling to Singapore. We also noticed a lot of stares from scooter drivers down the road and honks from cars as we walked down the streets, but above all, we noticed a strong, intrinsic kindness of the people. Indonesia has a vibrant culture with a lot going for it. It is a very large country with lots of unique personality within its provinces. It is also beautiful. Many of its natural beauty, though, comes from truly devastating natural phenomena. Several active volcanoes often wreak havoc on its islands. Earthquakes are not uncommon. We met a few students from a University in Yogyakarta while visiting Prambanan and Borobudur temples one day. After they gave us an informal tour including the history of the ruins, we began to chat pleasantly. One of our guides shared with me that earthquakes tend to occur every 4 years. The most devastating one in recent times was in 2006, when 5,000 people died, including two of her friends from boarding school who did not hear the shouts of their peers to exit the building. I will never forget her telling me this. Other earthquakes followed in 2010, and just one week ago in 2014. Below is a picture of us from Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple, with our guides:

guide picture

This is not the only picture we took that day. I am likely in 100-300 pictures with Indonesians at Borobudur and Prambanan. Yogyakarta is not a major tourist destination, especially for Westerners. It seemed we were the only young Westerners in the entire province. Because of this, we seemed to be a bit of a commodity. Young men would not-so-sneakily take pictures of us. Families would ask us to be in their photos. School children asked if we might practice English with them. I was asked to take a picture with Indonesian Security officers. Some would follow us to get pictures in different locations. Eventually, we found ourselves sneaking around the ruins to avoid picture traps. My face hurt more than it did after my senior pictures and prom, combined.

Most shocking that day, though, was a response I received after I told a young Indonesian mother where I was from after we took a photo together. She told me to “be careful”. This was quite frightening as well as confusing. I have never been so distinctly aware of my surroundings, my looks, what I say, and how I behave, and her statement forced me to recall a lecture in my global issues class in which the class was collectively asked who they believe to be the most powerful country in the world. The class unanimously answered “the U.S.”. I was quiet. This was really a shock to me. Growing up reading “censored”, if you will, history books written primarily by Americans did not give me this idea. What I hear about America is our debt, our struggles with healthcare, gun control, etc. I suppose the view is quite different when considered from the outside and looking in.

We also visited Borobudur, a 9th century Buddhist temple, that day. Both temples were beautiful and quite unique.

Borobudur picture

Other highlights of the trip included hiking up Mount Merapi (an active volcano), which means “fire mountain” in Indonesian, and nearly running down to avoid a quick-brewing storm, visiting an art center, and coffee.

volcano picture

We visited a local market where we were lead by a kind individual, who was incredibly jubilant because it was a Friday and he was off of work early, to the famous Batik (meaning “lots of small dots”) art center, a bit off of the main shopping street. This was my first taste of the kindness of the Indonesia people. We were not pressured to buy anything. We were instructed of the methods of creating the beautiful fabric and allowed to watch the making of the fabric free of charge. I was allowed to take the below picture. Naturally, we all bought one.

Batik picture

The final highlight of Indonesia was the food and coffee. Indonesian coffee is some of the best in the world, and my cup at a local café was certainly the best I’ve had in Asia. I will not go home without a large stash of Indonesian coffee beans. I also had the best banana smoothie of my life at that café. This may be a biased statement, however, because we enjoyed the smoothies after hiking up the volcano. Anything cold is good after hiking up a volcano. Elsewhere, we enjoyed sambal, a sort of chili sauce that is incredibly spicy and delicious, at nearly every meal. It is also served in Singapore, but is a drier variety.

I continue to be very fond of Indonesia and its culture and look forward to planning a trip to Bali (and hopefully Borneo to see wild orangutans!), as well. Being in Indonesia and abroad in general has really increased my spatial and personal awareness. Not only am I much better at navigating unknown streets, cities, and airports, but I am also learning “how to travel” and have a much better understanding of people and how I may fit in among a people. This is one of the most rewarding reflections I have (so far) about studying abroad.