From 2009-2010 I lived in Depok, Indonesia as a United States Fulbright Fellow. I both loved and struggled with my time abroad, but I made my little corner of Depok a part of me. Part of my home. When I left a year later, friends despondently waved from my house gates, and I sobbed my way through my 2-day trip back to the States.
Not ready to go, the situation felt even more desperate by not knowing if and when I would return. Who would I become in relation to this country. And if I did return, would Indonesia even feel the same? Would what was once so innate to my daily routine become foreign to me? Underneath, would Indo feel like déjà vu inspired from a dream–a removed experience, a ghost, something no longer my own? I questioned: Can you go home again, truly? Or once you leave, does that magical feeling leave with you?
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Can You Go Home Again?
Returning To Indonesia Eight Years Later.
This past February, after eight years living back in the United States, I decided to make the long return visit to Indo with my husband. I wanted him to see the land that shaped my life, and I longed to see old friends and adopted family members.
The pictures on the left of each collage are from 2009/’10. The pictures on the right are from 2018. You’ll have to excuse their quality from back in the day.
Although excited, I had many concerns. In America, I once again took for granted hot water showers, running electricity, and hygiene. Food rarely makes me sick, and although traffic on 1-4 is always a bitch, nothing can compare to Indo macet, especially with banjir issues. More importantly, would my friends still be my friends? Had everything and everyone drastically changed? Would I be able to tolerate the heat, and would I once again go through some sort of culture shock? Although parts of Indonesia look like paradise, when you peel back the skin and get into the country’s heart, there is a lot of dark hidden within those fancy Balinese resorts.
A Stop In Jakarta
We planned the majority of our Indonesia trip as a social visit, but we also decided to spend some downtime in Bali. Local Indonesian life–Depok, especially–can be hard on the most seasoned traveler. The cities are huge, polluted, and traffic patterns are something that will never happen. Where in 2009, 20-person motorbike lanes took over the roads of Jakarta, 2018 has more cars mixed with bikes in a mob scene. Going 7 kilometers during rush hour, trapped on a highway, took us 3 hours. Pee, you will not.
Although exhausted from the two-day journey over, the first week of our trip flew by with drinks out at my favorite Jakarta haunts, rambutan-filled car rides, late nights with Jakarta-based friends, and visiting my Indo family. We started strong. Indonesia and I rekindled like long lost lovers with a testy past. Yet, Indo felt exactly like home. I was back. Sitting on my family’s Indonesian couch 8 years later, my butt fell into place minus the presence of a one beautiful Indonesian grandmother.
A few of my favorite Jakarta expat and local places back from 2009/’10 that still exist in 2018:
- Loewy – The crowd is mixed at this little eatery gone social bar. Expats, business Indonesians, and more liberal city hipsters flock here for the social scene. Interestingly, Loewy’s added a strict dress code to class up the joint, but hey, you can order smoking cocktails. I swear everything in Jakarta smokes. Check out their reviews here.
- Social House – Guys, I am not going to lie. When you live in the middle of nowhere where it’s 100-degrees all of the time, you head to the mecca of Jakarta malls–Grand Indonesia. I’m so sorry to break it to you. It is OK if you are disappointed with me. I had my local Depok cafes, but SoHo is my Jakarta AC haven. Plus, there is a ton of overpriced wine (illegal in Depok) and a great view of the city. Get the full scoop here.
- Melly’s – A little indoor-like garden, we would watch futbol games and kick back balonku shots. Don’t ask because I have no idea what I was drinking either. All I know: I loved it.
In Bali, one of my best Depok friends met up with us. Point made: good friends will always be your friends, no matter how much time passes. We had a whirlwind 2.5 days spying temples and monkeys, attending the Fire Dance, and drinking coconuts at a local cafe.
If you have a few days in Bali, be sure to see:
- Uluwatu and the Kecak and Fire Dance – Uluwatu is home to scary ass monkeys. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. The Sacred Money Forest in Ubud might toot your horn if you love the rapid little beasts. I do not. However, Uluwatu is home to a beautiful temple on the cliffs and the infamous Kecak and Fire Dance. Watch the story of the Ramayana come alive.
- Tanah Lot – A temple on the water, be sure to check the tide times or you will only spy this famous beauty from afar. Like me.
- Ubud – Although taken over by tourists and expats, Ubud is still a little gem of culture, yoga, writing, and a retreat from the tourist beaches. Ubud is all Eat, Pray, Love too, and back in 2009, I met the wayan from the novel.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, our visit took a devastating blow after Uluwatu. I blame the monkeys. Cursed flying rats from hell.
The Art Of Food Poisoning
Having lived in Indonesia for almost a year and constantly battling issues with food and sanitation–even overcoming a parasite–I should have been more cautious. I blame the beautiful 5-star Westin that commenced our trip. Every morning we woke up to warm showers, filtered water, and a floor-wide breakfast buffet. We ate fresh fruits and salads–typically a risk for foreigners–handing over complete faith to the Westin’s practices. They kept us safe. That was always my plan.
When we arrived in Bali, guard down, we made tummy fatal errors. We brushed our teeth with the tap water. Even though hotels promote filtration–be cautious. Use the bottled water they provide. And, we drank fresh juice with breakfast. I ordered a salad at a reputable cafe and consumed too much fruit that I did not have to peel first. As a severe ulcerative colitis sufferer married to a Celiac, it’s hard to avoid fresh fruits and veggies. BUT I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER. Don’t let those fruit bowl Bali IGers fool you–half of them puke their guts out later. This isn’t to insult Indo, but your system is not used to the bacteria and different sanitation practices.
Grumble, Grumble, Toil, And TROUBLE…
My stomach flipped upside down on Day 3 in Bali. I’ll spare you the gore, but I prayed to the sky to just take me from my misery. Sweating and laying on a concrete floor as mosquitos buzzed around me, I thought the purge would never end. Like a trooper, though, I managed to peel myself out of bed for dinner that night. Determined, I would not ruin this trip. Can you go home again and be stupid? Yup. Right here.
Sadly, tag team-style the next day, my husband followed my lead back in Jakarta. See ya later the remaining 4.5 days of our trip. I struggled with how much we did not get to see. We did not make it fully into Depok Timur–my husband never saw my house. I didn’t see the University where I volunteered or the public school where I taught 10-12th grade. My students, school, teachers, and village could not hide their disappointment. I cursed the country and it’s food practices–or lack thereof. At this moment of reckoning, I questioned yet again: can you go home again? I temporarily hated everything. Those smoothies could rot in the fiery pits of hell.
A Moment of Ironic Clarity
As I sat alone at lunch those last days, at a more local South Jakarta hotel and the only one able to eat in our party of two, I answered my own homecoming question.
Can You Go Home Again? The True Answer:
Walking by reception on my way to that lonely, self-pitying lunch, the hotel staff called me “bule” to my face. Oh fuck me and unprofessionalism. “White foreigner” designation made me just as crazy in 2009. No hotel staff, even though this place sat on the edge of Depok, should use this term in 2018. I walked by with my fake smile. The staff members did not mean to be rude. They also did not realize that I still remembered elementary-level Indonesian when they talked about my white skin.
Sitting at lunch, I stared down at my infected, cut up finger. The hotel’s less than filtered shower water irritated an old cut. Angry mosquito bites flared on my foreign skin and a rash crept up my legs. Feeling completely sorry for my heartbroken self, I couldn’t help but stare as three men in traditional Indonesian batik suddenly exited a car. Secured to their backs, I glimpsed giant, ceremonial krises. At the exact same time, I watched a hotel staff member walk by and flick trash into the bush.
And then it hit me…
I had to just laugh. Amazing culture and history meets everything that drives me nuts about Indo. And I thought: nope, nothing has changed. Nothing has freaking changed in Indonesia since I lived here eight years ago. I mean, yes, the traffic and pollution have gotten impossible. They have Gojek now, which is Uber for motorbikes. Depok built this immensely tall, out-of-place hotel. Margo City upgraded to more foreign stores. But in the end, Indo is still the country I love fiercely and dislike with just as much vigor. We all have love-hate relationships with home, or so I like to think. P.S. Young Indonesian girls are still arm candy for gross old expats. Sigh. Some things you want to change, desperately.
Indo Home Revisited
Indonesia is hard and dangerous and frustrating and unorganized and not this romanticized version that you see people post about who never leave resorts in Bali except to go to some fake cute cafe. Those fluffy-quotes-paired-with-handholding-couples-through-the-rice-paddies-where-people-perform-backbreaking-work-Instagrammers make me cringe.
The real Indo, my Indo home, is this heartbreakingly amazing country filled with the kindest souls:
- It’s where karaoke happens in the middle of the day, and you prepare your ears for offense. Instead, this random diner busts out a beautiful ballad.
- Indo is where the entire hotel staff knows that said ‘bule’ personally requested nasi uduk for breakfast and has decided to make it for breakfast on your last day for a hotel of hundreds. Don’t I feel like a crude American bitch now.
- It’s where best friends work their butts off all day for little pay, travel hours in traffic and heat, and still greet you like a sister, smiles bigger than imagined.
- Indo is where everyone’s home is your home and strangers want to feed you.
- It’s where your best friend’s parents give a gift for your parents back in the States. Some people have nothing but truly have everything.
- Indo is where the girls at the Depok J.Co laugh and run away hysterically from you in the sweetest way, too nervous to get you a donut even after they realize you speak Indonesian. You are one of the first foreigners they have ever seen.
- It is where your friends tell that your husband he has monkey hair and is fat compared to FB photos. You can imagine how he took that. I LOVE it.
- Indo is where everything smokes, including some fancy Jakarta drinks.
- It’s where you become intimate with the royal throne and figure out what kind of person you want to be. You are Ms. America in Depok still and must represent as such.
- Indo is where you realize that every action you did 8 years ago remains engraved in the hearts and minds of the people you touched. Your village presence made an impact and left a legacy, good or bad.
- It’s where the water will kill you (and arak will blind you) but is home to some of the most beautiful places in the world.
You Can Always Go Home Again
Indonesia will always own a piece of my heart and soul. Even though it took me out hard with half the trip in a hotel room, I wouldn’t change a thing. Ok, maybe I would have said no to the juice and salad. Because this is Indo. It’s amazing and INSANE and filled with people I freaking love. If it was any different, this wouldn’t be the place I call Indo home.
Which brings me back to my point: I truly believe that you can always go home again. You must work to sustain relationships and maintain an open heart and mind. No place is perfect and sometimes we never learn our lesson–like drinking freaking smoothies at breakfast in Bali. We don’t always understand or agree. Our infrastructure may not be the same or make any sense. People grow and change just like places, but deep down, they are the people and places we fell in love with, still. All of these experiences make us better and make the world our home.