Not just a tourist: Traveling to Indonesia

Not just a tourist: Traveling to Indonesia

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As noted in earlier posts, from 2009-2010, I lived in Depok, Indonesia as a United States Fubright Fellow.  This past February, after eight years of being away, I decided to make the long return back to visit 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.  We designed the majority of the trip as a social visit but we also decided to spend some downtime in Bali.  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.  In Bali, one of my best Depok friends met up with us, and we had a whirlwind 2.5 days spying temples and monkeys, attending a Fire Dance, and drinking coconuts at a local cafe.  Unfortunately but not surprisingly, our visit took a devastating blow after Uluwatu.

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.

When we arrived in Bali, guard down, and we made tummy fatal errors: brushing our teeth with the water (even though the hotel promoted the filtration system) and drinking fresh juice with breakfast.  I ordered a salad at a reputable cafe and consumed too much fruit that I did not have to first peel.  As a severe ulcerative colitis sufferer married to a Celiac, it’s hard to avoid fresh fruits and veggies.  My stomach flipped upside down on Day 3 in Bali, but I managed to peel myself out of bed for dinner that night.  Sadly, the next day my husband followed my lead in Jakarta, taking out the remaining 4.5 days of our trip.  I struggled with the long trip and how much we did not get to see.  My students, school, teachers, and village were so disappointed.  I cursed the country and it’s food practices (or lack thereof).  I even questioned if the saying was true: you can never go home again.  As I sat alone at lunch one day, I answered my own question:

One afternoon after our battle with food and water, I ventured out alone for lunch. Walking by reception, the hotel staff called me “bule” to my face, not realizing for a hotel this “white foreigner” designation is unprofessional. As I stared down at my now infected, cut up finger (the hotel’s less than filtered shower water irritated an old cut) with angry mosquito bites and a rash on my legs, feeling completely sorry for my heartbroken self, three men in traditional Indonesian batik 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.

I had to laugh. 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 has gotten impossible.  They have Gojek now, which is Uber for motorbikes, and 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.

Indonesia is hard and dangerous and frustrating and unorganized and not this romanticized vision that you see people who never leave resorts in Bali post.  Those fluffy-quotes-paired-with-handholding-couples-through-the-rice-paddies-where-people-perform-backbreaking-work-Instagrammers make me cringe. The real Indo 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 but this random diner busts out a beautiful ballad. It’s 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. 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. It’s 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. Some people have nothing but truly have everything. It’s 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). Indo is where your friends tell your husband he has monkey hair and is now fat, and 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. It’s where you realize 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.

This country will always own a piece of me and 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.

Picture from Suluban Beach * Uluwatu * Bali * Indonesia

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Books to read featuring Indonesia:


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