December Travels, Part III: The In-Between (Abridged)

AMINEF’s travel policy mandates we stay at our sites a full week between trips, which makes sense to me. I’m here to teach and interact with my community, so I guess I should be doing that? The week was mostly filled with (1) Christmas music (2) Winter Spice tea (3) evaluating scripts for the O’Neill Center and (4) trying (failing) to prep for my trip abroad. I also celebrated my 23rd birthday in a very different but very wonderful way.

I’ve decided the best way to capture and retell this week is through short excerpts from my journal.

17 December 2015

Went to the post office and mailed 3 sets of used boarding passes to AMINEF.

Note that later in the week I received a text from Mark, the ETA Researcher/Coordinator, telling me the whole office was very glad that the mysterious package from Wonosari wasn’t anthrax. Turns out we aren’t supposed to physically mail our boarding passes…

18 December 2015

Put my Christmas cards on the fridge and table. Showed them all to Bu Mul. She was very alarmed and startled by the singing card from Aunt Marie, but quickly came to love it. She even recorded herself opening it!

Headed to immigration for the 12th time. ALL 3 OF US [Kendra, Julia, and myself] GOT OUR KITAS AND MERP. FINALLY!!

19 December 2015

Made batik a little with Bu Ruwi [my neighbor]. Colored a little in my book from Kara. Practiced driving around on Bu’s motorcycle. Got a little lost and practiced a lot!

20 December 2015

Read a lot for the O’Neill.

Love and good, happy thoughts to Grandpa Herb.

As a precursor to this next entry, Bu Mul suggested I spend my birthday with the kids in the local orphanage. The suggestion came out of nowhere and I was taken off guard by it. But the more I thought about it the more I knew it was what I wanted to do. So we prepped cake and lunch to share with everyone at the orphanage.

21 December 2015

Selamat ulang tahun! Hari ini, saya 23 tahun!

I wandered to the kitchen, had some Frosted Mini Wheats [thank you Dan and Laila for lugging them from home] then opened Bu’s gift—it was a cute photo collage with pics of us and some of me I’d sent her from my travels!

Went to school to use WiFi and give Pak Rifa the cute kids’ books from Mom and Dad. We exchanged gifts! A pleasant surprise to get a present from him and Bu Fifi. I decided to wait and open it at night.

Then around 9:30 Bu & I went to pick up the birthday cake. They were closed with a sign that said “tutup sebentar” (closed briefly). I was NOT happy. We waited until about 10:30 then had to head to the restaurant where we’d be celebrating with the kids from the “panti asuhan” (orphanage). On the way, Bu’s motorcycle just stopped working…Got gas thinking that was the problem. Stopped again…Then finally got it to work. Made it around 10:45.

Nisa [Bu Mul’s daughter] met us with the other moto and she and Bu went to wait for the cake. We were slated to start at 11. Time ticked by. 11:18 Bu and Nisa returned with the cake and “23” candles. Time time time. 11:40 Bu called [the orphanage]. We were waiting on them, and they were waiting on us! Of course. Then noon prayer started so more waiting. I was tired and my grouch level was rising, but then the kids came and it all fell away.

There are 42 kids at the orphanage and 35 were there (7 had gone home to sibling, aunts, uncles, etc for the vacation). I welcomed them all in Bahasa and translated into English. They said a prayer (for me? for us? for the food? unsure, but it was nice). Then we did cake! Backwards lunch. I had the youngest kid help me out and blow the candles out for me. Then I cut the cake into very small pieces. We ate the cake, then passed out the birthday chicken boxes (my very own Indo food boxes!) and ice tea. The kids were sitting at 3 tables, so I decided to forgo eating to talk with each table (and each side of the table). We chatted about where they study, what their dreams are (“apa cita-citamu?”), and I talked a little in English, asking favorite colors or sports or hobbies. It was really nice to just talk to them all. At some point the Tootsie Rolls I’d brought were passed out, and I ended by giving everyone [some American oleh-oleh]. Then we took group pictures!

22 December 2015

Today was a whirlwind frenzy of hot drinks, O’Neill submissions, errands, packing, and NOT sleeping!

And then, with my new visa in hand, I journeyed to far-off kingdoms elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Join me in December Travels, Part IV: Temple Run for Christmas in Cambo and New Years in Singapore




December Travels, Part II: Kakak Saya dan Kakak Ipar Saya

I’m writing this blog post in a taxi from Jogja to Wonosari. It’s about 7:30pm, so sudah malam (already nighttime) and rain is pinging on the roof. It’s nice and I’ve got at least an hour to be productive. I suppose small talk with the cab driver would be lebih sopan (politer), but I’m sleepy and tired of cab ride small talk.

So part 2 of my December travels: kakak saya dan kakak ipar saya (my older sibling and older sibling-in-law). It took me a while to grasp it, but the words for sibling are gender neutral. Kakak means older sibling, and adik means younger. The ipar tacks on “in-law.” So as you may have guessed, this post is all about my family (Dan and Laila!) coming to Indonesia.

Selamat datang ke Indonesia Dan& Laila!

They got here on the 10th, and in proper airport-pick-up fashion, I greeted them with an
awesome handmade sign. While waiting for them I realized two things: 1. Indonesian airports are not good at updating their arrivals boards and 2. Hugh Grant’s character in
Love Actually
was right in saying the arrivals gate of the airport is wonderful. Watching people reunite with their loved ones is spectacular, and I recommend it if you ever have the chance. Much better people watching than your dentist’s waiting room or the check-out line at the supermarket.

So they got here and we took off running, cramming as much as possible into the very short week we had together.

We started by exploring the city of Jogja a bit. We went to the keraton (or kraton depending on who you ask), which is the Sultan’s Palace. Side note: the full name of the province I live in is Daerah Istimewa Yogyakarta, which means “Special District of Yogyakarta.” It is so named because it is the only province still governed by a sultan. We special in Jogja. Unlike many royals, the sultan isn’t a mere figurehead, but the actual governor of the province (formally passed as law on 30 August 2012). The current drama is that the time has come for 69 year-old Sultan Hamengkubuwono X to start thinking about his heir. His five children, however, are all women. And a female sultan won’t fly here. He wants it to, I want it to, you want it to, Princess Anna and Queen Elsa want it to, but the people say nay. I think they should host a reality tv show to determine the new sultan. Wouldn’t that be fun?

—-Please note that I stopped typing in the cab at this point, after about a half hour, because the dark and the rain and the windy, mountainous road to Wonosari is making me feel nauseous. Of course it could have also be the questionable snacks I ate earlier and a sign that I’m about to become violently ill. Who knows!—–

So we checked out his place. Or, rather Dan and Laila did while I went to my second home, the immigration office. TURNED IN ALL MY PAPERWORK, TOOK A PHOTO, AND GOT FINGERPRINTED AND CAN PICK UP MY SUPER SPECIAL VISA ON THE 18TH!

I met back up with Dan and Laila and then we headed to Taman Sari, the water palace nearby the kraton. Once upon a time the palace was in the center of a lake, but it’s now dry and bursting at the seams with a vibrant art/tech community (there’s even a mural commemorating the time Mark Zuckerberg, the Lord of Facebook, visited). The sultan would row on over to the water palace from the kraton once a week in order for some relaxation and fun times with concubines. Said ladies would arrive in a group of about 20 via underground passageways from a neat sunken mosque. They would then splish splash around in one of the two main pools (the other was for children [???]). They were clothed, but their shoulders were exposed {gasp!}.

The sultan would be chilling up in the tallest tower watching the ladies. He’d pick out his favorite. Then she’d go and the two of them would splish splash around in his private pool (this isn’t a euphemism for sex. They actually splish splashed around together fully clothed). Then they would undress and have secret fun times in a very uncomfortable looking wooden “bed” (this is the sex).

We wandered around with a guide afterwards and he brought us to a coffee shop that sells kopi luwak (luwak coffee). This very expensive delicacy is made from the finest coffee beans that have been swallowed by fluffy civet cats. Then they’re pooped out. And collected. And dried and washed and ground up. And brewed into coffee. Which we tried. There’s a scene in The Bucket List where Jack Nicholson talks about it and the café had it playing  while we sipped our own coffee. One of our guides when we were in Bali joked and said the official drink of Bali (which has a slightly different type of kopi luwak) is “cat-poo-ccino. Well played, sir, well played.

After that we headed to Candi Prambanan (Prambanan Temple). This Hindu Temple was built around 850. The sky was dark and stormy, but we lucked out and there wasn’t too much rain. The result was a really impressive backdrop for a beautiful temple.

Quite a few tourists wanted photos with the tall white people. While Dan and Laila were busy posing, I stood off to the side like one those theme park attendants who make sure no one punches Mickey in the face. And then when they were tired and bedraggled and their smiles could no longer bear the strain of 5,001 photos, I announced that it was time for one more photo and then a rest.

The next day was our Gunungkidul day, where we went around the area I live in with guide Ica and driver Aan. We went to Wonosari first and visited my house. Bu Mul was there expecting us, except she wasn’t actually there at the moment, though a handful of her family members were. Which was a pleasant surprise but also a big surprise because there were lots of extra people. In traditional Indonesian fashion, we were stuffed with food and hot sweet tea. Then we checked out the school and Dan and Laila got to meet Pak Rifa and we all awkwardly sat in the headmaster’s office sort-of-but-not-really making small talk.

Then off to our first obyek wisata (tourism object [a.k.a. tourist attraction]) of the day, Goa Pindul! We tubed through the cave lazy river-style and had an English guide, which was fun because last time I went the tour was in Bahasa and I spent the whole time staring off into the abyss, flapping my feet in the water, and trying not to get my cell phone wet as I took pictures.

Then we went to Pantai Baron and Pantai Kukup. Both beaches were pretty, despite the dark clouds and rain. The three of us shared a coconut and enjoyed one another’s company.

We awoke the next morning before my standard college bedtime to make it to Candi Borobudur (Borobudur Temple) to watch the sunrise. It was cloudy, but we held onto a beautiful droplet of hope that we would see the sun rise. We were not disappointed. Well we sort of were because it was pretty misty. But the temple was beautiful in the early morning light and it was relatively uncrowded. And then the fog cleared a bit and we could see the surrounding mountains and, yes (!), the sun! It was breathtaking.

Borobudur aerial
Aerial view of Borobudur (I didn’t take this one…)

We grabbed some breakfast and then headed back up. A little more on Borobudur: it’s a Buddhist temple built in the 800s. It’s essentially a giant square. The four lower levels are covered in reliefs that detail the Buddha’s life and teachings. The lowest level has four rows of reliefs, two on either side. The other three lower levels have two rows each. Back in ye olden days, pilgrims to the temple would start on the east end of the temple with one of the rows and work their way clockwise around the entire temple. Then they’d start on the next row. They would do this for every row. Meaning that they went around the temple TEN TIMES before reaching level five and unlocking the “enlightenment” achievement. The three levels upper levels are rounded instead of square and feature 72 bell-shaped (or top-of-siracha-bottle-shaped) stupas, each with a surprise inside. Spoiler alert: the surprise is a Buddha.

Most are missing their heads because they were looted long ago. A few have been opened so that visitors can actually see the Buddhas (though I think it’s secretly to allow for better selfies). The stupas on levels five and six have diamond-shaped holes. The stupas on level seven have square-shaped holes (the enlightenment of squares > diamonds, obviously). In the very center at the very top is an enormous, solid stupa. It’s empty. And solid. But I suspect it once held the big boss for the final fight.

The top three levels are supposed to be characterized by a feeling of openness and space (enlightenment). After the intricate carvings, crammed walkways, and hundreds of watchful Buddhas below, it really does feel that way. You reach the top and there’s room to breathe, to think. To contemplate life. And 372 other people with which to do it!

As three of the only obviously foreign tourists in a sea of Indonesian vacationers and middle school students, we were targets for photographs and interviews. We easily spoke with over a hundred kids who had assignments to find white people and practice their English. This is not an exaggeration. I love this assignment, it’s a great idea. If attempting to learn Indonesian has taught me anything (other than grammar is foolish) it’s that there’s no better way to learn than by talking with strangers who speak the language you’re trying to learn. But when you’re the one being interviewed and you’re being interview lots and lots and lots, it gets very tiring. But you can’t yell at these kids because their eyes are filled with hope and joy and rainbows and sunshine and a sparkling desire to get a selfie with you. So you take three million selfies. And spend the same amount of time working your way to the top as the original Buddhist pilgrims did. Which is poetic in some ways. But mostly infuriating.

We went back to Jogja then and visited the Batik Museum with fellow ETA Julia and her sister, Maria, who was also visiting! They were set to close pretty soon, but the people who run the Batik Museum are literally the best people ever so the stayed open an extra few hours so all of us could make our own batik. Found out Dan used the batik technique in high school art class and had my mind blown. While waiting for our pieces to dry, we walked through the museum, which is nice. My favorite part is the room at the end that’s filled with needlepoint portraits of people like Ronald Raegan and Jesus. I’ve decided that when I have my portrait made for whatever it is that one has portraits made, I don’t want a photo or oil paints. I want a quality piece of needlework. Take note, everyone.

To Bali

Travel is exhausting

Then on to the island of Bali. Contrary to popular belief, it is not its own country, but actually part of Indonesia! It’s also predominantly Hindu and by far the most touristy part of Indonesia. This last fact means that not once were we asked for photos and that no one stared at us.

We hired a driver for the day to take us around. He was rather grouchy. I’m unsure whether this general grouchiness was because 1) we told him right away we didn’t want to go to any of the usual tourist craftsperson haunts (silversmiths, batik makers, woodworkers, coffee farms); 2) we didn’t stop for a single meal over about 8 hours (very un-Indonesian); or 3) he ran over a very cute, very unassuming duck who was crossing the road with his partner. Both were crushed afterwards (the former literally, the latter emotionally).

We visited the Ubud Monkey Forest first, which was filled with very friendly monkeys. We wandered around and saw quite a few monkey salons where groups of two or three monkeys were taking turns grooming one another. I considered joining in but decided against cheating on my barber in Wonosari. Later, Dan, Laila, and I all fed monkeys bananas. Which probably isn’t actually good, but there were ibus left and right selling bananas so we threw caution to the wind. They climbed right up us! Which was kind of fun and kind of not fun.

Then we went to Goa Gajah Temple, which had an interesting fountain and a cave with a crazy entrance. A random man forcibly joined us and started talking loudly about the history of the fountain. We didn’t want a guide, so we tried ignoring him. He kept on plugging along spouting off random information until I politely said we wanted to explore the area alone. He looked a little taken aback, but stopped. Then when I turned away instead of reaching for my wallet, he demanded a tip. I shrugged and replied innocently “O saya pikir gratis” (oh, I thought it was free). He mumbled angrily and stormed off. I FEEL NO SYMPATHY SERVES YOU RIGHT YOU CAN’T JUST FORCE PEOPLE TO GO ON A TOUR WITHOUT ASKING THEM AND THEN EXPECT THEM TO PAY YOU WHEN THEY SAY THEY DON’T WANT A TOUR. GRUMBLE GRUMBLE GRUMBLE.

Then we went to some rice paddies and explored a bit, just narrowly missing getting drenched. It was beautiful, though multiple families set up posts along the way where they wanted “donations.” And some of the farmers would don rice paddy hats and throw bamboo poles with buckets on either end over their shoulders so you could take an “authentic” picture with a farmer. Which somehow seemed wrong to me?

That evening, Dan did some research, and we found another (much better) guide for the next day, Dewa. Among other cultural insights, he explained that there are multiple entry gates to Hindu temples. The first set, which is farther away, is broken in half because your thoughts are still splintered and you’re not yet ready to pray and only pray. The second gate, which leads directly to the temple, is whole because you have left everything else behind you and are only thinking about God.

We went to the temple Taman Ayun first, which is situated in a pretty park and surrounded by water.

Then we tried the infamous stinky fruit, durian. It wasn’t too bad, though I’m in no rush to sample it again.

Then we drove to Ulun Danu Beratan temple in Bedugul. The temple is featured on the back of the 50,000 rupiah note, and it was neat to see! While usually surrounded by water, the level in the lake was very low so we were able to walk around the base of the temple. I went and purchased our tickets using Bahasa Indonesia, and the guy at the counter was so surprised to hear a tourist using Bahasa that he gave us a discount! Woo!

Then we went to another rice paddy area which was much more stunning and much less crowded.

We journeyed to Tanah Lot after that to catch the sunset. It’s a beautiful temple on the sea and a popular (crowded) sunset spot. We stuck around for an hour or so, but decided to head out before the actual sunset.

We had Dewa help us find a warung to sample traditional Balinese food, and we were thoroughly pleased with the results. We had ayam betutu, a chicken dish!

Our inspiration

Before bed I walked Dan and Laila through the giant batik bag of gifts I was sending back with them for everyone back home. We were looking at some swathes of fabric from Bu Mul when we decided we had to wrap them around ourselves like sarongs and practice balancing pillows on our heads like Balinese women. It was goofy and hilarious.


The next day was only a half day because we had planes to catch (Dan and Laila back to the US via some insane route that meant they circumnavigated the globe 4.7 times; me to Jogja).

We went to a pasar in Denpasar and saw vendors selling all sorts of things including lot and lots of fish and chicken and pork. Also women you could pay to carry your groceries in baskets on their heads—human shopping carts!

Our first stop of the day was Mandala Puja Worship Center, a complex with five houses of worship all next to one another (a mosque, Catholic church, Buddhist temple, Protestant church, and Hindu temple). In a time that has some serious religious conflicts going on, it was a welcome reminder that religions can and do coexist peacefully.

Next we went to Ulu Watu, a temple high up on a cliff on the Indian Ocean. It was boiling hot and I wanted desperately to jump down and splash around in the sea.

We were going to check out a few beaches as well (which is what Bali is famous for), but we didn’t have time. We opted instead for lunch and another sampling of Balinese fare—this time, babi guling (suckling pig). Pork is scarce on Java because it’s not halal, so it was a nice change of pace.

After lunch we headed to the airport and I bid farewell to Dan and Laila. Which was hard. And sad. It was really nice to see them and be with family around the holidays.


After a long journey back to Wonosari which included a plane, two busses, an ojek (motocrcycle taxi), and lots of rain, I made some peppermint tea and sorted through the ENORMOUS bag of food and Christmas/birthday presents Dan and Laila had dragged from home. Family didn’t seem so far away after all.

Join me next time, December Travels, Part III: The In-Between (Abridged)