17,508 Islands, and Not Enough Time


Taped to the wall above the couch where I place my students when they come to me for advice, homework help, and sometimes just to chat (when I’m alone in my room I’m usually either working at my desk or sitting on the tile floor… it’s cooler there), is a map of Indonesia I found in a tourist shop.  I’ve always had a love for maps (there is also a map of the U.S. and my trusty beach-ball globe in my living room, and I turn to both constantly when I’m sharing fun facts and stories about friends with my students), and this map of the incredible country in which I find myself is probably my favorite part of my décor.

It is also a constant reminder of how vast and diverse Indonesia is.  Though I want more than anything to be able to explore the far reaches of this country and find some way to piece together my understanding of its various complexities, there are not enough months in a lifetime, much less my grant period, to be able to do so.  However, I have been able to catch glimpses of others’ experiences in different parts of Indonesia, by reading blogs not unlike my own.

There are a total of thirty-five ETAs in my Indonesian Fulbright cohort, and many of them also keep blogs about their own experiences.  If you would like to check them out, I have listed them below, organized by the island on which these ETAs find themselves.

There is also a website, entitled Indonesiaful, that was started in 2012 and is maintained by current ETAs that includes articles of various kinds regarding our experience in Indonesia.  I highly recommend it, as some of the ETAs who do not keep personal blogs have submitted articles, and because Indonesiaful is an ongoing project, and will offer perspectives on Indonesia for years to come.


Anna, Wonosari

Ben, Yogyakarta

Elisa, Semarang

Clare, Semarang

Lauren, Kendal 


Chris, Benjarmasin


Rebecca, Gorontalo

Emily, Gorontalo


Moniek, Pekanbaru

Stephanie, Pekanbaru

Laurien, Medan

Sarah, Medan

West Timor

Katy, Atambua

Raul, Atambua

Jay, Kupang

Josh, Kupang


Space to Breathe: Scattered Reflections from a Motorbike Ride in Flores

Where I live on my school’s second campus is not really within the city limits of Malang, the city associated with my placement, and so where I live does have its fair share of rice and sugar cane fields, carving out small pieces of open space in the otherwise heavily populated area in which I find myself.  But even outside of the city, the traffic can be daunting and the blaring white noise of human existence never seems to cease.  I have tried to associate where I live with the word “rural,” since there is a strong agricultural presence, but the curse of living on the world’s most populous island is that I can only ever think of the word “crowded.”

Don’t get me wrong: there are many advantages to living on Java.  The best infrastructure in all of Indonesia is found on the island I call home, which means that there are working streetlamps on my street, my road is paved (if not free of deadly potholes), and I have almost-consistent access to cell phone service.  There is even a train system on Java, something that does not exist anywhere else in Indonesia.  And living near Malang gives me access to the higher education system of Indonesia, as well as magical places such as Lai-Lai’s, an international super market.  I am thankful for all of this, but some days, especially the hard ones, this born and raised country girl would trade all of that in for a bit of peace, quiet, and open space.

I found that open space in Flores.

Labuan Bajo, a small harbor town in the west of Flores, became a stop on my friend’s and my holiday travel not so much for its own sake, but because it is a convenient launching point for day trips to Komodo Island and to smaller islands that offer incredible snorkeling opportunities.  But in our short stay there, the most western tip of Flores stole a little piece of my heart.

On our last day there, after my friend who had accompanied me for much of the trip had left for the airport (her flight was much earlier than my own), the other ETA friend with whom we had met up with in Labuan Bajo and I rented a motorbike from the hotel where we were staying, picked a road leading out of town, and went.


I have been on the back of more motorbikes with more drivers than I care to count since coming to Indonesia, and yet it still never fails to bring a smile to my face.  I spend most days dripping with sweat in stagnant classrooms, frustrated at an education system I am unable affect and flustered by cultural disparities that somehow still surprise me, even after being here for four months.  When I am the passenger on a motorbike, inevitable language bumbles and social slip-ups are fleetingly not at the forefront of my mind.  I have one very simple job: don’t fall off.  I may not be able to communicate effectively in my slowly-developing second language, or get through a day without being laughed at for some confusion or another, but holding on to the seat of a motorbike is something even I can manage to do.

There is also the further advantage of being able to take so much in from the back of a motorbike.  I have always enjoyed watching the scenery fly by from vehicle windows, and this is something that for one reason or another is continually commented on here in Indonesia.  I am not sure if looking out the window is uncommon, or if their constant concern for my happiness here makes them wonder if I am bored, but I cannot enjoy the view without being asked either what I am looking at, or what is wrong.  When I am on the back of a motorbike, I am free to observe the world in which I find myself without any commentary.

If there is one word to describe the way I feel as a motorbike passenger, it is just that: free.  Technically, I have absolutely no control over my destiny when I am being driven about on motorbike, and I am putting my very life into the hands of someone else, sometimes someone I just met.  I probably should not be as comfortable with the experience as I am.  But letting go of all control is, actually, rather analeptic.  In my daily existence, it is those things which are almost in my control that plant the most self-resentment in the corners of my soul: I know that having auditory processing issues only adds to the difficulty of language learning, but why can’t I learn Bahasa Indonesia faster?; I am not the person who created my insane teaching schedule, and I did my best to start an English Club on my one campus, but why can’t I manage to see my kids every week like every other ETA?  It is most often due to outside factors, and not a lack of trying on my part, that I find myself failing (or at least failing to reach my somewhat ridiculously high standards) again and again and again, but I find myself placing all of the blame on my own head regardless.  As a passenger on a motorbike, I cannot even pretend to be in control, and this removes a pressure so ingrained into my experience here that I sometimes forget it is there.  On the back of a motorbike, even amidst the exhaust and dust of crowded Malang streets, I physically breathe easier.



In Flores, on the back of a bike being driven by someone I know and trust, weaving up mountain roads (sometimes paved, sometimes not), I felt lighter than I have since coming to Indonesia.  The higher we ascended, the farther the jungle stretched out below us, seemingly endless until it reaches the perpetual blue sea: greenery is never so uninterrupted where I live in Java. The jungle was punctuated by tiny villages, rice fields, and the occasional cow, but shouts of “Mister!” were infrequent and there were stretches of time during which we seemed to be the only people on the road, an experience I did not even have in Gorontalo.  The world had not felt so empty since I left my modest Central New York home town to come to Indonesia, and I stretched my hands out to capture the freedom of it all, having the space to truly spread the wings of my smile for the first time in months.

I am fairly certain that my fellow ETA did not have the borderline religious experience that I did on our mountain motorbike ride, but I feel confident that we both enjoyed the raw, mostly-untouched beauty that is West Flores.  The jungle there is among the most lush I have seen since coming to Indonesia, and I doubt there are many on this Earth who could resist its magic.



We ended our day at a restaurant with a rooftop bar that we had fallen in love with earlier in our visit.  And as the sun set over a glassy sea spattered with islands, I took one last deep breath, and wished I could carry its fresh scent with me into the new semester.  It is impossible for me to do so, but I can carry the memory, and with it perhaps I can somehow create, in a small corner of my crowded mind, my own space to breathe.


Here There Be Dragons: Komodo Island

I have had an infatuation with animals since I was a little girl—I blame having been raised around more calves and chicks than human children—and here in Indonesia I am able to experience wildlife that is sometimes similar but often vastly different from what I am accustomed to at home.  During my holiday travel, I was able realize a childhood dream with a visit to Komodo Island, home of the famous Komodo Dragon.

The Komodo Dragon (varanus komodoensis), or Ora in the native language, is the largest reptile in the world, and it currently only lives on a handful of islands in the NTT (Nusa Tengarra Timur, or East Southeast Islands) region of Indonesia, the largest of which takes its name from these incredible creatures.  Getting to Pulau Komodo required a four hour boat trip from the small port town of Labuan Bajo, on the west coast of Flores, through sparkling green-blue water and past innumerable small islands that teased my curiosity with their alternatively lush and barren landscapes.


Tourists are not allowed to hike in Komodo without a guide, so once we put our lives in the hands of a friendly ­bapak armed only with a Y-shaped stick, trusting that we would not become an international delicacy for any dragons.  I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified to be there, a combination of feelings that was only heightened when our guide pointed out the first Komodo dragon resting under the very building where we had bought our entrance ticket to the park.


As we hiked through the arid forest that according to the signs posted along the trail was called Hutan Asam (Sour Jungle), a name which it acquired from one of the trees which is prevalent in the area, we came across the most impressive Komodo we would see all day.  Our guide estimated that he was at least three meters long, and said that he was probably somewhere between forty and fifty years old.  (As a side note, any information I have found online had claimed that Komodo Dragons generally peak at thirty years of age, but since I am not a reptilian expert, I will make no claims as to whether our guide or the interwebs was correct.)  Because we were on the island during siang (midday), the dragons we came across were all resting, and at first I thought this giant had passed away.  But when its eyes peeled open and I noted the slightest of movement in its chest, it became clear that we were standing not ten feet from a very alive, very deadly animal.


Komodo Dragons are far more likely to eat carrion than bring down live prey, but they will hunt, and are rather strategic in their methods, waiting patiently in shaded areas for unsuspecting deer to stumble upon them. Bacteria grow rapidly in the Komodo’s mouth, causing deadly infections in animals unfortunate enough to be bitten.


Komodo Dragons have killed humans in the past, and our guide did tell us a few horror stories while we hiked along the “Medium Trail,” of a German Tourist who was left behind by his group and left behind nothing more than his sunglasses and camera, and a local boy who was bitten while in the forest and who did not live long enough for his friends to carry him to the beach and get help.  When we came across a dragon which was slightly more alert than the others, I found myself thankful for the zoom function on my camera, because I could not bring myself to venture as close to the giant lizard as our guide invited us to.


When I told students and teachers at my school that I planned to go to Komodo Island as part of my holiday travels, most of them shuddered and called me either crazy or brave.  After seeing these colossal lizards that look more like an artist’s conception of prehistoric beasts than anything I would expect to find on earth, I can understand their fear.


Still, I would not have traded the opportunity to go to Komodo Island for anything.  Sometimes, I have to take a moment to remind myself that the life I am currently privileged to lead is real, and not just an extended wishful dream.  Finding myself in the presence of some of the most impressive and fascinating creatures Earth has to offer was most definitely one of those moments.

Toto, We’re Not on Java Anymore: Christmas in Bali

“I have not seen so much skin since coming to Indonesia.  And there are no jilbabs in sight.”

Sitting in the Denpasar Airport, waiting for the friend with whom I would be staying for the duration of my holiday travels, I was already experiencing a kind of reverse culture-shock, and I had not left Indonesia.  The crowds passing by the secluded corner where I had tucked myself and my backpack were predominately white, English-speaking tourists, off to spend their holiday on the beaches of Bali.  I looked down at my long batik skirt and conservative top, and felt completely out of place, when I should have felt more at home than I have in months.  I sent a hasty SMS (the Indonesian phrase for “text”) to my sitemate, attempting to articulate how alien I felt in this place, and prepared myself for a holiday vacation that would be quite unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

Coming from a farming family for whom the perfect trip usually entailed going to some kind of cattle show, tropical vacation destinations have never really been on my radar, and so I had first learned about the island of Bali within the context of religion in Indonesia, as I researched the history of Islam in Indonesia for a project in an elective World Religions course.  For a long time, I knew Bali mostly as the Hindu-majority island tucked into the middle of a Muslim-majority nation, a fascinating exception-to-the-rule that I hoped to be able to see first-hand during my time in Indonesia.

However, as I dove into every book my college library had on Indonesia, both for my World Religions class and to prepare for the nine months I would be spending in this spectacularly diverse country, I found that Bali also played a key role in discussions about cultural tourism and touristic culture.  Tucked in between larger volumes I found a small book by Shinji Yamashita called Bali and Beyond: Explorations in the Anthropology of Tourism, which examines the ways in which the cultural tourism of Bali has begun to create a touristic culture.  Essentially (to summarize an idea which is much more complex that I am about to make it sound), Bali’s focus on tourism as an economic necessity is changing the culture of Bali itself, and it has even altered the way Hinduism is practiced in many parts of the island.

Living on Java, in a Muslim-majority area in which any tourism that makes itself present focuses much more strongly on natural tourism rather than cultural tourism, I confess I have not given an excess of recent thought to either Hinduism in Indonesia or touristic culture.  However, both these ideas were in the forefront of my mind during my short stay in Bali.


That Bali is a Hindu island became apparent from the moment we arrived: the architecture of the airport, like that of many buildings in Denpasar, the extremely touristy capital city in which my friend and I stayed, emulated that of Hindu temples; and from the windows of the taxi which took us to our hotel, I found myself gaping at huge statues of various Hindu gods and goddess, and losing count of the small shrines shattered in front of homes and shops.  I did not hear the call to prayer once while I was in Bali, where pura-pura (Balinese for “temples”) are much more common than masjid-masjid (Indonesian for “mosques”), and it took me a few days to adjust to seeing small offerings—containing food, flowers, and the occasional cigarette—scattered about on the sidewalks everywhere we walked.  I must admit that I know far more about Islam and other monotheistic religions than Hinduism and other “Eastern religions,” and I often had to ask guides and waiters what were probably beginner questions in order to contextualize what I was seeing around me.

But even as it was the smaller details that made it clear to me that Bali has maintained much of its religious roots, there were, of course, more grandiose examples of the culture which fuels so much of the tourism on Bali.  While we only were able to visit a few of the larger temples—mostly on a day trip to Ubud, the city north of Denpasar perhaps most familiar as the setting of the Indonesian section of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love—we did enjoy the ornate beauty of those we saw.  My favorite was Pura Taman Saraswati, a temple in central Ubud dedicated to Dewi Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and the arts.  Gazing at its peaceful setting amidst trees and lotus flowers allowed me, for just a moment, to relish in the singular culture of this island, and forget the giant Starbucks directly behind me.


Hindu architecture and iconography followed us wherever we went, from temples to coffee shops to Ubud Palace, where the royal family still lives.  The orange and red brick buildings and detailed stone carvings were very different from the colorful tile roofs of mosques and the brightly painted single-story houses I have become so accustomed to seeing in other parts of Indonesia, but I could not but appreciate the earthiness they exuded, and the contrast they provided to the brightly-lit shop signs that were scattered among them.



Ubud was by far my favorite part of our short visit to Bali, with its abundance of culture and its quieter tourism.  My friend and I stayed in the Kuta area, which gave us excellent access to the beach and to a variety of restaurants and shops, but the particularly Western feel of Kuta, with its night life and English language dominance, was a continual source of discomfort for this American farm girl whose adaptation to Indonesian culture meant she could not stop saying “Maaf, permisi” (“Sorry, Excuse me”) to those who were clearly not Indonesian.  In Ubud, though there were still more foreigners than I was accustomed to seeing, I felt as though I were still in Indonesia, albeit not the Indonesia that I live in every day.

The highlight of our day in Ubud was our visit to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary of Padangtegal, just south of Ubud.  Inside the sanctuary were various Hindu temples, and the jungle surrounding them was stunning.  The lush vines, towering trees, and almost swampy mugginess reminded this childhood Star Wars fan of the Dagobah system, and I do not think I would have been surprised if Yoda had hobbled out from behind a tree to impart a few words of wisdom.



But though its scenery was gorgeous, the most memorable part of the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary was, unsurprisingly, the monkeys.  The sanctuary is home to over six hundred long-tailed macaques, which unabashedly climb over the statutes and temples.  Tourism to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary has grown exponentially in recent years, a phenomenon which, while good for the economy, has changed the way those who work in the sanctuary, and in the surrounding village, endeavor to preserve the integrity of the area.  As I unintentionally became the playground for a pair of juvenile macaques, and watched the unruly adult male who had decided I was not allowed to finish my vitamin water utilize his opposable thumbs to take off the cap and drink it himself, I could not shake the thought that this was touristic culture that even the wildlife could escape.  At the same time, I was fascinated by the amazing adaptability of the creatures that seemed to generally go about their lives in a symbiotic relationship with the humans around them.



I was not always at ease in Bali, probably because it was the first time I was a proper tourist in this country.  Prior to my holiday travel, I had always stayed with another ETA when I left my own site, and so while I was partially a tourist, I was also a friend being shown around the town that had become home for someone I care about.  Bali was foreign and I was not with anyone who had created familiarity out of it, which occasionally made its stark contrast to my understanding of Indonesia a source of discomfort.

However, even as much of the Westernization of Bali felt uncomfortable, there is no denying that I benefited greatly from it, and quite honestly enjoyed much of it. I spent my Christmas day learning how to surf and building “snowmen” out of sand on Kuta beach, and everywhere we went we were told “Merry Christmas,” even though we were in no way in a Christian-majority part of Indonesia.  Had I spent the holidays in a less touristy city, my experience would have been very different, and I found myself problematically thankful for it all.


I was in Bali for a mere four days, and I will not pretend to have the experience or the anthropological understanding to draw any clear conclusions from my time there.  But spending my holidays there gave me a fleeting look at an Indonesia that is very different from where I live, and will help me to further understand the discrepant parts that somehow come together to create the whole that is Indonesia.  And that is something for which I can uninhibitedly be thankful.