The Art of Being Lost, or, Finding Home

One of my closest Indonesian friends looks up from the hand-drawn map she has spent the last ten minutes explaining: “Are you sure you can do it? You won’t get lost?”

I smile at her, brimming with overconfidence: “Of course I can do it.”  Famous last words.

Chinese New Year is a national holiday in Indonesia, and so I took advantage of a day without classes to visit the home of one of my closest Indonesian friends, in a village just north of Malang.  Because I had a meeting for students interested in joining a speech competition put on by AMINEF (the program I fall under while I am here) I was unable to follow her home the night before, and so we decided that I would join her the following morning, via motorbike.  She lives a little over an hour from the campus where I live, much farther than I had ventured yet independently, but a distance I felt perfectly capable of conquering, armed with my official map drawn in hot pink.

Instead, what should have been an hour-long ride turned into a three hour adventure.

The trip started out just fine.  My friend had picked out perfect landmarks, and at no point during the first half hour of my trip did I have to make use of my expert U-turn skills.  I had left my house early enough that there was still only a reasonable amount of traffic on the road—a shocking turn of events in a city on Java—and so I was able to relax and enjoy cruising smoothly along in the still-cool morning air, shamelessly humming songs from Frozen within the safety of my new helmet.

And then I got outside of Malang, and nothing looked like what had been described to me.  I searched the sides of the roads for the landmarks I had been told I would see, but nothing seemed to match.  Assuming I had somehow missed or taken a wrong turn at some point, I pulled over at the next warung to ask the Ibu there for directions.

I pull off my mask, faintly registering their mild looks of surprise as my clearly not-Indonesian complexion is revealed, and cut right to the chase (with a smile, of course): “Maaf, bu.  Di mana Lawang?” (I’m sorry, mam.  Where is Lawang?)

Mau ke mana?”  (Where do you want to go?)

Lawang.  L-A-W-A-N-G.[1]

Ah! Lawang! Terus, terus!

Terus is the Indonesian word for “continue,” and when used to give directions I have found it is almost always accompanied by an excessive waving of the hands, so there is no mistaking its meaning.  According to the Ibu, I was on the correct jalan (road).  Relieved that I was still on the right route, I thanked the Ibu and waved heartily as I drove away.

Fifteen minutes later, I found myself on a road with nothing but rice paddies and sugar cane fields as far as the eye could see.  I feasted my eyes on this gorgeous view for much longer than I should have before realizing that I probably already should have arrived in Lawang, if I was in fact still going in the right direction.  I made my first U-turn of the trip, and drove back into the last kampung (town) I had driven through, to ask another Ibu for help.

This time, when I asked where Lawang was, the Ibu pointed back towards Malang and said, “Terus Malang.”  Apparently I needed to go back through Malang, the city I had just come from, to get to my destination.  I was more than a little bingung (confused).  I pulled out my now-very-crinkled map, determined to see if I could re-orient myself.

Maaf, bu. Di mana di sini?” (Where is here?)


This explained why the previous Ibu had insisted I was going in the right direction: there are apparently many areas with similar names surrounding Malang.  Needless to say, Bululawang was not on my map.  So I did the only thing I knew to do: I called my friend.

It didn’t take long for her to ascertain just how lost I was.  Lawang is north of Malang.  Bululawang is east of Malang.  I was still twenty minutes outside of the city limits… in the wrong direction.

There was only one thing to do.  I had to backtrack, a lot.  My friend was not exactly sure how to get from Bululawang to Lawang, so it was up to my poor sense of direction and my little Indonesian to get me there.  My friend gave me what she could: “When you get back to Malang, ask for Singosari.  Then, when you get to Singosari, ask for Lawang.  Then you should be able to use my map again.”  I got off the phone with her, and was off, determined to end up in the right place eventually.

As soon as I was back within Malang City limits, I stopped and asked for directions from the first becak[2] driver I came
across.  Becak drivers know the streets better than anyone, and they are, more often than not, friendly older gentlemen whom I find far less intimidating than the younger men whose friendliness is laced with everything that makes me feel uncomfortable as a woman traveling alone.  Speaking slowly, and painting detailed pictures with his hands of the statues I would pass, he soon had me off in the right direction.

There was just one tiny, little problem.  I needed to pee.  Badly.

Living on Java, this is not usually an issue.  Pertamina, the oil and gas company which has a monopoly over pretty much all of Indonesia, can usually be found on what seems like every corner—I have three to choose from on my half-hour ride to
school alone.  They are the only places I know which are guaranteed to have public toilets available, so I kept my eyes peeled for their familiar red-and-white sign. But there wasn’t a single Pertamina in sight.

Needing to pee while driving is never comfortable.  Needing to pee while driving a motorbike is an experience I would not wish on anyone. I was audibly cursing my daily dependence on instant coffee and practically in tears by the time I finally came across a Pertamina, my oasis in my time of need.  A dirty squat toilet has never looked so beautiful.

Much more comfortable now, even if a dull ache was beginning to form in my lower back, I confirmed with a friendly Pertamina employee, whose smile was as wide as the Indonesian archipelago, that I was still going in the right direction.  Very soon, I found myself in Singosari.  I shamelessly did a little dance as I was driving: I was getting closer.

I stopped at yet another warung, to ask how to get to Lawang (“L-A-W-A-N-G”). This particular warung was run by an adorable elderly couple, who cheerfully bickered about the details of the directions they were giving me.

Terus… lima kilometer…”

Tiga kilometer!”


It’s good to know that even on the other side of the world, partners in life will argue over the difference between five and three kilometers.

Once I finally reached Lawang, it was just a matter of finding the train station, so that I would know where to turn.  As I peered down side streets I could see that the train tracks ran parallel to the street I was on, so I knew I had to be close.  I searched the side of the road for signs that read “Stasiun Lawang,” or perhaps “kereta api” (train), but to no avail.  Finally, I performed yet another U-turn, and eventually pulled over to ask for directions from a middle-aged gentleman who looked to be out for a morning stroll, but who might also have been on his way to somewhere important (I never can tell here, because Indonesians almost never rush).

Maaf, pak.  Di mana stasiun kereta api?

Di sini.”

It seems I had pulled up in front of the train station to ask where the train station was.

Slightly embarrassed, I thanked the bapak and continued on my way. I found my friend’s road easily after that, and though I still passed by her house and had to turn my bike around for the…well, to be honest I had lost track of my U-turns by that point, I did eventually arrive at her front door, safe and (mostly) sound, complete with helmet hair and a sore bum, two hours later than I should have.

I spent the rest of that day enjoying the delights of my friend’s village, touring a local tea plantation and eating her mother’s delicious cooking (and acquiring a few recipes for said cooking).  I hope that I will eventually be able to return to her village and explore it further: it really is a beautiful area, and having the time to spend more than an evening with the woman who has become so much a part of my life here.  I just hope that next time, I won’t get quite so lost on the way.

Not that I really minded being lost, to be honest.  The ride was fairly picturesque, and there is a certain peacefulness that can only be achieved astride a motorbike.  And, though I did not have the faintest idea where I was supposed to be going for most of the trip, I always knew how to get home, and so I never reached that scary kind of lost that happens when you truly have no idea where you are.

I spend a considerable amount of time lost in Indonesia, in a variety of different ways.  I am lost almost every time I go somewhere new on my motorbike; I am lost by the conversations of quick-fire Indonesian and Javanese that surround me every day; I am lost as I try to muddle my way through unfamiliar educational regulations and traditions.  Being lost is no longer a state of being for me, but a part of my personality.  But just as I was never afraid during my trip to my friend because, at the very least, I knew how to get home, more and more I have come to embrace this feeling of being lost, because though I may not fully understand the situation I find myself in, I still have not lost sight of home.

By home, I don’t necessarily mean the small dairy farm in Central New York where I will return, at least for the summer, after my grant.  By home, I don’t mean New York, or even the United States.  Home is storytelling and home-cooked food.  Home is family and friends, and the blurred line in between.  Home is peace and conflict, laughter and tears, hope and temptations of despair.  Home is, in short, everything that lets me lay claim to being human.

All of which I am able to find here.  It might be a spicier version of home dressed in far more colorful clothing, but stories and food and community and all the contradictions that give us life are still here.  This can still be home.

This is not to say that I am planning on moving to Indonesia permanently.  I’m not sure that I could spend my entire life this far away from my family, and there is something about four seasons that calls my heart back. But I am beginning to see how home does not need to be found within a dwelling, or even within a particular country’s borders.  Home can be Planet Earth, with an expansive extended family and potential friends around every corner.  Home can be here, and there, and anywhere and everywhere and nowhere at once.

And so long as I have this, this vague, idiosyncratic idea of home, I will never really be lost.

[1] I still have not perfected the accent for the Javanese version of Bahasa Indonesia, and consequently have gotten really good at the Indonesian alphabet. Asking for directions always turns into a spelling bee.

[2] If you are familiar with the idea of a rickshaw, you understand what a becak is.


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