Alone in a Crowded Station: Reflections on Solo Travel

I traveled a lot this past year.  A lot.  For my job alone, I visited a dozen different cities across the archipelago, and even visited a few of those places more than once.  I also did some domestic travel on my own during my grant, and following my grant this year I took a month off to travel through parts of Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia.  And while some of this personal travel was done with friends or colleagues, much of it, due to my own schedule being so different from most of the people I knew, I did on my own.

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Meeting a Chinese friend and wandering Bangkok together!

Before this year, I hadn’t done much in the way of solo traveling.  I had done a fair number of day trips by myself to nearby cities when I studied abroad in London, and I did make my trip to Toraja as a second-year ETA alone, but any other travel that I have ever done has been with friends or family.

I always assumed I wouldn’t like solo travel, at least not extensive travel.   While sharing stories of travel to anyone is wonderful, there is something extra special about reminiscing about travel with someone who was there with you.  I’ve always felt that no matter how incredible the place you visit is, the people who are along for the ride are always the most memorable part of any journey.  Without those people built in to my trip, I thought surely, I won’t enjoy myself.

But after doing my trip to Toraja alone last year, and meeting so many fabulous people at the hostel where I stayed, I started to think that maybe traveling solo wasn’t all that bad.  And being forced to travel on my own for work (though, I did get to meet with people from my program on each of these trips, so though much of the travel itself was done alone, I wasn’t always on my own once I got there) made me a bit more confident in my ability to do so.

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A moment alone at Ankor Wat.

So when no one was able to join me for my after-grant travel, I didn’t sweat it.  I packed my trusty backpack, made sure my camera was safely wrapped in clothing, and set off on my own.  I definitely learned a few things along the way:

1. Not having to answer to anyone else’s schedule can be quite liberating. If I saw something that seemed more interesting than what I had originally intended to do that day, I could change my plans at the drop of a hat, without having to ask anyone.

2. I actually tend to read the books that I have brought with me when traveling alone.

3. Not already having friends to talk to forces me to talk to other people (not to say that I don’t still talk to people when traveling with friends, but I certainly do so more frequently when I am alone). And I got to meet a lot of amazing people this way, who became fabulous companions on my many adventures.

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Sometimes new friends are of the pachyderm variety.

4. Traveling alone as a woman requires a certain amount of caution. My mother has always told me that I am too trusting of people (and she is probably right), and tried to keep her voice in the back of my head while traveling alone.  Generally, I felt safe in all of the places I traveled, and fortunately nothing particularly upsetting happened, but I don’t know of one place on the planet that won’t make me a little nervous when walking alone at night.

5. Trying to balance #3 and #4 can be a challenge.

6. Not having a buddy to sit next to on buses and trains can sometimes result in somewhat awkward seat companions, but it can also sometimes result in a new friend, or in having an entire row to yourself (which I am also 100% okay with).

7. I take a lot more selfies when I travel alone.

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Biking around the Ankor complex.

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8. Sometimes, I get distracted by wherever I am visiting and forget to eat when I am traveling by myself. Other days, I found myself eating far more that I would have if I was traveling with a friend, because I simply had to try as many local dishes as possible, and didn’t have anyone to share them with.

9. I actually stay caught up on my journaling when traveling alone.

10. My confidence was definitely boosted by traveling solo. Though I did get lost on several occasions, and sometimes maybe didn’t plan things quite as well as I could have, the fact remains that I was able to navigate several cities in three countries (two of which I do not speak the languages), while avoiding any major catastrophes.  If I had any doubts as to my ability to handle myself before, they are certainly gone now.  Where’s the next adventure?  I’ve got this.

In the end, I do think that I personally still prefer to travel with a friend or two, because I love sharing experiences with people I love.  But while a younger Grace might have waited to take a particular trip just because no one else was able to or interested in going along, the Grace of today wouldn’t let that stop her.  Now, with nothing holding me back, I am envisioning even more exciting adventures in my future.

The Big Durian: A Brief Reflection on Living in Jakarta for a Year

My mother raised me under the old adage: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  So, if anyone was wondering how I lived in Indonesia’s capital for a year without really writing all that much about it, it’s because, for a long time, I couldn’t find anything nice to say.

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Even fancy phone filters can’t hide that blue skies like this are a rarity in Jakarta.

One of the nicknames I have heard for Jakarta is the Big Durian.  Durian is a large, spiky fruit famous (or infamous) for its strong smell (it actually isn’t allowed on airplanes or on most public transportation systems in cities where it is sold), and people usually either can’t get enough of it, or think it is the most disgusting fruit in the world.

If this isn’t a great metaphor for Jakarta, I don’t know what is.

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This kitty seems content enough sleeping on the bus platform.

I do know people who like Jakarta.  It attracts an array of interesting people from around the country, and even around the world, and it seems to be an especially hot hub for motivated young people in various fields.  For those who enjoy a good club, I hear the nightlife is fantastic.  The international food scene is booming, and even I came to enjoy the café culture that flourishes in the city.  I’m convinced it is the shopping capital of the world (not quite true, but one does not go on a trip to Jakarta without shopping for at least one day).  And if you, like myself and many of my friends, enjoy museums, Jakarta is pretty much the only city in Indonesia with a decent selection of them.

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On one of my better days in Jakarta, I came across this mosque named after Cut Nyak Dien, one of my favorite Indonesian heroines.

But though I could see why other people were able to come to love the city, I never could.  Jakarta is a massive, sprawling, hot city best known for traffic, corruption, and pollution.  None of this exactly adds up to my happy place.  As a farm girl who still needs her fresh air, being forced to wear a mask anywhere I went was torture; my first response when people asked me why I didn’t like Jakarta: it’s hard to love a place that doesn’t let you breathe.  I hated the crowded, dirty streets, and the sterile malls.  I hated that the harassment, while not something unique to Jakarta, was by far the worst that I had yet experienced.  There were plenty of days when I had to force myself to leave my apartment, because it was so much easier to hide in my room with a favorite Y.A. novel, pretending I was somewhere—anywhere—else.

I tried to love Jakarta.  Never in my life have I tried to love something as much as I tried to love Jakarta.  I subscribed to several email chains and Instagram accounts that focused on free and/or exciting things to do in the city.  I went to a museum almost once a month, at least when I wasn’t doing extensive travel for work.  When I took time out of the office to write my research article, I forced myself to go on a café tour, mostly to get myself out to see more of Jakarta.  But though I did have a fair amount of fun doing so, I still couldn’t bring myself to love, or even like, the Big Durian.

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Finding fun: visiting Obama’s elementary school, playing diplomat at the ASEAN office, and befriending a civet at Car Free Day.

This is not to say that I was 100% miserable living Jakarta all the time.  As I have learned from the many other places that I have lived over the years, my experience in a place is not usually defined by the place itself, but by the people in it.  I had two amazing housemates while in Jakarta: we had met while I was a first-year ETA in Malang, and the fates were kind enough to bring us to Jakarta around the same time.  And over the course of my year there developed a network of wonderful friends, both Indonesian and American.  Finding fun things to do in the city with them, learning from them, laughing with them, and yes, sometimes bonding with them over our mutual dislike of our shared city, was what really made my time in Jakarta memorable.  If there is one good thing I can say about Jakarta: I probably would not have developed as many truly life-long friendships as I did while in Indonesia if I had not had my year there.

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All about the people: office yoga, my farewell party, and dinner when one of my American friends came to visit (the lovely housemates I mentioned are on the far right).

In the end, I feel about the Big Durian much like I feel about durian itself: I’m glad I tried it, and I got some stories out of the experience, but if I never encounter it again, I think I’ll be just fine.

I’m hoping that’s a nice enough statement to satisfy Momma.

Jakarta, Caffeinated: Grace’s Review of Cafes in the Big Durian

20170506_143821I never really became a café person until moving to Indonesia.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love those quirky hipster cafes with mismatched furniture, drinks in mason jars, and local art on the walls as much as everyone.  But prior to coming to here, if I needed wifi or a space to work outside of my own home, I always preferred the library, whether that was a college/university library or a public library.

But libraries, especially public ones, are not very common in Indonesia.  And so, as an ETA, I often found myself lesson planning, blogging, or sending messages home to friends at cafés instead.  As the Researcher/Coordinator of the ETA Program, I took some time off from work so that I could write my research report, and again found myself working in cafés.

To spice things up, I decided to go to a different café every day, based on lists of cafes that I found online, and recommendations from friends.  Jakarta does have a number of great cafes, so this was a really fun adventure for me.  What follows is my own personal guide to cafés in Jakarta.  It is of course limited by the fact that I did not find the time to visit all of the cafes that ended up on my list, but I did get to visit a fair few[1]!

NB: I’m not actually a dedicated coffee drinker, so my assessment of a café’s drinks is based entirely off of my actually being a tea-drinker, and being very, very fond of sweet drinks, especially those that involve chocolate.  When I go to a café, I am there for the wifi and the table to work at, and the coffee is there to keep me awake for a long time.

20170508_092626Anomali

There are several Anomoli locations around Jakarta, and I visited the Steiabudi location.  It had a fun, hipster-y feel to it, and all of the seating was very conducive to working.  The staff was lovely, and the food and coffee really quite tasty. It was also very accessible via the TransJakarta (the bus system in Jakarta), my favorite form of transportation in Jakarta, which does influence how I feel about a café (if you are hard to reach, you really need to be worth the trip).  I only visited this café once, but had I spent a little longer in Jakarta, I would have most definitely have visited again.

Monolog

This café is located in one of the fancier malls of Jakarta, in which I always felt a bit out of place, so I expected to feel the same way about the café.  But Monolog quickly became another favorite of mine, mostly because everything on the menu was delicious (they had the best yogurt smoothies I tried anywhere in Jakarta).  I do have to fault them a little, because when I ordered a simple tea it came simply as a tea bag in a cup of hot water (and I had to put the tea bag in myself), but anything else I tried there was incredible.  There weren’t quite enough outlets to make it a sensible space to work in for an extended period of time, but it was a great space to hang out with friends.

 

Common Grounds

This café was a mere ten-minute walk from my apartment, which was very fortunate for me.  The coffee and desserts were all delicious.  It was not necessarily the best place to work at, as it was in a mall and things tended to get really loud, but my housemate and I would often go there to get ourselves out of the apartment on the weekend.  The actual food is really hit and miss: some of it was incredible, and some of it left me disappointed.  But the drinks are enough to make it worth a visit, at least once.

20170501_174134Komunal 88

As a tea drinker, I loved this café.  They had teas from all over the world, and served them all in pots, which in my eyes is the only correct way to serve tea.  The mocha I had was also pleasant, and the food was delicious, if the portions a bit small for the price.  There was plenty of space to work, but not quite enough outlets for my taste.   The staff was amongst the sweetest I came across during my café tour.  I only went to Kommunal 88 once because it was a little out of the way and not really accessible via the Trans, but had I lived in Jakarta longer, I’m sure I would have found myself there again.

20170504_110844Dia.lo.gue.

Dia.lo.gue was most definitely the coolest café that I visited during my coffee explorations.  The entire café doubles as an art gallery, and I was very much into the exhibit that was on display when I visited.  There is even a quirky gift shop attached to the café.  With indoor and outdoor seating, there are lots of options, though the café does quickly fill up on the weekends.  The food and coffee was good, but not thrilling, and there weren’t really quite enough outlets to make it a good café to work in.  But as a fun place to meet friends for brunch, I would definitely recommend it.

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I wanted to like this place.  I really did.  The atmosphere of the place truly seemed made for a book-loving nerd like myself: chock-full of English language books of all genres, it had the feel of an old bookstore.    But I found the drinks mediocre, and the whole place smelled strongly of cigarette smoke, which I found distracting as I was trying to work.  As a quirky place to visit with friends, I could see myself going again, so long as we sat near a window.  As a place to work, it just didn’t really cut it.

Cremetology

I went here with friends, and was impressed by the atmosphere of the place.  It had a selection of seating options (tables for those there to work, tables for groups there to socialize, comfy chairs for those there to read), and a good number of outlets.  I tried their Nutella frappe, and it was quite tasty.  If I had one complaint regarding Cremetology, it was that it wasn’t conveniently accessible via the trans, which was my favorite form of transportation in Jakarta.  Probably because of this, I only went the one time, but I wouldn’t have minded going back again.

20170420_111904Tana Mera

This quickly became one of my favorite cafes in Jakarta.   The food and the drinks were all amazing.  There is plenty of seating both indoors and outdoors, and I never had trouble finding a place to plug in my laptop when I went there to work.   The staff were all genuinely lovely (or really great actors), and they had this simply wonderful tradition of shouting “Pagi!” (“Good morning!”) to everyone as they walked through the door, regardless of the time of day, explaining that they felt this was more optimistic (if it is always morning, you always have the whole day ahead of you).  Tana Mera is located right next to Thamrin City, one of the main shopping centers in Jakarta, and I would stop in for a red mocha (think red velvet cake in latte form) anytime errands brought me to the area.

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This café had a great atmosphere: very sleek and modern, with a lot of potted plants around.  I was really excited when I walked in, but I was fairly apathetic by the time I left.  It was difficult to find a seat near an outlet, and there really weren’t that many, and the staff seemed to lack the friendliness I have become accustomed to experiencing in Indonesia.  The food and drink I ordered was okay, but nothing to write home about.  There did seem to be an impressive number of coffees from all over the world on the menu, which could definitely be exciting for true coffee enthusiasts, but I didn’t fully take advantage of that option.  I do know several people who do like the café, but as it really isn’t accessible by trans and wasn’t a great work environment, I never returned to it.

20170504_161945Sophie Authentique

Sweet is the best way to describe this café.  The décor is adorable, with wicker swing seats and pastels everywhere, and while the more savory foods were not quite as wonderful as I wanted them to be, any of the sweet food was absolutely incredible (I was rather fond of their crepes and their macaroons).  I do have to note that I always had a little trouble with their wifi each time I went, but I nonetheless found it a cozy place to work.

 

Antipodean

I met a friend for brunch at Antipodean shortly before leaving Jakarta, and absolutely loved it and wished I had discovered it sooner.  The food was incredible, the staff was adorable, and the place itself was cozy.  It was a bit small, and not really accessible via trans, so I don’t know that I would have ever made it a regular work café, but I would have happily visited again if I had had the time.

 

 

 

18299068_1679637648998091_6453177431548231680_nTrafique

This was one of my favorite cafes in Jakarta.  It wasn’t too far from a TransJakarta stop, it had plenty of options for work spaces, and the food and coffee was delicious (and it served proper tea in a pot!).  Their breakfasts were especially pleasing, and the food was all really reasonably priced, especially for the amount that they gave you.  Trafique has a lot of natural lighting, and it was quirky without being overwhelming, which made it a really productive place for me, though I also enjoyed visiting it with friends on the weekend.

20170502_114550Rubiaceae

I was only able to visit this café once, as it was a little far from where I lived, and not really accessible via the TransJakarta.  But I was really into my experience.  Rubiaceae is a female-run café, which is awesome.  It had a great vibe, and was one of the only cafes I went to that served a chai latte, my favorite drink (and it was good, too!).  Had I lived closer, I definitely would have visited Rubiaceae again.

 

[1] There was one café in particular that I really wished I had gotten to visit, and wasn’t able to: Giyanti.  Anyone I knew who had been there raved about it.  However, the schedule is a little tricky to work around, so I was never able to find a time to go.

Museum Hopping in Jakarta 

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The exterior of Museum Seni.

One of the things I was looking forward most to about living in Jakarta was the museums.  I have loved museums since I was a child, and even though my older, more educated self can understand how they can sometimes be quite problematic, I still fall head over heels for the way a good museum can encourage curiosity and somehow manage to capture the enormity of a culture or a time period in even the smallest of exhibits.  When I studied for a semester in London, I spent much of my time wandering in the giant national museums and galleries, as well as seeking out some of the hole-in-the wall collections they don’t always put in tour guides.  And while my Fulbright experience allowed me to head twice to D.C. and see some of the incredible Smithsonian’s that I had before only read about, the two cities I found myself placed in as an ETA were a bit smaller and did not have a particularly extensive selection of museums.  Jakarta is one of the few places in Indonesia that that has several museums, and I was eager to explore.  While I didn’t get to see all of the museums Jakarta had to offer, I did see a fair few, and a few more than once.

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The statue that gives Museum Gajah its name.

Museum Gajah (Museum Nasional Indonesia)

The National Museum is the largest museum in Jakarta, and in all of Indonesia.  It has a fairly extensive stonework and ceramic collection that I never got bored of seeing no matter how many guests I accompanied there.  There is a good amount of information about some of the different cultures across Indonesia (their display of traditional houses is especially memorable), and the English descriptions, while not perfect, are generally understandable, which is not always the case in Indonesian museums.   Museum Gajah actually means Elephant Museum, and this nickname comes from a statue of an elephant outside of the museum, a gift to Indonesia from Siam (modern day Thailand) in 1871.  The museum is right across from Monas (Monument Nasional), making it one of the most visited museums in the city, so if it’s possible to do so, it’s always better to visit on a weekday.  They were renovating some parts of the museum towards the end of my grant, and while it is a bit of a bummer that some of the exhibits were closed, there is no denying that some sections were in need of some repairs, and I am glad they are taking the time to do so.  It is possible to do this museum in one visit, but if you have the time, it would be best to give yourself several visits, so that you can really take everything in.

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A painting by Afandi, one of my favorite Indonesian artists.  This was part of the Presidential Exhibit.

Galleri Nasional

Galleri Nasional (the National Gallery), does not have a permanent exhibit, but rather has different kinds of exhibits constantly coming through, usually only for a few weeks at a time.    It is also within walking distance of Monas, albeit a slightly farther jaunt, and is well worth a peak if there is time.  And for folks that live in Jakarta, it is a museum to keep an eye on.  Not all of the exhibits there are equal, in my eyes, but some of them are truly stellar.  I saw a particularly good exhibit around Independence Day, which included a selection of paintings on loan from the presidential collection.

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The courtyard of Museum Fatahillah.

Museum Fatahillah (Museum Sejarah Jakarta)

Most commonly called Museum Sejarah Jakarta (History of Jakarta Museum), this museum is housed in what used to be the Governor’s office, during the Dutch Colonial era.  The building itself is the focus point of Kota Tua (Old City), which is filled with old Dutch buildings that have been repurposed by the Indonesian Government, many as museums[1].  The rooms are filled with old furniture and portraits of Dutch officials that had a significant influence during the colonial era.  Nothing in the museum is labeled, so it is important to find a guide.  When I visited, I had a fabulous guide who spoke excellent English and who was able to piece together everything on display in a way that really painted a picture of the building and the different moments in history of which it played a role, but I have heard from friends that the guides there can be very hit or miss.  Still, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, though I do wish I had gone earlier in the day, as the museum is not air conditioned and can get rather stuffy.

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One of the wayang at Museum Wayang.

Museum Wayang

Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppets) are one of my favorite parts of Indonesian performance art.  Museum Wayang, another of the museums in Kota Tua, has an extensive collection of puppets from across the country, and even a few from other places.  Some of them are quite old, as well, and so it is possible to see how the methods used to make the puppets and the styles of the puppets changed throughout history.  However, while the collections itself is great, the museum is in major need of renovation.  The lighting is poor, it is hot and stuffy, the English signs are almost incomprehensible, and the Indonesian signs are not much clearer or more informative.  If you go, try to get a guide, or go with a friend who knows more about wayang and can explain it to you (which is what I did).  With patience and a little help, it is definitely worth a visit, but it is not a museum I would recommend just walking into on a whim.

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The inner courtyard at Museum Bank Indonesia.

Museum Bank Indonesia

This is probably the best museum in all of Jakarta[2], and it is also part of Kota Tua.  (Just be careful and don’t confuse it with Museum Bank Mandiri, which is right down the street: I never had a chance to go to Museum Bank Mandiri, but I heard that it simply did not compare to Bank Indonesia.)  It is a beautiful museum, inside what used to be the main bank for Indonesia, both during the Dutch Colonial area and even for some time after Independence.  Much of the museum is dedicated to the history of the bank, which is structured in such a way that it actually does a good job of telling the story of Indonesia as we know it today.  For those who don’t know that much about Indonesian history and prefer museums to books, it can act as an excellent introduction, and those who already know something will find the economic focus interesting.  There is also a room at the end of the museum filled with coins and paper bills from almost every country in the world, and often from different eras, which can be a lot of fun to explore.  Though it is possible to do Museum Bank Indonesia in a few hours, I revisited the museum several times with friends, and always enjoyed myself.

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One of the many rooms in Museum Seni.

Museum Seni Rupa dan Keramik (Museum Seni)

Museum Seni (the Art Museum), is yet another museum in Kota Tua, and it is the one that I was looking forward to most while I was there, because I absolutely love art museums.  The collection is fairly good, and certainly worth the admission fee.  However, the museum is in major need of repair, and the English signage is rather poor.  If you can read Indonesian or have a friend who can translate, the Indonesian signs, while a bit ragged around the edges, do give some very good information about the artists and the various painting styles that have come in and out of fashion in Indonesian art, but the English signs do not have accurate translations and can, as a consequence, can be very confusing.  As someone who loves paintings and ceramics, which is much of what makes up the collection, I was perfectly happy to work my way through the Indonesian to learn a little more about Indonesian art, but it might not be the best experience for everyone.

Taman Prasati

This was another one of my favorite museums in Jakarta.  It isn’t really a museum at all, but rather a graveyard used during the Dutch era.  The tombstones are not all originally from that particular location: many graveyards were destroyed after Independence, and people interested in preserving the history of those graveyards moved the tombstones to a new location, while the bodies, in many cases, were shipped back to the Netherlands to be reburied in family plots (though it is said that there are still some left under the buildings that have now been built where the graveyards used to be).  This is another place where I would recommend a guide, if you visit.  It is a beautiful little plot, but without a guide you can’t do more that read what is on the tombstones themselves, and unless you read Dutch and know a lot about the Dutch Colonial Era in Indonesia, you’ll probably miss much of the story.

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Some of the many beautiful graves at Taman Prasati.  

[1] If you like museums, Kota Tua is definitely a good place to visit in Jakarta.  If you are trying to visit many or all the museums in that area in one day, I would recommend starting with Museum Seni, Museum Jakarta, or Museum Wayang, as none of those museums are air conditioned and can get rather hot once midday rolls around.  Museum Bank Indonesia is cool and comfortable, and I have heard the Museum Bank Mandiri is also air conditioned (though I never made it to this museum, and so can’t vouch that this is indeed the case).

[2] It is not, however, the best museum in all of Indonesia, in my eyes, though some people do feel that way.  I have to give that title to Museum Batik in Solo, Central Java, which I visited when I found myself unexpectedly in Solo in 2016.

A Familiar Surprise: Sumba

I had first heard of Sumba when I was reading Indonesia, Etc.—one of those books passed around by over-excited ETAs (English Teaching Assistants)—as Elizabeth Pisani opens her tale of solo travel around much of Indonesia with a scene in a village on the island, with a little boy inviting her to meet his grandmother, who, it turns out, has passed away and it awaiting burial in his family’s home.  Her focus on this brief description of Sumba was on the traditional culture that still very much prevails on the island, a way to entice her readers into her exploration of a country that was so different from the Western world.

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Just one example of the beautiful fabrics to be found in Sumba.

Later, when I was living in Indonesia and friends caught on to my interest in Indonesian fabrics, Sumba was again talked about almost incessantly.  It is well known amongst Indonesians that the most beautiful ikat (a type of woven fabric) is found on Sumba and as I eagerly added to my ever-growing fabric collection, friends encouraged me to go there, to truly make my collection complete.

Whether I was coming across descriptions in books or blogs, or hearing about the island from friends who had visited or lived there, Sumba was always painted as somewhere different.    “It’s so dry, and arid… more like Australia than any other place in Indonesia,” a friend who visited said.  “The culture is very different from other parts of Indonesia,” my friend whose family was from Sumba told me.  Sumba was indescribable, undefinable: no one could quite pin it down for me.  It was just… different.

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Different, check.  Beautiful, also check.

So of course, I had to see it.

Sumba is not an easy place to get to, so it wasn’t a trip that I was able to manage during my two years as an ETA.  But after I extended my stay in Indonesia past the end of my third grant (this time as the ETA Researcher/Coordinator), I made sure to schedule time for Sumba into my travels.  A friend from the office suggested I stay with her family while I was there, and I happily took her up on the offer.  My trip to Sumba was actually the last bit of travel I did while in Southeast Asia, and I could not have picked a better place to visit.

Sumba was absolutely gorgeous, and it is true that it’s terrain was quite different from anything I had seen yet in Indonesia (this was also my first time traveling so far Southeast in the country, so, to be fair, it made sense that the landscape was not the same from the northern and western parts I was more accustomed to traveling in).  Beautiful white sand beaches stretched along the shore, and rolling hills with dry grasses, a burnt brown under the fierce sun, stretched on, seemingly forever.  I never got enough of staring out the window when I found myself in a car: Sumba is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

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Just a few of Sumba’s beautiful landscapes.

As dry as the hills were (it was the dry season when I visited), there were still streaks of vivid green wherever there were rivers, and I spent a lot of time around the waterfalls and swimming holes the area offered.  As a Central New York farm girl, I have always enjoyed rivers and lakes more so than the ocean, and while I have come to appreciate the distinct freshness of a salty breeze and the plethora of wildlife in coral reefs, I still feel most at home in the clear, cool waters that meander through a forest—be that forest tropical or deciduous.

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Just a few of the rivers and swimming holes we swan in.  I may or may not have also jumped off of some of those rocks.  (Don’t worry, I clearly lived to tell the tale.)

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A few of the horses and riders waiting for Jokowi.

I was very lucky in the timing of my trip to Sumba, as I was able to see some rather decorated kuda (horses), while I was there.  In addition to having a unique landscape and beautiful fabrics, Sumba is also known for the horse races that occur a few times each year.  The race season does not start until August, so I thought I would have to miss much of the kuda part of the culture.  However, President Jokowi (Joko Widodo, if you are looking for his long name, the president of Indonesia), happened to be visiting Sumba during my trip to the island, and the bupati (regent) of the area greeted Jokowi with an entourage of one hundred kuda.  We already had plans for the day, and no one seemed interested in changing them to watch the parade through the city, but I was able to visit where the horses were gathering that morning, preparing to greet the president.  The riders all wore pieces of ikat, and the freshly-washed kuda gleamed in the sunlight.  I was so glad I was blessed enough to be there.

I also made sure I did not miss out on the beautiful Sumba fabrics I had heard so much about.  I had thought that I would mostly be exploring ikat, the kain Sumba (fabric from Sumba) I was most used to seeing at fabric festivals in Jakarta, and which I had previously seen made in Toraja, in Southern Sulawesi.  But when I arrived in Sumba I learned that ikat is only made my those who live in the inland portion of the island.  The Sawu people, who live along the eastern coast of the island, near where I was staying, use a different process to make tenun Sawu (sawu weaving).  Ikat means “to bind” or “to bundle,” in Indonesian, and the name is given to several fabrics across the archipelago that are made using the ikat process, in which the threads are tied (or “bundled) before dying, in order to create the pattern.  Because the threads are dyed before they are put on the loom, a sort of jagged pattern results.  The Sawu people instead use reeds to hold threads in place before weaving the motifs directly into the fabric, creating a much neater pattern.  Both fabrics are full of earthen colors and detailed motifs, and it was difficult for me to resist buying every piece I came across (not that I could have afforded this even if I didn’t have better self-control: larger ikat and tenun Sawu pieces can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the pattern).  I visited several kampung tenun (weaving villages) while in Sumba, and was able to learn so much about the processes involved in making ikat and tenun Sawu from the women there, who patiently answered all of my questions.

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A few women waving different fabrics.  The first women is weaving ikat, the second woman is weaving tenun Sawu, and the third woman is creating a pattern for a tenun Sawu piece.

Sumba’s landscapes and fabrics were beautiful, but the most memorable part of the trip, for me, was the people I met.  My friend’s family was absolutely lovely: they took me to all the best places to eat, and the children were the best companions for playing in gorges or running along the beach.  In this way, Sumba was no different than any other place I have been in Indonesia: the hospitality and openness I received in Sumba was no different than that I have been so fortunate to experience throughout the archipelago.

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Just a few of the wonderful people I met during my trip to Sumba.  Thank you so much to all of them for giving me such an amazing experience. 

Sometimes Indonesia surprises me because of how different it can be from place to place, and sometimes it surprises me because, no matter where I seem to go, there is something somehow the same, an intangible undercurrent that is the essence of the nation.  Sumba illustrated this perhaps better than any place I have yet had the chance to visit, and so it seemed appropriate that this was my last trip in the country: leaving me astonished once again, reminding me that I still do not know everything about this amazing country, and making me feel so comfortable, as though I had somehow found a way to feel at home almost anywhere in this vast archipelago.

Reflections on Ramadan

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Mesjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Jakarta, and in Southeast Asia.  

Ramadan is the Muslim fasting month, culminating in Eid al-Fitr, and is the most important holiday for Muslims around the world.  Commemorating the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad, the observance of Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, alongside a belief in Allah, the five daily prayers, Hajj, and charity.

I have spent the last three years in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world, first as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), and later as the ETA Coordinator.  However, due to the timing of Pre-Departure Orientation in D.C. each year, I have never been in Indonesia for any part of Ramadan.  This year, I pushed my return date back a bit, so that I could take in some of the Ramadan traditions practiced in the country that has become my second home.

Now, I did not remain in Indonesia for the entirety of Ramadan.  Because my research visa had come to an end, I needed to first leave Indonesia and re-enter with a tourist visa.  Rather than buy an international roundtrip ticket solely for the sake of getting a tourist visa, I decided to travel for two weeks in Cambodia and Thailand first, and so I actually spent the first half of Ramadan in countries where Muslims are a minority, much like in the U.S.  Interestingly, I happened to choose a hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand very close to one of the few mosques in the city, and so I still heard the call to prayer and regularly met folks on the street who were headed to evening prayers at the mosque, or meeting at the several restaurants along “Halal Street” (as the sign proclaimed at the entrance) to break their fast together.

In Indonesia, I split my Ramadan experience between three cities.  I spent the first few days of Ramadan in Jakarta before leaving for Southeast Asia, and spent a few more days there after my trip.  I then headed off to Sulawesi, where I spent a few days in Manado with friends who have moved there, and then spent the last days of Ramadan, as well as Idul Fitri (the Indonesian spelling of Eid al-Fitr), in Gorontalo, my second ETA site.

While in Indonesia, I did join my friends in puasa (fasting, in Indonesian).  The first meal of the day is taken before the first prayer, or Fajr.  This pre-dawn meal is called Sahur, and in many communities children march through the neighborhood banging on drums and calling out “Sahur!  Sahur!” to remind people to wake up and begin their fast.  While there are neighborhoods in Jakarta that do so, because I live in a tall building I was not able to hear them.  The first time I heard this call was in Manado, and I was pleasantly surprised at the energy the children had, and the happiness with which they took to their task, even so early in the morning (as someone who is definitely not a morning person, I would probably have been too groggy to have done well, had this been my task).  Once azan (the call to prayer), is heard, everyone clears away the breakfast dishes and prepares to pray.  When fasting, Muslims of course do not eat or drink, but they also refrain from sex, swearing, and even negative thoughts.  It is not uncommon for friends of Muslims to join a day or two of fasting, and it truly is an excellent exercise in self-control (try sitting in the hot Indonesian weather with no water, brain frazzled by a dialect of Indonesian you haven’t spoken in a few months, and thinking only positive thoughts), at the very least.  For someone who is Muslim, while self-control is an aspect of fasting, it is only one small part of this month of added prayer and reflection.

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Buying jajanan on the street.

Later in the evening, after the sunset prayer, or Magrib, it is time for buka puasa (the “opening” or breaking of the fast).  This might be done alone, but is often done together as a family, or perhaps at the local mosque.  In Indonesia, most people buka puasa with jajanan (snacks), usually of the gorengan (fried food) variety.  Sellers line the streets in the hours leading up to buka puasa, so that people can buy the foods on the way home.  Buka puasa bersama (breaking the fast together) is also a very popular practice in Indonesia, and I regularly did so with friends and other community members.  It is not uncommon for non-Muslim friends and co-workers to join for buka bersama, and while in Manado, which is actually a Christian-majority city, I participated in a buka bersama with my friend and some of her university friends, at which everyone attended was of a different religion, naturally leading to a questions and discussions which I do believe were highly illuminating for everyone present.

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Breaking the fast after Tarawih.

Throughout Ramadan, many Muslims seek to improve their practice and their understanding of the Qur’an.  Many of my friends spent additional hours studying the Qur’an, for example.  Another common practice that I experienced while spending Ramadan in Indonesia was Tarawih.  Tarawih is essentially extra prayers performed during Ramadan.  These are usually done in sets of eleven or twenty-three rak’ah[1], and while some people perform Tarawih alone, but many do so at the local masjid (mosque).  I was fortunate enough to be invited by friends to observe Tarawih twice, once at Mesjid Istiqlal in Jakarta, and once in the musholla (prayer room) behind my friend’s house in Manado (which her grandfather had actually built).  The sense of community Is especially strong, I feel, during Tarawih, which was a privilege to witness.

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Tumbilotohe.

I spent the last week of Ramadan in Sulawesi.  After spending a few days in Manado to visit friends from Gorontalo who have since moved there, I headed to Gorontalo for the last two nights of Ramadan.  I especially wanted to spend the last few nights of Ramadan in Gorontalo because I wanted the chance to observe Tumbilotohe, a very special form of adat (tradition) in the city where I once served as an ETA[2].  Tumbilotohe is usually translated to “Nights without Darkness,” and it takes place during the final three nights of Ramadan, throughout the province of Gorontalo.  Throughout Tumbilotohe people line the streets outside their houses with oil lamps.  The belief is that these lights will attract the attention of angels to Gorontalo, and the timing of this festival is due to the larger Muslim belief that acts of ibadah (acts of devotion) have more value during the last days of Ramadan.  In more recent years some communities have replaced the traditional oil lamps with fairy lights, and instead of traditional noise makers children now also run down their streets with sparklers, but the essential spirit of the celebration remains the same.  After hearing so much about this celebration from my friends in Gorontalo, it was a blessing to be able to finally be a part of it.

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Listening to the khutbah.

I remained in Gorontalo for Idul Fitri.  One of my co-teacher’s husbands was giving the khutbah (sermon) at one of the local mosques, and so I joined her and her family for sholat Idul Fitri (Eid al-Fitr salah, or prayers).  From what I could understand (I still find it difficult to understand Indonesian when spoken through a microphone), her husband spoke of the importance of remembering the lessons of Ramadan throughout the year, and of continually bettering their practice, not merely during the month of Ramadan.

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Doa Lolipu. (Photo credit to my co-teacher.)

Following sholat Idul Fitri, my co-teacher’s husband, and as such herself and her family and myself, were invited to the home of one of the men who had helped lead the prayer.   We were joined by other important men associated with the mosque, the leader of the community in which the mosque was located, as well as their families.  What followed was another tradition unique to Gorontalo, doa lolipuDoa means prayer in Bahasa Indonesia (generally, in comparison to sholat, which is the Indonesian spelling of salah, which is Muslim prayer), and lolipu is Bahasa Gorontalo (the language of Gorontalo), translating to something along the lines of “our city.”  Two men led this special prayer, and afterwards men of especial importance were given nasi kuning (yellow rice) and tili aya (a sweet dessert), two dishes commonly found at almost every acara in Gorontalo.  Once this ceremony was complete, everyone was invited to share the nasi kuning and tili aya, as well as several other dishes that had been set out.  My co-teacher explained to me that this same ceremony would occur near every mosque in Gorontalo, with those who had led that day’s prayer.  Doa lolipu is quite common in Gorontalo, and also occurs when someone dies or when there is an important event in the city.  Idul Fitri is, of course, another important event.  This sort of ceremony may not necessarily occur in other parts of Indonesia, though other areas might have their own adat regarding Ramadan as well.

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Me with the family of one of my co-teachers.  

The rest of that day, as well as the following day, was spent visiting.  Alongside my co-teachers, we went from house to house in the neighborhood, wishing everyone a blessed Idul Fitri, and exchanging the phrase “Mohon maaf lahir dan batin,” which essentially means, “Please forgive the sins of my body and soul.”  There is food in every home, and we were encouraged to eat everywhere we went (and we, in turn, encouraged people to eat when they came to us).  When visiting family, my co-teacher and her husband also gave jakati (gifts of money for family members, in larger amounts for adults and smaller amounts for children).  Everywhere we went, when a new adult family member entered the room, children would immediately gather, shouting, “Jakati! Jakati!”  We also visited the tombs of her father and her husband’s father, to pause and pray.

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Another “family photo.”  

While the first day of Idul Fitri was largely dedicated to family and neighbors, the second day was devoted to visiting friends and co-workers.  This day was especially special for me, as it entailed many visits to the homes of other teachers from the school where I used to teach.  These are the people who became my family while I lived there, and so as wonderful as the visits to my co-teacher’s family were, it is these visits that brought me the most personal joy.

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Some of the teachers who took me into their homes during Ramadan.  

Ramadan is an extremely special time for Muslim’s around the world, and it was a privilege to witness some of the different practices across this vast archipelago.  I am incredibly grateful to everyone who opened their doors and their hearts to me, making Ramadan 2017 an unforgettable time for me as well.  Terima kasih (thank you), and mohon maaf lahir dan batin.

[1] A rak’ah is essentially one set of salah, including the movements and prayer.

[2] I actually wrote an entire blog about Tumbilotohe, which you can find here.

A Love Letter to Trans Jakarta

Dear Trans Jakarta,

You are probably my favorite part of living in Jakarta.  There I days when I truly wonder if I would have survived living in this city, if not for you.

IMG_2587I love your cool, air conditioned cars.  After walking along the streets of Jakarta for mere minutes, sweat drips down my back and my face, soaking my shirt and putting streaks in whatever makeup I was foolish enough to try to wear.  (What can I say?   I am a northerner trying to live in a tropical climate: my body still isn’t sure what to do with this equatorial sun.)  Stepping into a trans car is a blessed reprieve from the heat, and as soon as I naik (board), I feel my head clear and my skin give a soft sigh of relief.

I love how much of the city you have already reached.  I know that I am lucky to have recently moved to Jakarta, because not long ago the bus corridors did not reach as many places, and the lack of connecting corridors made the travel time for many too long for them to feasibly use the Trans system.  But as you continue to expand and more people are able to ride the system, it will make sustainable public transportation options truly feasible for more of Jakarta.

I love how cheap you are.  For IDR 3.500, I can go from one end of the city to the other.  Transportation in Jakarta does tend to be quite inexpensive, at least when compared to other capital cities around the world, but I the only options I have found that might be cheaper than the Trans are the rickety Kopaja buses overflowing with passengers that still pour back smoke into the air, and my feet.  As someone who is paid by American standards, but whose friends are mostly Indonesians being paid Indonesian wages, this is especially important: while I arguably could take a taxi wherever I wanted to go, my friends cannot; but with the Trans system, we can all travel in comfort, together.

IMG_2590I love that you have spaces that are khusus wanita (special for women).  Whether it is the front of regular buses, or the bright pink female-only buses with the massive lettering on their sides proclaiming “These Girls are Smart!,” I am so thankful that this spaces exist.  I plan so many of my days around trying to avoid street harassment, and knowing that I can travel from one part of the city to another in the relative comfort and safety of female company is one of the reasons I feel able to explore all this city has to offer.

Jakarta is not my favorite city that I have ever lived in, but there are interesting elements of the city very much worth exploring.  But the pollution, heat, and harassment of this city often make it hard for me to convince myself to leave the clean, cool, safe confines of my apartment.  I have long conversations with myself, trying to persuade myself to leave.  There have been days when the TransJakarta system is the piece of the puzzle that gets me out of the house, and I would have missed out on so much, if it did not exist.

Thank you, TransJakarta.  There is little in this city that I will miss when I leave.  But I will miss you.

Love,

Grace