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.

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.

Tumbilotohe: Nights without Darkness

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The lapangan (field) in my old neighborhood.

When I was a first-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), one of the speeches at the WORDS Competition (a speech and talent competition planned and executed by ETAs every year) from one of the students from Gorontalo centered around the tradition of Tumbilotohe, a festival of lights that is khusus Gorontalo (special or unique to Gorontalo).  Listening to her describe streets lined with oil lamps and fairy lights, it was clear to me that Tumbilotohe was a very special occasion for those from Gorontalo.

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Playing with a sparkler.

As a second-year ETA, I found myself placed in Gorontalo, and all year students, teachers, and friends from my community would tell me about Tumbilotohe, and insist that, if I could, I should stay past the end of my grant, so that I might experience it for myself.  Unfortunately, because as the new ETA Coordinator I needed to attend the Pre Departure Orientation in D.C. around that same time, I was not able to do so.

They say that the third time is a charm, and the old adage rang true for Tumbliotohe.  I extended my stay in Indonesia this year past the end date of my Coordinator responsibilities, and thus would remain in Southeast Asia for the entire month of Ramadan, and would be able to plan a trip to Gorontalo for Tumbilotohe.

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Some of the traditional lights set out on a wall.

Tumbilotohe, in Bahasa Gorotnalo (the language of Gorontalo), literally means something along the lines of “The Placing of Lights,” but as this does not really capture the essence of the festival, is often translated in English to “Nights without Darkness.”  It takes place during the final three nights of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, throughout the province of Gorontalo, in northern Sulawesi.  Traditionally, throughout Tumbilotohe Muslims, and sometimes even non-Muslims, line the streets outside their houses with oil lamps, sometimes placing them on the ground or on the fences around their houses, and sometimes tying them to bamboo archways.  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.

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One of the streets closed to traffic so that pedestrians can walk.

In more recent years, the traditional lamps have given way to strings of fairy lights in every color of the rainbow, arching over the streets of Gorontalo.  The colors and designs are chosen by committees in each neighborhood, so no street is quite the same.  In some places, the streets are closed to vehicles during a few hours each night, so that people can walk under the lights and take it all in at a much slower pace.  Teenagers jovially compete to take the best selfie, and children dash through the crowds, waving sparklers as they go.  It truly does feel like a festival, and I found myself quickly swept up in the joy of the evenings.

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One of the lapangan in my co-teacher’s home village.

I missed the first day of Tumbilotohe because I was still visiting friends in Manado, but I arrived in time for the second night, which my friends assured me is always the peak night of the festival.  One of my co-teachers and I went by bentor (becak motor, or a rickshaw operated by motorbike), and explored the displays near the neighborhood where I lived when I was an ETA in Gorontalo.  Because I lived on the edge of the city, just a short ride from some of the closer villages, these displays were generally more traditional, and even if they were mostly composed of fairy lights, they did include the oil lamps in some way.  My favorite displays were in the lapangan (fields), usually used by local teenage boys to play sepak bolah (football/soccer) in the evenings: hundreds of oil lamps were tied to stakes and organized throughout the lapangan, truly giving meaning to the English translation of the festival, “Nights without Darkness.”

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The little girls who followed me around during my second night of Tumbilotohe.

The second night some of my previous students picked me up in a car and took me to some of the farther, more modern displays.  While I must admit that I have a preference for the more traditional lights, the tunnels of twinkling lights captured my imagination, and getting to experience that with some of the students I know and love so well was an absolute joy.  The highlight of the night was befriending a group of young girls, who insisted I take some of their sparklers; I taught them how to paint with light, and they were enthralled with the concept, and even as I was leaving they were teaching some of their friends this new magic trick they had learned.

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A very modern edition to Tumbilotohe.

The tradition of Tumbilotohe has been in existence for as long as anyone I know can remember, and is looked forward to with great anticipation each year.  As one of my friends from Gorontalo, who has since moved to Jakarta and who unfortunately could not mudik (go home for Idul Fitri) this year, said to me, “It just doesn’t feel like Ramadan without Tumbilotohe.”  After having had the privilege to experience Tumbilotohe myself, I can see why she feels that way, and I am certain that no Ramadan I celebrate will ever quite be the same.


It was really difficult to capture Tumbilotohe on camera, so I also took several videos, which I compiled into a larger clip which can be viewed here.  The song I chose for the background is a song in Bahasa Gorontalo, celebrating the city.

Favorite Indonesian Words and Phrases

After three years of living in Indonesia, I have been lucky to learn quite a bit of Bahasa Indonesia.  I in no way consider myself fluent, but I function fairly well, and I am incredibly thankful for that.  While learning this dynamic and wonderful language, I have come across a few phrases that I have really come to love.  Some are funny, some are beautiful.  But I love them all, and wanted to share them here.

Tidak apa apa.  This literally translates to “No what what,” and using the English version is guaranteed to make a classroom of English-learners giggle uncontrollably.  It means “no problem,” or “it’s okay,” and Indonesians say it all the time.  Yes, sometimes this relaxed nature can get on my nerves, and I find myself ranting in my head: “That is not something you can just tidak apa apa!”  But at the end of the day I admire it, and feel that people in my own country could learn something from this.  And I love the various ways different regions shorten the phrase: “Tak pa pa,” “Ga pa pa,” and even “gpp” in sms.

Hati-Hati.  This phrase means “Be careful.”  It can be used on its own, like when you might warn a small child not to touch a stove.  But it can also be used as part of the larger phrase “Hati-hati di jalan,” or “Be careful on the road,” which is said almost every time you part ways with someone.  What I love about this phrase is that hati is also the word for the metaphorical heart[1].  That this phrase so directly connects the idea of parting ways with someone to the heart is still so touching to me, even after three years of hearing it almost every day.

Mandi bebek.  Mandi is the Indonesian word for “shower” or “bathe,” and in a country where cleanliness is of the upmost importance and people will probably be shocked if you tell them that you shower only once a day, this is an important word to know.  Mandi bebek means “duck shower” and this is a short shower, in which you just rinse your body and don’t wash your hair or use soap.  Any equivalents I know of in English are either far cruder or far less adorable, and as the queen of mandi bebek (a quick rinse-off at the end of a hot day of teaching is so key to decent mental health), I was ecstatic when I learned this word existed.

Anda.  This is the formal Indonesian word for you.  It is always capitalized, while no other pronoun is.  As a native speaker of English, where the capitalized pronoun is “I,” the word for the self, I am fascinated by this emphasis on the other, and the diminishing of the self.  There is a selflessness in Indonesian culture that is beautiful, and it seems it comes out even in the language.

Malu-malu kucing.  This literally translates to “shy-shy cat,” and it is usually used to good-naturedly tease someone who is shy, or malu-malu.  Teachers use it all the time to coax students who are too embarrassed by their English to speak up in class: “Jangan malu-malu kucing!” (“Don’t be shy-sky cat!”).  And it often works.  The very fact that the phrase is amusing often helps nervous students to relax and smile at least a little, and I wish there was a phrase in English that could do the same.

Belum and Sudah.  Belum means “not yet,” and sudah means, “already.”  While there are words for yes and no in Indonesian, iya and tidak, to respond to many questions it is far more common to use the words belum and sudah, and I have always found this particularly fascinating when it comes to belum.  “Have you eaten?”  “Belum.”  “Have you studied for a graduate degree?”  “Belum.”  Have you been to Lombok?” “Belum.”  There is the assumption that just because you haven’t done something yet, doesn’t mean you never will.  And so, you don’t answer with a firm no, but merely a “not yet.”  There is an inherent optimism and recognition of opportunity in this phrasing that I find really wonderful, and it has made me re-think how I think about the future.

Mandi hujan.  This means, “rain shower,” and is the word used for playing in the rain, and many Indonesians use it even if the mandi hujan was unintentional.  If I come home soaked to the bone, because I forgot my umbrella, I joke with the security in front of the building that I was mandi hujan.  I learned this phrase from one of my students, who loved mandi hujan so much that he simply could not stay still if the rain started to fall.  Almost every time we had class together, because his English class fell at a time when the rains would come like clockwork, the way they do in Indonesia, he would start to dance in his seat and look longingly out the windows.  I would help him to focus as best as I could, and if he could finish his tasks for that day, and could show me that he understood his homework, he would look up at me and say, “Mandi hujan, miss?” and I would let him leave class a few minutes early, and would see him later on, walking home, soaking wet and deliriously happy.  Rain has always brought me joy, and cloudy days have never been dreary for me.  My student’s shared love of rain has made this one of my favorite Indonesian phrases.

Bapak, Ibu, Kakak, and Adik.  The simplest translations for these words are: Bapak as “father,” Ibu as “mother,” kakak as “older sibling,” and adik as “younger sibling.”  These are used to talk about actual family members—my brother, for example, is my adik laki-laki—but it is also used as a form of address in many parts of Indonesia.  Older women are Ibu, or Bu, and older men are Bapak, or Pak.  Anyone similar in age or only slightly older is kakak, or kak and younger folks are adik, or dik.  You use these words even when you meet someone for the first time, and I am fascinated by this immediate familiarity.  Like Anda, this seems to echo something in the larger culture that I have observed: in such a communal society, neighbors and even strangers are like family.

This is in no way an exhaustive list of the Indonesian words and phrases I have come to love, and I am sure that I will learn more wonderful Indonesian even during the last month I have left.  But I hope that you all enjoyed this list!

 

 

 

[1] Regarding physical body parts, jatung is “heart,” and hati is “liver.”  This means than an alternative translation for hati-hati di jalan is “Liver-liver on the road,” something my students in English Club found hilarious, and so we used that phrase exclusively for the year.

Snapshot: Bandar Lampung, South Sumatra

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Beautiful Bandar Lampung, from the top floor of the hotel where I stayed.

I have been bouncing around Indonesia quite a bit recently, as anyone who follows my Instagram might have noticed.  Most of these visits have been for research, but a couple have also been to assist with the WORDS Competitions at certain schools.  One of the sites I visited for WORDS Competitions was Bandar Lampung, at the very southern tip of Sumatra.

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Ancient writing from Museum Bandar Lampung

Bandar Lampung is a medium-sized, extraordinarily diverse city, and I wish I had had more than a few days there.  The driver who took me around was a fountain of information about the history and politics of the area (elections for a new governor had just occurred before I arrived, so the latter was a very hot topic at the time), and he would pipe up every time we entered a new part of the, letting me know if the population there was majority transmigrasi[1], Chinese-Indonesian, orang Palemband (the people of Palembang, a region north of Bandar Lampung), or one of the ethnic groups native to the region.  I learned later, while visiting Museum Bandar Lampung, that while the city encompasses the whole area now, there is apparently still to this day a significant difference in the traditions of those ethnic groups who live close to the sea, compared to those who are from the hills.

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The Butterfly Garden.

Bandar Lampung is very much situated in a beautiful space.  With the mountains on one side, and the ocean on the other, it really has the best of both worlds for anyone interested in escaping city life.  My driver told me that a large number of tourists from Jakarta frequent Bandar Lampung on the weekend, and that most of them go to Bandar Lampung for the snorkeling and diving near the many small islands right off the coast.  However, as I was there for tugas (an assignment, or work), that was not something I planned for.  But the teachers at the schools I went to happily took me to more in-land tempat wisata (tourism spots), such as the butterfly garden and the deer sanctuary, and, especially after having spent this grant period in Jakarta, I was so thankful that they took the time to accompany me to such beautiful green spaces.

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Some of the SMP dancers, and the wonderful ETA

I was also lucky enough to be in Bandar Lampung during a festival budaya (cultural festival), and was invited to go by the ETA placed there. where I got to see beautiful examples of tapis (a fabric native to this region), taste local kopi (coffee), and watch part of a SMP (middle school) traditional dance competition.  This was my favorite part of the whole trip.  I have always loved dance competitions in Indonesia, but have not attended one since I stopped being an ETA.  Being able to see dances from all over the region (some students were from as far as Palembang), and performed by such talented students, was such a privilege.

The hospitality of the teachers and the ETA of Bandar Lampung meant I got to see much more of the city than I ever thought I might on a mere work trip.  I am ever so thankful, and hope that someday I will be able to return.

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Some of my favorite little dancers.  These lovely ladies are actually in SD (elementary school), and had performed earlier that morning.

[1] Java is the most populated island in the world, and over population was such a problem that as one point the Dutch Colonial Government (and the Indonesian Government later continued this program) moved the people from entire villages on Java to other places around Indonesia.  Or at least, that’s the official narrative.  Many people say that the real goal of the program was to spread Javanese culture, as it was seen as superior to the culture of the people who already lived in those areas: these villagers were to integrate into the surrounding community, and instill Javanese language and values, replacing that of the people native to the region.  If this was, in fact, the goal, it wasn’t particularly successful.  Many transmigrasi sites have become very insular communities, which maintain their own language and culture, without necessarily integrating fully.  Opinions abound regarding these communities, both from those who live near them, and those who live (or lived) in them, and it has been a fascinating topic to explore since coming here.