A Long, Complicated List of Love: 100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia

A wonderful friend of mine, whom I met during my first grant as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Malang and later lived with when I made the move to Jakarta, kept a blog, much like my own, during her time in Indonesia.  She first found herself in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer, and it was then she wrote a post that was essentially a list entitled: “100 Things I Love About Indonesia.”  Later, when she was a Fulbright Student Researcher in Indonesia, she revisited this idea and wrote a similar list, but this time called “100 Things I Find Maddening About Indonesia.”

I loved the idea, and thought it would offer a great way to reflect on my time in Indonesia.  (Yes, this meant I was essentially shamelessly stealing her idea—I promise I got permission!)  I have thought about writing similar posts several times during my own stint in Indonesia, but the timing never seemed quite right, as the list was constantly shifting as my relationship with Indonesia grew and changed.

But now I have returned to the United States for the foreseeable future, and this post will be—if you can believe it—the 100th post I have written about my time in Indonesia[1].  It seemed the time had come.  This wasn’t an easy list to compile, as limiting myself to only 100 things that I love about the amazing country where I have spent the last three years was a nearly impossible task, and needing to be so critical as to come up with 100 (really 99) things that I strongly disliked hurt my heart a little bit.  But it did offer me a chance to revisit so many different aspects of my experience, and I am very glad that I did it.

Just a note before I begin: the nature of this list means that I do generalize quite a bit in this post, and allow myself a bit of hyperbole in some places, something I usually try to avoid in my writing about Indonesia.  Take what I say with a grain of salt, and know that it all ultimately comes from a place of love, as by this point I consider Indonesia home just as much as I do the U.S.  Also, if some of the points in this post seem petty or self-centered, it’s because I allowed myself to be.  Ultimately, this was my experience, and sometimes I am petty and self-centered.  I didn’t want to hide that here.

So, without further ado, here are “100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia!”  (To make things a little easier to keep track of, I made the positive points one color and the negative points a different color.  But, if the color doesn’t show up on your device, or if you struggle with colors, just know that the first point is always the positive one, and the second is the not-so-positive.)

1. The way it smells after the rain.  This is a smell I love everywhere, but it is extra special in Indonesia.

1. Flooding.  Wading through two feet of water to get to class.  Almost missing flights because half the roads in your neighborhood can’t be driven on.  Yeah.  Not a fan. 

2. Hospitality.  I was with one of my site mates once, and we had just finished hiking a mountain.  It looked like it was going to rain, and some Ibu-Ibu (Ibu = mother or woman) living in houses near the base of the mountain insisted we come inside and drink tea to wait out the storm.  They were ready to make us stay overnight if they deemed it not safe enough for us.  The thing is, this isn’t out of the ordinary.  This is just how things go in Indonesia.  It is a whole different level of hospitality. 

2. Passive aggressiveness. If an Indonesian takes issue with something, they are unlikely to tell you straight up, but will most likely dance around the problem, insisting nothing is wrong, until you somehow magically figure out what is wrong.  (Or you don’t, and then the problem just continues to build until someone eventually explodes.)  As a blunt American farm girl who was raised to be open about issues so that a solution could be met, I hated dealing with the constant passive aggressiveness present in so many of my professional and personal relationships. 

3. Wedang.  Wedang literally means “drink” in Javanese, and the word applies to a whole array of usually hot, spiced drinks that are simply heaven on earth.  On my last night in Indonesia, I went to my favorite restaurant with a few friends, and ordered four of these drinks. 

3. That Indonesian SMS is impossible to understand.  “Gpp” means “Gapapa,” which is short for “Tidak apa apa.”  “S7” means “setujuh.”  And those are the easy ones. 

4. The many shades of green.  The green in Indonesia is simply blinding.  It defines fresh.  If defines alive.  I can’t describe it. 

4. Air pollution.  Many of the cities in Indonesia have horrible air quality.  I spent a year in Jakarta wearing masks to try to save my lungs.  I still got sick.  Frequently. 



On my first motorbike in Malang, a real game-changer for the second half of my grant.

5. Traveling by motorbike.  There is nothing more liberating that hopping on your sepeda motor (or the back of your friend’s), and knowing that you can go anywhere.  I loved riding slowly.  I loved racing down empty roads.  I loved riding in the rain.  Some days, I even enjoyed the challenge of navigating ­macet (traffic).


5. Pot holes. You may think you know what pot holes are.  Indonesia will show you that you have no idea what a pot hole can be.  Beware the jalan rusak (broken road): it is not for the faint of heart. 

6. Fresh fruit.  Rambutan.  Manggis.  Sirsak.  Nanas.  All available on the side of the road, for you to just pick up on your ride home. 

6. That I couldn’t eat salad.  It usually isn’t safe to eat vegetables without cooking them, which means that all of my vegetables were generally boiled or stir fired (and sometimes just plain fried).  My cravings for salad were uncontrollable sometimes.  I’ll admit that once or twice I took the risk and made a salad anyway.  Somehow, I lived to tell the tale. 

7. Street food.  So greasy.  So bad for you.  So. Bloody. Good.  I’m convinced that because the sellers use the same wok for so long, the spices build and compound, and that’s how you get that distinctive mouth-watering taste that you just can’t recreate in your own kitchen. 

7. The horrible things they sometimes put in street food.  Some sellers will put plastic in their gorengan (fried foods) to make them crispier.  If your soup is a shade of yellow that seems almost chemical, it might actually be chemical.  

8. Local languages.  There are over 300 languages spoken in Indonesia, by some counts.  They are all vastly different from one another.  They are all beautiful.  This is what inspired The Bahasa Project, one of my favorite projects as an ETA. 

8. How unaware Jakarta’s elite is of the rest of the country.  Jakarta runs the country.  And it has no idea what life is like outside of its city’s borders.  Frankly, they don’t understand what life is like in their own city.  I know this is an issue around the world, but it still frustrates me. 



One of my favorite mosques, the floating mosque in Makassar.

9. Call to prayer.  Five times a day there is a call to pause, to reflect, to pray.  Though I am not Muslim, I came to define time by the call to prayer, and to appreciate the reminder to take a moment to stop working and appreciate everything I had going for me.


9. Cat calls.  I hate cat calls no matter where I am, and what language is used to communicate men’s disgusting views towards women.  Indonesia(n) was no exception. 

10. Rice paddies.  Endless rice paddies broken up by the occasional row of palm trees.  Tiered rice paddies that seem more like paintings than fields.  They are all beautiful, and always in that special shade of rice paddy green that sooths the soul. 

10. How hot it always is.  If you are going to spend any significant time in Indonesia, you are just going to have to accept sweaty as a state of being.  And that’s that.



Just one reason to love the ocean.

11. Ocean.  I grew up only infrequently visiting the ocean, and to be honest, it scared me a bit when I first moved to Indonesia.  Though I still have a great respect for the power of the laut, I have also come to love her, from the way she smells to the way it feels to jump off a boat into her depths.


11. Litter.  On the side of the road.  On the beach.  Outside my classrooms.  In the rivers.  Litter is everywhere, and very few people seem truly concerned about its presence.  It’s maddening. 

12. Fishing boats.  They are painted in every color of the rainbow, surprisingly stable, and usually manned by the friendliest Bapak-Bapak (Bapak = father or man) that you’ll meet. 

12. Fish bombing. There are few things sadder than snorkeling through a gorgeous coral reef, only to have the coral suddenly end and give way to barren sand and stone, because someone decided easy fishing was more important than caring for the Earth.  I understand that the issue is more complex than that: that it is terribly difficult for fishermen to eek a living out of the sea, that education is sorely lacking, but nonetheless, it breaks my heart to see such destruction. 

13. My students.  I know I’ve mentioned this before in several blogs, but it is worth mentioning again.  The amazing people that I was privileged to meet were most definitely the best part of my experience in Indonesia.  Of all of those wonderful humans, my students remain my favorite.  Whether making music videos together, watching them perform an original play in English, or just helping them to navigate English verbs, I loved every moment that I spent with them. 


Just a few of my incredible students.

13. That students have to take seventeen classes at the same time.  Students take pretty much all of their classes at once, rather than working on a semester or block schedule.  This means that they only meet for most subjects one to three times a week, making it incredibly difficult for them to actually retain material. 


Some of the fabulous Ibu-Ibu who were a part of my experience.

14. Helpful Ibu-Ibu I cannot count the number of times an Ibu has saved me.  Ibu-Ibu are simply magical in the way they can make the impossible happen, and I feel so thankful to have had some truly mind-boggling women on my team over the years. 

14. Rampant patriarchy.  I am a woman.  I have dealt with the patriarchy my entire life.  But nowhere have I felt more powerless because of my gender than in Indonesia.  I understand that my position was always further complicated by my being not just a woman, but a foreign woman, but observing the treatment of my female colleagues allowed me to see just how much of this was simply based on my gender.  And it drove me insane. 

15. Inspiring teachers.  I have met so many incredible educators during my time in Indonesia.  Some I was lucky enough to co-teach with.  Some I met at ETA trainings, as they were the co-teachers of my peers.  And some teachers weren’t even teaching in my discipline, but they still taught me amazing things about managing classrooms and differentiation.  I am a better teacher today for having had the opportunity to meet them and work with them.  

15. Teacher absenteeism. On the flip side, there are those teachers who rarely even showed up to class.  And because there is not a substitute teacher system in Indonesia (at least not one that resembles what my American friends might be accustomed to), this meant that students were left without any instruction for that period: an hour or two of wasted educational opportunity. 

16. Brightly-colored houses.  Houses in Indonesia come in every color of the rainbow.  I challenge you not to smile walking down the street. 

16. Lack of public spaces.  Few parks, fewer park benches.  Some governors and other town officials are seeking to change this in their cities, so I hold out hope that this will improve. 

17. How everyone is always serving you tea.  It is difficult to enter a home in Indonesia without being served something, and that something is usually teas.  If you’re not a tea fan, this could be a bummer.  I couldn’t get enough of it. 

17. Excessive plastic use.  There is a reason so much of the ubiquitous litter is plastic.

18. Coffee.  For folks who might be wondering Kopi Luwak (made from beans digested and excreted by civets) is actually great.  But so is everyday coffee.  And the instant coffee.  Basically, you can’t go wrong with your coffee here. 

18. Trash fires.  Just stop.  


Making batik in Solo.

19. Batik. Whether traditional patterns or more modern patterns were being used, and whether it was being made into clothing or being made into an art piece, batik always found a way to steal my heart.  And batik was the focus of my favorite museum in Indonesia, the batik museum in Solo. 

19. Harga bule.  (Foreigner price.)  This is the inflated price quoted to foreigners, sometimes double the local price.  My bargaining skills did improve during my time in Indonesia, but I never did feel that I was getting a fair price. 

20. The sinks that are in the middle of restaurants.  Because why should you add to the inevitable line in the ladies’ room if all you want to do is wash the grease from your amazing meal off your hands?  Brilliant.  The same can be said for all the wuduh stations that were set up outside of bathrooms, rather than inside them.  Someone knows how to design. 

20. Using thin tissue as napkins.  They fall apart and make more of a mess than clean anything.  We need a new plan. 

21. Basa-basi.  Most prevalent in Javanese culture, basa-basi in some form seems to exist in every community across the archipelago.  It is usually translated to “chit-chat,” but it is so much more than that.  It is talking about children and weather before a business meeting, yes, but it is also offering your food when really you only have enough for yourself, and would rather not share.  It is a system of politeness that can be difficult to learn the code of (I’m not sure I ever did), but there are parts of it that I came to love.  Basa-basi played a role in why people seemed to stop and actually get to know a person they would be working with, at least on a service level, rather than just talking about the work.  And I loved that. 

21. Basa-basi.  I was raised on American time management, and I was taught that sometimes there is time for chit-chat, and sometimes you need to get down to business and get work done.  There seemed to be no such division in Indonesia, and there were times during the busy planning of an event wherein basa-basi just made me want to scream.  There was also the element of basa-basi which meant that sometimes people would say “Yes” when they meant “No,” or vice versa, and that is not a game I like to play: I was raised in Northeastern rural America, where sometimes honesty is valued even over kindness.  This was probably the one cultural element that drove me the most insane because of how much it clashed with my own culture.  Once, a colleague laughed at me for the umpteenth time, telling me that I was frustrated by the basa-basi only because Americans “did not understand politeness,” and I confess that I snapped back at her: “You call saying what you don’t mean polite.  Where I’m from, we call it lying, and it is the most impolite thing you can do.” 

22. Singkatan.  (Portmanteaus.)  Warung (food stall or shop) and internet become warnet.  Switch out internet for kopi (coffee) and you have warkop.  Indonesia is full of these words, and I loved them. 

22. That there is essentially no special needs education.  I had a few students with various special needs during my time in Indonesia (which was lucky enough, as most children with special needs do not attend school in Indonesia), and I was essentially told not to try to teach them, and to let them just sit in the back of the class.  That was one of those times I did not listen to my co-teachers’ advice. 

23. That it really takes a village to raise a child.  Everyone plays a role in raising the neighborhood kids.  You don’t even have to be related to help out with caretaking.  I loved kids popping in and out of my front yard (even if they sometimes did get into things they shouldn’t have), and loved the idea of there being so few official childcare facilities, because they were made unnecessary by neighborhood culture.  This is not impossible to find in the United States, but it is certainly much less common. 

23. Hierarchy.  Nowhere did the old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” ring truer for me than in Indonesia.  I cannot count the number of times I gritted my teeth and endured the company of someone I so very much disliked because I knew that if I did not befriend them, it would be impossible for me to create beneficial programming for my students.  And I mean impossible, not just difficult.  You had to play the game of hierarchy if you wanted anything good for your kids. 

24. Student responsibility.  Students independently ran club, organized cleaning schedules for their classrooms, and just generally took on much more responsibility for the day-to-day functions of the school than I generally see in American high schools.  They took pride in their classrooms and in their leadership duties, and I loved the lessons they learned through these roles. 

24. Low graduation rate.  Indonesia consistently ranks very low amongst Southeast Asian countries for graduation rates, percentages of student age children who even attend school.  To be sure, the Indonesian education system has may flaws, but perhaps it’s greatest is the sheer number of students it fails to reach, and to retain. 

25. Snowman whiteboard markers.  They are the perfect size, they write amazingly, and they are refillable.  I 100% should have brought some home with me when I left. 

25. Whiteout.  Students are taught to strive for perfection, and this meant that even their notes had to be perfect.  It was almost impossible for me to convince students to just cross out mistakes and move on, so that time could be used in other ways.

26. Their pride in being Indonesian.  Indonesians across the archipelago generally seem so, so proud to be Indonesian, and it is truly an amazing thing to see.  Despite everything, they love their country with every ounce of their being, and hope feverishly for a bright future. 

26. Nationalism.  Pride in your country can sometimes turn to nationalism, and nationalism is a slippery slope that too often seems to lead to prejudice.  There is no denying that much of the pride I saw in Indonesia was nationalistic, and sometimes it scared me. 

27. Kerawang.  It is rarely anyone’s favorite fabric from across the Indonesian archipelago, but I admired its resilience, and how proud the people of Gorontalo were to wear it, rather than a more popular kain

27. The narrative students are taught about their own country.  Once, I tentatively tried to talk to a group of students about the various genocides that had occurred in Indonesia’s fairly recent history.  None of them had heard of a single one.  Students are spoon-fed a specific narrative about their country, and that is so dangerous.  I know that the United States does much of the same, but that doesn’t make it right.

28. The universal love of singing.  Almost everyone sings, and even if someone doesn’t sing, they love listening to their friends sing.  And a vast majority of Indonesians have amazing voices. 

28. The lack of a reading culture.  Reading is not a common pastime in Indonesia, and as someone who has lived the power of literature, and who goes nowhere without a book, this was terribly sad to me.

29. Cheesy love songs.  Like Ran’s “Dekat di Hati.” I have a weak spot for them anyway.  But there is no denying that Indonesia does them best. 

29. Lack of libraries.  School libraries are often only filled with textbooks, and public libraries are small, or nonexistent. 


Tiny adorable dancers from Bandar Lampung.

30. Dancing (traditional or otherwise).  Whenever my students had a dance competition of any sort, I made sure to go.  The traditional dances were always incredible (and the costumes exquisite), and I am convinced that any of my students could be a member of a K-pop band, with the way they could bust a move. 

30. Poor journalism.  There are some very good journalists in Indonesia.  And then there are so many more terrible ones. 

31. Constant laughter.  And the smiles.  Indonesians seem predisposed to be happy, and I think there are lessons that many of us could take from that.  (I don’t mean to imply that Indonesians don’t feel a full array of emotions as strongly as anyone else, but there is an optimism that seems particularly powerful across Indonesia.)

31. Gossip.  I thought the folks of my home town were bad.  I had no idea. 

32. Having access to mother nature from my classroom.  Feel inclined to have class outside?  It takes all of 20 seconds to get there. 

32. Terrible textbooks.  How students are supposed to learn when their textbooks are incorrect, I have no idea. 

33. Home remedies (that work!).  Have a cough? Try kecap manis (sweet soy sauce), with some lime.  You’ll never buy cough syrup again.

33. The lack of quality medical care.  Hospitals are downright terrifying, if there even is a hospital nearby.  Things are improving, but slowly. 

34. That everyone is an artist.  The worst of my students’ doodles are far superior to anything that I could pull off. 

34. Homophobia.  I once walked past a classroom and heard my students learning anti-LGBT chants as part of their sociology class.  It breaks my heart. 

35. Songket.  I have only one piece made from this Sumatran fabric, but it makes me feel like a queen. 

35. Lack of sex education.  It just isn’t there, and kids are left to glean incorrect information from their friends and the internet.  (Seriously, the things I have heard students say are petrifying.)

36. That family is a priority.  The value placed on family in Indonesia is incredible.  Generations live together, care for one another, and learn from one another.  It is truly a privilege to witness it. 

36. The hatred of dark skin.  Sometimes even teachers teased students for having dark skin.  It’s horrible.  It is partly due to internalized racism (which I will get to later in this list), but some of it was just plain racism. 

37. Cute rubber flats.  Did you know that Crocs can be cute?  And did you know they are the best teaching shoes you will ever find?

37. Tropical diseases.  I could have lived without contracting typhoid, honestly.  More seriously, the number of people lost to these diseases each year is heartbreaking. 

38. Good drivers.  A good driver, be they for car, taxi, or ojek (motorbike taxi), can be a wealth of local information, and be ever so comforting in an unfamiliar city. 

38. Macet. (Traffic.)  Want to go crazy?  Try Southeast Asian traffic.  Money back guarantee. 

39. An abundance of transportation applications.  In a larger city, I can get anywhere via car or ojek with just the push of a few buttons.  Amazing. 

39. Poor infrastructure.   Roads too narrow for the trucks carting goods on them.  Scary bridges.  Slow trains.  It’s doable, it’s true, but it sure ain’t pleasant. 

40. How friendly everyone is.  Indonesians are truly famous for being ramah (friendly), and they absolutely deserve the reputation.  Never have I met a more generally friendly people, and I feel so blessed to have lived in their presence for so long. 

40. That sometimes this friendliness is fake.  It took me a while to be able to tell exactly when Indonesian friendliness was genuine, and when it wasn’t, but I did eventually figure it out.  This is part of the basa-basi element of Indonesian culture, with which I probably have the strongest of love-hate relationships. 


Just one beautiful vista, from Sumba.

41. Beautiful vistas.  Beaches.  Mountains.  Fields.  If you have never in your life felt inclined to stand in awe of the beauty of mother nature, I promise you Indonesia will change that. 

41. The destruction of these beautiful vistas.  Huge swaths of forests are cleared each year for farming and mining.  Pollution has destroyed so many places.  If we want our children to see the same sights we have come to admire, we need to do something, fast. 

42. That people believe in sick days.  When you are sick, you stay home and rest.  You don’t force yourself to go to work.  And guess what?  Then you heal faster.  America, take notes. 

42. Blatant corruption.  I don’t think using both hands would be enough to count how many times I was asked for bribes from government officials. 

43. Animals in the street.  They walk along with the vehicle and foot traffic and no one questions it.  I get especially excited when there is a cow. 

43. Lack of sidewalks.  There is a reason Indonesians don’t walk anywhere. 

44. Colorful curbs.  The curb sides are usually painted in bright colors, and like the colorful houses, this always brought me great joy.

44. Lack of respect for sidewalks that do exist.  You spot a sidewalk.  You pump your fists in the air in triumph.  Then you have to dodge out of the way of the motorbike whose driver has decided this sidewalk is a shortcut for him, not a place for pedestrians.  Triumph, short-lived. 

45. “Santai aja.”  (“Just relax.”)  Indonesians are generally extremely chill people.  Which can make them great in a crisis.  I might be freaking out, but they are calmly taking it all in, and moving forward, slowly but surely.  They are also incredibly understanding of traffic causing delays in meetings, or poor internet postponing projects. 

45. Jam karet.  (Rubber Time.)  Time is flexible in Indonesia, which means that events, big and small, rarely occur when they are said to.  Have a plan with a friend?  They might pick you up two hours after they said they would.  Or two hours before.  You never know. 

46. Bak mandi.  (The tubs you put your water in for showering.)  I fell in love with bucket showers.  When I moved to Jakarta and no longer had a bak mandi, I was so sad. 

46. Imigrasi.  (Immigration.)  I have been asked for bribes.  I have been given the wrong Visa.  I have been yelled at by immigration officers.  At this point, I hear the words kantor imigrasi (immigration office), and I visibly become tense and afraid. 

47. Toilet jongkok.  (Squatting toilet.)  I never lived with one in my house, and they did take me a moment to figure out, I’ll admit.  But once I did, I really came to find them more comfortable than toilet duduk (sitting toilets). 

47. The singular long fingernail that so many men grow.  Gross.  Just gross. 

48. The plethora of cultures.  Travel just two hours away from where you are, and it is likely that the people there might speak a different dialect, or possibly a different language altogether.  They will probably have different customs, and different traditional dress.  I was always learning about new cultures in Indonesia, and I had barely scratched the surface by the time I left. 

48. Lack of understanding of other cultures.  Far too many Indonesians only understand their own specific culture, and this leads to misunderstandings that can sometimes lead to truly horrible conflicts. 

49. The mortar and pestle for making sambal in every household.  I have yet to acquire one, but I need one. 

49. The rarity of ovens.  I love baking, and while I did have a toaster oven two out of my three years in Indonesia, nothing beats the real thing. 

50. Cooking in a wok.  It’s so much fun, and so sensible too.  I just recently bought my first wok, and I am so excited to start using it regularly. 

50. Cigarette smoke.  People smoke everywhere, even in restaurants, and so you are constantly breathing in cigarette smoke.  My lungs hated it. 

51. Krupuk (of the garlic variety).  Krupuk is a kind of cracker served with many dishes.  It adds a great crunch to your food, and the garlic-flavored one is really tasty. 

51. Krupuk (of the shrimp variety).  That shrimp-flavored krupuk, on the other hand… keep it away from me. 

52. Everyone is so tech savvy.  Which is especially great for folks like, me, who suffer from what Indonesians call gap tech. 

52. Everyone is always on their cell phones.  This is an issue in the States as well, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s worse in Indonesia, I feel. 

53. Good tailors.  My wardrobe is now full of amazing clothes made exactly to my measurements, due to the talents of some truly incredible men and women. 

53. Tailors that don’t realize I have boobs.  But not all tailors are created equal, and I have sadly lost some beautiful fabrics because they have made my dress for a woman half the size I am in the upper region (even after taking my measurements: I don’t get it).  

54. Jamu.  Traditional medicine that comes in all different flavors for all different purposes.  The jahe (ginger) kind is especially yummy. 

54. Unrefrigerated milk in cartons.  Having been raised on a dairy farm, I don’t like store-bought milk to begin with.  But the stuff in cartons… especially nasty. 

55. Badminton.  I have always loved badminton, and used to look forward to its unit in gym class every year.  Badminton is much more popular in Asia than it is in the U.S., and I thoroughly enjoyed playing it much more frequently during my time there. 

55. That girls so often cannot play sports.  I played futsal (indoor soccer) once with some of my male students, and afterwards a group of senior teachers pulled me to the side to inform me that it wasn’t decent for me, as a woman, to be doing so.  Every atom of my being rejected this statement, but I knew I had to play part of the game if I wanted to be able to accomplish certain goals for my students.  So, I kept my skirt on and my sneakers off for the rest of my time as an ETA. 

56. Enthusiastic tour guides.  If you every have the opportunity to be led around a cultural site or museum by a free guide who is there from a local university to practice their English (or other language), do it.  And insist upon paying them something at the end: they’re worth it. 

56. Underdeveloped museums.  So many of the museums in Indonesia are the same: filled with fascinating artifacts, but labeled poorly and barely protected.  I hope that as Indonesia develops it invests more into its museums, for the sake of the education of the next generation. 

57. Komodo Dragons.  They’re real, and they are terrible and wonderful and I cannot believe I got to see them up close.  (But not too close.)

57. Mosquitos.  The only good thing about mosquitos is that they inspired this quote, which I find quite amusing and accurate: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.”  (Anita Roddick)

58. Tropical fish.   They come in more colors than I knew existed on the planet, and seeking them out helped me to get over my fear of the ocean. 

58. Cockroaches.  I know they have the ability to survive the apocalypse, and that’s cool and all, but they need to stay out of my kitchen. 


A baby orangutan, from my visit to Borneo.

59. Orangutans.  Watching an orangutan swing through the trees with complete grace is one of the most amazing sites you will ever see in your life. 

59. Rats.  Disease-ridden and the size of cats (I’m not exaggerating), I like to keep these at a distance, even if I am also secretly impressed by them. 

60. “Tidak apa-apa.  Literally “No what-what,” this is the Indonesian equivalent of “Don’t worry about it,” or “No problem.”  Not only is it a fun phrase to say, really striving to use it in the same way that Indonesians do has taught me how to not sweat the small stuff, something I think will serve me well going further. 

60. “Tidak apa-apa.”  But when someone says “Tidak apa apa” about something I feel is an injustice, which they sometimes do, it grates on me like nothing else does. 

61. Eating with your hands. It really does make your food taste better, I swear. 

61. Drinking hot tea out of glass cups without handles.  I very much prefer a good mug.  Then I don’t burn my fingers. 

62. The national anthem.  The national anthem, “Indonesia Raya,” is just so… joyful.  I challenge you not to sing along. 

62. Javanese superiority.  I sometimes joke that the Javanese are the white people of Indonesia.  It’s not that simple, of course—because, if we’re honest, white people are still the white people of Indonesia—but the idea that the Javanese are somehow superior to the other cultures across Indonesia is strong among the Javanese, and has been internalized by many outside of Java as well. 

63. A crew of little kids following people down the street.  Their smiles and laughers are addicting, and even in the laughter is at my expense, and even if stopping to answer their incessant questions slows down my journey, I will never turn them away.  And though I do get quite a bit of attention because I am foreign, anyone carrying anything through the neighborhood is sure to be followed and peppered with questions in the same way. 

63. That people so rarely wear helmets.  Entire families will be crammed onto a motorbike, and not a one will be wearing a helmet.  It makes be terribly nervous, considering how unsafe Indonesian roads are. 

64. Laundry fresh from the cleaners.  It comes folded and pressed (eliminating the need to iron), and it smells amazing. 

64. Harassment.  This bothered me so much that I wrote an entire blog about it. 

65. Hand-washing my undergarments.  It might sound crazy, but I found this terribly therapeutic.  Even if I felt I wasn’t doing anything else right at the time, this was something I could do, and this small triumph each week is sometimes what got me through. 

65. Victim blaming.  This is probably part harassment and part patriarchy, but I felt it deserved its own spot.  The victim blaming was so strong it almost had me convinced sometimes that it was all my fault that I was harassed to the extent that I was, even though I knew better. 

66. Putri malu.  (Shy princess.)  This plant’s leaves droop when touched, which is so much fun to watch.  I kept my eye peeled for it every time I went walking. 

66. Lack of soft grass.  A different climate and terrain means different flora, and I missed having hills with soft grass to roll down. 

67. Garuda.  The best airline in Indonesia, and arguably the world.  Any time I got to fly on a Garuda plane, it was a real treat. 

67. Scary budget airlines.  I saw my life flash before my eyes several times during landings.

68. Tropical birds.  I hate seeing them caged, but when they are flitting about in the wild where they belong, they are the loveliest of sights. 

68. The focus on appearances.  Your weight, your hair, your skin color, your acne… everything will be scrutinized, all the time.  I started wearing makeup consistently for the first time in Indonesia, because I was tired of having the same conversations about my acne (which, by the way, doesn’t improve when people touch it all the time, the way people in Indonesia always insist upon doing) and my unpainted lips every. single. day. 

69. Animals in your classroom.  Cats and butterflies and everything between.  It was always an adventure. 

69. Poor internet.  I am very thankful to have spent my time abroad during an era that had any access to internet, but there is no denying that the lack of reliable internet was a constant source of professional and personal stress. 

70. Fresh coconut.  There is nothing more rejuvenating than drinking water from a fresh coconut and scooping out its flesh after a day at the beach or on a mountain. 

70. Inability to queue.  It is push-your-way-to-the-front-or-die in Indonesia. 

71. Student creativity.  I loved giving my students project in Indonesia, because I knew that, no matter how high I let myself set my standards, they would blow me away with their creativity. 

71. Terrible English curriculum.  Like most curricula, the Indonesian English curriculum is usually far above where the students are, and leaves little room for flexibility so that the teacher can meet the students’ real needs. 

72. The wealth of adorable notebooks.  I don’t think I saw a monochrome notebook the entire time I was Indonesia.  I was especially fond of those with batik patterns, or with cartoon characters giving words of encouragement. 

72. Bathroom shoes.  I know they serve a purpose, but the stack of flip flops that always seemed to get in the way of the door drove me mad. 

73. Print and copy shops.  The folks there are usually some of the friendliest people in town, and if you need anything for your classroom, from colored paper to ink for your Snowman markers, they probably have it.

73. Inaccessibility of clean water.  This is another issue that I wrote an entire blog about, and while it is improving, it isn’t where in needs to be at all. 

74. “Semangat!”  Meaning something along the lines of “Keep spirit!” this encouraging word is my favorite word that I have ever learned in any language.  I have yet to come across anything that quite comes close to the same spirit of semangat, and it is one of those words I teach my American friends so that I don’t have to give up my ability to use it. 

74. “Habiskan!”  This means something along the lines of “Finish it,” or “Empty it,” and it is said when someone wants you to empty your plate.  I have been forced to eat far more than is comfortable many times in Indonesia (because to do otherwise would be impolite), and now the word “Habiskan” produces a visceral, negative reaction. 

75. Souped-up bentors (becak motor, or motorcycle-run rickshaws).  They play the same song at full blast for months on end, are lit up like a house party, and have the most ridiculous paint jobs.  If I had to rely on them for transportation I would probably hate them, but passing them on my motorbike, I found them amusing. 

75. Mud everywhere after the rain.  It gets on everything. 

76. Tulus.  Tulus is a pop/jazz singer, and he is probably my favorite artist of all time.  I was even lucky enough to see him in concert once, which was amazing.  My favorite song of his is “Manusia Kuat,” because I am a sucker for inspirational songs.

76. Modern dangdut This is a type of music fairly unique to Indonesia, and I’ll leave you to look it up for yourself.  The older stuff actually isn’t half bad.  But listen to the song “Sakitnya Tuh Disini.”  And know that I have heard this song thousands of times, usually really loudly, during my time in Indonesia. 


Making ikat.

77. Ikat.  The weaving most commonly found in N.T.T., this is probably my favorite fabric in all of Indonesia.   And yes, I am obsessed with pretty much all of the fabrics from Indonesia.

77. No understanding of a personal bubble.  My personal bubble isn’t even that large, and mine was popped within moments of landing in Indonesia, and really never had a chance to recover. 

78. Gamelon.  A traditional Javanese instrument usually played to accompany shadow puppetry or traditional theatre, my students at my first school used to practice right after school, and the clanging but somehow beautiful sounds would echo through the teacher’s room while I was planning the next week’s lessons or grading students’ projects.  You can actually watch listen to my students perform Gamelon as part of a larger performance here

78. That people only learn about their own religion.  I’ve actually written about this before, but for a country where religion has such a strong presence, and where at least a student’s own religion becomes a part of their curriculum even in public schools, I was always shocked at how little people knew of other religions.

79. Angklun.  This is an instrument from west Java, and while it is not to everyone’s taste, I always found it really enjoyable to listen to, and was really excited every year when at least one student at the WORDS Competition would play the angklun as part of their talent. 

79. Public toilets.  There are signs telling you not to stand on the sitting toilets.  With pictures.  People clearly don’t read them. 


Getting to meet with some of my first students again.

80. How excited people get to see you again.  The enthusiasm Indonesians have for meeting acquaintances a second time is absolutely heartwarming, and a practice I have come to adopt myself and fully plan on maintaining while back in the States. 

80. How far Indonesia is from the U.S.  I was definitely homesick a few times while in Indonesia, and I love that I am back in the U.S. now.  But at the same time, I absolutely love the country and all the people I met there (because, if we are honest, the number one thing I love about Indonesia are the friends I made there, but it seemed almost petty to put them on a list, as they are a part of all of my positive experiences in the country), and I wish that I could have both Indonesia and America in my life all the time.  This might be possible if Indonesia were in another part of the world, but the fact is that it is on the opposite side of the globe from the U.S., and that makes have the best of both of these homes a bit tricky. 

81. Giant spoons.  There is something just so satisfying about shoveling huge quantities of delicious food into mouth. 

81. Lack of knives.  Sometimes, I just want to be able to cut my food.  But knives are usually nowhere to be found at the local warung (food stall). 

82. Tinituan. (Also called Bubur Manado, or Manadonese porridge.)  This is hands down my favorite Indonesian food.  It is a kind of pumpkin stew-esque dish, and it is what heaven tastes like. 

82. Poor cheese selection.  I grew up on a dairy farm.  I have an appreciation for keju.  But, sadly, there is usually a small selection in Indonesia.

83. Classroom decorating competitions.  These happened multiple times a year at each of my schools, and I loved that this gave my students an opportunity to demonstrate their collaborative creativity, and I loved that the decorations would stay up for months afterwards, adding color and fun to the classrooms. 

83. Limited global understanding.  I had students who couldn’t find their own country on the map, and students who thought that the United States was the same as the Americas, and therefore covered what was actually two continents and thirty-five counties.  When I got an American-style classroom at my second school, the first thing I put up was a world map. 

84. Food served on banana leaves.  It’s beautiful, and eco-friendly, and I miss it. 

84. Plastic chairs.  I was always terrified that I would break one of these.  (Funnily enough, the only chair I actually broke while in Indonesia was a wooden one, and at a fancier restaurant.)

85. Yellow rice.  It’s served for breakfast on Sulawesi, but on special occasions on Java, but it is always great.  (Side note: props to Indonesia and my friends there for turning me into a full-fledged foodie, something I certainly wasn’t before.) 

85. Plastic water cups.  Mama Earth says stop.  As do I. 


From Museum Wayang.

86. Wayang Kulit.  (Shadow Puppets.)  Though I really wanted to, I never got to see a professional wayang kulit performance while I was in Indonesia.  But I saw students perform it several times, and also visited the wayang museum as part of my museum tour of Jakarta

86. The butt cup.  This plagued so many female ETAs.  You stand in line for a photo, and suddenly the woman next to you is just causally cupping your butt.  Some ETAs came to find this comforting.  I could never get into it. 

87. Stray cats.  Some were terrified of humans, but some were personable, almost as if they were the pet of the entire neighborhood.  I even adopted a few while I was in Gorontalo. 

87. Too many social media options.  “Miss, do you have Line?”  “Miss, do you have Path?”  “Miss, do you have BBM?”  “No, I have Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Email.  That’s enough, thank you.” 

88. Hardy native plants.  So many of the houses had plants outside of them, including my own in Gorontalo, and as they were usually native plants, they were so easy to take care of, which I loved. 

88. The Ibu crawl.  This is the name several ETAs gave to the slow walk that Ibu-Ibu are famous for.  In reality, it is actually more sensible than walking quickly, because of how hot it is.  But I grew up following men with longer legs than my little girl self, and am known for walking quickly in the States; I could never slow down enough for the Ibu crawl. 

89. Karaoke nights.  I’ll admit, I hated karaoke when I first got to Indonesia.  But the fun everyone else is having is contagious, and it became one of my favorite things. 

89. Whitening products.  The obsession with pale skin means that there is no lack of whitening products (it can actually be a challenge to find a lotion that is not whitening), and so going shopping for any kind of skin or hair-care product was always really upsetting. 

90. Fresh spices.  Giant sticks of cinnamon.  Nutmeg that actually looks like a nut.  There is a reason they were called the “Spice Islands” during the colonial era. 

90. Internalized racism.  Having your students continuously call themselves ugly because they are not as light as you, or being told to stay out of the sun, not for your health, but because “you will turn black!” is something you have to constantly battle if you are a light-skinned ETA.  So much of this stems from colonialism, and part of it is caused by the media… the reasons for it existing are complicated, but no matter the reasons, it is just so sad.  I wish my students would recognize just how beautiful they really are. 


A sunset at Pantai Merah in East Java.

91. Sunsets (and sunrises!) on the water.  They are just magical. 

91. Bule privilege.  Partly due to the color of my skin, and partly due to Indonesia’s complicated relationship with foreigners, I was often treated as an honored guest when there was really no reason for me to be, or allowed certain privileged that Indonesians were not.  I’ll admit that I would sometimes use this if I could do so to the advantage of my students or my friends (sometimes I could connect to people simply because I was a foreigner, and that person might be perfect of a program with my students or for a friend who was in the same field), but I tried as hard as I could not to benefit from it myself.  But I inevitably did. 


Sunset over Danau Toba.

92. Sunsets (and sunrises!) anywhere.  So magical. 

92. Treatment of foreigners of color.  I send readers again to this article as well as this one.  I cannot actually speak to experiencing this, but I witnessed it, and I want desperately for it to change. 

93. Being called sister.  So many of my friends called me this, and it really made me feel like we were family, and in many ways, we were. 

93. Being called “Mister.”  I. am. not. a. boy.

94. Being called “Miss.”  I always wanted some kind of short name for my students to call me, and so when most of my students called me “Miss,” I was oh so very pleased. 

94. That I will always be foreign.  It doesn’t matter how long I live in Indonesia.  I will always be an outsider, and never really truly fit in.  I am sure this is how many immigrants and people of color feel in America as well.  World, we need to do something about this. 

95. Cheese and chocolate.   Brownies often come with shredded cheese sprinkled on top.  I know it sounds gross.  I was weirdly into it. 

95. How much fried food I am expected to consume.  It is often delicious, yes.  But I usually feel terrible later. 

96. Es. Es is a sort of dessert-drink, always with ice and sweet syrup, and sometimes with fresh fruit and/or these little jelly things.  This was another thing I hated when I first came to Indonesia, but by the end I loved it.  (Some people told me that meant I had spent too much time in Indonesia, but I am convinced there is no such thing.) 

96. Bintang.  This is Indonesia’s main beer.  Some foreigners love it.  I am convinced it is poison. 

97. Neighborly neighbors.  I grew up in small farming communities, and I thought I had encountered the epitome of neighborly.  I was wrong. 

97. The constant requests for photos.  There were days when I felt more like an exhibit than a human.   I always tried to be patient, to smile and to take the chance to potentially engage people in conversation.  But sometimes I would growl at people to leave me alone.

98. Ibu-Ibu angkat.  (This would roughly translate to adoptive mothers.)  The way people bring you into their families is truly wonderful.  I will forever be grateful for all of the Ibu Angkat I have across the archipelago. 

98. Menus that are only written in English.  Having the English can be nice, but where is the Indonesian?  We’re in Indonesia, damnit! 

99. That I did not live in Indonesia forever.  There were days when the only thing that kept me going was knowing that my time in Indonesia had an end date, and that I would eventually escape. 

99. That I did not live in Indonesia forever.  There was always something new to learn, somewhere new to visit, someone amazing to meet and befriend.  I was in Indonesia for three years, something very few Americans have the opportunity to do, but even then, I barely scratched the surface.  I don’t regret deciding to return to the States after my third year, but there is no denying that I would love more time in Indonesia, and hope that I can return for another stint someday. 

100. How much I have grew in my time there.  I have changed since going to Indonesia, in small ways and big ways, but I am convinced only in positive ways.  (I hope I am right!)  Indonesia wasn’t always kind about how it made me grow (I might have made that my 100th negative point, except in the end I know there is more to love about Indonesia than to be frustrated by, and I wanted my list to represent that), but grow I did, and I am ever so grateful for all that I have learned and experienced. 

It is impossible to sum up how I feel in Indonesia in a list, even one as long as this.  It takes up a huge portion of my heart, and sometimes that portion is warm and fuzzy, and sometimes it hurts.  But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
[1] This doesn’t count any blogs I wrote about other countries that I have been fortunate enough to visit during my time in Indonesia.

Returning to Something New

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The reading room where I fully plan to spend a lot of my time.

I am writing this from a table outside my university’s library, after spending the morning in one of the beautiful reading rooms inside the library.  I was thrilled to have an academic work space available to me, but eventually I had to leave, because even my warmest flannel wasn’t able to keep me from freezing in the AC: three years in a tropical country really changes your tolerance for cold.

I’m back in the United States, even back in New York State, and this time I’m staying.  I have no immediate plans to run off to Indonesia again, the way I have had for the past three years.  It’s a strange feeling, I must admit.  Indonesia has become such a huge part of my life: not knowing when I will visit again (because I am certain I will do so someday) feels almost wrong in a way, to not have a return date.

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Being surrounded by literature wherever I go (this is a brewery in Colorado Springs!) has been one of my favorite parts of coming home: Indonesia does not have a very strong reading culture, and I missed living in a place where carrying a book everywhere is considered normal.

This is not to say that I am not happy to be back in the U.S.  I am thrilled to be home for an extended period of time.  I still get excited every time I see a water fountain, and I have a new appreciation for the efficiency valued by most Americans.  I walk into stores that already have their Autumn decorations on display, and while everyone around me grumbles that it is too early to be thinking about Halloween, I have to resist the urge to dance for joy: I am a girl who loves the changing of seasons, and I have been limited to two for the past three years.  I entertain fantasies of subsisting entirely on pumpkin-flavored drinks and candy corn, and I am already looking forward to Thanksgiving turkey.

Of course, I do miss Indonesia from time to time, and readjusting to life back in the U.S. hasn’t been completely smooth.  I sometimes forget how to say certain phrases in English, or use Indonesian words without realizing what I am doing, confusing everyone around me[1]; I am so far behind on American slang that often when others speak, I am the one lost.  Already, I find myself craving the friendliness that permeates so much of Indonesian culture, continually finding Americans almost rude in comparison.  And as excited as I am for good New York pizza and my mom’s pie, I would do ghastly things for some fresh sambal or krupuk.

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One of the parks in Stony Brook.  After a year in Jakarta, I am thankful to be living in a place that has so many natural spaces.

Years ago, now, towards the end of my first ETA grant, I wrote a piece that touched, in part, on my mixed feelings of having to leave my site.  Someone quoted a part of this back at me a few weeks before I left Indonesia, and it has stuck with me as I have tried to adjust back to life Stateside: “…since I cannot be in two places at once, I now no longer have the privilege of ever living in a place where I am not missing someone.”  This has proven to be the hardest part of being home thus far.  True, I have already gotten to visit with beloved friends that I haven’t seen in person in years.  I have friends and family members who plan on getting married in the next year, and this time I will actually be able to attend, and celebrate alongside them, instead of just look at the photos later.  This is amazing.  But all the wonderful friends I have made in the past three years are on the other side of the world, and now it is their turn to only interact with me via Skype calls and WA messages.

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Wearing new batik to an old friend’s wedding: this is my new normal.

Living in Indonesia was not always easy.  Coming back to the United States and preparing to start grad school has sometimes been hard.  They’re different, but one is not preferable to the other.  I just exchanged one challenge for another.

I will find ways to blend my two homes, and keep them together in my heart.  I will learn which chilis are the best for making sambal, and make my own.  I will teach those close to me my favorite phrases in Indonesian, so that Bahasa Campur becomes somewhat more acceptable.  I will shamelessly wear batik at least a few times a week.  I will learn to no longer be surprised by the elements of American culture that I missed for three years, but I will also, I hope, never come to take them for granted.  I will find a way to fit all my friends, from whatever country, into my life no matter how busy my schedule gets.

If there is anything that I learned while working with the ETA Program in Indonesia, it is that everything is a process, and that process never ends.  I may have left Indonesia, but that doesn’t mean that I am finished with my experience there: it will continue to shape my experience here in America, and as I continue to learn and grown, my own understanding of my time there will change as well.

I’m excited to see where the journey takes me.

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Spot the Indonesian influences… 

For those curious about the details of what I am doing next, I am pursuing my master’s in Applied Linguistics (with a TESOL focus) at Stony Brook University, on Long Island.  I’ll be here for the next two years, studying and exploring the local area and New York City (a mere hour and a half train ride from me!) when I am not drowning in all of the reading and writing everyone has been warning me about.  It’s sure to be very different from what I have been doing for the past two years, but I am excited for the challenge and the chance to learn more about education and language.

I have not yet actually decided whether I will continue to blog throughout my time here, but I would like to.  I have come to love the platform, and goodness knows I will in for some adventures that may be worth writing about.  However, I don’t know if I will have the time or energy to blog, in addition to all the writing I will need to do for grad school, and, so, I make no promises.

[1] I find this especially hard, for some reason, when ordering food.  I think a lot of this stems from the fact that I rarely ate out prior to living in Indonesia, because it is so much costlier to eat out in America.  I learned how to skim a menu and ask questions of a waiter in Indonesian, not English, and now I have to re-learn these skills in what I assumed would be a familiar context.

Giving Up on Clarity: Revisiting My Religion Post

Towards the end of my first grant as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), I wrote a short blog post outlining what I felt I had learned about religion in Indonesia during my short time there.  Because I realized how much I still had to learn, I promised to revisit the post during my second grant.

I never did.


Mesjid Istiqlal, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia.

This is not to say that I haven’t written about religion at all during the past two years.  As I mentioned in my first religion post, religion plays a role in seemingly everything here, much as it does throughout the world, and due to religiosity being perhaps stronger in Indonesia than it is in the United States (at least from my perspective), it was inevitable that religion, while perhaps not the main topic of my posts, played a significant role almost everything I wrote.  I was placed at an Islamic School during my second year as an ETA, which gave me ample opportunity to learn about the religion that a majority of Indonesian’s practice.  Recently, I remained in Indonesia after my grant almost solely to experience Ramadan in Indonesia, and of course wrote about my experience.  Visiting places like Toraja, I was able to learn more about how Christianity had adapted to Indonesian Culture (or how Indonesian Culture has adapted to Christianity, depending on how you look at it).  But at no point during past two years have I written a post explicitly on the topic of religion.

One of the reasons I avoid an overt religion post was because I didn’t feel qualified to say all that much on the subject.  This is part of what held me back my first year as an ETA, and why it was one of the last posts I wrote that year.  But religion seems to become a heavier topic with the passing of time, and I simply didn’t feel up to the task of addressing it, instead sharing articles and posts written by folks much smarter than I am.

This isn’t to say that I kept entirely silent on the issues surrounding religion and the roles it plays, or people believe that it plays, in politics and events around the globe.  I wrote my own piece against the Islamophobia I was seeing all over my news feeds and social media after the attacks in Paris in 2015, and during the summer between my second grant as an ETA and my time as the ETA Coordinator, I attended a local spoken word event to revisit the same topic.  Through conversations with relatives on Facebook and strangers in grocery lines, whether visiting the U.S. or still in Indonesia, I sought to do my part to combat the accepted ignorance that so many Americans have regarding Muslims.  The more I spoke, the more questions I asked, the deeper I realized this ignorance ran, and I confess I have felt wholly under-prepared for most the conversations I have had.

In turn, I have spent an inordinate amount of time explaining and apologizing for American Islamophobia to Indonesians.  As a second-year ETA, I tutored several students through the application process for the YES Program, a scholarship that allows students to spend their last year of high school in the U.S., and following President Trump’s success in the Republican Primary, several of my students were pulled out by their parents, and not allowed to take the test.  A few of my students were still allowed to join, though I had to speak one-on-one with some of their parents, cautiously explaining that, though their fears were not unfounded, not all American’s shared such limited views.  One of my students actually qualified for the scholarship, a fabulous young lady I felt honored to teach and who would have graces any American classroom.  However, the final time her parents had to give permission for her to join the program came right after the U.S. election, and decided against allowing her to go.  They worried that in a country where the president had campaigned on the promise of a Muslim Ban, their daughter might not be safe.  I cannot say that I blame them.  A few months after this decision was made, I got to see this student in person, and it took all my self-control not to tear up as I apologized to her for what my country had done.  “It’s okay, Miss,” she told me, “It was a good experience, and I pray that I will have new opportunities to go abroad.”

But even as the facade of true religious freedom and celebration of diversity the U.S. started to crack, so too did it begin to fracture in Indonesia.  With a national motto of “Unity in Diversity,” Indonesia has long claimed to be a country of religious freedom, and has often been touted as such by many westerners as well.  I admit, I have always struggled to accept this idea, when people are limited to only six officially recognized religions in Indonesia[1], but if I questioned it before, there is no denying that I shake my head when people still try to claim this to be true after living in Jakarta through the many protests and the Ahok trials, and the anti-Christian and anti-Chinese-Indonesian sentiment that found a voice in the mayhem (in the same way that it is always difficult to decide if a person’s prejudice is based on someone’s religion or their race, people who were openly prejudice in front of me regarding Ahok couldn’t seem to separate his religion with his ethnicity)[2].  For a long time, I kept quite even during conversations regarding this issue for a long time.  Part of my silence was caused by my recognition that I am no expert on Indonesian politics, and part by my own guilt after the U.S. Presidential election: how could I speak out against what I was seeing in Indonesia, a country where I was a guest, after my native country had just committed what, in many ways, felt like a personal betrayal.  But though I was never able to write any sort of long-form blog that I felt satisfied with (I tried, I really did), I did eventually start speaking my mind on the matter, because prejudice is prejudice, and no teacher worth their chops can stay silent in the face of it.


There is a Catholic Cathedral which was very intentionally build right across from Mesjid Istiqlal.  Indonesia, like the United States, is not without it’s attempts at pluralism.  But like The U.S., it doesn’t always succeed.

And though so much of my relationship with religion in Indonesia was as a learner, there are many times when I become the teacher.  Just as I have striven to educate Americans about the religions that they know so little about, I have had to correct Indonesians about their misconceptions regarding other religions, especially those that do not belong to the six religions recognized by the Indonesian government.  I had students and friends tell me that atheists worshiped the devil, and I had to explain that atheists, by definition, don’t in fact believe in the devil at all.  Anti-Semitism runs rampant in many places in Indonesia[3], and I was continually surprised at how uninformed people were regarding this religion.  Though Indonesian does have a word for atheist, aties, I had several friends instead use the word yahudi, which means Jewish.  When I questioned this usage, they happily told me that people of the Jewish religion do not believe in God.  Surprised by this, especially coming from Muslim friends who practice the religion from which the concept of People of the Book came from[4], I explained that people who practice Judaism do, in fact, believe in God, and in fact both the Christian and Muslim religions would not exist if not for the development of Judaism.  As someone with Jewish relatives, this was never a fun conversation, but it was a conversation that needed to be had, and the teacher in me didn’t allow myself to turn away.

How, amidst all of this, could I write a post describing what I had learned about the practices of different religions around Indonesia?  How could I, who myself could not pinpoint exactly where religion and ethnicity and nationality and age—etc., etc., etc.—began and ended and intertwined, say anything about the effect different religions have had on a country where I had lived for a mere three years?  How could I claim, in a world where followers of every religion seemed to forget how to be kind the moment they were in the majority, claim that the more I learned of any religion, the more I came to love it?

Because despite the horrors that end up in the news, the more I learn about religions around the world—through reading books, visiting places of worship, and talking to people—the more I come to love the effect that religion can have on people: both individuals and whole civilizations.  Whether it was speaking to my students or fellow teachers, for every comment or view that shocked me, there was one that warmed my heart, and made me feel so fortunate to be a part of this diverse—religiously and otherwise—human race.  And for every headline I saw that showed an American misusing religion to discriminate against a fellow American, I saw beautiful examples of how religion was motivating Americans to fight prejudice, both hidden in the news and in the work done by my fellow ETAs.  The more I sought understanding of religion, the more confused I became by the contrast of the horrors and the wonders that religion can inspire, but ultimately the wonder of the love somehow inherent to it all seemed to be somehow stronger.

Some might say I was predisposed to feel this way: I have long been an atheist whose favorite book is Life of Pi, a book in which main character loves God so much that he comes to practice three different religions.  Though I first read this book in high school, I revisited it each year while living in Indonesia, and it always seemed to have something to offer me along my journey of striving to understand the complexity of the religions around me.  For even as my time trying to puzzle out religion in Indonesia over the past three years has made me question everything I thought I knew about religion in Indonesia and America, it has also made me question, on several occasions, my own relationship with religion.  And while I have even fewer answers to those questions than I do to the questions about religion in Indonesia, I have come to recognize that if there is one thing of which I am certain: I seek out love wherever I go, and I always find it.  If I am to be accused of a predilection towards something, a tendency to love is one of which I will not be ashamed.

In short, I have learned so much, and nothing, since my last post on religion.  But I have learned that, despite this complete lack of clarity, I still love the subject, and I am not done exploring it yet.

[1] These six religions are: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confusianism.  There are those who practice other religions, but officially they must select one of these six religions (many who still practice more traditional religions are often registered as Hindus, for example).

[2] I do want to point out that there were many groups disappointed in the way that Ahok handled some of the programs he implemented.  Most notably, the eviction of many people who lived in some of Jakarta’s “illegal settlements,” in an effort to widen the rivers and prevent flooding (something that does need to be done, as flooding is a huge issue in Indonesia’s capital), did not sit well with many citizens.  Nonetheless, for every legitimate complaint about Ahok that I heard, I heard a purely racist or anti-Christian comment as well.  In many ways, it echoed my experience with the U.S. election: for every person who had well-thought concerns about the prospect of Hilary Clinton, there was another who felt it was okay to make a p#$$y joke.  I also need to point out that the blasphemy law that Ahok was taken to trial because of is a legitimate law in Indonesia.  Disagree with its existence if you will (I know that I do), but don’t confuse what might be unjust with what might be illegal.   (Unfortunately, unjust law still prevails in all corners of the globe.)

[3] A lot of this actually has a lot to do with the conflict between Israel and Palestine.  It is often difficult for Indonesians to separate the actions of the Israeli government from Judaism as a whole, in the same way that so many Americans cannot separate the actions of oppressive governments in the Middle East from Islam.

[4] People of the Book are those of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths, who all believe in the same God and share some of the same stories.  This concept was actually developed by Sufi Muslims.  If you’re interested in more of these fascinating connections between the monotheistic religions, I highly recommend Karen Armstrong’s History of God.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

17881180_1237534322966986_4185108947465666560_nReading Room

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.


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.


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.



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.





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.


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 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.



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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.