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.

Ch-ch-changes: Where Have I Been, Where Am I Now, and Where Do I Go from Here?

I haven’t posted a blog in almost four months, a new record for me since I first started blogging, at the outset of my first English Teaching Assistant (ETA)ship in Malang, Indonesia.  If you had told me then that two years later I would find myself returning to Indonesia for a third year, this time to live in the sprawling capital city and to work in an office, I would have laughed.  A small town farm girl turned English teacher leaving the classroom to become an office girl in the big city?  No. Way.

And yet, here I am.  I’m two months in to my new position, and I am still regularly in awe (the only word I can think of that adequately combines the feelings of uncontrolled excitement and debilitating terror that I wake up to each morning) that this is where I have ended up, in a place and a position so different from any I might have imagined myself in.


The very beginnings of sunset, as seen from our apartment balcony.

I wake up every day in an apartment that is part of a mega-complex (think three separate towers of apartments, each more than 40 stories: by far the biggest building I’ve ever been in, much less lived in).  The view from my window is an endless sea of rooftops, with tenacious spots of green pushing up through the tile and concrete, because in a Southeast Asian city mankind cannot win against nature: in this climate she can find a way to flourish anywhere.  Currents of cars and motorbikes and angkots and bajai pass by full of folks from all walks of life pushing towards work and fun and life in this flood of grey and green and glass and humanity that calls itself Jakarta.  Some mornings I wake up intimidated to join their numbers, navigating broken roads and potholes, as well as pristine brick sidewalks (both of which confuse me in their own fashion), on my pleasant 25-minute walk to work.  Other mornings I wake up inspired by the sheer number of stories I have the privilege to bear witness to, from 17 floors up, and I can’t wait to dive into the depths of it all.


A hazy sunset from the office.

My days are spent sitting in one of those wonderfully distracting spinning office chairs, in my own cubical.  I have a desk job.  I have an access key card that gets me into a building with security.  My sixteen-year-old self would be disgusted and also so very pleased with twenty-four-year-old me.

I am not back in Indonesia as an ETA this year.  I’m now the Researcher/Coordinator (RC) for AMINEF.  I coordinate training and support for the current cohort of ETAs, with the invaluable help of the AMINEF American Programs Team and the Senior ETAs (SETAs) who have returned for a second year as ETAs in Indonesia, as I did last year.  I also conduct research on the ETA Program in Indonesia, with the aim to provide a concrete set of recommendations to help improve our program and other programs like it.

I don’t teach.  I am not in a small Indonesian city.  I coordinate.  I research.  At a desk.  In a mega-city.

This is my new normal.


A rare bit of blue sky, captured from the windows of the Uber I took to the cafe to write this blog post (because living in Jakarta means that now I take Ubers and go to hipster cafes…)

It certainly doesn’t feel normal just yet, and a lot of that has to do with the initial responsibilities of my new position.  My RC-ship began with a visit to the Korean Fulbright Commission with Ceacealia, to observe part of their orientation and learn from their overall programming.  Six days after arriving in Jakarta (the trip to Korea took place on my way back to Indonesia), I was off to visit new ETA sites.  Over the course of two and a half weeks I visited Kendari in Sulawesi; Balige in Sumatra; Labuan Bajo in Flories; and Surabaya, Sidoarjo, and Kudus in Java.  I’m not sure when the fates decided that I would be granted a position that let me travel for my job, but I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity.  Then it was time to finish planning the ETA orientation in Bandung—a process began over the summer, but which wasn’t able to be truly finished until I was in Jakarta—and before I knew it the new ETAs had arrived and we were in the middle of orientation.  And just as quickly, orientation was over, the ETAs all headed off to their new homes, and I was back in Jakarta, this time more permanently[1].

My new normal, consequently, has really only been normal for about two weeks, and so is still a very new normal indeed.


The sitcom of our household, airing on Instagram at all possible hours.

I’ve been lucky in that, though living in Jakarta is a completely new experience for me, there are pieces of familiarity already here.  I’ve gotten to know several members of the AMINEF Team really well over the past few years, and working with them has been a fun and amusing ride (I should dedicate an entire post to our office shenanigans at some point).  I have several friends from my previous homes in Indonesia who have made the move to Jakarta, and being able to reconnect with them has been wonderful.  I even live with two of my closest friends from Malang: Sam and Novriska (affectionately known as Vriz).[2]  Having these two along for the journey has made adjusting to Jakarta life so much easier than if I was trying to do so on my own, and also means my life resembles a sitcom at times, which I love.

There are plenty of new places to explore and people to meet in Jakarta, and now that I am finally here more permanently, I can’t wait to start doing so.  After so much movement the past two months, I have spent much of the past two weeks giving my body the rest it needs, but it won’t be long before I am impatient for new adventures.

Jakarta is an insane and amazing place.  Who knows where I’ll end up?

[1] I do intend to write about all of these adventures in more detail, and I will link to those blog posts once they are up.

[2] When I asked her what she wanted to be called in my blog, Vriz said, “My name is Novriska Adini. You can call me Novriska, Novris, or Vriz.  Your choice!”  This gives you a pretty good idea as to how cute of a housemate she is, and Sam certainly gives her a run for her money.

Hoping All Their Wishes Come True: National WORDS Competition 2016

April 10th-14th was the National WORDS Competition, an annual English Speech and Talent Competition held by the Indonesia ETA Program.  WORDS was one of the highlights of my experience last year, and it was again this year.


Noni performing her speech.

All of the performances were fantastic.  The topic was “Three Wishes,” and the range of speeches that came out of that idea were inspiring.  Students spoke about personal wishes, and global wishes, and everything in between.  Their talents were just as incredible as their speeches.  Students sang, danced, performed screen printing on stage… I don’t think I ever smile so broadly as I do when I am at WORDS.  Part of me hopes that if I am ever in Indonesia outside of the Fulbright Program that I will be asked to be a judge, so that I can have the privilege of witnessing such talent, and hope that I never end up being assigned to that task, because I have no idea how the judges are able to select on winner from so many fabulous students.


New friends.

In the evenings, there were planned activities for the students and the ETAs.  The first night was Laser Tag and Glow-in-the-Dark Mini Golf.  It was even my first time playing laser tag, and I’m fairly certain everyone involved had a blast.  The second night’s activity was ice skating, but due to traffic only about half of the students were able to get to the rink before it closed for hockey practice.  Sadly, the girls from Gorontalo were among those who weren’t able to make it in time, but they headed off to supper with their new friends, and seemed to have a grand time nonetheless. To me, the time the students spend with one another reflects what is really so magical about WORDS: that it is an opportunity for students from all across this diverse archipelago to meet and exchange their own unique cultures, and develop friendships with people they might never have had the chance to meet otherwise.


The MAN Model girls.

My student from MAN Model, Noni, was extremely nervous about speaking in front of such a large crowd, and meeting so many new people, but she performed her speech bravely and beautifully, and warmed up to students who would become new friends rather quickly.  I was very proud of her, and I’m so glad she got to have this experience.

I may have mixed feelings about coming back to live in Jakarta next year, but there is one part of returning with this program that I know will be 100% amazing, and that is WORDS. No words can adequately express the privilege it has been to attend not one, but two WORDS competitions, and I look forward to the undeserved honor of being present for a third.


The whole crew of ETAs and Students.  So much talent.  So much love.

(Note: The only photo that is mine is that of myself and Noni together.  Thank you to AMINEF for the rest of them!)


U-Turns and Deja-Vu: Back in Indonesia (Or in Jakarta, Anyway)


The ringing, joyful tones of Indonesian fill my ears as I zig-zag my way through motorcycle traffic on my way to eat food which will invariably be delicious but is also guaranteed to upset my stomach[1].  Yep, I’m back.

Coming back to Indonesia has, thus far, been a pretty… weird experience.  I had not realized just how much I had readjusted to life in America until I landed in Indonesia and different factors of my experience here, which two months ago had seemed fairly commonplace and every day, surprised me in a way I hadn’t predicted they would.  The constant stares bothered me, even though I knew they would be there.  I almost drank tap water my first night, even though by this point I know better.  Even the prices of everything threw me for a loop.

“I’m eating for seven dollars a day.  Seven dollars a day.  In a capital city.  I mean, I know food in Indonesia is much cheaper than in America.  But seven dollars a day?”  I messaged my site mate from last year, still jet lagged and trying to contend with the fact that I was actually here, on the other side of the world.

I don’t know what to call what it is that I am going through.  I wouldn’t call it culture shock, because I’m not unfamiliar with the culture I now find myself in.  I wouldn’t call it reverse culture-shock, since this is not my native culture either.  After talking to a number of ETAs from my cohort, I’ve come up with a handful of potential names for… whatever this is, including my personal favorites: U-Turn Shock and Deja-Vu Shock.

Because I’m not being shocked by anything for the first time.  I’m more… remembering things about Indonesia which shocked me the first time, which I’d temporarily forgotten.  And then I’m always mildly surprised at myself, for being surprised at all.  It’s a strange series of tiny shocks, one which I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for.

At the same time, while part of me is already trying to navigate being back in Indonesia, part of me doesn’t feel like I’ve returned at all.

For my first two weeks here, I will be in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.  Jakarta is a giant metropolis which I associate most strongly with pollution and traffic.  It’s not my favorite city in Indonesia.

Because I am sick every time I come to Jakarta (Every. Time. There is a part of my immune system somewhere which simply does not like the fact that I have ever stepped foot in this city and wants me to know it.), I rarely venture forth into the actual city, and spend a lot of time hopping from office, to mall food court, to hotel room.

And while there are certainly parts of all of these—the cheerful “Selamet Pagi!” we receive from the receptionist at the AMINEF office each morning; the abundance of Asian food at the food courts, and the distinct lack of Western choices; the arrow in my hotel room that tells me which direction I would pray if I were Muslim—which make it clear that I am not in America, these shiny malls, towering skyscrapers, and insane highways filled with taxis are not what I think of when I think of Indonesia.

I think of rice paddies and narrow streets.  I think of colorful houses and whole families piled onto motorbikes.  I think of middle school students running barefoot home from school, and of my high school students riding their motorbikes home with the same enthusiasm.  Until I’m back in a place where this is a part of my everyday life, I won’t feel as though I am back in Indonesia.

I know this isn’t exactly right.  Jakarta is just as much a part of Indonesia as smaller towns and cities, just as New York City is just as much a part of New York State as the small farming town which I call home.  But if I had returned from my first grant in Indonesia to New York City, instead of my home, I wouldn’t have felt “back” yet.  Because even though I would be back in America, it wouldn’t be my America.

That’s what I’m waiting for.  A return to my Indonesia.

[1] Post-typhoid, the stomach sometimes can’t handle strong or spicy foods for up to a year afterwards.  I’m in for a year of not being able to enjoy some of my favorite Indonesian dishes; worth it because I want to take care of my body, but still a bit disappointing.

Whirlwind Wandering: Pit Stops in Jakarta and Singapore

The members of our cohort have begun to go their separate ways at this point.  Due to complications in acquiring visas, a little less than half of the ETAs are going directly to their sites while still using their visas on arrival, and will soon go to Singapore to get their extended stay visas.  For those of us whose paperwork is finished, we have our bouncing back and forth between Jakarta and Singapore to do, and then it is off to our sites, not to see the whole group again until the Midyear Conference.

In Jakarta, we stayed in a hotel very near the airport, which meant that we did not have the opportunity to thoroughly explore the capital of Indonesia.  However, a few friends and I did explore the community near the hotel, which proved to be another bule experience.  In Bandung, though there were not many tourists out on the streets, we were not the sole foreigners; at our hotel, probably due to its very nature of being a hotel near the airport, I got the distinct impression that most travelers do not venture beyond hotel, or, if they do, do so by taxi.  The soundtrack to our short walk was a chorus of “Miss!” “Bule!” “White!” “Mister!” and the occasional “I like you!” from boys passing by on motorcycles.  The experience is still jarring and mostly uncomfortable, but I must admit, it is hard not to smile when being chased by small children on bicycles shouting “Mister! Mister!”


Our short stop in Jakarta also reminded me that as unusual as some Indonesian customs may seem to me, I can be just as baffling to Indonesians.  While wandering the streets near our hotel, we came across some goats grazing along the side of the road.  Being a born and raised farm girl, and having showed cows and goats at the local fairs for years, I tend to get unreasonably excited whenever I come across familiar farm animals in other countries.  As I snapped a few pictures and my fellow ETAs challenged me to identify the breeds of kambing-kambing we were looking at, a group of boys playing nearby pointed and laughed at us.  I did not need my friend who is fluent in Indonesian to tell me that they were wondering why I was so excited about a few goats.  Of course, I did not have the Indonesian to explain myself.  Perhaps it is less of an issue of oddity and more an issue of communication.  I hope that as I learn more Indonesian and explore more of this varied nation, I will begin to better understand what for now leaves me feeling more than a bit lost.


Acquiring our limited stay visas required us to spend a day in Singapore.  Going from Bandung and Jakarta, where, though they are some of the most developed cities in Indonesia, sidewalks end in giant holes filled with garbage and the air smells distinctly of exhaust, to Singapore, where the buildings look they belong in a Star Wars film and there is a fine of 500 Singaporean dollars for eating or drinking on the underground, was a bit like whiplash.


A beautiful city to be sure, Singapore does not look or feel like it belongs to this century, or perhaps even this world.  With four national languages, one of which is my native tongue, and an organized underground system which very much reminded me of the Tube system in London, with which I am so familiar, our day there should have made me feel at home and at ease, and it some ways it did.  But in other ways it left me perhaps more confused than my time in Indonesia.  The city was too clean, and too devoid of the bustling crowds I have come to associate with urban areas around the world.  As we explored Marina Bay, including the Gardens by the Bay for which that part of Singapore is so famous, I kept expecting to reach out to touch the city and find that it was merely a digitally-altered photograph that had been placed there for me to look at, but never experience.


At a recommendation from a woman with tourist information, the group I was with explored Haw Par Villa, a Singaporean cultural site which was simultaneously amazing and disturbing.  Haw Par Villa was built by two brothers famous for their Tiger Balm, and it opened in 1937, aiming, according to the plaque near its entrance, “to immortalize and share the moral values behind the various meaningful Chinese legends.”


As we explored the grounds, we were introduced to various Chinese fables, and even entered a cave which led us through the ten courts of hell, complete with gruesome sculptures.  It was as though Tim Burton had set out to summarize Chinese culture: I was not sure if I was supposed to feel enlightened or terrified, but I knew for certain that my attention had been firmly grabbed.


It was not until we went to Chinatown that Singapore began to lose its fantastical quality.  Chinatown’s streets were decorated with beautiful fabric flowers, but it also had the low growl of motorcycles, courts of food stalls that felt very similar to the warung-warung I had become so accustomed to seeing in Indonesia, and even the occasional piece of litter, a site I strangely found more comforting than disappointing.


Our day trip to Singapore was an amazing experience, and I am incredibly grateful to have been able to briefly explore a place I never dreamed I would be able to go to.  Still, I found myself missing Indonesia, even though I had only been there for such a short time, and in such a controlled setting.  There is an earthy feel to Indonesia that I can see eventually feeling like home, and that was not present in Singapore.


At the end of the day, Singapore did serve its main purpose, and we had our limited stay visas, which will allow us to acquire our permits at our sites and work in Indonesian classrooms for the slightly over eight months we have left in our grants.  And so we waved goodbye to the city of the distant future, and waved hello to our own immediate futures in Indonesia.