Snapshot: Semarang and Kudus, Jawa Tengah

Shortly after arriving back in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to travel to several cities across the archipelago, as part of inspecting and preparing sites that had not had an ETA before this year.  This “Snapshot” series is composed of short pieces about my all-too-brief visits to these beautiful and fascinating places, which are now the temporary homes of ETAs from the 2016-17 cohort.

After visiting Balige in North Sumatra, I hopped on another plane and headed to the north coast of Central Java, where I visited Semarang, the capital of the province.

Semarang is not often favorably spoken of by tourists in Indonesia: the words I hear most often associated with Semarang are “small,” “boring,” and “dirty.”  Even on the plane to Semarang, the woman I was sitting next to, who was staying in Semarang to receive Bahasa Indonesia training before going to East Indonesia for missionary work, told me, “there isn’t a whole lot going on in Semarang.”


Lawang Sewu, or One Thousand Doors, one of the most iconic buildings in Semarang.

I found myself pleasantly surprised by Semarang: the reports I had heard were simply not true.  Semarang is actually the fifth largest city in Indonesia, and while it is certainly not as large as Surabaya or Medan, it wasn’t exactly what I would call small.  And Semarang seemed to be a fairly happening place.  There is an historic district, with many impressive buildings left over from the Dutch Colonial era.  The Indonesian food scene seemed to be strong, and there is a growing cafe scene which has a very modern, hip feel to it.  With a mix of the old and the new, of the very much Indonesian influences and the fusion of outside influences, Semarang seemed a very interesting city, which I wish I had had more time to explore.  There will be two ETAs in Semarang this year, and I hope they enjoy Semarang as much as I did during my fleeting visit.


Masjid Menara Kudus, or Kudus Tower Mosque,  a famous mosque in Kudus which is thought by some to have been built upon the remains of a Hindu temple (which explains the tower on the left).

But I wasn’t actually in Semarang to visit any of the schools there, as Semarang has been an established ETA site for a few years now. Semarang was, for me, a stopover point on the way to Kudus, a small city around one hour from Semarang.  Kudus is an adorable city, simply put.  It has wide sidewalks in the city center, and plenty of greenery all about the city.  Though it is not large there seemed to be plenty of cute corners to explore, and I hope the ETA who will be placed there comes to love it.

My visits to both of these cities were far too short, and I look forward to hearing stories from the ETAs who will make this pocket of Central Java their home.


Snapshot: Surabaya and Sidoarjo, Jawa Timur


A particularly famous statue in Surabaya, based on a legend.

Shortly after arriving back in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to travel to several cities across the archipelago, as part of inspecting and preparing sites that had not had an ETA before this year.  This “Snapshot” series is composed of short pieces about my all-too-brief visits to these beautiful and fascinating places, which are now the temporary homes of ETAs from the 2016-17 cohort.

After visiting Kendari, I flew straight from Sulawesi, the island of my second home in Indonesia, to the capital of East Java, the province in which I first found myself as an ETA in Indonesia.  While I lived in Malang I found myself somewhat frequently in Surabaya, as it has one of the largest airports in Indonesia, and when I traveled it was often easier and cheaper to take the bus to Surabaya and fly from there, rather than flying directly out of Malang’s airport.  Touching down in Surabaya produced similar feelings to that of touching down in Makassar: it was familiar, and a bit like coming home.


The clock in Masjid Agung Al-Akbar,  in Sidoarjo, a mosque that always acted as a marker for me when I would take the bus from Malang to Surabaya.  This time I got to see it up close and personal. 

But this time I didn’t board the bus to Malang.  This time I stayed in Surabaya.

This year there is one ETA in Surabaya proper, and one in Sidoarjo, which is technically the next town over.  Sidoarjo is certainly different from Surabaya: there are not as many massive skyscrapers, the streets are smaller: essentially, it feels a bit more “classically Indonesian,” as problematic a term as that is.  However, there is no distinct separation between Surabaya and Sidoarjo (I have no idea exactly where one ends and the other begins).

Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia, which made it more than a little overwhelming at first, especially for a small-town girl like me.  But there are certainly advantages to such a large city, including a diverse group of cultures that each bring something different to the city (while stuck in traffic, we passed China Town, Arab Town, India Town… and I am sure there are more).  Surabaya really is a multicultural metropolis, which makes it really special as an ETA site.  And while the main streets are filled with shiny malls and skyscrapers, reflecting the hot Surabaya sun down upon the small humans that challenge these massive buildings with their larger-than-life laughter and kindness, off of the main streets are neighborhoods that speak in the same language of giggles and goodness, but in more muted tones of side markets and peeling green paint.


Gereja Hati Kudus Jesus, an historic church in Surabaya.  

Surabaya (and Sidoarjo, in turn), are fascinating sites, which I could not come close to understanding in my short time there.  I cannot wait to hear stories from the ETAs there, come MidYear, to learn what it is like to live in the heart of East Java.



Unexpected Solo Trip (That Was Not Solo At All)

During the Ujian Nasional (National Exam), I had made plans with several friends from my program to go to Tanjung Puting, a Natural Park in Central Kalimantan.  But on the day we were to head out of Jakarta, our first meeting point, and into the hutan (jungle) of Borneo, we learned our flight was at first delayed, and then later canceled because the plane was broken, and the trip had to be postponed.  Thankfully, most people were still able to make the trip happen, by flying into a different city in Kalimantan first and then flying from there to Pankalan Bun.  But for two friends and I, this was not possible because of when our schools would re-start classes.  So we collected our refunds, and went looking for the fastest and cheapest ticket out of the Jakarta airport (we had been there for almost eight hours at that point, and were ready to be moving again).

That ticket turned out to be to Solo, or Surakarta, a small city in Central Java.  We didn’t know all that much about Solo, except that there were a few keraton (palaces) and that it is famous for its batik.  That was good enough for the three of us, so we hopped on the next available flight, found ourselves a hotel when we got there, and made plans to explore our unplanned destination.  Fortunately for us, one of the good people of the AMINEF[1] team was born and raised in Solo, so we sent him a WhatsApp message asking where we ought to go, and he gave us a whole list of places to check out.


The dining room of Keraton Mangkunegaran

Our first day, we allowed ourselves a somewhat late start after our harried journey the day before, and stayed within the city limits.  Our first stop was to Keraton Mangkunegaran, one of the two main palaces in Solo.  Our guide was charming and informative, and while the palace grounds were lovely, perhaps even more interesting was the collection of gifts from various countries inside the main chamber.


One of the many stalls at the Antique Market.

Just down the street from Mangkunegaran was Solo’s famous antique market.  Haphazardly-organized and full of surprises, I could have spent hours exploring its hidden gems.  My favourite find, though, was a stack of old photographs: pictures of children going to school, farmers working their fields, young couples rowing boats together, old women telling stories; pictures of weddings, funerals, graduations, and military parades; snapshots into the recent history of Indonesia, the sort that don’t make it into the history books I pour over, but which tell arguably a more poignant story.  I didn’t buy any, but it was sorely tempting.


Trying my hand at batik cat.  (It was fun, but I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon.)

We ended our explorations at the Batik Museum of Danar Hadi, which was by far the best museum I have been to yet in Indonesia, and probably one of my personal favorites ever.  Danar Hadi is one of the most popular brands of batik in Indonesia, and their founder has a private collection of over one thousand pieces of batik.  A few hundred of these are displayed in the museum behind their main shop, and with the help of a well-informed guide, you can explore batik from throughout the history of Indonesia, and from various regions.  There was even one section of the tour which allowed us to watch the process of batik being made, and try out hand at some batik cat (batik made with a special stamp).  I have always loved batik, and while I’ve learned quite a bit about it since coming to Indonesia, especially when I lived on Java, but this museum showed me I had only begun to scratch the surface of all there is to know of this beautiful fabric.

Our second day, we headed outside of Solo to see what the surrounding countryside had to offer.  We started at Candi Cetho, a Hindu Temple in the mountains surrounding Solo, one of the last Hindu temples still in use on Java.  Candi Cetho might be the most beautiful temple I have seen thus far in Indonesia, with the way it’s various levels climb gently up the hillside, and because we went on a morning when the fog pervaded everything around us, it only seemed more magical than it already was.


Candi Cetho.

After Candi Cetho, we went to our second temple, Candi Sukuh.  Candi Sukuh is most famous for its somewhat scandalous carvings, and while the temple itself was under construction when we went, we still had plenty of fun making up stories for the effigies that had been carefully placed beside the temple, waiting for when they could be returned to their rightful place.

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Candi Sukuh.


Good travel companions are just as important as the destination.

It began to rain rather hard while we were at Candi Sukuh, so we stopped for lunch at Ndoro Donker Tea Plantation, where the food was not so important as the delicious tea we were able to sample.  While most of my favourite Indonesian dishes come from Sulawesi, where I am placed now, I do often miss Javanese Tea.  As the rain came pouring down, we wrapped our hands around warm mugs of tea and found perfect contentment.


So. Much. Green.

Nearby there was also a waterfall, which we clambered down over three hundred steps through lush jungle to reach.  The penjual sayur (vegetable sellers) have told me that Gorontalo has been even drier than usual this year, and everything has been a dry kind of yellow for some time now.  Seeing so much green while in Solo filled my soul with gladness.

We only had two days in Solo, and then had to return to our sites, and I hope that I will be able to return someday, but nonetheless, if a plane is grounded and your original plans for travel tidak jadi (don’t end up happening)… I have to tell you, Solo makes for an excellent unexpected trip.


[1] AMINEF is the American Indonesian Education Foundation, the commission that runs the Fulbright Program in Indonesia, for those who may not know.

17,508 Islands, and Not Enough Time


Taped to the wall above the couch where I place my students when they come to me for advice, homework help, and sometimes just to chat (when I’m alone in my room I’m usually either working at my desk or sitting on the tile floor… it’s cooler there), is a map of Indonesia I found in a tourist shop.  I’ve always had a love for maps (there is also a map of the U.S. and my trusty beach-ball globe in my living room, and I turn to both constantly when I’m sharing fun facts and stories about friends with my students), and this map of the incredible country in which I find myself is probably my favorite part of my décor.

It is also a constant reminder of how vast and diverse Indonesia is.  Though I want more than anything to be able to explore the far reaches of this country and find some way to piece together my understanding of its various complexities, there are not enough months in a lifetime, much less my grant period, to be able to do so.  However, I have been able to catch glimpses of others’ experiences in different parts of Indonesia, by reading blogs not unlike my own.

There are a total of thirty-five ETAs in my Indonesian Fulbright cohort, and many of them also keep blogs about their own experiences.  If you would like to check them out, I have listed them below, organized by the island on which these ETAs find themselves.

There is also a website, entitled Indonesiaful, that was started in 2012 and is maintained by current ETAs that includes articles of various kinds regarding our experience in Indonesia.  I highly recommend it, as some of the ETAs who do not keep personal blogs have submitted articles, and because Indonesiaful is an ongoing project, and will offer perspectives on Indonesia for years to come.


Anna, Wonosari

Ben, Yogyakarta

Elisa, Semarang

Clare, Semarang

Lauren, Kendal 


Chris, Benjarmasin


Rebecca, Gorontalo

Emily, Gorontalo


Moniek, Pekanbaru

Stephanie, Pekanbaru

Laurien, Medan

Sarah, Medan

West Timor

Katy, Atambua

Raul, Atambua

Jay, Kupang

Josh, Kupang

Swimming with Monkeys: Sendang Biru Beach and Sempu Island

With the fourth longest coastline in the world, Indonesia has no shortage of picturesque beaches, and I would not have been a successful resident of this country if I did not go to at least one during my time here.  Only a few hours south of Malang is one of the better-known natural tourist attractions in East Java: Pantai Sendang Biru.  (“Pantaimeans “beach” in Bahasa Indonesia, and “sendang biru” something like “blue spring.”)

My site mate and I, along with an Indonesian friend, took advantage of a free weekend to go explore this beautiful area.  After a long and enjoyable ride through towns, villages, fields, and mountains, we finally found ourselves on the coast.  The salty ocean air greeted us long before we saw the vivid blue water, and I was taken back to childhood visits to family in the Chesapeake Bay area, where memories are always accompanied by sand and a slightly fishy smell.  Once we were in sight of Pantai Sendang Biru, it was the colors that struck me most, from the blue of the water to the green of the trees, and the rainbow of peeling paint on the boats that crowded the shoreline.


Because of the nearby Pulau Sempu (Sempu Island), the waters of Pantai Sendang Biru are considerably calmer than in other parts of Southern Java, which are often battered by the currents of the Indian Ocean.  But even as the water in front of us was relatively tranquil, in the distance we could see the waves crashing against far-out cliffs.  Even as a farm girl, whose family’s livelihood is tied so closely to the weather, I sometimes forget just how powerful Mother Nature can be when I am at home, surrounded by peaceful woods and a patchwork quilt of fields; but here, on this island archipelago formed by more volcanoes than I care to count, her sovereign rule cannot be ignored.


We were easily able to hire a fisherman to take us to the nearby Pulau Sempu (Sempu Island).  Because we were traveling on a holiday, there were many boats headed to Sempu Island, carrying groups of teenagers, foreign travelers, and families complete with children eager to help work with the boats.  Our boat was operated by a friendly enough chain-smoking bapak who delivered our guide and us safely to the island.


Our guide led us through the jungles of the island on a beautiful trail.  I still have not been able to fully grasp that I live in a place where I can call the forests around me jungles, but there is no denying that my love for the unfamiliar foliage here comes from the same place as my love for the maple trees that are currently changing color back home.  I am incredibly thankful to have been placed as an ETA in one of the larger cities on Java, because it gives me access to a wonderful array of resources and allows me to explore Javanese culture, but there is not denying that my soul occasionally demands that I leave the busy streets of Malang behind, in search of something green and growing.


After hiking for maybe three quarters of an hour, the jungle opened up and before us laid a stunning lagoon.  Sea water crashes through a hole in the rock that towers at the end of the island, filling the lagoon with cool, salty water, creating the perfect environment for coral and the tiny crabs and fish that made their homes there.


We were told the beach of the lagoon was a bit crowded because of the holiday—the exact phrasing, I believe, was that the beach was like a pasar, or market—but there was plenty of room in the water for all.  We spent hours swimming in the clear, cool water.  I have never seen coral or sea anemones up-close before, and I felt like a child again, completely in awe of the mysteries of the natural world.  Fish darted away from our shadows, crabs scolded us for disturbing their scavenging, and the surrounding jungle echoes with the calls of birds and monkeys.


The beach was surrounded by crab-eating macaque, a species of monkey which is actually considered invasive in many parts of South-East Asia, including Indonesia.  I tried to do my part to not encourage this upsetting of the natural balance by keeping my food safe from the wildlife, though many of the other visitors did not do the same.  Still, I was fascinated by the way they watched as we silly, hairless humans played in the water, and their enchantment with the empty plastic bottles they were able to steal from the beach.  Animals like these are another reminder of how far I am from home: there are no monkeys in the forests of Central New York.


We returned through the forest and reached the waters’ edge just as the sun was beginning to set.  Sunsets are one of my favorite parts of living in Indonesia, not because they are particularly beautiful, although streaks of color painted across the evening sky here are no less exquisite than they are at home, but because I know the setting sun will soon reach the skies above my hometown, and create a new morning for those I love.  I can only hope that their time in the sun brings as much joy as my own.


A Weekend of Weddings, The Javanese Way

“While you are here, you must go to a Javanese wedding.”

Teachers at my school, fellow ETAs, even taxi drivers insisted that I experience the wedding ceremony that is so unique to Indonesia, and especially, it seems, to the island of Java.  The idea of just popping into someone’s wedding for the sake of a “cultural experience” made me a little uncomfortable.  Though I was told that the Javanese tend to embrace a “the more the merrier” attitude for weddings, any experience that I had had with weddings in the United States—which, to be fair, was pretty limited—told me that marriages are too personal for random guests.  I worried far more than I should have about how I would navigate the experience, if and when it would arrive.  Fortunately, when I was eventually handed my first elaborate invitation to a Javanese wedding, it was from one of the math teachers who had helped make me feel so welcome here in my first few weeks, and I was happy to go.


I did not attend the wedding itself—those who accompanied me there informed me this was usually limited to family and very close friends—but rather the reception afterwards.  A bright yellow tent marked the location of the festivities, and English love ballads blared from a tower of speakers I was not entirely sure was stable.  Flowers in every hue draped gracefully above a raised platform where guests posed for photos with the bride and groom, food prepared by the bride’s family was plentiful and delicious, and everyone was dressed in the bright colors I have come to associate with this country.  I was told that the bride was no longer wearing “the real dress,” but there was no denying that even her attire for the reception was the kind of beautiful I’m more accustomed to seeing behind museum glass than in real life.  Perhaps the most memorable part of attending this wedding was how happy the bride and groom were: love outshines every other form of beauty, even here.


The wedding reception was in the town where the bride and groom were raised, a five hour van ride through mountains, rice paddies, small villages, and larger cites whose names I could never seem to glean from the signs we passed.  I attended with the rest of the math teachers, as well as our lovely Japanese teacher and an English teacher who used to teach at SMAN 10.  They were a lively, lovely crew, and the long ride was filled with stories and jokes in both Indonesian and English, and even when they babbled a mile a minute in Javanese, a language I only know a handful of words in, just sitting and watching their animated faces and listening to their laughter quickly became one of my favorite car ride memories.  I could not have asked for better company.


Later that same weekend, my site mate’s counterpart took both my site mate and I to the wedding of one of her friend’s daughters.  We attended the actual ceremony this time, or the pernikahan at an immense mosque on the campus of Universitas Muhammadiyah Malang, or U.M.M.  I watched as the couple prayed and was prayed over, vows were exchanged, and marriage certificates were received.  My limited Indonesian does not extend to wedding vernacular, but I was mostly able to keep up through a combination of whispered translations from my site mate—who was an ETA in Sumatra last year, and whose Indonesian far exceeds my own—and by watching the reactions of the other guests.


In many ways, this wedding was precisely the experience I had feared: I was encouraged to step towards the front to take pictures, when I would have been perfectly content to stay in the back of the mosque and accept what photographs I could manage—I’m an ETA who would like to document some of her experiences, not a photojournalist—, and at the end of the ceremony I was brought to the couple and their families to extend my selamat (congratulations), though I had never met them before.  More than once I felt awkward and wanted nothing more than to disappear into the carpet on which I kneeled, so that I could hide my uncovered head and foreign dress.

But in between those moments, I found myself truly enjoying the experience of learning about one more set of Indonesian traditions, and watching two people begin their lives together, though I did not know their language, or even their names.  I could not stop myself from being surprised when a price for the bride was discussed and agreed to, and could not but adore the way both sets of parents prayed fervently over the new couple, blessing the new marriage.  And at the end of the ceremony, when the putri dan putra (bride and groom) stood in front of the guests and smiled wider than the ocean that separates me from my home, I smiled too.


It has been quite a while since I have attended a wedding in any culture; the last time I watched two people exchange vows, I was more concerned with whether or not my cousins would play tag with me later than any promises of love.  These weddings were not only my first Indonesian weddings, but they were also my first weddings as an adult, able to fully appreciate what I was witnessing. And though I may have been sporadically uncomfortable and not understand most of what was said at either wedding experience, I could understand the happiness that surrounded the occasion.  The weddings I will eventually attend back home may not be as colorful as the weddings I saw here, but I can only hope that the overall feeling of love will permeate those events in the same way.