Indonesia Through My Eyes: Hello Jogja, My Old Friend

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve arrived in Indonesia. So far, I’ve been humbled and impressed. This marks the longest I have spent in Indonesia. Before, it was 3 and half weeks.

Javanese WordsMany of my friends and family have been constantly asking why I moved. Many offered their opinions as they would rather enjoy a life in America instead of being here. My response catch many off-guard as I want to have a career that’s different, where an adventure and contributing to the welfare of the Indonesian people is mandatory. Having been an International Development Studies major, it only felt right to pack up my bags. I am forever grateful for the support I received for my crowdfunding campaign, because now I’m working for an exciting start-up that focuses on communicating urban environmental issues. One of our main initiatives is to provide educational outreach and traveling to Jogja was exactly for this. However, I found this outing to be more like reacquainting with an old friend than just another work trip. Mom's Family Jogja has always been close to my heart, despite having visited only several times in my life. I think it’s because both of my parents are from this cultural center that creates this attachment. Although my mom was born in Solo, she spent most of her youth in the Sagan neighborhood. My pops grew up in the Kota Baru part of the city. With this intimate bond to the city through my parents, it makes me feel as if Jogja is a part of my life, too. Hearing my parents recount their experience, compels me to relive myself. The Malioboro area was one such place that my parents used to hang out when they were my age. I closed my eyes and I can imagine them navigating through the hustle and bustle of this lively street. Seeing couples walk together on that warm, summer evening further helped me relive their Jogja. It’s just surreal that I’m here again but now making my own memories. SMAN 9 Student Presentation In past visits, meeting family was the purpose. This time, I went to visit schools for work duties. We visited SMA Negeri 9, SMP 2 Muhammadiyah and SMK 6 Yogyakarta. The program we were carrying out was called Ecomapping. It’s an initiative our company is working in coordination with a German organization called GIZ to make schools more green and instill environmental awareness within the students. After work hours, I managed to sneak in some exploring and family time. Gamelan & Wayang Golek Despite the limited opportunities available, we still managed to visit some of Jogja’s gems. The Sultan’s Palace – Ngayogyakarta Keraton Hamengkubuwono – was our first stop. It was stunning. I have only managed to visit the Alun-Alun Bringin Trees in the South, where people would blindfold themselves and try to walk between the trees – Mas Angin. I’m a sucker for history and culture so being able to walk through the Sultan’s palace it was such an honor. Witnessing previous Sultan’s artifacts as well as encountering real life Abdi Dalam – Palace Workers – carrying out their activities was truly a pleasure. Candi Prambanan Beyond this, we ventured off to Candi Prambanan. This is one of Indonesia’s crown jewels as it is one of the largest Hindu structures in Southeast Asia It was my first time as well since in previous visits, I had only been able to visit the marketplace where people sell trinkets. It was funny because I had to go through the foreigners’ entrance. Then, they made me and my German friend wear a Kain – traditional textile. When we met up with our friends, I was shocked they didn’t have to wear one. Many of the other tourists began to set their gaze upon us – gossiping about us being a couple, our kid’s skin color and how I could have landed a Caucasian partner. It was an exciting and simultaneously exhausting experience visiting all of the structures. Paku Mas Hotel It felt like home when I stayed at Paku Mas. My uncle worked here so it was as if I was staying at his place. For the first time, I stayed here as a guest as I had only came to visit and eat dinner in the past.  You can feel that the Javanese culture is alive here with the abundance of traditional ornaments surrounding you. I have an affection to this hotel because of my past memories I created here as a kid running around all over the complex. Thankfully, Paku Mas served Gudeg for my first meal as I waited for 4 years for it. It is a traditional Javanese dish where sliced jackfruit is simmered for hours with spices and palm sugar along with tofu and tempe. My first bite was instant euphoria. Thank you Paku Mas for making this trip that much more intimate.Grandparents During my stay, I eventually linked up with my mom’s side of the family in Sagan. When I arrived at my grandparents’, something was different. I would walk in and find my Grandpa sitting in his chair and my grandma on her bed. But now both of my grandparents were gone. They had passed away in the years between my visits. Memories of our interactions are all that is left – walking with my grandfather to the mosque, hearing his stories of the old days, etc. We visited their graves around the corner of our house as it is a tradition to say a prayer before performing the fasting practice of Ramadan. Masjid Syuhada Family knows no distance and I think the unconditional love that they showed me helped make this trip bearable as the stresses of the work aspect of the trip would have taken a toll on me. The highlight of my trip however was being able to visit Masjid Syuhada in Kota Baru. This one particular masjid is so endearing because my grandfather was a Kiyai and he would give sermons here on Fridays. Because I have never met him, being able to pray on Friday here allowed me to envisage what it would have been like to be in his presence. I almost cried but somehow didn’t. Thank you everyone who donated in my cause which enabled me to experience such a fulfilling opportunity.

Indonesia Through My Eyes: Introduction

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I’m officially a transplant in Indonesia now. I can’t believe it’s been a month. It’s the longest I’ve ever been in this country. Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming and realize that I’m not in LA anymore. It’s not everyday you uproot your life to move to another country to follow your passion. So, I’ve decided to create a series to document my journey in my parents’ homeland. Not only will it serve as a way for me to record my adventures, but I hope friends and readers will get to see Indonesia through my lens.

Setting foot 

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I broke my finger before I left LA in a basketball tournament. My parents were concerned for my well-being, as they should be, but I was insistent upon leaving as soon as possible. Being a very driven individual, I didn’t want my injury to stop me. However, it was only when I got on the plane to Korea that I realize it was going to be rather difficult having my hand in a cast. Lifting my bag into the overhead compartment, acting quickly to disrobe for the TSA , etc. posed some challenges. I just sucked it up throughout the trip.

I reached Jakarta passed midnight. I went through immigration with no problem. It was here where I found my injury to be a great icebreaker as the immigration officer was intrigued by it and we talked about it while he processed my entry. My cousin and nephew picked me up and the Jakarta I remembered came back to me: hot, humid and polluted.

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Despite the notorious reputation of unhygienic conditions at street food stands and warungs (mom & pop shops), I ignored my family’s warnings. We got some late night food on the way to my aunt’s house. My cousin drove us to get bubur ayam (chicken porridge) at Bubur Ayam Sukabumi.  After all, I’m a firm believer in supporting local businesses as well as food from these establishments represents the real Indonesian cuisine. The stomach aches and possibility of contracting food poisoning are worth the gamble.

While we exchanged words with each other and caught up with events since my last trip to Indonesia 4 years ago, I witnessed the Jakarta that some people talked about: privileged folks bossing around employees at the warung like second class citizens. I felt very uneasy sitting across from them. I could empathize with the workers because before I came to Indonesia, I worked at a cafe as a busboy and would never want to be given such treatment. It was late, so there’s a possibility, too, alcohol and other libations may have been a factor.

The next day I woke up to my aunt’s perfect breakfast – tofu, tempe, veggies, eggs and rice. Seriously, simple Indonesian food like this is what I appreciate and dreamed of when I first embarked on my journey.

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My aunt is the widow of my dad’s oldest brother. She is deaf but what she lacks in hearing is made up with her big heart. No matter how far apart we were and how long time has separated us, she never showed me any less love.

My family is still somewhat traditional. So, during my first few days, I practiced a traditional Indonesian custom of sowan, where I visit elder family members to let them know I am in their presence and ask for their blessings. It is a way for paying my respects being the youngest grandchild in my dad’s side of the family. It was during this time I realized Jakarta’s terrible condition. The infrastructure, poverty and cleanliness are worse than what I read in the news.

Initial Culture Shocks

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One of the reasons why I studied city planning was to help infrastructure issues in Indonesia. We talk about the pictures of children crossing treacherous bridges in outlying areas in Indonesia. Yet, we forget that even in the the capital city there are problems,too. I’m not saying the rural areas shouldn’t be helped as they do need support from the government asap. Though, how can we help those far away when issues within the immediate area where the country officials reside in aren’t addressed? Forget the smell, how can kids avoid falling into unstable or missing sidewalks that may have steel rebars and other dangerous construction hazards waiting underneath?  I’ve compiled my initial shocks which I’ve experienced, thus far, in my first several weeks and by no means is it a complete list.

Smoking & Trash

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These two are my biggest pet peeves. I have managed to contract asthma somehow in my early 20s. So most type of smoke aren’t good for my lungs. Because I love to support local coffee shops back home (check out Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley), my cousin and friends have introduced me to some spots in the neighborhood. Upon sitting at these establishments, the sight of people smoking indoor is such a distasteful sight. It makes me want to tell them to stop because of my condition. But smoking indoor is still allowed and telling them to stop can possibly offend them. Honestly I’m not sure what I can do to prevent my respiratory cells from deteriorating. While this is happening, I find it scarier that from several folks I met on the street that smoking ads are just scare tactics. In fact smoking does not kill according to them. One said that smoking may further hurt someone if they are already sick but the smoking itself is not bad. Being a non-smoker, I feel like I’m the one in the straitjacket.

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My heart breaks when I see people throw trash wherever they please. Indonesia is such a beautiful country with its abundant natural assets. The waste just contaminates this allure. Unfortunately, the infrastructure does not support it either, so attempting to change people’s behavior is a monumental task. There are folks who benefit from the this rubbish but it’s not like all of it will be picked up. Only the bottles and recyclable materials will be taken. As for plastic bags, ziplocs and wrappers, they will just lay among the sumptuous banana groves and already sad riverbanks. I was fortunate enough to walk in solidarity with the laborers of Java on May Day. While it was great to march with these folks to advocate for labor rights, my attention was slowly being distracted by the sound not of their cheers but their feet kicking bottles on the ground. It was amazing that after the walk, the streets were clean. Still, what if the cleaners or opportunists weren’t there? What happens then?

Water

Whenever I go out to eat back home, a majority of the time I just drink the water served at the table. I know it’s from the tap and maybe it’s not as clean as the bottled ones, but hey it tastes good to me. Plus, I find it more quenching and wallet-friendly than anything else (aside from coconut water). Arriving here, I realized that asking for water (aka Aqua for the brand by Danone) comes in a bottle. Only one time was I served water straight and that was at a restaurant I have come to like in Bintaro called Burgreens.

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I understand that water in general in Indonesian is not clean but I really wonder if the tap water is safe to drink? It’s just hard to believe that ordering tea or something else can be cheaper than water. It will take time to adjust but maybe I should look into it or ask the managers why they don’t serve water from the tap.

Conclusion

Jakarta isn’t like any other city I have ever lived in. Everywhere I have moved previously was still in California, so the culture was still the same. Thankfully, I moved during the presidential election, thus it will give me insight on that aspect of the culture. Transportation is a bit difficult since there isn’t really a place to look up for public transit information. It’s all by asking friends, family and those on the street. Maybe in the next post I’ll get into it more. I’m still trying to figure out how to best document my experience. We’ll see what adventures I share next.