By Erin McMahon (Semester 14/Feb 2002)
University of Adelaide

There were a lot of things going through my head as I landed at Ngurah Rai airport in Denpasar, Bali. It was the first time I had ever been to Indonesia and I didn’t know what to expect. I guess it kind of mirrored the anxiety I felt about the semester ahead. My expectations were somewhat mixed. Extending my bahasa Indonesia was an important point so I planned on concentrating on my studies. However, I also wanted to take full advantage of this experience by immersing myself in the culture and engaging with the people of Indonesia. To make things a little more complicated I wanted to get my moneys worth as well by seeing as much of Indonesia as I possibly could while I was there. The balance, or possible imbalance, of these three things would ultimately decide the overall worth and enjoyment gained from this experience.

It had been an uneventful seven-hour flight from Adelaide to Singapore and then a rushed half hour at Changi airport trying to secure my boarding pass for the next leg of my trip to Bali. The hour-long flight was mostly spent organising my visa and arrival papers so that I could have a smooth transition through immigration. All the pre-departure hype had made me quite nervous and I was very wary about getting everything processed and stamped properly. I wasn’t too keen on having to go through all this mess again because of a misplaced stamp. This uneasiness meant that I was the last person through the gates and it was well after 11 o’clock by the time I left the airport for the hotel I was staying at for the night. My bahasa Indonesia also started off on a bad foot when, perhaps due to my nervousness or lack of practice over the summer break, the immigration officer asked me when I was heading on to Yogyakarta and I replied “kemarin”. After repeating this rudimentary mistake a few times I realised that I had confused it with “besok” and was thoroughly embarrassed. I used my Indonesian sparingly after that until I was well settled down in Yogya.

The next morning I had little time to go out and enjoy my brief stay in Bali. Kuta beach was nearby and I had planned for a morning stroll to see the famous stretch of sand but by the time I had eaten breakfast and brought my suitcase and bags down from the room it was about time to go to the airport. Besides, the weather didn’t exactly call for it and I would definitely get a chance to see it on my way home. Seeing Indonesia for the first time in the light of day was not as memorable an experience as I would have liked. The light rain and dark clouds made the bustling, narrow streets appear somewhat gloomy and dangerous. I would, however, soon come to find that bustling, narrow and dangerous streets weren’t only confined to Bali.

Back at Ngurah Rai I was dropped off at the international terminal, apparently another failure in my language skills, and had to walk back to the domestic departure lounge. A porter insisted on putting my bags on a trolley and over-charged me for the service. I wasn’t averse to giving a tip but I felt as if I was getting ripped off. The night of my arrival I had to give my last 10 dollars Australian to the porters who carried my bags to the car without even my asking. Not having any small notes in rupiah was proving quite difficult.

Inside, at the departure lounge, I sat and quietly read over my information booklets. It was a couple of hours wait but other ACICIS students from other states turned up and we got to talking about being in Indonesia and about the semester ahead. This helped to ease my mind, as it was fairly daunting to have to do this much travelling by myself. Now that there was a group of us at least we could share the cost of a taxi ride to the hotel.

The airport in Yogya was unassuming and it was a relief not to have to go through immigration again. In the cab on the way to the hotel I had my first look at the busy streets of Yogya and, as it would turn out, one of the less hectic cities in Indonesia. The chaos on the roads was something that I would have to get used to over the coming months. One thing that I clearly remember about the first day in Yogya was my first look at Gunung Merapi. I was still kind of drowsy from the lack of sleep and jet lag but it rose up over the skyline and towered above the city. I think looking back on it I must have exaggerated its immensity in my memory especially coming from Australia where everything is pretty much flat. However, whether its grandeur was embellished upon or not, Mt. Merapi was a magnificent sight that was burned into my mind and would became a sort of symbol of my stay in Yogya.

Getting settled in to life in Indonesia wasn’t as hard as I initially imagined. The orientation days went smoothly enough and our visa, university, police, residential, and all other sort of red-tape registration forms were filled out eventually. One of the more important things during this period was probably just walking around the neighbourhood getting used to the sights and sounds of Indonesia. During these early days I was getting up at around 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning, a slight problem with the time difference, but it enabled me to walk around and orient myself with Jalan Kaliurang, the main road north of the campus affectionately known as JaKal. Just walking and seeing what was around helped me to familiarise myself with the place that I would call home for the next six months.

Finding a place to live in Yogya wasn’t as hard as I had imagined. Yogya was a university town and therefore had plenty of student accommodation. Some people found “kos” hunting a tiresome and labourious exercise. In a way I could see their point. The mornings were hot and sticky and what you wanted most was to stay indoors. At around 2 o’clock each day the heavy rains came so you had to make sure that you had everything done before then too. Personally, I took the whole thing in my stride. Knowing that I would eventually find a kos I didn’t want to rush in to a place where I wouldn’t feel comfortable. I had one failing when it came to living quarters – creature comforts. I like to think of myself as easy-going and broad-minded but when it came to my room I was very particular. Having been to Singapore and Malaysia before I had experienced squat-toilets and was not going to subject myself to that for the remainder of my stay. I had also been to real kampung areas before and knew that I wouldn’t last more than a month. In the end some helpful Indonesian girls introduced me to the owner of a nice place in Pogung Baru, a quiet area in amongst the maze of back streets just off JaKal. My patience, or fussiness depending on who you talked to, paid off and I would live there for the remainder of my stay in Yogya. Living independently for the first time was quite an experience. On the one hand I felt quite liberated and was happy doing things for myself although this was always punctuated with periods where I missed my family and friends. Going out to eat was not always a good thing either. There was many a time I had “roti bakar Bandung” for dinner, essentially a loaf of bread liberally filled with condensed milk and chocolate sprinkles. I always regretted it in the morning.

Shopping was fantastic in Yogya. Cheap prices and an abundance of western clothes and Indonesian cultural products meant that you could easily spend an afternoon, or the contents of your wallet, at a “pasar” market or mall. Personally I preferred wasting my time at Galeria mall. Many a day was spent whiling away in air-conditioned comfort. You basically had all you needed in the one place. The food there wasn’t the best, or cheapest for that matter, but there was a wide variety of tastes and you could always choose between western, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken or overpriced sandwiches, and Indonesian, like mie goreng and bakso, depending on the mood of the day. It also provided a convenient sanctuary to just sit down away from the burning sun or pouring rain. There was one incident, however, that put me off going to Malioboro mall, the main centre of shopping and an area concentrated with foreign tourists. Being somewhat Asian in appearance I could usually walk around without being noticed or gawked at, unfortunately the tall, fair and blonde Australian girls didn’t have the same advantage, however, I was pulled aside once by a batik salesman. Trying to be nice I went along to look at a batik gallery with no intention of buying anything. After much hard selling I finally said that I had to go and the next thing I knew I was being threatened and the salesman wanted to pick a fight with me. I just walked away a little shaken by the experience. I only saw the guy once after that but it put me right off going down to the tourist areas again or from ever buying batik.

Getting around in Yogya was one of the main problems that many of us foreign students had. I had a rational fear of the buses in and around Yogya. The stories that I heard about “pencopet” pickpockets, or worse, meant that I only ever caught the bus a handful of times. During my six months there I knew of one stolen mobile phone, three attempted pickpocket incidents, and countless occasions of people getting ripped off. My personal choice was to walk everywhere. It was only half an hours walk to campus and from there no more than 15 minutes to most other places. After devising a route through the back streets to avoid the noisy and smog laden JaKal the walk to uni. each day was, in fact, quite pleasant. Most other people took to renting or buying a “sepeda motor” scooter, an investment that I couldn’t afford to make but it was useful knowing someone who did have one so you could always catch a lift if the opportunity arose. I will always remember when we went the ‘Indonesian way’ and had three people on the motorbike while driving through a group of polisi. Any place that I needed to go beyond my walking capabilities was easily reached by taxi and it was never too hard to find someone else to split the fare. Bargaining with taxi drivers started slowly, being ripped off because we looked like tourists, but by the end of our stay we knew the right price for certain distances and could easily bring the price down. It wasn’t really about the haggling as such but the sense of achievement that you could get by showing the driver that you weren’t just a tourist. You could always have an amusing chat in Indonesian after that.

During my time in Indonesia I never felt alone or lonely. Besides the millions of Indonesians that surrounded you each day, which made Adelaide look like a ghost town, you always had friends both Australian and Indonesian. Via email you were constantly in contact with friends and family at home so you never felt too homesick. The forty odd Australian students there were also instant friends and provided a break from the rigours of thinking too much in bahasa Indonesia. English over lunch would always help me to relax and keep me from burning out. The fact that we were all learning Indonesian and living away from home gave us common ground to become good friends. The Indonesian “temen-temen” that I gained over the semester also helped me to relax and use Indonesian in a more social situation. They were always willing and able to help me with my bahasa and go through mistakes that I had made in class. I did, however, slip into the trap of becoming too used to slang. I’m only just getting out of my “aku / kamu” habit.

Studying at the Universitas Gajah Mada was an experience in itself. The campus was okay but under-funded and run down in parts. The old INCULS rooms, where we did our language studies, were in dire need of renovation but understandably couldn’t be. The quality of classes were, however, quite good. I enjoyed all of the subjects that I undertook. Reading class was useful as the lecturer, “dosen”, gave it completely in Indonesian as half the class was made up of Japanese and Korean students. The grammar dosen was quite crazy and made an otherwise dull subject interesting. Translation was taught very professionally and helped to increase my vocabulary. The dosen for vocabulary was an excellent teacher and did amazingly well with the resources he had to keep the lectures varied and interesting. These language classes helped me to consolidate and build on what I had already learnt in class in Australia. My immersion Indonesian classes were intimidating at first because I didn’t think I was quite up to the standard of taking normal lectures completely in Indonesian. “Fotografi” wasn’t too hard as I had a basic idea about photography and could usually decipher the diagrams on the board. The best aspect of this class were the field trips where we would go out and see/photograph parts of Yogya. It gave us an opportunity to chat with the other Indonesian students even about topics other than photography. “Perkembangan Islam”, the development of Islam in Indonesia, was a lot tougher. The other ACICIS students in the class were either advanced and almost fluent, or Indonesian-Australian. I stayed with this class, however, and found that although not understanding all of what was being said I could generally grasp the overall concept delivered in the lectures. Of course I had to do this while frantically searching through my dictionary to fill in the gaps.

The moment that I realised that I had actually been benefiting from classes was when I used the passive ‘di-‘ construction for the first time. I can’t exactly recall what the sentence was but I clearly remember being taken aback and then feeling quite proud that some of the language had been sinking in. I also found that I was starting to use words that I had learnt in class in everyday conversation. I was quite surprised when I found myself using music terminology only a week after learning it in class and dismissing it as useless.

Apart from Indonesian language skills my Indonesian friends quickly set about corrupting my formal Indonesian with bahasa “gaul”, the social, young and slang version of Indonesian. This really took hold in my sms-ing where being short on space I would use words like: gue, loe, cowok, cewek, coy, ngapain, duit, bete’ and bokek. Once comfortable I also started using particles like: dong, kan, deh and sih, and mangling formal spelling to form: gimana, gitu, and trims. In the end I was substituting ‘ber-‘s with just ‘b-‘ and dropping ‘meN-‘s altogether. This made things a lot more fun but didn’t do my formal Indonesian any favours.

Being in Java and having to interact with Javanese people most of the time meant that I learnt some bahasa Jawa as well. Besides being able to count to ten in Javanese it was useful to know the greeting “monggo”, thanks “matur nuwon” and you’re welcome “sami-sami”. This would always put a smile on the face of an old Javanese person.

For Eid Ul-Adha the family of the owner of my kos invited me to come along for sholat prayer. They were quite surprised when I told them that I was Muslim and wanted to go for Eid prayers. Although I am not the most observant Muslim, and regrettably hardly go to prayer, I did feel that I was more accepted as being somewhat Indonesian by taking part. This actually led on to an invitation for me to take part in a traditional Javanese wedding, which was a cultural highlight for me. Besides getting up incredibly early to get ready, having to dress up in traditional Javanese costume and standing up continuously for an unimaginable length of time, it was an amazing experience and made me feel like I was taking part in actual Javanese/Indonesian culture.

Another cultural highlight was the Waisak Day road trip to Borobudur to see the festivities. A group of us rented a car and I drove the hour-long journey to the temple. Apart from the drive up there, in which I maneuvered as skillfully as any Indonesian amongst the chaos of the Yogyan roads that I once found intimidating, seeing the parade and the spirit of the people was amazing. The streets, packed with onlookers, and the procession of colourful and festive followers made for an extraordinary day.

Aside from studying I also wanted to balance my sojourn in Indonesia by having a good time holidaying and seeing the sights. My first tourist outing was early on when a group of us went to the Borobudur and Prambanan temples. The feeling was amazing as I had never been to such spiritual and historical places before. Our bahasa Indonesia even got a workout when we insisted our guide at Prambanan use Indonesian. I didn’t really understand much of what was being said but it was a step in the right direction. My next trip was over the term break when I went for a short holiday to Bali. Although it was a last minute decision it was a good experience for me and gave me a chance to unwind from all the course work. Besides hanging out with an Australian friend from Yogya and doing the tourist rounds I also stayed by myself in Kuta and got to see, and surf at, the beach. There I could use my Indonesian quite a bit although I didn’t have to, and after meeting up with some American students on holiday from Thailand teach them some basic Indonesian too. A short two-day trip to Kaliurang also gave me the opportunity to hike partway up Merapi, a breathtaking, if albeit exhausting, experience. A short trip to Jakarta for a week was also an experience, if of a different kind. We stayed at an Australian expat’s house and had all the luxuries of home. We did get to see the bustling capital through the windows of the taxis and the private car though. My Auntie also came to Yogya for a short time. She was there on business and didn’t exactly come to see me but it was nice to meet up with her. She also paid for my flight to Surabaya, another trip spent looking at a big Indonesian city from the car whilst skipping from hotel to shopping mall. It was, however, nice to see my nenek who was in transit from her birthplace, Pulau Bawean off the north coast of Java, to Singapore. As a matter of fact I didn’t even know where my nenek was from until this semester in Indonesia. Towards the end of semester, while I was busy finishing off work and getting ready to leave, I managed to squeeze in one more short-holiday to Gunung Bromo. Actually it was quite lucky that I did so because it was a memorable experience seeing the sun rise up over the outer-crater wall and to look out onto the desolate landscape. The last trip was my transit in Bali where I managed to relax despite having to organise three times the allowable limit of baggage. Most of the time was spent shopping for “oleh-oleh” presents but we also managed to take in the cultural sites of Ubud, away from the over-touristy Kuta.

Not really knowing how my semester in Indonesia would turn out I was a little apprehensive at first but the experiences, good and bad, that I had over the months that I was there had a profound effect on me. I had done all that I set out to do and more. My language skill developed, although rather slowly at first, not only through class work but also with everyday use. I began to use Indonesian more and more saying Indonesian words without even thinking. The cultural experience that I had in Indonesia was also invaluable being able to do things that I would never have had the opportunity to do before. Interacting and speaking to common Indonesians that I would otherwise not have been able to and seeing them smile after surprising them by putting together an understandable sentence in Indonesian. All this whilst being able to enjoy myself holidaying around Indonesia in a way that I had never experienced before and probably never will again.