By Maree Peters (Semester 7/Aug 1998)
Sunshine Coast University
Originally published in Amida magazine

My six months in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, with the ACICIS program was one of the greatest experiences of my life!

Everything about Indonesia delighted and enthralled me – especially the natural beauty, mountains and waterfalls, the lushness of hills and valleys, rice fields and plantations – but especially, and most beautiful – the people – who readily give of themselves.

In one village, my host, a woman of 60 years went 30 kms by bus to the markets at 4am to buy a small piece of steak (a luxury item for most Indonesians, and one this woman could ill-afford) because she believed all Westerners ate steak for breakfast.

My Muslim friends organized a party for me on Christmas Day, serving food and drinks to me and their Christian friends while continuing to observe their fasting. People are always ready to help. At a bus or train station, someone would always ask if I would like them to help me find my bus, seat etc. One man, after helping me find my seat on a train, told me he didn’t like the look of the person I was supposed to be seated with and asked another to swap seats with me. The passenger obliged without question.

None who offered their help would accept payment. Indonesians are quick-witted and ready to laugh, not only at themselves but with me, neverat me. Well, maybe sometimes, when I deserved it. Where 2 or more Indonesians gather, there is laughter. People return a smile, with a smile from the heart and share whatever they have with whoever needs it. They rarely complain.

In a country presently torn by chaos, my association with its people gave me an experience of a peace within me that I had not experienced before. I was disturbed when I saw many people living in poverty; found a 15-year-old boy, dead in the street; saw the old, sick, disabled and homeless, who must beg for their livelihood; heard women speak with great sadness, because they could not afford to educate their children; heard young people talk with grave doubts about their futures; read the street children’s stories in the booklets produced as a fund-raiser for them.

Like the others in our Aussie contingent of ACICIS students, we did what we could with what we had for those we met. My new knowledge and experiences gave me new eyes with which to see Australia. The (wasted) wide-open spaces, (sterile) cleanliness, Huge shopping centres – (our mosques – where the faithful flock, seven days a week), the pet-food AISLE in the supermarkets (Spot and Fluff have more choice than most Indonesians), and the oppressive silence.

People in general, now seemed to be constantly complaining about the trivial; self-indulgent; lacking a sense of humor about themselves; constantly grabbing; ignorant (“Indonesia! I wouldn’t go to any country that allowed its university students to demonstrate like that!”); indifferent, to anyone but themselves; and shallow. Australia now seems like a big plastic bubble filled with plastic people. Worst, I saw reflections of myself, and my life – as they were before I went to Indonesia – and I was shocked.

I am now uncomfortable with the environment I knew before. I hope that by using this new knowledge to make the necessary changes within myself and my close environment, I can turn my present state of being more critical of myself and my society into a positive experience.

My education has been about change, not just skills but most importantly to knowledge and attitudes. Thinking this is one thing, meeting the challenge is different. I only wanted a Bachelor of Arts but, thankfully, the road provided with an unexpected life-changing experience.