A little less than a month ago my parents came to Indonesia to visit me. Much of my father’s career has been spent abroad, often in developing countries, so they are not unfamiliar with the conditions most of the world lives in but I was still hesitant to have them come to Indonesia.
Some months ago, around swearing-in, my parents mentioned the prospect of them coming to Indonesia for the holidays. At the time I was not interested in the idea because I had yet to feel like I myself had a handle on this country. Over a couple weeks I warmed to the idea and by the time they came to visit I was eager to show them around.
Below is what my mom put together after I asked her to write something for Here to Make Friends along with some commentary from me as well as a few relevant pictures.
I’d never visited Indonesia before last month, but over the years I’ve known a number of people who’ve lived there for varying lengths of time. Although I knew in my head it couldn’t be reality, I still imagined all of Indonesia to be like Bali, resorts and beaches everywhere you look. With 17,000 islands, and only three nations on the planet more populous, I quickly realized ‘there’s more to Indonesia than Bali!’
Of course, the highlight of our visit was spending time with our son. When he asked us what we wanted to do once we arrived in Indonesia, we told him it would be enough just to sit in a hotel room and look at him! Fortunately, he made plans beyond that. We were grateful.
We spent the first full day in Jakarta, buying clothes because our luggage didn’t arrive, and making a quick recovery from what was supposed to be a 30 hour trip but ended up being three full days! Then we were off to Yogyakarta. An eight hour trip by train. It was great getting to see the countryside and it is an excellent, low stress way to travel. Once there we visited the standard sights, Borobudur, Prambanan and some lesser-known temples.
We ate all kinds of food, Italian, Indian, Mediterranean and Indonesian of course! We even drank kopi Luwak! The best part: the artisans, the batik and the silver. Not only did we appreciate getting to see their works, we took part in them as we spent a day making batik and silver jewelry! It was fabulous!
Yogyakarta (pronounced jo-jah-kar-ta) is the heart of Javanese culture and probably my favorite place on Java. It has all the charm of traditional Indonesia with many modern amenities. There is a significant amount of tourism in the area so there are many restaurants which serve western food.
In an amazing and happy coincidence good friends from our time in Beirut, Lebanon were visiting relatives in Yogyakarta. We were able to meet up with them for dinner and great conversation. We welcomed in the New Year then moved on to Bandung.
The trip was another eight hour train ride and again we enjoyed watching the forests, rice paddies and villages all along the route. We spent pretty much the remainder of our time in Bandung. It was a different kind of city from Jakarta, the bustling capital city, and Yogyakarta, best known for its traditional arts and cultural heritage. The weather in Bandung was better too, a higher elevation so less humidity and a cooler temps! There was lots of shopping for traditional Indonesian wares, there were tailors and dressmakers all around.
Pasar Baru Trade Center is my favorite place in Bandung. It’s an eight story market which largely deals in textiles and clothes, though you can find many other things there too. Bandung is known for its textiles industry and there are lots of economical fabrics to be had at Pasar Baru (new market). It is similar to a shopping mall but all of the store fronts are very close to one another and the sellers will say things to shoppers as they walk by to entice them to buy something. The footpaths are super narrow, it’s often super crowded, and the textiles are pretty flammable so this place is a huge fire hazard which just adds to the fun of being there.
The best day by far, of the entire trip, was going to the desa (village) where Mitch lives. He had cautioned us that if we wanted to visit it would be a long trip and would take an entire day. Although it is only 45 miles from Bandung, the roads are narrow and heavily traveled. Mitch typically utilizes angkots (small mini-vans) and buses to get from one place to another, but we decided to hire a car to take us. It saved us a bit of time and was quieter, however it still took the better part of one day for the round trip.
When Mitch would tell us it takes him four hours to go 45 miles I believed him; I just had a hard time imagining how it was possible… I quickly understood. The roads were narrow, many were in need of repairs and the traffic was extremely heavy. There were trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles and scooters all sharing the space.
The desa was somewhat like I imagined. I knew it was basic, because Mitch considered hot water and a shower to be pure luxury. The people were kind and happy to see us. Many, like all over Indonesia, wanted to have their picture taken with us. I didn’t mind, probably because I hadn’t been there very long. It was nice getting to meet Mitch’s host family. Although I do not really care for them because they don’t care well for our son.
My host family is fine; however, I think they are not exactly what Peace Corps Indonesia has in mind for the families who host volunteers. Peace Corps Indonesia doesn’t choose our host families, our schools do. So there are often misunderstandings between what Peace Corps wants and what the schools think Peace Corps wants. Indonesians often assume all Americans are very independent and want lots of space so those are the homes they will look for.
My host family and I are not what I would describe as “close,” we’re actually quite distant, especially compared to my host family in Kediri. I like to think it’s because I’m more Javanese and I’m living in Sundanese territory. It has been difficult adjusting but just another challenge to add to the long list which makes up serving in the Peace Corps.
I think the highlight of the day was visiting the school where Mitch teaches. It wasn’t in session because of the holiday break, but there were still a few kids and staff around. We also got to tour the school. It was basic but adequate. There were classrooms, a library, a music room and a teacher’s lounge.
Indonesia was interesting, but in some ways it’s difficult to differentiate it from other underdeveloped countries in which we’ve travelled and lived. Brent and I are used to going somewhere and taking care of ourselves, and for many years taking care of our two little boys that travelled with us. This was the first trip where our “little boy” took care of us. We didn’t have much we had to do. Mitch was keenly aware of everything that needed to be done. He communicated easily and fully grasped the cultural nuances of the country, and more specifically the regions, where we travelled. It was a role reversal for sure.
The most difficult part of the trip, saying goodbye to our boy. We learned a lot about what he does, where he lives and what his goals are with regards to serving in the Peace Corps. I can’t put into words the pride I feel when I look at him. He is amazing. He has gone to a country on the other side of the world from home. He lives in a remote village without, what most Americans would consider, the bare basics of necessity. He is fluent in a language he hadn’t even heard before he left for the PC. He manages to get around with the locals on the most basic means of transportation, and he does it with ease. He just does it, no complaints, no excuses, no regrets. He’s my hero.
Having my parents in Indonesia was a surreal experience. Traveling with them was odd because I am so used to traveling with other volunteers or by myself. When traveling with other volunteers they know the language and understand what’s happening, we have the same grievances about Indonesia and a lot of things to talk about with regards to our work here. But when I was with my parents they were seeing Indonesia with fresh eyes, they didn’t really understand the challenges of living here. At times I found it hard to relate the experience they were having to the one I was having.
For all of my life I have followed behind them while we’re abroad but while they were in Indonesia they were largely following my lead. This change especially highlighted how differently we approached Indonesia. I saw them as tourists but I found it very difficult to see myself as a tourist as well even though I was doing just as many of the touristy things as they were.
What I love about the Peace Corps is how volunteers are not tourists, or expats, or backpackers, or anyone else just visiting a country. Having my parents in Indonesia was amazing but their presence, for better or worse, put a hold on my role as a Peace Corps volunteer. The break gave me time to reflect on my first nine months in Indonesia as well as energy to look forward to the last two thirds of my service.
I am so very thankful for having parents who are willing to come to the other side of the earth for their son only to spend an unreasonable amount of their time sitting in a hotel room, looking at me. Thank you, mom and dad.