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The Great Affair

Friday, November 30, 2012

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” - Robert Louis Stevenson

I'm fascinated by journeys. The first time I got to fly in an airplane was years ago; I was in fifth or sixth grade, maybe, and the idea that I could be packed into a metal tube and hurtled through the sky at 500 miles per hour was an earth-shakingly awesome one.

The ride itself was anticlimactic. I remember sitting there next to my cousin, staring at the plastic emergency procedure sheet in the back pocket of the seat in front of me, thinking this is just like a bus... but in the air. This is it?

I guess I'd expected something more exciting. Turbulence would have thrilled me, if only to stir up the horridly stagnant three hours from Salt Lake City to Chicago.

Since then, I've flown more times than I can now count. To places as far as Surabaya, where I am now. To boring gray places (Wisconsin), to legendary places (New York City), to life-changing places (Denver, CO).

I'm terribly at home in airports. I love putting my headphones in and walking down the long concourses, buying grossly overpriced food, and sitting down to watch people flow by endlessly.

I give everyone a name and a life. The girl in the grey cardigan is off to Miami to be reunited with her boyfriend. The old couple with dusty leather suitcases are going to see their newborn grandchild in Conneticuit. The two boys in board shorts and Keds are famous in the European underground indie scene, and they're just a few hours away from playing their first big show in Los Angeles.

But now, it doesn't just take a trip to the airport or a journey miles and miles away from home to enchant me. I love car rides, especially here in Indonesia. The natives always get frustrated in traffic jams, but I'm just as happy staring out the window while we're stuck as I am when we're weaving our way through the cars like normal.

Because I don't often get to go out and walk around, seeing Surabaya through the car window is my favorite way to feel connected to the people and the pulse of life here.

I watch as street food sellers wheel their carts from neighborhood to neighborhood, as men sit in their multicolored pedicabs waiting for customers, as labourers squat on the curb to have a cigarette. Children, young wives and professional racers, complete with jerseys and their strange aerodynamic helmets, roll by on their bikes. People of all ages and from every walk of life stop to eat and relax at the many warung (tent restaurants) lining the road.

Occasionally we need to make a U-Turn, and to help us do that there are men in frayed orange vests directing traffic with nothing but whistles and their arms. They collect 1000 RP tips from still-moving cars with practiced ease.

I keep watching, and the sights in front of me change from the shining business district to a quiet residential area to an industrial cluster within minutes. Surabaya is a city that's all smushed together, a place where shack houses are propped up next to expensive restaurants. From day to day, the sights are different, so there's always something new to take in.

Of course if one goes to Indonesia, one cannot avoid taking sepeda motor, or motorcycle/motorbike. Motorcycles are the most efficient means of transportation here, and they're everywhere.

On the back of a motorbike (always the back, because I'm forbidden to drive, not that I know how to anyway!), with all the protective barriers of a car stripped away, I'm right in the middle of all the action. Fellow riders are just a hair's width away, and so are giant cars, trucks, and buses. The first time I rode a motorbike I was absolutely terrified I'd fall off. Now it's my favorite mode of transportation.

There's a saying that goes, "life isn't about the destination, it's about the journey." I believe this is absolutely true. I'm never singularly focused on the mall or the supermarket or school, I'm always enjoying the sights passing by. I'm not most looking forward to the end of my exchange, when I'll know how to function in Indonesian and have all the memories of my year behind me, I'm focusing on enjoying things as they come.

Even the boring days, the days where I feel aimless, the days that are difficult to get through. The days where I grow, and become a more interesting and worthy person. I'm learning how to live each moment to the fullest, because this year is a countdown.

I only have about seven months left in Indonesia. Seven months doesn't leave time for wallowing in sadness or being afraid of what other people think. Seven months means that if I want to explore my neighborhood, learn the language, or try a certain food, I can't waste time being afraid. Because I'll never get this year, this day, this moment back.

Life is too short to wait. Life is too short to think only about the destination, the culmination of an experience. It's so easy to think you understand this concept while you're at home, living the same life you've always lived, where time seems to stretch on forever. There's no rush to do anything because there's no foreseeable deadline, there's no end to the opportunity to experience things.

It takes coming abroad to truly realise that time is always limited. Every moment is a moment stolen from death, a moment closer to departure, a moment that disappears into forever if you don't spend it wisely.

So? It's time to take a risk. To seize the moment, seize the day, to live completely without regrets. To not just enjoy the journey, to become the journey. To jump into the action, not just stare through the window, saying "I wish" instead of "I will".

To trust that everything will work out for the best. To trust that the journey is taking you where you need to be. To trust that everything will be okay in the end, and that if it's not okay, it's not the end.

To live. To move. To be. And to love, every moment of every day, with no fears and no regrets.

Fabulous Adventures in Buddhism

Monday, November 19, 2012

88% of Indonesians are Muslim - In fact, this archipelago is the largest Muslim country in the world, exceeding even Saudi Arabia (or other more conventionally thought of Islamic nations) in population of Muslims. Most of the people I interact with in my day-to-day life, from my classmates to my host family, are Muslim.

But Indonesia still is a multi-cultural and multi-religious place. When registering with the government one must declare a religion - and there are six to choose from, not one. Here, you can be a Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, or Confucianist.

Being the ever-curious exchange student that I am, while learning about Islam I also want to learn more about the other religions that exist here. In Boise, Buddhism is small, Hinduism is smaller, and Confuscianism is, as far as I know, non-existent - and I'm immensely curious about theology. So where better to educate myself than here, a country where temples are large and people are open and enthusiastic about their beliefs?

My host family, after learning of this little goal of mine, were awesome enough to bring me to two of the Buddhist/Hindu temples in Surabaya so I could see first-hand where people worship.

The first was a Buddhist temple that's actually less than five minutes away from my house, by foot. It was closed when we got there, but they graciously opened their doors and showed me around. I learned about the Bodhisattvas, ones who are close to Nirvana but do not enter it, because they want to help save the living beings left in the world from suffering. Bodhisattvas are worshipped as deities in Mahayana Buddhism, which is the type practiced here.

I was also taught how to pray to the Bodhisattvas, and how to have my fortune told... basically, you hold a wooden 'can' of sorts, which is filled with flat sticks, and you shake it until one stick falls out. The sticks all have numbers on them, and the numbers correspond with papers which have small readings/fortunes on them. The one I drew said that I am a peaceful and unperturbed person, which is something I'm working towards becoming here. So, pretty accurate ya? I'm happy with it.

The guru who lives at the temple also came to speak especially with me, which was an enormous honor seeing as our visit was pretty much completely spontaneous. He studied in America so his English is really good, and it was just amazing speaking to someone who is so wise and respected. I was invited to group meditation the following day, which I attended, and will talk about in a moment. I left the temple with some free books and a lot of gratitude towards the people who were so kind to me and my host parents.

Inside said Buddhist temple... those are the Bodhisattvas, and in front of them is the chair the guru sits in during meditation. You can't see it in this picture though.

After the first temple we drove to another, which is inside something which I might describe as an Indonesian theme park... without the rides, and the hoardes of people. It's called Kenjeran Park. Basically there were a lot of interesting structures and places for people to walk, and this being Indonesia, to take multitudes of pictures in front of. It was sort of empty when we went and I was told that it's dangerous at night, but from the car window seemed interesting enough.

Anyway, Kenjeren is famous for its statue, The Four-Faced Buddha, which is the largest monument of its kind in Indonesia. I'll let pictures explain, but I'll also say it was beautiful and peaceful, and I got to watch a man leave offerings of flowers and incense in front of it too.

(The story behind the four faces is that Buddha has four good senses - compassion, generosity, justice, and meditation. In his hands he's holding holy objects like defence weapons, books of scripture, holy water, prayer beads, and etc.)

Also in Kenjeran there's a big Buddhist temple. It was much bigger than the one by my house and a lot of people were visiting that day. The smell of incense and sound of old Chinese men chanting prayers made the whole place feel sort of magical, in a way. I can honestly spend hours in places like that, standing in front of the multiple altars, smelling the fragrant air and feeling perfectly at peace.

But, while I was in my little trance ayah invited me to go outside, which confused me: I didn't know there was anything out there. But to my great surprise (and joy!) there was a huge, gorgeous gate, and.... the OCEAN! I'd been waiting forever for the moment when I could finally see it. Surabaya is near the sea but I've been constantly told that the beaches here are disgusting so I haven't gone. When I saw it I literally jumped and squealed and ran out to just stare out into the vast green emptiness.

Ugly lil fishy things. I don't know how they breathe out of water but apparently... they do! 

Cut to the next day: since I was invited and the temple is uber-close to my house, I attended meditation with some other Buddhists in Surabaya. I had no idea what to expect and honestly during the ceremony I really didn't have any idea what was going on... because it was all in Chinese! Luckily I was sitting next to some kind people who told me the gist of what was going on, and I used my specially honed exchange student skills to just copy the natives.

Basically, there was a lot of chanting, and in the middle of meditasi, as it's called, the guru and a few helpers built a big fire in a stove of sorts. Into the fire went different offerings like flowers, food, and perfume. I was told one is supposed to imagine a white light in their body, while the fire cleans away all the bad karma accumulated over the week. And of course there was silent time for personal meditation. Overall, the service was amazing, so I decided to go to the second one on Sunday morning.

After the short walk to get there, to my surprise (and joy), I discovered that on Sunday there's makanan gratis - free food! The ceremony was the same as on Friday but I stayed an extra hour talking with some of the people there. Most of them are Chinese who were born and grew up in Indonesia, and they were incredibly kind and welcoming to me, as all people here are.

I'm excited to go to meditasi every Friday and Sunday, if only to experience a different part of Indonesian culture and learn more about the complex but beautiful religion that is Buddhism.

JOGJAAA (and Solo)

Friday, November 16, 2012

My trip to Yogyakarta (Jogja) and Solo with my host family started like many a journey has in America - with my face mashed up against the chilled window of a car, my butt in pain from sitting on it in the same position too long.

After about eight hours of intense driving, during which we spent a terrifying amount of time in the wrong lane trying to pass slower drivers, we arrived in the city that's famous in Indonesia for it's traditional culture, and famous in the world for it's proximity to the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Jogja!!

Our first day started with a tour of the king's palace, and a peek into a complex of pools where rulers from long ago would watch sit and watch their concubines dance. (The girls were all competing to be chosen to spend a night with the king.) We even got to see where they prepared themselves and stored their makeup.

A parade in the king's palace

Some of the king's guards in batik - very Javanese 

At the palace
The 'water garden' as it's called, where the mistresses of ancient kings would perform

We continued our walk up through a residential area, where the families of the palace guards live. I was told that the people who live within the palace feel very blessed: they have jobs, they don't have to pay taxes, and they're honored to serve their king. The pace of life in this city is much more relaxed than in Surabaya.

Jogja and Solo are actually special administrative regions, because they are ruled by royal families, so they aren't under the control of federal government. Unlike the monarchies in Europe, the kings here do still have power! On the tour of the palace we also saw some rubble left over from a massive earthquake a few years ago, and an ancient underground mosque.

Walking through the residential area - the two men are from Paris and were on the same tour with us. Traveling is so fabulous in that you can meet people from entirely different corners of the world, but still have an instant bond with them. 

Stairs to the underground mosque... just a wee bit claustrophobic.

Some of the rubble from the earthquake

After our tour of the palace we went on our way to Borobudur, the World Heritage site and biggest Buddhist temple in the world. It was originally built in the 9th century by the Javanese, using simple tools and egg whites acting as concrete, and then abandoned in the 14th century with the arrival of Islam. Then Borobudur was rediscovered in 1814 by an English ruler in Java and underwent several restorations afterward. There are something like 500 statues of Buddha (a lot of them headless) and over 4,000 reliefs on the walls. Thank you to Wikipedia for this information, hehe.

Except for the part where we had to pay much more for me to get in because I'm foreign ($10 US while the Indonesians paid around $3), the experience I had at Borobudur can only be cliche-ishly described as 'magical'. I love visiting ancient sites, and imagining myself walking in the footsteps of people who lived hundreds of years before me. It honestly just blows my mind. In the tradition of this blog, enjoy a picspam! I think Indonesia is slowly turning me into a more fabulous photographer.

Inside the little cap thing (called a stupa) is a statue of Buddha. If you can lean in through the hole and touch the statue, you're a lucky person. I could!

Close to Borobudur was a smaller Buddhist temple that we randomly stopped at. On the steps I could smell something familiar and dear to my heart... incense! That stuff just makes me happy. Inside there were some breathtaking statues and a small altar in front of them. I lit some incense as an offering to the gods; it's only the polite thing to do, especially when my life, as of late, has been so full of blessings. Gotta give props to whoever's up there makin' it all happen.

After that, my host family and I went shopping on Jogja's most famous street, Malioboro. In both Jogja and Solo, batik is plentiful and cheap, so we bought a lot of it. We also saw bule banyak - a lot of white people! After being around Indonesians for so long it was a shock being reminded that there really are other people in the world who look like me. Every time we saw a foreigner I ogled just as much as any Indonesian would. Crazy what a month and a half abroad can do to you, eh?

The next day we visited an old Dutch fort and a diorama museum. Theeeenn.... off to Solo! The drive is only a few hours but the vibe in Solo is different. Apparently there's a rift in the royal family so the city isn't as well cared for as Jogja, but I personally liked Solo just the same. We visited the king's palace, a museum of the royal family, and went shopping again. Shopping is like my new hobby. The malls and markets here are amazing compared to Boise, where there's only one mall full of football memorabilia and knick-knack stores, and the various '-marts' are your best bet for affordable clothes.

Inside the Solo king's palace

A tower where a mystical ghost princess lives. It's said that she comes out to dance when ever there's a show for the king but only special people can see her.

A palace maid in traditional Javanese dress
After staying overnight in a real five-star hotel (very swanky, and connected to a mall) and looking around a bit in the batik market on Sunday morning, we started the long drive back to Surabaya. The traffic heading into the city was crazy because so many people were returning to work after spending the weekend with their families in the village. It was also the Sunday after a large Muslim holiday, Eid Al-Adha, so I'm sure that didn't help - the journey took maybe ten very long, boring hours. But, it was definitely worth it. 

So, a big big BIG thank you to my host family for being epically epic and showing me all the sights of these two magnificent cities, and thank you to anyone we encountered there who showed us the true kindness and hospitality of the Javanese. I hope I can go back someday and really discover the hidden gems nestled away there, just like I am in Surabaya. And of course, thanks to my readers who are so understanding and patient with me being the silly blogger that I am. Makasih ya!

About me

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I'm Sara, the freckled bule, one out of eight of the coolest people in the world. I spent a year in Indonesia as a KL/YES Abroad student but now I live in Boise, Idaho. Welcome to my bloggity blog.


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