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Hari Natal!

Friday, December 28, 2012

In every other year of my life before and probably every year after this, Christmas has been a quiet but entirely pleasant holiday, full of all the normal rituals and traditions. My family puts up a tree, we take time to decorate it, there's a lot of hurried shopping and gift wrapping, we hang our stockings, my brother and I go to our Grandma's house on Christmas Eve with our dad, just normal little things.

Christmas is a holiday mostly made up of those sorts of traditions, steeped in nostalgia and stubbornly clung to by most Americans. That includes young expats flung halfway across the world, living in a Muslim-majority country where Christmas is nothing more than an unfamiliar, completely commercial holiday recently imported from America with the likes of KFC and short-shorts.

Giant Christmas tree in Jakarta

My Christmas here in Indonesia was completely unique and by far the most memorable I've ever had.

All of us Americans living in Indonesia flew into Bandung the day before Christmas Eve, partly to attend Morgan's memorial (held in Bandung because that's where she lived) and partly so we could celebrate Christmas as a family. Bandung greeted us with a bit of confusion, and massive amounts of rain. The memorial ended up being a few hours after we arrived, when we (Avery and I at least) thought it'd be the next day.

We got dressed and attended the event, which was wonderful in that we got to remember Morgan for her life but also stressful in other ways, mostly due to some large cultural differences. Really, my experience in mourning and dealing with death in Indonesia can be very well described as 'an ordeal'. I really want to write a post about what's been happening, because it offers some cultural insight, but I don't think I'm ready to do that just yet.

After the memorial, we went out to dinner at a super fancy restaurant and slept in the empty house of an AFS volunteer. The next day: Christmas Eve! We all woke up and talked about how strange it was that it was Christmas Eve, because it didn't really feel like it. In a place like this, Christmas cheer is entirely self-produced, you can't just absorb it from commercials and overly decorated stores.

Our day consisted of visiting Hamza's house, seeing the view from their roof (which was perfectly safe, it's actually pretty common to be able to go on Indonesian roofs), and visiting a huge rock nearby where there was another amazing view. We saw the city from ojek (motorcycle public transport), angkot (little public buses) and on our feet walking. Bandung is breathtaking - it even feels a little familiar. The hills and the dense plant life remind me of Idaho and Oregon, both places that I miss immensely while I'm home in flat and normal Surabaya. It was even cold at times, a feeling that's become foreign to me after living here for so long!

We also went shopping for last-minute gifts and supplies for Christmas the next day, afterwards eating chicken porridge at a warung, surrounded by flies and our packages, elated with the joy of giving, and feeling like real Indonesians for a little while.

Christmas began in a bit of an unusual way: we took an hour or two to go by angkot back to Hamza's house. I can't even blame the Indonesians for staring that morning, we were a bit of a strange sight: seven bule, arms loaded with bags, one even carrying a giant stuffed panda wrapped in plastic (Hamza's gift for his younger host brother), sitting on angkot like it was the most normal thing in the world. And in a way, for us, it really is the most normal thing. We're just learning to embrace the odd moments as much as we can.

Naik angkot yaaa

To get all the way up to the house, however, we had to take becak. Avery and I used one, my first experience riding with three to a bike. It's not a big deal, as long as the person on the back holds on tight. But in the middle of the ride it started absolutely pouring rain, soaking us to the bone but completely thrilling us at the same time. We knew this would be something we'd never forget - blinking through streams of water, zipping through crowded Indonesian streets clutching packages to our chests, laughing about how all our friends in America were at home sleeping warm in their beds and we were out doing this. 

When we finally got out of the rain and into the house, we changed into some dry clothes and got to work cooking some American-esque food, like french fries and pancakes, for our fabulous Christmas dinner. Hamza and David ran out to buy paper and styrofoam and extra scissors so we could get to work making a tree and some stockings and other decorations, because the pre-made ones at Hypermart were waaaay too expensive.

Once all the decorations were done, we hung them up, I accidentally fell asleep, David sang for a video of a medley of maybe twenty different Christmas songs, and we all gathered around our unorthodox, but undeniably amazing little tree to exchange gifts. The night petered out a bit, as all Christmases seem to, and we all ended up falling asleep watching movies.

Like I've mentioned, it was a very different experience than all of us are used to, but through sheer willpower we made Christmas happen - with all that we had. It goes to show that you really don't need anything but your own good energy and cheerful spirit to make a holiday happen or a season bright. I thoroughly enjoyed my Indonesian Christmas, random bouts of 'huh-everyone's-probably-opening-presents-now' homesickness aside.

The next day, we had to go to the airport fairly early, but first we visited a large traditional market in Bandung. When we left, the street was busy and damp from the rain and kind of embodied everything I had imagined Indonesia to be before I left. All of Bandung is like that, and it was a little strange stepping into the world I had thought would be mine.

Finally sitting in the plane next to Avery, with my blanket over our laps reading a book of Indonesian slang I bought at the airport, I got the feeling that I wasn't just going back to Surabaya. I was going home. But, more than that - I was heading for the rest of my exchange, and I was/am ready to tackle the challenges head-on. Bandung was an amazing weekend and a welcome refresher, and now it's time to get back to real life.


  1. Hey Sara! I just read your blog, I started mine five years ago in my exchange program. You should keep writing, even when you already go back to the state next year! and then you'll be still connected with us, with Indonesia :)


  2. funny and a very interesting story from a different point of view i think :) , how long are you gonna stay here? happy nu year sara



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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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