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To all of those with the November blues

Friday, November 1, 2013

I had this post all planned out in my head. I was going to write my heart out, make fancy allusions to the struggles I had while abroad, and most of all pump encouragement into all current and future exchange students. It's that magical time of year, as we head into the holiday season, when even the most hardy exchangers are beginning to slump.

Then I sat down to write said post, and all I could think was Jesus Crispies, not this s#!t again. If I have to write one more motivational post, (basically regurgitating things that have been said thousands of times,) I will barf all over everything. 

The logic here goes something like, 'if I don't want to write it, then nobody in the world could ever want to read it.'

So instead of rambling on and on, here's something so much better. Amy Poehler is my newest personal hero, and the heroine of my current drug of choice: Parks and Recreation, the show about a dysfunctional local government in the charming town of Pawnee, Indiana.

I saw this gifset while on Tumblr and it just so happens that every single one bears relevance to exchange. And life. I might have been a little misty-eyed while reading them, because who doesn't want Amy Poehler being their own personal cheerleader in life? Besides, so many of these are things I've needed to hear. I hope they help some of you, too.



Thursday, October 24, 2013

There's just something about what I call the 'Allah' words that cannot be replicated in any language but the original, nor their flavor in the context of any culture but an Islamic one.

The 'Allah' words are just that - Arabic words that praise Allah, or invoke Allah, or forbid in the name of Allah. They're the Islamic equivalent of 'Oh my God' or 'Jesus Christ' or what have you that Americans spit out on the daily. And like those little phrases, in Indonesia you'll hear an 'astagfirullah' or 'alhamdullilah' about every couple of sentences, if not more frequently.

Astagfirullah is for situations when you want to remove blame from yourself, taunt a friend for their ungodliness, or hopefully forbid something from happening altogether. Alhamdullilah is a prayer of thanks to God, while masha'Allah expresses more specific joy and appreciation, while protecting from bad luck and preventing jinxes. Finally, insha'Allah tells you that something will happen - but on God's time, not necessarily yours.

There are many, many, many more Allah words, like Allahu Akbar (God is great), and subhan'Allah (the closest translation might be 'hallowed is thy name') but, at least in Indonesia, none are quite so prolific as the main four.

I love these words because they're powerful. An 'alhamdullilah' can be drawn out on nearly every syllable. 'alhaAAAAAAMMMDUUUUULLIILAAAAAAHHHH' - screaming it when I found out that a scholarship application I was worried about was due 15 days later than I thought was so much more satisfying than going for a 'thank God!', or even a 'SWEET BABY JESUS, THANK YOU, OH LORDY', although the power of the second can't really be denied, and I can't exactly say I haven't used it before.

There's just something about them. Maybe it's the novelty, or the little reminder of Indonesia every time I get shoved in the hall and think 'astagfirullah', the way I always think back to my friend Farah when the word 'masha'Allah' comes to mind.

All I can say is that I miss hearing the 'Allah' words and being understood, not given weird looks, when shouting them to the heavens.

"Indonesia's Transsexual Muslims"

Saturday, October 19, 2013

As someone who admittedly didn't do all that much to further education about all of Indonesia while in-country, today while browsing documentaries I saw this one pop up on the sidebar and had to see what it was all about. 

I know banci (the kinda dirty word for men who dress as women) from the jokes and jibes of my friends in class, and the fact that according to Avery's host dad there's a forest where all of the banci in Surabaya like to hang out. The Banci Forest, if you will. So there's that.

This 20-minute documentary is fascinating. In it we meet Mariyani, a man turned woman who once sold her own body for a price lower than that of a bowl of bakso - about RP 4500, less than a dollar. She runs a religious school for Muslims like her, who might not be accepted elsewhere, in the otherwise rather conservative city of Yogyakarta, Central Java. 

Don't mind the preview image and give it a look! 

Indonesian Rivers

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Scene: David and I, outside some hotel in the center of Jakarta, December-something 2012, walking alongside a river at the seamy hour of about midnight. The sidewalks ahead are washed in a glow of dull yellow lamplight. Everyone else is out and I feel terrible, physically and emotionally.

The river, snaking alongside us without seeming to be moving at all, smells like an open toilet. I observe as much.

"You wanna know why that river smells like crap? 'Cause people crap in it!"

And - as stupidly obvious as David's observation is, I laugh, and laugh and laugh, remembering all the times I've seen old food peddlers squatting on the conveniently angled concrete banks, or seen children with their little brown butts just barely hanging over the edges of combined bridges/sidewalks over man-made canals. 

At that moment, I felt so far from Boise, where the river (which runs straight through downtown) is so clear you can toss a stone into the current and watch to see where it comes to rest at the bottom. 

Rivers in Indonesia are never clear, nor even a discernibly natural color. Maybe they're an earthy brown in Borneo or Sumatera or the village at least, but in human-infested Java cities, you'd be more accurate to describe a river's water as 'minty'. Whether or not they stink depends on the day, and probably the diets of the people whose houses feed into it, or squat over it. The river right near my house would get to stinking about every night at sunset; I affectionately dubbed it 'the s#!t ditch'. 

Rivers also serve as convenient trash bins, and the homes of skipping bugs, and tiny fish who are in constant danger of being fished out by boys with handmade fishing rods. They squat in neat rows at the river's edge, contemplating the water, slowly baking in the sun, the keenest observers of life going by. 

Don't be fooled by the greenery

Despite the filth and neglect, rivers still play an important part in Indonesian life and lore. Entire tent cities prefer to take shape along their banks, and certain people use the water to wash dishes, their hands, and their nether regions. It isn't uncommon to see boys and men bathing in the filthy brown waters, and their pure joy at playing around for even a few minutes out of the day overshadows the fact that they're doing their personal hygiene more of a disservice than anything.

Many times, I was told that a river in Surabaya was home to sharks and crocodiles, and that its waters, though nearly stand-still at first glance, were treacherous. The name 'Surabaya' happens to be a combination of the words 'suryo' and 'buaya' - shark and crocodile. Legend has it that a shark and a crocodile battled in the very river making its way through Surabaya's center, and their struggle has been immortalized in statues around the city. The most famous is in front of KBS, and aside from the hero's monument, it's the best symbol of Surabaya there is.


Definitely lore gone a little awry, but there are worse things to do than buy into a myth when living in Indonesia.

What To Do in Madura

Friday, October 4, 2013

While dreaming up a good angle from which to write about my trip to New Mexico, I was randomly reminded that I have yet to tell you all of my and Avery and David's adventures in Madura. And since David's birthday was a couple of days ago I want to remind him of our AMAZING ADVENTURES, so here you go.

Madura. The word evokes an image of men in red-and-white striped shirts, probably screaming at their beloved honey-rubbed racing cattle. They are a famously rough people, even rougher than Surabayans (shockingly enough). But, I say rough in an affectionate way. The Maduranese the type to grab your arm in their utter excitement to ask you where you want to go and forcibly get you there, while only ripping you off a little bit.

To those who don't know the difference between Madura and madu*, Madura is a teeny tiny little island that's about 15 minutes by ferry away from Surabaya. They're famous for karapan sapi, an epic bull race held every October where prized bulls are rubbed down with honey, beer, and flowers for good luck before they run. It's a huge deal there.

Madura is connected to Java by Suramadu, the longest bridge in Indonesia, which is much beloved. The name, a combination of Surabaya and Madura, is the product of Indonesia's fascination with abbreviations. Avery and I were asked multiple times during our year if we had been to Suramadu yet. You can find Suramadu adorning t-shirts, expensive batik, and all manner of other things; people will stop there for pictures as if it's actually a point of great interest.

It is not. It is a bridge. From what I hear, it takes less than five minutes and a toll of $3 to drive across. Not that Indonesia shouldn't be proud or excited about it, it's just... a bridge.

Or, uh, you be the judge of Suramadu's worth!

Cynicism aside, the week when David came, we all decided that a trip to Madura was essential. For the most part we all had never really had a chance to get off of Java, and even though Madura wasn't very far, it was still something. So we scoured the tiny section in David's guidebook for something to do once we landed, and set off.


I was really grumpy that day - but I was wearing my favorite shirt, so there's that! The ferry from Surabaya to Madura costs RP 4.000 or about 40 cents, but making up for the price over driving, there's an unending stream of people trying to sell you quail eggs and instant coffee while en route. 

The harbour is gorgeous if you ignore the floating trash and the questionable toothpaste color of the water. At one point you can see where the harbor water collides with sea water. Surabaya is a naval base, and you can see clusters of old ships everywhere along with the hubbub of shipping vessels marooned closer to each other and the land.

Our port of arrival in Madura was Kamal, a dusty port city which features a bemo station, a few dilapidated tent restaurants, and goats. Lots of goats. The three bule were accosted immediately, and there was a lot of confusion involving Maduranese men shouting to each other and making sure we were taken care of. Having chartered a bemo, we were off to Sambilangan, a tiny town home to an old Dutch lighthouse and the only place we could reasonably reach and return from before nightfall at 5 PM.

The Madura countryside is gorgeous - lush, green, and glistening with the watery faces of rice paddies. It was the idyllic jungle paradise I had always dreamt of. On the way, we listened to the driver and two young women fondly bickering, intermittently answering their timid questions about us and America. 

Sambilangan was indeed tiny - a couple warung, and what would turn out to be a handful of farming families living nearby. The lighthouse was gorgeously jutting out of the landscape, unmistakably Dutch in all its white and metal glory. It was around 100 years old, with all the original metalwork and signs still in relatively good condition. We paid to enter and rushed inside, to be greeted by a dingy interior, and a stomach-clenching empty elevator shaft shooting up from the ground to the top, 200 feet above. 

The climb was long - 200 feet worth of staircases and stopping at every opportunity to look out the windows at the scenery, and the cows below. Graffiti was everywhere, mostly fairly recent scribbles, declarations of love and names paired up with hearts. The only other people there were a quiet Indonesian family on their way down. They offered us tired smiles as we continued up, probably glad they didn't have to make that trip again.

"Look! It's suckling!!" - David
The man, the myth, the legend

The climb, of course, was so worth it. We poked around the lantern room for a while, finding out that the lighthouse was decommissioned and the light would never guide men home again, before the fumes of motor oil drove us out to fresh air. Even out on the deck, everything was cramped and precariously close to the only thing protecting us from falling to the ground below - a little cast-iron fence.

We ended up happening across some friends who had much less than that keeping them from disaster. A few guys, probably about our age, were hooked up to harnesses on the top of the lighthouse, messing around with metal and doing repairs on the roof. We could hear banging and drilling the entire time we were up there. I shouted up to them: 

"Mas! Takut ga?" ("Bro! Aren't you scared?")

"Tidak! Ada tali." ("Nope. We have ropes.")

The worker looked a little shocked that someone was talking to him, and in turn I was shocked that most of the structure keeping them aloft was made of bamboo. Their faith in it was incredible as they must have been at least 230 feet above the ground.

We turned to see that another young guy had either climbed down or was helping the others from the same place where we were standing. Though he was very shy and hesitant to talk to us, we coerced him into getting a picture with us.

The singular thought I had while wandering another direction on the deck and staring out at the landscape was this is it. This is the rainforest. I'm here. It was so shocking that something which was so foreign and unimaginable when I had only lived in a scrub desert my whole life, was spread out before me. The rainforest. I was an exchange student, living in the freakin' rainforest. I had dreamed of the moment when I could see it in real life ever since I learned of the rainforests' existence, and its plight, and had done multiple school projects on the subject.

Despite everything that was weighing me down then, I felt free, and so proud of myself to have gotten so far. I was seeing the world, in a way I couldn't have even dreamt of when I was younger.

But sadly, a fact stands out that kind of diminishes the inspirational power of that story: I don't think that Madura even has any real rainforest. I'm told it was temperate or something like that. Doesn't make it any less pretty though. 

Before it was time to board our bemo and get back to Surabaya, we decided to explore the haphazard veins of the rice paddies/mangrove forest. It turned out to be just as fascinating as our trip up the lighthouse. It was untouched, wholly original, and enough for an entire day's worth of slow strolling. Shacks were set up here and there, as were little fish traps on the muddy shores. Snails crawled in the muck; we tripped over home-made wooden bridges fit snugly from one edge of the earth to another. 

My camera was dying at that point though, so I got just a few pictures, but as it began to sprinkle and I covered my head with the sarong I had hastily packed that morning, the feeling of 'oh my God this is happening' came back. I was squishing through a mangrove forest with three of my best friends, doing 'what backpackers do', as David had put it. Not even the irritated driver or my hurting wallet could diminish the high that suddenly overtook my previously sullen mood. 

We got back to Kamal in one piece, paid an exorbitant $15 to the driver, and rode our ferry back to Surabaya shores. Heading to my host family's house, we boarded an extremely crowded bemo, where I was forced to spend a good ten minutes sitting on Avery's lap just so we could all squeeze in. It was the last chance we had to take public transport before everything shut down, and we weren't about to give up on it just because 25 people were shoved in a vehicle that logically should have barely fit 12.

Ty-pi-cal is all I have to say about that, and this picture, and everything else about that day.

*Madura is an island and madu is honey

Also, as for the title of this post, I still don't know. You tell me!

The Two-Bedroom Suite

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Right now I'm sitting at a hotel near the Albuquerque airport, waiting to wake up at 4 AM to catch my flight back to Boise. It's been three sun-burnt days in New Mexico with my mom and grandma, spent riding in the affectionately named "kidnapper van", volunteering at a BBQ cookoff and wandering around the stucco streets of Santa Fe. I'll fill you guys in on everything later.

The crowning moment of this mini-vacation has been, by far, this hotel room. It's the biggest I've ever stayed in. Not surprising, considering most all the hotel rooms I've ever stayed in have been mostly State Department sponsored and I'm sure that in DC they're not too keen on putting up their teenagers in the most luxurious suites.

Anyway. Let me take you on the grand tour. No, there isn't much point to this blog post other than me geeking out about how EXCITED I am about this room.

The view from the door

The kitchenette...

With our own dishware and everything!

A toaster, too. But no bread or bagels or anything delicious to toast.

A very homey bathroom...

And two - count em! - bedrooms 

View from one of the bedroom doors. There's a pullout couch and TV and everything. I feel right at home.

Sudah setahun - so, it's been a year

Monday, September 23, 2013

Haaaaallo semua. Blog pos ini adalah yang pertama aku menulis pake bahasa Indonesia. Jelas ini, ya kan? Kalian semua pasti bisa lihat, bahasaku sudah hancur. Soalnya aku sudah mulai sekolah Amerika dan sudah tinggal di Amerika dua bulan! Aku nggak harus pake bahasa Indonesia lagi!

(Oke, yaaa waktu di Indonesia bahasaku juga kayak ini, aku terlalu malas pake bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan bener. Wkwkwk.)

Aku menulis ini di bahasa Indonesia karena aku belum buat blog pos yang mudah memahami untuk semua teman-teman dan keluargaku di Indonesia. Aku selalu suka pake bahasa Inggris, soalnya aku penulis bagus banget di bahasa Inggris tapi di bahasa Indonesia, yaaa... nggak. Waktu aku masuk sekolah Indonesia dan harus ikut ujian, aku malu bangetttt bahasaku. Semua teman kelasku bisa buat karangan yang enak sekaliii tapi kalo aku mau juga, yang dibuat aku pasti kayak 'HALLO. NAMA SAYA SARA DAN SAYA TIDAK BISA BAHASA INDONESIA. MAAF SEKALI.' Dll...

AHHH ANYWAYS. :') Sekarang, tanggal 23 September, setahun lalu aku barusan tiba di Soekarno-Hatta Bandara Jakarta. Seneng banget aku waktu datang ke Indonesia, lihat semua kakak di AFS untuk pertama kalinya...

Jadi pertukaran pelajar itu mimpiku dari kelas X SMA. Waktu duduk di kelas aku selalu pikir tentang exchangeku. 'Kemana? Gimana makananya di situ? Gimana aku bisa BAYAR semuanya...??'

Waktu aku barusan tau aku akan ke Indonesia sama AFS/YES Abroad, aku nangis sedikit. Emosi-emosi di dalam kepala terlalu banyak: seneng, takut, seneng lagi... Dan pertanyaanku cepet menukar dari 'kemana?' ke 'siapa akan jadi hostfamku? gimana aku sama makanan indonesia? makananya itu pasti pedes ya kan? dan bahasa indonesia, kata-katanya kayak apa? akan aku bisa bicara dengan lancar waktu pulang dari sana?'

Waktu barusan datang (sama Morgan)

Dan mau pulang! (sama Avery)

Di Indonesia hidupku sangat berbeda dan lebih susah. Semuanya dikit lebih susah karena aku nggak terlalu tahu budaya, bahasa dan sejarah Indonesia. Aku sering pusing dan bingung. Kalo ada orang yang cukup berani untuk ngobrol sama aku, aku selalu harus menjawab pertanyaan membosankan: 'dari mana mbak? kenapa di indonesia? kenapa INDONESIA?'

Se. La. Lu.

Tetapi... aku kangen sama hidupku di Indonesia. Mungkin ada hal-hal yang aku nggak akan kangen. "HELLO MISTERRR" yaitu yang pertama. Tapi di Indonesia, aku bebas, dan menarik untuk semua orang-orang. Di Amerika aku blend in aja. Hostfamku juga saaangat enak dan aku mau kembali dan jalan-jalan sekali lagi di Surabaya.

(For all my English-speaking readers: Sorry. I ain't translating this one. Lazy. If you run it through Google Translate it should give you a good idea of what's going on. ;) And sorry for my definitely awful Indonesia. Pasti aku nggak cukup jelas, maaf ya!)

Senior year???

Friday, September 20, 2013

Currently I, and everyone I know, am/are busy applying to college. It's like applying for YES Abroad all over again: I have a notebook full of information and a brain full to busting. It's crazy. It's scary. And the way my senior year is going now, even my state school will be loathe to take me in. Cue the sad tears now.

If anyone is curious, though, as of RIGHT NOW THIS VERY MOMENT (September 9th 2013, 4.43 PM MTN) I'm applying to Boise State, George Mason, American, Oregon State, University of Oregon, Western Washington, and quite possibly an American university in Bulgaria... This is all guaranteed to change, though. 

Wake me up when college app season is over. I'll be over there, enjoying my pirated shows and denying that I actually have responsibilities.  


Sunday, September 15, 2013

Surabaya isn't famous for much. Lonely Planet touts it as a city that "for most, is merely a place to change planes, trains or buses". It's dirty. Smelly, in parts. And severely lacking in typical amusements which an exchange student can get herself up to on a sun-baked Saturday afternoon.

So one of my stops on such a day was KBS, or the Surabaya zoo. It seemed like a dirty little secret among my circle of Indonesian friends and family; I had only heard about it through overly optimistic internet articles about tourist attractions in Surabaya. When I asked around, people generally had the reaction that the zoo was 'nice, but a little dirty'. Nothing short of a condemnation, coming from an Indonesian.

Morbidly famous for its high mortality rate, horrid living conditions, and to some for the death of a giraffe who was found to have about 44 pounds of undigested plastic in its stomach, Kebun Binatang Surabaya was both as bad and not as bad as I expected. 

For one, the friend that I went with bought peanuts to feed the animals before we even entered the zoo. To an American used to strict bans on feeding zoo animals any type of food, this was not the best first sign.

The monkeys seemed a little too eager to grab for peanuts. Not seeing a source of food anywhere other than some rotting bananas on the concrete floor of his enclosure, I was kind of sickened to realize that the monkeys were perhaps intentionally not given enough food so they would beg from zoo visitors.

... Or I may be way off base here and this might have been an exceptionally greedy monkey. Who knows.

Yep, that's a tiger in the corner. Poor baby, hip bones poking out and a nasty look in his eye, was pacing incessantly. His entire enclosure was made of hosed-down concrete.

The deer, warthog and other hooved animal exhibits were crowded and dirty. One even had an unexpected guest (stray cats really ARE everywhere in Indonesia). The actual animals were gorgeous, though, I loved the deer. They all came over and jostled for attention when I hesitantly stuck my hand through the wide space between their cage bars. Not something I would do in an American zoo, if that were even possible, but hey. When in Rome, right? 

 By far the saddest exhibit, though, were the elephants. In a huge contrast from Thailand and even the other zoo I visited in Indonesia, where they seemed to treat the animals with at least a decent level of respect, the elephants in KBS were chained at each foot and had to bounce back and forth in order to move at all.

There were two on display: a baby and its mama. I can imagine that the only exercise they really get is when they're saddled up to give rides to visitors, but since I never saw that actually happening I can't say for sure. The lack of fences in their exhibit and no apparent space for them to actually walk free leads one to believe that they must spend most of their time in chains, though. 

"Wildlife" on a mostly unused trash can.

The warthogs were undoubtedly my favorite. The babies were precious and one even came up to say hello! They seemed content to live eating peanuts and rolling in muck. 

The famed 100-or-so pelican exhibit. The entire habitat was about the size of a volleyball court, maybe a little smaller. The birds had no room to fly or even stretch their wings without running into another pelican or five. So most of them were just sitting there preening. 

The Komodo dragons had a surprisingly spacious and grassy exhibit. It was one of my goals to see a Komodo dragon in its natural habitat on Komodo Island sometime during my year, but sadly I never got out that far. Seeing one in its native country was close enough though!

 And last, but not least, this lion statue. I have an entire album full of pictures of weird-looking statues and mannequins I came across in Indonesia. No idea why but so many of them are terrifying or just plain weird-looking.

In all - KBS was dingy, dirty, and full of pitiful animals in pitiful exhibits. I had low expectations to begin with, and they were both met and exceeded. Some animals had really great habitats; the orangutans and komodo dragons come to mind. But some were kept in deplorable conditions; the tigers, elephants, and monkeys in particular.

I can't condemn Indonesia or Indonesians or even the keepers at KBS for any of this. There are lovely zoos in the country (Batu Secret Zoo was the other one I went to, and it was incredible). And obviously no Indonesian wakes up in the morning and says "I think I'm going to shove animals in tiny exhibits and allow them to nearly starve to death in front of an audience today!".

It's corruption that steals any and most all government-allotted funds to the zoo. It's the ignorance of a minority of keepers and those who know better but turn a blind eye anyway. It's the people who keep KBS open for the entertainment of the public even when the international community is condemning it.

Though not the worst zoo in the world (there's one in Egypt that paints donkeys to look like zebras!), KBS was an unforgettable and eye-opening experience. If you're interested in an actual journalistic article about it, you can find one from the Telegraph here.

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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