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Sunday, 3 March 2013

Enjoying S.E Asia, despite the daily challenges

March brings me to month nine in my Indonesian adventure. The past eight months have been an experience unlike any other. Jakarta isn't exactly the easiest city to get along with. In fact, a recent article I read voted Jakarta as the second worst city in the world to live in as an expat. Between the pollution, ridiculous traffic, unclean water and food, language barrier and cultural differences, I can easily say my frustration level has become higher than ever before. But, with any negative usually comes a positive. The pollution has made me appreciate Canada's beauty and cleanliness on a whole new level. Every annoying taxi ride I take sitting in traffic makes me appreciate that I live and work in the same building. The water and food issues have made me more aware of my health and I now take greater measures in keeping myself safe and healthy. The language and cultural differences can be frustrating at times. But, I remind myself that I have chosen to leave home and come here. I chose to be part of a culture unlike my own, so I do my best to embrace it and try not to complain (too much). I've been trying to learn to become more patient and not take things so personally. One major cultural difference here is that Indonesians (and other Asian cultures) are very honest. What may be considered horribly rude to say at home, isn't seen that way by locals here. In this culture pointing out someone's flaws such as weight gain or a skin breakout isn't meant to hurt your feelings. It's just people stating a fact like they would about the weather ("Hey, today it's raining." or "Hey, today you look fatter.") It can be extremely challenging not to take these types of things personally and not to want to throw an insult right back at them. As shocking as it might be to have someone call you out on something you're already self conscious of, that same person is most likely the first person to also give you a compliment ("Hey, you look so beautiful today.") Canadians have a reputation of being too nice at times (always apologizing, saying thank you to everyone, smiling too much)... maybe this is why it's difficult to hear such honesty at times. Perhaps we're too politically correct overall, but personally I prefer a statement like "Oh your new hair cut is very different" to "Oh your new hair cut is so funny looking". Most Canadians try so hard never to insult someone. I'm definitely learning to accept statements of all types living here. I just hope this extreme honesty isn't a souvenir I bring home, otherwise I may not be too popular when I return to Canada!

Despite the challenges, there is so much beauty and excitement all around me. It is easy to let the daily frustrations take over, but I've done my best to challenge myself to enjoy my time here and embrace it for all that it is. One very simple way to keep myself looking at the positives is to simply take a look outside my window. This city is full of poverty, illness and inequalities. Due to the pollution, traffic and perhaps risk of being unsafe, it's rare to be able to take a walk outside. Last month we had weeks of rain. Finally, one Sunday the sun was shining and it just looked beautiful outside. I convinced a friend to take a walk through the slums with me. At first we weren't quite sure what to expect. These people live in shacks made out of any materials they can find. I was nervous people may look at me (the "bule") and be annoyed that some privileged westerner is walking around their neighbourhood. Instead, the experience was so positive. The people were proud to have us walking through. When they saw my camera, they asked me to take their photos - while they grinned ear to ear. One man wanted to show me his bike that he was fixing. A group of small children ran up to me giggling and bouncing all around as if Mickey Mouse had just walked into their home. A woman smiled and nodded at me as she stood holding her baby. These people certainly weren't annoyed with me for being there at all. They were happy to have a visitor walk through and admire them. This small walk is a memory I hold on to on days where I feel the frustrations taking over. Here are people who literally have next to nothing, yet they smile as if they have everything they could ever need and want. I don't think I have too much to complain about in my life. Living in Jakarta can definitely be a humbling experience when you see all of the challenges the people here are faced with, yet they have a resilience that is truly incredible.

While Jakarta may not exactly be the greatest tourist destination, Indonesia has some pretty magnificent places to visit. A few weeks ago a few staff members and myself decided to escape Jakarta for the weekend and visit Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is about an hour flight from Jakarta and is an art and cultural hub of Indonesia. We decided in order to see and learn the most we could in a short time, we would book a tour. I've mentioned in previous posts how amazingly cheap things are in this country. We were able to get a two day tour, admission to all of the sites, one night stay in a hotel, transportation and all meals for around $100. 
Our guide picked us up at the airport in the very early morning (we left our apartment around 3:30am). We started the weekend off with an early morning visit to the Prambanan Temple which is a Hindu temple that was built in the 9th century. Walking up to the site was amazing. The grounds consist of several temples all neighbouring each other. In 2006 this area was hit with a very deadly earthquake. Almost 6000 people were killed and over 1.5 million were left homeless. Prambanan temple was damaged quite badly during this quake. Because of this many of the temples are not structurally sound so certain areas were forbidden to enter - while a hard hat was necessary to wear in others. These beautiful temples that are a World Heritage Site suddenly became the second most popular tourist attraction after a bus load of teenage schools girls arrived and spotted the two female "bules". Robyn and I quickly became the centre of attention. Indonesians LOVE taking photos, and for Indonesians who are from smaller villages or remote locations, seeing a Westerner is apparently quite a big deal. We were soon swarmed and had girls fighting over who got to stand next to us in the picture. I even had one girl point both her fingers in my face to make a pose as if I was some statue. At that point, we had enough and were missing out on our tour. We kindly told them we had to leave, but they insisted on following us. A similiar event happened to me in Bali when I was traveling alone. However, that time it was a bus load of school boys who were obssessed with calling me any Westerner with blonde hair they could think of (I was Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, etc). 

After visiting Prambanan we went to another smaller temple which was in a big beautiful field. In the field was "The Tree of Life". The tree had Tarzan style branches that we could swing from. It was so nice to be in a green space as that is such a rarity in Jakarta. Our next stop was my favourite part of the trip. We went tubing in Pendul Cave. I had told my class I was doing this activity prior to my trip. They all became distressed and told me not to because pythons live in those waters and they will eat me. Sooo, needless to say I had to get the tour guide to assure us that there were no pythons in the water. There were however, countless numbers of bats dangling from the caves ceiling and flying around swooping over our heads. The further we floated into the cave, the darker it became. The only light we had was the flashlight our tour guide was holding and the flashes of our camera. It was amazing to see glimpses of hundreds of bats nestled together every time we took a photo. After a pretty spectacular tube ride and a refreshing swim, it was time to continue our day. We stopped and had a traditional lunch outside where we sat on the floor and enjoyed fish, rice, and lots of other foods that I refer to as mystery meats (I don't ask, because I would rather not know what horrifying thing I am eating).

After a nice supper out and an enjoyable walk through antique shops, we finally called it a night and prepared ourselves for another early morning wake up call. We left our hotel around 4am and drove quite a distance into the lush rainforest to reach Borobudur Temple where we would soon watch the sunrise. I slept for most of the drive but at one point was awoken to two large, intimidating men banging on our van yelling something at the driver. He and the tour guide both looked worried and they sped off. Soon we entered an area that was completely smoked out. It looked as if we were driving into early morning fog, but it was actually smoke from a nearby volcano!

We finally reached Borobudur and began our climb to the top of the temple. It was still dark, so we had to bring flashlights. Once we reached the top we sat and eagerly awaited the sunrise. As the sun appeared in the distance and painted the sky with shades of pinks and reds, we suddenly realized just how beautiful this area is. Not only were we sitting at the near top of one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world (built in the 9th century), but we were also surrounded by rainforest, mountains and volcanoes. Here on the outskirts of a city that is 99% Muslim, was a sacred temple that still attracts so many people everyday.

Our day continued with more siteseeing; visits to a batik factory, batik art warehouse, silver factory, leather shop, puppet designer, delicious lunch, a bird market, and a tour of the Sultan's Palace and the Sultan's Water Castle - both beautiful! We also rode traditional modes of transportation. The Becak is a common way for people to get around in Yogyakarta and each one has a unique painting on it's side.

After a fantastic weekend getaway, it was time to prepare for our school's Chinese New Year celebration and my upcoming Birthday weekend away. One thing I love about teaching in an International school is getting to celebrate holidays and cultural differences from around the world. In January we celebrated Australia Day with a fun staff social after school. I also attended an Australian Day party that the New Zealand/Australian social group of Jakarta hosted. It was nice to meet lots of expats and enjoy traditional Aussie and Kiwi treats in a beautiful home owned by a member of the group.

For my 27th Birthday two of my friends came along with me to Singapore for a girl's weekend. We treated ourselves to a nice hotel and enjoyed lots of delicious meals out, walking around in a clean beautiful city, a night of dancing and a day of playing in the rain like kids and enjoying all of the sites that Singapore has to offer.

My time in Jakarta seems to be flying by. When I moved to Indonesia I had every intention of staying here for two years. However, this past week I received possibly the most exciting news ever! I've been offered a teaching position at an International School in Italy - my dream place to live! I cannot turn down this amazing opportunity so I now begin my countdown to Italy and prepare for my goodbye to Indonesia. My goal is to soak in every aspect of the culture and my surroundings that I possibly can, before leaving in June. In a few weeks I will head to Thailand to spend my term break. Once I return I plan to really get to know Jakarta by doing more site seeing in the city!

Stay tuned to hear about my time in Thailand - including a day at Elephant School!

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