500 Posts on the AIYA Blog

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Since 2012, the AIYA website has been at the forefront of AIYA’s online efforts to connect, inform and inspire Australian and Indonesian youth, and the AIYA Blog has played a proud role in the process. Contributors and readers like you from both countries have supported the growth of the Blog, and we would like to thank you for that support!

Today, we celebrate 500 posts on the AIYA Blog with a review of the most popular articles and pages from the past four years (and we also make a call for new contributions!).

From Humble Beginnings

But before that, let’s take a moment to reflect on where it all began. You can learn of the origins of AIYA’s online presence by reading the very first post on the AIYA website in January 2012 here: Media Release: ANU Students and Alumni Deepen the Australia-Indonesia Relationship.

Our weekly review of job opportunities, news and recently-published blog posts, AIYA Links, continues to prove popular with readers in its Friday mailout. Check out the first ever AIYA Links, published in February 2013, here, then jump forward to last Friday’s review here.

Our Most Popular Posts

When it comes to most popular blog posts, there are a few stand-out articles that have really attracted the attention of readers. One of them is Brahm Marjadi’s fascinating overview of culture, customs and traditional greetings in Indonesia, published in January 2015. He provides some practical and insightful tips on handshakes, religious ceremonies and Western faux pas.

Stories of cultural diversity and personal struggle are also a favourite for many of our readers. Marsita Riandini revealed the uniqueness of the traditional betangas sauna of West Kalimantan in January 2015, and just this month Jane Ahlstrand related Rikayanti Desy’s inspiring story of resilience during the 2004 tsunami.

How about simply scrolling down the page and seeing what takes your fancy – there’s likely something there to pique your interest.

Jobs and Opportunities

Job openings and professional opportunities relevant to our bilateral audience were originally posted on the same page as media releases and blog articles – but the information grew so popular it is now housed on a special page of its own, which is regularly updated with the latest opportunities.

Resources focusing on the Indonesia work and holiday visa and general tips for working in Indonesia continue to prove a big hit, and more and more opportunities for an Indonesian audience are being uploaded to the page. Indeed, one of our most popular blog articles is Albert Christian Soewongsono’s top tips and tricks for applying for the LPDP scholarship in this twopart article.

Elsewhere, permanent pages on the website detailing where and why one should learn Indonesian could provide another useful resource for Australians.

Contribute to the Blog!

Reflecting on our progress up until this point is also a prime opportunity to look ahead – so that’s why we’re making a call for contributions to the Blog.

If you have a penchant for writing or commentary, or would like to impart helpful insights to fellow Australian and Indonesian youth, then we would like to hear from you. We highly value contributions focusing on job and study experiences and opportunities, because we know that’s what many of you like reading most! Articles written in Indonesian are brilliant too.

We’re open to ideas and suggestions – the emphasis is on producing content that is relevant and interesting for a bilateral audience. If you’re intrigued, feel free to have a read of our Writing for AIYA Guide and get in touch.

Thank you all for your continued support of the AIYA Blog, and we hope to be publishing your pieces soon!

Melbourne Writers Festival: Q&A with Eliza Fitri Handayani (Part 2)

Eliza Vitri Handayani is an Indonesian author and literary translator who has published short stories, essays and translations in leading Indonesian publications, as well as in the Griffith Review, the Asia Literary Review and others. She also founded InterSastra, an Indonesian literary translation initiative. Her first novel to be published in English, From Now On Everything Will Be Different (2015), was launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair and Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Summit. Eliza appeared at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival, and AIYA had the pleasure of speaking to her. This is Part 2 of the email interview – read Part 1 here.

Manneke Budiman said of From Now On Everything Will Be Different, “Handayani represents a new dawn of the Indonesian novel.” What do you see as this ‘new dawn’, and who else do you feel is a part of it? 

Eliza Fitri Handayani. Photo: Melbourne Writers Festival
Eliza Fitri Handayani. Photo: Melbourne Writers Festival

I think Pak Manneke mentioned that he saw something new in the way my novel weaves history into it, so that the historical setting reveals a new dimension of the characters and the story – as opposed to inserting historical events to make a point. It is something that I try to do. From Now On… is about people searching for freedom – from a repressive government, from the workings of our family and social life that pressure us to conform rather than express their uniqueness, from patterns of behaviour that seem to always repeat themselves, from the spectres of our past and our fears… Setting the story on the brink of great political change in Indonesia seems to me the most natural thing to do – an elegant way to tell the story.

Everything I put into the novel I try to make it add or complicate the exploration of the novel’s themes. For example Julita’s photography collections – he is obsessed with bringing out the individual from the masses, to see what sets someone apart from others; what makes a person an individual, where does our identity lie? This theme is related to the above theme of searching for freedom. If we all are influenced by our genes, upbringing, social environment, and such, it must be our choices that make us different from the others and make us an individual – to what extent do we make those choices freely? Whether I succeed or not, at least that was what I was trying to do with this novel. I don’t know if that was what Pak Manneke saw in my novel.

Every writer has their own style and vision – some people like your work, some people don’t. Sometimes the people who like your work are judges for a prize, sometimes they’re literary critics or reviewers, sometimes they’re just people who love reading. I feel very lucky my novel has found readers who appreciate it and love it. ‘New dawn’ or not, I do feel like I have a lot in common with Maggie Tiojakin, the Indonesian writer who was also at MWF this year. We both grew up feeling we didn’t have a place in Indonesia, we got out and lived abroad for a number of years, we came back and somehow felt at home in Jakarta. We both translate literary works into Indonesian and run a translation website. We write in both Indonesian and English. And her writing’s fantastic.

What advice do you have for aspiring Indonesian and Australian writers wishing to confront sensitive topics through their work?

Be smart, be honest, and face your fears.

Think up the best ways to bring up the topic – constructive, intriguing, fresh ways. Listen to the people directly affected by the issue. Tell stories that expand and complicate people’s understanding of the issue. Literature can tell the personal stories behind an issue, show what the issues really mean for people’s lives.

Don’t do it just for the sake of being controversial or just to look good. I realised there were parts of my novel that might be considered controversial (the discussions of sexual behaviours in Jakarta, the parts about ’98 riots and rapes) – I anticipated readers debating them, I didn’t think there would be any objections from the authorities – but those were the truths that I see, and I didn’t see people talking about them and I wanted people to talk about those topics. So I wrote about them.

Consider worst-case scenarios and how you would deal with them. Before I went ahead with my T-shirt protest at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival [Eliza printed sections from her novel on t-shirts and wore them to the Festival], my publisher and I made a list of people to call, actions to take, if there were violent reactions from the police. Figuring out the worst-case scenarios and ways to face them made me feel empowered to go on with the protest.

In this globalised world, there are means to get our voice heard, even if not in your homeland. My novel was published by a small publisher, still it also opened doors to international publication, and mainstream international publishing houses can get you read back home too. Otherwise, you can come up with many new ways of getting your voice heard. I’ve heard journalists who can’t print stories that conflict with the media owner’s business interests pass those stories to their colleagues who work for media that don’t have such conflicts of interest. I’ve heard of a writer from India who sneaks out her poems in laundry baskets. It’s great if you can devise ways that maximise the impact of your voice. Creative activists like the Yes Men devised their ‘stunts’ as hooks for the media to report on the issues they are fighting for.

Consider what it may cost you to write about that sensitive topic. Ask yourself truthfully if you are fine with taking the risks. Surround yourself with supportive friends and readers, those who can hold you while you cry or bandage your bloody fist after you punched the walls, have someone you trust who can read your work and give you feedback if you feel like you need it. Take care not to get burnt out.

You may be afraid, and that’s okay. You can choose not to give in to it. Diane Arbus said, “Embrace fear, in it there is possibility of something terrific.”

Regardless of threats or limiting laws, the freedom to write is in all of us. We always have the choice to write or not to write, and I hope we find the wisdom to figure out how best to write it. My friend and poet Nha Thuyen said, “To choose to write is to choose freedom of expression.” I agree wholeheartedly.

What do you hope to gain from attending Melbourne Writers Festival?

I hope to connect with readers in Australia. Find out more about what Australians are reading, concerned about, get to know Australian authors. Exchange experiences and stories with Australian readers and writers. Practice on performing as a writer. Get recognition for my work internationally and at home – perhaps if Indonesian readers hear that Australian readers like my work, it can be a way of getting my voice heard back home.

Speak up about topics that I’m concerned about: censorship, freedom in Indonesia, how I feel to be seen as an Indonesian/Asian/female novelist. To that I say: I’m a novelist who happens to be female and from Indonesia, and it’s important to me to tell stories about Indonesia, to see Indonesian people like myself represented well in literature, but that’s not the only thing that characterises my work. I want to be invited to literary festivals for being a good writer, not just for being Indonesian. I think it’s important to address the difficulties faced by writers who happen to be female or belong to a minority group in terms of being published and recognised, but a way to do it is to promote our voices beyond such labels such as ‘women writers’ or ‘Indonesian writers’. For example reviewers can compare my work with other writers who write about young people in times of revolution, not just with other Indonesian writers. So, I want to bring our voices to the mainstream, instead of promoting us only within our so-called niches or boxes.

What writing projects are you currently working on, and what do you have planned for the future?

I’m finishing a novel about teenagers in an Islamic school in Jakarta, they are in a punk band and not afraid to stand up against abusive parents and teachers. They hang out in the streets and they get dragged into violent gang fights. Jakarta has seen numerous, bloody street fights – many lives have been lost. I set the novel specifically in an Islamic school because writing this novel is also my way of exploring my Islamic upbringing.

The opinions and views expressed by Eliza Vitri Handayani in this interview are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views and position of the Australia Indonesia Youth Association. To donate to the Banned Literature in Translation campaign click here. The funds raised will go towards paying writers and translators, and towards increasing the series’ readership.

AIYA Links: 23 September

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ANU Indonesia Update: A political and economic overview (Part 1)

The ANU Indonesia Update conference was held at the Australian National University late last week. This year’s Update focused on Digital Indonesia, exploring the challenges and opportunities of the digital revolution. Michael York, a General Member for AIYA ACT, has a comprehensive rundown of conference proceedings and the major themes and topics discussed by this year’s speakers.

Indonesia sits among the most important nations in the world to Australia’s interest. This was reflected in the two days of robust discussion at the Australian National University’s annual Indonesia Update. Hosted on the 16th and 17th of September by the ANU Indonesia Project, the School of Asia Pacific, the Crawford School of Public Policy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Update featured distinguished experts from academia, the business world, practitioners of international relations and leaders on Australia-Indonesia relations who converged in Canberra to discuss the opportunities and challenges within the development of this relationship.

ANU, boasting the world’s largest Indonesia focused-research faculty outside Indonesia, brought to bear the full breadth of its expertise with conference proceedings covering the full scope of Australia-Indonesia related issues. Since the 2015 Indonesia Update, the world has continued to change in very challenging ways, but with no shortage of opportunities. This has forced Australia and Indonesia to strengthen their cooperation and reiterate their national commitment to stability, security and prosperity in the Asia Pacific region.

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This year’s Indonesia Update addressed questions surrounding ‘digital Indonesia’. Image: ANU Indonesia Project

The Update began with the political update, presented by Eve Warburton with Bayu Dardias as discussant, and the economic update, presented by Gunther G Schulze with Muhamad Chatib Basri as discussant. Indonesia has travelled a tumultuous path since the election of currently-serving Indonesian President Joko Widodo, however the past 12 months have shown a remarkable political turn around for the President in which he has consolidated his political leadership and control within his party. Following multiple cabinet reshuffles, corruption scandals and policy failures, Jokowi has been successful in organising his political elite around him and consolidating his political power under his primary electoral commitment to infrastructure, deregulation and de-bureaucratization in a bid to increase efficiency.

President Widodo, however, has had to make sacrifices to obtain his political stability, side-lining key progressive policies on human rights, anti-corruption and justice from his election, pacifying people within his own party and prioritising only that which will bear political fruit. This has seemingly crushed Jokowi’s naivety and reformist agenda, instead moulding him into just another political leader constrained by the realities of Indonesia’s political landscape and unwilling to take risks upon his presidency. His political stability has however brought the support of his constituents, despite disappointment within some sectors of the community who longed for reform.

This comes in the midst of ongoing economic woes, downgrades in national growth forecasts, significant pressure on the national budget, possibly disappointing results from the tax amnesty, disagreement on China’s influence and other challenges Indonesia has faced for decades including lacking infrastructure, the prevalence of corruption, insufficient access to credit markets and capital as well as lacking competitiveness. Indonesia continues to grow at 5% per annum, however remains significantly below the 7% promise from Jokowi’s election campaign which seems unrealistic given the global economic slowdown. Indonesia has also suffered from structural deficiencies within its banking sector, insufficient trade and investment as a result of protectionist policies and attitudes, significant increases in food prices above inflation and insufficient access to global markets. The price of rice in Indonesia has increased significantly over the past decades and well above the price in comparable nations such as Vietnam. This is obviously most disadvantageous for the poorest in the community and continues to leave millions in poverty. Indonesia is still grappling with issues of reform to its foreign trade and investment policies which remain limited and restrictive in the face of an increasingly globalised Asian region and global economy. This will become more problematic given the gradual implementation of the ASEAN economic community free trade zone but also leaves Indonesia economically inefficient and uncompetitive.

Another significant issue taking its toll on the Indonesian economy is taxation which has emerged over the course of Jokowi’s presidency. The government has cut spending by Rp 133 trillion however still has a growing budget deficit. Only 11% of Indonesians pay tax and compliance within the tax paying population is merely 58%. This is caused principally by the severe lack of confidence by tax payers in the institutions of state, flawed risk management in tax auditing, complicated and unclear regulation regarding taxation and therefore requiring comprehensive overhaul.

These economic troubles are in no way permanent and despite posing long term challenges for the country, they are no greater than the determination of the Indonesia people to break into the cyber domain in search of economic opportunity. The rate of startups, the penetration of cyber and smart phone technologies and computer literacy have connected Indonesia to the world and created a new wave of youth entrepreneurship. While Indonesia’s increasing digital economy is largely Java-centred, it is spreading slowly to the rest of the country and will continue to bring Indonesia to the world, and the world to Indonesia. There are still significant obstacles in the provision of telecommunication technologies which enable people to connect and these shortcomings will not be overcome in the short term. These technologies will continue to be applied in innovative and new ways to solve the everyday problems faced by modern Indonesians.

Defence and foreign issues in Indonesia are also becoming increasingly difficult to handle as a result of China’s increasing influence in the region. Indonesia may also have an overlapping claim with China in the South China Sea even though they have declared there is no disputed region. At this point in time, China has not articulated clearly where its claim ends and therefore there is a possibility that China’s claim does overlap with Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone. As a result of China’s significant investment in Indonesia, and the importance of this investment, some within the Indonesian Government have been reluctant to aggressively enforce its sovereignty and stop Chinese fishing vessels entering and exploiting Indonesian water as these actions may increase tensions in a way that might reduce Chinese investment in Indonesia.

Indonesia continues to face daunting economic, social and political challenges which will not be easily overcome given the current political and economic landscape, and in fact may be even more challenging than first thought. But despite these challenges, there are many pockets of strong development, innovation and leadership which have the capacity to move Indonesia forward and enable the country to hold more of a presence within its region and the world.

The opinions and views of speakers at the ANU Indonesia Update as described in this rundown are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views and position of the Australia Indonesia Youth Association. Proceedings from each conference are published in the Indonesia Update Series – so keep an eye out for the 2016 edition! Michael’s overview of proceedings here on the AIYA Blog continues next week with Part 2.

Melbourne Writers Festival: Q&A with Eliza Vitri Handayani (Part 1)

Eliza Vitri Handayani is an Indonesian author and literary translator who has published short stories, essays and translations in leading Indonesian publications, as well as in the Griffith Review, the Asia Literary Review and others. She also founded InterSastra, an Indonesian literary translation initiative. Her first novel to be published in English, From Now On Everything Will Be Different (2015), was launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair and Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Summit. Eliza appeared at the recent Melbourne Writers Festival, and AIYA had the pleasure of speaking to her.

It’s been almost one year since your launch for From Now On Everything Will Be Different was cancelled at the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. What has the response to this been? 

Eliza Fitri Handayani. Photo: Melbourne Writers Festival
Eliza Vitri Handayani. Photo: Melbourne Writers Festival

There were several articles written on the cancelled sessions by Indonesian and Australian media mostly. At MWF I received many questions regarding censorship in Indonesia. I took this opportunity to speak up about the challenges we are facing back home in regards to our freedom to read and write.

Earlier this year you wrote an article for Inside Indonesia about censorship, compromises and resistance. Do you feel that in the past year in Indonesia there have been more setbacks to freedom of expression, or do you feel that gains have been made?

Since last year many events, discussions, and festivals that brought up the 1965 mass murders had been attacked or forcefully disbanded, often by the authorities working with civilian groups. And then there were attacks on events discussing LGBTQIA issues. And then I heard that events talking about 1998 were also attacked and cancelled. The government so far has stayed silent about all of this, despite campaigns by concerned organisations such as SAFEnet.

I’m afraid there will be a snowballing, chilling effect – that if the authorities and hard-line groups thought they had got away with banning events on 1965, they thought they could ban events on any other topics The media, activists, and creative workers need to keep putting this issue (violations of our right to free expression) on the forefront of public attention, and putting pressure on the government to take steps to guarantee in practice, not just on paper, our freedom and safety to read, write, convene, have discussions, hold events, and work creatively.

I have faith, however, that my generation, the younger generation, who has grown up being used to having the space to express themselves, being used to discussing whatever they want online or offline, cannot go back to the times when everyone had to watch what they were saying in public for fear of offending the powers that be.

It upsets me when I hear people say there was no such thing as Reformasi. They usually refer to the fact that corruption was still everywhere, and that some New Order people were coming back to positions of power. But one thing that is completely different now from before ’98 is, now we have claimed the freedom to express ourselves, now we have much larger and freer space to explore, ask questions, write, publish, perform, and have discussions. Yes, challenges still exist, but we have also gained the courage, the channels, and the possibilities to fight back. Before ’98 I used to feel powerless, as if nothing I could do could possibly bring any change. Now I don’t feel so powerless anymore. I don’t feel like I’m fighting a losing battle.

At NT Writers Festival in May this year Eka Kurniawan and I said at least the books [scheduled to be launched at UWRF but cancelled] were not banned, we just couldn’t launch them or talk about them. Not long after we returned to Jakarta, the authorities were seizing books from bookstores and people’s possessions. Literary activists protested against this, and at Makassar Literary Festival we raised books, rather than fists, to the sky as a sign of our commitment to keep reading, a symbol of our peaceful defiance to those who think they can curb our freedom to read.

As a creative means to respond to the attacks, I am also launching an online series called Banned Literature in Translation. The series is publishing works by writers from Indonesia and abroad who have been censored or have experienced various degrees of persecution. The works are translated into Indonesian and English. We wish to stand in solidarity with the banned writers, provide a sense of community, and acknowledge their courage to keep writing in the face of oppression. The series will show that works which have been banned often have found a large audience, gained many awards, or sparked meaningful change. Our readers will see that the fight to protect our freedom to write, read, and express ourselves is not in vain. Readers will find writing that is courageous as well as stylistically fascinating. Readers can learn a little about the situation regarding freedom of expression in many places.

The opinions and views expressed by Eliza Vitri Handayani in this interview are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views and position of the Australia Indonesia Youth Association. To donate to the Banned Literature in Translation campaign click here. The funds raised will go towards paying writers and translators, and towards increasing the series’ readership. Part Two of this interview will be published next week.

AIYA Links: 16 September

The 2016 ANU Indonesia Update is underway in Canberra, focusing on digital Indonesia. Follow the live stream here.

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Life in Aceh: Rika’s Story of Resilience

Rikayanti Desy is a young Acehnese woman and an Australia Awards Scholarship (AAS) recipient, currently studying a Masters of Environmental Engineering and Pollution Control at Griffith University. Today Rika shares her story of growing up in Aceh, surviving the conflict between Gerakan Aceh Merdeka and the Indonesian government, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Tell me about your childhood, Rika?

I grew up in the 80s in the provincial capital of Aceh, Banda Aceh. I could say that I had a very happy childhood. I was raised to be independent and work hard to achieve my goals.

Rika with her parents. Photo: Rikayanti Desy
Rika with her parents in Banda Aceh. Photo: Rikayanti Desy

What about the 90s when the conflict started?

In the 90s the Acehnese separatist movement emerged, known as Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM). By 1999, Aceh was no longer safe. Thousands of Indonesian soldiers were sent to secure the situation. As things got worse, interpersonal conflict mixed with the political and when someone went missing or was killed, it was hard to know the reason. A 9pm curfew was enforced and a number of no-go zones were established.

We lived in the middle of the city. Although this area wasn’t a main hotspot, bombs were sometimes set off to destabilise the situation. Our house also became a target. Around 7.30pm one evening, my aunt saw a man put something in our front yard. She actually thought it might have been a baby given how carefully he placed it on the ground. I was the first person to inspect it. What I discovered wasn’t a baby at all but a package neatly wrapped in plastic: a time bomb. We immediately contacted the police and army. They worked hard to disarm it, but at 9pm sharp, it detonated. Luckily, the officer working on it escaped with his life, losing only three fingers. The windows of our house were shattered.

The conflict continued into the early 2000s. By then, I was a university student majoring in Civil Engineering. In order to get to campus from home, I had to cross a long bridge. One evening at around 6pm, just after finishing my final exam, I crossed that bridge on my motorbike. When I reached the middle, I heard several gunshots coming from multiple directions under the bridge. In the crossfire, I spun my bike around and raced back to campus. I couldn’t return home that night. I remember then feeling so sad, thinking how our lives didn’t matter if anyone could get their hands on guns and shoot whoever they wanted. Thankfully, since the peace agreement, the situation has improved.

I have another hard question for you, Rika. Where were you when the tsunami struck?

On Sunday 26 December 2004, after a sleep over at my friend’s house, I awoke to a clear blue sky. At 8am, an earthquake struck. While we were used to earthquakes in Aceh, this one felt very different to the others. The earth moved unevenly in different directions and the quake grew in strength to 8.9 on the Richter scale. No one could sit, stand or even hold onto the trees.

When the earthquake passed, I tried to call my mum but found the phone lines and electricity were cut. People stepped outside to inspect the ruins. Some even headed down to the beach to catch the fish that were stranded on the sand as the tide suddenly receded. Unbeknownst to them, the tsunami was already on its way.

Ten minutes later, a wall of water over ten metres in height came crashing down on all those on the shoreline and then headed inland.

I saw people running from the city in our direction. People were shouting, “Water! Water’s coming!” and telling everyone to run. I wondered, “Water? From where? It couldn’t be a flood. Could it be a tsunami?” Panicked, I immediately headed for home. Just as I got close, a black wave came towards me. I fled with the crowd.

I then tried again to find my way home. As I waded through the water and climbed over rubble, I passed rivers filled with debris, garbage and human corpses, stripped of all their clothing and some with limbs missing. I finally arrived and found our home still standing among the ruins. The first floor was underwater and I had to climb the stairs to reach the second floor. Thankfully, I found all my family gathered there, safe.

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From one coastal city to the next, Rika explores Sydney in the modern day. Photo: Rikayanti Desy

What about Aceh now?

After the tsunami, it took some time for life to return to normal. When I graduated university, I became a civil engineering consultant for various NGOs working to rebuild the area. I had to be tough to ensure that the builders didn’t cut corners. It was people’s safety at stake! Eventually, the rebuilding efforts paid off. When I return to Aceh, I hope to contribute more to the development of my province.

Aceh really is a beautiful place with brilliant sea views, delicious food and coffee shops serving export quality coffee. At the beach, we can enjoy a fresh young coconut, and go surfing, snorkelling and diving. There are also dozens of offshore islands to visit.

Jane Ahlstrand is helping the AIYA Blog relate the stories of Indonesians who have found success in youth from humble or challenging beginnings. You can read her other interviews on the Blog here.

AIYA Links: 9 September

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My AIYEP Experience in Cultural Immersion: Jessica Lock

“Indonesia is a country of astounding numbers…”. And incredible variety too – so how does an Australian go about experiencing such a country? In the latest in a series, Jessica Lock reflects on her time during the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP).

Indonesia is a country of astounding numbers. There are more than 17,000 islands, over 600 native dialects (which are as separate and different to each other as German is to Spanish; old Katut from Bali would have trouble speaking to Ayu from Aceh, as each would do so in their own languages) and about a million different food dishes. I could literally eat a new dish each day for a year and still not have tried everything available. I never knew this before I travelled to Indonesia, and I don’t think I ever would have if I didn’t decide to learn Indonesian on a whim because Spanish seemed too normal and Germans sounded like they were perpetually angry.

To be honest, the best thing about Indonesia would probably be the food. My God, it is beyond amazing: the spices, the variety, the freshness. My mouth is salivating as I write this. My all-time favourite dish would have to be gado-gado, a salad dish of vegetables, boiled eggs and tempeh or tofu served with lontong and spicy peanut sauce. It doesn’t sound so appetizing, but it is beyond amazing. I’ve actually spent the last fifteen minutes looking up pictures and recipes so I can make them myself.

This then led me to looking at pictures of bakso (a type of meatball soup), bubur ayam (soggy rice porridge with chicken) and jengkol goreng (a spicy, smelly, deep fried seed dish), which has made me realise: Indonesian food is weird. Who eats soggy rice porridge and chicken for breakfast? Who came up with that? And why would you want to eat a smelly seed? Whatever the reasoning behind each question, I’m oblivious to the answer and I just want to eat it all.

Part of the family I met in Pontianak
Jessica with a few members of the family she met in Pontianak. Photo: Jessica Lock

The best thing about eating in Indonesia is that it is such a social experience. There will always be a local to chat to, someone that is interested in why you are in Indonesia, why you are not married and if you would like to marry their son or nephew, what you are doing later that day so you can come to their local community and attend a wedding, visit the family or hug some woman’s very pregnant belly so you can impart your ‘white beauty’ on their unborn child.

I remember once when I was in Indonesia doing the ACICIS program, a friend and I took a trip to Pontianak in Kalimantan, and I had to visit the local internet café so I could Skype my parents and let them know I was still alive. I was walking along the street when suddenly a man yelled out to me: “Hey Mister! Mister! Di sini, di sini, mau kopi?” (“Here, here, do you want a coffee?”). Of course I was hesitant as I was on my own and there was a grown man yelling at me to come sit with him. However, Indonesia isn’t quite like other countries, and he was in a public place drinking coffee in a café. I wandered on over for a chat and a coffee and next thing you know, I’m eating food on the floor of his house with his mother, wife, sisters and other women and children of the local desa.

Several hours later and not having actually reached the Internet café, I’m dropped off to my hotel and had to explain to my friend why I had been gone for most of the day when I was only meant to disappear for an hour at most. I go to sleep that night knowing I would never again see the amazing friendly and loud family of that day. They were hospitable while continually forcing food onto me and filling my plate again and again. The children were joyous and open and weren’t afraid of a stranger in their house eating their food.

On the dusty streets of Pontianak. Photo: Jessica Lock

On the dusty streets of Pontianak. Photo: Jessica Lock

The next day my friend and I wandered out to a local warung for food when suddenly the sky opened up raining cats and dogs. The streets started to flood within minutes and we became stuck. When we just started to get used to the idea that our plans for exploring the city were now circling the drains like the rubbish that litters the streets around us, I got a phone call from the family from the day before. The kids were afraid of our safety in the rain and wanted to make sure that we still had plans for the day. I responded that yes we were fine, but no, we couldn’t get anywhere.

Next thing I knew, they had organised to pick us both up and take us on a tour of Pontianak. The family van then sped down the road straight towards me and squealed to a halt a foot from where I was standing. One of the children’s head popped out and yelled for us to get in, so we climbed in and were off for our personal tour of the city. We were treated to all the sights and sounds of Pontianak and given KFC chicken and rice for tea. (KFC and rice, you say? Yep, you heard right, rice takes the place of chips.) I feel that I have experienced a part of Pontianak and a part of Indonesian culture that other travellers may have never experienced.

This is truly what I love about Indonesia and why I believe that people, especially Australians, should immerse themselves in Indonesian culture. It is the spontaneity, the surprises, and the never-ending opportunities for adventure that encourage me to go back and do more, see more and eat more. Australia is a very lucky country to have such a diverse, friendly and spontaneous neighbour right on our doorstep. As well as exploring the vast and expansive archipelago from the beaches to the rainforests, there are many opportunities to truly understand the culture, as the people are beyond friendly and inviting. They want to get to know you, they want to marry you off to their children, they want you to eat their food and drink their drinks and they want you to learn their language. Nothing stops them, so what’s stopping you?

This article is one of a series of reflections from alumni of Australia-Indonesia student exchange programs. Read the experiences of other AIYEP participants here. The editors of the AIYA Blog would also like to thank Samantha Howard for her assistance in commissioning and editing these articles. You can find her solo and collaborative blog and journal writing here and here.

Temu Lawak: Independence Day Event Review

Temu Lawak, or Teater Muda Langkah Awal Merdeka, was held on 20 August 2016 before a packed house at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne to celebrate the 71st anniversary of Indonesian independence. The Indonesian Students’ Association (Perhimpunan Pelajar Indonesia Australia or PPIA) Victoria was joined at the event by comedian Pandji Pragiwaksono, who is on his Juru Bicara world stand-up comedy tour.

Poster Temu Lawak. Gambar: PPIA Victoria
Temu Lawak poster. Image: PPIA Victoria

PPIA’s side of the bargain was a short (45 minute) but fully-fledged musical production called Budaya Kite. The plot went something like this: Aisyah is a Betawi student studying in Melbourne. She grapples with questions of national identity after her grandpa, the appropriately named Karno, visits. Karno is of an older generation and is passionate about serving the nation. He becomes agitated by Aisyah’s new disdain for Indonesia; Aisyah is focused on the rosy future she could have in Melbourne.

In the end, national pride wins out. Aisyah returns to Jakarta just as her grandpa has given up on her. This educational message was mixed with some impressive production, acting, singing, cross-dressing, slapstick, and a cameo from a tree.

Nevertheless, it was Pandji Pragiwaksono who stole the show. Like Budaya Kite, his stand-up routine mixed serious messages with humour. Pandji covered TV ratings, censorship, sinetron, prostitution (there was a golden moment of absolute silence when he segued to this topic), innovation, the Indonesian economy and… penis size. There was the odd impression thrown in too. He really covered all bases, imparting some career advice for the mostly young Indonesian audience between the jokes.

Most impressive was the massive organizational effort put in by PPIA Victoria to run an event of this scale that involved a large part of the Indonesian community in Melbourne.