Misfortune Abroad: Missed Flights and Delayed Travel

Although the words are here, I’ve struggled for days about how to represent this part of my experience this semester. It is very negative, and I would rather forget about it entirely. But it is nevertheless undeniable.

The short version is that I missed my first flight to Sumatra. I intended to travel there in order to study Batak ulos-weaving and ulos’ social function among the villages surrounding Lake Toba. Due to complications with my VISA, I was refused during check in; and due to complications with my phone’s network connection at the airport, I was unable to cancel my flight with my agency in time to receive a decent refund. Worse, the whole situation occurred around 1:00am in the morning. My exhaustion compounded upon everything else.

Thankfully, the SIT Indonesia Program Director Ni Wayan Ariati graciously opened her home to me for the next few nights while I acquired another plane ticket. Because of her generosity, I was able to spend a couple days reorienting myself and rearranging the schedule of my field study.

Ibu Ariati’s Cats

Because of the delay, I would only be able to remain in the Lake Toba area for a mere eight days before my second flight to Jakarta, during which I planned to attend a conveniently timed museum exhibition on ulos. At the same time that I was wrestling with my planned schedule and managing the costs of purchasing yet another plane ticket, my computer began to fall apart—literally. As of now, it’s being held together by the strength of my fingers and gravity—I’m looking into duct tape.

Delicious Pumpkin at Ibu Ariati’s Home

If there’s one thing that I have learned from this misfortune, it is to always prepare for the worst. If not literally, then mentally. Conceiving backup plans and emergency action plans for worst-case scenarios both reassures me in the moment and preps me to handle sticky situations should they pop up. All in all, mental preparation at the very least helps to alleviate my newfound anxieties with the ISP period, as well as helps to avoid the downfalls of over-confidence.



In Case You Need More Sugar for Your Overly Sweet Coffee

As I walked into the airport for the second time, my mood markedly contrasted the first. Whereas before I embarked with such excitement and confidence (despite my tiredness), the second experience seemed far colder. While there was still some part of me that anticipated my field study and yearned to learn, at the time I could only see the hurdle that was travel.

Thank you, and until next time.

Pre-ISP: Planning and Waiting for the Unexpected

With roughly two weeks left until our Independent Study Project (ISP) period, everyone was restless. Restless and eager. I myself felt no less anticipatory, excited even. The ISP month is fraught with uncertainties: on where you’ll live, what you’ll experience, how you’ll accomplish your study and write a fantastic paper, too. (And I must say, the uncertainty doesn’t stop during the ISP itself either—but more on that in another post.)

An Adequate Description

For me, the greatest promise ISP held was to conduct my lifestyle with much more freedom than the regular program schedule allowed. While naturally, I expected to be constrained by limitations in environment, money, and the fact that I most definitely would spend most of my time on the field study; I also anticipated little freedoms in what I would eat, where in my area of study I could travel, what time to awake from sleep, how to spend free time, and so on and so forth. I figured that one could view the ISP period as a well of free time, and it was up to me to decide how to allot that time between my studies, basic needs, and free time.

Giving a Presentation in Class

That isn’t to say that we were simple dropped into the situation with no plans at all. During those two remaining weeks, in between the final exams and essays, we were required to complete an ISP proposal, which hammered out some of the more crucial ‘uncertainties’ such as housing, transportation, budget, and a rough schedule of one’s field study. Having determined these basic requirements, despite that fact that pretty much everything is an uncertainty—even how I would acquire food—I didn’t feel bothered. By then the SIT program had hammered in a nonchalant, go with the flow attitude. In fact, I was comforted to know that my future ISP experience was an unknown. I simply didn’t have enough information to form clear expectations, which I feel helped me prepare for all the unexpected experiences—of which there were many.

Preparation for the Language Exam

One such experience occurred before I even departed. As I was compiling my ISP proposal, so were the other students; and it was a topic often featured in our final conversations with each other. We found our thoughts wandering towards out financial budgets and the stipend allotted to us by the program (7 million rupiah: roughly $500). To my great shock, everyone shared that they were over-budget. You see, the cost of living in Indonesia is significantly less than in America, so much so that I would have expected everyone to stay within budget. I myself expected to go over because I planned to travel further; thus, I fueled more funds into transportation. However, the bulk of our group were to remain in Bali, needing no plane tickets—which in my case took up the heftiest portion of my budget. Later in the week, we were told that the cost of our VISA extensions had gone up, and it would be deducted from our stipend—leaving us 5.7 million rupiah instead (roughly $400). It wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, but it put a group already overbudget further into the red.

The reason why I linger upon this for so long in this post is because efforts to behave frugally will not pay off when it comes to the ISP period—at least not in my group’s case. Non-withstanding any costs that one may pay before the ISP period, it is absolutely necessary for future students with this SIT program to save money before embarking; and considering the often hectic schedule of the program, it is especially crucial because one is unable to make money while abroad, unless they work a few hours here and there remotely (like myself). 

Thank you, and until next time.

Our Last Stint in Bali: Lingering Java and the Arts in Kerambitan

So, this post will be technically split up into two parts. All events are set in Kerambitan; however, the first part details some of my lingering experiences with some friends in Java—despite having long left the island. The second looks at how the SIT program involved us in Kerambitan’s art scene.

Now, it is customary for us SIT students to share our college major in our introductions. We’ve had to introduce ourselves many times, and the most general reaction to my declaration that I am an English major is one of amusement. They often mention their confusion over why I study how to speak English if I already speak English—which isn’t untrue, but I would claim that the focus of an English major in America expands on other forms of communication in English than on simply grammatically correct speech. And yet, despite the chuckle that most Indonesians get from my major, there is a strange power here in being an English major, especially in the Pesatrens. Already I have received requests from male students and staff at the Pesantrens to look over their essays for various English assignments, and even for one’s language test to get into an American graduate school. The other English major student in SIT tells me that he has also received such requests. I have never felt so impressed by the power of knowing English and of knowing it well in Indonesia. The responsibility that I feel to not steer these men wrong is sobering. But I guess that’s life. It seems simple, but it is monumental to know that whenever one offers advice, if it’s taken, then one is impacting another person’s life. That is true in America, and it is especially true in Indonesia.

Group Photo after Dance

Another subject that I’d like to share with you is about art in Kerambitan. Us SIT students got to participate in a small part of Kerambitan’s art scene in two ways. The first was through a festival for the village, during which we danced on stage for the attendees. The dance is called Jangi Janger, named after the song we were required to sing along with it. I and two other females danced the men’s role because we had an uneven number of male to female students. In comparison to another dance we performed in Java—during which I danced the women’s part in the women’s dress—it was far easier to do everything in the man’s costume. Our dance was simpler and required less skill, the outfit allowed for a far greater range of movement and breath, and we wore the headdress without pain. It was all quite comfortable. However, one discomfort is question about whether our performance toed the line of cultural appropriation. We were dressed in traditional Balinese clothing and danced to an old Balinese song; and yet, I did not understand the cultural significance behind our dress nor of the song. Even now, I still wonder about it, which only incentivizes me to prevent future feelings. One solution I’ve considered is to consistently interrogate exactly why we participate in traditional Indonesian activities. In other words, I feel motivated to understand traditional practices here in Indonesia and what the  SIT program expects us to gain from it in order to judge whether or not I can respectfully participate. I am unsure how the program takes cultural appropriation into account about its activities, but it doesn’t hurt to be proactive by asking questions and taking personal responsibility.

Working the Torch

The second opportunity to learn about art in Kerambitan was through the program’s arts project. For the arts project, we were individually required to study at least one art form (painting, woodcarving, silver jewelry-making, ceramics, etc) and present our finished products to the group. I decided to learn the silver jewelry-making and focused my attention on how the artist’s creation process was extremely visible to the rest of the community through a large window into the workshop. The artist’s work, from beginning to end, was transparently on display—unlike in America, where the creation process is typically concealed from the consumers’ view. Another takeaway is that everything in Kerambitan—even the most detailed, intricate items—is handmade. People center their whole careers over one art form, and their handiwork is displayed throughout the community—on the townspeople’s’ intricately carved wooden doors, the silver jewelry adorning people’s bodies, the ceramic plates and bowls from which people eat, and much more. Everywhere I go it is awe-inspiring to see such skill.


Thank you, and until next time!

Full Days vs Free Time: Make the Most of Them Both

After my experiences in Bali and Java, and upon returning to Bali once again, I feel that it is really important to stress the unpredictability and chaotic nature of this study abroad program’s schedule. It can be cumbersome to navigate mentally because free time is precious, so much so that one has to carefully plan their free time in order to get the most out of it.

It must be said that there are benefits to the busy schedule. Because we only spend three weeks in Java, we want to make the most of our time there by experiencing as much as we can. In addition, the business of the schedule helps to eliminate distractions so that we can focus on our experiences. It is crucial that we try to pay close attention to our many lectures and excursions and to be constantly be analyzing and reflecting upon them. These habits are important not simply to help us grow our knowledge of Java, but also to prepare for the midterm.

On the note of academics, because free time is rare, I advise that future students spend a good chunk of it preparing for written assignments, oral presentations, and the occasional exam. In my experience, these assignments aren’t overly difficult nor are they frequent, but there is little time to complete them with an eye to quality. Furthermore, these assignments don’t directly build up to one another, so it is worth doing some extra research into what each assignment should look like, such as oral presentations, in-class essays (for exams), cultural observation papers, etcetera. Many of the written assignments take an anthropological bend; therefore, I advise future students try to become familiar with basic anthropological principles, as well as the general structure of anthropological papers. It is very important that one becomes accustomed to anthropological methods, because there are no lectures or information sessions proceeding these papers that detail how to successfully write them. Proactivity is your friend.

However, that shouldn’t mean that you spend all your free time studying. In my experience, it is important to take time away from the program’s schedule to further explore certain areas of Indonesia. In Yogyakarta, during a free afternoon, I and a small group of other students found an art exhibition in the basement of a coffee café, in which everything in said café was for sale—including the furniture and the decorations hanging upon the wall. The art exhibition itself featured mixed media pieces that fashioned animatronics out of traditional Javanese weaponry. In that café, I was treated to a twist on traditional artwork that the program didn’t feature.

Giant Animatronic

Street, or “Sarcastic,” Art

And art is everywhere in Yogyakarta! One doesn’t have to look far before catching sight of street art. An Indonesian student told me that another phrase for this kind of graffiti was “sarcastic art,” in reference to the political satire and criticisms that these images frequently expressed. Simply walking down the streets of Yogyakarta afforded me the opportunity to see intersections of contemporary art and politics at work.

It is almost embarrassing how much artwork we were able to stumble upon during our brief free time in Yogyakarta. In a little jewelry store, there was a shelf also selling comics. The artist sat in view in the back of the shop drawing, and we were able to enter into a conversation with him about his work, and to get a little grasp on his experience as an artist in Yogyakarta. In another location, we stumbled upon a former speakeasy turned restaurant hidden behind what is now a coffee and pastry shop. One of the very first features of this speakeasy is a giant white canvas with colored paint bowls at its side. The canvas was littered with little doodles from presumably other clientele who had stopped to leave a mark. It was wonderful to both see and participate in what I would consider an ongoing, unofficial collaborative piece, chock full of people’s random thoughts and drawings joined together on one canvas.

Collaborative Piece in Speakeasy

Thank you, and until next time!

Indonesian Islam, Pesantrens, and Hijab: Educating Society’s Majority Population

In my experience, Islam can be a touchy subject in America. In Indonesia, it’s one that none can avoid. The majority of Indonesia’s population is Muslim, and that was certainly evident when we visited Java. One of the first signs of a huge Muslim presence was the sound of the calls to prayer ringing through homes and streets. The second was the majority of women wearing hijab. The fact that hijab-wearing Muslims make up the bulk of the population in Java makes it difficult to look at them as “different” or “other.” In fact, I am newly aware of my otherness in Java when I wander around without hijab.

Female SIT Students and Some Staff

But as a feature of the majority population, hijab has an interesting cultural competent that, in my opinion, sometimes extends past religious practice. During our last week in Java, we stayed at a couple Pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools), and all of the females in our group (staff included) were required to wear the hijab while out in public, regardless of our religious beliefs. This requirement did not connect with my previous understanding of the hijab and of religion. I am still under the impression that the hijab should only be worn by those who practice Islam. However, despite the fact that most of our SIT group does not practice Islam, we were still required to wear it.

Even in the less conservative areas in Java, namely Yogyakarta, we were told that it would be no problem if we decide to wear a hijab out on the town. Even admitting that we do not practice Islam while wearing a hijab is not considered a social taboo in the places that we have visited. My understanding of who can and cannot wear hijab is far more rigid than this other perspective. After a particularly striking lecture from a Muslim woman about Indonesia’s history with the hijab, as well as my own musings, I have come to view this flexibility over who can wear hijab as a result of the fact that Muslims are a cultural majority in Indonesia. According to the lecture, the hijab has become more than a religious symbol but a common Indonesian one, so much so that it might not quite possess the same strict quality to differentiate that it might have in America—in which the hijab might signify religious difference from the majority of a non-hijab-wearing population. Because of such, that might make hijab more acceptable to wear even if one is not a strongly practicing Muslim.

Opening Speech at Male Pesantren

Let me shift this blog post in the direction of another popular Indonesian Islamic subject: Pesantrens. As I mentioned briefly, Pesantrens are Islamic boarding schools—which include both grade schools and college universities—and our SIT group visited two campuses, one all female, the other all male. While I could not even begin to describe the innumerable experiences I’ve gleaned from staying at these Pesantrens, I can try to give a brief overview of the Pesantrens’ principles that I notices and how it reflects back upon American schooling.



Dinner with Male Students

During many lectures and informal discussions with the students, a common perception voiced was that males are perceived to be essentially more logical and females more sensitive. The classes and activities available to them in each campus supported that view. The courses actively prepared the males to serve as leaders post-graduation by offering many opportunities to practice public speaking and by fostering discussion about major international issues such as governmental politics and climate change. On the other hand, the courses on the female campus geared them to take a supportive role to the men, with a significant focus on domestic responsibility. The women I spoke to mentioned that in addition to their courses for their major they all also participated in sewing classes and cooking classes. With this in mind, I observed an incredibly strong consciousness of gender roles in the Pesantrens.


Group Photo at Female Pesantren

And therein lies one very important motivation behind the Islamic Pesantren philosophy: They are very focused upon community. Each gender has their role to support and improve the whole, but those roles are gender-locked and not taught as fluid. Such social philosophies at play in the Indonesia-Islamic schooling systems are just as present in the US. A common American philosophy is a belief in individualism, and thus, school systems in America may attempt to foster individuals, which can lead to our own problems with communal coherency and communal values. Despite the many differences between the Indonesian Pesantrens and American public schools, it is important to recognize that both hold monumental power to indoctrinate students into society.

Thank you, and until next time!