There is a framed picture that hangs on my bedroom wall. It is made up of 13 photos, all taken in a country which I have grown to love; a country which will always be in my heart and memories. The photos feature faces and places that I did not know prior to Summer 2010, but that have since become very special to me.
The picture is a tribute to my time volunteering in Indonesia. It includes some of the greatest views, special moments and people who contributed towards it all. I look at the picture whenever I want to feel inspired, and whenever I want to smile. It is a permanent reminder of a short yet significant period, a time which surely when I look back on my life in sixty years time, will stand out as being one of the biggest adventures of my youth.
Over a year on from the trip, and I still think about it every single day. I am lucky to have had many great experiences in life, and been to many great places, but none have stayed as alive in my heart quite like Indonesia. It was a period which I will never let neither time nor distance make me forget.
Why? I’ll tell you.
I did not know much about Indonesia before the trip. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to go there. I had been on an overnight flight from Los Angeles to London in late 2009, after travelling across the states, when I looked out at the lights below me as they flickered so lively in the cold, dark December air. Despite being generalised as a Western society, parts of the US are quite diverse in nature and of particular fascination to me had been the deserted mass of sandstone valleys so characteristic of the Southern states. I had marvelled at the Navajo Indians, and the simplistic lifestyles they led in the middle of nowhere, inhabiting their mud-built hogans, using the rising sun as their alarm clocks. Having never visited anywhere outside of Europe or North America before, I sat on the plane scribbling down my memories in a notepad and suddenly thought to myself, “If a Western society like the States can be this diverse, what about the rest of the world?”
There and then, I made a vow to myself to use the impending New Year, 2010, to venture somewhere beyond anything I had ever seen or known before: Asia.
I wanted to go somewhere traditional, where the culture would not have been destroyed by the sweeping Westernisation that comes from mass tourism. I wanted to go somewhere where the way of life would be so different to the “work Monday to Friday, get drunk at weekend” routine that I had become accustomed to in the job I had been stuck in after graduating. I wanted to go somewhere and have an experience that would shake up my values and either reinforce my existing beliefs, provide me with new ones, or both. I wanted both the challenge and the dream, and I can happily say that I found all of those things in the Muslim city of Padang, Indonesia.
When I first arrived in Padang, jet-lagged and with a severe lack of sleep, I just remember it being very hot, very green, and like nowhere I’d ever been. A man in uniform at the Airport with whom I could not communicate had taken my bag on a trolley somewhere and Security had spent a long time questioning me over my reasons for being there. A girl with a big smile called out to me, she knew my name, I recognised her as my host, Orin. At that point, I barely knew her, but that was the first meeting I had with the girl who would then become so familiar, and such a sister to me. She and her family weren’t just my ‘host-family’, they were my family and I came to love them so. As we drove out of the airport towards my new home for the next two months I felt pleased to have finally arrived and fulfilled that promise I’d made to myself on that plane home from America. Now, it was time to start living the dream, rather than merely dreaming it.
My wonderful host family
My siiiister sayang!!
The next eight weeks will stay in my mind forever. I was so happy whilst in Indonesia and there is not a day that has gone by when I haven’t thought about the trip at some point. It is a wonderful state of living if you feel like you’re making the most out of every single second, and that’s how I felt whilst I was out there. There was never a boring moment because absolutely everything had a purpose to it there. Things weren’t always easy, it took me a few days to figure out where I was and what I was doing; and when you’re a hormonal 24-year old woman the furthest away from home you’ve ever been in a relentless heat you’ve never felt before, it is inevitable to get quite emotional from time to time. One or two times, I got a little bit homesick, though generally not as much as I thought I would thanks to the phenomenon of e-mails and the great company I had around me the whole time. There were definitely challenges – adjusting to the heat and mosquito bites, sinking in the muddy rice paddies in my white sandals, having to remember many names, and having to cope with the unease that comes from not knowing what the people around you are saying – but the more challenging things are, the more you take from them, and that’s why I love challenges!
I loved feeling like I was part of a community. The true meaning of travel is not about going from place to exotic place and drinking from beach to beach whilst eating a McDonalds’ Happy Meal, it’s about the journey within yourself that you start when you join a community, make a life in the community, and then give something back to that community.
Earthquake Workshop, “shopping round in the hotel”
The orphans I taught…
Living somewhere where not everybody spoke English taught me that communication is not just about the words you can speak to one another, but the smiles you can show at one another and the things you can experience together – playing a game of football, chasing each other or simply just laughing with one another about something you’d seen. Communication is not just about speech and language, but empathy, understanding and the kind of spiritual connections that can be formed across any kind of channel or delta.
Singing along with the Angkot music
Many funny moments
Being involved in the Earthquake project was similarly as rewarding. Everybody worked so hard towards a common cause. It made the threat of Earthquakes not just about “something that happens far away” but something that happens on the planet in which we ALL live. When we felt that tremor one wet, thundery afternoon I experienced first-hand the threat and worry which the Indonesians have to deal with every day. Whilst it was only a relatively small tremor, it made me very emotional. I thought about all my loved ones and realised how important it is to love them relentlessly, and to certainly not let petty disagreements govern your relations – life is short, finite and can be taken away at any time, whereas regret is long.
Earthquake Workshop in orphanage
The PBox Earthquake II Team!
I didn’t meet one rude Indonesian (I don’t think anyway, who knows what they said about me in Bahasa!). (Actually the lady that whipped Ishita and I on the bum with the very towel that we were trying to bargain over in Bali could maybe be considered rude!). But overall, they were very friendly, and so considerate. I saw a politeness and warmth which I wish I could say I see in my own society but sadly, I don’t, not on that scale. The Indonesians were interested in knowing you, they would shake your hand and want to know where you were from, they respected you. The best thing was that they were all so proud of their own heritage and culture, and they enjoyed helping you experience it.
Smiling, welcoming faces
Another key lesson I learnt was that your life is yours, and it should be lived the way you’d like it to be lived. I am grateful of the good education which I received as a teenager and young adult, but teaching somebody how to get a good grade in an A-Level examination or a degree, is not the same as the important teachings that come from experiencing life itself. I will always resent the fact that the school I went to encouraged success to mean a glistening career, or a pot of money, or long holidays to exotic places. Success is not limited to those but is massively consistent of other major accomplishments – love, happiness and experience; and a good, successful lifestyle is any that can incorporate the preceding three values.
Coming home from Indonesia was extremely difficult. I remember many tears upon take-off. During my first few days back in England, I felt like there was a raincloud constantly above my head. I was miserable to be back, and it seemed like no amount of radiation could make my sun shine again. I spent the whole week looking over the only photos and listening to the only songs that could cheer me up. I lay in my bed looking at the ceiling and thought about how the last time I had done so was the night before the adventure started.
I constantly reminded myself not to “be sad that it’s over, but be happy that it happened”. It was hard to think like that at first, when all I wanted to do was cry, but there’s a certain truth in the statement. The truth is, that even though the experience is finished and I cannot go back and re-live it all, I am just happy to have the friends and memories that came of it. Each person I met, be it the Indonesians or the trainees, who came from all over the world, taught me something special – something about their culture, their beliefs, and the universal languages of love and respect. I miss everybody so much but to be honest, with the memories so frequently coming into mind, it feels like they are still so near. I still feel like I could wake up tomorrow and catch a green angkot to Jati and go for lunch in Red Chilli restaurant and plan a trip with the other trainees. I cannot believe it was last year.
…in beautiful Lake Maninjau
Lots of fun days out
The tears did eventually stop, when I realised I had to move on and start work on the next phase of my life – trying to establish my career, but that doesn’t mean the experience will ever be forgotten, because when times get difficult and I need a reminder of how life can be beautiful, I will look at that picture and remember. The memory of it all lives on, it shall never die.
Aku Cinta Kamu Indonesia
A sky I’ll never forget…
Indonesia; May – August 2010