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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

A Tale of Two Cities

When you arrive in a new country, everything seems novel. This was certainly my experience arriving in Indonesia. The language was unfamiliar, the makeup of people was different from what I was used to, and rice at every meal was a foreign concept to me. In this overwhelming jumble of new information, it’s easy to generalize an entire country into the few experiences you’ve had there. But really, someone who only visits New York City from abroad doesn’t “know” America. In the same way, someone who only visits Buford, Wyoming (population: 1) doesn’t know American culture. That is the beauty of Bridge Year; we have an entire 9 months to experience Indonesia, more than enough time to get a feel for the wide array of cultures in Indonesia.

A few weeks ago, we traveled from Langa, Flores to Yogyakarta, Java. This probably means nothing to most of the people in my hometown. They might ask me, “What is Indonesia like? How is the food? What are the people like?” And the truth is, I can’t really answer these questions fully. I can say the people are nice and friendly, always offering tea and snacks, that they speak Indonesian. Besides those few things, I’m not so sure that all Indonesians have much in common. The variety of cultures in this country consisting of 16,000 islands and 700+ languages is astounding. Within a week, I had gotten a taste of two of these cultures.

Langa is a rural town consisting of a few, very tiny villages. My host family consisted of my mom and dad, two brothers, four sisters, two cats, two dogs, and a few ducks. They had five gardens from which they got most of their food and sold some to pay for the rest and they sold ikat, the traditional weavings that my mom and sister made. In place of a kitchen that we would imagine, they had some firewood stacked on a dirt floor and instead of a bathroom, they had an outhouse. The girls were often working, either making me tea or food, or going out into the kabun, or garden. We woke up bright and early to the sound of roosters and went to bed pretty early as well after the long day. People in Langa threw their trash onto the ground outside with no real garbage disposal system. Other families had cows, pigs, and chickens, often practicing animal sacrifice. I loved my time in Langa. I felt safe and welcome in my homestay and I found the friendliness and kindness there astounding. I bonded with my family over children’s songs, The Voice, food, and laughter. Langa is Indonesia.

But Yogyakarta is somehow also Indonesia. This bustling city that already feels like home is teeming with motorcycles and markets filled with cheap, amazing food. There is a sense of anonymity in Yogya that is definitely missing in Langa; it is possible to go to the market without seeing someone you know. For me, this feels more like home, where I usually don’t say hi to many people on the street. In Yogya there are jugs of clean water, as opposed to Langa where drinking water was boiled. Here, people are probably less likely to invite you into their shop for tea and banana. There are no picturesque mountains to hike in our neighborhood of Kotagede.

It seems impossible that the contrasting cultures of Langa and Yogya can coexist in the same country. As is often the case in America, it seems like people in these two locations don’t have much awareness of the others’ cultures. In a way, I have the privilege of experiencing more mindsets in Indonesia than I even do in America. So when I describe Indonesia, I want to always honor the 250 million people that live here. I will not make sweeping generalizations about their lifestyles. I hope to instead share the stories of the people that I do meet in the comparatively few places that I visit during my 9 months here. It is impossible to say what Indonesia is like, so I will say what I can. I am having a fantastic time exploring Indonesia and seeing it’s various cultures. I hope to discover much more about this beautiful country and maybe after 9 months I will be able to answer all of my grandma’s questions.