Figure there’s more than a few parents out there wishing for a little more of an… elucidating report from their kids on how their grand adventure abroad has been to date, so I thought I’d at least share how its been for me and hopefully give some of an idea of what it’s been like to uproot myself from home and head for southeast Asia.
I’ve moved around a lot, but all in the US and haven’t been abroad since I was three months old which, frankly, doesn’t count. I finished high school about a year early and found myself more than a little confused at the prospect of putting together a gap year for myself. So I started working instead and using my newfound free time to explore my hobbies and spend time with my friends.
Naturally as the year progressed I yearned for something new and exciting, and found myself applying for a spring semester with Dragons. It ended up working out, and I took my first trip to an REI to gear up for a new adventure. I barely even processed that I was actually leaving until I was on a plane headed to Los Angeles on the 7th but at that point it was far too late to do anything but go for it and hope for the best.
I arrived in Jakarta with everyone else, sore, tired, and drenched instantly by the humidity as I exited the plane. The first night in Jakarta was an explosion of new stimuli, the sounds, lights, and smells of an entirely new and foreign land. Motorbikes swarm the city streets, outnumbering cars seemingly 100:1. Smog covers the city and intertwines with the smells of fresh noodles, fried foods and Durian fruit. Near-emaciated cats wandered, ostensibly undeterred by all of this, through the small hole-in-the-wall restaurant we ate in that first night. They searched for scraps made by the 15 of us as we tried mie goreng ayam for the first time, each one of us getting our first exposure to a new kind of flavor and a new kind of spice.
The next day was a long journey by train and van to the polar opposite of Jakarta, a small mountaintop village called Dieng, where locals sold fruits and vegetables among the terraced agricultural fields, hot springs and volcanoes that surround the town. We explored the area for close to a week, getting to know each other and our instructors as well as becoming accustomed to Indonesian cultural norms and traditions.
Wandering around the streets, me and some friends stumbled upon children playing soccer in the front courtyard of one of the villages mosques, using two wooden blocks as goalposts and kicking around soccer balls that were quite deflated. Naturally we jumped in and began to play with them, using hand gestures as a mutual language with the volcanoes and fields as a backdrop to our every move. We played with them for what felt like hours that first day and went back as often as we could over the next week to play more soccer, eventually learning their names and getting to know them. They taught us basic Indonesian words and we showed them fist bumps and how to do pull-ups. I was swarmed unendingly when I brought over my skateboard and did some tricks for them on the rocky cobblestone patio. It was one of the first real experiences with a new culture and community and it was absolutely amazing.
After Dieng, we headed for Jogja and our first homestays. It has been a journey and a half to be thrust into a home with a new family, from a new culture and basically new world, with a language barrier always looming over attempts to get to know each other and communicate. At first it was difficult, and I found myself retreating into what was comfortable, spending time in my room under the protection of my mosquito net, reading books and playing the same memories of home over and over again in my head. It wasn’t until I got the courage to go out and get to know my family, finding connection through games of Uno, delicious new meals and a mutual love of music (always the best language with which to communicate).
Now my days are spent between the program house, a lovely little place tucked into the back streets of Jogja, away from the traffic and industrialized parts of the city, and my homestay families compound nearby. Each morning and afternoon, I have a serene and peaceful bike ride between the two places, dodging the occasional stray motorbike on my way.
There are, of course, still moments of boredom, homesickness, loneliness and the like, but that is half the beauty of travel. It is not only an outward adventure but an adventure into oneself, where we can learn about ourselves and gain new perspective. The more I try to be present the easier it becomes to enjoy each moment, find connection to the new place around me and discover more about my place in it.