My name is Marie and I want to take you on a journey to Jogjakarta, Indonesia. With this blog, I want to capture experiences, encounters and all the other things that I’ll find exciting.
After my finals last year, I’ve earned money with several temporary jobs and then travelled through Southern Europe. Now I want to spend three month with relatives, a mixed Indo-German family, in their home in Jogja. Get to know the country, the people and daily life in Indonesia. This blog is personal and spontaneous: no conceited, perfect articles, but intuitive accounts. Currently, I do several creative internships in design, film – and writing.
I come from Wuppertal, Germany, which at this moment is 14.616 kilometer away. And I can feel the distance, also mentally: in the behavior of many people here, in the traffic, in family life, in cultural rules. I’ll try my best to describe all these things, of course, from my subjective view – little scenes from daily life, but also big events.
Let’s see what will happen during my time here!
Living in a family offers a special insight into a country and seems to be less scary than travelling alone. Especially, if it’s on the other side of the world.
The first time I travelled to Indonesia was in 2014 – together with my family. When I told my classmates back then about our destination, very few knew anything about this country. The usual reactions were: “Where do you go – Tunisia?”, “Where is it?” or “Why do you want to go there?” Some people had heard about Bali, indeed, the paradisiac Island of Gods, a surfer’s dream or just a holiday delight, but they didn’t put it into connection with the huge Indonesian archipelago and the numerous other highlights and spots it has to offer. The most absurd reaction came from a former classmate who asked, if Indonesia was even accessible yet. Back from my first visit, I told him about the impressions I got of the huge metropolis Jakarta.
Before leaving to Indonesia the second time, I tried to calm myself down by telling myself that the cultural shock won’t get this huge, since I’ve travelled there before. Of course, I knew that I wouldn’t be accustomed to everything, first of all because I’ve spent only one short month there three years ago. But I hoped, that the foreignness would be a little less shocking. This hope faded away directly after stepping out of the plane in Jogjakarta or – at the latest – during the cab ride to my guest family’s home. To be honest: The arrival was a punch in the face. I was totally overstrained by this kind of stimulus satiation. In comparison to Germany, Indonesia is extremely colorful, extremely loud and extremely chaotic. Especially now, in the middle of the European winter, the difference couldn’t be bigger. My home was completely covered in snow, when I left, almost no green to be spotted. Temperature was slightly under zero degrees and the heaven was grey.
View from my room at home in Germany.
Just one day later, I stepped out of the airport and found myself surrounded by the moisture and heat of tropical weather. Sitting in the cab, I saw flowers, leaves, fruits, billboards, warungs and clothing in every color of the rainbow flashing by, accompanied by a soundscape of motor sounds, the yelling calls of the muezzins and much more…
Now that I overcame the first culture shock, I am very happy to get the chance of being here – looking forward to a lot of new experiences. I also get the feeling that Indonesia nowadays gets increasingly better known among young people, people in my age, who are looking for an adventurous backpacking trip. And not only Indonesia becomes a more and more appreciated travel destination, but whole Southeast Asia. Before, it was mainly Thailand – also popular as a stopover while travelling to Australia and New Zealand. In comparison to the strange questions and skepticism, I had to face three years ago, this time many more people had an idea about this tropical country, where I now want to spend three months. They even reacted with admiration and expressed their wish to travel there themselves one time.
My name is Marie – and with this blog, I will try to describe my very personal impressions of life and culture in Indonesia.
View from my room in Indonesia.
Driving me crazy or: The absolutely normal madness of Jogja’s traffic
One week after arriving in Jogja, I decided to rent a motorbike. It is not impossible in Indonesia to get from A to B without a car: In my first weeks here I have noticed only few public buses – small roaring boxes with smoking exhausts. At the first occasion, a young man was almost completely hanging outside the door, waving his arm to push the bus through the dense traffic. At the second time, I saw a small boy running on a busy street next to the bus to jump in at the appropriate moment. No really trustworthy means of transport. A bicycle was a second option. On the bigger roads, I even found bicycle paths and sometimes you can see people who cycle their way through city. However, hardly anybody takes notice of these paths. It just seemed too dangerous for me to move so unprotected in the unknown traffic. Although I do not say that a moped is less dangerous, but as a cyclist I probably should be more familiar with the Indonesian driving style first, because you cannot just imitate the many other motorcyclists.
Every tourist guide or holiday account from Indonesia sooner or later deals with traffic: this infamous chaos on the streets, which is so confusing for Europeans – being accustomed to neatly limited lanes and to drivers, who usually follow the traffic rules. Even though I had already heard and read a lot about it, I experienced exactly the same: The traffic here is just another world and the more I move around, the more differences I notice.
Two years ago in a driving school, a particularly important rule I had to learn was the distance to bicycles: This should be at least 1.5 meters, because otherwise you run the risk of getting too close and hurting the cyclist. Of course, there are a lot of general safety measures, which a lot of Germans neglect, too. But at least concerning mopeds, most people are very cautious.
When I arrived in Indonesia, I found myself sitting in a car – so close to moped drivers that I could have pulled their key out and grabbed the handlebars of the bicycles. I imagine the outraged faces that one would see in Germany on both sides, if you come so close. Even my German thinking, that it seems to be quite daring, when moped drivers snuck through traffic jams instead of staying in the lane, vanished quickly: namely after around three seconds in Jogja’s traffic or in the queue at the first red traffic light.
Sitting on the moped, I realized quite quickly that nobody looks back over his shoulders or uses the rear mirrors – “they're just used to hang the helmet” as the flyer of a café got it to the point. Everyone, however, is constantly watching the traffic from all other sides. In order to draw attention to themselves, many drivers blow the horn. Frequently. This leads to a rather noisy soundscape on the streets, which has startled me one time or another: In Germany, I am used to honking only in dangerous situations or as a sign of aggressiveness.
At traffic lights turning green, it gets even louder, because people always want to push forward as fast as possible at any price with honking horns and roaring engines. Even when the traffic light is still red there is no gap left at the front: Even the tiniest slot between two cars or a car and the edge of the road are “filled” by moped drivers. Thus, huge throngs form on the halter line and – if there is not the least gap left – the crowd occupies also the opposite track. During my first ride, I still properly lined up behind the cars just to receive taunting looks for doing so.
Since the traffic lights stay often red for more than one minute, one spends quite a lot of time among those throngs. At noon it turns out to be torture: When the sun is burning and I am squeezed between rattling pick-ups and exhaust pipes of other motorbikes, I yearningly count the seconds running down on the digital display next to the red lights. Yesterday noon, I stood there again, the countdown still showed sixty seconds and I thought I was going to melt. Then I looked to my side and saw a completely disguised Muslim woman, dressed with two additional scarves plus a jacket of the kind we usually wear it in autumn. Completely shocked, I was watching her while she covered her last bit of uncovered skin with gloves. At that time, the temperature was 34 degrees.
Another challenge is overtaking. On my second day on the bike, I got stuck behind a clattering truck loaded with indefinable green stuff chugging along a narrow road with about 20 kilometres per hour. There was very little space left beside it, especially as the oncoming traffic kept on flowing steadily. Since I was not far from my destination, I decided to stay behind him. Two motorcyclists passed by, honking, with undiminished speed taking advantage of small gaps in the contraflow.
In the meantime, I slowly overcome my fear to enter other lanes. More and more situations that still seemed daring to me two weeks ago become more normal with each ride. Blowing horns do not longer frighten me and at traffic lights I squeeze myself every day into smaller gaps ever further ahead. And as soon as I recognize a slower car or a bicycle rickshaw, I directly look for the next occasion to overtake them. However, I'm not sure how well this driving style will be received once back in Germany...
Makan dulu – first you have to eat
“Above all, you have to clean the kitchen. In a dirty kitchen, you are not happy and if you are not happy, the food is gonna be bad.”
I haven’t seen it yet from this side, but when Ninik says so, then the kitchen gets tidied up. Ninik is a determined, middle-aged housewife and comes from Temanggung, a small village in Central Java. For fifteen years she has been living in Jogja, she is married, has a little daughter – and she can cook very well. So well, that she sells her all-organic food on trendy markets or as catering to health-oriented clients. Today, we will cook together the Indonesian dish gado-gado, which translates more or less as hodgepodge: a mix from vegetables, tempe, tofu and eggs served with peanut sauce.
At eight o'clock in the morning, we meet in front of the food market “Pasar Prawirotaman” in the South of Jogja. I wait on the opposite side of the street for Ninik and watch the scurry in front of the market hall. Some salespeople sit on the pavement and cut coconuts and onions. It is so crowded, that I ask myself, why I have never noticed that market before, although I was constantly passing by. But at noon and especially in the afternoons there is nothing going on anymore. The housewives come in the morning and buy everything they need for the day. So does Ninik, and afterwards I understood, why we had to start so early: to prepare the gado-gado we took about five hours.
The two-storey, slightly dilapidated market building has no windows. The ground floor is filled with stalls, where mostly elder women sell everything from chicken feet over big packs of soy sprouts to kelapa muda (young coconut). In their colourful robes and headscarves, they sit side-by-side on the floor, at provisional stands, or sometimes even behind proper counters. I spot only a few men, dressed in colourful shirts or Javanese clothing including the traditional headdress, slightly reminding me on a turban.
Narrow aisles lead along the stalls. I feel a bit like the infamous elephant in a china shop: the big white woman among all the small, nimble Indonesians who – like Ninik – scurry skilfully through the aisles. She rushes ahead from stand to stand with me trailing behind, all the time concentrating to tear down as little as possible. Especially the meat stands are difficult to get by: The hen's heads are hanging from their counters into the passage. When I pass, one of the market women suddenly chops off the head of a chicken with one blow by her axe. Just next to her, another woman hacks off all the claws from the chicken feet in front of her. On the table are all the things displayed you can find inside a chicken: brain in banana leaves, liver, kidneys, bowels.
At the beef stand, where we want to buy minced meat, the seller grabs a piece from a bloody “meat tower” and stuffs it into a press, which looks like coming from the 18th century. While she is cranking full force, my gaze falls on something wobbly: again brain. This time it’s beef.
At the vegetable stands, things are getting less bloody, rather colourful. I come across banana blossoms, huge pea and bean pods, small, green eggplants and lots of chillies in different sizes and shapes. The fruit stalls are still much more colourful and exotic: Some I know, like the bright pink dragon fruits, but there are also small, brown fruits called salak, which have snake-like skin and are yellowish-white inside. Beside them I see large shrubs of rambutan, small, round fruits, which have litchi-like flesh inside and outside a yellow-red peel with long, soft stings. Hence their name: rambut is the Indonesian word for hair.
For our dish, Ninik and me need mostly vegetables: beans, potatoes, tomatoes and lettuce. The seller weighs them with ancient looking scales. Soy sprouts mount up at the stalls, which also sell tempe – fermented soybeans, which Indonesians eat with almost everything. Often simply fried, but also cooked in curries or roasted with peanuts and chilli as a dry snack. Thus, there is a huge range of sizes, thickness and also packaging. We take a tempe chunk wrapped in banana leaf. Next to us sits an old woman, who still traditionally wraps her soybeans into much smaller packages of banana leaves and newspaper. As a result, the aroma of the tempe unfolds more intense.
The most beautiful stalls wait on the way out: baskets full of limes in different sizes and structures. Some look like shrivelled skin after too much time in a bath. There are also bunches of lemongrass and various roots, which all look like ginger to me. Ninik tells me, that they are indeed all roots of the ginger family, but with quite different tastes and therefore suitable for very different dishes. In between, there is a straw basket full with rose blossoms. It smells of freshness and summer. We buy a root called kencur, better known as galgant in Europe. On my “terima kasih” (thank you) the woman reacts totally perplexed and roars: “the bule (white person) can speak Indonesian very well”. Well…
On the way back, Ninik naturally climbs on the back of my scooter. On my remark, that I haven’t been driving yet with anyone behind me, she doesn’t give any notice, but leads me directly into the angled kampungs. We drive through small alleyways and paths until we suddenly arrive in front of her house. Frankly, I am a bit shocked at the beginning: The house has only three, curtained windows, otherwise just plain walls, so that the rooms seem really dark. The kitchen looks absolutely provisional at first glance. But then, during our cooking session, Ninik gets her equipment out one-by-one: giant woks and steamers, pots, blenders – more kitchen tools than in many modern German kitchens. On a small wall shelf I have not even noticed before Ninik stores a huge supply of spices. She lets me smell the dried leaves, roots and powders. And no matter what I ask her for – singkong (cassava) or banana blossoms – Ninik conjures up everything from baskets hidden under cupboards and counters to show them to me.
Tempe and tofu, are simply inserted into water with salt and garlic and then fried in the wok. The vegetables are cooked one after the other, just as the eggs. For the dressing, we pound chillies, garlic, salt and previously fried chopped onions in an ulek, a flat stone mortar. This paste is fried in a wok, along with roasted peanuts, then brewed with tamarind water and coconut milk. The latter of course not from the can, but fresh: We bought grated young coconut meat and “wrung” it at home. The whole kitchen smells wonderful from spices, vegetables, peanuts – everything blends together. After we are done, Ninik prepares a “traditional gado-gado plate” for me. The plate spills almost over from soy sprouts, potatoes, tempe, tofu, tomatoes, eggs, green beans, lettuce, prawn chips, roasted onions and, of course, the most delicious peanut sauce, I have ever tried. I think I never want to eat anything else again.
The story with the Orang-Utan or: How an idea became a T-shirt
Jogjakarta is often referred to as Indonesia's art capital. Therefore, I want to use my time here to try out my own creativity: drawing, writing, filming, photographing. Besides, I like sewing and am also interested in fashion design. Both I could use in my first project – a T-shirt design for Jokja Apparel. That’s a small fashion outlet in Jogja with only seven employees. From sewing self-fashioned T-shirts, pants and bags to printing, everything is made by hand in their own studio.
I got the chance to think up my own design for a T-shirt and then produce it by myself. Also, of course, look at the daily routine and the work in the studio, see how others design their motives and get to know the process from the first sketch to finishing of the product. I was especially intrigued of screen-printing – a technique I even didn’t know before – used by Jokja Apparel for all its work.
After a first meeting with Iteq, the manager of the studio, I first was asked to create a motive. So I've started looking for ideas on the Internet and ended up pretty fast with animals. To be exact in close-ups: a look in the face, frontal, directly into the eyes. First I draw gorillas until I came across orang-utans. I read that the look of an orang-utan is incomprehensibly profound and touches the innermost. This has been stated in several reports by people who have been touring through national parks in Kalimantan or Sumatra. But I find even in a photo you get an idea of the feeling that such a look is able to trigger. I decided to draw only the face, smiling with benevolent eyes, for orang-utans are considered good-natured, gentle animal. Of course, the drawing is not perfect, somewhat crooked, but I hope that one or the other will recognize the expression that I've tried to capture.
Only after I drew the motif, I had an in-depth look on the topic. Orang-utans, translated forest people, live only on the Malaysian-Indonesian island of Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. They belong to two different species, named after these islands, and are threatened with extinction. Nevertheless, their habitat – the jungle, which once covered the two islands – gets continuously further destroyed. Mostly for being setting-up palm oil plantations instead. And the now homeless orang-utans who “penetrate” these plantations, as the operators call it, are considered pests and brutally shot.
The second problem is the illegal, but very lucrative trade with orang-utan babies. The mothers are shot from high jungle trees and many babies die falling down. If one survives, it is taken away and sold as pet living an unworthy life in captivity. Overfed with sweets, sometimes shaved, poisoned with drugs and cigarettes, they serve as exotic status symbols of the rich of Asia. In 2012, the story of Pony attracted attention: An orang-utan woman was chained in a small room and kept as sex slave, misused for perverse preferences for years. And this is not the only case of its kind.
To get the orang-utan ultimately on the T-shirt, several steps were necessary. First I made different drawings, which differed only in details. In a team of four we have selected, which was best suited. This drawing has been copied and enlarged to T-shirt size. At further meetings, we were thinking about the colour, size and detail of the shirt.
To make the stencil, we have mixed two liquids (copying layer and sensitizer) into a photo emulsion, which was applied to a very fine but stable screen or web stretched into a wooden frame. The emulsion, which then covered the whole web, was left to dry in the dark. After that we applied the orang-utan face printed on a Din A4 paper with oil to make it transparent. In order to burn the motif like a photo into the emulsion on the screen, stencil expert Pujo built up a stack on a glass table: screen, motif on paper, sponge, wooden plate and to weigh the whole pile down – “to build a house on it,” as Iteq calls it – a row of bricks. Neon tubes shining from below. Afterwards, the burnt-out emulsion was washed away with the help of a water spray bottle, or if too sticky, with a high-pressure cleaner. You really need a trained and fast hand: When I tried first, another template had to be made because I was too slow and the emulsion remained sticky.
With my T-shirt I want to draw a little attention to the difficult situation of the orang-utans. Above all I want to support organizations that raise or educate their orphans and other captured animals. Or at least provide a species-friendly home to the traumatized or too much humanized animals.
Next, we put the fabric in a wooden frame.
Top and bottom of the frame have two nubs each – to match the indents on the wooden boards on which the T-shirts are clamped. These counterparts were now put together: the frame with the stencil strapped on it on the board with the T-shirt. The latter is slightly sticky, so that the fabric does not slip. After we have selected the colour, we distributed it uniformly on the stencil – with a kind of spatula or puller that matches the width of the frame. With an energetic jerk, the paint gets pulled from top to bottom, like water during window cleaning. Thus, the ink is pressed onto the fabric through the burnt-out areas of the stencil. The orang-utan face now was visible on the T-shirt, but you need at least a double layer of colour for better effect. After a casual move by Pujo, it was my turn. Highly concentrated and standing with legs apart in front of the frame my pressure nevertheless was not firm enough: Only after three more layers I got a colour-intensive result.
The whole process was exciting. How often can you see fashion studios in Germany, where everything is made in-house from sewing to printing? Where eight sewing machines stand in a room and each individual T-shirt is made by hand? Where a motif is burned into photo emulsion by sunlight or lamps in a small room and each product is individually printed? Unlike industrial mass production, every piece of clothing here has a personal touch. Each sample was checked individually, stretched, printed and inspected. And every T-shirt is a bit different, if you pay attention to it. That’s what makes it so special.
After the T-shirt was finished, I still had to think of a marketing concept. I've written down, why I chose the orang-utan: Because I want to help pointing out that these animals are neither commodities, nor pests or toys. And if I am going to sell this shirt, I would like to donate part of the proceeds to an organization that helps protecting orang-utans.
My aunt then had the idea that I could go to the Center of Orangutan Protection (COP), an aid organization for orang-utans with an office here in Jogjakarta. COP also operates a rehabilitation and relief centre for the endangered apes in Labanan, East Kalimantan. There they care, for example, for young animals that cannot be immediately re-exposed to the jungle. The team in Jogja, however, is fighting the illegal trade of orang-utans, mainly on the islands of Java, Bali and Sumatra. The “Ape Warriors”, how they call themselves, camouflage themselves as potential buyers or vendors, so they can track down the captured animals and free them. In addition, they are campaigning to conserve the rainforest and try to teach zoos a more equitable attitude.
I was lucky: At the moment, there’s a campaign where artists design orang-utan motifs for T-shirts, pillows, bags that COP then offers as merchandise in their online shop to collect donations. And the management has agreed to include my T-shirt in their range! I just had to add my signature and a statement printed inside the back:
NO GOODS, NO PEST, NO TOYS - BUT LIVING CREATURES WITH 97% OF OUR DNA
Face to face
"The last big adventure" – that’s how it is often called in travel blogs: Bukit Lawang, a small village two hours away from the provincial capital of Medan on the island of Sumatra. There is also the entrance to the Gunung Leuser National Park, which is home to orang-utans and many other creatures. On 15 April, I started my trip, because after designing my T-shirt, the visit of COP (Centre for Orang-utan Protection) and reading many, many travel reports, I wanted to see it with my own eyes: the jungle and its inhabitants, especially the forest people as which orang-utan literally translates.
So I took a plane from Jogjakarta three hours to Medan. From here, I went on the next morning by a local minibus. I arrived at Bukit Lawang after four hours on unpaved roads, watching endless oil palm plantations, and hearing uncountable "Helloooo Miiiiiss" calls from locals, who were incredulously astonished at a bule woman riding their local bus. The following day, my real adventure began: a trekking tour into the middle of the rainforest.
A friend who once climbed Rinjani on Lombok told me, that I should never go hiking with Austrians, because one could barely keep up with those Alpine specialists. Well, when I arrived at our meeting place, there were two guys waiting already: Andi and Gregor from Austria – both with calves as thick as my two thighs together and prepared with complete trekking equipment. Fortunately, there were two Dutch women who were about my format. With our two guides, Jungle Jonny and Sadri, we set off at eight in the morning.
Before we immersed in the jungle, we had to pass the last guesthouses of the village and then rubber trees. Jonny told us, how to incise the bark of the trees with the knife to get to the viscous resin – a technique that takes a lot of practice to master. He also told us, what this rubber is not for: It’s definitely no baby gum.
There are various trekking routes in the Gunung Leuser National Park. From three to six hours up to several days you can explore the jungle. The longest route is a seven-day-tour, during which you cross the national park. I decided to go on a two-day-tour including one night at a jungle camp. This route leaves the common paths, which are also used by orang-utans from the nearby rehabilitation centre, and leads deeper into the jungle – where we were hoping to discover some completely wild forest people.
In the beginning, still on the way of the three-to-six-hour-tour, we discovered the first orang-utan about 20 minutes after we had started. More specifically: a mother with her baby, who looked down on us from the top of a tree.
From then on, our route led us deeper into the jungle. Suddenly Jonny told all of us to be quiet. The gibbon calls that accompanied us all the time on our way through the forest, sounded now very close. And indeed: A white-handed gibbon leapt over our heads from liana to liana. White-handed or lar gibbons are very shy and therefore not easy to spot. They are even more rare are the black-furred gibbons. Both are not monkeys, but apes.
Snack Time! On one of the few even stretches – actually we walked all the time either steep uphill or downhill – Jonny and Sadri stopped to get some pineapples, papaya, bananas, maracujas and yellow watermelons from their backpacks. Nearby, a baboon, who was probably also interested in the fruits, presented his teeth.
After six more hours of trekking we arrived at the camp. On the way we saw some Thomas Leaf Monkeys, which are also called “funky monkeys” by the locals because of their Iroquois haircut.
We also encountered huge fire-red millipedes and giant termites that – according to Jonny – taste like "chicken or lemon". But no wild orang-utans. The two guides started getting quite restless, because we were not lucky today yet. When we arrived at the camp, Sadri suddenly cried out “Look Marie, there are your orang-utans!” I just reacted with an indifferent “Yeah, yeah, allright”, since bout guides have made fun of my desire to see those apes all way long, and focussed on crossing the river. Then Andi, one of the Austrians, shouted, "There are really some!" And as though they had been waiting for us, two orang-utans climbed over the tents and the fireplace up into the trees. As if that were not enough sensation yet, we detected an orang-utan mother with her baby building a nest for the night just on top of the river. Perfectly happy I ate my rice that the guides cooked over the fire together with tempe, vegetables and chicken. Later we were singing jungle songs. In between, Sadri and Jonny asked again and again, "Now you are really happy, right?”
The next morning, the two orang-utans greeted us again.
We ate our breakfast, grabbed our belongings and started walking back. During the fruit snack at a waterfall, a bunch of long-tailed macaques romped around us.
In the end, as we walked again on one of the more frequented paths, we also met the infamous orang-utan lady Mina. "Jungle trek, jungle trek in Bukit Lawang, see the monkeys, see the Mina, everyone run" – read one of the songs we sung the evening before at the campfire. Each guide at the village has one, or several scars resulting from collisions with Mina. Or at least a story of being chased, since Mina can be quite aggressive, especially if you have nothing to eat for her. The guides explained, that many of the apes had been abused before coming to the rehabilitation centre and therefore did not have a good relationship with humans. Fortunately, Jonny and Sadri had still some food left over.
There were also other, now rehabilitated, orang-utans waiting on the way back.
So my big adventure in Sumatra came to an end. An experience I will never forget. "Take it easy, but take it" as Jungle Jonny says.