On the first day of 2012 I awoke to a spectacular surprise: dazzling, dramatic South Java coastline. In pitch-black the night before we’d slipped and squelched and cursed and yelped our way up to a house built by an Aussie (Leunig calendar on the back of the toilet door) atop a rice terraced hill skirted with corn. Our manic and muddy crew–four Aussies, a German, a Slovakian, a South African and a well-oiled Irishman–stumbled in at about ten minutes to midnight and immediately bombed the pool.
Unbeknownst to us it was also a fishpond, so along with that astounding coastline we also awoke to the sad and sorry sight of a dozen little belly-up bream. Our bombies had stirred up the muck and they’d suffocated. I felt woeful (and not just because of the Bintagover), but Daryl, the Australian, assured me his wife would cook them at her warung below, where we’d knocked back beers and godawful ciu (by-product of cassava fermentation) before commencing the blind slippery stagger up to their big-windowed temple of a home.
It was all a bit mad and arriving at night and having never been to a beach in Java I had no idea what the New Year’s dawn would bring. From our lofty possie on Daryl’s terracotta roof: a land’s edge exhilaratingly unfamiliar, rolling emerald hills, a horizon heavy with squalls, and with the salty wind’s soft caress a seascape both wild and serene. It was one of the most magical panoramas I’ve seen. The haphazard last-minute dash to Kukup Beach in Southern Yogyakarta with Nicholas Combe and his merry band of mates remains The Best New Year’s Ever, but that was only the beginning.
Indonesians’ fervour for flocking to the beach on days off has been my favourite part of living in Sanur. On weekends and public holidays from sunrise they descend in their thousands, transforming the Sanur sands into a Ken Done minus the bare skin–nothing gives me a bigger grin. It was no different on New Year ’s Day when it seemed all of Yogya was heading to Kukup Beach while we, after a couple hours’ gazing at that unforgettable vista then wolfing down nasi goreng at Daryl’s wife’s warung, had to return to the city. Nick found a man with an old bare bones bus but we were the only vehicle heading north into the maw of a black river of bikes, cars, buses and trucks whose trays were packed with people. It took under two hours to get there the night before, but the return trip stretched into six.
It was monsoon season so naturally the unsealed road was a quagmire, the mud heady with humidity. Our bus became bogged every few metres, but in that black river of motorbikes were hundreds of helpers. Digging us out, directing traffic, blowing horns and waving batons, all the while cracking a stellar smile back at me, the beaming bule. It was on that shuddering old bus inching along the flank of the mind-boggling traffic I decided I’d live in Indonesia one day.
In May 2014 after a few months in Bandung, it was also while stuck in traffic–seven hours to travel the 178 kilometres from Jakarta airport to Bandung on a shuttle bus–I decided I’d do a second AVID assignment, live in Indonesia another year.
After a week together in Bandung I’d farewelled Mum at Soekarno-Hatta on a drizzly grey Saturday morn, then clambered into the back of a shuttle. The following three passengers were dwarfs in sharply-tailored vests and kufi and as I soon learned they’d flown in from Sumatra and were Bandung bound for a comedy show. The constantly chuckling trio immediately plied me with kiripik balado, sticky, spicy cassava chips and insisted I join them for their favourite comedian. Two more passengers took the front then as I was alone in the back, the driver enquired politely whether I’d mind if he loaded cargo in next to me. My elation at having the back seat to myself evaporated; I predicted prodding angles and no elbow room. Tidak apa apa Pak, silahkan, silahkan. What was the cargo? Pillows. Plastic-wrapped ivory pillows, about ten of the beauties, bulging like they’d been stuffed that morning.
Four hours later we’d barely made it beyond Bekasi. I received a text from Mum: “Just landed in Perth, all my love, Mama Bear xox.” She’d flown 3,000 kilometres in the time it took us to reach the KM 19 rest stop, which is where we lingered for lunch, although it was only 11. Despite my polite protestations of belum lapar (not yet hungry), one of the dwarfs presented me with a plate piled with gorengan (literally ‘fried things’). “Sedikit snak saja!” Just a little snack. When we edged back into the creeping traffic the ceaseless dangdut soundtrack made a blessed switch to Iwan Fals, Indonesia’s Bob Dylan, their greatest political singer. It was Iwan Fals all the way to Bandung–an essential education. I was sharing the back seat of a shuttle with the most comfortable cargo possible and soul-rousing Indonesian protest songs were powering a current of memories and emotions surging up through my chest and into the corners of my eyes. I’d found home in a foreign country. The rain pummeled down. The traffic was fucking insane–178 km in seven and a half hours, that’s 23.73 km an hour – but I was enjoying it. All of it. Yes, I’d stay another year.
Today marks two years since I arrived in Indonesia. It will always be my second home. My deep love for this country, my “burning passion” as a dear friend recently called it, I sometimes find difficult to explain to friends in Oz. But perhaps the answer lies in the conclusion to my first AVID assignment application submitted in August 2013:
“I spent two weeks in Yogyakarta at the end of last year. […] It was a world entirely different to mine and I promised myself one day I’d learn more about it; not through travel, not as an observer, but as a participant, through living it.”
Here I am in a perpetual state of discovery. When I visit an Indonesian island for the first time, such is the scale of the archipelago’s diversity I feel I am visiting a new country. Here I am constantly learning, and now I speak the language my opportunities to do so are exponential.
For as long as I am learning my passion for Indonesia will never stop burning.