The small town of Klaten, Indonesia is unheard of in tourist circles. Its larger neighbor Yogyakarta is famous only because it’s home to the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Klaten, untouched by tourism, has retained its traditional Javanese culture, and during my two weeks in the town, I was able to experience that culture in so many ways.
I went to Klaten for a Workaway experience. One of my friends had highly recommended it, and, having been wanting to go to Indonesia since my arrival in Thailand, I decided to try it. It seemed like a good way to travel as well as to use my teaching experience since the Workaway involved teaching English at a small English institute called E-FUN. The owner of the school—and the man whose house I lived in while in Klaten—is named Ovick. Ovick is a small, lanky man with dark skin and kind eyes. And he’s one of the most amazing human beings I’ve met during my travels. He started E-FUN about five years ago, when he was around 22 years old. He now has a wife and an adorable two-year-old daughter, Jouly (pronounced like Jolly), who calls all the female volunteers tia (aunt in Spanish). I’ve met few people in my life who use the hours in their day as productively as Ovick. He takes care of his family, runs and teaches at E-FUN, helps to organize several community projects, volunteers at a local school for blind students, takes the volunteers to see local sights, and works on plans for future projects. He is an incredibly driven man who anyone would have difficulty keeping up with. During my two weeks at his home, he and his wife and daughter became like family to me. On the first evening I arrived, they took me and the other volunteers, Gina and Erin, to a local restaurant where we ordered fried veggies and rice. The seating consisted of weaved mats laid out on a sidewalk in front of some closed shops. The mats were already mostly taken by local families who stared at the three foreigners who looked around awkwardly, wondering which bare spot of ground to grab. Ovick made the decision for us, and we continued to be an object worthy of stares throughout the remainder of the meal (that would continue to be true during the entire two weeks I was there). There were no utensils. We ate with our fingers, dipping them in small bowls of water to clean them off when they got a little too sticky from the rice we were using as a quasi-utensil. In that moment, I realized I had made the right decision in coming to Klaten. I could’ve gone to Bali for those two weeks. I could’ve laid on a beach, biked through rice fields, taken a surfing lesson. But it wouldn’t have been real. It would’ve been an Indonesia altered for tourists. What I got was an Indonesia in it’s pure form, and that’s exactly what I wanted. Even the traditional Islam prayers blaring through the loudspeakers at 4 am—a facet of the experience that annoyed most people—only added to the charm of the little town I found myself in.
E-FUN Institute, Ovick’s English school, is a yellow and lime green building sitting on a busy corner. All the teachers are locals, and they are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and I say that after having lived in Thailand for over a year. Indonesia has a majority Muslim population, and all the female teachers wore the traditional hijab, hiding their skin to save it for their husbands. In America, people are conditioned to fear Islam and all the symbols associated with it, and arriving in Indonesia showed me that I had unconsciously succumbed to some of that conditioning. I found myself uncomfortable around the women in the head scarves when I first arrived at the school, and became very aware of my own exposed skin. But after spending a little time at the school, I overcame the conditioning and found myself completely at ease with those same women and in that community. They didn’t judge me because I didn’t conform to their faith. They didn’t insult me when I wore pants that exposed my knees. They didn’t try to avoid me out of discomfort. They gave me nothing but kindness and acceptance. They welcomed me into their lives without a second thought and treated me like their sister. Living in that community helped me to unravel some of the stereotypes that have so often been forced on me by my culture regarding Muslims and their faith. Islam is, like every religion, beautiful in certain ways and restricting in others. To some, its rules may seem outdated. But then I invite you to look at the limits Christianity imposes on the LGBT community and tell me that isn’t also outdated. Whenever I left the school, each of the female teachers would grab my upper arms and pull me to them, kissing me on each cheek. It was an act of intimacy I never expected because theirs was a culture I never understood. There was a day when we went to a local school to teach English, and the volunteers were asked to wear a modest clothing and a head scarf. I could’ve said no. I could’ve refused to go to the school, refused to conform to their cultural norms, citing my own beliefs. But I didn’t, because that wasn’t the important part of that day. The important part was that we had an opportunity to teach some eager students English. We had an opportunity to share our culture and learn from theirs. We had an opportunity to make a difference. That’s what was important, and that’s why I wore a head scarf that day. People in today’s world seem to think compromise is a weakness. In that moment, I learned that it’s not. It’s an opportunity that can create other opportunities.
One of the best projects I got to participate in was Ovick’s volunteer work at a local school for blind students. We went there both Fridays I was there, and it was one of the most inspiring things I’ve done. The students are all visually impaired, so while they may not be completely blind, they all have at least some difficultly seeing. Because of that, they rely much more on their other senses, including touch. They responded calmly to our handshakes, bringing our hands to their cheek or forehead in the traditional respectful greeting. They all had their friends, and they clung to each other as if they were afraid they’d be lost if they let go. They sat side by side, their knees leaning into each other’s laps, their hands pretzeled together to form a knot that they held between them, their white, often disfigured eyes wandering around the room. When we taught them how to sing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine’, they moved with the sound of the guitar by rocking back and forth or waving their hands in the air to match the rhythm of the songs. They learned quickly, relying on their listening skills to help them. Their energy was beautiful. They didn’t act disabled. They acted like the children they were. They misbehaved when they got bored, clapped when they got excited, and thanked us when we left. When I left them, I tried to look at the world as if there’d be a day when I’d no longer be able to see it.
After a few days of being in Klaten, Erin, Gina, and I decided to attempt to hike up Mt. Merapi, the most active volcano in Indonesia, conveniently located about an hour from Klaten. Ovick found us an informal guide, a friend who worked with another friend at a recently opened café near Ovick’s house. The night we were supposed to head to the volcano, it was raining, and Ovick suggested we cancel and try another night, but after Ovick left, we asked the guide if he would be able to go another night. He said no. He had already rented his equipment and wouldn’t be able to afford it again. When it stopped raining around 10 pm, we made the decision to go. Gina backed out, not willing to try it if it meant hiking in the rain. But the night was clearing up, and it was something I felt I needed to do. Eggy, our giggly, chain-smoking guide, called a friend with a flatbed truck to get us to the volcano. Eggy, Erin, me, and Eggy’s friend Dian all piled into the back and settled in for the ride. It was already a chilly night, and I was already feeling sleepy. But I knew hiking would wake me up. Mt. Merapi is generally done as a night hike because daytime is often too hot, and most people like to get to the summit for the amazing sunrise. We were determined to make it. Erin wanted the sunrise, and I simply wanted to say I had hiked to the top of the most active volcano in Indonesia. We started hiking around 1 am after several small delays and were immediately exhausted. Our bodies had no idea what was going on. Eggy’s pack was loaded with a tent and general gear, and he made it heavier with six beers they planned to drink when they reached the summit. He clearly hadn’t prepared for the hike. The path was steep and rocky and we were constantly having to fumble over tree roots. Eggy and Dian stopped every few minutes to catch their breath, often collapsing onto the path, causing the beer bottles to jingle in the pack. Erin and I hiked ahead and stopped to wait for the men who were supposed to be guiding us. It became frustrating, but we countered the frustration by letting the fullness of the night be there with us. When the clouds parted for a few minutes, we watched the stars. The only sounds were our feet as we shifted from hip to hip and the few bugs making their nightly noises. We could see very little, but it was beautiful in a new way. My body was completely confused, but it was awake and more aware than it had been in a long time. We reached a trail marker about two and half hours into the hike, discovering that we had only made it about halfway. Our legs were tired, our mental strength was being stretched, and the intensity of the midnight workout made me feel like vomiting. On top of all that, it had started to drizzle. Eggy and Dian, with the very little English they had, tried to convince us to stop and put up the tent. But we didn’t want to. Erin and I were determined to make it to the top. We ate some bread to soak up some of the juices rumbling around in our stomachs, and we kept walking. About thirty minutes later, we entered a thick fog that made it nearly impossible for us to see more than a few feet in front of us. And Eggy and Dian were ‘sick’. I suppose they meant they were physically and mentally exhausted but had no words to describe that in English. We had to stop. It was 4 am, and we weren’t going to make it for sunrise. It was starting to rain harder, and although we had two tents, there was only enough space and energy for one. So the four of us climbed into the two person tent, sat there awkwardly for a few minutes, trying to figure out how we were going to attempt to sleep, and eventually just laid down side by side, me scrunched between Eggy and Erin. We opened one of the sleeping bags and threw it across all four of our shivering bodies, hoping it would warm us enough to allow us to slip into a light sleep. We were laying on the floor of the tent with only a thin layer of fabric separating us from the rocks beneath us. We were constantly shifting and fighting for more of the sleeping bag. Ultimately, I got no sleep in the hour we were in the tent. Around 5 am, as the sun was rising on the other side of the volcano, Erin got up and insisted we all do the same. We had to move. Eggy and Dian were still ‘sick’, but Erin and I were done. We wanted to continue going up or head back down. We didn’t necessarily care which at that point. We packed up our things and decided to head back down. We had missed sunrise. We were already sore from the hike up. And the hike down would now be twice as difficult with the path being wet. Eggy and Dian decided to join us, and we all headed down. As hard as the hike up was, it wasn’t nearly as frustrating as the hike down. My knees and ankles were already weak, but the wet mud that covered the path demanded that they be completely engaged. I had to take tiny steps to keep the bottom of my muddy shoes from slipping on the frictionless earth, and each placement of my foot had to be strategic. If my foot was turned at a certain angle, or if I stepped on a part of the path that was too steep, or if my weight shifted incorrectly when putting my foot down, I would inevitably slip. And I did indeed slip. I fell at least five times, each time gathering more mud on my legs and back. The only things that kept my spirits up were the amazing view of the mountain opposite Merapi and the fields and towns at its base that began to unfold as the fog finally lifted, and Erin, who helped me laugh through all of it. While it may have been frustrating in the moment, I knew I would look back on it and think of it as an experience worth having. And it was. When we finally made it to the bottom of the path, we were greeted by locals working on each side of the street. They were perhaps digging a drain or planting something along the edge of the road, but whatever caused them to be there, there were a lot of them, and we attracted everyone’s attention. Certainly, they had seen foreigners before. Mt. Merapi is an incredibly popular hike for tourists. But they still found us fascinating. Erin and I were like the main attraction of a two-person parade. We waved, said hello, and even shook hands with some of the bolder men and women. Once, when we were waiting for a truck to finish backing up, a man grabbed me kindly by the arm and escorted me safely around the back of the truck, allowing me to continue on my way with a smile. Eggy and Dian took their time. We waited at a local hotel for them, unsure of how we were going to get back. When we discovered that a local driver wanted 300,000 rupiah to drive us back to Klaten (about $23, which doesn’t sound like much, but it was exorbitant compared to average prices), we decided to take our chances with other forms of transportation. Eggy and Dian originally tried to flag down passing trucks which we could use to hitchhike back home, but that didn’t work. The only one that stopped was a truck that had just transported a load of manure—we weren’t about to sit in there for an hour, even if it was free. We sat on the side of the road for a while until we were eventually able to get on a public bus that ended up being packed with about twenty people when it should’ve held about ten. It was what I’ve heard described as a ‘chicken bus’ because you’ll often find things such as live chickens in cages on them. It wasn’t quite that bad, but there was a crying baby and several baskets of vegetables. And it was getting hot and sticky, being close to noon at this point. The four of us were in and out of sleep, and I was only mildly bothered by the stares we attracted. We had to switch buses after what seemed like hours on the first bus, and endured another hour on the second, less crowded bus. By the time we parted from Eggy and Dian, I had been awake for about 30 hours. As long as I can help it, that personal record will remain on the books until I die. We didn’t make it to the top of Mt. Merapi, but we tried. And we gained an experience and a story in the process. It was worth it for me, and I’ll always be grateful I made it halfway.
Another highlight of my time in Klaten was Halloween. On the weekend before Halloween, Ovick had planned a Halloween themed trash pick-up at the local Sunday walking street. His school hosts the Klaten English Community, a group also started by Ovick that offers projects in and for the community. Being interested in the American version of Halloween, Ovick decided to incorporate it into that weekend’s project. On Saturday, the community met to make masks and signs to carry at the walking street the next day. We bought materials, gathered in the courtyard, and prepared until the sun went down. The next day, we donned the masks, made up Ovick and Agid, another teacher at the school, to look like the Joker, and brought our signs and trash cans to the walking street. Of course, the whole group attracted a lot of attention, and Erin, Gina, and I were often being pulled aside to take pictures, the light skin of our arms and legs giving away that we were foreigners. Most of it was good attention though. People saw that we were there to help do what they should have been doing. We were setting a good example, and some people even stopped to pick up a few pieces of trash around them to help us. Many people thanked us. We held up our signs telling people not to litter, to protect the earth. Even if only one person heard us and took us seriously, it was worth it. We did something good for the world that day, and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to celebrate Halloween.
It was also in Indonesia that I learned who would be the next president of my home country. It was pouring rain that day. When we arrived at the school, which sat a foot or so below the level of the road, we found that it was flooded with about six inches of water. We were drenched and wading through the murky rainwater when I turned on my WiFi and saw that Trump had won the US presidency. I had been watching the map all day. I had seen Florida turn red. Then most of the Midwest and east coast. I knew how it’d probably turn out, but I had held out hope. Until the moment when the bar slid with finality to Trump’s side. I was devastated. And that night, after we had removed the water and cleaned up the school, I sat outside and cried. I was angry. I was sad. My country had fallen to the side of hate. The prospect of a country under Trump scared me. But honestly, more than anything else, I was overcome with guilt. I felt guilty for being a citizen of the country that had just elected a man who would likely cause immense suffering in the lives of so many people around the world. Before that day, I was living in a country where women’s rights, LGBT rights, and environmental protections were finally flourishing. Things were getting better. Things were progressing. And then I realized how much of it would be undone in the coming four years, how much we would have to redo, and how much pain all of it would cause. It was three days before I could think of it rationally. And then I thought of all the good I had seen on my travels. I’d met kind, compassionate people. I’d seen places so beautiful they could cause me to forget to breath. I’d been surrounding by intense, uninhibited love. And those things helped me pull myself out of the depression caused by the election. The world I’d seen was capable of fighting the hatred, racism, and misogyny that Trump would inevitably try to spread. The people I’d met would not succumb to his attempts to divide and destroy. The love I’d experienced would be the thing to bring Americans together when they finally decided to compromise. There was hope…there is hope. And that’s what I’m holding on to.
It still amazes me when I think of everything we did during the two weeks I was in Klaten. We visited a local spring where you could swim in the cold, clear, natural water with hundreds of fish. We took a tour of a tofu and tempe factory. We saw four different temples, including Borobudur, where we also did finally get to a see a spectacular sunrise. We saw a local puppet show, volunteered with several community projects, took a Batik (traditional Javanese clothing style) class, and shopped at Malioboro Street in Jogja. But, as with any place I’ve traveled to, it’s the people that will stick in my memories the most. It’s Ovick with his kind heart, and his family who welcomed me into their home and laughed with me over dinner. It’s Peter, Ovick’s friend who sells clothing he has designed to raise money for a school he is building on an impoverished island south of Bali. It’s Agid, List, and the other teachers at E-FUN who gave me a new outlook on Islam. It’s the blind students who taught me how to look at the world a little differently. It’s Erin, Gina, and Elle, the other volunteers who taught me that deep, meaningful friendships can be made in only a matter of days. It was everyone there who once again proved to me that traveling is about the connections we make, both with ourselves and with the humans around us.