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Becoming Part Of The Family: Reflections on a Semester in Bali

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When I think about the start of my semester abroad, I’m immediately taken back to when I first stepped off the airplane at the Jakarta International Airport – not my final destination, but the first time I thought to myself “Wow, this is different.” I already had layovers in two other international airports, but I was familiar with both of them and so I hadn’t yet felt like I was really abroad. But as I stepped off the plane in Jakarta, I was met with the distinct smell of air pollution that I have only found in Walla Walla on days when the winds blow in exhaust from nearby factories. Here, the smell was all encompassing.

I remember going towards the baggage claim, both bleary eyed and anxious after more than twenty hours of solo travel, only to be bombarded with porters asking to take my suitcases. I think this very moment was when my travel safety “edge” was engaged. I remember lying on a wooden bench in the middle of the night, waiting for the terminal to open. And finally, I remember landing in Bali over the ocean, palm trees in sight. This whole travel experience was not necessarily the most accurate precursor for my semester in Bali, as I generally felt very safe and comfortable during my semester there, but it was definitely accurate in the sense that I was in an environment completely different than Walla Walla and Portland, even down to the way people use the bathroom.

When deciding where I wanted to study abroad, I chose a few specific priorities that translated into a few goals. Most importantly, I wanted to go to a place where I would be able to have a semester vastly different than one that I would experience at Whitman. A facet of that was going to a place with a different culture (which was not necessarily hard to find), but a place where I could actually learn the language. This leads to my goals: I decided that my two most important goals for the semester would be to interact with a culture beyond just being a tourist, and on a similar note, feel comfortable speaking Bahasa Indonesia.

I did it! I navigated around a not-so-touristy town, asking questions in markets and shops and generally just interacting with locals (who would seem impressed with my language skills even after saying only a few words, which was quite the encouragement). As I may have mentioned in my previous ISP post, I stayed in my homestay during the last month of my program, partially in order to reach the point where I felt like I truly lived in that neighborhood. By the end of my program, I was able to walk home from my program center and not only recognize people, but say hi and have conversations with them.

As a way to wrap up this blog, I’ve decided to list some of my highlights/memories from this past semester.

-I’ll start off with one that may seem like TMI, but definitely offers a glimpse into the very different life in Bali. While many study abroad program orientations cover topics like navigating public transportation, academic expectations, living arrangements etc., mine covered a couple others that are a bit more unusual: tropical diseases and bathroom etiquette. I remember sitting in our outdoor classroom at the orientation site learning that there was a somewhat high likelihood that I could develop Dengue Fever and that I should try not to use toilet paper when using the restroom. I knew life would be different during my semester in Bali, but using my hand for toilet paper?? I was terrified, especially since I told myself I’d try to adopt some of the Balinese customs. I didn’t sleep well that night and remember texting my parents with something like “what did I get myself into?” (to which they responded that toilet paper is more of a Western thing so I needed to get out of that mindset). I realized not long after that I could adopt some cultural practices, but didn’t have to adopt all of them.

-I wrote another post near the beginning of my semester about riding in bemos (little public mini-buses). Since that post, I had a number of crazy experiences. One time a few of my friends and I were planning on taking the bemo to Ubud, and like usual, it took forever to flag one down as (like most things in Indonesia) they are not on a strict schedule. After waiting for a while on the side of the road, one of the turquoise blue bemos came around the corner and stopped for us. It should be noted that a bemo will stop even if it is full, because they will always find a way to make everyone fit. This particular day, we entered the bemo to find a big group of women and children. They made room for us on the side of the seat, the ground, and even on the step leading out the open door (totally safe, I know). During our ride, we counted 23 people total in that tiny bus, which is definitely some sort of safety violation. Thankfully we got up the couple of hills that day with no problem. That was not the last time I had a stuffed bemo – once there were even people standing in the door-frame holding on. Another time I was in the bemo I met a market seller, who had a big bag of lanterns. He asked me my name and all about my life, and then told me that he had met other people from my program already. After talking to him for about a half-hour in Bahasa Indonesia, I returned home and sort-of forgot about our interaction. The next day, though, I ran to catch the bemo back home from Ubud yet again (though at a different time and spot), and lo and behold, my market seller friend was there! He even remembered my name and what I was studying, which was quite impressive.

– I really enjoyed my homestay in Java, as I said in a previous post. I lived in a small house where the walls just ended and had no ceiling, so you basically could hear everything in the house. One night, as I was falling asleep, I heard my host-dad (who was probably 30 years old) reading stories to his 5 year old son and then practicing numbers and the alphabet. The five year old was still a bit shy towards me at that point, so being able to listen to him in his element and bonding with his dad was one of the cutest things I experienced during my week with the family. Another less cute but equally memorable experience there had to do with bathing. The family had a bucket shower, so I’d usually put off the freezing mandi (shower/bath) until just before I went to bed. One night I was in the little bathroom, about to rinse off when all of a sudden the power goes out and I’m standing in complete darkness, covered in soap suds. Thankfully my host family quickly realized that I was in the bathroom and came over to the door with a flashlight that shined just enough light for me to finish up bathing. For a few seconds in the moment in was scary, but as soon as my family “rescued” me we were all laughing it off.

-Our last week a the program center was definitely one of the most memorable, not because we had final exams, but because the family that lives in the (massive and beautiful) compound where our classroom was located was having a rare, massive scarification for a week. They prepared for this for a month, creating offering baskets and towers made out of fruit, colorfully dyed butter or even meat. On the first day of the ceremony, we were all invite to attend. There were cockfights, dancing around offerings, all sorts of sacrificed animals (ducks and chickens mostly, but we did spot a few puppies 🙁 ), priests and even a full gamelan band and masked dancers. It was a little overwhelming, but I loved it nonetheless because it was a ceremony not intended for tourists and we were welcomed as part of the extended family. Because I stayed in my homestay during my ISP (which started the days following that first day of the ceremony), I was able to see other events throughout the week, including holy dances done by young girls and boys. The very last day of the ceremony, a few of us went with the family to a beach about an hour away where there is a holy bat cave. In full ceremonial dress, we processed with a gamelan “marching band” towards the ritual spot, where we drank delicious iced tea and hung out with the young children of the family while the elders prayed. While it was interesting to see everyone praying at the beach and the bat cave just across the road, I loved this little excursion most because we were able to become close to the kids that live in the compound. There are many groups of college students that come through their compound, so I was really happy to reach the point where the kids felt like we were part of their family and not just another student coming through.

-My last two memorable experiences for this list actually happened after my program ended, when I traveled around Bali with my mom for two weeks. First of all, she is a very experienced traveler and also not shy at all, so she taught me how fun it can be to talk to other tourists and hear their stories. We met all sorts of different people – from a headmaster of a prestigious British International school to a yoga teacher from Germany that looked a bit like Jesus. Our adventuring lead us to the NW tip of Bali, to a town called Pemuteran, where there is a national park and a small island with a protected reef. I was convinced that I was afraid of snorkeling, so I was incredibly hesitant to go. My mom somehow convinced me to go with her on a guided snorkel tour, which ended up being one of the highlights of my four months. The reefs were lush and full of fish in every color you could imagine. There was a massive reef wall (picture the Drop off in “Finding Nemo”), where one direction we’d look out to open ocean, and in the other direction there was a massive wall full of coral, fans, seaweed, giant clams and of course fish. I kept telling myself this wasn’t the real open ocean where you couldn’t see the bottom (even though this was actually true), because it was equally terrifying and beautiful.

-The other highlight of my two weeks traveling with my mom happened somewhat accidentally. My mom arrived in Bali a week before my program ended, and in that time she met a walking guide who took her on tours around rice fields and nature surrounding Ubud. One of their walks lead them to the Prince of Ubud’s massive home, which was under construction and at that time, empty. She kept telling me how beautiful it was, so of course when we later met up we went on another walking tour to see the palace (and rice fields, of course). When we arrived, I knew just by looking at the front doorway that the home would be lavish. I was not wrong – this place was the most ornate Balinese home I saw in four months. Each wood and stone carving was meticulously designed and created, and there were more fountains than I could count on two hands. When we went towards the pool, we found that the Prince was actually there, so we ended up having tea with him while looking out over carefully manicured rice fields and a three level swimming pool. The Prince was quite proud of his home, and gave us a little tour of the living quarters, where there were massive fish tanks in the bedrooms (one in the wall between the bathroom and rest of room, and one even in the headboard of the bed). It was absolutely ridiculous. After our tour, the Prince invited us to the royal temple that night, where we saw a dedication ceremony for ritual puppets from a nearby village, and felt honored to be there as we were the only non-Balinese. That whole day seems a little surreal. We were told that this Prince (who is not even the Prince of the whole island!) is incredibly generous to commoners, but definitely is way more wealthy than the average Balinese person.

I hope you enjoyed these few highlights of my months abroad! It has been a pleasure to write and reflect for you all, and I highly encourage everyone to travel if you have the means. I don’t know if this single semester abroad “changed” me, but I would say without a doubt that my  travels as a whole have offered me a different worldview. I have learned to cherish small things, like a shower (not even a warm shower!), sturdy walking shoes, being able to stick my toothbrush under the running tap and organized public transportation. One of my goals for this blog was not to sugarcoat my experience – there were definitely moments where I was not satisfied with my program or very homesick – but I hope that it offered you a glimpse into my travels – the good, bad, and everything in between! It was an honor to write for you all this term – terima kasih banyak and happy adventuring!

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Becoming Part Of The Family: Reflections on a Semester in Bali