Final Reflections on my year in Indonesia

So, I’m home.  And I’ve been getting that question I knew would be waiting for me…

“How was Indonesia?!”

That three word question.  How to answer it?

Great? Amazing?  Life changing? Crazy? Surreal?

I wanted to wait a little while before I wrote my final blog—reflecting about how my past year was.  I left Indonesia only a month and a half ago, but it feels like it could have been years ago really.   I’ve only been back in the US for a few weeks.  Before I came home I went to England and Ireland to visit friends and family for three weeks, so I had a gradual reintroduction to Western life (food, language, no one staring at me…)

I’ve been in touch with some of the other Fellows from my program, and one of them said something that I think sums up my feelings.  She was saying that, once we’re home, we pick up where we left off—nothing has really changed, and that is good in so many ways because I want to feel like home is not a strange place, but at the same time, it’s almost as if the past year never happened.  This massive, important part of our lives is truly finished and stuck in the past somehow because no one around me was there or can understand what I’m talking about, and no one wants to be that person who is constantly saying, “oh well, when I was in Indonesia…”  My year in Indonesia is just a piece of my life—this moment in time in the past, and gone.  And that’s rather depressing.

There is a quote that I really like about how I felt:

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place, like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

There is so much I want to remember and share, and yet I know it doesn’t mean nearly as much to my ‘audience’ (friends & family) as it does to me.  It’s almost as if I think if I say it out loud, it’s not really over.

That being said, I do want to take a minute to think about what the year really and truly did mean to me.


This year was my first with a Master’s degree in TESOL, and I can’t imagine a more rewarding year.  I taught at a university which is still crazy to me!  Writing a syllabus and having university students were all exciting things.  I was able to present at conferences and conduct workshops to train teachers and pre-service teachers.  These are opportunities I wouldn’t have probably had in the US with only a few years experience teaching. And they were wonderful experiences.  I got to meet so many educators from across the massive country; there were so many people anxious to improve English education in Indonesia, and I learned a lot from them too.


Being part of a State Department program lent me some degree of legitimacy I felt, both in Indonesia and in the U.S., especially to people who may wonder what it is I’ve been doing the past 5 years (since finishing my undergraduate degree).  I’d like to remind them of that quote, “Not all who wander are lost”, but some people would disagree.  So then I can point to the first legit ‘job’ I’ve had, and say, “hey, I was a cultural ambassador, so THERE”.  (Maybe this is more my issue than anyone else’s?)

Being a cultural ambassador was an amazing job.  When my taxi driver asked, “dari mana?” (where are you from?) I’d proudly reply, “dari Amerika” and then try and have a real conversation with him–impressing him with my superb (ha) Indonesian.  Upon returning home, I’ve been happy to tell anyone who will listen how hospitable, kind, and welcoming Indonesian people are.  I was able to be part of U.S. Embassy programs and initiatives.  I got to watch Barack Obama win re-election (and the state of Virginia!) at the U.S. Consulate in Surabaya.  I was able to meet a number of people who had studied in the U.S. through U.S.-Indonesian educational exchanges, and I saw how much that impacted their lives and work.


There are a lot of quotes I want to use in this blog.  Here’s another one:

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”  (Bill Bryson)

It was the simplest things that were interesting and exciting to me this past year.

I was able to live on my own (for the second time in my life), and I still love it.  My trips to the supermarket consisted of finding a becak to take me to the mall, buying food, and getting a becak back home.  I got to school and home every day by ojek—texting one of two guys I knew to ask if they’d pick me up at ______ o’clock.  Riding through the backstreets (and main streets) of Palembang by motorcycle was something I still found fun up to the end; although the main streets were less fun and more insane.  I jogged around Kambang Iwak a few times a week, seeing some of the same people—some people stopping me to talk (some I knew, some I didn’t), and some stopping me to take a photo!  (Red and sweaty, and they still want a picture).  Some days I’d cook, other days I’d walk to a local warung to buy some dinner.   I would walk through my neighborhood and see a rat run into the gutter and I wouldn’t even flinch!  I would scream bloody murder when I saw one in my house though—running out to my neighbor, Danie, who brought over a broom.  We asked the older men across the road and they just laughed and shook their heads, as if to say, “heck no we’re not going after a rat!” It left eventually, and I’d wage war against the cockroaches and ants.  The geckos who scurried along the walls and floors didn’t bother me—they were actually cute!


The Ibu & her daughter who owned the warung around the corner from my house. I bought my air galon (gallon of water) and pulsa (phone credit) from them quite regularly.


goodbye pictures outside my house with my ojek & friend, Taufik!  He loves it. hah


I could be an ojek!

For fun I’d meet some of my friends at the weekend or during the week—from Indonesia, Malaysia, England, and the U.S.  We’d go to “GUNZ”, yes, it was called gunz—a café close to my house that had hookah and lots of drink choices (all non-alcoholic of course).  They’d have live music, often a boy band type singing a mix of Indonesian pop and Western pop (ex: Simple Plan)…  my neighbor, Danie, and I would also frequent Eat Café, an outdoor place near our house that had a mixture of Asian and “western” (?)  food, and more importantly, beer.


On my last weekend, I went with my friend Hafiza, and her new housemate and colleague, Beth, on a transport adventure around the city.  We tried to use as many forms of public transport as possible.  We talked to people; Beth had a lot of photos taken of her (she’s blonde—way more exciting!)


Many weekends, though, I was traveling—either to a workshop, conference, camp, or occasionally a “just for fun” weekend away.  You can’t be all the way over in Indonesia without trying to explore as much as possible (I told myself).

I made a list in my journal of things I got used to in Indonesia:

  • Not wearing seat-belts in the backseat (they don’t usually exist anyway)
  • Not showing ID at the airport
  • Bringing water through airport security (among other liquids!) and then feeling outraged when international flights make me chug my water in front of them
  • Traffic lights are mere suggestions
  • I started cutting in ‘line’ at airports (when in Rome!)
  • Rolling up my pants before entering public restrooms due to the ‘flooding’ (In Indonesia water = clean). Ew.
  • Bringing little packets of tissues with me EVERYWHERE
  • Letting servers stand beside you and wait for you to order as soon as you sit down (although I never really got used to that)
  • “Salam-ing”  (I made that up)…Younger people putting my hand to their heads.  A sign of respect.
  • Getting called “Mister!”  (I kind of miss it).
  • Being offered tea/coffee with about a cup of sugar inside (putting Southerners to shame).
  • WAITING: for planes, for students, for a schedule, for everything.  (Patience is my life lesson that I will probably never learn).
  • Geckos running across my walls and floors
  • Ants residing in my notebooks and table. (Yes, IN)
  • Having a housekeeper. Oh how I miss Bu Any.
  • Never (rarely) doing my own laundry
  • Being told I’m beautiful by total strangers!
  • Being told “I LOVE YOU” by total strangers!
  • The strange 90s throwback songs on Lion Air
  • Flying several times a month
  • Sweating profusely & carrying those tissues to wipe myself off
  • Needing more than one shower a day (needing…yes, taking…hmmm)
  • Moving my big fan from room to room at home depending on where I am
  • Not really knowing what most people are saying around me
  • Eating copious amounts of rice (no, I don’t miss it).
  • Singing/doing karaoke! (I MISS IT!)
  • Strangers talking to me.
  • Not wearing makeup (no point!)
  • Not drying or “doing” hair
  • Wearing clothes that make me look/feel like a bag lady.  (not my most attractive year perhaps? But it’s okay, because “YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL MISS!”)
  • Surviving without wine (kind of….)
  • The stares
  • Nothing happens fast
  • The call to prayer 5 times a day, with the early one lasting about 2 hours sometimes….

I think there were more my friends had told me, but those were the ones I’d written down.   Re-reading them, even if they sound annoying, I kind of  miss it!

What I learned from Indonesia: (I know there is more…but I think I need to reflect more..)

-Not to be in such a hurry.  “You must be patient, Miss”.  “I AM PATIENT!”  (She answers, impatiently).

-organization and schedules are STILL a good idea.  Not knowing what classes I was going to teach or when they were or if there were materials—all the week before classes started, not really something I’d like to get used to.

-talking to strangers can be a great way to become part of a community.  There was something nice in standing out, because more people did talk to you, and you were able to start conversations more easily because there is an immediate topic of conversation, “Where the heck are you from?!”

-I have taken for granted being able to blend in, and get on in life without anyone noticing me.  I don’t want to speculate here, but I’d say there are plenty of people in the U.S. who get ‘stared at’ because they are different somehow.  It is an uncomfortable feeling, even when it isn’t hostile.  It’s been a bizarre experience to walk around outside without anyone waving or screaming “hello mister!!”


-My friends in the program like to joke that this past year has been a vacation.  That doesn’t mean it was easy—there was a lot of lesson-planning, conference-presenting, camp-running, and work-shopping that went into our year there, but it helped that we all got along so well, and were able to travel to see each other and do workshops, camps, and conferences together.  And it didn’t hurt that many of these experiences were in different parts of this amazing country, so that we were able to cover a serious amount of ground.

-All in all I saw:

ISLANDS: cities/areas

– Sumatra: Palembang (Duh), Pagar Alam, Banda Aceh

-Bangka (around the island)

-Java: Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Bandung, Bogor, Surabaya, Malang

-Lombok: Mataram,

-Gilis:  Gili Trawangan, Gili Air (heaven)

-Bali: Ubud

-Flores: Maumere, Kelimutu, Moni, Ende, Labuan Bajo



-West Timor: Kupang, some random beach

-Sulawesi: Kendari, Makassar, Tana Toraja

-Kalimantan (Borneo): Banjarmasin


-Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with my friend, Danie, for her cousin’s engagement party were I got to wear a sari!

-Singapore with 5 other Fellows

-Australia!!! Probably one of the most amazing parts of this year is the chance I had to visit Australia and meet aunts, uncles, and cousins I had never met, or had met but hadn’t seen in YEARS.  My dad has 3 sisters who immigrated to Australia and so I got to meet and spend time with first cousins and aunts and uncles, which was such an amazing experience.  Meeting people and seeing yourself or your family in them is such a cool thing, and I know I’ll be back (and they’ll hopefully come to the US!)


Upon being placed in Palembang, I got a lot of “ooooh, Palembang” (cringe).  Yes, the city is not the most glamorous in Indonesia.  But from what I saw, Indonesia doesn’t do big cities that well.  City planning isn’t there forte, and there aren’t a lot of green spaces or sidewalks, etc.  But you can’t live somewhere for 10 months without it growing on you, and I was crying boarding the plane out of Palembang (and headed to Bali!  You shouldn’t cry when you go to Bali!)  Palembang was what it was in such a big part though because of the people I met (as any place is really).  I lucked out to the EXTREME with getting a neighbor (RIGHT across from me) that was my age, a single girl, and so similar to me in so many ways.  This is, of course, Daniela, my neighbor from Malaysia, who was studying medicine in Palembang.  A foreigner, like me, we had a lot in common—although Malayu being so similar to Indonesian, she was way ahead of me on the language front (which was very useful!).  She was there for me from the beginning, taking me to the mall to buy a big fan, a printer, and a water gallon which we transported in her car.  She helped me battle a rat, she drove me places when the ojeks failed me, or when it was raining too hard to be on a motorcycle.  She invited me to her home in Kuala Lumpur, which was SUCH a cool experience.  Malaysia was such a diverse, interesting place.  She invited me into her circle of friends—Malaysian medical students—and included me in get-togethers they  had.  But most of all, she was someone to talk to about anything and everything. She had lived in Australia, the U.K., and now Indonesia, so she was a fellow traveler—someone who wouldn’t be happy being stuck in one place.  It’s hard to find such good friends just anywhere, especially when you land in a place like Palembang!  But there she was, right across the driveway from me!  She and two other friends came to the airport to say goodbye, along with my counterpart, Pak Herizal, his wife and their two daughters.  It was really hard to say goodbye, but I know I’ll see her again—two travelers are bound to meet again, but in what country?!



Besides Danie, I did make some great other friends that helped keep me sane.  My first friend really was a girl named Femmy, a radio DJ in Palembang who spoke amazing English and introduced me to the radio gang.  The two Fulbright ETAs, Dustin and Annalisa, were my go-to American buds who also became good friends with Femmy and the radio-ers.  We found a house of English teachers working for English First, and Megan, Hafiza, and Amy (and then later Sarita and Beth) were great to hang out with and spend time with.  It’s funny how a lot of native English speakers find each other—an Indonesian man I met at my school within the first week told me he had an English guy coming to teach soon and suggested we be his friend, so that’s how I met Calum, who was another great person to wander around Palembang with.  I met an awesome girl, Diana, who worked for the Governor of South Sumatra as his MC, and she ran a coffee warung—amazing!  I was annoyed I met her so late in my time in Palembang, but she was so fun to know as well.  I had another great neighbor, Kiky, who was my age with a one year old boy, and she and her husband helped me out a lot too.  They took me to the store at the beginning to help me get groceries, and her husband took me to work a few times when my ojek fell through.  I got to attend their son’s first birthday party, which was quite the to-do, and really fun.



Me & lovely Hafiza with our grilled corn

Also, my counterpart, Pak Herizal, and his family were such a wonderful family to meet.  They picked me up from the airport when I arrived in Indonesia from the U.S., invited me to have meals at their house, invited me to weddings, and brought me to the airport when I left (among many other things!).  They were so welcoming, and such a kind, fun family.  They all spoke English well, and Pak Herizal was my colleague at school, who helped me with everything there.  I owe them a big thanks as well.  I hope one day they can come here so I can show them such hospitality!


ELF Friends

I don’t think there could have been a more perfect group of us Indonesia English Language Fellows.  Most countries only have a few Fellows, but Indonesia had 20! We had a two week orientation in Bandung and Jakarta, and after those two weeks, it was pretty clear how much we had bonded and how well we got along.  I remember having this conversation several times throughout the year, “Isn’t it so weird that we all get along and truly like each other?”  “I know, I genuinely like every person in this group! Crazy!”  Twenty people, all different ages, with different backgrounds, and very different personalities, and yet it was like a family.  We were all spread across the country, and yet we took every opportunity we had to hang out and support each other.  We had a facebook group where we could vent or ask questions or share resources and materials.  These are people I plan on being friends with for a really good time.  I even remember saying to one of them, Autumn, in October (very early on!), Autumn, I want to be friends with you in 30 years, and visit your house!  We had a final farewell together in Bali, a bunch of the girls anyway, and we even made a pact to be friends forever~ just like we were 10 years old again!  I think most importantly, these are the only people out there who know what my year was and who can understand how important it was.  We even have a reunion planned in August to get together again! (Unfortunately not all can make it, but I’m so excited to see them again in the U.S.!)


The ELF crew, but missing important Iris!

Forever friends in Bali

Forever friends

I think all in all, the main reason I love traveling is the people you meet along the way.  From my time abroad in different places, I’ve met such wonderful people, many of whom I am still close to, even if we don’t see each other that often.

Another reason I love traveling so much is the feeling of enjoying even the littlest things…

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

All these reasons are why I know Indonesia isn’t my last big adventure….


“How was Indonesia?”

Short Answer: Amazing.

Long Answer: Refer to please….

P.S. I’m sad this is my last blog, but I don’t think life in Washington D.C. will be nearly as noteworthy as life in Palembang, Indonesia… but you never know!


About Deirdre Hand

"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted." Bill Bryson
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4 Responses to Final Reflections on my year in Indonesia

  1. joeyrochford says:

    Bravo ‘Mister’! Awesome blog.
    What a woman 🙂

  2. Molly Cox says:

    I vote you keep writing your blog in D.C.

  3. Pingback: The And. | o...begitu

  4. Tammy says:

    Really great post 🙂 It’s posted on the “EL Fellow Program” LinkedIn page and I just posted it to the MA TESOL Alumni Facebook page for my graduate school — hoping to convince some of my fellow graduates to join the program. Can absolutely identify with a lot of what you said in terms of working abroad — doesn’t matter where you go, it’s definitely home. (and returning back to your American “home” can be just as frustrating as when you first arrived in the new country).

    Thanks for sharing all of this!

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