I’m sitting at the airport in Kuala Lumpur en route to my home in Australia. It seems like a lifetime ago that I spent 17 hours in transit here wondering what Indonesia would be like. Sure, I had been there in 1997 but that is so long ago and the world has changed drastically since then. Back then I was still a a teenager traveling with my family. My biggest impressions from that 1997 trip were of poverty, people living in cardboard boxes, delicious and cheap food, and the incessant cry of “Mister Mister”. I met my uncle and cousins on that trip too but we were all young and I did what I always did as a child with family in far off lands: I didn’t really engage because it didn’t seem relevant in the age before Facebook, Skype, Viber, Whats App and budget airlines. I knew we wouldn’t correspond or meet again for years so I decided to let time run its course.
I am a different person now a I sit here watching the travelers move past me in the airport foodcourt. I have gained a good 5kg (11 lbs) this past month from eating too much food and doing no exercise. My shirts and shorts are too tight and I cannot wait to trim down while at home.
But that’s just surface stuff. I am a different person because I have seen so much. I have been constantly surrounded by humanity for the past 28 days. There are 143 million people just on Java. It’s almost never quiet and the diversity is eye opening.
I have seen people who work barefoot in muddy fields for just a few dollars a day, parking men with whistles who expertly direct traffic in and out of carparks, smiling rumah makan (diner) owners who proudly stand behind the kaki lima (food cart) with which they or their mothers started their cooking careers, young men who proudly ride customised motorbikes and scooters through the streets at breakneck speed, the middle classes who enjoy a good shopping mall as much as any other middle class person might, and becak drivers sleeping on their bikes.
My ears have been contatnly assaulted with noise. From the traffic to the talking, there’s never any real quiet. The five calls to prayer from the mosques mark the turning of the hours but still the traffic and talking never end. Birds still manage to sing over the kerfuffle and it’s rare to go more than a day without hearing some sort of music, be it pop or traditional tunes.
Those who have followed my Facebook page will have seen the vast array of food that has awoken my taste buds. From frogs to turtles, lizards to snakes, cows noses to goat livers, chicken feet to oxes tails I haven’t shied away from tasting anything that’s come my way. But I found durian fruit disgusting, the floating bits (jelly, coconut and fruit) in the ice drinks discombobulating and shimp paste too strong. That’s not a bad score sheet really with only a small number of foods and drinks I did not like compared wiith the myriad I did.
But how has this changed me? After all, sights, sounds and tastes are just senses and experiences. What I have left out are the personal moments. Getting to know my uncle and cousins has been a blessing I would never have thought possible just a few months ago. Between them my cousins helped me find the best there was to see, eat, drink and experience in Central and East Java. I spent many hours in the car and at restaurants. They showed me a modern side to Indonesia and its culture that I never got to see on my last visit here. It’s a side of Indonesia I have tried to share in my blog with the chocolate fondue and cinema posts. But mostly I loved the sense of family I felt and look forward to continuing to get to know my cousins and uncle much more over the years.
Java is not an easy place to travel. Sensory overload was a challenge for me coming from a lightly populated continent with plenty of open and quiet spaces. It’s a heavily polluted island and hotels are rarely clean. There are flies, cockroaches and rats in the markets where you buy your food and even the locals drink with straws instead of out of the glasses.
But Java taught me to look beyond what meets my eye. If you look through the crowds, pollution and critters you will discover a wonderful place with volcanic peaks, too many shades of green to count, generous friendly people who just want others to be happy, a relaxed pace of life and amazing food.
And through all the sensory overload I found myself with plenty of time and headspace to think. I had time to ponder what I want from my life and how I might be able to acieve it. I don’t think I want to just wander aimlessly from one adventure to the next. I think that, contrary to what I thought when I first started my travels, I want to live in many places experiencing different cultures in a more in-depth way. I can see myself living a year here and another year there. I have been researching CELTA and TESOL courses to find an option that is both within my budget and an experience of itself. Why study at home when I can study abroad? This might change but I am more convinced than ever that I want to see the world as more than just a tourist. I want to learn the lingo and have a local place I eat. And then, when I am ready, I want to move on to the next city, country or continent to see what is on offer there. Who knows … I might just like what I find.