Holy Stadium Semarang (Central Java, Indonesia)

The leader of music and worship gees up the faithful. He jumps and claps and dances. As songs begin he calls out “1-2-1-2-3-4” as though we are at a rock concert. And the congregation respond. They sing songs to praise Jesus and the Lord (who, by the way, is Allah in Bahasa whether you are Muslim or Christian). For an hour the faithful stand and sing their lungs out at the encouragement of the Music and Worship Leader. Costumed dancers perform various liturgical dance routines on stage. There are three or four groups: purple, golden, cloth-winged and flag bearing. Unlike the droll songs in the Catholic  and Anglican masses with which I am familiar, there is no missing this beat today. You would have to be very determined not to tap you toes or sway your body so it’s easy to see why the faithful are waving their hands in the air, clapping and singing with gusto. Their intent is genuine. Their song a massive huge prayer.
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I’ve come to the Hillsong Holy Stadium in Semarang with one of my cousins and her family. They have been members here since 2008 and appear heavily involved in their church. The stadium can hold 12,000 people (no, that is not a typo). Today it is half full. So that means I am among about 6,000 people here today. That’s a huge number of people in church on a Sunday. And another 6,000 will come tonight, many of whom are not here this morning. I doubt the average Anglican or Catholic Church at home could even seat 200 people let alone 6,000 with room to spare.

God is definitely present in the Holy Stadium. Of this I have no doubt. I feel his presence throughout the service even though I am not a Hillsong follower. I can see why so many people are drawn to the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches. Personally, I am more a blue sky cathedral kinda guy (see this Adam Brand song for what I hear when I say this) but I can respect that others pray in churches with communities and appreciate the way the spirit fills spaces where such prayer takes place.

A pastor from America gives a teaching. He talks about the need to give money to feed and cloth the poor. Prayers alone are not enough he says. You must tithe and give money to buy the food and clothes. In a way he is right. We can’t solve world hunger merely through wishes. It takes money to buy food. And I do believe every working person should donate a portion of their income to charity. Interestingly it is only since reducing my income that I have found myself more committed to this. I used to donate sporadically and only less than 0.5% of my annual salary – quite abysmal really. But I have changed that during my Looking For 42 experience – without the need for a church to demand it of me. There is also a dark side to that call in that it could cause members of the congregation to give more than they actually can afford, leading to marital tension and other problems. Not to mention the issue of the way some churches spend money on material goods and high salaries. So there are definitely ying and yang issues here.

I feel grateful to my cousin for allowing us to attend her church. It was a positive and educational experience. It felt good to be in a place of worship. I probably needed it because it’s been a while. And I do leave feeling as strong in my faith as ever (I may not belong to any church but I definitely know myself to be a man of faith).

Simpang Lima at night (Semarang, Indonesia)

I hate to say it, but we spend the entire day in our hotel room relaxing. Well, I did work until about 1pm. Then I looked at Paul and asked what he wanted to do. He didn’t care and I didn’t feel like doing much. So we settle in for a rest day watching movies on the television in our room and eating room service for lunch. The food isn’t great but I can’t remember ever ordering room service before so it feels kind of decadent and fun.

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It’s about 7pm when my cousins come to pick us up for dinner. We have arranged to meet at some warungs near Simpang Lima (the five roads roundabout that serves as Semarang’s Alun Alun). I ate here last year so know the food is great. We share ayam goreng (Javanese fried chicken) and sop buntut Javanese oxtail soup. It is absolutely delicious! The chicken is salty and the skin is crisp. The oxtail in the soup is so tender.

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There are lit up cars here too like in Yogyakarta. The temptation to ride is too strong. First we take a go with all of us on the pedal cars. We are laughing the whole time, even though one of the chains comes off.

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It’s so much fun.

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Then we switch to a different sort of bike. This one requires someone to pedal passengers around, rather than everyone pedaling. We rent two and set off around the Simpang Lima proper. I let Paul sit in the back of mine and ride him around while my cousin’s son rides his mum and cousins around on another. It’s so childish and silly that I can’t stop laughing.

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You’d think it was difficult to ride the bikes but the gear ratio is favourable and the only reason I break a sweat is because it’s hot here in Semarang.

It was wonderful to spend time with my cousins and their kids. They are great people.

Probolinggo to Semarang (Central Java)

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We say goodbye to Wijaya and his family. To be honest, I am sad to say goodbye to a cool guy who opens his heart and home to so many strangers from countries far and wide. The train station is just five minutes away and we only wait 2-3 minutes before boarding and setting off on the first leg of our fifteen hour journey to Semarang.
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The economy train ride is relatively comfortable, though the space between the seats is probably not enough for Paul’s long legs. Is short people are well catered for though. The rice fields slip by and the two hours to Surabaya pass quickly. (Especially for Paul who sleeps most of the way.)
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It’s barely 9am as we navigate the relatively modest crush of taxi drivers, becak riders and other touts waiting at the station for a fare. We have to wait until 4pm for our train to Semarang so decide to walk about 200m to the Grand City Mall. We haven’t had wifi in a couple of days so wait for the shopping centre to open in Starbucks uploading photos to Facebook and Instagram. There is a beauty show going on next door at the convention centre so we watch beautifully women in glamorous dresses walk past. It seems there will be a makeup contest on this morning and this is why they are so dolled up. I’ve never seen anything like this in real life.
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The shopping centre is modern and glitzy. Everything is the same price as home except the food court, which is a mixed bag. You can buy a 450,000IDR ($AU45) Australian steak at The Rocks or a 25,000IDR ($AU2.50) meal of satay sticks with rice and everything in between. Japanese seems to be the most common takeaway.
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But our real joy is indulging in our favourite pastime other than travel: the movies. We go to see Inside Out at the XXI Cinema. The seats are large and comfortable, the picture quality superb, the surround sound actually surrounds us and the movie itself is sweet.
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Then it’s time to play Frogger as we cross the road, avoid the tout as we push our way through the waiting public and private transport at the station and into the cool shade of the platform as we wait for our train. Being a foreigner might open you up to scams at the Bromo but at train stations it leads to being allowed through to the platform early instead of having to wait in the heat with the crowds.

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The train journey from Surabaya to Semarang is uneventful. We have booked an executive class train so sit in large reclining seats in comfort with blankets provided by the railway company. Paul bought us an earphone splitter for my laptop so we pass the time watching movies and television series on my laptop. There is a movie showing on the train but it has many advertisements so I prefer to watch my advertisement free iTunes purchases.

We arrive in Semarang at 10:30pm to the delightful surprise of two of my cousins waiting to pick us up. I feel blessed to have family here. It’s really cool for me because I grew up as a migrant child without a blood related extended family. And I feel I am still just getting to know my cousins after our week together last year so I didn’t expect them to be at the station waiting. 🙂

Our hotel is wonderful and luxurious but costs the same as a campsite in a caravan park in Australia. We should go to sleep but I use my Scrubber bag to wash the Bromo sand out of our clothes then we put on a movie and order pizza room service at midnight (I can’t remember ever ordering room service before) because we’re feeling peckish. It’s all very civilised and luxurious and new. Quite fitting really after such a relatively luxurious day.

The final days (Semarang)

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My final days in Semarang are relatively quiet. I hang out with my family, knock over some work and take advantage of the wifi at the hotel to download some movies from iTunes for the long 24 hour journey home. On my final day we drop first my mother, then my grandmother and aunt off at the airport for their respective flights home. My mother will fly home to Australia while my aunt will accompany my grandmother to Holland. They all have relatively direct flights compared with the 24 hour epic I will endure tomorrow when I first fly north-west to Kuala Lumpur where I must wait nine hours before flying back over Semarang to get to the Gold Coast. But to me the money saved on the airline tickets is worth the long transit and I don’t mind airports and planes; they are good places to relax, work, watch movies and sleep.
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For my final night I go to the cinema at Semarang’s Paragon shopping mall. My cousin has suggested it and, given that I love the movies, I definitely agree to go along. The cinema is impressive. It is new, modern, has a huge IMAX-style screen and large comfortable chairs. The sound and picture quality are far superior to anything I have seen in Brisbane so I spend almost three hours enthralled in the story of Moses and the Exodus presented in Hollywood style.
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One final trip to a kaki lima in Chinatown to buy terang bulan tipis is a fitting way to round out my trip. Not only is it my favourite Indonesian food but we have bought it at my favourite style of food shop: the kaki lima. I stay up late working and researching information about TESOL and CELTA courses. Before I know it, the time has gone past 2:30am and I will only get three hours sleep. But that’s okay … I will have over 24 hours in transit to rest up before I hit Australian soil once more.

On monkeys and fishing boats (Semarang)

My cousin offers to take me out for the day. I am not entirely sure where we will go but know that with Depi it will be fun and there will be good food.
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Speaking of food, that’s what we start with. It’s around lunch time when we depart and my cousin decides it’s time to introduce me to some more interesting Indonesian delicacies. Today it is rujak cingur (cow’s nose). The meat is served in a soup but my cousin orders an extra plate so to ensure we have enough. It’s quite delicious despite the fact that it actually looks like pieces of a cow’s nose.
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Stomachs filled it is time for us to head over to the monkey forest. It’s crowded here on the banks of the new dam with it’s view out over some volcanic mountains in the distance. Everyone seems to have decided to spend their Sunday here looking at and feeding the monkeys. These gentle little animals don’t seem to mind being disturbed by all the human viewers because they are getting plenty of food. I don’t know whether a bag of crisps or a packet of biscuits is so good for a monkey’s digestion but I am learning that this constant concern with doing things right is a luxury of the West; one I simply cannot buy into.
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I am taken by how human the monkeys seem. Their faces show expression and their eyes look intelligent. I can see how we are related to these funny little creatures of the trees. And it’s obvious from this similarity why we are all drawn here. The monkeys are cute to watch and people of all ages are enthralled.
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After leaving the monkeys we drive to Semarang’s port because I am keen to see the fishing boats and port life. I am fascinated by the lives of sailors and fishermen. They seem so adventurous and manly. I certainly wouldn’t fit in but it’s fantastic to see.
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The next generation of water men swim between the boats. They beg me to take their photos and pose happily. A couple of boys stand up to jump in when they see their friends being photographed. They want to join in and show off for “mister mister” who has walked through their part of the world. I am starting to see that personal space and privacy are luxuries many people here simply don’t have so it is not important to them. When you live on a relatively small 1,000km x 210km (620mile x 130 mile) island with 143 million other people, you don’t have a chance to experience privacy or personal space. And I guess a man with blue eyes and a balding head is a novelty in this land of balck-brown eyes and full heads of black hair.
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We pass big seafaring junks. Their shapes are ungainly with big wide bulging cargo holds and overhanging sterns.
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Small canoes and outriggers lie between the bigger boats. They seem so vulnerable so when my cousin tells me he used to paddle them out to see with his friends I am in awe.
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Colourful traditional fishing boats bob in the water. Many are tied together in big bundles of brightly painted wood. It’s easy to see why one of them has the name Mother’s Prayer. Epecially when I see some broken vessels lying on the docks with timber planks missing or salvaged for other purposes.

The grand arrival: Oma Doortje comes to Semarang

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The day we have all been waiting for has arrived. Oma Doortje has landed in Semarang. Her journey back to the place of her childhood is the catalyst for my trip. Her coming here prompted me to change my flight home from Korea and book return flights to Semarang. She is the reason that Java is the island I have chosen to explore and the reason I have discovered the joys of family, Indonesia style.

My grandmother, Oma Doortje, was born in Semarang. This city is the place of her youth. It’s where she played as a child, attended school, had her youthful romances and met my grandfather. My grandfather was a Dutch soldier who came to Indonesia to fight the Japanese. Mum says he came for adventure because there was a big famine in Holland due to the end of the second world war. From the photos I have seen, my grandfather liked Indonesia. He is always smiling and looks happy for the camera. I guess a young man from Holland would enjoy the tropical island life with sunshine, pretty girls and plenty of good food.

I am unfamiliar with all the details of my grandparents’ lives here in Semarang. My grandfather had a child out of wedlock with another woman and that this child (my uncle) was raised by adoptive parents. My grandfather went on to marry my grandmother and together they moved to Holland where my grandmother still lives. My grandfather passed away when I was a child but not until after his son managed to find him. In the times before the internet and mobile technology this was something of an achievement. Back then letters still needed to travel by snail mail, taking weeks to arrive and then there was no guarantee of a response or that the person you sent the letter to actually lived at the address to which you sent it. I cannot help but wonder how many letters my uncle sent before he found his heritage.

And now my grandmother has arrived. She is Oma to everyone. And we are all excited to see her. In true Indonesian style the whole family attends the tiny Achmad Yani International Airport. We had hoped to arrive and be ready for her but her flight was early today so she is already waiting for us. At 81 years of age she has done well to fly all the way here from Holland. The airline assist her with a wheelchair so she does not have to walk through the small but crowded arrivals hall and she is sitting on this throne as everyone takes turns to give her a kiss and hug. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. My family here is not small. I have five cousins of whom four are married and three have children. Add to that my mother and me, and you have a whole production.
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And what do you do when the matriarch comes to town? Why you hold a feast. And feast we did. I don’t even think my grandmother has dropped her bags at her hotel before we are seated at a long table in a local restaurant eating the most scrumptuous food. Cameras are flashing everywhere as we all try to capture this magnificent moment when everyone is together again. This is my grandmother’s fifth visit to Semarang so the family are all familiar to her. She moves comfortably between Javanese, Bahasa Indonesia and Dutch depending on who she is speaking with. It’s a magnificent family reunion and I am so grateful to be here.

The feasting does not end with lunch. Later that night we all head out again to Kampung Laut where we feast again. A cousin’s son brings along a guitar and after the feast my uncle starts to strum. A sing-along ensues right there in the restaurant. This is everything a party should be: good company, food and fun.

Over the week that follows I will stay in Semarang getting to know my uncle and cousins. As a migrant child who was born in Holland and moved to Australia at two or three years old, I think I coped with the tyranny of distance by blocking out my overseas family. They are spread over the globe in Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Indonesia and New Zealand. And I took the view that you cannot miss what you do not know. I have some family with whom I am close. But I can probably count them on my fingers and toes while my actual extended family number in the hundred.

Now that I am traveling and live in the technological age, I think it’s time for that to change. Because I don’t want to miss out on this closeness anymore.