“Indonesia is a country of astounding numbers…”. And incredible variety too – so how does an Australian go about experiencing such a country? In the latest in a series, Jessica Lock reflects on her time during the Australia-Indonesia Youth Exchange Program (AIYEP).

Indonesia is a country of astounding numbers. There are more than 17,000 islands, over 600 native dialects (which are as separate and different to each other as German is to Spanish; old Katut from Bali would have trouble speaking to Ayu from Aceh, as each would do so in their own languages) and about a million different food dishes. I could literally eat a new dish each day for a year and still not have tried everything available. I never knew this before I travelled to Indonesia, and I don’t think I ever would have if I didn’t decide to learn Indonesian on a whim because Spanish seemed too normal and Germans sounded like they were perpetually angry.

To be honest, the best thing about Indonesia would probably be the food. My God, it is beyond amazing: the spices, the variety, the freshness. My mouth is salivating as I write this. My all-time favourite dish would have to be gado-gado, a salad dish of vegetables, boiled eggs and tempeh or tofu served with lontong and spicy peanut sauce. It doesn’t sound so appetizing, but it is beyond amazing. I’ve actually spent the last fifteen minutes looking up pictures and recipes so I can make them myself.

This then led me to looking at pictures of bakso (a type of meatball soup), bubur ayam (soggy rice porridge with chicken) and jengkol goreng (a spicy, smelly, deep fried seed dish), which has made me realise: Indonesian food is weird. Who eats soggy rice porridge and chicken for breakfast? Who came up with that? And why would you want to eat a smelly seed? Whatever the reasoning behind each question, I’m oblivious to the answer and I just want to eat it all.

Part of the family I met in Pontianak

Jessica with a few members of the family she met in Pontianak. Photo: Jessica Lock

The best thing about eating in Indonesia is that it is such a social experience. There will always be a local to chat to, someone that is interested in why you are in Indonesia, why you are not married and if you would like to marry their son or nephew, what you are doing later that day so you can come to their local community and attend a wedding, visit the family or hug some woman’s very pregnant belly so you can impart your ‘white beauty’ on their unborn child.

I remember once when I was in Indonesia doing the ACICIS program, a friend and I took a trip to Pontianak in Kalimantan, and I had to visit the local internet café so I could Skype my parents and let them know I was still alive. I was walking along the street when suddenly a man yelled out to me: “Hey Mister! Mister! Di sini, di sini, mau kopi?” (“Here, here, do you want a coffee?”). Of course I was hesitant as I was on my own and there was a grown man yelling at me to come sit with him. However, Indonesia isn’t quite like other countries, and he was in a public place drinking coffee in a café. I wandered on over for a chat and a coffee and next thing you know, I’m eating food on the floor of his house with his mother, wife, sisters and other women and children of the local desa.

Several hours later and not having actually reached the Internet café, I’m dropped off to my hotel and had to explain to my friend why I had been gone for most of the day when I was only meant to disappear for an hour at most. I go to sleep that night knowing I would never again see the amazing friendly and loud family of that day. They were hospitable while continually forcing food onto me and filling my plate again and again. The children were joyous and open and weren’t afraid of a stranger in their house eating their food.

On the dusty streets of Pontianak. Photo: Jessica Lock

On the dusty streets of Pontianak. Photo: Jessica Lock

The next day my friend and I wandered out to a local warung for food when suddenly the sky opened up raining cats and dogs. The streets started to flood within minutes and we became stuck. When we just started to get used to the idea that our plans for exploring the city were now circling the drains like the rubbish that litters the streets around us, I got a phone call from the family from the day before. The kids were afraid of our safety in the rain and wanted to make sure that we still had plans for the day. I responded that yes we were fine, but no, we couldn’t get anywhere.

Next thing I knew, they had organised to pick us both up and take us on a tour of Pontianak. The family van then sped down the road straight towards me and squealed to a halt a foot from where I was standing. One of the children’s head popped out and yelled for us to get in, so we climbed in and were off for our personal tour of the city. We were treated to all the sights and sounds of Pontianak and given KFC chicken and rice for tea. (KFC and rice, you say? Yep, you heard right, rice takes the place of chips.) I feel that I have experienced a part of Pontianak and a part of Indonesian culture that other travellers may have never experienced.

This is truly what I love about Indonesia and why I believe that people, especially Australians, should immerse themselves in Indonesian culture. It is the spontaneity, the surprises, and the never-ending opportunities for adventure that encourage me to go back and do more, see more and eat more. Australia is a very lucky country to have such a diverse, friendly and spontaneous neighbour right on our doorstep. As well as exploring the vast and expansive archipelago from the beaches to the rainforests, there are many opportunities to truly understand the culture, as the people are beyond friendly and inviting. They want to get to know you, they want to marry you off to their children, they want you to eat their food and drink their drinks and they want you to learn their language. Nothing stops them, so what’s stopping you?

This article is one of a series of reflections from alumni of Australia-Indonesia student exchange programs. Read the experiences of other AIYEP participants here. The editors of the AIYA Blog would also like to thank Samantha Howard for her assistance in commissioning and editing these articles. You can find her solo and collaborative blog and journal writing here and here.