Katrina Steedman shares her fascinating perspectives on living through a volcanic eruption (“with ash like falling snow”), learning the importance of mutual aid and cooperation in local communities (“the Indonesian spirit of gotong royong shone through”), and sharing the enjoyment of the Weetbix challenge.

In 2010, I had been learning Indonesian for two years at the University of Sydney when I decided to do a semester at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta with the Australia Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). My only knowledge of Yogyakarta was from a whirlwind two-day trip in 2009 when I ticked off visiting the major sites: Borobudur Temple, Prambanan Temple, walking down the busy street of Jalan Malioboro and eating Yogya’s famed dish, nasi gudeg. So really, I had no idea what to expect about living in Yogyakarta but I was ready to call it home for six months.


Volcanic ash coating car bonnets in Yogyakarta. Photo: Katrina Steedman

Living in Yogyakarta was an incredibly exciting chapter in my life. It was filled with trying delicious new food, making new friends, travelling to new parts of the archipelago and learning to speak Indonesian. 2010 was also a significant year for Yogyakarta and the Sleman area as there were two volcanic eruptions of Gunung Merapi, one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes. After the first eruption of Gunung Merapi on the 26th October 2010, the volcanic ash reached as far as 38km from the epicentre. For us based in Yogyakarta, the volcanic ash was like falling snow – except it was so dirty and sooty and whenever you went outdoors you needed to wear a facemask. I will let you imagine the selfies.

During Gunung Merapi’s inactive periods, her slopes are home to fertile and lush green farmland and forests. After the volcano’s eruption of hot ash, gas, molten mud and rock, the area was unrecognizable, forcing those living on the slopes to evacuate their homes. Despite the difficult circumstances, the Indonesian spirit of gotong royong [mutual aid, community development] shone through as the local community had already begun working together to distribute aid to those living in temporary shelters and doing whatever they could to assist the displaced communities.

We ACICIS students were also compelled to help our new community. The opportunity to fundraise emerged at our university’s annual GamaFest, an international food and culture celebration. I managed to rope my fellow Aussies into showcasing Australian culture through singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and inviting three brave Indonesians to partake in the Weetbix challenge on the festival’s opening night. (For those unfamiliar, imagine eating as many DRY Weetbix as you can within 90 seconds.) Despite the simplicity of our thrown-together performance, the crowd loved our strange food culture and our zinc-covered faces belting out the famous Aussie tune. We Australians were as equally entertained by our fellow Indonesian students’ eagerness to do the Weetbix challenge and watching them gag on dry Weetbix.

Our memorable performance meant that our Aussie Food stall was a hit with the local and international students. We decorated our Aussie stall with the usual fare of flags and little koalas, and sold our mediocre Aussie tucker of Vegemite sandwiches and damper. These treats were strangely well received considering we were competing against German, French and Japanese stalls with far more appealing cuisines. We fundraised 320,000 IDR (around $32 AUD) which sounds like a meager amount, but considering a decent Indonesian meal can be bought for $1 AUD – a little goes a long way!


The displaced community following Gunung Merapi’s eruption. Photo: Katrina Steedman

The funds raised at GamaFest were boosted by the funds raised a fundraising appeal kick-started by my fellow ACICIS students, Hari Lodwick and Lana Idrus. With the help of friends and family, the fundraising appeal raised a total of 10,000,000 IDR (~$1000 AUD), which went towards buying supplies like bottled water, rice, medicines, toys, baby clothes and supplies, soap and other things to immediately assist the community of Kinaharjo. When we visited the Kinaharjo village to distribute the supplies, we were greeted with smiles and gratitude for helping out in a small way. This was how we, as ACICIS students, learnt the true meaning of gotong royong as we banded together and worked towards the common goal of helping the community of our second home during one of its darker hours.

For some, the experience of living in Indonesia during a volcanic eruption would be enough to call it quits but not for me. It is these very experiences and my subsequent trips to Indonesia that have made my life richer and certainly more interesting. I have learnt the Indonesian way of laughing and finding the good even in the most trying of circumstances. I also learned the importance of community, to come together during times of difficulty, and that we all have the ability to help, even in a small way.

I would encourage all Australians to take the time to learn some Indonesian and explore Indonesia beyond Bali, whether this is as a traveller or my experiencing living in Indonesia on one of the many ACICIS in-country study programs. If you can take the first step to travel to Indonesia and immerse yourself in our neighbour’s country, I am sure you will find yourself returning again and again just like I have.

Australian students can read more about and apply for the many varied study and internship opportunities available from ACICIS on their website.