In 10 weeks, I grew used to the familiar morning sounds of desa Wonorejo. The call to prayer at 3:30 am, followed by the rush of the train, and the noisy roosters, goats and sheep. Has anyone ever noticed how sheep actually say Baaa? Like, they say the actual word. If you imitate a dog’s bark, you’re not actually going to say woof. You’re going to make the sound. Not the case with sheep. These Wonorejo sheep sound like a grown person lazily imitating a sheep. All in all, this cross-cultural experience has been eye-opening.
In all seriousness, though: While my host families in Kediri and Madiun share the same notions of Indonesian hospitality, I’ve walked into an entirely different home. At the front of the house, my new host family owns a toko. It’s your average neighborhood corner store. A Brooklyn bodega in a little city of East Java. The morning sounds are new: motorcyclists rolling to a stop to buy cigarettes; the clang of short, round gas canisters turned in for refills; and the squeak of door hinges as family members roll out of bed one after the other for breakfast.
Indonesia is an incredibly diverse country. I get to see how differently two families live within the same culture by moving to my permanent site. I stayed with a Muslim family in Kediri, and now I’m living with a Christian family in Madiun.
For my family in Kediri, the daily routine was shaped around prayer. In Islam, there are five daily calls to prayer. These are designated times for Muslims to break from daily activities and either dress for the musholla (prayer house), masjid (mosque), or the prayer room in their home. In Indonesia, there are six official permitted religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and, most recently, Confucianism. Every citizen chooses one of these religions to identify with, and it’s printed on their national ID.
But labeling an ID can’t possibly sum up Indonesia’s diversity, or limit how people worship. More than 240 million people live in this nation of 17,000 islands. And while it’s the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, the population includes nearly 250 unofficial religions, more than 300 native languages, and more varieties of traditional music, dance, cuisine, and ways of life than a census can communicate. There’s a lot to learn. I’m trying to take things slow.
So I arrived to Madiun late on a Wednesday night, unpacked my mosquito net, and went straight to bed. The next day there was an entirely new city to map out. Step one: buy a bike. Within 10 minutes, I wiped out. Nothing says welcome to Madiun quite like a minor bike accident on a busy road in front of a hundred people. Turns out riding across train tracks in the rain while dodging motorcyclists is just as messy as it sounds. But then two Indonesian ladies pulled over on their sepeda motor to help me off the road and rinse off my bloody hands. They said Peace Corps would be hard, I guess? But then a stranger lends a hand and it’s all okay.
Indonesian hospitality isn’t just a practice to welcome visitors in your home. People have been eager to help anywhere at any time. I can’t appreciate this enough. Especially considering within 24 hours of my wipe-out, I’d then board a bus for the night, break my glasses, and lose a shoe. Don’t worry, everything else is under control.
Two days after unpacking my bags, I joined the teachers at my future school for a staff trip. Every year or two, the entire staff visits sites across East Java during December break. In the past they’ve gone to Bali. This time, we rode 16 hours to Banyuwangi. Banyuwangi is the eastern most city in East Java, and it means Fragrant Water in Javanese. It’s the main port where ferries depart for Bali. Oh, and we planned to stop at Mount Bromo along the way. I walked right into a full-on vacation, and I can’t thank everyone enough for making me feel so welcome. One of my counterparts and her daughter even let me crash with them at the hotel. I’ve loved getting to meet everyone before the semester starts.
Although I’d seen the packed itinerary, I still didn’t know what to expect. Like that getting to Bromo would require a bus, a van, a jeep, and a bit of a hike. Or that an enormous flat-screen TV would fold down at the front of the bus and a microphone would make its way down the aisle. If I learned anything in that 16-hour bus ride, it’s that karaoke is alive in Indonesia. With 120 people on this trip, there was always a voice ready for the next song. In the States, we consider singing something you’re either good at, or bad at. It’s something you either can do, or can’t do. But here, everyone sings all the time because singing is fun. We sang our way to Banyuwangi and back.
In Banyuwangi we stopped at Jawatan, a park with sprawling, twisty pohon trembesi, or rain trees. We rode another hour to Pulau Merah beach, and later to a waterfall called Air Terjun Kembar, which means Twin Falls.
Just before departing Banyuwangi, we also stopped at Bansring Conservatory. The only word I understood about this place was hiu hiu, which means sharks. Next thing I knew, it was raining and we were boarding a tiny motor boat into… shark-infested waters? Any specifics were lost on me. But once we got up close, they’re not so scary. They’re little sharks. Little sharks are cute.
Now that I’m back from Banyuwangi, I’m starting to get to know Madiun—biking around without crashing, and beginning to celebrate Christmas with my host family. For the past two days, we’ve been prepping 150 small heart-shaped cakes to hand out at church. We’ve got two ovens working over time, four colors of frosting, and piles of decorative cake boxes. This is no small feat. Holiday baking is one of my favorite things to do in December, so I couldn’t be happier to share in their tradition, too.