Almost five years ago I embarked on a trip to Indonesia that would change the trajectory of my life. I traveled over two days with my good friend Megan as she went to visit her mom and I went to start a summer fellowship. Our itinerary was grueling- 15 hour flight to Hong Kong, sleeping on chairs in the Hong Kong airport, showering and eating breakfast at a spa there, then on to Jakarta where we parted ways. I immediately went to Yogyakarta and arrived late at night. When my friend Ainoen, who I hadn't yet met, greeted me at the airport with a sign with my name on it I think I actually gasped in relief. As we rode a taxi to my guesthouse, my home for the next two months, I thought- What was I thinking? I tend to always feel that way the first 24-48 hours of any solo travel. I quickly got over it and spent several weeks having an amazing experience. I met some wonderful people, both Indonesians and Americans, and I am lucky to still call them my friends today. I went to as many tourist spots as possible, ate basically any food offered to me, and had so much fun. I also, if you can remember far back in my blog where I discussed this, found myself one evening at a women's masjid in Kotagede.
|Me in 2013, Java Indonesia|
Five years later, many things have changed, but I always knew I would be back in Indonesia. In the past five years, I have moved with my husband to California (for four years) - and now have been moved back to Arizona for almost a year. We added a second dog to our family, Risa. Zack's and my siblings have given us many more nieces and nephews. I taught for both my university and a junior college in California. I studied Indonesian for a summer in Wisconsin, passed my gruelling comprehensive exams, and defended my dissertation prospectus to gain candidacy.
Everything I have done thus far for my doctorate has been in hopes of returning to Indonesia again to do my doctoral research. As soon as my dissertation prospectus passed, I started the research visa process with the Indonesian government. Last time when I was in Indonesia, I traveled on a social/cultural visa which meant I was prohibited from doing any research- at the time of course I didn't know I was ever going to do research in Indonesia! I started the visa procurement process with many people in my ear telling me how difficult it would be, how much bureaucracy I would have to deal with, and quite a bit of discouragement from some. Per usual I went for it anyway.
The process of getting a research visa is not simple. The reason for this, however, is completely understandable. Governments need to make sure that the foreign researchers they are allowing into their country are not going in to exploit the people, environment, etc. Prior to a few years ago, all application materials had to be mailed across the world and it could take up to 6 months for them to be processed. Now, however, almost the entire process was online and I found the people at the Ministry of Research in Jakarta to be extremely helpful via email with any questions I had.
The following items had to be uploaded to the RISTEK website:
There was also a part where I would provide information about my spouse or children if they were accompanying me. It pains me to say that Zack was unable to come to any part of this trip- both due to his work schedule and travel restrictions for his job.
It took several weeks to get all of these letters and papers together, but I finally uploaded them in October, shortly after I passed my prospectus defense. To my great suprise and joy, I was approved by November! At this point the holidays were coming up and the best prices for flights weren't until January. I planned my trip for January 20 through March 20. When RISTEK approved me, I was emailed a letter to take to the Indonesian Consulate nearest to me to pick up my visa. A visa, if you don't know, is basically a printed sticker put on a page of your passport with all of your trip information.
Zack and I scoped out the days the consulate would be open, since it was that tricky time of Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years, and I emailed and called the consulate in Los Angeles to let them know I was coming. Unfortunately I had a great deal of difficulty reaching them and after sending several emails and voicemails I narrowed down the window I could go. You have two months from the date that RISTEK issued you your approval to pick up the visa but once you picked up the visa you only had 30 days to depart for your destination. This meant that I basically the last two weeks in December to pick up the visa, which of course meant I would be dealing with limited open hours at the consulate. Zack and I planned a roadtrip to Los Angeles just after Christmas and we were able to crash at a friend's place even though she was out of town for the holidays.
I arrived at the consulate and waited about an hour and a half before the area I needed opened up, later than usual. Then, I was told that the person who would process my visa was out of town- for almost two weeks! The employees who were there had me fill out some redundant information as if I was applying anew for the visa and I had to make copies of all of my application documents. This was frustrating because, per the consulate's advice via email I had emailed them my application materials in one big PDF weeks before. Zack and I, unwilling to lose our parking space, walked around Koreatown in Los Angeles until we found a Staples and I could make all of my copies. Then we wandered into different gas stations asking if we could do a money order until we finally found one. The consulate told me to create a money order for $50 for the consulate to process my visa. Lastly, I had to purchase a pre-paid, self addressed envelope so my passport could be shipped to me since I was not local to the consulate. We left Los Angeles feeling very frustrated because we had been totally unprepared- after all, everything I had read used the phrase "go to the consulate to pick up the passport" which suggests some amount of simplicity. We turned lemons into lemonade though and drove down to Camp Pendleton where we met with some dear friends and reminisced about how much we loved living there before driving back the next day. We actually returned home with less than we left with- besides the cost of a kind of pointless trip, the consulate had taken my passport and said they would send it to me in my prepaid envelope. Being someone who loves to travel, I cannot tell you how strange it felt to be without a passport. I don't often entertain thoughts of fleeing the country but just knowing that I couldn't for those few weeks made me nervous!
Then the waiting began. I was told to call back on January 5 to see if my visa had been processed, so I put the entire thing out of my mind to enjoy the new year. Come the fifth, I called. I left a voicemail. I called later, and left a voicemail. I repeated this two voicemail a day process for about 5 days until I realized that it was going to be impossible for me to leave on the 20th as planned (and paid for). At this point I didn't have a visa and my passport was, in my over-anxious mind, probably on someone's desk being used as a coaster. The window for me to even receive my visa expired (two months from the date it was approved, remember?). I got into contact with RISTEK again and they were extremely accomodating and issued me another approval. Then I continued my incessant phone calls to the consulate and I didn't let my phone out of my sight in hopes of seeing an LA area code calling me. Finally- FINALLY- I got the call that my visa was being processed. I had to pay a hefty price to re-book my flights for almost a month later (CheapO Air was very helpful with this). Then I got another call from the consulate that the cost for visa processing was actually $5 more than what I had been told so I had to go to a bank and transfer $5 to their account. I spent an anxious few days checking the mail until one glorious day there was an envelope at my door with my passport and newly issued visa.
In retrospect, I am glad I got to spend almost another month with my family. On the other hand, if you saw or spoke to me during January you would know it was one of the most stressful times of my life.
Now that I was cleared to travel, I began to prepare in earnest. It's funny, when my husband leaves for training (anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks) or deployments (6-8 months) we always focus so much on making him prepared for his trip. In my case, being the Type A personality, I not only was preparing for my trip but preparing my home to be "ran" by Zack. This is a guy to works 14-16 hour days and most weekends. During this particular season of our life I tend to try to take care of most of the household stuff as well as the dogs so that we can maximize our quality time. Now I was giving Zack a crash course in our household bills, dog care, and even stuff like where things are kept in the kitchen because he is literally away from home so much he doesn't know where anything goes. I organized each room, drawer and cabinet in the house. I synced our Google Calendar so he would know every bill due date, recycle and garbage day, dog heartworm medicine day, salt pellet replacement day, etc. He probably wakes up to at least three notifications a day on his phone from that calendar! Since he works so long we also had to figure out what to do with the dogs during the long days and amazingly my mother volunteered to spend several hours each weekday in the middle of the day to make sure they can go potty, spend time outside and interact with a human.
There was also a lot I needed to buy to prepare for this trip. Luckily I had been to Indonesia before so I had a good idea of what to pack. Last time I went I brought two suitcases and that was a terrible mistake. This time I vowed to pack under 50lbs in one medium suitcase- and I did it! I knew I needed to prepare to dress modestly given I was planning to spend quite a bit of time in mosques, so I looked for loose linen pants, long sleeved, breathable shirts and maxi skirts. I also wanted some very comfortable sandals and lucked out with a couple pairs of Tevas on sale for the holidays. No point in worrying about make up since the humidity just makes it disappear so I just stick with some waterproof mascara and BB cream. My hair is not tame in humidity so instead of attempting to straighten my hair I found some great products to embrace my natural waves. Since it is rainy here in Indonesia I made sure my backpack was waterproof, brought a poncho, and even bought a waterproof phone bag in case I am caught in a downpour. Now that I am here, of course, I realize I forgot an umbrella! Packing cubes were a lifesaver- thanks Preeth- and have helped me be very organized.
During the week leading up to my departure so many people asked me "Aren't you so excited?" And I would truthfully answer NO! To be honest, I am NEVER excited leading up to solo travel. I go from dread and anxiety during predeparture and departure to hopelessness at first arrival and then once I settle in I am happy as can be. This has actually been the norm for me since my first time traveling alone to England when I was 20!
Leaving Zack at the security check the morning I left was so hard. We get very little time together as it is and it is so hard for us when one of us leaves. I had a short flight to Los Angeles and then two hours waiting in American Airlines' chaotic international terminal. Next up was my 10 hour flight to Tokyo. I had a window seat which is good for room but bad if you have to use the bathroom or need to stretch. The food was actually nice and I was able to watch a lot of movies I had missed in theaters. I didn't sleep much since I was trying to adjust to Indonesia time already. The Turtl travel pillow was amazing and kept me from having a stiff neck I also brought along my compression socks I used to wear for running and they made me feel so much better. Usually my legs hurt on long flights because my legs are so short my feet don't touch the ground. This means that my legs end up having a ton of pressure on them as I sit but compression socks fixed the issue! I flew economy and couldn't help the pang of absolute envy I felt when passing by the luxurious business class- someday!!!
When I arrived in Tokyo I had only 2 hours layover so I didn't even get to look around the airport. When I got to my new gate I think I was so tired that I started to feel very emotional. I did not want to be the lady crying at the airport gate! I made small talk with the person waiting next to me and tried to just suck it up. This plane was actually not full and I found myself in an emergency row with no seats in front of me and no passenger beside me. At first I thought this meant I wouldn't be able to watch anything but down by my feet I was able to pull up a screen to me. There was a little family next to me with a sweet little baby who was amazing during the whole flight. I tried to watch something but ended up feeling so antsy and tired I just tried to sleep. The food was definitely not my taste but American Airlines had fed us two meals and a sandwich-snack so I wasn't hungry anyway. One thing I kind of enjoyed was being so close to the galley that I got to see a lot of what the flight attendants do during a flight. They were busy almost the entire 9 hours and they worked together seamlessly so it was kind of cool to watch.
When I arrived in Jakarta it was barely midnight on the 16th, Friday. It was still Thursday evening in the states but I was wide awake. The immigration line went pretty fast and I had a good time people watching, imagining what everyone was doing here. I barely walked up to the baggage carousel and saw my lime green suitcase right away. Originally my plan was to make it through the airport and then go to the connected airport hotel to get a few hours of sleep until my actual hotel's check in time. However, I had some difficulty finding the entrance to the airport hotel and by the time I found it I realized I would be checking in to take a just a few hours' nap and I wasn't even tired yet. Instead I bought a mocha and sat in a chair, connected to wifi and alternated between chatting with my family and reading my Margaret Atwood book. By the time it hit 7 o'clock I was in that deliriously tired space. I grabbed a cab and made it through to Jakarta with suprisingly little traffic.
Upon arriving at my hotel I was charged extra for checking in early (I couldn't have cared less I was so tired!) and finally got to my room. This was to be my home away from home for the next week until I was able to leave for Yogyakarta. This is a new hotel and the rooms are clean, modern and have personality. When I got in though, I was so exhausted I was getting quite emotional again! I called Zack and moped to him that I wished he was with me. I called my sister who was with my dogs and got teary eyed seeing them. Even though Zack was assuring me that I was feeling this way because I was so tired I didn't buy it at the time. Honestly I am glad I travel so far away because if the option were available to turn around and go home easily to Zack I probably would! But after 20 hours of flying the the thought of even looking at an airplane made me cringe. Finally I crashed for six hours. That night I was so pleased to be able to meet up with my Indonesian teacher from my time in Wisconsin and her husband and had a lovely dinner out. It was so good after days of traveling alone to see a friendly face and have good conversation! Food, sleep, and friends made me feel infinitely better!
|Hanging out on the terrace of my hotel.|
|Typical breakfast from my hotel- mie goreng, fruit, cereal, toast and tea. I also order telur orak-arik (scrambled eggs).|
Now I am on day four of being in Indonesia. I'm almost completely adjusted to the time and experienced very few jet lag symptoms. Breakfast at the hotel is included and I have definitely taken advantage of that. I have ventured out past my hotel and to a couple warungs, convenience stores, and some over-priced restaurants catering to bule (foreigners like me!). Jakarta is very different from Yogya. Of course it is a world capital and it is known for its horrible traffic. My hotel is near some smaller roads and in order to cross you just take a deep breath and go for it. In theory the motorbikes and cars are supposed to swerve around you and I have been lucky so far. For the major roads, like when I went to RISTEK this morning, there are lights and it is generally a good idea to cross when you see other people crossing. Things are slightly more expensive here than Yogya but still cheap compared to the US. I ate soto mie (noodle soup) at a warung on Saturday for 18000 rupiah ($1.33) and then ate some curry, rice and strawberry juice at a restaurant for 200000 rupiah (way over priced but still under $15). Tonight it was starting to rain so I ran to the closest restaurant and ate pasta (of all things) for about $10. People are still nice and eager to say hello and are patient with my limited Indonesian. There's a lot I have forgotten from not hearing Indonesian in so long and I even accidentally started to speak Spanish to a hotel employee yesterday, much to my extreme embarrassment.
I couldn't do any work during the weekend but today bright and early I walked over to the Ministry of Research building and checked in. The office employees were very nice and helpful. They took my passport and made copies and used one of my many red background photos to make my ID. I had to go across the street to the bank to transfer money to pay for the permit (1.4 million or about $134 dollars). Then I brought the receipt back and the letters of approval were all organized for me according to where I needed to go next. There were many researchers in there either doing work alone or part of a research group and I chatted with some American ornithologists while I waited. I think working for RISTEK would be so interesting since you get to learn about all these different projects people want to do in your country.
|The walk to the ministry. Not shown: the rat the size of a cat I saw running down the street!|
Tomorrow I take a taxi to south Jakarta to the police headquarters and then a couple more locations before I can catch my flight to Yogya on Friday afternoon. I hope I have time to go to the national monument and the museum of history before I depart. I am eager to get to the cozier feel of Yogyakarta where I will be staying in an Airbnb and meeting up with friends from my time there in 2013. I definitely miss my family, especially Zack, my nephews and my puppies, but I have plenty of time to video chat with everyone.
More adventure awaits.
|I'm pretty pleased with myself.|