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Writing in Another World

A new semester has officially begun. I can't say I'm surprised the summer came and went so quickly. There were many items on the agenda - both personally and writerly. To put into too few words, this is part of what happened...

I went to Indonesia - that country in Southeast Asia that is thrown across an archipelago of around 17,000 islands, big and small. The trip was a "Field Seminar", a part of the travel writing concentration in my MFA program at Chatham University. The goal is to offer real-world experiences. It's the opportunity to gain cultural knowledge and awareness. To become a writer of the world, not just a writer close to home. Just around twelve of us students and two professors took the long journey there.

I learned quite a bit - and felt quite a bit - on this trip. I wasn't prepared for the experience. I don't think I even could have been. It was unlike any traveling I had done before. I knew this going into it, but I don't think I understood the day to day implications.

We arrived in Jakarta, the nation's capital. The city is sprawling and highly populated and chaotic. The drive from the airport into the city showed us what we were in for. The traffic is wild and untethered. THere is very little courtesy for the rules of the road. There are so many motorbikes, scooters, and motorcycles that I became convinced there was some type of convention going on, but no, there are just that many.

Unsurprisingly, the air is heavy with smog. Gray particles seem suspended in the humidity, which grabs at your body with hot hands and doesn't let go. The culture - one of modesty with a large portion of the population, especially in the large cities, practicing Islam - makes suffering the heat more challenging. No shorts or tank tops, especially for the girls.

Of the few days we spent in Jakarta, before hopping on to different islands, there were two events that struck me the most, revealed this culture the most.

Firstly was our foray into Jakarta's Chinatown or the Glodok neighborhood. This was our first real emersion into the lives of Indonesian people. It was shocking. Mostly in the contrast of beauty and darkness. On one corner would be the bright colors of unknown tropical fruit and on the other was a cage so filled with tiny birds, you could hear the sickening buzzing and thwacking of their wings on one another. We walked into a Buddhist temple and smelt savory incense and saw the adorned shrines. Then we walked through the homeless people who find refuge on the temple floor. Children playing barefoot basketball and then kittens with infected eyes and injured tails. The happy and the sad. It's a weird way to feel. And then mix that with my privileged white American identity - I didn't know how to feel. Still don't.

The second memorable moment in Jakarta was our visit to Salihara, an artist community. In this gorgeous facility that promotes the arts of all forms - visual and performance, music, dance, writing - we heard from writers and publishers talking about the unique challenges of pursuing their craft in Indonesia. One roadblock is simply Indonesia's history. It includes decades of colonial occupation, eventual independence, then dictatorships, then natural disasters, and financial crisis, and censorships (which ended up being the topic I chose to write about for my final essay of the class) and widespread massacres, and a new era of reformation that is still continuing now. This fraught history, as you can imagine, took its toll on the arts, but amazingly in many cases, the art and the artists won out - are still winning out. Humans are resilient. That's one fact that was proven again and again on this trip. 

One important notion I walked away (well flew - to Sumatra - another adventure of its own) from Jakarta with was a gratefulness to write with freedom. Take this blog for example. No one can censor it or take it down. I can freely express my ideas, simply given my place of birth. I think many of us take that for granted. And honestly in this political climate should be more aware of it. It seems secure, but I can see that slipping away.

Traveling to Indonesia was a life-changing experience that I both enjoyed and struggled with. It feels nice to discuss it with a couple months of distance. This was a snapshot of my time in Jakarta. Up next will be the jungles of Sumatra.

Until then,