IACS: Life as a Bule in Peace Country


I have major depression an anxiety
There. I said it. Not so scary huh?
I was diagnosed with these in 2010 when I was eighteen (though it has been a struggle as long as I can remember) and I have carried them with me ever since. Now, you’re probably wondering why I am telling you this right? Well, firstly, I think there needs to be more of an open dialogue about mental health so that we can move forward in removing the stigma that surrounds it. Secondly, I want to share my experience of moving to a foreign country while simultaneously living with these conditions. I want to tell you that,  while it’s hard, it’s hard, it’s not impossible, and in the end, it’s damn well worth doing.

I got the scholarship
I distinctly remember the very moment I found out that I had been accepted in to a scholarship program in Indonesia. I was in the back seat of my friends car while we drove her housemate to the airport.
“Shit. I got it”
I had been obsessively checking my emails for the prior two weeks waiting for this very one to arrive.

It’s hard to describe the feelings I had in that moment as I’m sure I felt every single one of them in a matter of seconds. Overwhelming joy, pride, gratefulness, fear, dread, panic. I had been in such denial that there was a chance that I would actually be accepted in to the program that I was in genuine shock. 

Of course I was absolutely ecstatic but I was also terrified at the thought of leaving my friends, family and comfort zones. My friends were my shining light in this moment, surprising me with flowers and demanding we have a celebratory dinner. Their pride in me gave me courage to accept this huge endeavor, I knew that taking part in the program was a once in a life time opportunity that I could not give up due to my anxiety. No way was I letting my black dogs win this tug of war. It was time to pull up my metaphorical big girl pant and get organized.

Goodbye Australia
The following six weeks involved packing, organizing and multiple panic attacks. Committed to doing the program, I knew there was no turning back, this was a time to prove to myself that I was, and I am, capable of greater things. At the airport I maintained a level of numbness so that I could handle the goodbyes, denial is a friend to me in such scenarios. I had no idea what I was in for when I arrived in Indonesia but I knew that in just a few short months I would be back home with the people most important to me, so now was the time to embrance the unknown, the unexpected and the uncomfortable.

Hello Indonesia, hello new friends, hello anxiety
When I arrived at the airport in Jakarta I could not find the person who was there to meet me. Cue panic. After what seemed like eternity and many phonecalls to a local friend, the travel agent and my mother, I was safe and sound, on my way to the hotel. Hurdle number one successfully overcome.

The program included 60 participants from 47 different countries so not only was I dealing with the culture shock from being in crazy, hot, crowded Indonesia, but I was also learning about so many other places in the world and admittedly I hadn’t heard of half of them, who knew that so many countries names ended in ‘stan’.

I was to share a room with a lovely girl from Cambodia for the entire first week. She was shy and quiet and from such a different culture that I was’nt sure just how Australian I should be. Sharing a room with a stranger when you’re exhausted is hard work at the best of times, but trying to navigate this situation when you hate small talk and the very thought of these interactions sets off your anxiety is a whole other ball game. Alas, I survived, and it turns out I now have a beautiful, softly spoken, incredibly innocent, Cambodian friend.

That entire first week was so full of new experience, friends, smells, sounds and activies that I, thankfully, did not have the time nor energy to be totally overcome by anxiety. The most difficult part of this initial week was finding time to myself as I find it crucial in maintining a level of calm and sanity. Long, hot showers were my meditation, providing a rare moment of silence after long days with new people and cultures, most of whom don’t understand my accent or how partial I am to a good dad joke.

Life as a Bule
Pretext: Bule means foreigner in the Indonesian language. This essay was written in the first three weeks of my four months in Indonesia

When travelling to another part of the world, one should always expect some form of cultural differences. This is especially relevant if travelling to East Asia as a Caucasian Westerner. Some of these cultural differences are expected, the ones you read about in guide books and on Lonely Planet. Many of them, however, will become apparent in the most unexpected of circumstances. My first two weeks in Jogjakarta have contained a mixture of both of these in a variety of scenarios.

Let’s get the most obvious out of the way first; squat toilets. The concept of traditional squat toilets still baffles my western haunches and my inability to maintain a steady squat becomes more apparent every time I am faced with the the task. I have also come to realise that I must dress to suit this style of toilet if I think there is a chance I will use one on an outing. The problem is finding the perfect happy medium of pants, too loose and long and the bottom of them will end up sodden from the water that forever plagues the bathroom floors. However, tight enough that they do not touch the floor means that they could also be too tight to create the perfect Western-style-squat. Ahhhh the bule’s dilemma, but enough about bathroom habits.

One thing that I knew to expect from a previous visit to Indosesia is how much I stand out in a crowd. In my home of Brisbane, Australia exist a diverse range of faces and cultures and there I am in the majority. Being in the majority has provided me with an invisibility cloak of sorts that I have only become grateful for since coming to Indonesia. No matter where I go here or what I do, the call of ‘Hey bule!’ from the locals follows closely in my wake. The first few days I found this to be disconcerting, after that it became amusing, but sometimes it would be nice to go unnoticed. Especially when I am feeling sick or tired and want nothing more than to fade in to the background. 

The main issue is that I am not just white, I am so fair that I borderline transparent. Something that has caused me to be the butt of many ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost ‘ jokes since childhood. Not only this but I have light hair with a pink wash through it. In hindsight I should have gone back to blonde before leaving Australia but I have had pink hair for three years and the thought did not cross my mind.

Not only does the colour of my skin separate me from the pack but my inability to converse in Bahasa Indonesia makes daily existence difficult. Menial tasks such as buying a coffe of catching a taxi are near impossible without someone to translate. While this is mostly just annoying it became apparent that it can also mean the difference of life and death. I am living in a house with four other scholarship participants and on the first Saturday of our stay Chara, a beautiful girl from Greece, had a major allergic reaction to what we now know was a wasp sting. Not being able to communicate with someone for help was the most terrifying and infuriating experience I have ever been involved in Chara’s life, and unconscious body, was literally in our hands and as every imperative minute ticked by without help she became more ill.

We quickly found out that emergency services such as an ambulance are almost non existent in Indonesia, the polar opposite to my home country where emergency services are prioritized and recognized as an integral part of society. Thankfully we found a stranger on the street who understood English and had a car to drive us to the hospital where Chara received life saying treatment. This day will remain one of the most difficult I have ever experienced but I am grateful for the lessons it taught us in the case an emergency was ever to occur again. I will also never take for granted the excellent emergency services that exist in Australia as well asmy ability to inform someone of important information when I need to.

Another big difference that we are being confronted with is the integral part that religion plays in everyday Indonesian life. The end of our second week here in Jogja coincides with the beginning of Ramadan, the most holy month in the Islamic calender. As Java is majority muslim the importance and relevance of Ramadan can not go unnoticed. Some of the requirements of Ramadan include fasting during daylight hours and going to prayer five times a day. As an agnostic Westerner who has little to do with religious ceremonies or rituals in normal life I struggle to comprehend any religious practice let alone one that requires such intense devotion.

However in saying this, I am eager to gain a better understanding and learn more from the locals of Jogjakarta who are always there to offer their guidance, knowledge and wisdom. It has been a rollercoaster two weeks in Jogja with many lesson learnt, friends created and some wisdom gained and no doubt we will continue to accumulate stories and experience as the weeks pass. Life as a bule in Indonesia is entirely different to the life I live in Australia but one that I love and am hungry to live more of.

Jogja bound
When the first week in Jakarta ended the group of sixty was split in to five groups of twelve, all heading to different cities across the Indonesian archipelago. Much to my dismay some of the people I had become incredibly close to were not joining my group of Jogjakarta. Instead I was again thrown into the unknown with the looming anxiety of choosing who I would live with for the following three months. 

In our group were ten girls and two boys and holy shit girls are so painful when it comes to decisions. We had to decide which five people would live in the share house and which seven would live in the dormitory. Que passive aggressive drama mainly caused by a couple of the girls in the group. Ew, when this sort od drama goes down I usually take the ‘I don’t give a flying fuck please just make a goddamn decision so I can sleep’ path and this time was no different. 

After an awkward group meeting in the airport departure lounge it was finally sorted. Thank god for the boys volunteering (reluctantly, we didn’t really give them much of a choice) to share the only room that wasn’t single. When we finally arrived to our new homes it was late at night and we were exhausted. A meet and greet with the owner of the boarding houses and we were finally permitted to go to bed. Holy shit I could have slept for a whole year I was so drained.

Writer: Zoe Carlotte

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