My friend in Bali recommended that I visit Yogyakarta in Java, which she described as “A very cool university town.” I had never heard of the city, often referred to as Jogja, and she said going to different islands around Indonesia is like visiting a different country; every island has its own distinct culture, language and history. I was surprised that there are 20 universities in this small city.
Part of me was hesitant to go to a different city alone because I was having such a great time with her and other friends. Every time I go to a new city, sometimes I feel like I have to “restart” and find people to hang out with and so on. But I will only be in the city for a few days then will be meeting up with friends in Taiwan so I won’t be alone for very long.
I had never tried couch surfing before, but I’ve heard nothing but great things about it from friends who have either surfed to find places to stay while they were traveling or being hosts themselves.
If you’re not familiar, couchsurfing.org is website where people can post a profile to offer their homes for travelers and where travelers can “surf” for places to stay. Travelers will message or put in requests to hosts of their destination city. What’s also great about the site is even if you don’t want to stay at someone’s place, I recommend people using it to meet up with local people. They, of course, have the best knowledge of their city.
Couch surfing seems so much like online dating because you put time to write tailored messages to people you want to host hoping that they will reply you for a first meeting, you need to make a profile that gives you a positive appearance and the people you don’t want send you messages.
I probably messaged at least 15 people and none of them were able to host me because they were either out of town or they already had guests. But one person I messaged named Lalha was great at keeping in touch by text and we met just three days ago to hang out and we became instant friends. Lalha and the wonderful people we met through her are all university students between 18 and 22 years old studying broadcasting and in international relations.
What was really adorable was the first night we were trying to meet up, she didn’t have time to see me so she sent her friend Martin to meet me instead. So we met for a bit and we planned for him to meet me and two of my hostel friends Kerry and Lilliane the next day to see one of the temples.
Martin and his friend were very patient and nice to meet up with us and kept us company for the day. They were very considerate gentlemen the whole time they were with us, which is very impressive, especially compared to many North American students their age who often are not that considerate.
When we wanted to rent bicycles, they told us to wait while Martin used his motto to find out where we could get them. They took us to the bike shop and when one of our friends chose to walk, he automatically thought of her and rented a helmet for her to use for the motto so she wouldn’t have a bike when we returned to our hostel.
As we started to bicycle, Kerry and I felt like a celebrity because Martin and his friend were always protecting us on the roads with their mottos like bodyguards by having one person in the front and one at the back. They drove at our pace and we didn’t feel pressure to go fast. In typical Javanese style, Martin often says, “Take it easy, just relax.”
I thought, like Cambodia, citizens can go to the temples for free anytime. But in Jogja, they pay a small fee, of course much lower than foreigners. I think it should be free for local people. Kerry and I offered to pay their fee for Taman Sari, a site of a former royal garden of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. The site was used for several purposes, including a resting area, a workshop, a meditation area, a defense area, and a hiding place. It was irritating to see that so many tourists have written on the walls and stupid message like “Greg was here” or [X name] loves [partner of the other ignorant tourist].
When it started raining for almost two hours, all of us hung out in a small restaurant by the palace and it was a great chance to get to know the guys more. Martin told us of his dreams of going to Italy and his love of music.
When the rain stopped, the guys followed us back to our guesthouse. Lilliane and I had to pick up our laundry on the bicycles so we did that first while Kerry went back. We decided to rest for a few hours and I told the guys I will meet them later at night to walk around town. Kerry mentioned that she told the boys that she can walk back to the guesthouse by herself and it was just a five minutes to walk, but they kept insisting that they take her back and wait with her until we got back to the lobby. This kind of chivalry is exactly the opposite of the behaviour of many of the men I met in Laos.
Lalha was so sweet to pick me up on her motto close to my guesthouse and this is the very first time I’ve met her. She came with her friend Ayumita and we went to pick up two couch surfers from Singapore and we all went to a place called Easy Goin’, where they had an awesome live Indonesian band playing acoustic versions of Western songs.
Martin joined us later and it was so easy to be and talk with everyone at dinner. Everyone was really impressed with Ayumita, who sings at one of the hotels in town once a week. I was jokingly asking her to sing us a song and then Lalha told me to request that she sings Adelle. So when I requested it, she just went up to the band without hesitation and she sang Rolling in the Deep very beautifully. As she was singing, I couldn’t help but thinking, “How do these kinds of moments happen so often when I travel and by doing something so simple like messaging a few people on couch surfing.”
In Vancouver, it’s like pulling teeth to have new people actually follow through to meet up with you and develop a friendship. In places around Asia, you really have to make an effort to not meet people and make friends because so many people are so open and want to get to know you.
After a fabulous performance by Ayumita, we planned for the next full day. Martin was going to give me a ride to the famous Borobudur temples and back (saving me 90,000 Rupiah), we would cook together for dinner, see the wishing trees and town square and have a charcoal coffee. Ambitious.
An unforgettable last day in Yogyakarta
I’m sure I’ll be offending people by saying this but Borobudur was a bit underwhelming. I admit, I didn’t really understand the significance simply because I still have to read the full story of the temple and went because everyone said it’s the thing to see. But everything we did after the temple are the kinds of moments that I travel for and that are most meaningful to me.
I’m not saying I would skip all temples, but everyone talks about the famous sites and that was the thing that was least memorable of my time in this artsy city. It’s the wonderful young students I spent time with, the incredible level of courtesy they’ve shown to us visitors, and their act of opening their homes openly to someone they just met that I will remember the most.
After Borobudur, Lalha let me rest in her room even when she wasn’t home from school yet, which was very nice of her. Before I rested, I first spoke with her friend and housemate Langgen for a bit. As soon as I walked outside, she said, “Have a seat” and her, Martin and I chatted for a bit. She was very embarrassed when I told her she had a beautiful face and she called me a liar.
After I rested, Lalha and Langgen came into the room and Lalha was getting ready to pray. I was just getting used to being in Muslim communities around Lombok and Java. For 8 months I was so used to seeing and being in pagodas, hearing monks chanting and now I am getting accustomed to passing masjids (mosques for Muslims) and hearing prayer chants. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day from early morning until the evening and I’ve seen prayer rooms on ferries, malls and the airports.
The three of us girls had a conversation that went something like this:
Langgen: Do you have a religion? (In a very curious tone)
Me: No. I consider myself spiritual but I don’t identify with a specific religion. I have friends of all faiths.
Lalha: So you believe in God.
Me: I believe in some kind of higher power, if you want to call it God.
Lalha: Yes that is okay, we all have personal belief. We don’t judge.
Me: Just so you know, if I ask you questions about Islam, it’s just because I’m curious to understand the practice, I’m not judging. I like learning like when my friends invite me to their Buddhist ceremonies, I participate if I’m invited. Do girls in Yogyakarta choose to wear the hijab (veil that Muslim women wear to cover their head) when they are adults or do the parents expect them to wear it?
Langgen: No, women can choose whether they want to wear it or not when they are adults. It is their choice.
Me: It looks really beautiful on the women.
Lalha: Do you want to try it? Just for fun, not for faith.
Me: Sure! If that is okay.
The hijab is meant to be a symbol of modesty and privacy in Islam and there are standards of modesty for men as well. Islam, like any other religion, is practiced by so many people at varying degrees and every religion is practiced by people who are repressively conservative to very liberal. I do know Muslim women Canada who do fully choose to dress modestly when no one is forcing them to and many Westerners are quick to equate the hijab as a sign of repression in every circumstance. Instead of making my own assumptions of this practice, I’d rather ask people from different communities in Vancouver and in Asia.
On a side note, I don’t know why many Western people associate wearing revealing clothes is necessarily a symbol of a free woman. A Muslim student wrote a great article in our university newspaper a few years ago and made a good point that the pressure for girls to dress and be sexy is a form of repression and not necessarily a symbol of free women. She talked about what the hijab means for her and how she practices her faith. It’s important to listen and understand before we judge.
When I spoke with these girls, they were very open minded and don’t treat me differently because I’m agnostic. It’s so interesting seeing the blank looks on their faces when I tell them I am 28 and single and I’m not sure if I want kids or not. They are socialized to think that being a mother and married is a must. I understand this mentality and I’ve been increasingly fascinated with how differently people interact in their relationships than we do in the West. It seems if they are dating someone, they don’t have to be the ideal person, but someone who has good qualities and they can grow in love, very much like marriage practices in Cambodia.
Final night together
In Vancouver, our friends would cram in a kitchen and cook together almost every week. This is one of my favourite things to do and I love being able to cook with people as I go to different countries. We all made the dishes together and it was wonderful, though I was still nervous that I wouldn’t taste good since I was taking the lead on making curry, omelette and stir fried veggies. But luckily, like in Bali, it turned out to be delicious and I’m glad they all liked it.
After enjoying a meal together, we headed to a very local hangout called Kopi Joss. Kopi Joss is a drink prepared with finely ground coffee, heaping spoonfuls of sugar, and a burning piece of charcoal from the cooking fire. There is ginger and dark coffee flavour, which were both delicious and costs 5,000 rupiahs ($0.50 US) for one coffee.
It was a great place to hangout and there were so many talented singers and musicians performing on the street, which is normal for the area. I really wish we had more of this kind of vibe in Vancouver, Canada, which has so much potential for a great community environment. The performers were amazing and my friends were nice to give some money to the man who sang to us. I thought, “Only local people would likely know about this place.”
Our friends asked if we wanted to go to Alun-Alun, the town square, another popular hangout for young people where they can enjoy local food, street music and lit up bike-peddled vehicles at night. But our main purpose for going was to make our wish at the trees. People said if you can walk with your eyes closed between the two Banyan trees then your wish will come true.
It’s a lot harder to walk in a straight line with your eyes closed than you think. And there is the added challenge of many people who are also blindfolded trying to walk through the trees at the same time! In my first attempt, I totally thought I was walking straight but I ended up all the way to the right of one of the trees. Then our friend Sebastian suggested three of us hold hands and walked together and we made it.
Afterwards, we cycled a few laps in these bike-peddled contraptions that were covered with lights and played club music, which was quite quirky. It was a really fun city with great people and an awesome way to end the night. We said goodbye to the boys first at their guesthouse and then I drove back with Lalha.
I can’t believe how much we did in just two days and I really wish I stayed in the city longer to hang out with our new friends more. They make us already feel like we are part of their group. Lalha said, “I’m very happy to make new friends, thank you for coming.”
After a good sleep, I finished packing and thankfully had a chance to just chat more with Langgen in the morning. Then when it was time to go, Lalha looked a bit teary and like my Cambodians she said, “Don’t forget me.” And I said, “I could never forget everything you’ve done for me, this has been one of my best weeks in my nine months of being in Asia because of all of you. Thank you very much.”
Being the ignorant new visitor, I thought I did a decent deal paying 50,000 rupiah ($4.00 US) for the 20-minute taxi ride from the airport into the city. And then I found out I could have just taken the local bus for $0.25 US. The girls were so nice to take me to the bus station and made sure I had the right ticket to get to the airport before we said goodbye.
Everywhere I’ve been in Asia, the times that are most meaningful to me are not the hours that I spend at world-famous temples or even the beautiful landscapes. It is the times that I laugh with my friends, talk with the people who approach us, and the most genuine acts of kindness I see people doing for each other. I would have much more regret if I missed the chance to share a meal with good friends than missing a world famous site.