The joys of couch surfing in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

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A beautiful piece on batik, a cloth that is traditionally made using a manual wax-resistant dyeing technique. When artists do their designs, they can only do one colour a day.

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.

My fantastic Couch Surfing host and new friend.

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.

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Martin and his friend kindly guiding Kerry and I on our bicycles as if they were our personal bodyguards.

Great guides
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.

Enjoying dinner and live music. Ayumita went up to the band and sang Adelle’s “Rolling in the Deep” beautifully just for us!

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].

My ride to Borobudur, much better than a two hour bus ride to the temple.

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.

New friends

Our last dinner together at Lalha and Langgen’s house :(.

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.”

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Some of the most adorable girls you will ever meet.

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.

This was Martin’s first time at the famous Borobudur temple.

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.

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Bringing Meesa style curry to Asia.

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.

Just trying.

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.

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A nice hug with Langgen.

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.

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Sebastian and Ayumita on their way to town square to make our wishes between the Banyan trees.

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.

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Beautiful Lalha waiting for her coffee.

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.”

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Private live music session at Kopi Jos.

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.

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Glow bicycles in town square.

 

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Our last moments together peddling around town square while dancing to clubbing music that was installed with the bike.

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Koko’s recommended stay at Edu Hostel Jogja, Indonesia

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Communal space with comfy cushions, two guitars and a foosball table.

Edu Hostel Jogja is definitely the place to go if you are looking for a witty, clean, and comfortable place to meet other travelers in Jogyakarta, Indonesia. For 70,000 rupiah (about $6 US), you can stay in a shared dorm with six beds, a free tasty breakfast on their rooftop with a nice view of the city, free Wi-Fi, access to computer stations, and great service. Other guesthouses in parts of the city charge at least 100,000 rupiah per night and don’t include Wi-Fi.

The hostel’s design reflects Jogyakarta’s creative culture with the integration of beautiful art, vibrant colours, witty signs and inspiring quotes. The communal environment is what makes Edu Hostel a few steps above the great European hostels I’ve stayed at before. And they also use solar panels on their roof!

Creating a community environment with intentional design

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This sign is at the stand-up computer station, which was purposely designed without seats to encourage people to talk to each other instead of being locked at the computer.

On top of being a comfortable and very functional place, I love that Edu Hostel attempts to create a community environment with smart an intentional design. For example, there is no Wi-Fi in any of the rooms because they want to encourage people to talk to each other. So they only have Wi-Fi on the first floor, which is an open space and you can enjoy the catchy music they play, creating a fun vibe. Even the computer stations on the first floor are stand-up stations to discourage people from being plugged in all the time.

When you walk up the stairs, on each floor you can find inspiring quotes along the way. When you reach the top where the food and drinks are, you can see a 90-degree pool that people can swim in while looking at a 360-degree view of the city. When you’re done your meal, you are responsible for clearing your dishes by bringing them to the table station.

Simply smart design

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Quote on our hostel room wall.

I really appreciate places that are user-friendly and design things in a way that makes sense for people. It’s often very hard to be simple.

Here are a few examples of some of the smart design aspects of Edu Hostel:

  • The plug outlets to charge your electronics are placed inside your locker so they’re not in plain view when you leave your room. At first I kept wondering why they didn’t have any outlets in the room, but now I know it’s for security.
  • The toilet is separate from the showers so if one person is doing their business, that doesn’t stop your roomies from taking a shower. Usually  hostels have the shower and toilet in one room.
  • You have to buzz in with your keycard to enter the room area on each floor, which adds another layer of security.

I’d still choose staying with a local person on Couchsurfing over a hostel but unfortunately the people I messaged were either busy or out of town, which is why I ended up staying a Edu Hostel in the first place. But I’m glad I did and I was still able to connect with some couch surfing hosts in the end, which is a whole other adventure I’ll talk about in my next post.

I love intentional spaces that are created for people and Edu Hostel is impressive, inspiring and great value for the few dollars you pay per night.

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Restaurant patio

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Solar panels

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A sign at the elevator telling you how many calories you will lose if you take the stairs. After reading this, we took the stairs.

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Colourful wall decor between floors.

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One of several speakers playing good music around the hostel.

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Riding without a destination in Lombok

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Beautiful ride at 6:00 a.m. from the ferry to Kuta, south of Lombok island.

Riding a motto around Indonesia (where possible) is one of the best ways to explore the islands. Lombok island, which is east of Bali, has been such a nice place to take it easy and explore for a few days.

Driving from the ferry to Kuta, Lombok

Ferry from Bali to Lombok island

Inside the ferry from Bali to Lombok island with TVs to entertain their guess from 1:00 a.m. to 5:30 a.m.

There is a ferry at Padang Bai in the East of Bali that leaves every hour all day and all night to Lombok. Three of us took the 1:00 a.m. ferry to save on accommodation and paid 112,000 rupiahs (about $12 US) with our mottos.

We drove about an hour and a half from the ferry to south of the island in an area called Kuta, which was the most beautiful drive I have done by motto in Asia so far.

Compared to the traffic and countless tourists in Bali, Lombok has much less tourists unless you’re in an area called Senggigi and it is very quiet. The roads are nice and smooth, even in the small villages surprisingly and people aren’t driving at 90 km an hour passing each other.

Riding without a plan

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The wonderful kids who kept us company around their home.

While I was in Cambodia for eight months, I was constantly reminded that the best things happen when my days were unplanned. But sometimes my old habits kick in and I have this recurring urge to make sure I am going the right direction and make as few mistakes as possible. So thankfully for me, I’m constantly with locals, travelers or expats (people from other countries who live in Asia) who are pretty easygoing and remind me to just go with the flow and getting lost is not a bad thing.

In Vancouver, getting lost is often a frustrating experience, but often “getting lost” or not knowing exactly where you are often leads to the most unforgettable experience. In Lombok it’s really hard to actually lose your way completely on this small island. Before we started riding, I asked my friend Natalie if we should get a map but she said “Nah, it’s ok, I usually like to go places without a map and just asking people.”

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These are the first people we met when we stopped for a drink. The man on the left taught us a few words in Bahasa Susak, one of the several languages spoken in Lombok.

We originally planned to just spend the day on one of the other small islands and just make stops as we pleased along the way. We first stopped by a local market and I just drank something just to be around local people. As soon as we sat down, people around us start talking to us, even with the language barrier. Thankfully Natalie can speak some Bahasa.

The usual questions both in Bali and Lombok are, “Where you from? Are you married? Where you go? How long you in Indonesia?” Talking with them was a great way to start the day and we learned a few words in Bahasa Sasak, the indigenous language of the people in Lombok.

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The wonderful people who stopped to ask if we needed directions.

Even on this small island, there are several variations of the language across the island. Most people will at least understand, if not speak, Bahasa Indonesia, which is the common language across the country. When I said, “Bremebe kabar” which means “how are you?” in Bahasa Sasak to people just a few km outside of Kuta, many of them gave me blank stares. I’m pretty sure my pronunciation wasn’t that far off. But when I say the same thing in Kuta, everyone understands me.

Natalie and I guessed that some people speak one version of Sasak and others speak Bahasa in other parts of Lombok. It’s very interesting languages can differ so much just 10 km or less between different areas.
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After 30 minutes, we continued riding around and it was so relaxing and beautiful to just ride through the small roads and a variety of landscape. As we drive, we’re very obvious foreign visitors, people smile and say hello. This genuine and warming greeting reminds me a lot of the people, especially children, in Cambodian villages.

We took a break and sat on what we thought was an empty field with no one in sight. Before we know it, a few kids stared at us and started talking to us. Then just a few minutes later, there were 23 kids who surrounded us, laughed and spoke with us. Natalie spoke with many of them in Bahasa. This was definitely the highlight of my day.The kids were so friendly and funny. Unlike Kuta, the rest of the places we went to don’t have many tourists so people were very curious about us.

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We offered some of our snacks to them and I was surprised that all of them refused. Natalie told me in parts of the islands, when one person says “yes” or “no”, the group usually follows together.

We said goodbye the kids and continued driving around. People both in Lombok and Bali always come up to us as soon as we stop somewhere to ask us where we are going and if we need help. It’s so nice of them. On our way to one of the hills, we asked for directions to a few people and they all crowded around to talk to us because we were in a rural area that few travelers would go to. I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon with them, they had lovely smiles like most people around the island.

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Another new friend we met.

While the local people in Kuta are very kind, particularly our guesthouse family at Dyah Homestay, they seem to be a bit less sociable than the people who are on the other parts of the island where there are less tourists. People in Kuta aren’t unfriendly at all, they don’t engage as much in conversation with us. Maybe because they are so used to having tourists around, and they may be even sick of them. I don’t think many of the tourists who would come to Lombok care to have a good conversation with the local people. Many just surf, smoke, eat, drink and keep to themselves.

When we were almost done riding after a few hours, Natalie asked me, “Do you still want a map?” And I said, “Hell no! We’ve met the most amazing people just riding around.”

Explore without a destination, you never know who you will meet and the surprising things the world will give you.

First week in Bali, Indonesia

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I’ve been in Bali almost a week and a half now and there is so much to write about! I’m captivated by the rich and complex history of each of the 17,504 islands that make up Indonesnia.

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about the country before coming here to meet my friend so I’m learning as much as I can while I’m here. I’m resorting to seeing very historical sites and local places, taking pictures, and learning the details after.

DSC_0801While Indonesia is made up of hundreds of ethnic and linguistic groups, they have one common language which is Bahasa Indonesia. I was surprised to learn how diverse and complex the country was, but that’s my own fault. My friend said between islands, it feels like you’re traveling between different countries. I really love listening to the language, and some words sound like Spanish or Italian.

It would be incredible to spend months on a variety of islands to really get a deep understanding of the different cultures throughout the country.

Thanks to my wonderful friend who is living in Bali, I’ve seen so much in a week. So far we’ve seen beautiful temples, rice terraces, went whitewater rafting (on our second day), ate a variety of local food, saw ladyboys and more on all sides of Bali. Driving around on a motto is one of the best ways to see the islands because we can stop anytime we want to and the gas is about $1.50 US to fill each time.

I’ll write more in depth about each aspect of the trip over the next few posts.
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