I left rainy Bali for East Java, just one island over but seemingly a world away, with few tourists and different culture and religion. I said goodbye to Clara in Surabaya, the regional hub, where I was immediately affronted with some characteristics of a Javan city, namely the oppressive traffic, and the alarming 4am wakeup to a mosque blasting the morning call to prayer. I hopped a bus to meet my oldest childhood friend, Elle, who has been serving as a Peace Corps teaching volunteer in East Java for the past year. We met in Mojokerto, the closest city to the village where she lives, and attempted to catch up on the past year and a half while lurching and swaying in the aisle of a standing room only bus.
This bus dropped us in Mojoagung, a nearby city where another PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer) works at a local school. The PCV women in the region had been planning a girls’ empowerment camp for the previous few months, and my visit was lucky enough to coincide with the culmination of their efforts–the three-day-long Camp iGlow (Indonesian Girls Leading Our World). After hearing comments from students along the lines of “I want to do that, but I’m a girl,” they decided that an all women’s motivation and empowerment camp would be a great way to bring local girls together to realize their own abilities and opportunities. And so Camp iGlow was born.
Girls gathered for day one of camp.
Upon arrival I became a de facto camp counselor, along with the six PCVs who had planned the event and on Friday afternoon 60 high school girls descended on the school where the events would be taking place, and where we would be camping on classroom floors for the next two nights. The girls arrived bursting with enthusiasm and were strikingly gregarious and curious, which I found to be characteristic of most people I met in Java. They greeted us all with a handshake (a must for Indonesian hellos and goodbyes) and touched our hands to their faces, a show of respect. All of our names became “Miss” for the next few days and their eagerness and adoration reminded me of days at summer camp, when counselors are something like celebrities.
Making a poster about inner beauty.
Most of the camp was conducted in Indonesian, as the goal was inspirational rather than English learning, so my contributions were minimal, but I followed along whenever possible. The girls participated in sessions on Inner Beauty and Women’s Reproductive Health, Self-Defense, and Yoga, and played plenty of teambuilding games. They had breakout sessions making crafts, playing soccer, and learning photograhy techniques (a session that Elle and I planned and led together). Our first night was spent watching “Bend It Like Beckham” with subtitles (and all of the kiss scenes edited out), and the second for group performances, which culminated in a dance party. I never would have pictured myself dancing to Pitbull on the basketball court of an Indonesian high school with 60 girls in jilbabs, but there we were, singing along to “Give Me Everything Tonight,” while curious neighborhood kids peeked through the chainlink fence.
Girls practicing framing their shots after the photo workshop.
The camp ended predictably with hugs and endless photos and girls exchanging Facebook info, but also with a real sense of accomplishment. The girls seemed to embrace the ideals of the camp and leave with new confidence and new friends, which likewise was motivating and inspiring to those of us helping. Finally, Elle and I spent our last day together exploring her city of Mojokerto, snapping photos at butcher shops and banana warehouses in the market, and shopping for snacks and fabric.
Ever-present Javanese traffic.
Market road in Mojokerto.
Before I knew it, I was on a bus back to Surabaya to catch my flight. On Indonesian buses, hawkers ply the aisles endlessly, playing music, and selling everything from the logical, like food and drink, to the totally random, like flip flops and light up toys. Once I was able to tune out this endless hubbub, however, I was able to do a bit of reflection on the ride back. Just the few days I spent in Elle’s new home of East Java revealed such a contrast to my home in Laos. The religion makes the most obvious difference–Islam plays a massive role in the lives of Indonesians, and shapes everything from dress and gender roles to food and customs.
Krupak, an everyday snack (at the market pre-frying).
Also, Indonesia is one of the world’s most highly populated countries, evident from the crowded cities and traffic, compared with the tranquility of Laos. This creates many large “Indonesian-only” cities, where Western food is nonexistent and the sight of a foreigner causes gawking, which would not be the case in most of Laos’ metropolitan areas. Even the food is different–after only a few days, I couldn’t take another bite of white rice or fried snacks, which seem to be main components of the Javan diet, compared to the relative abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in Lao food. Even the “Indonesian personality” was different. I hesitate to ever make statements about “what ________ people are like,” because where there are people, there are exceptions, and where there are generalizations, there tend to be stereotypes. However, in just my limited experience people in East Java seem strikingly more outgoing than people in Laos. People in both countries are very friendly, but in different ways. While I find it a Lao tendency to be a bit more quiet and reserved at first, people in Indonesia are not shy about asking you to take photos with them (or just of them!), or just to yell out when they see a bule (foreigner) and try to strike up a conversation. Sometimes this can come across as harassing, or just plain annoying, and sometimes as genuine curiosity and an opportunity to meet someone interesting.
Okay, I'm still in Southeast Asia after all...