Land of 17,000 Islands

Indonesia is treat for the senses. As I flew into Padang, Indonesia and looked out the airplane window, it was like a dream world. Fluffy white clouds weightlessly floated above sandy beaches that melted into aquamarine waters. As I looked out farther from the islands, the aquamarine waters blended into the purest of blues. On land I was met with resplendent smells of sea air, spices, and burning banana leaves. The busy streets are lined with small vendors selling water, regional cuisine, and clove cigarettes. With the upcoming local election, political advertisements plastered with the faces of candidates served as the backdrop to everything. Add to this the sound of mosquitoes, car horns from the jam packed roads, and the evening call to prayer sounded from nearby mosques, and you get a taste of the Indonesian experience.

I was greeted by Feri, a former LLM student at William and Mary Law School and professor at Andalas University, and some of his students. They first drove me to my hotel for some much needed freshening up before heading to dinner with more students and the Dean of the Constitutional Law Program at Andalas. We joined together over a dinner of traditional West Sumatran food. The students were nervous at first, having had limited experience interacting with a white person, or as the slang term they use here, bulai. Once they worked up the courage, they asked me all sorts of questions about American culture. Mostly they wanted to know if what they read on the internet is true, such as, “Are there really gang wars?” The students were equally eager to share with me some basics about Indonesian culture, such as the practice of eating with your right hand, sans fork and spoon.  

The next day, I went to Andalas University as a visiting scholar. I presented a lecture about US Presidential Elections to Constitutional and International Law students (here, they study law at the undergraduate level). They were both shocked and confused by the Electoral College system. This was further complicated by some missed translation of ideas from English to Bahasa (the national Indonesian language). This sparked a debate about which system would be better for Indonesia, a direct election as they use now, or the Electoral College that would give more of a voice to the smaller islands and regions.

 I also served as the guest speaker to the English Conversations Club at the University, aimed at providing a space for students to practice their English. They asked more questions about American culture, what my favorite American food is, and how I liked Indonesia thus far. Most students start learning English at a young age, just like many schools in the US teach Spanish in elementary school, but not all students continue to pursue English in higher education. Even fewer get the opportunity to converse with a native English speaker beyond the occasional interaction with Australian tourists (of which there are many who go to West Sumatra for some of the world’s best surfing).

 After a very long day, serving as the center of much fascination, I headed off to the airport for the last leg of my journey to Jakarta. I arrived in the capital city late at night and was fortunately greeted by a few of Feri’s former students. We took a taxi to my flat, located only a few blocks from the Kemitraan office where I am working this summer.

Indonesians are friendly and curious people who love to laugh. Everyone I have interacted with thus far have greeted me with warmth and humor. The welcoming arms of everyone here has made the transition that much easier, making this new place feel like more like home every day.