Anna Sable Overcoming the Language Barrier at Mount Merapi

Anna learning to play the Bonang Barung, a Javanese gamelan instrument, at Tutup Ngisor village, on the slope of Mount Merapi, the island’s most active volcano.

Anna Sable, who went to Indonesia and Thailand with my Asia 399 course/trip this summer, sent in this reflection.

On the way over to Indonesia, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I had just confronted my fear of flying, and in the next 24 hours we were going to meet the Atma Jaya University students that would be working with us. It was the first time I would be in a country where my knowledge of the language only reached to the extent of “Good morning” (selamat pagi) and “Thank you” (terima kasih). Those two phrases alone would be important in breaking the ice with taxi drivers, people in market places, and vendors. Though there was often a large language barrier, it did not stop us from having a wonderful time.

Mount Merapi, the morning we left the village. A devastating eruption in 2010 killed 353 people and destroyed several nearby villages, as well as roads and bridges.

One of the more challenging trips was our one night stay in a village at the base of Mount Merapi named Tutup Ngisor. Rachel and I were staying in Bapak Eddie’s house, where his mother, father, wife, and two children also lived. When we knocked on the door and were let in, we rapidly realized that neither of us spoke each other’s language. His mother fed us vegetables and tofu, but since neither Rachel nor I could say that we were too full, we had way more than we could eat. After lunch we offered to help roll cassava balls for dinner. As we were helping, a herd of baby chicks strolled into the kitchen. Our host mom raised her arm to shoo them out and they turned straight around, they had already learned their lesson!

Pak Sitras, trying to teach us how to dance.

We spent the afternoon learning how to dance from a Javanese master named Bapak Sitras Anjilin, and as Jillian described, we were nowhere near as graceful as him. When it came time for bed, our host mom had stayed up past 9 p.m. to wait for us. We took turns using the bathroom to change for bed, and I changed first. When I came out she stood up, tucked me into bed, and then we both sat in silence and waited for Rachel. Once Rachel returned, she did the same thing, motioning for her to climb into bed and then tucking us each into the covers. Since no one knew what else to say, we reverted back to the only words we did know, “Terima Kasih” and “Selamat Malam” (Goodnight). The only problem was that she had left the light directly above our bed on. When Rachel tried to turn it off, she called from the other room, and we quickly turned it back on. Were we supposed to turn off the light? Did our host mom want it on? We had no way to know. That was the night that Rachel and I bit the bullet, and slept with the bright light on.

The main drag of Tutup Ngisor village. Though houses were modest, with cement or dirt floors, most had satellite dishes and televisions. Many students with similar language barriers found themselves bonding over TV shows with their host families.

I was sad to say good-bye the next morning. Our host family took great care of us, and even though we couldn’t really communicate it was a wonderful and challenging experience. It was unexpected but genuine cultural interactions like these that characterized our trip to Indonesia, and for me made the whole time fascinating and instructive.

 Thanks for sharing your experience with us Anna, we’ll keep the light on for you! Sorry, couldn’t resist. -Gareth

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