Chelsea Steiner’s Indonesia Journey

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Northern Sulawesi’s latitude made for indistinguishable division points between sky and sea.


Along with nine other students, Chelsea Steiner recently returned from the in-country portion of the SOAN 312 course: Indonesia and Southeast Asia in Cultural Context. After a semester of study on Indonesian cultural and environmental topics, students set out to spend three weeks abroad, divided between Jogjakarta, the ‘cultural heart’ of the country, and the ecologically rich national parks of North Sulawesi. She sent us these photos, and thoughts about her experience.

After nearly 24 hours of continuous flying and hanging out in airports, we arrived in Jogjakarta. Almost immediately, we were invited to observe a class at Atma Jaya University. This was perhaps the most boisterous introduction to studying in Indonesia—while in the United States, we had grown accustomed to a sense of staid formality within the classroom, but at Atma Jaya, all bets were off. We watched presentations on social and gender theories that were demonstrated using wayang kulit, Javanese shadow puppets, and experienced a much more playful, engaging attitude towards learning. Students laughed loudly, hooted and hollered, and called out in response to the ideas that were presented. They applauded our efforts when we attempted to introduce ourselves in Indonesian and turned what we expected to be an exercise in staying awake into a fun and engaging lesson. Over the course of the trip, we adopted the practice of loudly applauding anyone who answered a question in class, which I’m seriously considering attempting to introduce into American classrooms.

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New friends at our homestay stringing up kerupuk putih for games.

Our peers at Atma Jaya University were certainly the highlight of the trip for me, and were integral in both keeping us safe (crossing streets in Jogja is hard) and explaining aspects of Indonesia we did not quite understand. In Jogjakarta, they had a good laugh at watching us marvel at the weird, splendid variety of cuisine available, and introduced us to their favorite foods. They became our ambassadors to Indonesian culture, and we bonded over taking selfies, a mutual love of Taylor Swift, and pedas food. When it came time to leave for Sulawesi, we spent the night before at a karaoke bar, dancing and belting out the cheesiest songs we could find.

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A little girl being shielded by her older brother while they watch a snake at one of Jogjakarta’s animal markets.

The pace of Northern Sulawesi was decidedly different from Jogja. We spent days exploring rainforests, and snorkeling around reefs to observe brightly colored fish. On Bunaken Island, Northern Sulawesi and in Manado, I saw examples of corruption in everyday life, and was fascinated at the responses to it: bridges that were taking millennia to build with funds that had gone missing, park entry tags that had stopped being enforced—the list goes on. But what I found most fascinating was that the people I talked to weren’t pessimistic about the corruption, but saw politics as engaging and a catalyst for change. It made the political apathy that is so visible in the United States feel so extraordinarily diminishing and circuitous.

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A farmer plowing a field to prepare it for planting rice in Pongol, outside of Jogjakarta.

One thing that I found interesting about Jogja and Northern Sulawesi was the interaction between people of different faiths. We had discussed often in class the syncretism of Indonesia, and the diversity of religions in that predominately Muslim country, but I found it captivating to observe. In a mall, I watched a stylishly dressed woman with a color coordinated jilbab walk arm-in-arm with a woman who was wearing a t-shirt that referenced her love of Jesus. But these interactions occur in the face of a government that requires individuals to report their religion on their national identification cards, and one of our peers at Atma Jaya stated that he had been given a hard time for reporting as Christian.

Leaving Indonesia was difficult, if only because I feel like I still have so much to learn.

Thanks, Chelsea. We hope to offer SOAN 312 again in the future. Please contact Gareth Barkin if you’d like more information.

Chelsea Steiner is a senior in the Sociology & Anthropology Department, pictured here in front of Manado Tua, a volcanic island off the coast of North Sulawesi.

Chelsea Steiner is a senior in the Sociology & Anthropology Department, pictured here in front of Manado Tua, a volcanic island off the coast of North Sulawesi.

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