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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

No longer jelek to me.

What does kamu jelek mean? Kamu means you and jelek means ugly. Yet, in a specific context, when placed beside each other, the two words carry a message much more tender and endearing than the insult that google translate would suggest. Significant others use the phrase to refer to one another. When used between them, jelek is no longer negatively tainted, but simply a word of affection.

The transformation of the meaning of jelek serves as a good analogy to the process of overcoming one of my main challenges at Langa: aesthetics. It is with no pride, but simply with honesty, that I admit that during my first few days at the village I struggled with being unable to find beauty in the house where I was staying. Each room was lit by a single light bulb which provided only meagre lighting. The cold, concrete dark grey walls heavily suppressed all their efforts to make the rooms welcoming, resulting in an overall grim atmosphere. Furniture was scarce and bore the marks of time in the form of cracks and hasty drawings from when the kids were young. The rooms seemed to me somewhat fragmented. Despite the multiple times a day the floor was swept, there was a constant layer of dirt. In these surroundings, I felt uncomfortable, unwelcome. The house seemed jelek to me.

As the days went by, I started feeling more contented in my environment. The rooms no longer felt empty and cold as they were filled with the liveliness of my family members, and the memories from the moments of levity that I shared with them. On multiple occasions from sunrise to sundown, the rooms of the house echoed with imitations of animal sounds by me and my baby brother, our voices blending in unison as we played a hide and seek of sorts –a game which we invented. Chuckling could be heard from the kitchen whenever I made coffee and tea with my older brother. I teased him every time for placing more tablespoons of sugar than of coffee in his drink. I will never forget the night I sat on the floor outside my room, trying hard not to cry as I wiped the tears off my sister’s eyes two nights before my departure. Before I knew it, the house started to feel like home. Then, I realized appearance was no longer something that bothered me, or something I even noticed throughout the day.

It would be hyperbolic and unrealistic to say that within 12 days I came to find the spaces beautiful. Nonetheless, the relationships I developed allowed me to see beyond physical appearance, and then it no longer mattered. If I ever used the word jelek to refer to my home in Langa, I would now mean it in a very different way…