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The definition of serenity. Photo by Hannah Richter (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Finalist), Indonesia Semester.

Nglanggeran and the Surreal

If you’ve spent your entire life on the east coast of the United States, it feels pretty surreal to find yourself looking off the top of a mountaintop in South East Asia, with (what seems like) all of Indonesia spread out before you. That surreality has punctuated every day of my year abroad so far. In an attempt to capture it, I’ve been rereading my journal entires already written – and I’ve realized that that they are a far better picture of the surreal than anything else I could synthesize now. What follows is five of my (curated) journal entries from our time on campus for pre-orientation through our stay in Nglanggeran Village, with some thoughts at the end.


Monday, August 26 (Princeton University, NJ):

“I’m ready to be in Asia. It’s like there’s a glass door, and behind it are the most beautiful things in the world – paintings, flowers, sculptures, rivers, mountains – but the glass is marbled, so you can only see the vaguest outline, the colors, and your face is all the pressed into the glass, your nose squished in, but you can’t make anything out.”


Saturday, August 31 (Tembi, Jogja):

“We walk through Tembi, a village in Jogja, to visit a batik shop. It really is vastly different than anyplace I’ve been before. We see lots of smiling Indonesian children waving hello at us. We walk across a rice field, observing a lone farmer wrestling with a cow in the middle. The call to prayer starts, and from where we stand, we can hear the voices of five or six men reading from the Qu’ran. The voices aren’t lined up, so it creates a dreamlike effect where each man seems to be echoing the others.”


Tuesday, September 3 (Nglanggeran Village):

“Today we climb to the top of a mountain, an easy forty-minute hike that was well worth it. Finally, we get here: a bold patch of rock with an Indonesian flag fluttering from the top. It’s high enough that I can see the horizon in all directions – rice paddies, forests, terrace farms, power lines, hills and valleys. It’s impossible that I should be here – I’m an American. I’ve lived my whole life in America. But here I am, on top of a mountain on the other side of the world.”


Wednesday, September 4 (Nglanggeran Village):

“We finally connect with Aya, our homestay sister here in Nglanggeran, the granddaughter of our ibu (our homestay mother). Elliott makes her a paper ninja star, which she takes and proudly holds. I walk over to her and introduce myself. I try in bad Indonesian to ask for her name, which she doesn’t understand or ignores. Instead, she reaches inside her little purse and hands me a moldy orange. I’ve never had a sister before.”


Saturday, September 7 (Nglanggeran Village):

“After dinner, we trek up the mountain for about twenty minutes to a coffee shop. It’s open air, with tables made of slabs of wood stacked on tires, and crates for chairs. It’s not open when we get there, but someone else hanging out in the shop says it will be open at nine. We wait, play cards, and order coffee when it opens. There’s a group of local young people playing guitar and singing, and after a particularly rousing song, we all clap for them.


‘Join us!’ they yell out. We do, and spend the rest of the night singing with them. Theirs is a strange assortment of pop – Bruno Mars, Coldplay, P!nk, Adele. At one point, they play a traditional Javanese song and we dance clumsily. We end the night singing John Legend’s “All of Me.’”



I’ve always thought of my life as following a pattern: a strict narrative with me as the protagonist, with a causal relationship between any two points. This trip has crippled that worldview. If you pick a day from six months ago, you could never have predicted these past days on Java. I’m faraway from anyone I’ve ever known. I’ve lived in foreign villages, embraced a foreign family, danced to foreign music, loved a foreign country from the window of a foreign train. All I can think is: how wonderfully different this all is. What a beautiful change.