A 5-day Intensive to Remember

I remember getting to the final semester of my Master’s degree and having an existential crisis—I hadn’t done an exchange semester. Gallivanting around foreign lands, sampling foreign food,  meeting foreign women, that was the age-old undertaking of every university student who had the brains, brawn and depth of pockets to make that happen. Being a TCK, I had already travelled extensively, so not only was this an opportunity to travel once again, but it was also an opportunity to learn in a different culture. Unfortunately, idealism had to be cast aside to make way for realism, as exchange semester application deadlines had lapsed. I opened up my master’s degree booklet and found there was one subject that filled the nexus of both a subject I wanted to study and one which was taught abroad. It was ‘Social Policy and Development’ a 5-day intensive taught at Universitas Indonesia (UI), Jakarta. In addition, I had multiple friends from my master’s degree also attending, and one of my close friends, who had relocated back to Jakarta a few years ago, would be there too. He was a Hale boy, so this trip would supplement our yearly meetups. It was settled—the intensive was an investment rather than a sunk cost.

In Australia, the paperwork, especially when travelling to places like Indonesia, is lengthy and cumbersome. Our pre-departure briefing documents were more suited in length to a royal commission into a state matter, than they were to a 5-day study trip. Just like the terms and conditions section of a software update, I mentally hit ‘agree’ in my head and moved on. Growing up in Pakistan, one learns not to get caught up in red tape.

Flying out from Melbourne, the cheapest flight was through Brunei. An added passport stamp at a cheaper cost couldn’t be foregone, so a friend of mine booked it and we were on our way. When we arrived in Brunei, I had already been told by friends and the internet that it was tiny nation, a substantial proportion of which was owned by the Sultan. Lacking the means to befriend the Sultan in a matter of days, so we decided to step into a taxi and see where the three-hour layover would lead. Most places I’ve been to in the world take at least 15-20 minutes by car to leave just the airport complex. However, here we walked from the airport to the one of the major malls, had lunch, and walked back well in time to board our flight. I highly doubt I’ll experience that ever again.

We arrived after midnight at Soekarno-Hatta (Jakarta airport) and were accosted by taxi drivers who wanted the pleasure of taking us to our hotel. Having travelled through Asia, I was familiar with this airport experience. I wasn’t familiar with Bahasa Indonesia though, so after conducting intense negotiations (akin to Track Two diplomacy conducted by UN peacekeepers) , I got him down to a price that we would call in Urdu na tera, na mera (not yours, not mine). On the drive from the airport, I bonded with the driver in his broken English and my broken Bahasa over the joys of the Orient and our respective colonial pasts, choice topics for a late-night drive.

The next day all the Australian students congregated downstairs. After a much appreciated Nasi Padang (rice with an assortment of meat, fish, vegetables, and spicy sambals) for breakfast and a good laugh at the hotel sign which stated ‘no explosives or durian,’ we all exchanged pleasantries and then started exchanging more intimate details: What motivated people to come for the course? What relationship do people have to Indonesia? What were they expecting from our colleagues from UI? Many of the students were there for the course itself. The content was something they wanted to grapple with, and studying social policy across two different cultures would give them a more diverse and robust understanding of multiple social issues. Some were there because it was being taught in Indonesia. Indonesia was a large recipient of Australian Aid, and not only would this look good on the CV, but would also provide an opportunity to create social networks. For me and a  few choice others, it was an opportunity to travel and study in another country. Any ancillary benefits were a bonus. Just as we were scratching the surface with these conversations, we were bundled up and booted off in a van towards campus.

The first session of the trip had a sense of unease. The locals and foreigners were separated by a chasm, present in the form of a large gap through the center of the room. After the tea break, however, we started to mix more freely. I was introduced to a couple of guys who were working in International NGOs in Jakarta. They had worked closely with the Pakistan office, and held those colleagues in high esteem. I replied that I had gone to the same school in Karachi as that of Abdurrahman Wahid, the President of Indonesia from 2009-11. That’s all it took for us seal our friendship.

Over the course of the next 5 days, I became close friends with a lot of the UI students. When they took us Australian students out for lunch, I remember sitting in the car and telling everyone that we look like the cast of Captain Planet — all colours, castes and creeds. The lunch venue was a disappointment; a large mall with continental banquets. With the rising middle and upper middle class populations, malls have consumed the skylines of many precincts of Jakarta, and perhaps this was an attempt by the Indonesian students to take us somewhere familiar. Familiar wasn’t what i was after though, and I took the unilateral decision of letting them know that we would rather makan (eat) at the warungs (roadside food stalls), than spend time in sterile shopping malls. The point was duly noted, and our culinary adventures going forward were sanitarily questionable but delectable joints. The Indonesians toured the city with us too, showing us Dutch colonial buildings, buttressed by shanty towns made from corrugated iron and other makeshift materials. A sad reality, but a common feature of any other global metropolis, i assured them.  One of the guys even dropped me home on his motorbike from UI.

The UI students seemed to take a particular liking to me though, more so I felt than to the other Australian students. Maybe because I was also from Pakistan (a large Muslim majority country, just like Indonesia), maybe because my surname was Khan (just like Shahrukh Khan and the other Khans who were Bollywood heroes in the movies they’d seen), or maybe because I could relate on a more personal level from my developing Asian country experience. I was told that it was due largely to me enjoying sitting at the warungs with them, and taking motorbike rides on back seats. Whatever it was, it led to great friendships. I am still in touch with much of the UI crowd, calling them if I visit Indonesia, and meeting them if I visit Jakarta. One of them also sent me photos of her newborn child a few years ago.

The course content was fun, and we spoke about the social policy implications for Indonesia and other developing countries. Maybe I even gave them an alternate perspective to their model of growth and made them realise that there are other Asian countries going through middle-income phases. Course content aside though, it was the warmth and laughter outside of class which is etched firmly into my memory and the reason I will always have a place to stay and people to see when I visit Jakarta.

While it wasn’t the exchange semester I had initially envisioned, the 5-day intensive continues to have a lasting impact on me, as it gave me everything I could have asked for in such a condensed trip.

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