The most ridiculous and incredible year of my life

Sydney University arts-commerce student Iona Main spent ten months on exchange studying in Indonesia. It turned out to be, she says, “the ride of my life”. She reported her “once-in-a-lifetime experience” in The Australian, 7 May, 2014. p.28. Read her report below.


 

Grab an exchange of pace

Iona Main

Indonesia has it all for those seeking to study abroad

AMID the cries of “turn back the boats” and “spying scandal” shouted out at any mention of Indonesia last year, I found myself one of a small cohort of Australian students studying there on exchange.

I was persuaded by my university lecturer to turn my back on the temptations of college life in the US, and the glamorous campuses of Britain and Europe. I ignored friends’ shrieks of “You’re going where on exchange?” and prepared to knuckle down for what I hoped would at least be a worthwhile learning experience.

Ten months later I emerged from Indonesia having spent twice as long there as planned, and with more stories than could fill any shabby travel blog. I enjoyed the most ridiculous and incredible year of my life and wondered why on earth I ever thought twice.

Indonesia is our nearest neighbour, a country tipped to enter the world’s top 10 economies in the next 15 years, with a population 10 times our own and an economy still in its early steps on to the global stage.

I don’t pretend my exchange to Indonesia was all smooth sailing, but it is a place where the right attitude will get you everywhere. Dreams I didn’t know I had were achieved as I had my photo plastered on the side of a bus, and pretended to be Ke$ha in a sound bite for a Yogyakarta radio station. I was lucky enough to have an article published in the Jakarta Post, the country’s main English-language newspaper. Once-in-a-lifetime experiences became day-to-day, but the novelty is still yet to wear off. The challenges of navigating Indonesian bureaucracy and enough “hello miss” to last a lifetime pale in comparison to the wealth of weird and wonderful experiences I have gained.

I didn’t realise that everyone I met, even briefly, would remember my name and always stop for a chat, often oblivious to me racking my brains for who they were or where I’d met them in the head-spinning humidity and Kretek cigarette smoky air. I discovered space could always be made for one more on a packed table at the campus canteen — especially for an exotic Aussie. Over spicy 70c lotek salads we complained about exams and made plans for the weekend.

My Australian housemates and I were delighted to be made “celebrity guest judges” at a neighbourhood games day and to be invited to weddings and religious ceremonies (where I wore a hijab for the first and possibly last time). I became a valued contributor to tutorial discussions — not for the standard of my poorly worded comments in Indonesian but because my lecturers and classmates were always so keen to hear the thoughts of the foreigner in the class.

I was impressed by the standard of knowledge among Indonesian students, including that many of them possessed a better understanding of Australian foreign policy than a lot of Australians, myself included. And they thought they were the ones learning something.

Any Australian student with a modest bank balance can have an exchange in Indonesia filled with tropical holidays, nights out and delicious meals without a second thought for the budget, a far cry from baked beans on toast and $15 beers elsewhere in the world.

While the traditional exchange destinations remain as appealing as ever, Indonesia is rocketing forwards at an incredible and exciting pace. Our northern neighbour offers opportunities and experiences unique to both the country and the visitor, and at the very least makes for some pretty incredible Instagrams. An exchange in Indonesia may strike you as a crazy idea, but anyone brave enough to have taken the plunge can tell you that you’ll be in for the ride of your life.

 

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