"So if I am able to preserve this writing of mine…I would like you to give it the title 'House of Glass.'"

Why I’m Attracted to Surabaya – with ample prelude on rural versus urban, the nature of my site, and places I don’t like to go in Indonesia

Some neat people in front of the statue of Surabaya. As one volunteer explained, “that statue is the first cool thing I saw in Indonesia, so it will always have a fond place in my heart.” This statue and the city have an endearing place in my heart as well. (Picture from Erin F).

This is what happens when I don’t blog for a while, I write a lot.  Sections on:

1. “Growing Up and Moving On and Out” – The context of why I enjoy Surabaya – life from growing up in a big city to attending college in small towns.

2. “Moving to the edge of the world with the Peace Corps… (?)” – What romantic images do people have of Peace Corps sites? Why do they call them “villages” anyways?  What did I expect my site to be like?

3. “The welt of urbanization known as Genteng along the jalan raya” – What is my site like – I hope this gives people back home some idea of what it looks like.

4. “Let’s start talking about people for a second” – How people and their level of exposure play into the rural versus urban discussion?

5. “The wrong place for me to get away” (Bali and other tourist destinations) – Feeling uncomfortable in major tourist destinations and not getting much satisfaction out of places crawling with bule.

and 6. “The easiest way for me to return home half-way around the world” – Finally, why do I like Surabaya so much?

2012 April 5, April 27, July 17 – 20

Growing Up and Moving On and Out

I grew up in a big city. Not right in the thick of things, but pretty close. Ever since I graduated high school (which let’s not be too dramatic, was only six years ago), I’ve taken opportunities to move farther and farther away from urban centers. I spent four years as an undergrad in a small Indiana town of ten thousand and then took a post graduate position in a U.P. town that was about the same size but even more remote.i Within four years, I had moved myself from within fifteen minutes of downtown Dallas to just four hours outside of the nearest major city: Green Bay, Wisconsin.ii

Summers during my university years were spent in small towns as well. First, there was an eight week stint in Grand Junction, Colorado. Grand Junction had character, but the majority of my time was spent along dry stream beds studying flood morphology in the near-by National Monument. Following a summer in Greencastle, there was another eight weeks in Xiabanchang. Hours north of Beijing, this town of 100,000+ still qualifies as Sino-small. Like my time in Colorado, days in China were spent hiking ridges following hundreds of million year old ripple marks preserved in sandstone. Finally, I spent ten weeks in Washington, D.C. I’ll never convince you that D.C. is small, but I can tell you that my week days were spent driving thirty minutes past the suburbs to work on an organic farm.

Small town living has been good to me. Both of my parents are from small towns in the Midwest. I suppose frequent trips back to their homes is the foundation for my comfort in the rural environment. I was once asked whether I preferred large cities or small towns in the oral portion of a college French exam. The professor had just introduced us to Joe Dassin’s “Aux Champs-Elysées,” the eponymous song about the magnificent main road in Paris. Dassin’s chorus celebrates the joy of perusing the Champs-Elysées in all weather and at all times of day. It’s a cheery tune.

I’d never been to Paris (still never have been), so Dassin’s words didn’t conjure up any warm feelings of France’s capital – despite images of the Arc de Triumph and Le Louvre floating across the accompanying slide-show during class. In fact, the words didn’t conjure up feelings of any other large city. Instead, I listened to “Aux Champs-Elysées” and immediately thought of the small stretch of Jackson Street that ran from my college duplex to the town square of Greencastle, Indiana. That’s where I walked in both snow and shine to Los Martinez during the day and where I pressed through feelings of both cold and warmth on the way home from the Cavern on a few occasions. Reminiscing on the ease of passing up and down Jackson at any hour of day, I answered the exam question with Dassin’s lyrics but explained that it was small towns that really granted the freedom and safety of leisurely wanderings. I’m still not sure if the Parisian T.A. was flattered that I knew her city’s unofficial anthem or if she was incredulous as to how someone could truly enjoy corn fields over centuries of European history, art, and culture.

Moving to the edge of the world with the Peace Corps… (?)

I was fearless when it came to the prospect of adapting to life in a rural Peace Corps village. Two years before I departed to Indonesia, I met a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize. He lived several kilometers from the nearest paved road and had no access to running water or electricity. He built his own thatch hut to live in. Another RPCV from Tanzania talked of his mud-hut and sleeping under the stars during the dry season. He also mentioned he slept a lot better under those stars when the village repaired the surrounding fence that kept hyenas out. I have another friend who is currently living in a mud-hut in Senegal. These are the stories with the sort of sex appeal that people back home – including a lot of prospective Volunteers – want to hear. But a lot of PCV’s live in cities, and a whole bell-curve of others live somewhere in between.

When I had my site placement interview during Pre-Service Training, I was asked if I would prefer a rural or urban setting. This didn’t seem like a question I was capable of answering because I had no idea what those two words meant in the Indonesian context. Was it like China where rural can still describe multiples of tens of thousands of people? This was the sense that I got from my East Java training “village” that was more densely packed than my Dallas neighborhood.iii

The truth is, Peace Corps could have put me in just about any environment so long as it was close to a volcano that I could work at.iv I could have lodged in an outhouse kilometers away from cell phone signal or in the barracks of Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque. Guessing Peace Corps’s Indonesian training manager wasn’t familiar with 1970’s French pop music, I played it safe and answered quite plainly: rural.

The welt of urbanization known as Genteng along the jalan raya

My site is between urban and rural. I’ve mentioned it several times on this blog, but I’ll say it again: Java is the most densely populated island in the world. It’s the size of Florida’s peninsula and has the population density of New York City’s metropolitan area. There are spots – mainly the tops of volcanoes – where things get real rural, but you have to put a lot of effort into reaching them. You don’t just pass through or end up there. It’s not like Utah where things get so barren that families and truckers pass over a hundred miles of unserviced road along I-70 just to get between Denver and Salt Lake.

When you broaden the scope to places all around the world, there are no good categories to describe settlements. Rural, suburban, urban, village, town, city, and metroplex don’t transfer from one region to another. Are things based on population? Access to goods? Access to running water and electricity? Cell service? Internet connection? Proximity to a “big city”? I don’t know.

Describing the physical nature of my site is one of the hardest things I can do for people back home. If the questions I asked in the previous paragraph were made to be part of a checklist, I’m not even sure how I would mark a few of the options. Access to running water and electricity? Yes. Everyone has it. Cell service? That’s almost everywhere I’ve been on Java; yes. Internet connection? Yes; almost everyone in the younger generation has it on their cell phones at the very least.v Those are the easy criteria to evaluate. What about the other characteristics? Population? Goods? Proximity? These are a little more subjective. The best I can do is describe my site and how I interact with it.

From my house, I bike two hundred meters to the east and then another two hundred meters to the south down dirt roads. A few patches are still paved and there is one remaining speed-bump, but it’s impossible to tell how long ago that vestigial concrete was put down. At the end of the dirt road, I turn east again onto an asphalt/concrete road that is intact. From here, I have two options to cross a river. I can take the concrete road-bridge, or I can traverse the wood-plank suspension bridge fifty meters downstream. I used to take the suspension bridge for the sake of novelty, but two sections of wood planks are now missing making it quite treacherous for cyclers. If it were just the river below, it might be tempting to take a plunge through one of the holes and go for a swim, but there’s a large stone dam directly underneath the bridge that would not provide a pleasant landing. There’s also the fact that the whirlpool downstream of the dam is often used as a trash dump.

After crossing one of the two bridges, I take a dirt road that follows a major canal as it takes two ninety degree turns within eighty meters. From the second ninety degree angle, the canal enters the rice paddies and I cross a blacktop three Mac trucks wide before entering my Madrasah. This isn’t the main road of my town, but it is heavily trafficked with large vehicles hauling stones and pebble away from the river to be used as building material.

Four kilometers down this road to the south is the jalan raya (main thoroughfare) between Jember and Banyuwangi. Genteng is one of the more developed spots along this route. Genteng is only thirty six kilometers to Banyuwangi as the crow flies, but travel distance stretches to about forty eight kilometers when you add in curves and slight detours. Everyone uses this road whether they’re hauling fish or petroleum from the sea or they are headed two blocks to the local mosque for prayer. For much of the road, the pavement is only two to three Mac trucks wide, so things get congested.

In Genteng, the jalan raya is probably four or five Mac trucks wide when there are no cars parked on the side, and a large median divides the direction of flow through the main strip. There is on open-air pasar that doubles as the bus terminal, a post office, and the cable company’s office and retail center at this three way intersection. Thirty meters to the east is another three way intersection referred to as the “lampu merah” – so named because traffic here is governed by a stop light. At the lampu merah, there is an Indomaret, an Alfamart, two box-style department stores, a fitness gym, a Western style bakery, and a bank of four ATM machines. In between the two intersections is a school supplies store, an automotive/motorcycle part distribution store, a construction-supply shop, another Western bakery, a bank, a money lenders office, a gun repair shop, a boutique with fancy looking purses, and a litany of portable food, fruit, and CD/DVD stalls. The department stores are no Walmart, but I can buy peanut butter, Snickers, and Gillette shaving crème with Thai labels on the upstairs floor. Downstairs, I can walk through reams of batik and then cross an aisle to peruse any number of cellphones (including a Blackberry), a digital camera, or any one of a number of laptops in stock.vi

There’s a lot in Genteng, but it’s all packed pretty close together. If I return to my site and decide to go for a run, I head to the rice paddies. Three blocks north of my house, these fields extend three to four kilometers undivided to the north and west. It’s pretty funny to imagine a farmer steering a couple of water buffalo to plow his fields and then heading into town on a motorcycle to buy an Acer. Such is the world we live in.vii

You might define urban by metrics other than access to material goods. Perhaps you are concerned about health care. There is a sign at the lampu merah for Al Huda hospital which is located one kilometer the south. The hospital is brand-spanking-new and looks so pearly and crisp that it could have come straight out of a large Lego box. My host father tells me that treatment at Al Huda is three to four times as expensive than Genteng’s other hospital, which isn’t as new but looks just as nice from the outside. And what if you need amenities that really are available in one of East Java’s big cities? Malang and Surabaya are both seven hours away by train. Smaller cities such as Banyuwangi and Jember are less than two hours. Many people in my area head to one of those four places for university, but still many others choose to attend one of the two colleges located right in Genteng.

Let’s start talking about people for a second

Continuing to write ad nauseam about Genteng’s physical layout probably wouldn’t give you a better picture than what you already have. What is more important in conveying the idea of rural versus urban in this area is the people. Genteng is no hamlet like the small sites described by my PCV acquaintances in Belize and Tanzania. Even my “village” – the part of town that I described across the bridge on the dirt roads is small. There are still thousands of people that live in that subdivision of Genteng. I will never know everyone at my site. For this reason, I tend to stick to the people and places I know. Pak Luqman is my tailor though there are an uncountable number of tailors between my house and Genteng. Bu Ndiyah’s is the restaurant that treats me right and serves the best food for the best price, but Pak Aris has a killer sate stall in the afternoons and evenings. Finally, I always seek out Pak Yas, the parking attendant, when I need to visit Kalisari Department Store.viii

These people know me, and I know them. These are small relationships. I don’t see them often, so I write down all the things I learn about them in my notebook when I get home so that I don’t forget. Keeping track of the faces and a few details makes everyday life here feel more natural. It allows me to avoid the standard questions about my origins and purpose before tackling the simplest of tasks. “Where are you from?” “Why are you here?” These are fair questions, but they are exhausting in multitude.

Exhausting, yet unavoidable. I am not the only bule that lives or has lived in Genteng, but I am the only one that has lived here publicly for an extended period of time. Volunteers from Australia and other U.S. organizations have spent a few months here and there at different times in the past. There is also an expatriate from Texasix who supposedly owns a house in the area, but I’m told he spends most of his time surfing at Plengkung. I, however, am much more exposed and exist as many people’s sole opportunity to speak to a native English speaker/Westerner. Even in the establishments that I frequent, I often surprise someone – a patron that I have not crossed paths with.

I have grown more and more willing to play the part of ambassador of the common American, but I have concurrently grown less satisfied in doing so. I envy the position of Jean Maraise – the French character from Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet who is a trusted friend of the main Javanese character Minke. Maraise is inescapably known as a European expatriate, but he is more well known amongst the people as a painter and designer. He is sought out by Minke and others for professional work. What is my role in Genteng? Will it ever extend beyond that of resident bule?

The wrong place for me to get away

There are ways to escape the responsibilities of local ambassador to Indonesia. You have to go to a place where there are a lot of other bule. One good place to do that is Bali – a tourist destination for scores of Australians and Europeans. Bali is sold as an equatorial paradise with fine beaches, exotic culture, and cheap prices. I went as a tourist the first time, and I tried to convince myself I was doing something different the second time when I went for Nyepi. Bali is a fine place with nice people and fun opportunities – I learned how to paint batik the first time I was there – but my visits to the island are over.x

The role of tourist is not one that sits well with me. Perhaps it’s a self-conscious fear that I’ll be associated with the pack of Australians parading around with Bintang in their uncovered arms. I don’t want to be attached to the same sort of irreverent behavior like the Western couple I witnessed asking (what I presume was) a Javanese man to take their picture at Prambanan in Jogjakarta. The request was all well and good except the couple proceeded to pose in tight embrace with their lips locked. I don’t know what the photographer thought of the very public kiss he was capturing, but there is a strong likelihood his cultural upbringing made him feel uncomfortable. As a foreign visitor, stealing a smooch from your significant other at an old Hindu temple in Jogjakarta is something I can let slide, but to ask an unsuspecting local to photograph you doing it? Completely clueless.xi

You can try to prove your separation from these people, but it’s difficult. In Bali, for example, there are enough foreigners there who speak Bahasa Indonesia that nobody treats your attempts as special. There are probably enough foreigners who speak Balinese to the point that your Indonesian language ability drops from special to inferior. Another way to show your awareness is through dress. Last time I was in Bali, I wore long sleeves and pants in order to be prepared for the full adat dress code required to enter temples. I even brought my own sarong. I may have known that I was aware of the regulations, but because every tourist is given the proper attire, you couldn’t have told me apart from any one of the other foreigners who might not have known whether the temple they were in was Buddhist or Hindu.

The right place for me to go

There is such a place in Indonesia where I can go that makes me feel at ease. It’s an unlikely location: Surabaya – the business and administrative capital of East Java. It’s a colonial port town with no major tourist destinations. It doesn’t even have a place in the tales of Java’s ancient kingdoms. It’s the largest city in East Java, but there’s nothing spectacular about it.

In many ways, Surabaya reminds me of Dallas. During my last bus trip into the city, I took special note of things along part of the road. There were elevated freeways. The entrance ramps had the same contours as those in Dallas, and the embankments were capped with grass wilting in the sun. Traffic signs were big and green with reflective white lettering and trim like they are everywhere else in the world. One sign had a familiar airplane icon and pointed to an exit ramp. Even the trees lining the road looked more like the oak and cypress of back home. They were so thick in some parts that everything that would have given away Indonesia was hidden from view. It could have been Dallas. Only the occasional palm tree sticking out of a distant stream gulley and a quick glimpse of red clay tile roofs hinted at my true location.

Once you’re in the city — or at least able to see past the oak trees — you know you’re in Indonesia, but some things still have the feeling of home. Surabaya sprawls, and it has bad bad traffic. The buildings in the city mostly top out at four or five floors. A few buildings shoot up to ten or twelve stories. There is no demonstrative downtown with a personality of its own. The roads are wide and mostly clean. Aside from the labyrinth of one-way avenues, it’s a pretty easy place to get around. There are a few nice cafés near the Peace Corps office but nothing to go out of your way for. In essence, Surabaya is completely unremarkable, and I love it for that. It’s a little slice of home.

The nostalgia of Surabaya’s physical layout isn’t enough to draw me in. Why do I really like Surabaya? I like Surabaya because the city gives me an overwhelming sense of confidence. I know what I’m doing, I know what I want to do, and I know that everything will happen without hiccup or surprise. These feelings have been few-and-far-between over the course of the past year, so I don’t take them for granted.

While I sometimes garner too much attention at site and the wrong kind of attention in places like Bali, things work out just right in Surabaya. It’s nice to take the opportunity to go about your daily business with the sort of anonymity that crossing the street and grocery shopping deserves. In Surabaya, I can walk around, ask for directions, pay the correct bus fare, get places, order food, and walk into a medical clinic to request a blood and urine testxii all without hassle or astonishment. When I want to get dinner in Surabaya, I prefer to walk two blocks past the hotel to a side road lined with tent-style food stalls. I duck under the banner listing the menu, order my food in Bahasa Indonesia, eat the food, pay, and leave. Nobody gives undue attention to the color of my skin or the language I’m speaking. Sometimes someone will ask where I’m from. Nobody clamors over benches to practice their English. One time – just one time – a group of kids playing soccer on a sidewalk swarmed me with “Hello Mister!”’s and outstretched palms so that I had to give high-fives and “How are you?”’s as I passed by.

The comfort and ease of navigating Surabaya is quite homely. After moving farther and farther away from big cities, I never thought I would enjoy visits into the provincial capital as much as I do. I guess it all comes down to the different perspectives various places can provide. Surabaya, Genteng, my village. They are all parts of Indonesia. I’m happy to see all of them.


iThe town is Houghton, Michigan, and to be fair, it has more local culture and greater sense of place than a lot of big cities I’ve been to.

iiMinneapolis and Chicago are nine hours away. Nine hours if poor snow conditions don’t slow you down or prevent you from leaving in the first place.

iiiI have tried on a few occasions, always in vain, to explain that it is possible to own a house in the U.S. kilometers away from your nearest neighbor.

ivOther factors such as Madrasah or non-Madrasah, large host family or small host family, kids or no kids were also irrelevant to me.

vIndonesia has more Facebook users than any other country in the world.

viThough I’d be well advised to shop around at one of the two other stores in Genteng that sell the same electronics.

viiAnd such is the world of Indonesia that it is entirely possible that the farmer could be wearing a silk batik for both activities

viiiI use ‘need’ in the most privileged sense here because I am referring to peanut butter.

ixHe’s from Texas, or he’s from somewhere else in the world and it’s me who they are remembering is from Texas.

xI’d probably allow a trip back if it involved work at Agung or Batur.

xiEven in Jogja, I know of at least one hotel that wont allow foreigners of the opposite sex to room together without showing proof of familial/marriage relations. When booking other accommodations, the concierges at other hotels have reminded me that Indonesian males and females will not be allowed to share a room.

xiiSmall medical scare; everything was fine.

9 responses

  1. Sharla

    As always I am totally absorbed in your writings. I hope all is well.

    2012 July 20 at 13.20

  2. Karen Boschert

    I loved your post. I love your writing. Thanks

    2012 July 20 at 21.09

  3. Margaret

    Very good reflections.

    2012 July 22 at 00.58

  4. Nicole

    The footnotes were a nice touch : )

    2012 July 24 at 03.46

  5. Pingback: A different kind of celebrity « The Personette

  6. “Why Im Attracted to Surabaya – with ample prelude on rural versus urban, the nature of
    my site, and places I dont like to go in Indonesia House of Glass (Jay)” was
    indeed a great article. If perhaps it included a lot more images it would definitely be quite
    possibly even better. All the best -Douglas

    2013 January 12 at 23.13

  7. This is exactly the 2nd article, of yours I
    actually read. Nevertheless I really love this specific one,
    “Why Im Attracted to Surabaya – with ample prelude on rural versus urban, the nature of my site, and places I dont like to go in
    Indonesia House of Glass (Jay)” the most. All the best ,May

    2013 January 17 at 17.49

  8. Your entire article, “Why Im Attracted to Surabaya –
    with ample prelude on rural versus urban, the nature of my site, and places I dont like to go
    in Indonesia House of Glass (Jay)” was worthy of writing a comment on!
    Only wished to admit you really did a remarkable work.
    Thanks for your effort -Gary

    2013 January 23 at 00.54

  9. Ike Putrii

    hiiii, i like your review about my country especially my city SURABAYA.. carry on

    2017 March 14 at 06.50

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