Anxious in Jakarta
Locking myself in the university bathroom cubicle for the fourth time in two hours, I took a second to gather my breath amidst the thick Jakarta air. The humidity made the clothes that I wore down to my elbows and knees, out of respect for the local Muslim culture, stick to my skin uncomfortably.
I was meant to be in class, sitting in a small room at a minuscule metal desk, amongst other Australian students who had travelled to Indonesia to participate in an intensive language, culture, and internship program. But there I was in a cubicle for the fourth time, trying to contain another panic attack. The cleaner who was stationed outside it, gave me another pitiful smile – she must have thought I had a problem.
The months leading up to Indonesia were full of daily panic attacks. At times, I could barely manage leaving the house out of fear that some force beyond my control would strike yet again and consume me with paralysing anxiety. So, when I received my acceptance letter for the ACICIS Journalism Professional Practicum, I was not only overwhelmed with excitement but also terrified that this anxious state would hijack my trip and cost me the incredible opportunity.
I knew that this program would be perfect for me though, and so I had to go, but it meant that I had to get better fast – if leaving the house was such a fearful task, how on earth was I meant to complete two weeks of demanding classes and a month-long internship in a foreign country?
Going to Indonesia opened doors I didn’t know that I wanted to open just yet. It revealed a whole new path of opportunity for the career I had been working hard to configure and forced me to face the internal battles that led to my state of crippling anxiety. Whilst in Jakarta, I completed an internship with Amnesty International Indonesia, where I worked alongside a team of incredibly knowledgeable people that dedicate their lives to fighting the country’s systemic oppression. The office, or should I say family, welcomed me with immense kindness and generosity. They gave me their time and passed on valuable lessons, but the biggest gift they gave me was space.
An anxious little ‘bule’ (foreigner) girl from Australia who knew nothing about human rights law and who was only just starting to pick up the pieces of Indonesia’s complex history and political crisis, the Amnesty team treated me as though I had just as much to offer them as they did me. I was told to ask any questions I should dare to think of, and in fact, to always question. I attended meetings with local NGOs that were mostly in Bahasa Indonesia - the local language I had briefly tried to learn but was still far from being able to understand. Nonetheless, huddled around a table decorated with newspaper clippings, smoking an unlawful amount of clove cigarettes – I felt in amongst it all.
With Amnesty, I attended a focus group discussion of activists and victims of human rights abuses. Again, the language barrier prevailed, so my mentor delegated me the role of photographer. Whilst clumsily struggling to set up the camera’s configuration, I approached the room of strangers as a stranger myself.
At first, the attendees were sceptical of this ‘bule’ girl who came in close to take their photograph. As they shared stories of loss and misfortune, I was to click away on the camera I could barely use, whilst not being able to understand what it was they were saying. Careful not to offend in this delicate space, I had to use gestures and facial expressions to gain their trust.
It didn’t take long for their cautious eyes to warm with welcome, as they were kind people. Towards the end of the day, I even had many leathery hands creased with years of hard work and suffering, take mine in theirs. They thanked me, and in broken English invited me to their ceremony of mourning in Aceh, a region in the northwest tip of Sumatra Island.
It was the people I met in Indonesia that helped heal me.
One weekend, a few of my bule friends and I visited the Tengger Mountains in East Java, where we naively tried to drive scooters up to the peak of Mount Bromo in the pounding rain. We were getting completely drenched and it became unsafe to drive, so we took shelter in a local store that sold snacks packaged in an excessive amount of plastic. Left in charge of this store were three young local girls who welcomed us with nervous giggles.
A year younger than me at age twenty-one, one of the girls was already married and had given birth to three children, one of which was five years old. She had never left her village and maybe never would. Of course, my worries and traumas were all just as valid as those of this girl, or any other person, but looking into her eyes, I realised just how lucky I was to have the world at my fingertips – if only I was brave enough to reach out and take it. And so I would, for me and for her.
My last memory of Indonesia before boarding the plane back home to Australia, brought me particular joy. There was a residential area in a nearby street that I wanted to return to and photograph on my film camera. Looking through the lens, I crossed a small bridge that led over the polluted stream below. As I did, a group of women yelled out to me. They were huddled by a local store, music blasting and they were dancing. As I came closer, they grabbed my hands and pulled me in to dance with them.
“Are you married?” They asked, and when I shook my head and told them that I am strong, independent and don’t need a man, they erupted with supportive laughter and asked to take a photo with me.
Amidst this small crowd of giggles, an older woman came up to me. Instantly slapping on red lipstick, she whipped off her hijab for photo time – to which the other women cheered and laughed, their hands raised and bodies moving to the music that crackled from an old speaker.
I never felt unsafe in Jakarta but the constant haggling of men did take its toll on me. In a city where just about every moisturiser has skin-lightening properties and where it is rare to see a tourist with skin as fair as the women on billboards and tv, our bule features got us a lot of unwanted attention. People of all kinds would ask to take photos with us or would sneakily take them as we passed. When groups of young insecure schoolgirls or women taught to believe that fair is beautiful, asked to take a picture, I would just about always say yes, and in doing so, I would ensure to let them know that they were incredibly beautiful.
But often, when walking on my way to work or simply getting groceries – I would hear the constant holla of men whose eyes seethed through the clothes that covered my elbows and knees. Whistles, hisses, projections of love and “miss miss” followed me anytime I stepped out onto the street. And one night as I waited for a GoJek – the local taxi service that involves climbing on the back of an unknown man’s motorbike – I decided to stand safely with the security guard, only to have him sleazily ask for my number.
I wasn’t scared in these moments, I was frustrated and angry. This helped me to understand that the source of my anxiety comes not from confronting some of life’s most heavy situations, but from hiding away like they don’t exist. Locking myself in university bathrooms had felt a necessary coping mechanism at the start of my trip, but Indonesia had helped me to remember my passion for life and for defending the rights of others.
This could not be done by hiding away. I realised that when looking truth right in the eyes, I was not afraid.