Highlights of backpacking SE Asia, pt. 1

Where: Klaten & Jogja/Yogyakarta, Central Java, Indonesia

When: November 19-29

purple dot on the right: Yogya/Jogjakarta, purple dot on the left: Klaten (too small to be labeled)

Who: Ellis, a crazy Dutch girl who’s been living in the US for a long time

Ellis and I enjoying some fresh coconut juice in Klaten


Part I (Klaten): Volunteering. We had both agreed to volunteer teaching English while staying with a family. We loved the wife and kids. I loved the first class I taught because it was just four really enthusiastic, hilarious eight-year-olds who loved life and loved learning. Ellis and I were cracking up the whole time with these kids. The other classes were… not as fun. 

A picture Ellis took of me with the fun class. These kids were great!

Ellis and I both stayed about a week and by the end, we had figured out the husband’s scheme (he was the one “organizing” (very loose use of the word) the classes. Basically, we pieced together that he had been fired from most of his other jobs and now only actually taught a few hours himself, but mostly relied on bringing in foreigners to “teach” at all these different schools (where ever he could get in, and also teaching his own classes). He tells the schools he has foreigners (doesn’t matter if they’re native speakers) and HE gets paid, while the foreigners don't (they're volunteers). He usually left the room and had us lead the whole class on our own with no preparation or advance notice about what kind of class it was. 

Now that in itself wouldn’t be so bad if the guy wasn’t just an asshole anyway. He was constantly making inappropriate “jokes” and sexual comments. When I first got there, he told me I looked terrible and I should go to sleep (I think he meant it as a joke or at least not in a mean way, but that's pretty much exactly what he said, word for word...so how is that funny?).  He asked me about 10 times a day if I’d bathed yet, which made me feel really uncomfortable (yes I did bathe, though they didn't have a shower or bath, just a vat of water and a little bucket with a handle to pour water on yourself). He also pulled a stunt to both Ellis and I (separately) where he took us out to dinner after evening classes and wouldn’t leave the restaurant for like an hour after we’d finished eating. Like he was just stalling coming home as long as possible.

And the last school he brought us to was the final straw. He took Ellis and I both to a kindergarten with HUGE class sizes. The first class at this kindergarten had about 30 three-year-olds who spoke NO English. Two of them were also deaf. About 3 seconds before the class started, they informed us that we (Ellis and I) would be leading the whole class on our own. The director of the school asked whether we would like a book to read them or anything. Before Ellis or I could open our mouths, this dick (the dude) butts in, “No!” Then he wanted to sing the hokey-pokey like 15 times in a row and kept saying stuff like, “Sarah, now you lead!” I’m like, “fuck off, dude. I don’t even know this song particularly well.” I hate being put on the spot like that and he kept doing it the whole time.

Anyway, Ellis and I bonded over our growing mistrust and suspicions about the dude. Every night we would go for long walks around Klaten and slowly hash out the situation. By the end, these walks turned into an occasion to hatch escape plots.

We wanted to leave a little earlier than we'd said, but didn't want to rely on them for transportation to the train station (we thought he'd pull some kind of shit to get us to stay longer). We looked all around trying to find the phone number of a taxi or at least a hotel where we could ask about taxis. We finally found a hotel and the dude goes, "No taxis in Klaten." We're like "Whaaaaaat? How is that even possible??"

The next morning when we told them we wanted to go to the train station, the dude was being obnoxious about it for a while, but eventually they brought us both on their motorcycles (had to make two trips because Ellis had a gigantic suitcase). 

Part II: Jogjakarta (Freedom!!)

We did it!

Note: there are two spellings of Jogjakarta/Yogyakarta. Indonesians use both, but it's actually pronounced as if they were English j's.

When we arrived, there was much jubilation and glee. And beer.

Bintang: the beer of Indonesia...the only beer of Indonesia.

Bintang: the beer of Indonesia...the only beer of Indonesia.

We spent the next couple of days exploring the city, buying matching t-shirts, and getting rained on. 

At the "Water Palace". In our matching Java Pride shirts.

On a rickshaw. With the rickshaw driver.

Ellis had been there before and she'd already seen the two big temples, so I booked an expensive tour on my own. 

Me at Borobudor. Being here was magical. I felt like I didn't want to leave the top of the temple.

Prambanan. I visited the temples on Thanksgiving Day :)

Prambanan. I visited the temples on Thanksgiving Day :)

Ellis was the first real friend I'd made on the trip. I had honestly been pretty lonely up until then though I had been having fun on my own and seeing a lot of cool stuff. I just hadn't met anyone that I really got along with. She kind of turned the trip around for me, and I'm not sure I would have survived Klaten without her.

pangandaran to jakarta in 10 hours

I was in a beach city on the southern coast of Java called Pangandaran. I had decided to come here almost on a whim after spending a very strange week volunteering in a small town, followed by four days in the traffic of big city, Yogyakarta.

This place was not at all how it looked in the pictures. The beach was covered in trash and it rained for most of the evening the day I got there. It is out of the way for tourists. I had to take a three hour train from Yogya, then take a bike rickshaw from the train station to an insane bus that stopped about 10,000 times and took another four or five hours to get to Pangandaran. Most public intercity buses in Java stop and let people on/off anywhere they want to along the route, not just at set stops or stations. This was one of those. The train was about $16, the bike taxi was $4 (he overcharged me), the other bus was $5 and the bike taxi to the hotel from the “bus terminal” (generous) in Pangandaran was $2. So all told, this journey took me about eight hours and cost $27 one way. Not exactly cheap or convenient, but I wanted to relax on the beach, and this was supposedly the best one in Java.

While in most ways this beach town feel short of my expectations, it was really nice to be somewhere where traffic wasn’t a huge problem. Where I could cross the street without having to trust that the never-ending torrent of cars and motorcycles was NOT going run over me. One day in Pangandaran, I rented a bike and just rode all over. It was nice.

The second day I was there, I met  an Indonesian dude who said his name was Joe (“you know, American name?”) because he likes Jimi Hendrix (???) He asked me a lot of questions like where I’m from and where I’d been in Indonesia, etc. Loads of random Indonesians do this kind of half-way interrogation when they see foreigners because they see so few of them. Or they have ulterior motives? Hard to say.

Anyway, I was a little bit anxious about my journey from Pangandaran to Jakarta, as I would have to take a four hour bus to a city called Bandung, then a three hour train from Bandung to Jakarta. This was completely different from how I got there. It would have been more straightforward if I could have gone back to the same train station (Banjar) that I had come to on the way there, but that wasn’t an option.

The main thing I was worried about was the bus to Bandung (where I had to get on the train) because 1) it was quite far away, 2) Pangandaran was small, with few foreign tourists, so I wasn’t sure whether there would be too many options available. So my second or third day, I went to what in Indonesia is generously referred to as a travel agent. No one was there. Joe calls to me from across the street asking what I wanted. I told him I wanted to book a bus to Bandung for Wednesday. I walk across the street to talk to him better and also because I was headed there anyway to get dinner.

He tells me about the bus: what time it leaves, how much it costs, how long it takes, etc. I ask him if he works there. He says his cousin does.

Now, I’ll stop here and just say that while I am wary of people trying to scam me, it is very hard to tell who to trust when someone is really nice and just seems like they’re trying to be helpful. I’m not saying he was trying to scam me or knowingly give me a bad deal,  because I’ll have no way of ever knowing that for sure …but suffice it to say, this story does not end without more than a few hitches in the plan. Also, I needed to book a bus anyway, and he had a connection to someone who could do that, so I decided to go with it.

According to Joe, the bus was worth its price tag of $16 compared to the $5 public bus because it didn’t stop to let people on and off, it was air conditioned and nice comfortable seats. But one of the main draws for me was that they’d pick me up at my hotel in Pangandaran and drop me anywhere in Bandung, so I wouldn’t have to get off and then take a taxi to the train station. Plus, I sort just wanted to book it so I wouldn’t have to worry about it.

Joe takes me on his motorbike to a different travel agent by the same name as the first one I went to: Din’s. He like, “Let me look for my cousin. He might be out back.” So I sit down and wait at the desk.  After a minute or so, I notice a guy sleeping on the floor behind the desk. Joe comes in and sees him and wakes him up. They bring out the form to book the bus for me. They say the bus will take 5 hours, or 6 if there’s bad traffic. Remember those numbers, now. 5 hours or 6 for bad traffic. The bus leaves at 9AM.

Booked. I gave him the money. Paid for. Done. Time to relax on the beach.  

I was on a bit of a tight time table with my last few days in Indonesia because I’d left only two nights to spend in Jakarta before my flight out. Nevertheless, I made arrangements to couch surf for those two nights. I booked my train for Bandung to Jakarta online. It left Bandung at 4PM. That left 7 hours to get from Pangandaran to Bandung. It was supposed to take 5 or 6 with bad traffic. It was a little tighter than I would have preferred, but I figured an hour would be an alright cushion.

Over the next few days, I felt a tiny bit nervous about whether the bus would actually pick me up considering how “laid back” they were, but then everything in Indonesia is kind of like that.

On Wednesday morning I had my bags packed and I was ready to go at 9AM. The guy from the “travel agency” was maybe 20 minutes or so late. Now the cushion was down to 40 minutes if the traffic was bad. Still totally doable, right? I was relieved to see him… until he opened his mouth.

He says, “I will come back for you at 11. We need to fix the air conditioning in the van. It’s broken.” I’m like, “I don’t care about the air conditioning, I have a train to make. I have a train from Bandung at 4 o’clock.” He calls someone on his phone. He goes, “Okay, you can come with me. We change the van.” I had no idea how “changing the van” would solve the problem even though a few minutes earlier, I was going to have to wait two more hours before leaving. Anyway, I thought I’d go with it since there was no way I would make the train if I didn’t leave until 11.

Next we picked up a bunch of Indonesian people, and set off. Since I didn’t really know what was going on, I kept an eye on the road sings. We were indeed headed in the right direction and actually making good time, though he was driving like a maniac and I had to ask him not to text while he was driving. After about 3 hours, we stopped and dropped off the Indonesian people. I was thinking, “Okay, it’s a little weird that I’m the only passenger left, but maybe they are having this guy drive me the rest of the way even though he wasn’t supposed to, so as to accommodate my time constraint.

Once Driver has me alone, he starts asking me questions like where I’m from and telling me I’m beautiful. He asks if he can get a picture with me. His English is really bad and he keeps trying to talk to me in Indonesian. And I just keep saying, “I don’t understand.” He takes us to the bus terminal in the same city where he dropped off the other passengers. He stops the van and gets my backpack out.

Here’s where photo shoot number one takes place. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with the bus, but Driver is much more concerned with getting the PERFECT photo with me. First he asked another guy to take pictures of us. He keeps having him do it over like 15 times. Then he looks at the photos. Apparently, they don’t cut it. Then he starts trying to take selfies. I mean, taking a photo is one thing, but this was getting excessive. Also it was really awkward because he was holding my hand, not like how people normally do, but sort of like we were shaking hands.

No communication as to what’s going on. I kept asking, “What are we doing? Are we going to Bandung? Why did we stop?” There are a bunch of guys sitting around that apparently work for this “travel agency” but none of them speak any English. Driver just tells me “wait.”  But the longer we “wait” the slimmer my chances of making the train are. I’m thinking, “If we leave NOW, like RIGHT NOW I can still make it.”

Driver talks to a dude who he informs me is the “agent.” He tells me about 7 times that that guy was the “agent..” The Agent looks pissed off after (I’m assuming) Driver explained the situation to him. You know, about how I paid $16 for a nice van to take me door to door? In 5 or 6 hours? That situation?

After we were sitting there for 10-15 minutes, Driver puts my backpack back in the van and tells me to get in. I still have no idea what’s going on, but I’m hoping that he is taking me to Bandung after all. We drive another hour or so then stop in the middle of nowhere. We wait at a bus stop for 20-25 minutes. I’m thinking maybe another bus from the “travel agency” is supposed to pick me up. While we are waiting, it’s time for photo shoot number 2. He starts trying to take selfies again. Then he stops some teenaged girls and gets them to take pictures of us. Again, it goes on WAY too long, to the point where I think I can detect the girls getting annoyed with it.

It seems like forever that we’re sitting there. Finally, a shitty public bus pulls up and Driver hails it. He puts my backpack in the back, pays the dude and tells him where I’m going. On buses in Indonesia, there is a dude whose job it is to collect money, help people with their bags and stuff like that. I’ll talk more about him in a minute. So basically, what happened was the “travel agency” didn’t AT ALL provide the service they offered, but just put me on a cheap public bus which I could have done anyway and saved a ton of money!  But I didn’t fully have time to process this until after I’d already gotten on the bus.

Anyway, the bus was cramped, but I was lucky enough to get a seat in the back. It was one of the buses that stop a million times to pick up and drop off people, but I was happy to be moving again. I thought I could still make the train, though it would be really tight.

More on the bus dude. This guy was insane. There must be some kind of poles on the outside of the van, because to let people on/off, he would sort of swing outside the door, and swing back in. When we stopped to pick people up, the dude did everything he could to get them on as fast as possible. There were times were he was fully outside of the bus while we were driving fast. He didn’t give a shit.

While we are making pretty good time, I’m beginning to fear it’s not quite good enough, and the further we drive, the more I consider my possible “Plan Bs.” If I don’t make my train, I’ll either have to hang out at the train station for like 4 hours, or stay the night in Bandung. Neither one seems particularly great because I have people waiting for me and I’m already planning on getting into Jakarta kind of late at 7pm. It would be rude to come to someone’s house to couch surf arriving several hours late, so if I took the later train, I’d have to go to hostels near the train station in Jakarta hoping they had a free bed. Not to mention I’d have the added expense of paying for another train ticket if I couldn’t get the ticket transferred.

I start seeing signs that say “Bandung” so I’m hopeful we’re almost there. Then we drive another 45 minutes or so… it’s pouring rain. We stop somewhere nondescript on the side of the road. The Dude lets me know it’s time for me to get off the van. I get up to get out, the driver hasn’t even come to a complete stop, but I’ve been watching people play this game the past three hours, and I knew I just had to jump because the Dude had already gotten by big backpack out of the back and put it into another bus. So I jump out while the bus is still moving and run over to the other bus. Still completely in the dark as to what was going on, but I heard the Dude tell the driver of the other bus that I’m going to the train station.

The new bus was brilliant. I sat next to the door, which didn’t close… keeping in mind there is currently a full-on torrential downpour going on. I’m just holding both my backpacks so they don’t fly out the open door and hoping I myself don’t either; all while periodically being doused by rain puddles splashed up by other cars. You know, basically just livin’ the dream. Also, it’s freezing cold and I can’t get to my warmer clothes because I’m afraid to let go of the seat in front of me since the driver is driving pretty crazy and fast down a highway.

I’m looking at the clock and by this point I’ve all but given up hope of making the 4 o’clock train. I’m thinking we probably won’t make it there on time, but if we’re late I’ll just check and hopefully the train won’t have left yet. Another train I took in Java didn’t leave the station until about 45 minutes after it was scheduled to. At this point, my main hope was that the train would leave late.

We are really down to the wire now. Like 10 minutes left. I’m asking the other people if we are close to the train station. One guy was like, “It’s up there,” so it seemed like it was close but not clear how close. I got my confirmation number ready on my ipod so I could print my ticket asap as soon as I got to the station. I put on both my bags. Ready to run.

We stop. They’re all like, “Here we are. Train station.” No train station in sight, but I have 8 minutes. I’m like, “Where is it?” They point to something that is not a train station. All I can see are little shops and food stalls. So I start asking people every couple feet, “Station?” I get pointed back and forth a bit, then finally I see it. I’m sprinting.

I get in, find the ticket printing machine. Thankfully, there’s no queue to use it. I go up, print my ticket. Again, thankfully, no problems. Get my passport out, go through the ticket check. “Jakarta?” “There.” It’s on the nearest track. Get on the train. Four minutes to spare.

I feel like the luckiest person on the planet. It’s 4 PM. For the first time since 9 AM, I have an opportunity to use the bathroom… and get something to eat. Literally 7 hours. But I made it. 

Donghae highlights

Well, my time in Donghae has come to a close. And while I am writing this from Bali (what seems like another planet from Korea) I thought it would be worthwhile to look back on some good things about my life in Donghae.


Coffee shops, hiking gear stores, cell phone stores, and convenience stores:

By law, there are three of each for every citizen of Donghae.

Hanseom Beach:

Many great afternoons and evenings were spent here watching the waves and enjoying a cup of wine… or two or three. Going to the beach was serious business as we had a list of necessary items: ipod and bluetooth speaker for tunes, dranks (obvi), snacks/food, beach blanket (actually a bed sheet), ice, and don’t forget the corkscrew! Rachel and I also had matching “beach cups.” In the summer we went to the beach at least once a week. Best part of Hanseom Beach: it was about 10 minutes from my apartment on foot. (Borat voice) Very nice!

The boat stage:

A popular meeting place in the middle of downtown Donghae. Strangely, even though all the foreigners call it the boat stage, I didn’t notice that it’s actually shaped like a boat until I’d been living in Donghae for 6 or 7 months. I thought that the roof kind of looked like a sail, but I hadn’t looked at it closely enough to recognize that it’s actually full-on meant to look like a boat.

One night, the lady who works at the street food tent near the boat stage was treated to an impromptu 3AM performance of various songs from Rocky Horror Picture Show and Cabaret. On the boat stage, of course. Singing and dancing by Rachel, Victoria and myself. Choreography by Victoria.

Also, another fun fact about the boat stage: the guy who’s on the stage in this picture is also on the stage at all times. He literally goes there everyday to stand on the stage and sing into a pen. He is a horrible singer, but you have to commend him for his dedication.


Most weeks, I was in here about 3 or 4 times. It’s the biggest grocery store in Donghae and it also has clothes, hiking gear, household items, etc. Luckily, I lived about a 15 minute walk from Emart. Some foreigners who live in other neighborhoods have to take a taxi or bus to Emart because they only have small stores with limited selections near their houses.

Loving that sweet, sweet emart escalator ride.

The Hildon Hotel:

Rachel lives really close to this place and she has never once seen a light in any of the windows in the 15 months she’s lived there. We decided to go and look inside before I left. Our expectations were pretty much met: it looked abandoned and there was a bunch of trash and furniture strewn all around. We only looked in the lobby, which for some reason was fully lit, making it even more creepy.

The scariest place in Donghae!

Other honorable mentions:

The shortcut of death to/from the beach.

inexplicably still existing phonebooths

Han's Deli is a pretty good restaurant.

Rachel loves Han's Deli...and the beautiful view of Donghae from the window!

Chicken Ball Doria is the best dish. It's spicy rice with cheese and fried chicken!! amazing!

but before you get too excited about the delicious food.. remember it's still korean and koreans have...different taste sometimes.

Korean supermarket soundtracks

one thing i really love about life in korea is the fact that both of the largest national supermarket chains, emart and homeplus, have their own soundtracks. what do i mean by this? when you shop in the stores, you will hear about six or seven songs about how great the store is that play on a loop. in donghae we have an emart, and rachel and i pretty much have all the songs memorized now. we often talk about how much we love the songs and want to buy the cd. we often sing the songs to each other. really, they are catchy tunes and to be honest we find it amusing that these stores have songs like this in the first place. 

a few months ago one of my five-year-olds was singing one of the songs, and i wanted to take a video of it, but he got shy in front of the camera. today, some of the six-year-olds were singing one and i got lucky and captured this goldmine:

my goal before i leave is to record these kids singing the other five emart songs :P

negotiating with my korean hagwon bosses about staying a few months beyond the end of my contract

in my last post i wrote a bit about the frustration i was feeling about the lack of communication/planning from my bosses about when i'm leaving, etc. since i have been informally negotiating staying beyond the end of my contract, i had no clue when i would be leaving the country and consequently, how much money i would be able to save for my trip, what plans i should be making, etc.

well, i still don't have a 100% set-in-stone answer, but i have more info now. and i have renewed my ARC (alien registration card) so i am legally allowed to be in the country for up to another year. getting this done was a bit of an ordeal and really stressful for me (turns out, needlessly). i kept asking my bosses about it and they kept telling me they were waiting for some form from immigration to come in the mail. well, it got to the point where there was only a week left before my card expired and i brought this to their attention. this was on last thursday. my boss took my ARC and passport to immigration on monday and got it all sorted out. there really wasn't any need for me to be stressed, because obviously they are going to sort it. they're the ones who would be in trouble if it expired... still i was extremely stressed and ill over it for weeks. 

they photoshopped my photo for my id. classic korea.

they photoshopped my photo for my id. classic korea.

very official id card renewal procedure involving a black marker and scotch tape (so the marker won't smudge)

very official id card renewal procedure involving a black marker and scotch tape (so the marker won't smudge)

anyway, after i got my card and passport back, i asked about my leaving date. i told them clearly 2 or 3 times that i want my last day at work to be november 7 (a friday) and i want to fly out on the following monday. they said they can't tell me my last date yet because they don't know when the new person is coming. this whole concept is a little shady. my contract is up. i don't have to stay any longer, but i have told them i want to stay until november. a long time ago, like maybe early june, i spoke to them briefly about the idea of me staying for a month after the replacement teacher comes to "train" them and help get them used to life here or whatever. i said i would do it even though it means i'll have to share my apartment with them and i'll be half-time so i'll be getting half my wages. i did not agree to stay indefinitely until they find a new teacher, etc. right now i'm not too worried about it even though at the moment it sounds like i'll probably end up having to stay another week or two beyond when i was hoping to leave. we'll wait and see when the new person gets here. if it gets too late, i'm just going to have to be like, "look, it's time for me to go. buy my plane ticket now, please." i really want to leave korea before it gets cold!!