Falling in Love With Strangers

Two weeks have gone by since I checked into the Bhumi Hostel in Yogyakarta. It’s been two weeks of meeting new people, having dinners with them, sharing our lives, and then as quickly as they had come, saying goodbye. Sometimes you don’t even get to say goodbye. They leave the next morning without you knowing and then poof, gone.

It makes me sadder than it should.

Falling in love with strangers is difficult because you know they’re not going to remain in your life. And it’s exactly that, by the way – falling in love. It reminds me of a quote from the Journals of Sylvia Plath:

I love people I don’t know. I smiled at a woman coming back over the fen path, and she said, with ironic understanding, “Wonderful weather.” I loved her.

At the hostel, it’s that warm feeling of meeting someone new and wishing you could know more about them – not just where they come from, what they like and dislike, but who they were at every stage of their lives. What were their most ecstatic achievements; what were their most gruelling pains? It’s the sadness of realising there was so much potential for connection, if only you guys had more time.

Of course it doesn’t happen with everyone. Some people’s “energy” or “aura” is so incompatible with mine that I find myself hiding in bed with the curtains tightly closed. But some people are special.

There was the English guy who’s writing a novel and planned to ride a motorbike from one end of Java to the other. I liked his aura. He was kind and positive and inclusive. I didn’t get to say goodbye. There was Malvin, the guy in his last year of college, who liked to backpack despite his mother’s protests. He didn’t judge me for brining my parents to the hostel. Nice guy; didn’t get to say goodbye.

Then there was Manon, a Dutch girl on exchange in Bali who decided to travel alone after she couldn’t find any friends to go with her. She was a fellow introvert; I often found her watching movies in bed. Before she left, I told her goodbye and nice to meet you. After that, two other Dutch girls, their first time backpacking. We shared dinner two nights in a row. Sam, the taller one, wasn’t pretty or smart, but she had one of those angelic demeanours that’s worth a gold mine.

And finally, two Singaporean girls who I hardly spoke to. But one day, one of them saw me reading Susan Cain’s “Quiet” and said it was an excellent book. A few days later, she gave me “The Power of Personality” and told me to keep it. Just a little act of thoughtful kindness that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

You wonder where they’ll go to next. Probably Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal – just like everyone else on the Southeast Asia circuit. You wonder when they’ll return home and if they’ll like it; whether they’ll settle and find jobs or lust after their younger days of travelling. You can’t help wishing them the best of happinesses.

Goodbye, stranger. It was nice to meet you.

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10,941 km Outside My Comfort Zone

10,941 kilometers. The distance between my home in Vienna and my current stay in Yogyakarta. I’m here for a six-week internship at a media organisation as a requirement for my degree. I could have chosen anywhere (read: closer to home) to intern but instead I find myself in Indonesia, wondering how on earth I got here.

To understand my bewilderment, you have to know something about me: I’m a very anxious person. Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, or rather, a “highly sensitive person” (which is a real term, by the way, not some poetic nonsense). Too many sights, sounds, smells and feelings overwhelm me – an overstimulation of the senses – and I become easily stressed in new situations. So what better way to celebrate my anxiety than to travel to an entirely new city all alone!

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Confession: I didn’t even come here alone. I came here with my parents, which when I think about it, is so lame. They even slept in the hostel that I’m staying at, full of only young people, and celebrated New Years Eve with them! Someone thought I was a high schooler and that my parents were “sending me off” for the first time, but embarrassingly, I’m twenty-three.

Allow me to explain. I’ve travelled to my fair share of countries and I’ve stayed in my fair share of hostels, but I’ve never done it alone. Friends or family were always with me, and you know what they say about misery: A misery shared is a misery halved. Same goes for stress.

The one time I travelled to a city alone was to Geneva, and despite all odds (I mean, it’s Geneva for god’s sake), it was a hellish experience. I had missed my connecting flight, arrived late, walked in circles trying to find my accomodation, couldn’t find a supermarket to buy food, and ended up having one of those peanut packets from the airplane as MY DINNER. I proceeded to shed stressful tears for the rest of the night, and swear to myself I would never do this again. Ever.

So why the heck am I here now, in Indonesia? I blame it on my romanticism. For all my anxiety, for all my fears, I also love adventure. And after my previous internship in Vienna that turned out to be less than interesting, my fate was sealed. I had to go somewhere, do something new, escape the mundane routine I had followed for the last four months.

Climbing up to Rofanspitze (2259m) in Tirol, Austria.

Another confession: Indonesia isn’t even a new country to me. I was born here. To be fair, I was born in Bandung and I moved away when I was ten years old. I know a little Bahasa but not fluently and Yogyakarta is a mild chaos I will have to navigate for the first time.

To the marvellously independent and daredevil people, my story must sound like a wimpy excuse. I won’t deny that I am still a child, a baby even, for twenty-three. I’ve always been a slow learner, a late bloomer, an anxious introvert. But to the people like me, if you’re out there and if you’re reading this, I just want to say: KEEP DOING YOU.

I understand your crippling fears. I understand the courage you had to muster to even consider going somewhere alone. I understand the stress and negativity that sometimes consumes you, and even worse, the (undeserved) embarrassment you feel as a result.

And yet, you keep on trying. You went to a country or did something new or dared to dream and do it. You tried, maybe you failed, you swore to never do it again, but then you did. Maybe you take your parents along with you the second time. Maybe you won’t bring them on the third.

Baby steps for a baby.

So there. 10,941 kilometres outside my comfort zone. Six weeks in Yogyakarta. I hope it’ll be an experience (whether good or bad) that I can learn from. In the meantime, I’ll keep you posted. Happy new year.