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Are You Trying to Break my Heart?

May 25, 2010

Only a few hours after getting back from Jepara and I was on another trip with 2 of the magazine’s photojournalists. We went across the province of East Java in four days, stopping in over a dozen cities doing culinary and tourism reporting for the Olga! travel issue.

I wrote a story on my experience for the magazine and talked about architecture, safaris, amusement parks and food. While I was compiling a list of my greatest memories I realized that, for the most part, the things that I remember the most weren’t the cities’ major attractions. My most vivid memories were of the journey and the things we saw along the way that broke my heart.



I knew Indonesia was a developing country before I got here and I saw beggars everyday but I never realized how impoverished it is until I was in the city of Kudus to visit the Great Mosque.

We parked our shiny mini bus in a dirt clearing and were immediately swarmed by beggars. I could barely open my door and I didn’t want to because it just felt too close. They followed us and there were more people on each corner. They didn’t just ask for money they demanded it and sometimes got more confrontational.

I just shut down and one of the photojournalists asked me if I was scared. I wasn’t scared, I just couldn’t handle it.

I can only take poverty and suffering when it’s in small doses and packaged nicely in a consumable way. The truth is I don’t like seeing sad homeless people. I like the happy ones in Ottawa. I don’t like seeing mothers, children or old people on the streets or working really intensive labour to survive. Like most people I want to help but I want to get a glimpse and see something that doesn’t hurt me too much so I can just give and then go away feeling happy like everything is still right in the world and I have done my part.

I was really overwhelmed by it all but it really got to me. Seeing all of the people just broke my little bubble. They got past my comfort zone and forced me to see everything, not just what I wanted to see.

The Salt Fields

Indonesia has a standard backdrop no matter where I go: lush, green trees, splashes of flowers and rolling hills. On our way to Rembang there was a definite change in scenery when we got to the abandoned salt fields.

All I saw were houses left in shambles on dry, empty fields. I learned that this is where the crystallize salt during the dry season but it kills the land so you can’t farm anything. In the wet season it gets flooded and the soil washes away, the foundations crumble and the houses just break apart. This desolate ghost town was the opposite of the vibrant, green and crowded cities of Indonesia that I knew.

Kartini Beach

Kartini is one of the nicest beaches in Java. It has everything: banana boats, motorized ducks, bouncy castles and treehouses. The one thing I remember the most was going through the zoo at night.

I didn’t take any pictures because it was just sad to see the animals like this. I’m not completely opposed to zoos but these cages and puddles were not fit for any animal to live in.

I stopped when I got to the main attraction, a three-legged cow. I knelt down and she just looked up at me with her round black eyes. I felt so bad that she was just treated as a spectacle. To see her try to stand up – it would kill you.

The Surabaya Market

We were eating Sate Ayam for breakfast when I heard the chimes of bells and rhythmic drum beats.  The tune just drew me in, it was so cheery. I went across the busy street to see what was going on.

There was a monkey with a wire around its neck and a mask on. Whenever he tried to take off the mask or just sit down a man would yank it. The monkey just had to run back and forth, jump around and go to people for money.

Owning a monkey is illegal but so are a lot of things I see going on here every day.


There was a mudflow in the Porong district of Sidoarjo that covered an entire village. Tens of thousands of families homes were displaced after a drilling accident caused an eruption of mud and hot gas. It’s been over 4 years since the disaster but you can still see its effects.

It was a really steep climb up the dam that contains the mudflow but what I saw would stop you in your tracks. There were dark clouds looming over an endless sea of mud. The mudflow is 12 metres deep and it still has eruptions of hot mud and poisonous gas.

It was windy and raining but the weather was nothing compared to what was in front of me. The mudflow was beautiful because it was so vast and powerful but it was also very sad because I know how much it has destroyed and how dangerous it still is. When we left, the train was coming by. It’s still hazardous because there is still methane gas seeping out that can cause an explosion with the ignition of something as small as a cigarette butt.


During this road trip I learned so much about Indonesian culture and everything was so beautiful that I just fell in love with this country which is why it breaks my heart to see everything that is wrong.

My trip to East Java really was the best and I had tons of fun but I just want to keep things in perspective.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Heartbroken permalink
    May 26, 2010 8:35 am

    Since everyone seem to have different Alias in your blog, I wanted to make one! Haha! Anyway…this blog has been my favourite so far. It’s really astonishing to read about the things that are wrong with Indonesia. Maybe when I read your experiences, I can relate so much with the Philippines; especially with the poverty issues. What was interesting the other day when Jane, Chase, and I were heading to Hull, and we were passing by the area (just before the bridge to Quebec) where there is a lot of poor people between Ottawa-Hull. Anyway, we stopped because of a red light and there was this poor man actually begging next to the cars. Which was totally weird for me because the only time i’ve ever seen beggars next to cars we’re children in the Philippines.

    Anyway, but this was really an interesting read. : ) And also, you’re pictures aren’t actually bad! Give yourself some credit. :P

  2. Adelaida Bustamante permalink
    May 26, 2010 1:49 pm

    Dear Juanita,

    This is a very moving piece. It took me back to the poverty I saw everyday growing up in Philippines that did not strike me so gravely until I returned several years later as a mother and a balikbayan in Philippines. I think why my heart felt so much and broke into so many tiny pieces, is because the stark seeming injustic of our life/luxuries in North America. Also, I think it was the realization that but for the grace of God, our fates could have been reversed with the impoverished ones.

    These are the life lessons that are priceless and I am glad that you are learning them from a fairly safe distance.


  3. IrishMan permalink
    May 31, 2010 12:22 pm

    Heartbroken = Mel. HA! your alias is broken! This was a really great post olga. You had me really emotinal until you mentioned the three-legged cow. I’m sorry maybe I’m just cruel but it sounds funny.

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