From Lithuania to Indonesia, With Love. Part 1

Over a year ago, a Vilnius native Viktorija Panovaite, or Ria, got a Darmasiswa scholarship to study in Indonesia in the academic year 2014/2015. She packed up and moved to Java island to study traditional Indonesian dance. Today, after her year of studies has ended, Viktorija is still in Indonesia, traveling, writing her blog, Life in a Big Tent, and sharing with us what it’s like to move across the world and what her Indonesian life is about.

You were one of 6 Lithuanians selected for Darmasiswa scholarship awarded by the Indonesian government to foreign students. Can you tell us more about this program?

Every year, around 500–600 selectees from all over the world are awarded the Darmasiswa scholarship. It allows participants to come to Indonesia for six months or one year to study their preferred field and learn more about the Indonesian culture. This program has existed for years, and I even got to meet a guy in Bali who got the Darmasiswa scholarship 18 years ago! So yes, there were 6 of us from Lithuania and of course it’s a privilege.

This program helps you open your mind to a new culture and a totally different part of the world, and I would say that it’s more of a cultural than an academic program. At the end of your year in Indonesia, you get a certificate of completion of your courses, but it’s not a formal diploma that you graduate with. And, of course, it’s not the biggest takeaway from this experience.

Viktorija Panovaite

You used to work in the advertising field in Vilnius and then chose to study traditional Indonesian dance. Why?

Dancing has been my hobby since childhood, I’ve been dancing since I was 3. I tried different styles of dancing when I lived in Lithuania and attended various dance events, but I never danced professionally. When I read about the possibility to learn traditional Indonesian dance, I knew that it would be a great experience — both to learn an absolutely new style of dance and possibly apply this knowledge to other styles of dancing in the future.

Had you ever seen an Indonesian dance before you started with the program?

I’ve seen a few videos on Youtube, like those pieces when people share their travel experiences, but that’s it. I had no idea about the proper movements, about how much physical preparation and learning that goes into it. Most Indonesian dancers I know have been dancing from their early childhood, so by the time they reach university, their bodies are very strong and they are very good. It came to me as a surprise that when you see an Indonesian dance, it may seem very easy, but you could not be more wrong. It seems like there isn’t much movement, so you immediately think: ‘it’s not that hard, I can do that’. But honestly — you’ll be sweating A LOT when you try to repeat these movements, because what you don’t see as a viewer is all the work that happens under dancer’s’ clothes, all this muscle work, body alignment and proper form. I was in a pretty good shape and still it was very difficult for me. And some things, like the moves Indonesians do with their hands — I will never be able to do that.

Is it like an Indian dance where every move of the hand means something?

Well, with Indonesian traditional dance, not every move has a meaning but every dance tells a story. For example, there are welcome dances, and each island has their own welcome dance, there are dances that are performed at different celebrations, ceremonies and so on. There is always a story behind the dance, so you get lots of insights about the country and its culture as you learn to dance. Plus there are different styles and types of dance depending on the time they were formed, so the term ‘Indonesian dance’ in fact covers a lot more than it may seem.

Traditional Sulawesi dance in TanaToraja, Sulawesi island

Were your classes in English? Did you learn the Indonesian language?

Foreign students start with a 2-month course of Bahasa Indonesia from the university, and then it’s up to you how much of the language you study. Generally speaking, classes are taught in English. However, the teachers are professional artists and musicians, so sometimes it’s a challenge for them to express their thoughts in a foreign language. And sometimes they have to concentrate more on the local students and give explanations in Bahasa Indonesia. Then they provide English explanations for the foreigners, so it takes twice as long.

As a solution, we agreed that we’d have a few additional private classes for foreigners where the teacher would explain everything in English instead of explaining everything in 2 languages every time. So in case when explanations were in Indonesian, we were just following the Indonesian students and learning by watching them and the teacher. And later the teacher would explain us things that we didn’t catch in class. But it really depends on a class and a teacher. I know that for some other classes and foreigners, Indonesian students were the ones to do translations. But after a few months you realize that you know a lot of words and understand large portions of Indonesian speech and even ask questions, so it gets a lot easier.

You chose to live and study in Yogyakarta. What is this place like?

Yogyakarta is known as a cultural center of Java island and one of the cultural hubs of Indonesia. The city is home to many universities, so there are students from all over the region. There are always a lot of events, concerts, exhibitions, panel discussions and so on taking place. So if you’re interested in cultural life, there’s something exciting happening in Yogyakarta every day. What’s more, most of such events are free, including those run by international cultural centers. So cultural life is very rich, and I didn’t see so many international exhibitions and performances when I lived in Lithuania, not to mention that here I don’t have to pay for tickets.

Yogyakarta, famous Malioboro street

What’s more, Yogyakarta is conveniently located in the middle of Java island, so you can travel and see other beautiful places easily. If you drive a motorbike (which most people here do), you can easily get to beautiful beaches.

Your blog sounds like you live on a very tight budget — this is probably common to most foreign students who depend on scholarships. How comfortable is your life in Indonesia? Is it very different from what you were used to in Lithuania?

Honestly, the scholarship amount is really good compared to the local level of life and the salaries local people get. The scholarship gives us an amount comparable to an average salary of a mid-level employee, so it’s good. As foreign students, we avoid mentioning this to locals, since Indonesian students have to pay for their studies, as well as living expenses, by themselves, and we have everything covered by the Indonesian government, and I am very thankful for this.

The first month when I arrived was the hardest in terms of money. When you move, you need to buy a lot of stuff to settle in, and being totally new and not speaking the language, you don’t really know where to shop and where to find best deals. Then, when you are obviously new to Indonesia, vendors and even shops tend to charge you more for food. But as you get more familiar with the town, your day-to-day expenses drop. Yet, this probably depends on a person. For example, alcohol is very expensive in Indonesia, and luckily, I don’t drink. But if you’re used to having a beer with your dinner or something, it will be more expensive than the 3 meals you have per day. Since I’m not aiming for luxury, the scholarship money is enough for me. But if you want to travel — and you really should — then you would probably need to use your savings.

So my life here on Java island is a lot cheaper compared to my life in Lithuania, and I’m comfortable with that. It has taught me that you don’t really need much to be truly happy. It’s not about having a lot of money but about having a little that you really need.

Ria’s “big tent” home in Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Have you made friends in Indonesia? Are they locals or expats?

Yes, I have, and most of my friends are locals. When we just arrived as foreign students, we naturally tried to stick together, but later on everyone made their own friends, then some people left the country when the academic year was over. So now most of my friends are Indonesians, and I get to meet even more people through them, like when we go out, there’s always a friend of a friend, so I keep making new friends.

Do you feel any cultural barriers?

It was a little more difficult in the beginning, but now I feel that I understand Indonesian people better since I know more about them and their lifestyle. For example, it took me a while to understand that everyone is perpetually late, so when an Indonesian friend says that he’ll meet you at 8 o’clock, it will be in fact at 9 if not 9:30.

Ria with friends

Sometimes it’s hard to speak with an Indonesian person, because not all of them know English well, and those who do are often too shy to speak it. For example, you can be talking to a person and they will understand you, but will not say a word because of being shy. This may be going back from the colonial times, when the Dutch wouldn’t allow local population to speak to foreigners. So it was imprinted in their mentality that a foreigner is someone very special, and a local person is not worthy of speaking with them. It’s similar when they ask you for a selfie in the street — they treat it like a very big deal and a point of pride to share with their friends. But little by little you get used to the local ways, and people get to know you better, so they are more relaxed around you. Most of my friends speak English well, so we have no problems understanding each other. They work in totally different fields, have different backgrounds, so it’s always very interesting to talk to them. And they sometimes joke that I’m becoming an Indonesian, ‘oh, you’re sitting like we do, you’re eating like we do’, don’t know if this is true.

And what is it exactly that you do like an Indonesian?

Indonesians seem to love it that I can easily ride a motorbike (as a passenger) sitting on one side — this is what many Asian women do — you don’t have to put your legs around both sides of the bike. This is especially characteristic of Muslim women, but most foreigners don’t do it here. It’s these little things that locals find interesting that help them see you as more than just a foreigner.

As you have lived in Indonesia for a while, what do you feel is the biggest benefit of this experience?

My Indonesian experience has made me more open to foreign cultures and understanding them. It’s not only about Indonesia and Indonesian way of doing things, but to the diversity and depth of the world in general. It’s about understanding and accepting that things can be done very differently. Indonesia was the first Asian country I ever visited, so it was truly an eye opening experience.

I also became more patient, because here things tend to take longer and you need to be patient. And I think I grew up as a person: I’m not afraid to ask questions about how things are done, what exactly people are saying, how to pronounce something and so on. I think that if you are curious enough and open to a new culture, you can come to Indonesia and truly enjoy it.

Before you moved to Indonesia, you used to work in advertising and now you’ve spent a year studying traditional Indonesian dance. Where do you see yourself in the future?

For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I don’t know. I used to be very organized and planned things in advance. In Lithuania, I worked on planning events and campaigns, and planning is something I am good at, but right now — I am not planning anything.

Right now I want to stay in Indonesia for a while, maybe for 6 months or maybe for a year. I don’t rule out any possibilities — you never know what happens tomorrow. For example, I got a phone call from a friend yesterday and he asked me to talk to some Indonesian guys. They were applying for jobs on an international cruise ship, so they needed to speak good English. They kind of did, but were too shy to do it. So I went to help them out, and we ended up talking for a few hours so they would feel more confident in their job interviews. Then a few of them asked me if I would be interested in helping them improve conversational English — and tutoring is something I have never done before! So I have happily agreed to volunteer teaching them English. I have also had a few gigs as a tour guide for Lithuanian tourists — also for the first time in my life and I truly enjoyed it. I also got to use my older skills organizing events, planning things and accommodating last moment changes; maybe it’s something I’d be interested in doing more.

So you never know what you can do or what lies ahead of you — I’m just trying to stay open to all the amazing opportunities ahead of me.

Read the second part of the interview with Ria where she tells us about her daily life in Indonesia, the fear of driving a motorbike, and what it’s REALLY like to live in a Muslim country.

For more information about the Darmasiswa scholarship click here.

All photos are by Viktorija Panovaite, Life in a Big Tent