(Published in Two Cities Review) One hazy morning in Yogyakarta, I stumbled out of bed and into the shared bathroom— fairly confident that the cockroaches had vacated the premises by daylight. I looked in the mirror and let out a sharp gasp. My right eyelid was completely swollen. I had been exhausted for days, pinned to my bed. For every hour I managed to stay awake, I was lulled into sleep for two or three, consumed by a world of agitated dreams. My arms were pocked with mosquito bites, even though I slept with a sheet over every inch of me. And now this ugly, bulging eyelid. I could only wonder: what next?
At the local hospital, the doctor said that the swelling was a result of an insect bite, and gave me a packet of small white tablets. I dutifully took them. By the end of the day, the swelling went down, but my fatigue didn’t falter. Next it was the bridge of my nose that ballooned. Then it was a lump on the side of my forehead. It was like a unicorn’s horn, but instead of a glistening protrusion, I had a repulsive stump. And was it just me, or did my neck look chunky all of a sudden? Paranoid, I stroked my face and neck every morning, searching for a new bulge or swelling, and then inspected my features thoroughly in the bathroom mirror. I decided I was allergic to this place, and wished myself back to Adelaide, Australia. Sure, it was a typically cold and rainy July back in Adelaide, but at least I maintained my normal features. In Adelaide, the skin on my arms was smooth; I slept without fear of being mauled by mosquitoes. Why had I thought spending two months in Yogyakarta was such a good idea?
This wasn’t the usual consequence of travel for me. Typically, a new climate revives me. Years ago when I studied abroad in Bath, England, my aunt came to visit. She promptly proclaimed the place suited me. And it did. The moist air gave my skin a glow, my cheeks were perpetually rosy from the fresh air. On the strength of this, I moved to London after graduation, where, during walks to work, I entertained visions of myself traveling to the continent. I would head out into the European morning, shedding any need for makeup, my hair shiny and cascading. And even though those mornings in Europe never materialized, they still seemed plausible.
But it wasn’t only appearance. At twenty-five I spent a month in Prague. I visited Vsyehrad Castle and felt as though I was walking on springs, that this mythical spot high on a hill was the emanating source of all creative energy. Surrounded by the graves of writers and artists like Neruda and Mucha, I returned often, wrote in a fury, and dreamed of owning a house below, the ruined castle just a short climb away.
At twenty-six I moved to Abu Dhabi, where, at my first ‘real’ job, my university students thanked me profusely after each lesson. Every morning, my all-female class told me they loved me. I experienced an appreciation for my teaching that I had never thought possible. And then in Dubai at twenty-seven, I went to parties on the Palm Island and rode to clubs in friends’ limousines. Making friends from all over the world was suddenly effortless. At 30, I won a PhD scholarship at the University of Adelaide, and moved to Australia. There, I sold my travel memoir and did interviews on national radio. Clearly, my personal charm and talents amplified and were more appreciated abroad.
Up until that trip to Indonesia, whenever I woke in a new city it was as though a giant knot in my chest unwound. But every morning in Yogyakarta, I woke knowing that the city was rejecting me. No real cause was ever found for my ailments. When I was well enough to walk around my neighborhood, breathing in the smell of burning garbage and avoiding feral dogs, I wondered what it was about this place that I couldn’t tolerate and that couldn’t tolerate me.
Along with a motley crew of five other American postgraduates, I was on a two-month fellowship connected to Gadjah Mada University. Everyone else fared swimmingly. One woman decided to stay on and teach English. Another traveled to Bali with her Indonesian friend and later they met up back in New York City. Another went for a run at 5am every day, enjoying the fresh morning air. Only I was the perfect storm of susceptibility to whatever could ail a person in this city.
There were other indications that Yogyakarta was not a place where I would feel beautiful or talented or appreciated, or even normal. At a restaurant, the man at the table next to me asked my age. When I told him I was 31, he laughed so hysterically that he was barely able to speak for several minutes. Finally, he was happy to tell me that he thought I was “MUCH MUCH older!”
I had just started a relationship back in Australia, and these blows to my face and ego did not bode well. I’d done long distance twice before, and was reluctant to do it again. The email misinterpretations, the dramatic phone calls, the missed connections. I didn’t want any of it. But Duncan didn’t have that kind of history. During our three-hour Skype sessions, he didn’t seem to mind the random and fleeting alterations to my face. I have no idea what we talked about for that long, only that neither of us wanted to stop staring at the other through our blurry screens.
I still worried Duncan was getting a strange impression of me as weak and unlucky in my health. Yet three weeks into my stint in Yogyakarta, in one of our daily emails, he asked me to move in with him when I returned to Adelaide. I agreed. After walking around Yogyakarta smiling for days—despite my swellings and fatigue—I realized I was in love with him.
But I was so unloved by this place. If Yogyakarta could not love me, then at least I wanted to be accepted, or just tolerated. Anything but so thoroughly rejected. But why? Why did I think any new place owed me this? Yogyakarta was a city of 400,000, a center of education and fine art, what did it need with approving or accepting me? Perhaps the thrill of being somewhere new was finally abating.
Near the end of my stay, I developed a bad case of the flu. While everyone else was excitedly buying up their last souvenirs to take back home and attending good-bye parties, I made my way to a nearby ‘spa’ that advertised a health cleanse body wrap and massage. Surprisingly, I learned that a man would be performing the treatment. Even more surprisingly, he told me to remove all of my clothes. There were no sheets or towels to cover up, no little robe for modesty. Delirious and feverish, I took off my clothes.
For an hour or more I felt his hands rub in the menthol smelling clay, while my mind wandered back to the moment I got on the plane in Adelaide nearly two months prior. I was leaving behind a promising new love. But even then, when I landed in Jakarta, my heart beat faster. Like all the other times I’d arrived in a new place, everything seemed to tinge with excitement as I breathed in new air for the first time. This was the right decision; I had made it to this unlikely place. I was going to learn as much as I could. I was going to fall in love.
And truly, I had. I loved batik, the beautiful textiles so common in Yogyakarta. The tofu and tempeh were a vegetarian’s dream. And no meal was complete without tears rolling down my flushed cheeks. This was the city where I learned to truly enjoy spicy food. I also loved the attention from strangers. Indonesians regularly asked white people to pose in photos with them—in malls, markets, in front of statues. For a moment we would chat about our lives. I would invariably be asked what I thought of Yogyakarta, and every time I said that I loved it here.
I learned about wayung, shadow puppet performance, and became enamored with the creatures that make up its universe. Two of these wayung puppets were presented to me in a beautiful, completely impractical glass case as an appreciation gift from the bunch of high school students I taught. Most of them couldn’t understand English, and my creative writing lessons went through a tedious translation process. Despite this, they wrote beautifully and imaginatively, their stories and poems translated by the only student with passable English. On our last day of class we huddled together for a photo. With a swelling on my forehead and a persistent cough, I held up my heavy gift and grinned madly.
And it was in Yogyakarta that I had fallen in love with a man back in the place I finally called home, the man who would become my husband. I had spent most of my time in Yogyakarta trying to explain all of these new loves to Duncan, to carry him with me in this Islamic city where boys and girls rode on motorbikes together, streets clogged with cycle rickshaws known as bechaks, and the house where I stayed swarmed with Indonesian postgraduate students thrilled to take the Americans on another motorbike ride to a restaurant that served only mushrooms, or the best place for batik, or a local wayung performance.
Still, when it was time to leave Yogyakarta, I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t a relief. As I flew to Jakarta and then out of the country, I became free of whatever ailed me. Yet even years later, back in Australia, my husband and I still carry around our canvas ‘I Heart Yogyakarta’ bag to all our regular shops. When the handle came apart, my husband sewed it back together, loathe to throw it away. Yogyakarta was where I fell in love with Duncan, and where I was when he fell in love with me. And for that, we heart that city, even if that love is one-sided.