Having just landed in Denpasar, Bali, some hours earlier, here I was travelling within Indonesia via a much smaller aircraft, about to land in Yogyakarta, Java, an island next door.
I was extremely blessed to have just returned from Prague in the Czech Republic only 5 months prior to this trip.
The combination of countries, as well as the contrast in my purpose for being there, the actual destinations, the culture and people, unbeknownst to me, was indeed my initiation into becoming a global citizen.
I had travelled around Europe in my 20’s, but in a completely dissimilar capacity – as a tourist, on a 48 day Contiki tour in fact. You may not have even considered that there are many differing ways to experience a country. The difference in how we travel is relative to the variance in what we learn from each experience, and in fact, to what degree we are personally affected thereafter.
The purpose of this trip to Yogyakarta was an inter-cultural opportunity provided by the University of South Australia, as at that time I was a (mature aged) student – proudly I am now an alumna.
I was undertaking undergraduate studies in both journalism and international relations and this was a unique offering, a cultural study tour, aimed at enhancing our global experience in a much deeper way – indeed by immersion.
The war in Syria had begun in 2011, in fact the same year that I commenced my university journey. The western media had done a fine job of creating fear, particularly towards people of the Islamic faith.
So here I was in Java, about to study at the University of Islam (UII) for two weeks, and I have to be truthful and say that even though I had begun my higher educational studies and was definitely thinking critically about most topics, I did have some (unrealistic) fear around this.
Thankfully however, I can follow that statement up with a knowing that my concerns and the reality, were poles apart. My time with the Muslim students and staff at UII was one of the most memorable in my life (for all of the right reasons).
I have never felt so welcomed and looked after in any other country, before or since. The Javanese people that I met, many of whom I am still friends with to this day, were beyond accommodating, kind, respectful, humbling in fact – especially as we were there during Ramadan, one of their most sacred times of the year.
Over Ramadan, Islamic people fast from sunrise to sunset and break their fast together in the evening, usually communally. I recall the remarkable experience of breaking my first fast with our new Indonesian friends. We arrived in a particularly busy area in Yogyakarta and as we exited the cars and walked towards a main street, all I could see was coloured woven mats lining the ground with families and groups of friends seated on them, as well as mobile food carts as far as the eye could see, selling an array of traditional meals and beverages.
Whilst fasting, the UII students not only hosted us, but escorted us on excursions, not even partaking in sips of water, whist we were guzzling many bottles just to stay hydrated in the extremely hot and humid weather. We were climbing the temple of Borobudur, exploring the town, riding jeeps up Mt Merapi – their famous volcano, and yet no one complained. Not only were there no complaints at the strenuous exercise required or lack of sustenance, but they – as hosts – graciously provided us lunch each day, as well as a remarkable evening banquet one evening.
If anything I felt guilt that they were hosting us over this period and I recall voicing this opinion to our trip coordinator at the time.
I will be forever grateful for this immersive experience with the people of UII Yogyakarta as it shaped my reality on Islam, Muslims and indeed the opposite, fanatical extremists that shame the name of Islam.
We got to wander the streets in the evenings, but had to be wary of dodgy people flying past on motorbikes – because that is a reality there as in many other countries, thieves on bikes exist, ready to grab your bag as they pass.
Digressing, I have a truly riveting story about how I came to be without my handbag in Argentina, a story in its own right, so that will have to wait for another day!
We also got to experience the delights of local food stalls, warungs, and learnt to go where there was a line-up of locals or where our friends had recommended, in order to not get sick.
Another reality of international travel, not all street vendors’ hygiene standards are equal. This does not mean avoid them at all costs, universally, because some of the most amazing food in the world is found at such make-shift or hidden away points of sale. It simply means be wary, ask for advice from locals and use your head. If you see something that indicates the food may have a higher risk of contamination, go elsewhere.
“The difference in how we travel is relative to the variance in what we learn from each experience, and in fact, to what degree we are personally affected thereafter.”Donna Douvartzidis
All of your senses are alive when travelling immersively, as you are not simply trying to locate the next tourist hotspot on your list, but you are embracing the scents of the local flowers, the smell of moisture in the air, indeed the spices – the flavours enticing your taste buds as they waft past your nose.
You see all of the incredible colours surrounding you, but also the detail in the woven rug on the wall. You are then curious about how it is made, the process, who made it, what materials were used and were they ethically or sustainably sourced? How did they learn such a craft, could you learn?
Your awareness of the – who, what, when, where and why – much like in journalism – is activated.
Talking of reporting and the 5 w’s, I mentioned my trip to Prague as my contrasting experience to this Indonesian adventure, and indeed it was. I was there on a completely different mission – one involving researching human trafficking of women, as part of an international workshop on foreign correspondence.
Imagine, I am now in a cab with a Czech speaking driver, moving along historic cobblestone streets with a view of the Vltava River from my backseat window.
I am yet to learn about the medicinal spirit, Becherovka, and the hearty soups and stews served with heavy bread like dumplings, that are staple in the Czech diet, and necessary in the below zero temperatures.
I was soon immersing myself in the world of local media – radio and print, and local governmental organisations. The International Organization for Migration being one, where I conducted interviews, and local NGO’s such as La Strada, the incredible service that amidst lobbying against human trafficking and advocating for human rights, also reintegrates trafficked women into a safe living environment, locally or abroad.
This is a very different type of immersion, but indeed very relevant as this is a local as well as global social issue, Prague being a triple threat city – source, destination and transit for human trafficking.
These examples are just a taste of what immersive travel will offer you, but the real change is what happens within you – your change of opinions, or sometimes confirmation of fact, your access to differing points of view or realities that rock stereotypes. You get a feel for a country by tasting it, smelling it, hearing it and seeing it with a reality lens, as opposed to one you may have created due to others opinions, views, or experiences that are not your own.
Immersion means you connect with the locals in a much more meaningful way. You begin to understand in more depth about their daily lives, their country’s history and cultural and societal norms.
Immersive travel will leave you spellbound and my offering to you, The Ethical Road, can lead you to some of these life-changing experiences … if you are looking for a new way to travel, and in fact a new way to look at life.
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The Ethical Road
Donna grew up in the beautiful Barossa Valley, so will always be a country girl at heart. This is where her love of storytelling & detail, as well as strong sense of community & justice began. Her life experiences have taken her from working after school in a hairdressing salon, to attending the UN Commission for the Status of Women in New York as a Member of Business & Professional Women Australia.
Donna graduated from the University of South Australia in 2016, first in family, with undergraduate degrees in journalism & international relations. Her university journey took her all over the world – from cultural immersion at the University of Islam, Indonesia, to a foreign correspondent course in Prague in the Czech Republic.
She has now culminated all of her experiences and passion into creating The Ethical Road, immersive international travel for women.