SYDNEY ALLEN '19:

A Pandemic in Paradise

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Sydney Allen, OC ’19 is the 2019-2021 Shansi Fellow at Gadjah Mada University. This is her second year narrative

When I envisioned my second year as a Shansi Fellow, I pictured deepening relationships with friends, spending days working in the campus canteen, and getting involved in a project or two—perhaps helping to start an English journalism club within my department or assisting with the student-led play. During my first year in Jogja, I tried my best to acclimate and build a community. I was militantly social—spending nearly every meal with new people in coffee shops and restaurants and seizing every opportunity for adventure. I went to cooking and dance classes—despite a lack of natural propensity for both—went to karaoke bars, attended parties where I didn’t know anyone and went on various hiking and rock-climbing trips, all in an effort to meet new people. I desperately wanted to make a community for myself in Jogja. I largely succeeded. By January 2020, I had an amazing group of friends both in Universitas Gadjah Mada and outside of it. I had found my groove in Jogja and learned the lay of the city and had gotten promising feedback on my first semester classes. I was loving life and felt like I was thriving.

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Needless to say, the pandemic put a bit of a damper on my plans. In a scary, tumultuous two weeks in March most Shansi Fellows were evacuated from their host countries, a majority of my friends in Jogja returned to either their home countries or their parents’ villages, and our university disbanded in-person classes for the semester. It was horrifying and everything was uncertain. This was the period when there was not much information about the virus so we thought even a trip to the store might kill us. 

However, I decided that I would rather wait out the pandemic in Indonesia and thankfully the Shansi office was willing to accommodate my wishes. I spent most of the pandemic holed up in my apartment in Jogja doom-scrolling through the news, ordering Grab food to my apartment, and trying to come to terms with this bizarre new reality. 

While I had the same pandemic related anxieties and fears as everyone else, it was equally hard feeling like all of my work during my first Shansi year was for naught. All of my lesson plans had to be drastically changed, the University events and conferences we had been planning were cancelled, the semester was shortened, and my network of friends had scattered across the globe, seemingly overnight.  It was a whirlwind, made more intense because my new co-fellow Kara was unable to enter Indonesia. My biggest source of anxiety and regret was that my precious time as a Shansi Fellow was slipping away. This once in a lifetime opportunity was passing me by because of a microscopic virus that forced society to a halt and kept me inside my apartment. I had to come to terms with that disappointment and sought to make the most out of the discouraging circumstances. 

After a few months, when it became clear that life was not going to go back to “normal” anytime soon, I started rebuilding a life within the framework of the pandemic. I became part of a small “pod” and we went on a few short trips near Jogja. I dabbled in a number of new hobbies—knitting, cooking, and keeping a journal to name a few. I started appreciating nature in my neighborhood like never before—going on long walks through the rice paddies and escaping to the waterfalls in the nearby hills of Kolonprogo.

A photo of Merapi volcano taken at sunrise from mount Merbabu.

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A photo from a hike in Kolonprogo with some of my pod-mates.

In October, I temporarily relocated to Bali to teach remotely from the island. I took long walks on the beach, went snorkeling and scuba diving, and learned to surf. It was a haven and a much-needed treat after over six months of pandemic stress. One of the most iconic tourist destinations in the world was essentially empty because of the pandemic and I did my best to take advantage of the calm. While in Bali, I reconnected with some friends who lived on the island and formed a small group that I was able to social distance with. It was at times disheartening to see how the lack of tourism affected the local economy and frustrating to see some foreigners and expats shirk pandemic regulations. But overall, it was invigorating to feel like I was once again making the most of my limited time as a Shansi Fellow.  

Now I’m back in Jogja and am entering my final semester at UGM. While my heart aches that this year has been so altered, would I have rather spent the last year living in the U.S. while it was ravaged by a pandemic? Without question, no. This year has shown me the truly tenuous nature of plans and forced me to reevaluate how I approach my goals for this program. If there is one lesson I’ve learned this year, it’s how to be more flexible and roll with the punches. So regardless of what this year brings, I’m planning to make the most of my time in Indonesia and savor the last few months I have here. Thanks for reading!

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Amed, Bali, where I spent a few weeks snorkeling and scuba diving.