Transformation on the Island of Java


One of Jakarta's Main Business Districts
One of Jakarta's Main Business Districts

Travel transforms us all the time by rejuvenating us from too much work, exposing us to attitudes and opinions different from our own, stimulating us to dream about how much more we can do to make our lives better, helping us get out of a depressing rut, and even finding a place where we feel that we belong – a place that we can call home.

One life-changing experience that showed me the transformative power of travel happened on the island of Java, where I arrived in 1982 for a 3-month work assignment. Because of the transformation that took place in me, I am still living on this crowded volcanic island 30 years later and have found my real home.

What was it about this island that kept me here? You may have heard some statistics about Java that make it sound uninviting. For example –

  • 2070 people per square mile – the most densely populated island in the world
  • approximately 130 million people
  • approximately 60% of Indonesia’s population on about 7% of the land space
  • 121 active volcanoes


That sounds like enough to scare off most people. Yet, like many others whose original idea was to have a short visit here on Java, I stayed and have no plans to return permanently to the United States. I’d say 30 years here qualifies me to say that Java is my home.

My story is actually not so unusual. Sometimes the home we are born into is not the place where we actually feel at home. When that is the case, some of us just live out our lives without ever looking for and finding a place to feel more comfortable – a place to really call home.

But some of us take off and look all over the globe until we find that special place that feels like home.  In fact, until we get out and start traveling, many of us feel like misfits – misunderstood by the very family and friends that should know us best. I felt like that all my life until I began to  travel seriously.

I remember very clearly the first time I ever called a place ‘home.’ It is still a vivid memory because it was the most unfamiliar feeling that I’d ever had at that time.

Roaming Food Vendors
Roaming Food Vendors

I had been living in Jakarta and teaching English for a few years, but had just been ‘home’ to the U.S. to visit friends and family. I had returned to Jakarta, and my long flights had brought me to the airport outside of the city. I had gotten a taxi for the long ride into the city, plopped myself down, and thought how great it was to be home.

As soon as I had that thought, I literally jolted, almost falling out of my seat. It was in that moment that I realized that I thought of Java as my home – the first time in my life that I had ever felt ‘at home’ anywhere in the world.

And what a glorious feeling it was. Even though I was on this crowded island living in a city which most expats find unappealing or worse, I was finally at home in the truest sense.

It was a real awakening for me. I wanted to understand why in my early 40’s, I had finally found the kind of peace that comes with having a place that I felt comfortable calling home. So I began to think about why traveling to Java had allowed me to feel this kind of comfort.

Here’s something that author Michael Crichton said – something that resonated so well with me:

“Often I feel I need to go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am.  There is no mystery about why this should be so.  Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes – with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience.  Such direct experience inevitably makes you aware of who it is that is having the experience.  That’s not always comfortable, but it is always invigorating.”

As he said, it was only by being in an environment where I did not blend in that my actions and attitudes stood out and sometimes looked strange – even to me. Once they were no longer hidden in plain sight among all the similar behaviors of family and friends, I gained the perspective to evaluate whether  my routine behavior, attitudes, and opinions came from a place inside myself that I liked or whether they were simply the result of my previous programming.

Typical Traffic Jakarta
Typical Traffic Jakarta

In other words, I no longer accepted my behavior as just the way I was supposed to act. I no longer had to be someone that I wasn’t comfortable being. That meant that I could keep what I liked and get rid of what I didn’t. I could reshape myself according to the person I felt I really was inside or even according to the person I preferred being.

So when I say that it was a real awakening for me, I genuinely mean it. I began to experience a freedom that I had never felt before. I understood that people in my new environment did not have the same expectations as those from my old life, so I could really do what suited me without worrying about the reactions of family and friends. What freedom!

Lotus flower

So to me, Java is what home should be – a place where I felt comfortable in acting according to what was right for me. Would this have happened for me somewhere else? Probably. I’ll never know because there was no need to look further. Java is my home.

About the Author:  Kate is a seasoned traveler and tour director who has lived on the island of Java for the past 30 years. Java became her home when she took a 3-month work assignment to train Indonesians on word processing equipment in Jakarta, and she fell in love with the adventurous lifestyle that she found there. Although she continues working as a tour director in many countries of the world, she now spends most of her time writing in her home/office in Yogyakarta, Central Java, which she shares with her three Dalmatians. You can visit her blog KateBenzin or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.


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9 responses to “Transformation on the Island of Java

  1. I loved this post! How wonderful that you were led to your home and new life in Java through your travels. It looks like a beautiful place to live. I really hope you write more posts about you travels!

  2. Thanks, Kate, for making Java your home. I am a native Indonesian and really appreciate what you wrote here.

  3. This article made me want to leave my desk and travel – right now. I have never been to Indonesia, or Java, but will visit soon. My daughter will get married in Bali early in 2013 so that will be my first opportunity to experience some of what Kate writes about so vividly.

    As someone who was born in South Africa, moved with my family to New Zealand, where I became a Kiwi citizen and who now lives in Sydney, Australia, I understand fully what Kate means by ‘home”.

    As the saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.”

    Thanks for opening our eyes to a new land for many of us, but to you, your home.


  4. Your post really resonated for me. it is so strange that you can visit a place for the first time and feel it is where you belong. I always feel at home when I visit Scotland, I got similar feelings on a trip to Iceland. Both have a similar landscape and climate, but I think it is more than just physical. I’ll stop now before I start getting esoteric and appearing weird.

    java is now on my list of places to visit

  5. Thank you, Kate. Such a great pleasure to read your sincere words about your life and your own experience. What a pleasure to feel free and to be free in your essential decisions! Your post is just a reason to think over many things …

  6. I really enjoyed Kate Benzin’s post on how she came to Java in Indonesia, and what has made her stay there for the last 30 years….she writes in a very evocative and often moving way – I especially liked her dawning realization when she moved from considering Jakarta a temporary place to live and work to feeling like “home”. Also her Michael Crichton quote on home and travel was very apt – nice of her to give credit.

    I think for anyone who travels can identify both with the love of travelling and exploring new people, places, and cultures and the wonderful feeling when you return “home” wherever that is. Having a warm and welcoming place to return to reminds me of a quote by someone I forget but remember the sense of the quote – “Family means that when you go there in need, they have to take you in”…

  7. Genuinely expressed and descriptive account of a life’s transformation enhanced with effective photos. Wonderful!

    More, please…

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