A Year in Indonesia on a Work and Holiday Visa

In my previous article, I described my experience of participating in the Darmasiswa Scholarship Program. Those short six months flew by and set in motion plans to return to Indonesia as soon as possible. Upon my return to Australia I met with an Indonesian language exchange partner who was here on a Work and Holiday Visa. That was quite a rare thing indeed. In fact, until then I never knew that such a program existed. He told me it was a new agreement between the Indonesian and Australian governments and that I would also be eligible to apply. I began investigating the visa program and found it to be something like the mythical unicorn of all visas. Nevertheless, I compiled my paperwork and applied in earnest. After all, I had already gone through the process of applying for Darmasiswa; how much more painful could it be?


Image provided by Jane Ahlstrand



After waiting a grueling eight weeks for an answer and almost giving up hope, I suddenly received a phone call from Sydney. I was in! That was it. What an exhilarating feeling. Perhaps the long wait and uncertainty made the final reward at the end that much sweeter. I booked my tickets and as a present to myself, I would arrive in Bali on my 30th birthday.

When I arrived at Ngurah Rai airport, nobody seemed to know what on earth that visa was in my passport. Immigration officials looked confused and suspicious. They took my passport, and I was escorted to a side room where I sat on a vinyl sofa while they deliberated. I could feel the other tourists looking at me with bemusement as they saw me ‘taken away’. In the room I waited for an hour. It was all very unpleasant and intimidating. I could feel my heart racing at times as I panicked about the ‘what ifs’.  Finally, I was handed my passport with an ITAS (Izin Tinggal Terbatas) stamp in it. After some basa-basi, finally, I was allowed to go. At last! My year in Bali had begun!

Settling into life again in Bali was far more challenging than I had imagined. The Darmasiswa program offered me some degree of structure; however as a Work and Holiday visa maker, I was on my own. In my year in Bali, I planned to complete my Honours. I enrolled as an external student via Curtin University, the only university that offered an external Honours program at the time. While I waited to start, I became overwhelmed with stress and ennui. I had to find a job. After a miscalculated decision to enroll in a beauty school, I began working at an education consultancy on the other side of town. It was a long ride made more treacherous in the wet season. I became quite exhausted and quit after my Honours course began; however, I quickly discovered that studying alone at home was extremely isolating. I went on a quest to find another job to stimulate my mind and connect with the outside world.

Every weekend, I was studying dance at my sanggar (Balinese dance school) and when I wasn’t working, I was providing English lessons to the kids. A parent of one of the students approached me one day. He said he owned a hotel in Ubud and was looking for someone to train his staff. He handed me his card with a beguiling image of a hotel and swimming pool on it. He invited me to visit and meet the staff, explore the hotel and try the food. When I arrived, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I signed up that day and so began my new “career” as a trainer.


Image courtesy of Jane Ahlstrand


The staff were wonderful, beautiful and charming. I found that most had received significant training in hospitality, but they lacked confidence and sometimes felt timid around the guests. The older staff were the hardest to train as over the years they had developed some habits that were hard to break. I saw it as my job to inspire the staff to feel more confident and relaxed around the guests and take pride in themselves and their culture. I also provided them insight into the ‘western mind’ and what a ‘typical’ guest might expect from staff. The staff often used the expression ‘guest is god’ and seemed to be under the impression that the use of formal, super-polite language was the way to handle a guest. I told them rather than stuffy formal language, it was better to be polite, friendly and relaxed to make the guests feel at ease. Gradually the staff grew in confidence and were able to engage with the guests. We received increasingly positive reviews on TripAdvisor and by the end of the year received an Award for Excellence. Every year since, the hotel has received an award from TripAdvisor.

A funny thing about Indonesia is that opportunities can seem to spring up serendipitously, opening up moments to apply your creativity and try new things. The hotel opened a spa and I helped design the spa menu, brochures and website content. I also rewrote the restaurant menu using my knowledge of the ‘trendy’ types of language restaurants in Australia like to use. For example, ayam kampung (skinny village chicken) became ‘locally sourced, free range chicken’. The hotel also sold silver jewellery and in the brochure, words like tukang became ‘artisan’. I had a lot of fun doing that. I also became the model for the marketing material as they were too scared to ask anyone else and didn’t want to pay to use a real model. In July, I was invited to perform Balinese dance in the annual Balinese Festival of the Arts. By the second half of the year, I went from being completely bored, to being extremely busy, buzzing with adrenaline as I tried to manage all of my commitments of work, study and dance.

While working and dancing my year away, I was also in the process of completing my Honours. Writing an Honours thesis in Bali wasn’t exactly ideal. Nevertheless, I managed to complete it. I returned to Australia in December 2013 with an Honours degree, experience as a hotel trainer and also a Balinese dancer. Then what? Well, upon my return, I went through a period of despair, anxiety and grief having left that wonderful life behind. Eventually, the trial was over and I was accepted into a PhD program at the University of Queensland. My relationship with Indonesia continues here in Australia and I’m looking towards the future with Indonesia and the adventures that may lie ahead.


To find out more studying postgraduate in Indonesia read Tenille Bernhard’s experience on undertaking field study in Bandung.




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Jane Ahlstrand

Jane grew up in a rural town called Toogoolawah. Always fascinated with the image of Asia, she dreamed of an exotic world beyond paddocks and dusty roads of her hometown. Jane went to Bali with her family in 1998 on her first trip overseas and was immediately spell-bound. Upon her return, Jane borrowed the unused Indonesian text books from her school library and determinedly studied the language by herself for a year. In 2000 she entered Griffith University and formally enrolled in the Indonesian program. Afterwards, Jane explored other parts of Asia and eventually found a job in the public service. Her Indonesian fantasy gradually faded into the past; however, becoming fed up with the limitations of the public service, Jane drifted back towards Indonesia. In 2011, Jane enrolled in the Darmasiswa program and began to construct a second life as a student of Balinese dance. Jane managed to reconnect with Indonesia through dance and is now doing her PhD in Indonesian studies, focusing on the role of women in Indonesia’s democratisation.

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