First World Problems Volunteering in Indonesia

Volunteering in Yogyakarta in Indonesia


Photo by Trey Ratcliff


This now everyday and overused saying never had so much significance until I went to Yogyakarta, Indonesia on a university summer program called DREaM (an abbreviation of Disaster, Research, Community Empowerment, and Microeconomics). The topic was ‘alternative education’ and alongside other students from over 30 different countries (all from Asia except for a handful of Australian and Dutch students) we went to the local university Universitas Gadja Madah, the oldest and largest state university in Indonesia, to sit in on lectures about different ways of learning before devised our own projects to apply in rural alternative education schools. We also had the opportunity to go on a number of cultural excursions to the amazing Borobudur and Prambanan temples before ending the internship by staying with a local family in their rural village for four days. The experience was one of the most memorable I have had so far while travelling.

Borobodur Temple Indonesia
Exploring the wonder of Borobudur Temple


Rural living meant no running water, let alone water safe to drink; no flushing toilet or seat to even sit on; no air conditioning or stove; no beds to sleep on; and limited food available. Oh and that’s not to mention the risk of getting some seriously funky stomach issues from some of the factors above…

So what goes through the mind of someone that has been used to these privileges once they venture out of their industrialised country with all its comforts?

Perhaps this question can best be answered by looking at how our attitudes changed over the course of the trip. Before living with the family for the ‘community service’ block of the internship, my partner in crime and I had already experienced what we started to call “third world problems” as we started the adventure in Indonesia with a short stay in Kuta, Bali, as you do. As self-professed fully fledged tourists, we stayed in a cheap hostel for three nights and every day would shower with cold water while cursing the sign installed that said: “Hot water restrictions may exist due to our water supply using solar energy.”

Our response?

“No hot water… third world problem!”

Little did we know however, until a few days later that the problem actually wasn’t with the country or the environmentally friendly hostel and it’s “hot water restrictions” but actually our ignorance for not turning the tap the opposite way. A stroke of genius must have hit us on our final day when we decided to turn the tap to the left. Shocked, we jumped back as a blast of scorching hot water came out, trying our best to avoid the precious warm water that was now of no use to us, given the state of our sunburnt skin.

From then on, we started to notice something interesting and amusing during our trip. We had gone  from only ever saying ‘first world problems’ to ‘third world problems’, and sometimes a mix of the two. We took the piss out of ourselves wholeheartedly as we realised the irony of our situation and of the original saying that despite being self-indulgent attempts to be socially aware*.

Here are some of our best:

“I couldn’t finish watching the movie when my plane landed at my holiday destination”

“The catered food is always cold!”

“The two family meal deals delivered from McDonalds only has one big mac, no fries and too many servings of rice”

“I am so tired of eating… all this rice for every meal”

“Help, I don’t know whether to Instagram my village photo before uploading it to Facebook”

“I can’t turn my alarm off because it is the roosters crowing at 6am”

“I have to sleep on the floor and the cushions outside are for some reason super glued to the chairs” (not only annoying but seriously that is just illogical)

“So I have to do my business in a hole then flush it with a bucket of water from the well… where the hell then do I put the used toilet paper?”

But all jokes aside, when I came home from this trip to Bali and Yogyakarta, my idea of Indonesia had definitely changed. While I had a fun time in Bali as a tourist, it was in Yogyakarta that I truly got to see the real Indonesia, a kind and happy nation of generous people, a perception that is sometimes hard to fathom with all the scare mongering done of the country by the media and with Australia shows that only paint one perspective such as “What really happens in Bali”.

Living in a rural village for four nights with a family that spoke NO English is still one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. A group of 8 of us from countries such as Japan, Burma and Malaysia, slept in sleeping bags on the concrete floor in a room connected to the side of the house. We communicated as best we could and attempted to adjust to the first call for prayer at daybreak from the loudspeakers of the mosques.

Yes, there were no running water or bathroom facilities as we know them. Yes, the shower was a bucket that was also what we used to “flush” the toilet using that same water. Yes, dinner every night was rice with vegetables, always chilli and sometimes chicken. Yes, we had seen that same chicken walking around the house earlier.

However, the family was so generous and never asked us for anything in return despite spending all day cooking and letting us invade their home and their lives. On our final day before we returned to our most comfortable beds back at the hotel in central Yogyakarta, there was not a dry eye to be seen – visitors and the family alike – as we all knew it was a once in a lifetime exchange of culture and hospitality.

*Source: Why we have to stop saying #firstworldproblems

For more info on DREaM and how you can take part, follow the official UGM DREaM Facebook page or visit the official website.

Excursion to Borobudur Temple
Working on a rural farm


Face painting at a rural alternative school
Activities at the rural school
Experiencing a day in the life of school students in rural Yogyakarta
Our group who slept on the floor together in the room behind us
Helping out in the kitchen for dinner with our host family

Author: Tara Clifford

I am a twenty-something year-old lover of all the good things in life. A dream chaser, I love to travel and have new adventures. My favourite hobby is speaking Spanish and my quest to visit every country in the world is up to 35 and counting... A graduate of Journalism/International Studies, I want to tell stories about people and places.

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