All that remains is this – a bag of ukel, figure-eight shaped pastries from Kotagede, an old neighborhood in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta. Ukel is sweet and crunchy, and I like to have it in the mornings with coffee. A month ago, I was eating it every morning. On a gap year before college, I had been living in Kotagede with a homestay family for six months, sharing meals, a bathroom and tons of time together. I had happily fallen into a rhythm with them. My bed in their home no longer felt strange and uncomfortable. It was my bed. It was home.
In late March, I was sent back to the United States due to COVID-19.
My homestay mother was very upset – not just that I was leaving, but that I was leaving so soon. That I hadn’t had time to see everything in Yogyakarta that I needed to see. Most of all, she was concerned that I wouldn’t have enough time to get souvenirs to bring back to my family and friends in the United States. The morning of my flight out, she brought me a huge bag of Indonesian snacks and goodies for back home. On top of the bag were the two parcels of ukel – my favorite food and something that I couldn’t wait to share with my friends and family back home.
The first bag, she told me, was for myself and my family. The second bag was for my friends, people that didn’t live in my house. As I was packing my bag to leave, my homestay mother was sternly giving me instructions – the ukel was fresh, so I was to eat it with my family as soon as I got home, and to pass it out to my friends in the next few days. Ukel only has a shelf life of two or three days once it’s opened, and maybe a week or two at most in a bag like this. You can’t get it anywhere except Yogyakarta.
By the time I landed in Richmond, my hometown, the world had changed. My parents were afraid to hug me at the airport for fear that I had brought the virus with me. The morning after I landed, my family and I ate the first bag of ukel, but the second is still there, on top of my desk. I haven’t been able to see any of my friends yet to pass it out because no one is leaving their homes. I’m too afraid to open the bag myself, to taste how stale Yogyakarta has become. I’m grateful that I’m healthy and had the means to get home, and I’m lucky that both of my parents have kept their jobs, and that I’m not stuck in Indonesia because of closed borders, but my mind keeps wandering back to this bag of old, hard memories on my desk, fading by the day, practically already gone.