Wednesday, May 25, 2011

9 Lessons

As a teacher in Indonesia I prepared many lessons for my students; but, I have also learned a few lessons of my own. Here I have made a list of the top 9 lessons I have learned in as many months.

9. Rely on the kindness of strangers- this lesson from Scarlett O'Hara could not have been any more relevant when living and traveling in a country where your circle of close friends and acquaintances can be counted on one hand and your command of the language is basic due to sheer laziness. There have been numerous times when I have had to rely on strangers using only my basic bahasa and crude sign language to communicate. On the reverse side of this I have also gained a healthy distrust of people and have learned to keep a wary eye on anyone who offers their "help".

8. People are a reflection- One of my Ibus once told me that Indonesian people are like mirrors. Not only could my students tell when I was tired or in a bad mood but they responded differently as a result- not as willing to participate, not as focused on my lessons. Ibus and Bapaks that I met on the street were the same- they would often leer at me with a look of distrust until I smiled at them at which time they reflected my smile back at me. I've never known my mood and outward appearance to have such an effect on people.

7. Appreciate your food- in a country where everything and anything is eaten (dog, bat, rat, chicken feet...and all of the other parts of the chicken), and your food is often looking at you, I have come to appreciate all that I eat. Not only have I begun to eat meat with bones in it (gasp!); but I have learned to eat entire fish with my hands...although I was never brave enough to eat the head.

6. Friends are a lifeline- Never in my life have my friendships been so important. The friends that I made here in Indonesia were essential in sometimes just making it through the day and my friends at home have kept me anticipating my return. I cannot wait to be reunited with all of you!

5. Family is irreplaceable- No one can choose their family- but I like to think that I made out extremely well. A Mom who sent cards almost weekly, a Dad who kept a daily journal for me so I wouldn't feel out of the loop, and siblings who sent me care packages and accepted my calls at all hours. My family is a large part of my success and I realize now what a gret support system I have.

4. Don't sweat the small stuff- In Indonesia there was  so much "small stuff" (lack of electricity or water for hours/days, choking traffic, language barriers, sometimes sheer incompetence) that if I let it all get to me I would have been running a long time ago. Indonesia has taught me that I have control over very little; a revelation to a girl who likes to be in control of everything. I have learned to take deep breaths, let it go, and relax... usually while laughing at the ridiculousness of it all.

3. Adapt to your surroundings- The girl who used to cringe at the thought of a motel is now sleeping in hostels and guest houses that don't even fall on the star rating system- riding on the backs of broken down motorcycles- eating from street stalls that the health department would shut down in the blink of an eye. I can't say that I'm more tolerant or appreciative of different cultures and religions; but, I have definitely learned to adapt myself to them.

2. It's ok to be alone- Learning to be alone has been a large part of my experience living abroad. When you only work 20 hours a week and your friends and family don't live nearby; you have plenty of time alone. Coming from a large family this is not something I was ever very good at; but, I have learned to savor my alone time with good books, pirated DVD's, and music(essential to provide background noise when the house is too quiet).

1. Patience- I thought that I was a patient person before coming to Indonesia, but living in this country has tested and perfected that patience. Patience was essential when my students sometimes looked at me blankly during lessons; when I had to repeat my bahasa Indonesia incessantly because my accent wasn't correct and the person couldn't understand what I was saying even though I was sure I had the right word; when a meeting, class, flight, seminar, dinner would start an hour or more late because of jam karet (rubber time); anytime I had to tell my Ibus "no" over and over and over; when ceremonies lasted much longer than necessary in the hot sun in a language that I didn't understand; when I was asked to sing in public for the hundredth time; when fending off strange men who thought it was ok to ask where I lived and if I was alone; when I was being yelled at, beeped at, and sometimes followed on my daily jogs around the city; when forced to wear uncomfortable traditional clothing. Patience.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Preserving Tradition

The culture of Indonesia is as vast and diverse as the archipelago itself. Each specific region has it's own traditions when it comes to food, dance, dress, language, and ceremonies. The Indonesian people are very proud of their culture- traditional dance and songs are incorporated into most events, traditional clothes are worn every Friday in my school, traditional food pervades every aspect of life here, most people speak several languages (bahasa Indonesia plus their hometown dialect) and the majority of weddings and other ceremonies follow the traditional customs. The traditional culture of Pekanbaru is Melayu; however, this is highly influenced by the traditions of the Minang people of West Sumatra. To try and describe the intricacies of such a culture would be doing a disservice to the people and their traditions- so hopefully photos and videos will give you a better understanding.
              This video shows a traditional Malayu dance performed by my students. Click on this link to view it

Examples of traditional Malayu clothing- obviously not adapted to tropical weather.
Brian and I both hate Melayu Fridays for obvious reasons...
Traditional Padang food is from West Sumatra. At Padang restaurants all the food is prepared in the morning and then  is kept in bowls behind glass all day. They bring out a small dish of everything they have- usually an assortment of meat, fish and vegetables curried, grilled, and fried along with a big bowl of rice and you pay for what you eat. As is customary you wash your right hand in a small bowl of water on the table and eat with your hands. 
When you order food dibungkus (to go) it is usually packaged in wax paper or some kind of banana leaf and newspaper. Gado-gado (above) is my favorite Indonesian dish- steamed green beans, cabbage and bean sprouts, lettuce, tofu, and lontong (rice that has been boiled for several hours in a banana leaf so it is condensed) covered in a spicy peanut sauce. On top are crupuk or Indonesian chips- flour disks that are fried until crunchy and provide texture to almost any dish. Pretty much flavorless, they come in an assortment of colors.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Word on W.O.R.D.S

About three years ago a group of ETA's decided that it would be a good idea to hold an English competition for their students and thus the W.O.R.D.S competition was born. In the intervening years the meaning of the title has been lost; but, what remains is a creative writing and performing arts competition focused on spoken English and creativity in relation to a theme. Each ETA held a school competition in March to decide which student would compete in the national competition which was held this past weekend in Jakarta. This year the competition centered on the theme of "What is My Generation's Vision for Indonesia?," and while the answers to this question were sometimes similar in nature the modes of performance were diverse. All of the performances were extraordinary examples of the immense talent and dedication that many of our students possess which made the six plus hours of performances enjoyable for all of us.

Lala, an eleventh-grade student, was chosen from SMK 1 for her talent in traditional story telling. Her vision for the future of Indonesia is to preserve the rich culture of this country, and she enacted a traditional story as an example of one way to do this.  Lala is a sweet girl, small for her age and sometimes quiet; but, her confidence on stage and her abilities in acting and story telling impressed everyone. I played the role of Mom; feeling nervous while we were waiting for her turn to perform and beaming proudly while snapping pictures during her performance. Four winners were chosen from the 43 participants; Eric's student was chosen for best use of the theme, Brian's student was chosen for most creative, Mary's student was chosen for best use of English, and the final category was for best overall. When they called Lala's name we were both shocked and ever the proud Mom I immediately began crying and continued to cry through most of her acceptance and the photo shoot that followed.

Coming from an extremely poor family, I can only imagine the struggles that Lala has had to overcome in order to be where she is today. I could not have chosen a more deserving candidate, not only does she have an immense talent but she also has an immense need and the scholarship that she will receive as a result of winning the competition will lift a great burden from her family. She is resilient and determined, and the pride and happiness I feel for her can only be compared to that of a Mother and her child. Our triumphant return was greeted with celebration and I received many thanks and congratulations, but the real credit goes to Lala. So, congratulations Lala, you are truly talented and I wish you all the best.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Dishing on Durian

You can smell it for miles. There are signs on hotels that forbid it on the premises. Most cities in Indonesia have a street named after it. It is one of the things I am asked if I like whenever I say I love Indonesian food. It is obviously famous in Indonesia, and it is the weirdest fruit I have ever seen- durian.

The off-white stuff on the bottom right is what you eat.
 In the Indonesia language duri means thorn which is a perfectly fitting name for a fruit about the size of a football that is covered in thick, yellow-green spikes. Durian looks more like a medieval torture device than a fruit- and believe me, if put in a bind it would make a great weapon (the spikes are actually quite sharp).  The smell of durian is very distinct- not distinct in a pleasant- honey-suckle- way, but distinct in an o god- what is that smell-way. Long story short you can smell it long before you lay eyes on it- hence the aversion of hotels to have it on the premises. The smell alone was always reason enough for me to politely avoid tasting this Indonesian specialty; however, with my time here dwindling I decided it wouldn't kill me to try it just once. So, when a few of my students asked if I would like to eat durian with them I hesitantly agreed.

Indonesian culture is a culture of ghosts and superstitions and eating durian is laden with unfounded beliefs. Before we could eat durian we had to have dinner, and it had to be rice because if you don't have rice before eating durian you could die. While stuffing ourselves with nasi (rice) the girls filled me in on some other durian superstitions- eating durian will make you feel hot, but if you drink water out of the durian husk the heat will dissipate- if you eat too much durian you can get sick or feel drunk-if you eat durian followed by mangosteen (another local fruit) you could get cancer or die (they cited several cases to prove their point). I was reminded several times to be careful since this was my first time- like someone who has never had alcohol before on their twenty-first birthday.

The durian hawkers attending the stand we stopped at chose a few good ones for us and hacked them open with a machete before plopping them on our table. I hesitantly pried one of the mushy, white pieces of fruit from the outer husk and took a bite. The only way I can describe the taste is to say that it tastes like it smells- a little sweet at first and then...I can't describe it. The texture is somewhere between mashed potatoes and warm pudding- not smooth or juicy or in anyway delicious like fruit is supposed to be. After eating several pieces and starting to feel very hot (the power of suggestion?) I began to wonder about durian's appeal. In this hot climate it is in no way refreshing, and it doesn't even taste good- yet, Indonesians love the stuff. I pondered this later that evening while gulping water and chomping tums to try and rid myself of the cottonmouth and indigestion that I was left with. Eating durian was like an Indonesian rite of passage, and I guess I succeeded since I didn't die in the process.

After my success the durian hawkers wanted a photo...

Friday, April 29, 2011

Tackling the Togeans

Whoever said "getting there is half the fun" must have made the journey to the Togean islands. Three days of travel were required for me to reach the islands- including three flights (beginning from my site in Sumatra), a very nauseating 6-hour ride in a van, a 4-hour ferry, and finally a private speed boat to our resort. What awaited us was well worth the effort; rugged wilderness, deserted white sand beaches, turquoise waters fading into royal blue, diverse coral reefs, sunsets that looked as though they had been painted, and night skies glittering with stars. We read to our heart's content in seaside hammocks, snorkeled in coves around the island, explored the wilds of the jungle (although "got our butts kicked by the jungle" might be more appropriate), and went to sleep at night to the sound of the waves crashing quite literally outside of our open french doors. While all of this would be enough to make the mouth water of even the most cosmopolitan island-hopper, it was made even more perfect by the company. As our last vacation together in Indonesia I couldn't have asked for more. The friends I have made this year are truly amazing and without them this experience would not have been the same. To the Togeans, and to my friends, without whom this would have been possible...but much less enjoyable.

Since my words can only begin to describe the beauty of the Togean Islands, check out the pictures from my trip.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Six weeks. The realization of this short amount of time is starting to weigh on me, much like my luggage will after I have packed what is left of my life in Indonesia in order to return to the states. The doubts that accompany that realization are also starting to weigh on me. As I listened to some of my students struggle through their verbal mid term exam, questions began filling my head. What could I have done better? How could I have helped them to learn more? O God...have they learned anything!?! It's evident from their willingness to please and their apparent happiness that they enjoy my classes- but have they actually improved their English? Sure, this year has helped me to lengthen my resumes-my professional resume with all of the spare time I have had to volunteer, guest lecture, and speak at various events, not to mention that I get to add "Fulbright Recipient" under scholarships and awards- and my travel resume with all of the time I have spent on vacation- but, have my personal gains contributed to my student's understanding of English?

A few weeks ago I held an English competition at my school- the WORDS competition was started by past ETA's to showcase their student's talents and promote English- and fifteen of my students were brave enough to come out and compete. For most of them it was their first competition and as such their performances were a little rough; but, they still left me beaming like a soccer Mom at her kid's first game. Several of the students who signed up to participate did not come to compete, and a little curious, I asked one of the students what had happened. "There was no information Miss" was the reply I was given. The sinking feeling in my stomach accompanied the realization that I had forgotten two of my students. I distinctly remembered telling this student when and where the competition would be held; but, had she misunderstood me? Obviously. In my obsessive planning of the event I had made the ultimate mistake- I had forgotten my kid's first soccer game, I hadn't even given them a shot at victory. My profound apologies were met with a sweet "it's okay Miss," but I still felt like a horrible teacher.

All I can hope is that after I'm gone my mistakes will be forgotten and I will be immortalized as the beautiful, sometimes crazy teacher from America. I must realize that I am not going to change the world, but that maybe... just maybe I will impact some of my students positively. I must learn to forgive myself and leave the extra baggage of guilt and doubt behind- my luggage will inevitably be heavy enough as it is.

All of the participants minus the winner of the competition, along with Ibu Hadijah and Pak John.

Participants and judges- Lala, the winner (in all white-center), performed traditional story telling.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


[ahr-kuh-pel-uh-goh–noun: a large group or chain of islands: the Malay Archipelago. Indonesia is made up of more than 17,500 islands. 17,500 seems like an impossibly large number- maybe not in terms of the number of times I've heard "hey mister!" while in Indonesia; but, when speaking in terms of land masses, it seems infeasible. On my most recent vacation I witnessed the feasibility of that large number during a ten day tour through Lombok, Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Trawangan, and a plethora of nameless islands in between.Our trip began in Lombok, Bali's less exploited but far more beautiful neighbor. After a much-too-short reunion with some of my favorite ETA's who had been on vacation the previous week, we booked a 5-day boat trip to hunt the infamous Komodo dragon. Our boat, about the size of the S.S. Minnow, was a United Nations of sorts with people from Mexico, New Zealand, the Netherlands, England,  and Sweden among others. Accommodations aboard our luxury liner included a small (6X5) cabin with bunk beds, four shared bathrooms with showers, an indoor dining area, plenty of deck space, three meals a day, snacks, and beer- unfortunately the captain's gala and on board theater were not included. 
The main attractions of this trip were the islands of Komodo and Rinca-and with nothing but a guide wielding a forked stick for protection, we braved the possibility of fatal Komodo bites for a glimpse at these rare dinosaurs. About ten minutes into our trek on Komodo we were stopped in our tracks by a large male sunning in the path. I had seen Komodos on the Discovery channel but that was no preparation for the massive size of this lizard. After time for photos, the guide used his stick to nudge the Komodo out of the way- he retaliated by angrily swinging his powerful tail as he lumbered into the brush. We saw three more dragons that day, two sunning on rocks and one walking along the beach. After stopping in Flores we continued to the island of Rinca, which is also home to Komodos. Unfortunately it was overcast, so while this island looked like a scene from Jurassic Park, the only dinosaurs we saw were those hanging out around the ranger's station lured by the smell of the kitchen. As scavengers Komodos have an innate sense of smell- women on their period are warned against visiting these islands. 
Our five days on the boat were punctuated by snorkeling in the coral reefs, visiting a red sand beach, stopping to explore uninhabited islands, jumping off the boat into clear blue water, and visiting a small village with a turquoise waterfall and rope swing. I swam with graceful turtles, countless fish I can't even name, and even a 4 foot black tip shark! I also faced the possibility of being stranded on an island when I returned to the beach from snorkeling to find everyone else already aboard the boat (Eric claims to have had this under control, but I'm doubtful). Throughout the trip we were never far from land, and we watched the sun rise and set in brilliant orange and pink over uninhabited islands and volcanoes- dark masses looming out of the water at night and picturesque green hillsides during the day. 
When our five-day tour came to an end we headed to the island of Gili Trawangan or Gili T- the largest (4-5 miles around) in a set of three small islands skirting Lombok. Like Lombok, the Gili islands are on the cusp of being the next big thing so resorts and other Western commodities have sprung up all along the coast. Needless to say the last three days of our vacation were spent indulging not only in the white sand beaches and the vibrant waters, but in the Illy cappuccinos, baked goods, sandwiches, Mexican food, artisan beers, and cocktails made with local palm liquor. We were thoroughly spoiled before returning back to the harsh realities of high school. My Picassa web albums contain all of my photos from the trip, so take a look: