Saturday, December 25, 2010

We're not in Java anymore...

One of my goals when I arrived in Indonesia was to visit all the major islands in the archipelago. I spent the first four months getting settled into Jakarta - doing a little traveling around West Java, but that's it. So, when I was presented with the opportunity to go to Pontianak, West Borneo (Kalimantan), I was beyond thrilled. Borneo is known for its rain forests, orangutans, and head hunters, so who could resist, really?

Ok, ok, so we weren't going anywhere near orangutans or tribal villages where head hunting is still a major past time, but getting out of Java still made the trip well worth the while. So, Michael (another ELF in Jakarta) and I boarded the hour and a half flight for Pontianak.

The city of Pontianak is located on the west coast of Borneo, not too far south of Malaysia. There are a few wonderful things about this city. 1). There is another ELF there (Cary), whom we were going to get to see in all his teaching glory, 2). Three of my former police students are posted in the city (Robert - my adopted little brother, Edy, and Jhon), 3). The city is located on the equator, 4). The city is not located on Java, 5). There are no bajai, and 6). The city is a mix of numerous cultures each bringing their flavor to the city.

A few fun signs

First off, Pontianak is a proper city about the size of Akron, and it's walker friendly. So, Michael and I spent a lot of time doing just that - we walked. The traffic was still pretty heavy, but the air was perfectly pleasant. The most notable difference (apart from the lack of bajai, which were replaced with the much cleaner and less noisy becek - bicycle ricksaws) was that there were far fewer foreigners. This meant far more attention for two tall bules getting lost on the main streets of the city. On more than one occasion, a friendly and curious citizen crossed traffic and pull up alongside us on their motorbike to talk about...anything. Here's a typical conversation:

Citizen: Halo, mister (regardless of gender being addressed)! Where are you going?
Bules: Halo! Over there. (points with thumb in any general direction - pointing with fingers is very disrespectful)
Citizen: Where are you from?
Bules: America!
Citizen: America! Obama!
All: Obama, ya! (much laughter and high fives).

This is where the conversation usually died out because of  a lack of English proficiency, but it was a enough to generate smiles all around. Sometimes there were no words exchanged at all. One such memorable moment, I was standing outside of a shopping mall when an older woman caught my eye. She pointed to her nose, then my nose, then her daughter's nose, and said, "sama" with an ear to ear grin. You see, while in America it's typical to desire small noses, here in Asia a big shnoz is a mark of beauty. I've even heard that it is thought if a bule touches a baby, he or she will grow into a fine "bule" nose. This woman was fiercely proud of the fact that her daughter possessed a nose just like mine. Light skin and big noses - I may never leave (just kidding, Mom!). 

In between these great little, impromptu conversations, we had some great adventures. One night we got to meet with my former students for dinner. I also had the extra special treat of meeting Robert's (far left) little twin sisters, Richa and Reni. These girls are adorable and have joined Robert in my growing Indonesian family.

We also visited Cary's English club, which was staging its very own version of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol. They did an extraordinary job, and officially put me in the Christmas spirit!

Of course, we had to go visit the equator. There is a special monument built by the Dutch to mark the spot.  

Straddling the Equator. Sweet!
Michael and his official Equator certificate

We rounded off the trip with a visit to the oldest mosque in the city and the sultan's palace. 

Stain glass and prayer rugs

Apparently there are quite a few Sultans still ruling in various parts of the country. The last Sultan of Pontianak died in the 70s, but you can still visit this house complete with the throne and four bedrooms - one for each of his wives.
Some pictures of the kampung (village) on the river.

House on stilts.

Add one more thumbtack to my map! When I make it to my next island, you'll hear about it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Just don't tell my mother

I eluded to the splendors of Jakarta in my last blog. It's not an easy city to navigate. It sprawls on for miles and miles in under passes, over passes, traffic circles, and u-turns, and every square inch of that is covered with hurling buses, bumbling bajai (motorized rickshaw), jammed mirkolets (minibuses - same concept as the jeepney from PI), taxis, lima kaki (men pushing mobile food stands) and hundreds and thousands of motorbikes. At any give moment of any given day, there is a traffic jam somewhere in the city that looks something like this:
Bumper to bumper traffic. The government is working on this problem. The bus system has its own lane, there are talks of restarting a failed mono-rail project, and they even made public schools start a half hour earlier to relieve some congestion. The ominous projection, though, is that Jakarta will be grid-locked by 2012. The authors of Culture Shock: Jakarta give this advice about getting about the city: Don't. I can understand their stand point. Any plans I might have for a Friday night in the city fizzle out quickly as I survey the unmoving glow of taillights from my balcony.  

Yesterday, I was determined to meet some friends for dinner at a mall that is about a 15 minute drive from my apartment (with no traffic). I walked out to the street to check the traffic situation and devise a plan for catching a taxi. Things looked pretty hopeless. Traffic wasn't moving. My only hope was to walk to another street and hope the situation was marginally better. Well, this wasn't true. There was another solution, one that I'd been avoiding since I arrived in Jakarta: The Ojek.

So, the only vehicles that move in a traffic jam are motorbikes that squeeze and weave through any space available (usually the side of the road or the sidewalk). There are many bike owners in Jakarta who take advantage of the desperate traffic situation by offering a helmet and a ride for a pretty cheap fee. These entrepreneurs can be found on just about any street corner usually under a crude cardboard sign that announces their presence. Ojek - the motorbike taxi.

My fears about taking an ojek were not unfounded. We were warned during orientation to never take them. They're just too dangerous. They can and will take advantage of any available space on the road, putting themselves and their fare inches away from other vehicles. But given that most Indonesians don't think twice about them, that the girl in my post before me took them without any troubles, and that sitting in a taxi for hours as the meter rolls is really, really frustrating, it was time for me to make friends with the ojek.

I was weighing these pros and cons once again in my head as I walked to the next street. Before I could even summon the courage to go looking for an ojek, one came to me. A young man on a bike pulled up to the curb with the familiar, "Ojek, Miss?" Why not? I did a quick check of the bike (looking for what, I don't know), asked him the fare to the mall, and took the helmet from his hands. And we were off!

We did all the things that ojeks do: weaved between cars in spaces that appeared only slightly bigger then my foot, rode up over sidewalks, and came close enough to buses that I could have shaken hands with the passengers who hung from the doorway. I kept a cool facade, but my inner monologue sounded something like this: "Please don't let me die. My mother is going to kill me. Huzzah! I'm going to want those kneecaps later.  Please don't let me die. Do I hold on to him? Bus! Nice move. Haha...suckers. Maybe I'll just hold on back here. Please don't let me die"

Despite all my reservations, I arrived safely at my destination in a mere 30 minutes (it could easily have been four times that in a taxi). I paid my driver and walked away with the same grin and feeling I have any time I figure out one more piece of Jakarta. I did it. Slowly, I'm finding my way to be independent in this crazy metropolis. Just don't tell my mother.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Philippines Bound

Jakarta is hard to describe. There is no doubt that I love being here, but most of that stems from having a really great job with amazingly supportive and fun colleagues and friends. The city itself is, as most travel publications put it, "a hard place to love." I was reflecting on this more than usual last week as I was sitting in yet another macet (traffic jam) on my way back to my apartment in my AC-less vehicle in the third-straight 90+ degree day with humidity that makes your shins sweat. 

It's dirty. I rate the pollution rate on any particular day by how many buildings I can see from my 26th floor balcony. If haze blocks out more than the dozen or so in a kilometer radius, it's going to be a day to avoid the great outdoors. Most Jakartans, when forced to go outside, do so only with a mask on. I can literally wipe the grime off my face with a tissue by the time I get back from work. Ew. It's also apparent that elementary school education does not put the same heavy emphasis on not being a "litter bug" as it does in America. Evidence of this is everywhere: the taxi driver who brushed an empty water bottle onto the street before I could crawl in - cringe, my coworkers who toss straw wrappers on the ground as we walk - cringe, etc. I have a theory about how littering is actually an extension of living within a service-based culture where everyone relies on someone else to do tasks like cleaning, laundry, cooking, etc. Someone will come along with one of those crazy, stick brooms sooner or later. Why make the effort to find the ever-so-elusive trash bins? But, I digress.

So, I decided that they best way to enjoy Jakarta is simply to get away from it from time to time. This is exactly what I did this weekend. A very good friend of mine from high school, Justin AKA Chuck, is working in Guam as an engineer. When we found out that we were going to be in the same hemisphere many months ago, we began plotting some way to meet up. We were presented with the perfect opportunity when Chuck's ultimate frisbee team decided to enter a tournament in the Philippines. PI is midway between our homes, so it was perfect. I bought my tickets, and was on my way to my first out-of-country adventure.

One four-hour plane ride and several visa stamps and customs forms later, and I was in a new county. With my backpack on, I stepped out of the airport trying to fit the role of the intrepid, world traveler as best I could. Being outdone by the tall gangly, dreadlocks wearing hippy guy beside me (there's one on every flight, I swear!), I resigned myself to just trying not to get ripped off by a taxi company, which happened anyways. Oh well.

I could have taken a taxi the whole 2-hour trip to Clark, where I was to meet up with Chuck and his teammates, but this would run close to $40, so I decided to take the cheaper, but much more complicated route of the bus. Besides, a taxi ride wouldn't have made much of a blog post. Luckily for me, English is taught as a second language in PI, so most street signs are in English and nearly everyone speaks a little at least.

So, taxi to bus station (480 pesos - roughly $12). At the bus station, I asked the local security officer to identify which bus was going to Clark and found an empty seat in the back of the bus (40 pesos - $1). I was soon joined by a Filipino angel named Christine. I'm really not sure how I would have made it the rest of the way to Clark without her assistance. I found out (much to my horror) that the bus did not, in fact, go all the way to Clark. Instead, once I got to Clark, I needed to get into one of these:

Don't be deceived. It's actually much smaller than a school bus. I stand at least as tall as a jeepney.

 This mystical creature is called a Jeepney, and PI is famous for them. They are ridiculously cheap (15 pesos - way less than a dollar), but a little like riding an earthquake to your destination - if I may quote my boyfriend, who is Filipino-American and familiar with such things. Also, there is the matter of fitting. This is what it looks like on the inside:
I stole this picture from Mr. Google, but I wanted you to get the idea of the size inside.

Now, let me remind you of the size difference between your average Asian and, say, me. As Christine climbed easily into the back of the jeepney, I stared quizzically at the Alice-in-Wonderland door and hoped I would just get smaller as I approached the doorway. It was close, but somehow I fit.

Christine was heading in the same general direction as me, but we had to part ways one leg short of the parade grounds where I needed to meet Chuck. Christine guided me toward another jeepney and talked to the driver before instructing me to contort my body once more and climb inside. Once inside, I held out a random assortment of peso coins to the driver and let him take his pick. Which he did, very honestly. Another 15 pesos and I was off to my final destination. I was relieved to step out of the jeepney and see a field full of frisbee players.

The rest of the three-night adventure was smoothing sailing. I got to see Chuck in all his frisbee-wielding glory and to meet his friends, all of whom were supremely cool. Together, they made up the Guambats, an all-American ultimate team made up of mostly attorneys, engineers, and one 6'8" secret weapon nicknamed "Bubba."

Ultimate has a very unique culture of it's own, as I was to learn this trip. There were entire teams dressed up as clowns, many men dressed as women (but I promised not to post those pictures), and lots and lots of vodka. Now, there were some serious moments. Chuck's team played with dedication and came out with a much improved standing from the previous year's tournament. Other teams, in the "A" bracket were unbelievable to watch. It was obvious that frisbee was somewhat more than just a hobby for them. I was happy to learn that the Guambats took the game a little less seriously.
The last game of the tournament was played for "beer points." This meant that everyone on both sides had to play with one cup/can of beer on their hand at all times. As you can imagine, this got very silly very fast.
The best part of it all was that when I wasn't having a good time with these new friends, I got to slip away and enjoy the silence and clean air of Clark. We were staying in a humble villa in walking distance from the playing field. There was no traffic save a few golf carts from the nearby club house, which meant no pollution. What a novelty. I breathed freely for the first time since Bandung. I found a shade-covered bench in a park and just breathed. Ok, so I also read a book, but I really concentrated on how easy it was to breath. There was a breeze and kids with was perfect.

In three days, I didn't get to see much else of the country beyond it's unique public transportation options and the impressive Mall of Asia (huuuuuuuuge), but it was the reset button I needed. I cleared my mind and lungs and did it all with some great friends old and new. I can't wait to go back!

A Skype Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving runs a close second behind the 4th of July as favorite holidays go. I love it for all the usual reasons: all the family is together, there is more delicious food than you can shake a stick at, and - if you're my family - at some point butter knives will pass mysteriously under the table, gravy will flow everywhere but on the potatoes, and stomachs will hurt equally from too much food and laughter. This year was my first being away from my family at Thanksgiving, and it was hard.

The holiday arrived with little to no fanfare. Luckily, Momma, in her infinite-mom-wisdom, sent along this in her care package:
If I couldn't go to Thanksgiving, We were going to do our darnedest to make it come to me.

Instead of waking up to the sweet and spicy aromas of turkey dinner, I woke up to the usual smoggy haze that hangs over Jakarta. Like clockwork, my sopir (driver) picked me up at 6:30, and we headed to Sebasa. That particular morning, I was set to have a meeting with the English staff about a textbook we're writing, followed up by a teacher training for the nonEnglish teaching staff. Not quite the same as settling in for a slow morning of parade watching. Selah.

I took my pumpkin and everything is represents and placed it in the center of our conference table to begin meeting number one. To my delight, all of my coworkers were well aware of the holiday and just as eager as I was to celebrate. (One actually chided me for not telling them earlier so they could prepare some food). Then - their idea - we all went around and said what we were the most thankful for before starting our meeting. Nice. Chokemeupwithtears nice.

Meeting number two followed similarly. This time, however, we added mango and papaya juices to the mix. Again, not quite apple cider, but the spirit was still there. It's hard to feel sorry for yourself when you're surrounded by so many blessings.

From work, I went directly to visit the kids at the Access program. I believe I talked about this program before. It's another State Department sponsored program that provides after-school English lessons for the underprivileged youth of Jakarta. Last time I visited them, I explained Columbus Day. This day, I was meeting up with Julianne, another EL Fellow, to tell them all about the great American holiday that is Thanksgiving. Armed with youtube videos, food pictures, and personal photos from Thanksgivings past, Jules and I entered a room full of 15 year-olds.

Jules and I tag teamed a two-hour long explanation of the history and traditions of the holiday. I brought my old friend the pumpkin, and Jules brought some dried cranberries that she'd bought from the western market near my apartment.
Highlights included leading the group in singing "Over the river, and through the woods..." because apparently this is a traditional Thanksgiving song. Mom, Dad? Thank goodness Jules family did follow this tradition, so she was able to lead the charge on that one. We also found a good video of the Macy's Day Parade and some folks napping in front of football on the tube. I wanted to make buckled hats and reenact the Mayflower voyage, but preparation time was limited and teaching methodologies were questioned. I did squeeze in hand-turkeys and made the entire class gobble. So there.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Being a language teacher, the idea of how a culture influences a language comes up from time to time. The common example is how the Eskimos have about a trillion words for snow. As I learn more about bahasa Indonesian, the case can be seen here as well.

Bahasa Indonesian is the national language. Nearly every (if not all) Indonesians can speak it. But, it is usually their second language. Almost all of the 30 provinces have their own native tongue. I found this out quickly when my students - who hail from just about all 30 provinces - would try to teach me the same word in about five different languages. This, apart from being a really effective measure to get the teacher off topic, also gave me a window into Indonesian culture. Nearly every one of these languages has special terms for fraternal relationships.

Mbak Iin, Iis, and Dellen
Kakak, adik, mas, abong, mbak, nona - they are all ways to address someone as either a brother or sister. Some of them distinguish older or younger siblings, but they are all used as ways to address both actual blood relations and friends (and nearly everyone else - even taxi drivers). It is rare to hear anyone call another person by name alone. I get the feeling that it is almost offensive, like addressing a doctor by his first name instead of Dr. Soandso. The teachers at my school often just call each other "mbak" or "sister" and leave off the first name altogether. The students, of course, all address each other as "abong" or "brother". Even when they are speaking in English, they will refer to their classmates as brothers.

The more exposure I have to these words and the greater understanding I gain of them, the more it is evident how they reflect the collectivist culture of Indonesia. I was warned before coming here that this culture can be a bit of a drag because there is a generally lack of privacy and concept of living independently. As an introvert who grew up in the American mindset of being a strong independent woman, this worried me more than just a little. And it is true; I get a lot of shocked faces when I tell people here that I live alone. It's just inconceivable. But, I found that my worry was unnecessary.

Abong Dedik and I at the farewell party
Conversely, I love the sense of having one large family every where I go. My coworkers are my sisters in the truest sense of the word. My students are my brothers, pestering and protecting as brothers will. I've never seen such a large group of students become such a close-knit unit in three months. The members of the Mobile Brigade finished their course at Sebasa last Friday. The closing ceremony was full of picture taking and hearty good byes, but there were many sad faces as well. Luckily for them and myself, we live in the time of facebook and cell phones, so those connections can remain intact.

I always thought the practice of calling each other "Brother Soandso" or "Sister Whatsherface" in the church culture in America was a bit trite. I just don't feel a genuine family bond behind those words. Here, it's different. When someone addresses me as mbak or kakak I smile deep down inside. I miss my family and friends back home, but having a family here takes away the sting of homesickness and gives me access to a culture that is so different from my own. Maybe this collectivist thing isn't so bad after all.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

ELF adventures

It's no wonder that the weeks have been flying by here. It seems like every week is packed with some new adventure. I rarely have a "routine" week, and for someone who likes routine, it's a little rough. But, I wouldn't trade these experiences for the world. Here's what happened this past week:

Every year there is a nation-wide conference for English teachers (elementary to university level) to share ideas and questions they have in their classrooms. All of the English Language Fellows were invited to participate and present in the conference. So, on Sunday, we all met in Jakarta and traveled three hours west to the city of Bandung.

Bandung is a good sized city with big city sized problems like traffic, but the air is clean, the temperature is perfect, and it is famous for its endless factory outlets, tea plantations, volcanoes, and progressive culture. This is the view from my hotel room. I could very easily live there.
Typical transportation - All of us crammed in an Ankot (a mini van with no doors)

The conference was good, but the highlight was the cultural-performance-turned-dance-party on Tuesday night. Let me explain. We had a fancy reception dinner for all conference participants. The conference committee put together several performances to represent some of Indonesia's culture. They kicked things off with a woman doing a traditional Sudanese dance (from West Java). She was followed on the stage by three more women in traditional dress and drum sticks in their hands. Their performance was a mixture of traditional and modern art as they got the crowd on their feet while they wailed on drums and danced Beyonce style on the floor. Sorry, the video is dark and doesn't give the best feel for the excitement in the room, but I hope you get the idea at least. Much dancing and karaoke followed. :)
After the conference, all the ELFs were able to take a day trip to see some of the spectacular sites of Bandung. We started here at the crater of Taman Wisata Alam (at least I think that's the name). It was rainy, cold, and spectacular. The air was filled with the smell of sulfur, and we were chased around by locals trying to peddle everything from fur hats to rocks, but it was hard not to smile at the whole thought of peering into the crater of a volcano (particularly one that is not spewing out deadly hot gases and lava).

Some of the ELFs and our counterparts
This is Julianne's Picture - beautiful!

From the cold, rainy mountain top, we traveled through beautiful tea plantations to some amazing hot springs.

The hot springs were tiled-in pools hot enough enough that you had to ease yourself in. We ate lunch pool side and then some of our group took a dip. I could only dangle my legs in since I forgot my suit. I could have bought a burkini at the shop next to the pool, but didn't feel that I would have many more opportunities to wear it. Selah.

All in all, it was a non-stop, amazing trip. I can't wait to go back again. This time with my suit ;).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Meet my students

I've talked about my students over and again, but I realized that I never included pictures. It just so happens that we had "picture day" last week, so I had a great excuse to get my camera out. Not that anyone needs an excuse to take pictures here. My students will often interrupt class or their fellow students' presentations to take snap shots of whomever. Ok, ok, usually me. I swear they do it just to see me blush, and I oblige every time. Damn bule factor.

More on blushing, since I'm on the subject. Don't let these serious faces or the whole special forces thing fool you. Deep down, they are all 15 year-old boys (which I suppose is universal). At least once a day, they manage to turn a grammar lesson into an inappropriate joke. Like the day we were practicing imperative (commands). I broke the class up into three groups, and each group had to write imperatives as either 1) a parent to a child; 2) a high rank officer to a lower rank officer; or 3) a police officer to a criminal. Group one collapsed into a fit of giggles approximately 5 minutes into their group brainstorming session. When I investigated, among their imperatives was "Wear Protection." Sigh. At least they got the grammar right. I let them get their giggles out, and then as any good conductor would do, I circle my hands round, and the students fall silent as my hands close finger tips to thumb. Works like a charm. 

So, here's the break down. There are 60 students total, but they are divided into four classes of fifteen - two NCO (non-commissioned officers) classes and two Inspector (officers) classes. Typically they wear dress shirts and ties to class, which I recently found out is to discourage higher ranking officers from making the lower rank officers do all the work. (Now that's an educational barrier they don't teach us about in teacher school). But, on picture day, the students wore their uniforms, so I got to ask them about rank, patches, and other honor medals. Neat stuff.

Also, this week I was able to secretly take video of the hilarity that is "physical training." I've mentioned in an earlier blog that PT usually involves line dancing. Sometimes we take a group walk/jog around the city or the complex. Sometimes we play football (soccer) or table tennis. Sometimes we chill out at the canteen and eat fried stuff and donuts. But, usually, we dance.

Somewhere there, near the front, is the Ka Sebasa, or the Head of the school. He rocks those dances.

Hope you enjoyed meeting my guys (and one lady!). They would all very much like to come to Ohio and meet you all, but pictures and videos will have to do for now. If you ever want to visit, though, you'll have your pick of body guards for the city/island of your choosing!