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 kites...it 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 ;).