Thursday, January 20, 2011

Five Months in and a Few Steps Closer

I spend a lot of time as a passenger in Jakarta since to drive is to gamble with one's life. Being a passenger gives me a lot of extra time to think. I think about my job and tasks at hand, but just about every day I also think about how incredible it is that I'm here. I'm in Indonesia. Halfway around the world. Doing what I love. It's five months in now, and I still feel like I need to pinch myself as I watch Jakarta pass outside my window.

Early on, I began gauging my level of integration into society by the type of vehicle I was in. During my first few days in Jakarta, all of the ELFs and I were toted around in a giant, cushy charter bus. I was literally elevated above the street level life of the city, still a disconnected visitor observing from a distance.

Then, I moved a notch down into the taxi level. Other Indonesians use taxis; I was getting closer. Other expats also use taxis...a lot. So, while I was being a little more independent - hey, we don't have taxis to flag down where I come from; it's a big step for me - I was still floating above real Indonesian life.

When I started working, Sebasa provided a driver. Now I get to cruise around in a police car. It's not marked up like a squad car, but it is painted the dull gray of police vehicles and has black and yellow plates denoting police. I don't know that this pushed me any further into the circle of true society, but now I was exploring different parts of the city. I was driving through the desa (the small villages contained between the high rises) instead of around them. At least the view that passed by my window was a bit more intimate.

Then there was the fateful Friday I finally took an ojek to visit my friends. Now that's more like it. There was nothing at all between me and my surroundings. I was weaving in and out of traffic, next to every other Jakartan who was trying to get around the gridlock. Dirt on my face, exhaust in my lungs, and a smile on my face.

The ultimate travel experience, though, was in Ubud. Lo had done some homework before he came over and had found a day-long biking trip through the country side. I'm not a biker, and even still, this experience will stick with me forever. Finally, I was in charge of my destination (well, I had to stick with our tour guide, but I could stop and weave as I pleased). I could pedal slowly through the country-side villages, wave to the children walking home from school, and say 'Selamat Pagi' (good morning) to the folks going about their day.

Nothing will change the fact that I'm tall, have white skin, blond hair, and green eyes; these things will always keep me from completely fitting into Indonesia. Even still, in five months, I've watched myself peel through the layers and get closer to living the experience rather than just observing in a comfortable, air conditioned existence. I still have miles to go; beyond the realm of travel into speaking the language and understanding the culture. One step (or pedal) at a time.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Teaching Teachers and Other Greats of the MidYear

All of the ELFs and Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) in Indonesia had a chance to meet in Surabaya, East Java, for a midyear conference. We had a full schedule of outreach programs with local universities and high schools. With 14 ELFS and 44 ETAs, we visited 7 universities and 14 high schools, and we reached about 1,000 English teachers from all over East Java. That's something to be proud of.

These events are a big deal for the participants. Professional development for educators is hard to come by in Indonesia. And in a country entrenched in traditional lecture-style classrooms and restrained by resources and a lack of opportunity for students to practice English outside of the classroom, teachers clamor for any opportunity to learn new techniques for making dynamic lessons. The ETAs I worked with had the participants up on their feet doing the Hokey Pokey, playing games, and making up elaborate stories. We also were able to share a piece of American culture by presenting on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Mia, one of the ETAs, had an stirring presentation on civil rights in American, and it spurred a lively conversation with our participants. Some of them knew about Dr. King and some didn't, but all were moved by Mia's presentation and were curious to find out more about segregation in America then and now. Soft diplomacy. Very cool.

Some teachers getting creative with new materials
Birds-eye view of high school students eating lunch. They pile everything into either a piece or paper or banana leaf fashioned into a cone. Green and less dishes. Dig it.
The MidYear conference wasn't all work, though. Our fearless leaders at the Embassy arranged some sight-seeing around Surabaya. Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia (after Jakarta), and it and the surrounding areas have lots to offer. The first place we stopped was at a place called Lapindo. We parked along side of what appeared to be a giant dirt wall stretching for miles on the side of the highway. A few bamboo stairways led to the top of the dirt wall. Once you got to the top, all you could see for miles was a vast stretch of caked and cracked mud. Then, in the distance, was a mud volcano. Eruptions of mud and steam were spewing twenty feet into the air. Read the article linked above to learn more, but basically this volcano began spitting up mud in 2006 after some oil drillers accidentally hit it (oops). Since then, it has destroyed whole villages, and it isn't predicted to stop for thirty years.

The villagers whose houses were destroyed, hover around the scene and try to sell DVDs about the phenomenon or offer motorbike tours around the area. They'll do anything to get a buck for their families struggling to get back on their feet in the government-funded refuge areas.
Next, we went around to see some candi (pronounced chandi) - Hindu and Buddhist temples that dot East Java. These impressive structures aren't used anymore beyond being popular sites for romantic strolls among the local teen population, but you can still see ancient statues of Hindu gods. 
One of the sites, called Candi Tikus (Rat temple) was named so because it was discovered after the local farmers complained about an abundance of rats eating their crops. After some investigation, they unearthed a beautiful temple and bathing pool that the rats had been using as their personal living space.
Finally, we stopped by a local Buddhist monastery and a gigantic reclining Buddha. Since I've never been anywhere near a Buddhist anything, this was a particularly neat experience.

I hope you can get the scale here. The elbow point would probably hit me waist-height.
Indonesian culture is so varied from one island to the next and even from one side of an island to the next. I've decided to stay two years partially so that I can continue exploring all of it. I'm halfway through my first year, and I've barely dented all that the archipelago has to offer. This trip helped me to refocus those efforts. Until the next big discovery...

Swingin' Abroad

I blinked and now I'm staring at the second half of my fellowship. Holy crap. Before I can look ahead, though, let me back up and cover some stuff that happened since Pontianak. 

First off, I had a visitor. My boyfriend, Lo, was able to come out for three weeks in January. We trekked around Lombok and Bali for a week, took cooking classes, committed random acts of dancing, and brought in the new year with didgeridoos.  Poor guy had to spend the following two weeks hanging out in or near my apartment while I worked. A bonus to this, however, was that he had time to record all of our adventures on his own travel blog. So, with his permission, I invite you to check out our trip from his perspective: Lombok and Gili Islands and Bali. I couldn't have said it better myself.
The day before Lo had to leave was by far the most memorable. I had arranged for us to teach a swing dancing lesson with the same group of high school students Jules and I visited for Thanksgiving. If you remember, back in August I listed bringing swing dancing to Indonesia as one of my goals. This was one goal I would have been happy to let slip, but with Lo coming and my connection to an eager bunch of high school students, the opportunity couldn't be passed up.

The result was better than I could have imagined. Okay, okay, so maybe they didn't learn a whole lot about English, as we mostly taught them uber useful swingspeak like, yehoodi, shorty George, and boogie back, but they did get a window into a piece of American culture that they won't find on MTV or facebook. And, they/we had a blast doing it. We ended up teaching them a popular swing line dance called "The Jitterbug Stroll" because they are already familiar with line dancing (poco poco - Indonesian electric slide), and I wasn't sure how receptive they would be to holding hands with the opposite sex (they weren't at all receptive to it). I was super impressed with how quickly they picked up the moves. But, don't take my word for it, check out the video here.

It was incredible to be able to share a piece of my life and American culture and, at the same time, give these kids a memorable experience that they couldn't find anywhere else. Check that one off the list.