Indonesia: Going Home

When I finally set foot on Indonesian soil again this past August, after nearly three years, I knew I was home again. This post describes my short 10 days in Indonesia during the latter part of August, returning to the North Sumatran province.

My first destination was Bukit Lawang, a mountain village next to the Gunung Leuser National park. Here one can find the Orangutan, or in the Indonesian language Orang Hutan which literally means Person (orang) Forest (hutan). I hired a guide, as one must do in the park, and set off on a day-long hike through the jungle. Though it was not far in distance, I saw Orang Hutan and other wildlife and enjoyed the nature around me.

I also spent time in Pematang Siantar and Balige, the two towns in North Sumatra where I taught English from 2012-2014, and spent a few days relaxing at Lake Toba, the world’s largest volcanic lake.

My time was short, but I filled it with many things. I saw old friends and made new friends; I ate my share of the amazing Indonesian and ethnic Batak food I have missed so much; I visited former students, and even popped into visit the English course of one of my former students; and I once again dipped my feet in the waters of Lake Toba.

It was like another homecoming.

I used to balk when people asked me about my favorite place I’ve traveled. There are so many amazing places that I didn’t know how to choose one. I have, however, since decided it has to be Indonesia.

My heart still lingers there.

Lake Toba is the site of a supervolcano, and was formed some 70,000 years ago after a  eruption so massive, it caused a volcanic winter.

I will always find peace there, and I’m glad I had some time there this past summer.

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Taipei, Idul Fitri, and the Indonesian Migrant Community

I was lost in a sea of people. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence after one year in China and two past years in Indonesia–but this time was different. This time my physical body was in Taipei Main Station–a sprawling transportation hub connected by passageways to an underground mall–but my eyes tricked me into thinking I was back in Indonesia.

Selamat Hari Raya Idul Fitri (Eid al-fitr). Sunday June 25th, 2017 marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims across the world. Indonesia, the world’s 4th most populous nation, also has the world’s largest population of Muslims, and I just happened to be in the midst of the Indonesian community in Taiwan on this great holiday.

Walking through the station and shopping area, I felt as if I was back in Indonesia. Indonesian women in their beautifully colored and stylish hijabs passed me by the hundreds. I heard Indonesian spoken in public for the first time in nearly three years since I left the country. I even ate Indonesian food that burned my mouth the only way Indonesian cuisine can. In fact, thousands of Indonesians–men and women–gathered at the Taipei Main Station that day eating, shopping, and sitting on the floor for lack of other places.

I sat among them and listened to their stories. A woman shared with me her own story and poetry she wrote.

My reason for traveling to Taipei during my semester break was to visit a former Indonesian student of mine. After university in Indonesia, she further studied in Taipei. It was great to see how she has matured in the past few years. She is not Muslim, nevertheless sees it as important to be with her fellow Indonesians, connecting to them and sharing in this important holiday. The fact that I visited during Idul Fitri was a coincidence, but it only felt natural to take part in festivities.

I was told there are more than 250,000 Indonesian migrants in Taiwan. On Idul Fitri I saw so many women; they come usually as domestic workers, taking care of elderly and children, leaving their own families behind. The men work in Taiwan, too, in factories and as fishermen.

The Indonesians I met were as welcoming and friendly as I remember from my time there. I had my fill of food and fellowship. Unfortunately, it is not always good for the migrants, and they work very hard to have a better life for themselves and their families, sometimes with little reward. I am, however, grateful for the new friends I met and the stories I heard.

The rest of my short time in Taipei was filled with a lot of good food and experiencing various sights around Taipei. I hope someday I can return.


Sports Meet

Not unlike other colleges throughout China, my college held a Sports Meet this past month. Colleges and Universities here do not have organized team sports to the degree which the United States does. In fact, this 2-day event reminded me how deeply embedded sports is into my own culture from a very early age all the way through adulthood. This meet, akin to a school track and field day, was a competition within the school rather than against other schools.

I would have loved to have participated in some actual sports, but the teachers here, at least at my college, did events such as tug-of-war. We all marched into the track, and then the teachers left for the basketball courts for their events. This was, however, at the same time as the students continued with the opening ceremony. So I was presented with a dilemma: Stand around and watch teachers compete in 3-legged races and maybe be involved in a tug-of-war, or watch the students perform in their opening ceremony.

I chose to watch the students, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Several departments gave performances, and the Foreign Language Department was one of them. Many of my freshmen students donned chearleader-like outfits bearing their mid-drift and danced around to a pop song waving pom-poms. More of my freshmen students participated in a coordinated calisthenics drill on the field together with students from other departments. There were several more performances, including Kung Fu.

Just being on the track with a crowd took me back to my days in high school running in track and cross country. My students were flabbergasted that I competed in 400, 800, and 1600 meters, as well as 5km races. That just doesn’t happen here. High school students in China are hyper-focused on studying and preparing for the college entrance examination, that they don’t have time for such regular sports, not to mention that females aren’t presented with the same opportunities as males in sporting.

The meet lasted two days, but I only attended the first day. I am hoping to coordinate some of my students together to learn about sports, but that hasn’t happened yet.

This opening ceremony took place on a Thursday, so all classes were cancelled for this event. As is typical here, they will be made up at the end of the semester, although we won’t know exactly which day until some day closer to the end of the semester.

Sharing A Christmas Eve Tradition

Growing up, my house was filled with the smell of baking cookies during the month of December. The Christmas of my childhood has the smell and taste of spritz cookies imprinted in my memory. For several weeks leading up to Christmas, my mom would bake batches of several different kinds of cookies. She stored the ones that didn’t get immediately eaten and would not fit in the freezer outside to chill.

One of the dearest family traditions was heading across town to grandma and grandpa’s house on Christmas Eve for cookies and cheeseball. My family, aunt and uncle, cousins, and grandma and grandpa would eat and open presents—and every year, without fail, the gift from the grandparents was a wad of cash, wrapped inside an old check box. This tradition felt as meaningful, if not more, than the other traditional festivities on Christmas Day.

As an adult, I’m no stranger to living abroad and being away for the holidays. This Christmas in China was the 5th time (in 4 different countries) in my life I’ve been out of the country to celebrate, and each time I have had a unique experience. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am present to teach English and live out cultural exchange. So it felt natural to invite some students over on Christmas Eve for cookies and gifts.

Like my mom, I spent several weeks ahead of time baking (small) batches of cookies. Unlike my mom and grandma, however, I had limited access to supplies here in southwestern China and ran into quirks using a heavier sugar and my small toaster oven.

But oh, did those cookies taste good anyway.

In all, we ate out fill of cookies, snacks, fresh baked pumpkin scones (my new tradition), chili (made by another foreign teacher), and hot cocoa. I orchestrated a white elephant gift exchange and introduced the students to the concept of a party where people just chill out.

My grandparents have both since passed away, and I’m out in the world far from family–yet the tradition still lives on. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to share tradition, home, and hospitality with this wonderful group of students.

 

Making Saksang

Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and the world’s 4th most populous nation with more than 250 million residents. In the lush area surrounding Sumatra’s Lake Toba in western Indonesia, live the ethnic groups of Batak people. Although the majority of Indonesians are Muslim, ethnic Bataks are mostly Christian. Their homeland around Lake Toba is dotted with towns and villages, rainforest and palm oil plantations, church steeples, rice fields, fruit and other crops of vegetables.

Saksang (pronounced SAHK-sahng) is an important dish in Batak cuisine. Eaten at weddings, funerals, church celebrations and more, it is used for many cultural traditions, especially for Toba Batak people. It is made from pork, and given Indonesia’s Muslim majority, this dish is therefore unique and rare in the country.

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Wedding Crasher

I stood in the yard in front of the church while the crowd began to gather. For once in my life I felt tall—at 5’2” I’m a short American, but next to the young Indonesian women who surrounded me, I could see the tops of their heads without straining.

We had run across the courtyard from our dormitory when we heard the siren that we were certain was the police escort for the wedding procession. People came from every direction to stand in front of the church and wait. Police lined the red carpet keeping the crowd from mobbing the wedding procession, as news cameras rolled and people snapped photos from their cell phones. Life in Balige, a rural town in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, rarely reached this level of excitement.

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Keep Spirit

The elderly woman’s body lies inside the house in a coffin covered only by a thin white veil. Aside from the coffin, the room is void of furniture. A dozen members of the family and surrounding village sit cross-legged on the multi-colored plastic woven mat spread across the tile floor. I add my sandals to the pairs already stacked in front of the open door and step inside.

Delviana Naibaho—a co-worker at the Deaconess Theological School where I teach in a town a three-hour drive away on windy pot-hole ridden roads through the Sumatran rainforest—greets me. I call her “Ibu,” a word that means mother, but is also a polite form of address for women akin to “ma’am.”

Today, to show support to Ibu Naibaho, I attend her mother’s wake with a delegation from the school.

“Turut berduka cita, bu,” (my condolences, ma’am), I tell her as we shake hand and sniff cheeks in the Indonesian manner.

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Life in Indonesia

Here is a image gallery of photos that show a little of what life was like in Indonesia. Most are from Balige and Siantar, the two cities in the province of North Sumatra where I spent most of my time. In 2 of the photos, you’ll notice a pig’s head. Although most Indonesians are Muslim, I lived among the ethnic Bataks, most of whom are Christian, and regularly eat pork. Indonesia is amazingly diverse, and therefore, my life in the region around Lake Toba was different than someone who experienced Java, Bali, Nias, or Sulawesi islands. I hope to make more galleries about different aspects of life there, as well as other places I’ve traveled.

Christmas with my brother

It is now past the middle of February, but here is a story from last Christmas. For Christmas 2014 I had the opportunity to be with my brother in Indonesia. To the Western audience it must be said that I don’t actually have a brother in my immediate family–this brother is my Indonesian family, and I am his sister.

The family system of the Batak Toba culture is more complex than in Western cultures. It is seen not only in how people are addressed in daily situations (the words for mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, grandmother, and grandfather), but also at a deeper level. The Batak people have distinct family surnames that are grouped together by ancestral line, which sets them apart from some of the other cultures within Indonesia (many Javanese have only one name). Those Bataks with surnames in the same ancestral group are family, and subsequently prohibited by culture to marry each other. To the Western ear it may ring as a bit harsh, but this is how they have kept true to their ancestors. They know when they meet a person in their group, that they really are family. Given this importance, it has never been nor will it ever be a custom for the woman to change her name in marriage; her family name is of higher importance.

What does this have to do with me? Because there is great pride in their culture and to share about it, some Batak people love to invite others into their family. I posted previously about preaching at a church, and the pastor and I have been close since. His surname is Lumbantobing (or just Tobing for short), and because he asked me, I am also boru Lumbantobing. It makes me think about family and naming, and what those mean. My family now extends far beyond my own blood and borders of my country.

I was glad to see my brother and his family for a few days over Christmas. Most of the time we were in the church, as the HKBP denomination holds worship Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas–but it was a blessing to be there. Mauliate, ito! (thank you, brother)

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Christmas Eve 2014

Preaching

I am back in the US now, and it is long overdue to catch up on some blogging about my time in Indonesia.

At the end of March, I was invited to preach in a congregation in Medan, the capital city of North Sumatra, and some 7 hours from my usual residence in Balige. Actually, we had planned for the visit in 2013, however, I had to cancel due to the time I had to spend renewing my work visa. Finally having the time, I was graciously welcomed in the spirit I have come to know well among the Batak people.

Not only was I nervous about preaching in general, but this task was difficult because my deaconess companion speaks limited English (and I’m not good enough in Indonesian or Batak language to write a full sermon). So, in other words, I had to write a sermon in simple enough English that could be translated, true to Scripture, and all the while interesting enough. The lectionary followed by the HKBP church is different than Lutherans in the US, and the text that I was to preach on came from Ephesians 5:8-14. Thankfully, there is a simple theme in there: Walk as children of light.

It went well, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

Below are a few photos:

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A full house

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The Podium was really high, like the old cathedrals in Germany.

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Giving me a blessing and presenting with an ulos, a Batak blanket, as a special symbol of our friendship.

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With the pastor and his wife, and a fellow deaconess