Indonesia: Going Home

Batak culture, culture, Indonesia, indonesian culture, Peace Corps, story, travel

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.

Taipei, Idul Fitri, and the Indonesian Migrant Community

indonesian culture, Peace Corps, travel

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.

Life in Indonesia

Batak culture, culture, Indonesia, indonesian culture, travel

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.

At the Market

culture, indonesian culture, Uncategorized

It is Friday. I’m a little bit tired and homesick. I decide against spending the afternoon alone. The students also have a free afternoon, so I soon I find myself walking through Balige’s streets with a small group of students to the traditional market. Every day there are people selling their wares, but one day a week there is a special market. The streets in town are lined with people selling everything from fish to fruit to vegetables to shoes to used clothes and traditional Batak clothes.

Market in BaligeAs one of the students takes my arm, enthusiastically guiding me across the street, she asks about culture. “Is the market in your country like this?” At first, I struggle to answer, not because the question is difficult, rather my attention is elsewhere—at my feet, looking for potholes or other obstacles; beside me, careful of the cars, motorbikes, and people passing by; and all around, as we pass piles of dried fish next to a table of fruit next to a seller of toiletries and soap.

I answer something like, “yes, but no.” My hometown of Seattle is blessed to have the famous Pike Place Market and even better markets throughout the neighborhoods. I note, as we stop to wait for the group to look through a pile of shirts, that our outdoor markets don’t have clothes, and things are ordered. Well, at least, you won’t find a bar of soap being sold next to a pile of dried fish in America. And most people in America buy their food in stores, with sections of produce and aisles of pre-packaged goods.

Here in Indonesia, the street market is the lifeblood for the people. There are no supermarkets in small towns and villages here. The people buy their week’s worth of food—fish, rice, fruit, vegetables, chilis, and meat—as well as get shoes repaired or buy coffee or any number of items.

buying oranges at the market in baligeSomehow a small pile of apples from Washington state found its way to this small town in the middle of an island in SE Asia. Balige is quite the trek through mountainous and windy roads dotted with potholes; I know how far those apples have come. I had never given much thought to how significant the apple is in American culture until I came to Indonesia. Sure, we say something is “American as apple pie.” But we take for granted the plentiful bounty of apples all year round. Me especially, being from Washington state near a source of orchards and a major exporter of the fruit.

In Indonesia, apples do not grow and thus are very expensive, so they are not eaten often. My students pick up some fruit I’ve never seen before and ask, “Sister, this is (fruit name in Bahasa Indonesia or Batak, which I soon forget), what is it in English?”

“ahh. uhmm. We don’t have that in America”. I find myself stammering more than once (at the market, and in the kitchen). Their eyes grow wide with surprise. So different we are—skin color, language, and food. I tell my students that where I live in America we do not have fresh papaya, nor guava nor starfruit. Yes, so much different between us, and yet we share a common love of God and neighbor.

America: Apple pie. Apple juice. Apple cider. Caramel apples. Fruit salad with apples. Apple cake. Apple crisp. Apple turnovers. Apple dumplings. Bobbing for apples. Apples 2 Apples. How about them apples? You are the apple of my eye. The Big Apple. (in Washington State) The Apple Cup. Cinnamon and apple in your oatmeal. Fuji apples. Granny Smith Apples. Red Delicious Apples. Honeycrisp Apples. Braeburn Apples. … …

I don’t talk about apples with the students (maybe another time) but it comes to my mind as I continue to see the differences in our cultures and foods. I make note to have a conversation class about food. I am learning about food here: bakso, mie goreng, sak sang, ikan jahir, and more. Much for me to learn, too.

Refocusing myself back to the market again, I delight in the company of my cheery students and observe the bustle around us. We walk past a butcher with a sliced up pig and over to a stand selling fried banana. We eat and they continue to ask me questions. My presence here is not only to teach in the classroom, but to be in the community. The bonus is we come to know each other more deeply. And this is a learning experience for all of us—they practice their English and I learn about Indonesia and the Batak people.


We continue to laugh about the differences.

And below are photos from another market, in nearby Siborong borong:
dried fish
buying pineapple
siborongborong market

Easter Greetings

indonesian culture

Selamat Paskah!

Easter greetings. I have many experiences to write about. So much has happened in the 11 days that I have been in Indonesia, it is difficult to keep up with writing and sharing it all. Good Friday and Easter are special here in Sumatra, and I learned a lot about the customs and culture of the Batak people.

Good Friday is a holiday for all of the country, even though it is a Christian celebration. Here in Sumatra, singing is a big part of the Batak people’s culture. In their churches, they go to Good Friday service in the morning, sing a lot of hymns in beautiful harmony, hear a sermon, and the entire life of Jesus is read. There is a break in the afternoon for lunch. Then in the afternoon, Holy Communion. I attended a much shorter worship at the nearby hospital, then went out for a picnic at a spot with a scenic view of Lake Toba.

Before we left for our picnic, I heard the voices echoing from the nearby HKBP church. Then, softly in the background, I heard the chant of the muezzin singing the Muslim call to prayer. Balige is mostly Christian, but there are some Muslims here. It was a reminder of the many cultures and faiths here in Indonesia.

Picnic with scenic view of Lake Toba

After a ride on narrow, windy, and sometimes broken roads (with a slight scenic wrong-turn detour), we found our picnic spot. And what a sight! With a blanket laid out, we began to eat our fried noodles against the panoramic backdrop of lush green mountains, deep valleys and the blue of Lake Toba. Five minutes later, however, the nearby mountains disappeared under a gray band of rain shower, forcing us to finish our meal in the car.
Lake Toba

Panorama of Lake Toba

Nunga hehe Kristus i, Haleluya!
(“Christ is risen, Alleluia” in the Batak language)

HKBP Balige - Easter morning

HKBP Balige - Easter morning

These were the words I heard and spoke on Easter morning. I experienced the Batak church at 5am. This early service was the important one for the day. The church was packed full of people, including many children. We sang hymns, heard Scripture and a sermon. Then after worship, the kids received boiled eggs dyed in bright colors and a special cake made of coconut, rice, and sugar wrapped in a banana leaf. Everyone also got coffee or tea.

At the school the students had fun searching for hidden eggs before the sunrise.

Later in the morning after breakfast, I went with a few others to Lake Toba for the rest of the Easter holiday. Stay tuned for another post about my experience of Lake Toba, Samosir Island, and Batak family culture.

A visit with Ibu

indonesian culture, Uncategorized

Ibu Gultom

with Ibu Gultom

The other day, I had the great pleasure of visiting an 85-year old Indonesian deaconess, Ibu Gultom (“Ibu” translates to “mother” in English, and in Indonesia is used as a term of respect. Perhaps it’s equivalent in English would be “m’am”). She helped start the HKBP deaconess school and also spent nearly 6 years living and working in Germany with the deaconesses there. We spoke in German, as that was the best common language for both of us. What a surprise that my German skills would be useful so far away from home and from Germany.

Mostly, I sat with my coffee and listened to Ibu Gultom tell stories about her work in Germany (in Kaiserswerth, and other places, including Tuebingen, the city where once I studied for a year) and her family. She also told me some history of the Batak people and their culture, as well as some history of Indonesia. The younger generation of Bataks sometimes do not know the Batak language well. The children only learn Bahasa Indonesia in school, and it is then up to the parents to teach their children the language and culture. Batak is only one of about 300 languages spoken by the peoples of Indonesia. Therefore, Bahasa Indonesia is used as a unifying language. But it is important that the different cultures continue to pass on their own languages.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to listen to such wisdom in the presence of a woman who has committed a long life to service of others.