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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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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Continued Eruptions on Mt. Sinabung in North Sumatra

After being dormant for hundreds of years, Mt. Sinabung in North Sumatra, Indonesia awoke with a bang in August and September 2010. The eruption caused thousands of people to flee their homes and created a temporary crisis. The mountain calmed until September 2013, when more eruptions—and new crisis—began. Hundreds of eruptions occurred over the following months, as the government forced evacuations and provided initial assistance to the refugees. As time passed, the ones whose homes were destroyed were promised resettlement from the government.

In April 2014 I went to the Karo regency of North Sumatra to Kabanjahe, a town near the Sinabung volcano (4-5 hours by public bus from my main residence at the southern end of Lake Toba). Accompanying some of my students from the Deaconess Theological School on their practical field work, we learned about the social ministries of the Gereja Batak Karo Protestan (GBKP, or Karo Batak Protestant Church), especially those housing, feeding, and caring for thousands of still-displaced refugees from Mt. Sinabung’s eruptions.

Click here for my original brief post about that time.

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Talking and chewing betel nut with Mt. Sinabung’s grandmother refugees. 16 April 2014.

During the visit we talked with refugees in several camps, helped prepare and serve meals, and gave impromptu English language lessons to some children. The stress of being in a refugee camp was apparent for many—their homes destroyed, or in danger of being destroyed, and because of the continuing danger they were unable to attend to their crops. A life forever altered.

I was told that after an initial response from the government, aid had dropped off and the GBKP churches hosting camps covered most of the long-term care for the victims. It had become a normal way of operations on church properties to have hundreds of people camped out, waiting. Money and assistance promised from the government failed to arrive, and some suspected corrupted officials skimming the pot.

sinabung eruptionAfter a few days with the ministries of the GBKP, I spent a few days with another student of mine, this one from the Nommensen University in Pematangsiantar. She is a Karo Batak and from a village about 10km or 12km from Mt. Sinabung. She inherited an orange crop, which over the last few years has suffered from damaged by ash. Pictured left is a photo she sent me earlier this year from her village.

I ended my work in Indonesia and left the country in July 2014, just after Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected as Indonesia’s new president. Jokowi visited the Karo regency last October, spending time with some of the refugees. His government promised re-settlement for at least some of them, but assistance for some was reportedly slow to materialize.

Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sumatra, Indonesia. 19 April 2014.

Now, as June 2015 sees more intense eruptions, the government again promises aid. It has been more than a year since I visited the region, yet eruptions continue and more people are displaced.

I give my thoughts and prayers for all the victims in this continual disaster, and I do hope the government is able to follow through with relief and resettlement.

These are some of my photos from April 2014 in Kabanjahe:


There are more photos from the recent eruption here: Living in the Ring of Fire.

Featured image atop this post credit to Ulet Ifansasti/Getty, from this article: Mount Sinabung Erupts Again.

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.

Sumatran Rain

Today is the first day of Spring in the northern hemisphere–but for this post, I’ve re-hashed two previous posts about the rain in Sumatra (here and here), forming this one below about October:

Siantar rainIt’s October and the rain falls nightly, bringing a chill to the air, though it’s not cold and it isn’t Autumn in Sumatra, this lush island near the equator.

On these earth-soaking October nights, some memory inside expects to arise in the morning to see orange, yellow, and red leaves falling around. But when I peer out my window in morning light and the rain gone, the leaves remain bright green; it is Summer for another day in Sumatra.

Sometimes I awake in the morning after the night rain, missing the misty cool mornings of the Pacific Northwest. I stare at photos of Autumn leaves and remember seasonal transitions. But in two months when I greet Sumatra’s sunshine as friends trudge through dark December, I won’t miss the cold winter.


When I listened to the sound of the rain—which is at times a roaring noise echoing off trees and metal rooftops—I was grateful for shelter above my head and an abundance of fresh fruit, vegetables, and rice available all year round on the tropical island. I’m back in North America now, but really do miss the Sumatran rain. The heat never bothered me much; I miss that, too.

hujan deras

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

Mt. Sinabung volcano erupting again

Earlier in April, I spent some time in the Karo Batak region of North Sumatra with some of my students. We talked with residents in the refugee camps displaced by the previous eruptions of Mt. Sinabung. You can read about our experience here.

In the last week the volcano has erupted again. Although I am no longer in Indonesia, I guess there are still several thousand refugees (in April there were more than 5,000). Please pray for the people and families whose homes and crops have been destroyed and who cannot return home.

Look at some breathtaking photos from various sources here and get more information from the Smithsonian Institute Global Volcanism Project.

Below is my own photo, the closest I got to the volcano in April 2014, before the most recent eruption.

Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sunatra, Indonesia.

Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sunatra, Indonesia.

St. Francis and the Tropics, Or Why I Sing Praise to the Gecko

October 4th is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Once a favorite of mine, I am re-reflecting this year about St. Francis and a spirituality of the tropical climate. As the Autumn season begins in North America and leaves are changing from green to yellow, orange, and red, life along the equator continues to be lush and green, with drenching downpours soaking already wet earth. Near the equator, there is no Autumn, there is no winter darkness. Alas, I returned to my native land more than two months ago. The Autumn is beautiful, but I do miss my tropical environment.

When I think of St. Francis, I remember his deep commitment and vow of poverty; I remember his Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, which the hymn All Creatures of Our God and King was based on; and I remember his love of all creation and animals. I can’t help but wonder what a St. Francis in the tropics would be like. His life in poverty wouldn’t be far above some Indonesians. Would he preach to the Orangutan and the birds of paradise? Would he preach to a mosquito on his arm and call it his brother, or take a whack at it like I’d do?

Geckos (called cicak in Indonesia–that’s pronounced chee-chak, with a very short “k”) are friends to those who live in the tropical climate near the equator. These wall lizards are welcomed into the house, and in Indonesia there are also superstitions about the cicak. In my room in Indonesia I used to talk to the cicak on my walls, and thank them for eating the mosquitoes. In this cold climate with well-sealed homes in the USA (specifically in the Pacific Northwest), I miss the chirping of the cicak, and the comfort it gave me as it devoured mosquitoes. I can imagine the cicak as my brothers and sisters, and even St. Francis preaching for them.

Although I get laugh out of trying to imagine St. Francis being bitten by swarming mosquitoes trying to preach to the birds in the midst of a massive Sumatran downpour, I do think about walking and praising everything in the spirit of St. Francis–underneath the forest canopy and through the traditional markets and the rice fields of Indonesia. And that gives me joy.

My Indonesian friends might be surprised that many North American Protestants follow the calendar of saints and celebrate the lives of long gone Roman Catholics. It’s a beautiful thing to recognize the great people that have gone before us and help us connect with the Holy One. But it’s not just them; the saints are, in fact, all around us. They are us. We are all saints, and indeed sinners. I think about the saints dear to my heart and wonder about the ones I’ve never heard of. I think about creation, and specifically the rich biodiversity found within Indonesia’s archipelago.

On this Feast Day of St. Francis, I sing my praise to the cicak, the geckos of Indonesia, and I offer this verse reflecting Creation in the tropics that can be sung to the tune of All Creatures of Our God and King (but I’m still not ready to give thanks for the mosquito):

Thou brother cicak on the wall
who keeps us safe from dangers all
Oh praise Him, Alleluia!
Thou mother forest standing strong
Thou growing forest all year long

O praise Him, O Praise Him
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Gecko (cicak) on the wall

Gecko (cicak) on the wall