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.

Wedding Crasher

Batak culture, Indonesia, story

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.

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.

A Slice of the life in Indonesia

culture, Indonesia

Snippets of life in Indonesia for the North American/European:
* I eat rice 3 meals a day and that’s normal.
* It’s considered abnormal here to not eat rice every day.
* While in Balige I eat my lunch with the other staff outside. Every day. We sit at a table outside the entrance to the kitchen and under the stairs to the 2nd floor classrooms.
* Yesterday I washed my clothes by hand and that’s normal.
* I can count on my fingers the number of times I have had access to a washing machine and used it in the last year and a half.
* I can’t count on my fingers the number of times the power has gone out (whether for a few seconds, minutes, or an hour+) in the last month.
* If I have digestion problems I can walk across the street to the hospital, see the doctor, get medicine and be home in less than 20 minutes and less than $10 for everything (true story from back in January).
* But if I have heart disease (which I don’t), it is better to drive the 7 hours to the nearest airport, fly an hour to Penang, Malaysia, and visit the hospital there for treatment and check-ups and medicine than it is in Indonesia.

And this is the view from my desk. I work with the door open. Every day.

A Day in the Life

mission, teaching

It has been more than 6 months since I arrived in Indonesia. It is hard to believe the time has passed! I have shared some of my experiences so far, but not yet detailed what a typical day is like, because, well, it seems now so ordinary. But maybe you are curious. So…

Just before 5am I hear the echo of “Allahu Akbar” coming from the local mosque. It is about this same time my students wake up. I don’t usually get out of bed until 5:30am. My routine has been to do some exercises like push ups and sit ups then go for a short jog, maybe 20 minutes. Even though the morning air is cold for my Indonesian friends, I return from a light jog and am dripping in sweat. I greet the students as they clean and take care of their morning tasks.

Breakfast is at 7am. Always rice, sometimes fried, or with a fried egg and/or noodles, and fish. And of course chilis. I eat with the director of the school, and now also with a young woman from Germany doing her internship here.

Morning worship is at 7:30am. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are in Bahasa Indonesia; Tuesday is in the Batak language; and Thursday is in English.

The students have classes from 8am to 12:15, and again in the afternoon. I teach each day Mon-Fri, but different times each day. The school here is for 3 years, and each grade attends every class together. I am in the classroom 13 hours per week, teaching the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year students.

Lunch is eaten communally with other staff. We have a table in the passage between the kitchen and common area near the courtyard.

At 6pm the church bell rings as it did at 6am. By this time, I am done with teaching and can relax or work on lesson plans (usually I relax).

Here’s a few photos of my days:

Making spaghetti

Students in class

Saturday relaxing

Life, Death, and Human Achievement

Batak culture, Indonesia, mission

As NASA’s craft Curiosity made it’s landing on the surface of Mars, I was listening to the live feed while working on phrasal verb flash cards for my students. In the moment the NASA control room waited with baited breath to received the signal and photos from the craft, that it had in fact landed, I also heard the loudspeaker on the local mosque broadcast the muezzin’s chant, sending the faint sound of “Allah u Akbar…” into my office; my Muslim neighbors were praying, and as it is Ramadan, also fasting from food and drink. Some of my students were cooking lunch, others cleaning the school in preparation of the new semester.

In the US, the Sikh community in Milwaukee, WI was reeling from an inexplicable act of violence and hate against them. Six dead, shot in cold blood, desecrating their holy place of worship.

Someone I know lost their mother that day after a fall, and another person’s mother was breathing her last breaths, having walked more than 99 years on this earth.

Athletes from all corners of the world competed to be swifter, higher, stronger at the Olympic Games in London; world records were broken, as humans do indeed push the limits of their own bodies.

On that day, the 6th of August, back in 1945, the US unleashed a weapon of mass destruction on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, instantly killing many thousands and destroying a city.

From the earth to the moon, and now to Mars, we have such capacity to advance technology, to accurately place a craft on a distant planet. We also know how to create total destruction. We dare to run faster and jump higher than any human before. Meanwhile, billions of people live out their daily lives, working, playing, and eventually dying.

In Balige, that evening (6 August 2012), I went with some of my students to see the body of someone who had died; she was 85. In Batak culture, when an old person dies, they do not mourn in black as in western culture. Here, they have a party and they wear their ulos (traditional blanket). As is customary at death, the body is laid in the home and family and community come to visit. And so, beneath large tents, people gathered to sit. A band played traditional Batak music, while other people visited the body.

My students came to pay respects because the woman who was a friend to the deaconess students. We sang hymns, for which the band provided the music; we prayed; and then we greeted each of the family members with the customary handshake, placing the right hand to the heart after shaking.

Life and death—such beauty and mystery…

Below is the photo from the visit to the dead woman’s family:
Visitation of the Dead

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