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.

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.

Continue reading “Making Saksang”

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.

Continue reading “Wedding Crasher”

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.

Continue reading “Keep Spirit”

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

Funeral Party

_MG_6041Back in early December, I went to the funeral for the father of the director of the deaconess school where I teach. Here is a glimpse into the funeral celebration for an old grandfather in the Batak culture.

After the death, the body is laid in an open casket in the family home. Family and people from the village come to pay their respects. The party is the final act before burial. Much like the party for a wedding, the funeral party in the Batak tradition is an all-day event.

There are certain traditions and customs that take place on the day–exchanging gifts and traditional dancing called “tortor”. Friends and family come again to pay respects, and a meal of saksang (a dish made of minced pork meat cooked in blood and spices) is shared. Finally, when the customs have been completed, the body is taken to the church for a short worship then placed at the gravesite. It was a long day for me. Along with some of the students, I traveled from Balige to the village of Sidamanik to attend.
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Yes We Can (a discussion on modal verbs)


The image is well familiar to the American audience. The idea to share this image with one of my classes came as I was thinking about what activities to use when teaching modal verbs (can, could, must, should, would, will …). I showed the picture and asked them to comment. Among the things said by the students, was the similar phrase used by President Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign, “Yes we can.”

Obama is popular here in Indonesia. That he once lived in Jakarta and is a black man leading a superpower nation are a source of inspiration for many I’ve encountered. “He gives hope to people with dark skin” a student from the university once told me. So then, it is no surprise to me that they know his old campaign slogan.

Our class discussion led me to say in Spanish, “Si se puede!” This phrase also has some deeper cultural meaning in the US, which is too complicated to explain to my class right now, but is relevant to talk about what we can do. Ever eager to translate, the students told me the meaning in Bahasa Indonesia: Kita bisa. Then, as they are Batak people, it was also offered in Batak: hita boi. Sometimes too much translation gets in the way, but this is helpful—hopeful even—to them, and also to me, as I learn their languages.

We can do it. Yes we can, messages of encouragement and hope. Like the current pop-culture use of this poster from the WW II-era, the phrase “yes we can” is meant to empower. This is my hope for my students, that they feel empowered and able to speak English—that they can speak English.

Along the way, much encouragement is needed, for I often hear them tell me (in English), “Sister, I don’t speak English.”

My response now: Yes you can. Ya, kamu bisa bahasa Inggris, adik! But maybe better if we do it together: Hita boi.

July Recap

Here are some long overdue photos from back in July. August was a busy month, which included many hours teaching an intensive English course, celebrating Indonesia’s independence, hiking around Balige, going to a wedding as part of a family, and more. Those stories and photos will have to wait.

The night before going to Jakarta, I attended the opening worship for the gathering of the deaconess community, held in Sipoholon. See below the deaconesses in their uniforms. I have often been asked here if deaconesses in America wear uniforms. No, I say. So it is interesting to me to see them all in uniform. My brief appearance was noted, but I hardly had time to meet anyone at all.

The deaconesses gathered for worship and meeting. In the few days that followed they selected a delegate who will represent the community at the general gathering of the HKBP this month (September). There a new leader for the denomination will be selected.

Deaconess community of the HKBP

Then, in Jakarta, I attended a consultation of the HKBP for their Diakonia ministry. I met some people, but only got a general idea of the conversations. It was good, however, to hear about more of the ministries of the HKBP. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to write a synopsis of the event. Below are two photos.

View of Jakarta from the fancy downtown hotel

Small group work at the Consultation for National Diakonia

After the conference in Jakarta, I went to Bali, which I have previously posted about. Worth mentioning is the time spent in Jakarta with the family of the director of the deaconess school. They are now my family, too. It is customary in Batak culture for people such as myself, to have a Batak family name. So, I have been invited to be a Sitanggang. When introducing myself in a formal manner I can say I am “Megan Ross, boru Sitanggang”.

While staying with the Sitanggang clan, I played with the young children who taught me a few words of Batak such as “modom” (sleep), “male” (hungry — I’m not sure about spelling), and “butong” (full). Below are some photos.

The family with some of the school staff

Eating Pecel lele (pronounced “pechel lay-lay”), a type of fish, in Jakarta.

Playing football in front of the house