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.

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.

orang karo_IMG_1019
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.

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

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.

Sumatra Earthquake (updated)

As I wrote yesterday, I had been listening to the deep booms of an approaching thunderstorm. Barely 10 minutes after I posted my previous entry, the ground started to shake. It took a few seconds for my brain to register that this was, in fact, an earthquake.

Balige is well inland, and was far from the epicenter. Nevertheless, we felt some shaking. It was not violent enough cause damage here or knock anything over. I came out of the school and waited with students and others for the shaking to stop.

Then, as I was trying to update to family and friends what had happened, as I was sure this would make the news in America, the second one came.

I am well, and have made it through my first earthquakes. It was a concern at first, what would happen in the Aceh and West Sumatra provinces, as well as the chain of small islands to Sumatra’s west. People here have deep memories of the quake and tsunami that hit Banda Aceh in December 2004. Live news reports here showed people leaving the city.

We are very thankful there was no tsunami. Please, however, continue to keep this region in your prayers.

EDIT – 13 April:
Below is a link to a report by a local partner to the ELCA Disaster Response.
Final Report Earthquake 11 April 2012
The report has a map of each of the earthquakes and aftershocks, and details the situation. All the contacts have reported, and thankfully, very little damage has been reported.

Horas from Indonesia

This post is a brief hello to say that I have made it and am doing well on my 3rd day here. After 28 hours of travel time, I finally arrived in Medan (Indonesia’s 3rd largest city and provincial capital of North Sumatra) on Sunday morning, April 1st. We spent the night there and then traveled by car to Balige on Monday. Because of traffic and a windy road with potholes, the journey took about 7 hours.

Enjoy these two photos below. First, one in Medan, then one of some of the students singing as I arrived at the HKBP Deaconess School. Stories, more photos, and video (I hope) to come.

enjoying fresh coconut
enjoying fresh coconut

the students sing their greetings

Sumatra Blue Batak

I originally drafted this post at the end of December, but have not been able to finish and post it until now.

I was out for a walk and decided to stop at the Peet’s Coffee. In the shop I ordered some tea, but a sign caught my attention. The sign, drawn in chalk said “Sumatra Blue Batak.” They were advertising for a free tasting of that blend. Another sign read: “Deeply hued, meticulously selected beans from the ethnic Batak region. A sweet, heavy, and aromatic cup perfect for the winter months.”

My first reaction was that of excitement. It won’t be long before I will set foot on Sumatra, reside at the shore of Lake Toba beside some dramatic scenery, and live among a community of women. Yes, soon I will be surrounded by all things Batak. I smiled, and had my own private moment of joy while paying for my tea.

Then I realized the other side to this coffee offering. Sumatra is so distant to most people in the USA, that the word “Sumatra” becomes synonymous with coffee, an aromatic cup of “meticulously selected” and roasted coffee beans (for a limited time only!). Indeed, a common reaction to my explanation that I’m going to be in Indonesia on the island of Sumatra, has been,”Ohh…the coffee!”

North Americans are privileged to have a selection of coffees from the beans grown in every region where coffee is grown. Even though coffee is not grown in the US, we can purchase a blend of Sumatran, Ethiopian, Colombian, or other country any day of the year in a vast amount of coffee shops all over the country. And we can do this without much thought to how it was purchased, who grew it, the culture of the people named in the advert (in this instance, the Batak people), or how it changed hands into North America.

I did not sample the Sumatra Blue Batak blend, although I’m sure I would have enjoyed the taste. Instead, I decided to wait until I am in Sumatra to sample Sumatran coffee. There is more to Sumatra and to the Bataks than coffee, and I hope to listen to and share their stories.