Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Caught Red-handed

My school does a lot for me. They check on me if I’m sick, they give me rides anywhere in Limboto or even to Kota or a nearby beach if they know I’m going. My headmaster looks for reasons to cover my cost for things, eager to always make sure I am happy. One by one the teachers bring me lunch and sometimes breakfast everyday I’m at school, and sometimes even when I’m not at school. The headmaster assigned a rotating schedule to the teachers so that I am feed by them every day and don’t have to worry about food. They are so generous.

They even go above and beyond the duties the headmaster encourages them to undertake, paying for my groceries if they run into me at the supermarket or paying for my angkot (mini bus) if they happen to be riding in the same one.

As you can see, I owe a lot to these teachers.

So, when I started teaching at MAN Limboto and they asked if I would have an English course after school on Wednesdays for the teachers, I naturally obliged. It was the least I could do.

But where should I start? These teachers of Economics, Religion, Bahasa Indonesia, English, Arabic, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology were at such varying levels of English that I struggled with what to teach them. Surely I would bore some and very quickly lose others. Moreover, since I knew they came of their own free will to these after school courses with the purpose of being able to speak in English by the end of the year, I could not very well start them off with the basics of grammar. They would be bored, leave shortly and not be able to speak any more English than what they had started with.

What might be most upsetting is that at some point these teachers all took English for many, many years and were able to pass a very stringent national exam covering English. What had happened since then? About half of these teachers cannot say more than, “Hello Miss, how are you today?” to me, and yet, at some point not that many years ago they could apparently analyze texts in English and come up with appropriate ways to sympathize and give advice. For many of them this was just 5 or 6 years ago. They really should be able to say more.

But whatever parts of lack of repetition, improper memory storage and the recent uselessness of English had brought them to me with their degraded English skills, it was my job to forgive their memories and progress forward in teaching them how to communicate using English.

Thus, it has become tradition that every Wednesday I teach teachers English. I could not have anticipated how difficult this task was going to be. I have begun to have new appreciation and understanding for the cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” It’s not that these teachers are even that old. Many are in their thirties, married with children, and eager to learn English. But, being teachers, they each have their own way of teaching that they have grown accustomed to, and after many years of viewing only their own teaching style, they find mine hard to swallow. It may be only a few that really don’t prefer my teaching style, but then the others do not respect me as a teacher. They respect me as a woman, as a person and as an American, but not as a teacher. I am cute, and beautiful, not intelligent and disciplined. The atmosphere in the classroom ranges from unruly to blasé to playful mocking. My age does not help my case. These women think of me more as their niece or daughter rather than their peer.

But again, what can I really do? This is not a class, I am not giving them a grade; they are in fact my elders, I cannot discipline them; and they are more experienced in the classroom, why should they take my teaching seriously.

So, I have had to accept their attitude and the classroom atmosphere. Please do not misunderstand however: they all want to be there, they all want to learn English, and they all really do love me dearly. They simply do not respect my classroom, my style or me as an authority figure/ teacher.

That was the set-up. Here’s the story.

Two Wednesday’s ago they were looking blasé again, and I found myself struggling to review the seemingly boring topic of body parts in English, reminding them for the eighth time the word for ear. The class was dragging more than usual, and I realized that I needed a real way to encourage them to retain the information we had already learned and reviewed for the last 5 months.

Then, a teacher eagerly suggested having a test.

I thought about it, and agreed. This would finally be a chance for them to see just what they had learned in the last 5 months, and get them to finally retain what I had been going over ad nauseam.

Immediately after going over what would be on the test there was a buzzing in the air. The women, and few men, looked excited. They started chatting with each other about when they would study together. They told me excitedly that they would ask permission from their husbands to start a study group together so that they could do really well on the test.

Yes!! This is what I wanted!! I got them excited about English – finally! They had asked for this test, so surely they were ready to be challenged on their English skills.

As a Fulbright ETA I am not allowed to create or grade tests while teaching my students at MAN Limboto. So, this test for my teachers was the first test I had ever made. Ever.

My first test….I put careful thought into the test’s format, carefully crafted the questions, and made sure the test covered all the appropriate subjects. The test involved pictures, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank and short answer. Just so they would have plenty of ways of succeeding at the test I even included a significant bonus section on the test. I made the test challenging at their request, and looked forward to them taking it.

A few days before the test was to be administered Pak Yunus, the young 22-year-old teacher I now work with daily to teach the 11th grade students, related to me the fears of the teachers. They were afraid that the test would be too hard for them, and they feared failing. I told them, and he translated back, that they need not worry about their scores. The scores were only to give them an idea of how much English knowledge they actually possessed.

Still, they told Pak Yunus that they were worried the test would be too hard, and jested that they would, “have to cheat like the students,” looking at each other’s test for the answers. During this “joke” the Ibu concerned imitated a student cheating as she chuckled to herself sheepishly.

I decided to laugh this off, and again emphasize that no cheating would be necessary because there were going to be no consequences for doing badly on this test, it was only an assessment to see what they had retained. It was for their benefit only.

Test day arrived, and I found myself wanting to push through my classes with my 10th grade students, actually looking forward to seeing my teachers challenged, and anticipating with my pride the viewing and taking of the first test I had ever written.

The teachers settled down in the library, and before the test was handed out, I explained the directions. As I was explaining, I noticed that these teachers had taken their usual seats around our main table. It occurred to me that this arrangement was not adequate for taking a test. I needed these teachers to be much more spread out, as I did not want them to be tempted to cheat.
I moved many teachers before handing out the test, to make sure they were as far away from each other as I could make them.

Then, taking in a deep, excited breath, I handed out the test.

The following hour and a half were the worst hour and a half I can remember having in a long time. I NEVER stopped moving, I never stopped hovering like a hawk, I never stopped telling them to be quiet, and I NEVER STOPPED stopping them from cheating. Their cheating seemed endless. In fact, they never really did stop.

My hawk-like watching was maddening. I had to constantly move my head, knowing full well that as soon as I turned away from one set of teachers their cheating I had just stopped would soon resume, often the second I turned me head away from them. I repeated, “Diam!” (Silence) so many times that I felt the word had lost its meaning.

I used myself as a physical barrier between them, trying to prevent them from cheating, but it would sometimes continue (subconsciously?) even in my clear presence.

I moved a few teachers whose cheating was their only means of answering questions on the test, but most would giggle at or denying any recognition I made of their cheating. They were never truly ashamed.

I was forced to ask myself, had they no shame?! Was this not a moral issue?! A matter concerning religion?!

What had happened that made cheating on these tests acceptable to these teachers?!!
I was shattered when the test finished. I was angry, hurt, disheartened and confused. My first test and every single person had cheated. Did this have something to do with their lack of respect for me as a teacher, or their lack of respect for my class? I would prefer these answers for why they cheated then believe that this is standard for any test.

But these were teachers!! Teachers should not condone cheating, but rather should harshly punish cheaters. They should set a good example, and know without me saying that any test should not include cheating. What, I had to ask, did they allow in their classrooms?

Thankfully when I got back home Alexa reminded me that this is a very collective society and it is considered arrogant and selfish here to not help a fellow student or friend in need. You want success for the collective group, not the individual. Just as with the Mennonites, individuality is not praised, but efforts to promote the collective community as a whole are applauded. Alexa reminded me that any teacher who did not help out another teacher to do well on the test was being self-centered, greedy and a bad friend.

But when did helping a friend allow you to overlook the obvious breaking of a moral rule? I know that they meant no harm by what they had done, and no doubt do not feel bad for what they have done, because their acts no longer fall into the category of something odious. They have become so accustomed to small amounts of cheating that they regard ‘some’ cheating as acceptable in certain situations. Clearly my unimportant elective class falls under the category of a situation where cheating is acceptable, whether I condone it or not.

Now I am left with a problem.

Tomorrow is Wednesday. It has been a week since the fateful test was taken, and I do not know how to proceed. Do I grade them, give them back and reprimand them for cheating? Do I give back tests to only the few teachers who cheated the least on the test? Should I give them a lecture on how I feel about cheating, what I expect in an academic setting, and then proceed to make a new test which I will administer again, this time with the clear pretext of no cheating (yeah right)? Can I give up now? I honestly don’t want to teach these teachers again after the way I felt about that test and the very little respect I feel like I was shown.

But then, this is a cultural difference, and I need to be sensitive. I know that. But they need to know that I’m hurt, and I think they need to know how this would be understood and dealt with in the United States, had this been a real classroom. But can I do that? Do I have the conviction and guts to stand up to these teachers, my elders, who feed me every day, and reprimand them like children? Do I have the gall?! I’m afraid I don’t.

Please, I implore you all. What should I do?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Six Men With Machetes

When you’re a child you learn by categorizing. At first, you have boxes with broad categories, like an ‘animal with four legs’ category. Dogs, cats, wolves, lions, etc. fall into this category. With time and repeated correction you start to understand the distinction between cat and dog, and you will probably stop calling all ‘animals with four legs’ simply dog. Now you start to make smaller categories, like ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, and you continue in this fashion. As I learn different dog breeds, I make different boxes or categories in my head, making the distinctions smaller still.

I know that there are many species of dog which I do not know the name for yet, but the box is there anyway, waiting for information, knowing that these species names exist, but I do not know them yet.

Two days ago however, I encountered a creature for which previously I had no box or category for. Perhaps as a child or even as an adult I had briefly encountered this creature in the zoo, but I had never taken careful consideration, or put much particular thought into this creature. Until two days ago, I believe it would have fallen into the category of ‘large lizard-like creature’.

It was a lazy Sunday in Limboto, and Alexa and I were enjoying each others’ company while lounging about in our pajamas. As we typed away on our computers, or read a book, our house cleaner, Amu, arrived to clean our house. (Yes, we are very lucky and spoiled and have an AMAZING house cleaner who cleans our house 6 days a week generally. He’s great, and we really appreciate all that he does for us.) He was cleaning, and being in my pajamas, I decided it was a good time to go back to my room and work there. I was in my room for ten minutes when I decided to go back out to the living room to try to turn the internet modem on and use the internet.

As I leaned over to try the modem, I heard a small crash to my left near where an unused entertainment system furniture. I glanced over, heard a much louder crash while simultaneously seeing a VERY LARGE lizard/iguana-like tail flick up and slide quickly down the wall. Before I even saw the tail descend below the wooden surface I screamed at the top of my lungs, turned and bolted out of the house.

What the hell was going on?! What had I just seen?!! What was that THING??

I had no box for it. No category specific enough to understand and respond to what I had just seen. Was it a large lizard? That just doesn’t seem like a big enough word for this 3 ½ foot creature I had just seen IN MY HOUSE. Lizard conjures up cute, small, harmless creatures from Florida, not potentially venomous, large, carnivorous reptilian from Southeast Asia.

Frantic and shaking a nearby female neighbor tried to explain to me in Bahasa Indonesia what I needed to do next (close the bedroom doors). It appeared she knew what was in my house and I myself was struggling with what I had just seen. Thankfully Alexa had heard my scream (how could she have missed it?) and came cautiously out of the house moments later. I tried to tell her that there was as large, large lizard in the house, but knew that I had not really conveyed what I had just seen. I thought about saying something like, “the size of your torso” but decided that would scare her unnecessarily, not to mention make me sound like an exaggerating fool. But I’m not. The thing was 3 ½ meters long – no joke – with the tail making up a little more than half of its size.

Just then, as I’m cowering away from our front door, and noticing other women down the street looking almost as scared as me, I see Amu coming down our small lane with five men with him. Each of them carry machetes or the nearest blunt object they can find.

They cautiously enter our house and after a mere minute they emerge again with the large water monitor lizard. Yes, it does have a name. Our lizard had been beaten over the head and was bleeding from the mouth, tongue hanging out, eyes shut forever. Holding it by the tail, a man brought it out of our house and laid it on the ground, still bleeding. What a sight.

We took some crucial pictures of our lizard, which helped in identification later, and then waited as Amu cleaned up the surprisingly small mess the quick kill had made.

Since then, we have been processing. It is quite a lot to take in, and Alexa and I have been ranging through a lot of different emotions. The experience was scary and overwhelming, but mostly it made us lose our sense of security and safety. Even as I write this I look over my shoulder from time to time to make sure his brother is not around the corner.

We had begun to feel very safe in our house, like you would any home, but this incidence has gotten us on guard again. The worst part is that we don’t know how it got in. Maybe from our open gate thing to the open air loft upstairs, but it seems that that was closed when we found it, so I’m not sure it got in that way. This means there may be a hole somewhere in our house that we don’t know about, which is very unsettling. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

All in all however, we’re doing fine. Even these two days have helped me calm down about it, and I think the more time that passes, the more I’ll just laugh at the whole incident.

I will say though, that any Indonesians here were just as scared at the idea of this huge lizard being in our house. Alexa’s counterpart wouldn’t even look at the picture. One of my teachers screamed in horror when she saw the picture and exclaimed, “Astaga!” (Oh my god!). Still others laugh, calling it ‘the chicken eater’ and say they shoe one away from their chickens every day. I doubt it, but that’s what they claim.

After some photo comparison, Alexa and I decided that it was a water monitor lizard. Our pictures are below, but I encourage you all to search online and read for yourselves about this lizard in the Komodo dragon family. As I said, a monitor lizard portrayed a Komodo dragon in the movie The Freshman, so they can’t look that much different than a miniature Komodo (my favorite name for it).

Let’s hope our large lizard cohabitants are gone for good, because I don’t want anything that looks like a Komodo dragon in my house again.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Traveling with my parents

Well, it’s been awhile.

I hope you all had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! I know I did. I had such a great holiday season because my mother and father and Phillip came to visit me in Indonesia!!! What a gift!

My mom and dad arrived on Dec. 23 late at night (actually early in the morning on the 24th) and I greeted them at the Denpasar Bali airport with great big hugs. It was amazing seeing their familiar faces, and seeing them almost brought tears to my eyes when I realized what they had gone through to get there, and what they had yet to overcome, but were willing to do out of sheer love for me. I am so loved. Thank you mom and dad. Knowing how far you would travel to see me and the cultural differences you would put up with was the perfect Christmas gift.

We spent two nights in Tuban, Bali, at a hotel that was close to the airport, but that is now not close to our hearts. We had a couple of misunderstandings that stemmed I believe from a language barrier which I tried to bridge, but to no avail. The details are dry and too long to explain, but in short they wanted more money than they deserved or had the right to.

We were staying in Tuban but spent our two days exploring Kuta beach. For those readers who are not familiar with the top vacation destination for young Australians, allow me to introduce you to Kuta beach, Bali. The Aussie equivalent to Cancun, Kuta beach is teeming with scantily clad, beer guzzling Aussie tourists, pretty much day and night 365 days a year. Sadly, any remnant of Balinese culture or their predominately Hindu religion is long gone, save numerous Hindu shrines and temples you will find all over the city, shockingly disguised near bars or street stalls.

Bali boasts a population of over 80% Hindu, and as such remains a very unique part of Indonesia. When I go to Bali, I often feel as though I have left Indonesia. The culture, the customs and the habits seem slightly different, and are, in fact, slightly different. Perhaps then, this was a strange place to start my parents’ journey into Indonesia. But I did so anyway because Bali is known for its natural beauty, beautiful beaches and warm, friendly people. I wanted to ease them in to Indonesia, and I thought a nice relaxing time on the beaches of Bali would be nice.

Kuta beach however, proved to be overwhelming. For those two days, we walked along the street that parallels Kuta beach, and each day after about 30 minutes of walking in the intense heat of Indonesia, my parents were understandably ready to find a cool place to go and sit down. So, as one is apt to do from time to time, we went to the Hard Rock Café, Bali! It was a blast, really. I’m glad I went. My parents and I gazed upon old Rock and Roll relics while we took our time enjoying the food and the air conditioning.

Oh, and as for a relaxing time on the beach, we found ourselves inundated with persistent hawkers on the beach. Every few seconds a woman or man would ask us if we would like to:
• Get a manicure, pedicure
• Buy wooden figurines carved by the seller (who knows if they actually were)
• Get a massage
• Buy a bracelet for me, my mother
• Get a cold drink
• Get our hair corn-rowed
• Buy a watch, sun glasses

Needless to say, that got old quickly. My dad did seriously consider buying a blow dart, ‘hand-made’ for only a dollar. Mom and I convinced him he couldn’t bring that back on the plane, but he still wanted it.

So to find a really relaxed atmosphere I took my parents to Ubud, Bali. We spent Christmas day traveling just a short hour from Kuta to Ubud, and had a lovely Christmas dinner at a favorite spot of mine in Ubud – Bali Buddha. The meal at Bali Buddha was so much more for me than for my parents, since they can get bagels and lox spread just about anywhere, and for me it was only my second bagel in 5 months.

Proving that we really do live in a small world, we ran into another ETA Courtney and her mother eating at Bali Buddha for their Christmas dinner! It was good for my parents to have another parent to chat with briefly and Courtney and I are always happy to see each other.

Let me just pause a moment and tell you that planning a vacation in a foreign
country for your parents is a very, very strange and stressful thing. For the first time, the roles were reversed and they were dependent on me to find us a hotel for the night, places to eat during the day, places to rest/shop, cultural sites to visit, local arts to enjoy, and transportation (since I am the only one that even remotely speaks Bahasa Indonesia). It was overwhelming, but I did it. Ubud was my first attempt at finding a nice hotel for my parents and me to stay at. I had been to Ubud only once before and we had not stayed at a nice place, so I needed to find a better place.

I had looked before they arrived, and found most places that were not completely booked to be too far from the city center. I knew I wanted to be close to the center, and the Monkey Forest because taxis are expensive and hard to come by in Ubud, and I had really intended to walk everywhere in the town. After searching for two days, I finally came across a place that sounded close to the center, and had great reviews called Garden View Cottages. I trusted the internet and other people’s reviews on this one, and I was very nervous about the place not being up to par for the kind of relaxing vacation I had in mind for my parents. Boy did I luck out.

My mother LOVED it. She told me that it was the nicest, most beautiful place she has ever stayed. Success!! The beautiful, warm swimming pool surrounded by a quiet, lush garden certainly added to this places’ charm, as well as the quiet, hidden atmosphere of the entire place. There were only 14 rooms at this place, and therefore even at full capacity as it was, the place was quiet and empty. The pool was almost always empty, and so even the first day we got there, we jumped in to the beautiful oasis-like, empty pool and relaxed away any stress we had accrued from our days in Kuta.

Ubud is the perfect place for relaxing, and after seeing the Sacred Monkey Forest, and a traditional Balinese dance, we mostly just let ourselves relax and enjoy that great food that Ubud has to offer. It was great. All of us just wanted to stay there for the rest of our trip. But, alas, they needed to experience my town and my lovely students.

Dec. 28th – We travelled from Denpasar to Jakarta early in the morning, and waited for hours in the airport for our connecting flights that would eventually take us to Gorontalo. Phillip would have arrived sooner, but the snowing conditions in the US prevented him from leaving on time. He did finally arrive at 2:00 pm to Jakarta, and the two of us quickly changed terminals, rushed through check-in, baggage screening, and made it to the gate with just minutes to spare before scheduled take-off at 2:35pm. You can get through airports a lot faster in Indonesia than you can in America. I used that to my advantage, and we made it to the terminal in time, by the skin of our teeth. Again, success.

By 9:00pm we had arrived in the Gorontalo airport, with my headmaster and other teachers waiting to greet us and bring us back to my house by car – a real treat for me (I always go back by a slow bentor).

For a late dinner we went to eat at my favorite restaurant in Limboto, Sebaya, and everyone tried their delicious chicken and rice. The kankung was habis so Phillip and my parents had to try it later. My headmaster very graciously footed the bill and took us back to my house, exhausted and ready for sleep.

Our time in Limboto was intense, exhausting, overwhelming and surreal. For two days my parents and Phillip learned what it feels like to be a celebrity. We had an Indonesian-style banquet which around 40 people attended, a party in my visitors honor, and more photographs taken of us than ever seemed possible. All toll I think there were about 900 pictures taken of us over the course of 3 days. That A LOT of photographs. Think about it.

In Gorontalo style they had karaoke at my headmaster’s house after the banquet and my dad was in heaven. He loves karaoke. I had not gotten overly tired and called an end to the festivities, I think he would have kept singing long into the night. Maybe I should have let him…

My parents and Phillip also got to see my school and meet a number of my students. Students from a variety of classes showed up to have a question and answer session with my parents and Phillip. I think my parents were really looking forward to seeing my school, and really pleased when they realized what a great community and what good hard-working students I have. They were so happy to see that I am being so cared for and loved by the whole school.

But two days of that kind of intense love can be a little overwhelming, so on the 31st, we hopped on a plane to Jakarta, and travelled by bus for 2 hours to the little mountain villages that make up Puncak Pass. Thus began our New Year’s celebrations…

I have the great fortune of knowing a generous, fun-loving, sweet Indonesian family that lives in Jakarta and vacations in Puncak Pass. I met this family in November while visiting the ETA’s Pete and Christine in Jakarta, and have wanted to spend more time with them ever since. They make me so happy.

The Fathony’s are relatives of Pete, the ETA. Pete’s eldest cousin married the Fathony’s eldest daughter a few years ago, and ever since Pete and his relatives have been a part of their family. You could not ask for a better family to welcome you in. So when Pete invited the ETA’s to join his Indonesian family in their villa in Puncak Pass for New Years I jumped at the idea. I’ve always felt that the more people you love that you can be with on New Years, the better.

So the Fathony’s welcomed my parents, Phillip and me into their villa on New Years’ Eve and together with the ETA’s Pete, Christine, Kaleda and Ab we brought in the New Year with style, Bintang and a hell of a lot of fun. Herul, the father of the family, has a crazy sense of humor and thought it would be funny to shoot the last of the fireworks towards the patio from where we were all watching. We were terrified and ran inside, but by the end we were all laughing from his practical jokes. We tried to stay up till sunrise drinking Bintang and eating rambutan, while playing chess to stay awake. It was the best New Years I have ever had, and I am so glad my parents and Phillip were there to celebrate with me.

We stayed at the villa with the gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains and Bogor below until the 2nd, thanks to the generosity of the Fathony’s. The two days of good-natured fun and relaxation were much needed for me mother who sprained her ankle on the 31st in transit. The rest helped us prepare for the intensive itinerary I had set up for my parents last four days in Indonesia.

If you are Indonesian, your top destination spot is the Javanese city of Yogyakarta (or alternatively spelled Jogjakarta). Lovingly referred to as Jogja, this city is a source of pride for Indonesians since they resisted Dutch colonial rule the most successfully. Throughout the Dutch rule, Jogja maintained its ruling Sultan as head of the proudly Javanese city. The Dutch, respecting the clear authority of the Sultan, and wanting to avoid a rebellion, allowed him to stay in his palace and still have some power over his people. To this day the Sultan of Jogja remains the sole leader of the city, living still in his impressive palace in the center of the city. Not only did they resist colonial rule most successfully, but Jogja is one of the largest producers of Batik cloth, a hand-painted specialty of Indonesia. Thus, I just HAD to bring my parents to see this exciting, artsy city.

I really am tired of boring you with the details, but just know that while I think I wore my parents out, they loved everything they saw. Some highlights of the four days was our trip to the bird market where we saw owls, bats, flying monkey-squirrel things, snakes, iguanas, and all sorts of beautiful birds I had never seen. We went when the pasar (market) was closing, but we decided it was the best time to visit as we were able to view all of these fascinating creatures without the noise and commotion of any other customers or visitors to the market.

Another highlight was actually one an hour outside of Jogja, and that was seeing the breathtaking mammoth of a Buddhist temple, Borobudur. This beautiful temple rising out of lush green rice paddies, green hills and palm trees is one of Southeast Asia’s most spectacular marvels. Built sometime between AD 750 and AD 850 Borobudur’s terraces have withstood nearby Merapi’s volcanic ash, a number of terrorist bombings and the wear and tear of millions of Buddhists and tourists alike. It has had a few well funded restoration projects, and now I believe Borobudur looks as breathtaking and enigmatic as it must have looked when it was first constructed 1200 years ago.

One of the shocking things about Borobudur is that it actually lay hidden and forgotten under volcanic ash for around 900 years! Its size and beauty were uncovered in 1815 thanks to the then governor of Java. After centuries of being buried in volcanic ash, you would think that this temple would not be able to achieve its previous glory, but I assure you it has. Yes, there are a few Buddha heads that are missing of the 432 Buddha statues that serenely stare out at you from their stoops, but the grandeur is still there. I encourage you to look into it and learn more about the beauty of Borobudur if you’d like.

The day after our trip to Borobudur I accompanied my parents to the airport and witnessed another one of my mother’s loving, tearful goodbyes that I’m sure one day I’ll be famous for too. The trip was fun for me. It was fun to show off so many of the things I am in love with about Indonesia. I sincerely hope that my parents loved seeing it all as much as I did.

For now though, I am done with this ridiculously long post, and now I am off to bed! Good night to all!

P.S. This took me four days to finish writing because I was overwhelmed by all the information I had to relay.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mati Lampu

As I’m writing this on my laptop in almost complete darkness, I realize that I have failed to mention one of the annoyances that almost all Indonesians experience. It is an annoyance that we all, rich or poor, bule or Indonesian, politician or teacher must deal with while living and working in Indonesia. This annoyance is a little thing we call mati lampu, or dead light.

In my town of Limboto, I can expect the power to go out about once a week for a 4 hour period. At my school it seems to go out a little more often, and frustratingly, during the day. Today in fact there was tidak strom (no power) for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. Unlike in the United States, school continues to be held, and the teachers, students and administrators try to work around it as best they can.

In my school, where almost all useful light is natural light shining in from the door and windows anyway, there’s not much of a difference in the classrooms. However, I was visiting an ETA friend of mine whose school is a veritable tower, and when the power went off there, I had a hard time seeing chairs that were right in front of me. Still, as everywhere in Indonesia, school continues anyway.

I must tell you that these outages are scheduled. A few years ago the government of Indonesia realized that they did not have enough sources of energy to power the entire country for the upcoming year. The demand exceeded the supply. Wanting to provide the most people they could with power as often as they could, they began to schedule power outages so that they would expend exactly as much energy as they can produce and no more. They have calculated what is needed to get by for a year, and they have consequently scheduled power outages to make ends meet. In some cities this means a power outage almost every day, often during work hours, when the most electricity is being used. For other towns, or in big important cities like Jakarta, there are no power outages. But there are only a few exceptions.

During the workday it’s not the lack of lights that cause such a problem, but obviously the lack of electricity to power a computer, or access the internet. I imagine that businesses grind to a near halt when the power goes out. Productivity has gone down as a direct result of this energy crisis, and entrepreneurs the country around find themselves looking to the government to resolve this pressing problem.

In their defense, there are a lot of pressing problems, and so these outages continue.

My own productivity has been affected at times; my lesson plans have gone out the window due to these power outages. I can remember times that I had wanted to print out a worksheet that I had made only to come to school and find that there was tidak strom. I then had to use the board and my imagination to fill the gaps in my lesson that would have contained the students working on a worksheet. But all this has just made me a more flexible, prepared teacher. I no longer try to print something the morning of my class. The risk is too high that something will go wrong and my plans will fall through. My thanks goes to Indonesia for making me a more flexible teacher.

As I write this the children on my small street have continued to play, ride their bicycles in the pitch darkness, very much accustomed to these power outages as a way of life. Frankly, as children always are quite resilient, they don’t seem at all fazed. I’m not even sure if they dislike it. When the power goes out the whole family comes outside and sits on chairs on their porches, while the children play outside. They make fires sometimes, and grill fish, or just sit out with a few strong lamps and talk into the night. I might find this all very exciting and even romantic if I were a child. At this time the coolest place (temperature-wise) is outside, and at this time, your whole family talks and passes the time together, with absolutely nothing to distract you.

I’m not saying these power outages are all roses, but it forces you to slow down and enjoy the people that are right there with you. There’s no internet to distract you, no tv to watch, there’s only the company of your friends and relatives.

Alexa and I have some of our best talks when the power’s out. I have laughed hard and shared some very personal things by the light of a single lamp in Indonesia. I’m not just saying that to be poetic either. I really mean it. The lack of power, and consequently the lack of distractions, forces you to talk a little longer, get a little more comfortable with the company since, really, you have nothing better to do.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Remembering our Dead

I haven’t posted in awhile, and I’m feeling pretty guilty about it. Apparently though, I’m not the only one who’s noticed. I had a number of complaints yesterday that no new posts had been put up in while.

I must say, I’m glad that people are reading, and care when I don’t post; but I’m pretty new to this, so forgive me for not being a great blogger. I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that I have something interesting to write about.

And now for something completely different.

I woke up on Wednesday feeling tired. Extremely tired. I did not want to get out of bed, I did not want to take a cold shower in my bathroom, and I did not want to teach. My classes started at 8:45am, and at 8am I was still in bed. So, I rolled out of bed, skipped showering, ate a quick bowl of cereal with long shelf-life milk, and got dressed in a flash. I decided that since I put little to no effort into making myself ready for work, I put on one of my most beautiful outfits: a long, simply embroidered golden blouse with my long, white, full skirt.

I hopped on a bentor and took the 7 minute ride to school only to arrive and find things not as they should be. Something seemed off - different. There was a group of 10 students standing outside discussing something intently with a teacher in Bahasa Indonesia. The Language Teacher’s Lounge was empty save me upon entering. I looked at my watch, class should be starting in one minute, but no one was making a sign of changing classes. What was going on? Was there a ceremony? Was class canceled? Were the classes strangely quiet, and all of the language teachers just in class at the same time?

A teacher came to the entrance of the Language Teacher’s Lounge and called a student to her. The discussed something, and then the student entered, and then in broken English, said this, “Taufik’s mother has been died this morning. Can 10 B go to his funeral now in Telaga?” I hurriedly agreed and told them to please go and be there for Taufik.

They asked me if they could go because I was about to teach their class. Taufik is a student of mine, in class 10 B. He is one of my best students. I was shocked. How could someone so young, die so suddenly?

Just as I’m really letting this news sink in, another student comes in and asks if the students in class 10 A can go to the funeral too. I again say, “Of course,” only to their cheers of approval. This I find strange. I can only think that they cheer at the opportunity to support their fellow student whom they love.

Everyone loves Taufik. He’s a very sweet boy, and a great student. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole school was going.

So there I was. I only had to teach two classes on Wednesday, 10 A and 10 B, and both of them were gone, at a funeral. Suddenly I found myself with nothing to do. Contemplating going back home and mulling over death and how it’s perceived in this culture, a year 12 student enters my lonely teacher’s lounge and asks me if I want to go to the funeral. Without hesitation, I say, “Yes, of course.” Quickly, she and I leave the lounge, hail a bentor, and take the ride to Telaga.

I must stop here, and tell you a few things about Indonesian culture. I agreed to go to this funeral so quickly because in this culture it is essential that you attend every funeral event associated with anyone in your community, and anyone you know. Whether you know them personally or not is not important. If they are a member of your community or extended community, you are expected to attend the funeral, and support the family. At a different funeral I attended with Alexa, there was a teacher from her school that was missing, and people asked about her. When you don’t show up for a funeral, people notice and ask questions. Luckily this teacher had a good excuse to miss the funeral, and since every teacher was present and accounted for, the community, collectively, felt at ease that everyone who could be there was there to support this family.

So, I felt that it was pertinent that I go to this funeral. Not to mention, I really like Taufik and I wanted to support him during this time of mourning.

Now, logistics.

From what I’ve gathered, once the funeral starts that wrap the body up in a bag and tie it closed at the end, cover it in a pretty cloth (blue and white for Taufik’s mother), and put it on a flat gurney-type thing made of bamboo. They then pray over her with everyone present at her house. At this point she has not left the house since she died.

After praying over her a bunch of men pick up this bamboo gurney and lead her out of her house. Other men have attached long pieces of bamboo to the end of umbrellas, and fastened about a foot of lace around the edge of the umbrella cloth. These improved umbrellas they position over the body as it is processed from the house to a nearby mosque.

this point everyone at the funeral, which is a lot of people (250-300), is already there, dressed in white, and following the procession of the body from the home to the mosque.

Once everyone has reached the mosque, they crowd into it, and begin to pray again with the body. The many of us who could not fit in the mosque stand around outside in the heat, respectfully standing, or praying to ourselves.

Then the body is again processed back to the house, where a burial site has been prepared. Two mounds of dirt stand on either side of the 5-foot hole. With a very large white piece of lace being outstretched above the body, men crouch down and carefully place the body in the hole. They are carefully to untie the bag that the body is in, but leave the body bag on. This is an important step, because with the bag untied her spirit is free to leave her body, but if left tied, her spirit will be trapped inside her body, in that bag, forever. The gurney-like device is discarded before this, and she is placed in the ground on top of a very large piece of plastic, which lines the sides of the deep hole.

The 4 men who have lifted the body down into the hole, remain there and begin to place 3 feet long pieces of bamboo over the body. The bamboo is all cut to the same length, and has been cut at an angle at the end, so that the pieces of bamboo can be placed above the body, protecting it, at an angle. From left to right the pieces are placed above the body, and the four men, simply pick up their feet, place it down, and stand on the bamboo, instead of the ground. When finished, the bamboo makes a platform above the body that sits at a 45⁰ to the earth.

Once the bamboo is in place other men take shovels and begin to shovel the dirt into the hole. The four men remain in the hole and use their feet to compact the dirt above the bamboo. Their white funeral clothes get very dirty in the process, but this is their honored job, and they don’t seem to mind or notice how dirty they are getting. A few more minutes follow like this until the dirt on the burial site is a little higher than that of the earth around it.

Then bits of flowers are distributed to a select few, and these flowers are sprinkled liberally over the new mound of dirt. Then the last prayer begins. Seven men (sometimes more, sometimes less) then begin to pray from the Holy Qur’an. They are crouched beside the fresh mound of dirt, and then begin to read aloud from the Qur’an, in Arabic, and they all appear to be reading from different passages. Their prayer, the mixture of their voices becomes a din, and all you can feel is the powerful love and devotion to their god with which they all read. After minutes of this the various prayers become one unified rhythmic chant. The chant has one strong beat, and five softer, less important beats. The six beated chant becomes faster, increases in speed. You begin to think it will spin out of control in gets so fast. Then beats are simultaneously dropped, and the six beated rhythm becomes a four beated rhythm, and then quickly just two beats.

Suddenly, as you might expect, it just stops.

The funeral, at least the first day of it, is over.

The participants must wish blessings and good health individually to those in the family before they leave and go back to their days. I shook the hands of the family members, including Taufik, who upon shaking my hand thanked me for taking the time to come to his mother’s funeral.

My goodness, I thought, don’t thank me. Your mother has just died, please don’t be concerned with little old me. But, throughout their days, their respect for me and their love of me prevails. Even though it was his mother’s funeral, he showed real thanks to me that I had come, indicating that in some small way, he was honored by my presence.

This of course seems crazy to me when I think of how infrequently people are honored by my presence in America. I’m going to be in for a real culture shock when I get back, and people just don’t care that much that I’m there.

I am sorry that this has been so long, and I must tell you, that I’m not done yet. I have some thoughts, and reflections to now share with you.

I have been to more funerals and funeral related ceremonies in the last 3 months than I have been to in the previous 4 years of my life.

I’ll just let that sink in.

What does that mean? Do more people die in Indonesia? In Gorontalo? Am I just invited to more funerals?

I think I have been to so many funerals recently due to a combination of the above factors, and one other very important one. Here, there is not just a funeral on the day that someone dies. There’s a ceremony seven days after, twenty days after, and forty days after. In Gorontalo you wear white to every ceremony, except the last, to which you wear blue. The forty days after funeral ceremony, I have heard from Alexa, is a pretty big deal. This is one of the biggest celebrations, with the most food. We decided that this is because it is the last occasion for the whole community to jointly mourn the loss of a loved one.

Death here seems to be a little more frequently occurring, and maybe as a consequence is understood and accepted more easily than I accept death. Death here seems to be a much more accepted part of life, and something to be taken in stride. Few cry, although the immediate family sheds some tears, the death is taken mostly as a reminder that life is meant to end, and that is why trust and faith in god is so important.

This acceptance of death is hard to handle for Alexa and I. We are constantly shocked at how easily they are able to handle death, and not let it negatively affect their lives. As a culture they have accepted its presence and learned to live with it. It is truly amazing, and fascinating to behold. It is power and boldness like I have never seen before.

Lastly: When did our culture, our American culture, stop putting so much time and festivities into our celebrations of the dead? It seems to me that in many cultures, the dead are celebrated or remembered with much ado, or for a long time after that first funeral.

In short, this upsets me, and I want to bring this tradition back to America. I want a big celebration for my funeral, and I want to be remembered for weeks after my death in a public, communal way. The family really does mourn for this long, but our American society cuts off the communal mourning long before mourning is done.
Indonesians wisely have a ceremony seven days after the funeral, at the home of the deceased, in which the community prays along with the family of the deceased. This is perfect. For anyone who has lost a loved one, it is in the weeks following the funeral that you get the most lonely, the most sad, and possibly the most angry at god for allowing this to happen. But when, on the seventh day after your loved ones death, the entire community, everyone important to you and your loved one, gathers at your house to keep your faith strong and show you the great amount of love that still exists in this world, how could you be angry at god? All of this love and support helps your mourning seems a little less solitary, and I promise it helps keep your trust in god strong.

Don’t we all need a little more love and support in our lives?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Next year

So I feel as though I should mention here that I just found out that I’ll be doing Teach for America next year in South Louisiana. Hopefully (Insuh allah) I’ll be in the city of Baton Rouge with my brother Kris, Ellen and Eliza!! It will be great to be near them. But Teach for America is really going to be hard.

You see I first applied for Teach for America last year. I began the application after I had finished my Fulbright application, but before I knew that I was going to get it. However, when the final interview for TfA came around, I already knew that I had gotten the Fulbright and was going to be in Indonesia the next year. My friends, parents and mentors all told me to finish off the application because it’s always good to have another job waiting for me after Fulbright. Due in large part to my relaxed demeanor at my final interview, and the fact that I’m a mathematics major, I secured a spot on the 2009 Teach for America Corps! It was very exciting for me to have been accepted into a movement that does so much good and is so competitive.

I was originally placed in Baltimore in the 2009 Corps. I had put Baltimore down as a top choice for placement because it is near my brother John and his wife Karen. Not to mention I would get to see my two nieces grow up. It really seemed like a good place for me.

But when I got my assignment to teach in Baltimore, Baltimore seemed like a lot more than just a city close to my brother and his family. It’s big, and a pretty scary place for a girl who’s never spent more than a weekend there. I knew from Sociology class that Baltimore has the highest murder rate for any city in the U.S. That fact, which was just a curious fact when I was in Sociology class, seemed very real and scary when I realized I would be living and teaching in this rough city. But then, someone’s got to do it. And would I be that bad at it? Would the students listen to me? Most of the time - no. The trick is to not take it personally. At least that’s what they tell me.

Well, I’ve never been good at not taking it personally. Ask any of the orchestra conductors for whom I sat first chair cello. I seemed to take every comment directed towards the section very personally; assuring them that I had not held that G out too long, I had been certain to keep it short. So, maybe I couldn’t do it. Maybe I can’t do it. My opportunity to test myself has been delayed however, for another year and another place – South Louisiana.

So I wrote to Teach for America last year upon my acceptance to request a deferral. They granted me a deferral after I wrote a persuasive essay convincing them that a Fulbright was an adequate enough reason to defer Teach for America. It was then that they told me that I would not have to apply again, but that I would have to resubmit my list of preferred cities.

That is how I came to be reassigned to South Louisiana. I did not put South Louisiana first in my choices, in fact it was third. I put Atlanta first, Philadelphia second, and South Louisiana third along with about 3 other cities that I know can’t remember. So, I really wanted to be in Atlanta, with so many of my wonderful friends from college – Erica, Mira, Cara, Trica, and maybe Maya and Allison if they are still going to be there. I love Philadelphia, and still want to live there again someday. But Teach for America did say that they really need teachers in South Louisiana. I guess I’m needed more in South Louisiana. I just hope this all works out for the best.

I would be lying if I said I was not sad that I won’t be in Atlanta. Living here in Indonesia has really made me miss the city, and I find myself daydreaming about walking around the streets of Decatur and buying candy from Greene’s. But something tells me that I will fit in to Baton Rouge soon, and living near my brother Kris, some of my family, might be just what I need right now. It might be what both of us need. I know he wishes he was closer to family, and I think I miss it more than I’d like to admit.

Here’s to the Red Stick!!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

November 10, 2009
As you’ve been reading my blog, perhaps you’ve been wondering why it’s titled ‘Mangos for Breakfast.’ Before I give that away, let me tell you that I considered naming this blog 37 minutes or 0 degrees and 37 minutes, or Teaching in the Doldrums (which it was actually temporarily called). I debated over a number of names that I’m not even listing here, even enlisting my friends’ help for idea titles. In the end however I settled on a title of my own.

The title comes from an unwritten list that Alexa and I have been making of things we are not supposed to do according to our very kind and helpful friends here in Indonesia. The Ibus (read women with maternal instincts) especially like to tell us what things we must not do and why.

Here’s the list thus far:

1. You cannot eat mangos for breakfast. Doing so will result in an upset stomach (pronounced with a hard ch)
2. You must eat rice for breakfast. You can eat other things as well, but rice must be a component.
3. You absolutely should not take a shower in the afternoon. According to the Ibus this will dry out your skin considerably and turn your lips purple.
4. Washing your own clothes yourself will make you sick. Anna did so and came down with a fever. Don’t tell, but she’s still washing her own clothes. (For those of you who don’t know, Anna is another ETA here in Indonesia who is stationed in Manado. I love her. She makes me laugh, and reminds me of my sister-in-law Shaela).
5. Using hot water from the hot water dispenser for your instant noodles will make you sick to your stomach. You should always boil your water (i.e. Sarah stop being lazy).
6. Generally you should not eat just fruit for breakfast, it will, as many other things, make you sick. I tend to agree with this one, since I notice that sometimes in the US if I eat a lot of fruit for breakfast and nothing else, I get a little sick. Just thought you all might want to know that.

For now, that completes the list, as far as I can remember.

So, the idea of eating mangos for breakfast sounds both delicious and daring. Mmmm. Doesn’t it also somehow sound so Indonesian? They have so many mangos here, a tree in half the front yards, that you really could have a mango for breakfast every morning. And best of all, you can’t beat the price. If you do have to buy a mango, then it won’t cost you more than 40 cents I’d say. But because our Ibus know that Alexa likes them so much, we often get mangos just given to us. It’s glorious. And wouldn’t you too be tempted to eat a nicely ripe juicy mango for breakfast? I know I’m tempted while living in this tropical paradise.

So now you know. Mangos for Breakfast. Delicious.