Semester break, part 2: the jungle

at our final camp


My friend and I invited our new English acquaintance on the next leg of our trip. We were going to the jungle to see orangutans. The other friends we met up with on Samosir had just come back from their jungle trek and highly recommended the company and the guides. We decided to take the recommendation to heart and booked 3 days in the jungle.

We took a shared taxi to Bukit Lawang, a town close to the jungle, and the starting point and for our trek. We stayed one night in very simple accommodations before heading into the jungle the next day. Our guides were very friendly and professional. The trek included breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Breakfast and dinner we had at camp. Lunch and a fruit break we enjoyed on our way through the lush green trees.

tree hugOverall, I enjoyed the trek a lot, but my feelings are a bit mixed. I relished slipping through the muddy rainforest. Some parts were particularly challenging and required a lot of focus—especially when it rained, which it did a lot—but it was the fun kind of focus. The most challenging trails led us up and down, and then up and down again. The tree roots that kept the soil from washing away also created stairs for us to climb. When there were no stairs, strong vines or branches helped us ease our way down the steep, slippery hillsides.

I also loved seeing the jungle wildlife. Everywhere we looked, there were giant ants and other crawling things. I didn’t love the leeches, but what doesn’t kill you… During one lunch break, a butterfly joined us and wouldn’t leave us alone. It kept landing on us and showering our hands with some liquid. I’m going to pretend it was magical fairy water. We saw monkeys and birds and heard many more animals than we saw.

IMG_4365Of course the stars of the show were the orangutans. Orang means person in Malay/Indonesian, and they really are like people. Unfortunately, they lack a few advantages that humans have. They’re outnumbered, and their homes (the utan part, or hutan: forest) are disappearing. All over North Sumatra we saw enormous, water-guzzling oil palms. They covered giant swaths of land that used to be home to many animals. Farmers—not just oil palm farmers—see orangutans as pests, and so they have no problems dealing with them in their own, not always humane way.

Being among the most charismatic endangered species, orangutans are also tourist attractions. All year long, our guides bring tourists into the jungle to see the great apes. Some of the orangutans around Bukit Lawang in particular are semi-wild and quite used to humans, having a long history with them. In fact, they get fed by the guides, thus almost guaranteeing sightings for tourists. Here’s where the mixed feelings come in. I loved seeing the orangutans. As a mother and baby walked past us, the baby reached out and grabbed my arm. I don’t think these semi-wild animals should stop getting fed. For them it’s too late. They almost rely on tidbits from tour guides, but the practice could stop with animals who aren’t so reliant.

Version 2

Orangutans don’t usually come down from their trees or seek out rivers, but we had something she wanted.

It’s well known that wild animals’ behavior changes when they get fed, and almost never for the better. Two of the orangutans that we met were particularly comfortable around people. They both had names—and reputations. One called Jackie was known to be very gentle, the other, Mina, quite unpredictable and aggressive. We met both on our trek, several times each. Jackie was happy to pose for photos while she ate her snacks, but Mina wanted everything we had. She attacked and bit one of our guides, who protected us from her. (Happily, he was fine. The bite was not nothing, but also, thankfully, not gravely serious.)

No one can blame Mina. Humans have an even worse reputation than she does. On the one hand, feeding is better than massacring entire forests full, as has happened before, but orangutans need room to do their own thing. Much easier said than done, I know. Farmers, though they receive a pittance, have also come to rely on palm oil, and so have consumers. It’s in everything. As with so many difficult issues, this situation requires critical thinking, education and investment in sustainable alternatives. Development shouldn’t mean expanding the world we have, but rather building the world we want.

a bit of sun

It didn’t rain the whole time, just a lot of the time.


I’ll be including a few other anecdotes among the photos I’ve posted to flickr. Don’t miss the descriptions!



One morning in November, my ibu pointed to a bowl of freshly prepared veggies and tempeh and said, “Don’t eat that. It’s called [I don’t remember what it’s called].” I was a little confused, but that wasn’t the strangest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say. Had it gone bad already? I took a sniff. It smelled perfectly fine.

Then the coffee started kicking in, and I realized that my ibu had been speaking Javanese. The Indonesian word for don’t happens to be the same as the Javanese word for vegetable.

I’ve been in Indonesia for nearly two years now. My Indonesian has improved and my Javanese, while minimal, is extant; but language isn’t enough. I’ve asked myself why communicating can be so hard sometimes, and I’ve come up with a few answers.

like a fish out of water

like a fish out of water

Firstly, while I’ve gotten better at learning from context alone, context is in part based on expectations, and it’s hard to understand something you weren’t expecting to hear. I don’t talk about the weather much here—it’s either wet or it’s dry—but if someone did start talking to me about the weather, my brain would automatically start prepping all my weather vocab, just in case. If I were then suddenly asked about train schedules (something I also haven’t had much occasion to discuss), I might not understand the question right away, even if I knew the vocab. My brain just wouldn’t be ready.

Another aspect of trying to communicate in East Java is the skill of reading between the lines, or rather, listening between the words. This isn’t unique to Indonesian. Even in English, if I said, “Brr, It’s chilly in here!” you might understand that as a prompt to close the window, turn up the heat, etc. Here, it’s ‘appropriate’ to analyze every utterance. Nothing is safe. Anything could mean anything. Yes might mean maybe or even no. When I say I don’t want something, people immediately assume I don’t like it. Why would I not want something I liked? Most of my colleagues probably think I don’t like coffee. Even if I tell them I drink coffee at home every single morning, they never see me do it, so I must not like it. I’ve found much simpler to say yes and deal with the consequences of not following through later, but I haven’t found it easy. It’s what everyone else does, but it’s not how I like to communicate.

Even gestures aren’t safe from analysis. You have to look between the signs. The other day I raised my glasses, closed my eyes and rubbed my nose. My immediate neighbors thought I must have a splitting headache and be moments away from collapsing, and it’s no use explaining that I just felt like rubbing my nose. Honesty just isn’t the best policy, and that can be exhausting. The fact that everyone else will be analyzing everything I say (and do) means I really need to think about how I phrase it so as to communicate what I mean. It’s not enough—it can even be too much—to just say what I mean.

I’ve already mentioned expectations, and one of my biggest difficulties is that I simply defy all of them. People are expected to want the same things at the same time, and if by chance they don’t, to be as inconspicuous about not wanting those things as possible. I can’t be inconspicuous; physically I’m not able, and as an object of curiosity, I’m showered with attention.

Another expectation is to not be quiet. Quiet means depressed. Not all of my colleagues talk all the time, but since I’m special, I am judged based on different, to me unknown standards. The other day, some of the teachers at my school asked why I was being so quiet that day. I returned, “What do you want me to say?” Half kidding, but half serious, Bu Ida said, “You could say Bu L is fat or Bu E is pretty.” If you have nothing to say, just state the obvious or say something nice. That’s something I’m still not comfortable with, not just those two examples, but filling silence for the sake of filling it. I know it’s important, and I join conversations when prompted. I start conversations and tell people what they want to hear, too, for that matter, but not all the time. I especially refrain from calling female colleagues fat or beautiful (except special occasions), but that’s a topic for another post.

Fortune tellers

My students are creative, but they’re not accustomed to showing it in class. That means I’m always looking for ways to get them to put a little more of themselves into their work. Last week we made paper fortune tellers, which were a hit. Everyone wanted their fortunes to get the best reactions, so they tried to make them good.


Most students did not know how to make a fortune teller, so the first part of the lesson involved listening to and following instructions in English. I won’t include the folding instructions here, but they’re easy to find elsewhere. There are different ways to label a fortune teller, but we used colors and numbers: colors on the four outer surfaces and numbers on the eight inner surfaces. Part of the fortune telling involved spelling the colors and counting up to each number.

For the fortunes, I told the students to write sentences using the future tense with ‘will’. For example, You will pass all of your exams. These went underneath each of the eight numbered surfaces. When everyone was finished making their fortune tellers, I asked them to go around the room telling fortunes and having their fortunes told. They were to write down the fortunes they received. At the end of class, I asked everyone what their best and worst predictions were.

In place of future, fortune tellers could also be used to practice imperatives or even vocab and spelling.

Each step takes time, but with clear directions and demonstrations, students quickly grasp the idea.

Semester break, part 1: the lake


It’s the beginning of the end. I’m not necessarily one to count off the ‘lasts’, but they’re happening, whether I count them or not. I’m back from my last semester break and I’ve started my last semester.

My break started with a luncheon hosted by the American consul general in Surabaya. All volunteers from East Java and NTT were invited to come and enjoy some typical American food. Both this year and last it was a great opportunity to get together and chat. We also had the chance to say goodbye to our country director, who we were sad to see leave. I’m very curious to meet the new one.

IMG_4254The day after the luncheon I flew to Sumatra with a friend. We opted for an early flight in hopes of being able to skip the city of Medan and going straight to our first destination, Lake Toba. The flight was uneventful, the airport in Medan surprisingly nice. Navigating the public transportation options was a little confusing, but we ended up taking a shared taxi to Parapat, a port town at the edge of the lake. From there, we hopped on a ferry, which took us very close to our hostel on Samosir Island.

The lake and the island are both beautiful. I wish I had time to go back and explore the area more deeply, but we were able to see and do a lot while we were there. We often met up with mutual friends, who were also on the island, for dinner or drinks. The very first night, they introduced us to a young Englishwoman, who was traveling by herself and happened to be staying at our hostel. The three of us ended up spending the rest of our time on Sumatra together.

IMG_4294On our last full day, however, we each did our own thing. I went in search of a waterfall, which according to some, was very easy to get to, and according to others, nearly impossible to find. I ended up finding it; I just couldn’t get there. An older man who lived near the base of the mountain offered to lead me there, but I wanted to try on my own. The first trail was easy to follow, but at some point the path forked, and it wasn’t even clear how many times. I tried the first path and ended up stuck. I crossed the river at one point, hoping to find another trail. No luck—except that I didn’t get washed away. I had to scramble back across the way I had come. I tried a second path. No luck. And a third and a fourth. I had no idea where to go. Finally, a little scraped up and bruised, I gave up.

Rather than go straight back to the hostel though, I decided to walk through some of the small villages off the main road. Some young boys stopped me on the way; one wanted his portrait taken. Some even younger boys with runny noses stopped me farther down the road and wanted money. “I don’t have any money.” — “Do you have candy?” — “No, I don’t have any candy, but I have tissues…” I had only mentioned the tissues to be funny, but the boys, without giving it much thought, decided they did in fact want tissues. They wiped their runny noses, and one boy exclaimed about his tissue, “It’s scented!” and gave me a big smile. I hadn’t realized my tissues were scented. In fact, I don’t think they were. They just smelled like something nice they had been near. I kept going.

IMG_4306The next person to flag me down was a middle-aged man. He was excited to find out I spoke Indonesian and invited me on to his patio for a cup of coffee. Most foreign tourists that pass that way, which I can’t imagine is many to begin with, probably don’t speak Indonesian. He had to take advantage of that. I don’t remember how we started talking about music, but soon, my host was showing me his collection of flutes and other local instruments. I got to try a few while we sipped our coffee, which was fun. Out of breath and out of coffee, I took my leave.

I haven’t described the whole trip here, but I’ve posted some more photos to flickr. A few include notes and anecdotes I haven’t mentioned here, so don’t skip the descriptions.

Near or far

There’s a chance I’ll have a ride home later today, so I decided to walk to school this morning instead of riding my bike like usual. Last time I walked, my ibu said it was the talk of the town. All her friends knew before her; she hadn’t seen me leave the house on foot.

Today, a lot of people noticed, too. One becak (pedicab) driver in particular demonstrated his confusion. He passed me but didn’t say anything. He stopped ahead of me but again didn’t say anything. I passed him and kept going. He passed me again and stopped ahead of me again. This time, he spoke to me and asked if I didn’t want a ride. I politely said no and kept going.

The becak drivers know I never want a ride, but they also know that I usually ride my bike at that time in the morning. I’m assuming our driver from before was checking if I was going somewhere different this morning, somewhere close by. At some point he could guess, though, that I must be walking to school, i.e. far. He just had to make sure that I didn’t want a ride. No one in their right mind would walk that “far” of their own volition. It’s really not that far, but in Indonesian terms it might as well be Mars.

*I wrote and posted this from my phone, so please forgive any strange formatting. I’ll check from my computer later.

Site Visit

Last week I decided to visit a volunteer friend, Sally, whose site is relatively close to mine. I hopped on a bus with two half-empty seats. The occupied halves were taken up by sleeping passengers. I squeezed one butt cheek on to the roomier looking half and jammed one kneecap into the seat in front of me. My tailbone I gently balanced on the skeleton of the seat. I was ready to go.


At a predetermined stop, I extricated myself from the seat/clamp and hopped off. Sally was already waiting for me. We walked a good distance to her village, admiring the views of the hillscape along the way. I dropped off the few things I had brought with me at her house, and then we proceeded to her school. It’s always interesting to see other volunteers’ schools. The kids had already gone home, but I introduced myself to the remaining teachers and had surprisingly few pictures taken with them.

We went back to Sally’s house and had a few snacks. I held the baby of the house, Kai, and was praised for my baby talk skills. I was encouraged to speak English to the not quite 6-month-old.

While the weather was still nice, Sally and I went for a bit of a hike. We walked to a big hill in the woods, which my phone told me had 4G service. (Sally’s house has no G service). As the path grew narrower and the plant growth denser, we battled our way through spider webs, all the while enjoying the lack of other people and the abundance of green.

IMG_4198We got back home just as it started drizzling. My plan had been to go home that same day, but the increasingly heavy rain washed that idea away. Sally’s host family was more than happy to have me stay the night. That evening, friends and neighbors came over for a prayer meeting for the wellbeing of baby Kai. I helped Sally’s bapak roll out the carpets everyone would sit on, and as the guests came, I helped tell everyone to eat the mountains of snacks. I smiled to myself when someone pulled the Muslim prayer books out of a Harry Potter tote bag. While everyone else chanted in Arabic, I meditated in my own way.

Early the next morning I was lucky to have a ride home. A friend of Sally’s had to drive his son to school, and he told me it was no trouble to bring me to my house afterward.

Seeing how my volunteer friends live is always interesting, and I can’t help but think about how my service would be different, if I had been placed somewhere else. These aren’t thoughts of regret or envy though, just thoughts. Time is running out, but I hope to visit a few more friends before we all leave.


How do I get to…?

The other day (or week) my counterpart taught a lesson on making reservations, be it for the movies, dinner or travel. As a follow-up, I pulled out some Australian bus schedules and travel brochures to practice asking for travel information.


I set up bus and train stations around the room and assigned pairs of students to each. I gave them a schedule for a particular line or set of lines and told them to help the travelers that would be stopping by their stations to ask for information.

The rest of the students also worked together in pairs, and I gave each a starting point, a destination and a time by which they needed to be there. The times I gave them didn’t usually match perfectly with the schedule, so I told them, when in doubt, arrive early. For example, though a bus might get in at 11:01 am, if their assigned arrival time is 11:00 am, they have to take the earlier bus, even if it gets in at 10:30 am. Quite a foreign concept for my students.

Assuming some students would be done earlier than others, I set up a reading table with brochures and pamphlets about Western Australia. I told everyone who got done early to browse the material and write down a sentence or two about whatever looked interesting to them.

The process and the materials both being quite new, it took a little while for everyone to get the hang of the activity, but once they did, they actively participated and all made it to their destinations.


Today started out very gray. I hopped on my bike and hoped I would stay dry till I got to school. I almost did, but I was met with a fine drizzle just before I pulled into the school parking lot. It never really stopped raining after that.

Students and teachers ducked and ran from class to class, sometimes magicking a cardboard box out of nowhere to cover their heads. As the school day wound down, we all weighed our options. “Can’t go home; it’s raining!” was a sentiment I heard a few times from several teachers.

fullsizeoutput_3bf3When I told my counterpart that I wanted to go home anyway, he implored me to consider my health. In Indonesia, going out in the rain is said to make you sick. I told him what they say in Germany, that rain is good for your skin. He just looked at me incredulously. “Can you prove it?” he asked. I didn’t mention that it’s said mostly as a joke, to put a positive spin on uncomfortable weather. Instead I told him I was more worried about crazy drivers than rain-borne illnesses.

That’s when it started raining harder than ever; I put thoughts of sickness, crazy drivers and beautiful skin out of my mind for another few minutes. Finally though, I decided it wasn’t going to get any better any time soon. It was so dark, the sun was just another distant star. The paths of least resistance, a.k.a. roads, had already become rivers and lakes. I might as well just go. And so I went.

20 Questions

This classic game is a great way to practice questions. Is it … ? Does it … ? Can it … ? Can you … it? It requires the full width and breadth of the students’ vocabularies, and it also requires a certain way of thinking, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

img_3810I recently played with my students, none of whom had ever played before. I explained the rules and gave them a few example lines of questioning. Then, when I let them start asking questions themselves, they immediately starting guessing: Is it a computer? Is it a pineapple? I called a time out and explained the premise again: start big and get more specific from there. Before you ask if it’s a pineapple, ask if it’s a fruit, or better yet, ask if it’s food. We played a few rounds together. Some students grasped it very quickly, others less quickly, but it was great practice for everyone. After the class got the hang of it, I divided them into small groups and let them play again. I also made them keep track of their lines of questioning, so they could visualize them, and so we could discuss them later.

There are different variations of this game out there, but I kept it basic. One player thinks of a word; the other players have to guess what it is by asking up to 20 yes/no questions. In each of my classes, I provided the students with the question structures that I wanted them to use. That’s it!


It’s ‘Language Month’. There will be quite a bit more on that to come. Today, however, I just want to relay a short anecdote. A little bit of background first: this coming Saturday, my school will be hosting a series of language events for middle schoolers, among them story telling, news reading and poetry reading. Some events will be in English, some in Indonesian.

This morning, the committee, which includes language-focus students and several teachers, held a meeting for jury members, myself included, and teachers from participating middle schools. The meeting was scheduled for 9:00 am. I meandered over to the biology lab from the teachers’ room a little early and chatted with a group of students on the way.

I sat down in the back corner, opened my laptop and worked on a blog post. It didn’t take long for one of the students on the planning committee to inform me that I “must” sit in the first row. Those were the “rules”. I almost laughed. Then he explained that he would be sitting in the back with the other students. I acquiesced and moved up to the third row. When I can help it, I try not to sit in the front row. I don’t want to give anyone the false impression that I’m actually important or that my job is taken seriously.

We started more or less on time. Snacks and water were handed out; prayers were said; then the committee got to the agenda. I think an e-mail may have been better suited to communicate this information, especially because some attendees came from far away, but meetings are important. They give status to an event (and the host).

I have the feeling that Language Month will give me plenty to write about. A follow-up to this post is already brewing. Stay tuned.