Food and Fabrics and Traditional Dance: Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’ll be honest: I chose Siem Reap as the city I would visit in Cambodia because I wanted to visit Ankor Wat.  But I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who only goes to the city for the ancient temples, without experiencing anything of the culture that is still very much alive.  I gave myself a few extra days in Siem Reap, and planned the three days in which I was at the temples so that I only needed to be at the Ankor Complex in the morning, and could then explore Siem Reap in the afternoon.

Traditional Cambodian or Khmer Culture was very much at risk of being destroyed during the Khmer Rouge, but it is slowly making a comeback, and many claim that Siem Reap is the center for the revitalization of the arts and handicrafts for which Cambodia is so famous.  I was thankful that I was able to explore so much without needing to go to another city.

I love to explore fabrics in the various places I visit, and this led me to Artisans Ankor, which, while also a higher-end shop, is also a workshop and training center for handicrafts and arts.  Local Cambodians from the surrounding villages are brought to the training center and educated in the arts of metal work, stone carving, and weaving, among others.  Artisans Ankor also has a silk farm, to which it offers daily free tours.  It was fascinating to see the silk-making process from beginning to end, and our guide and the women weaving were terribly patient as we asked endless questions.

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I was also interested in seeing traditional Cambodian dance, and was able to see two shows during my time there.  Temple Bar, in the more touristy part of Siem Reap, offers free dance performances on their second floor every night, so long as you order food or drink.  Bars are not usually my cup of tea, and I tend to avoid them, especially when traveling alone, but I made the exception in this case, and I am glad I did, as the performance was quite good, and we were able to meet the dancers afterwards.  In between numbers we were able to hear the dance music from the bar below, which made for an interesting contrast with the performance, but I embraced it as part of the experience.

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I went to another performance later on at a restaurant near my hostel.  This time, the performers were children from a local NGO, Krousar Thmey/Nouvelle Famille, which seeks to provide education opportunities for children with hearing and seeing impairments, as well as low-income children from surrounding villages.  The performance began with shadow puppetry, which was very similar to the wayang I am more familiar with in Indonesia[1].  The children were incredibly talented, and the people running the show even let us take a peek at the behind-the-scenes.  The shadow puppetry was followed by several dance numbers, which were especially amazing to see as one of the dance troops was made up of children who were all deaf or hearing impaired, which meant they followed the signing of one of their teachers in order to keep time.  It was truly a privilege to see such talent.

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The performance with Krousar Thmey was made even better by happening to meet an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) alumni from my first cohort that day.  She was also traveling in Southeast Asia, and my last day in Siem Reap happened to be her first day.  It was absolutely wonderful to catch up with her, reminisce about our time as ETAs together, and share this new experience in Cambodia.

I spent many of my evenings wandering the streets and markets of Siem Reap, admiring the handicrafts and, of course, eating the delicious food.  Because I loved all of the food that I tried so much, I also took a cooking course at Le Tigre de Papier, during which I learning how to make Cambodian-style fired spring rolls and Cambodian curry.  I can’t wait to see if I can replicate the recipes at home with my family.

I truly am glad that I took a little more time in Siem Reap, to explore all the city had to offer.  In truth, I probably could have spent more time there.  But eventually it was time to board a bus back to Thailand, and I had to bid farewell and give a heartfelt aw kohn (thank you) to Siem Reap and Cambodia.

[1] It was actually fascinating to me just how similar the traditional performing arts in Cambodia were to those in Indonesia: not only was there shadow puppetry, but the dances were also very similar in form and costume.  This probably shouldn’t be so surprising, as both countries are part of the Southeast Asia Region, which has a long, shared history.  The Srivijaya Kingdom, for example, covered much of Java and Sumatra, as well as parts of what is now Thailand, and also extended its influence over parts of modern Laos and Cambodia (if what I have read it correct).  That Indonesia was once a majority Hindu and Buddhist land, and much of mainland Southeast Asia remains so, is also most likely a reason why these cultures are similar.

Exploring Ankor

I have wanted to see the temples of Ankor for a long time.  Magazine articles celebrating the sheer volume of temples in the complex and the smallest of details in individual temples captured my imagination, and I hoped that someday I might be able to witness their magic in person.  If you had told my younger self that I would be merely twenty-five when I would have the opportunity to do so, I wouldn’t have believed you, but as the fates would have it, I was blessed to be able to travel for two weeks in Thailand and Cambodia after my most recent grant in Indonesia, and my sole stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap, with the intention of finally seeing the temples and other structures of Ankor up close and personal.

My exploration of the temples actually began the days before I visited the complex, when I went to the Ankor Museum in Siem Reap.  I opted for the audio tour, and spent hours exploring the artifacts in the museum and listening to details of Ankor’s history.  The audio tour also drew my attention to details in the artifacts: markings that meant the statue had once been adorned with jewelry, and subtle differences in the forms of certain carvings that might give some idea as to when exactly the carving was made.  Armed with this information, I felt much more prepared to take in the wonders of Ankor.

So I bought a three-day pass[1], and began my journey.

Day One

My first day was my quietest day at the temple.  I rented a bike from my hostel, and headed around the edge of the main complex (a route known as the grand tour) to see some of the smaller temples.  I ended up biking almost thirty miles that day, so I must say that biking around this portion of Ankor is not for the faint of heart.  But though I definitely needed to stretch my muscles the next day, I wouldn’t have chosen another mode of transportation for this part of the trip.  Taking the bike slowed me down, and I was able to appreciate not only the temples, but also the long stretches of jungle, with monkeys resting on the side of the road and birdsong echoing through the trees.   On a remorque (the Cambodian word for tuk-tuk), much of this is missed.  And while by midday it was quite hot, in the early morning the air is cool and fresh, and after living in the polluted city of Jakarta for a year, I so appreciated this immensely.

I was able to visit four temples on my first day.  The first was Pre Rup, which was completely deserted when I arrived (most tourists start at the larger temples and only reach the smaller temples by midday).  Climbing up a temple in the early morning, with not another soul in sight, is truly a magical experience.  I also visited Neak Pean, a tiny temple floating in the middle of four pools, and Ta Som, a small temple tucked into the jungle, its entrance so easy to miss if you are not moving slowly.

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Pre Rup, Neak Pean, and Ta Som.  

My favorite temple on my first day, and possible my favorite temple overall (it is so hard to choose), was Preah Khan.  The temple has seemingly endless corridors, parts of which are in excellent condition due to reconstruction, and parts of which are crumbling and slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.  I spent hours wandering around the ruins, trying to take it all in, finding surprises around every corner.

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Preah Khan. 

Day Two

I decided to hire a remorque (or more specifically, a moto-remorque) for my second day at the temples, because I wanted to visit one of the temples that was farther out, and I knew I wouldn’t quite have the energy to go by bike.  This was my first remorque ride since coming to Cambodia, which was exciting, but what really made the ride special was the driver, who spoke English well enough that we were able to strike up a conversation about the changes Ankor had undergone since tourism started taking off, the recent elections around Cambodia, and the art of growing up on farms on opposite sides of the world.

I started by day at Banteay Srei, a smaller monastery farther out from the main complex.  The temple itself is unassuming, but Banteay Srei is famous for its extraordinarily detailed carvings, which truly are a sight to see.

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Banteay Srei.

My driver next took me to Ta Phrom, one of the more famous temples of Ankor, for the way the jungle is slowly overtaking the structure.  It truly was a beautiful place, and a reminder that nature does not care for even the most impressive of mankind’s creations, and will always take back what it hers.  It was also the busiest temple I visited that day, because it is one of the more popular sites to visit.  The contrast was palatable between Ta Phrom, covered in tourists, and the other smaller, quieter temples I had seen.  But it was still wonderful to visit.

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Ta Phrom.

Next we stopped at a few other smaller temples.  Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda sit right across from one another, and are surprisingly still relatively intact.  Ta Keo towers towards the sky in a pyramid-like shape, but its walls are surprisingly bare.  According to my driver, its carvings were apparently taken by various countries to be placed in museums: because it is a smaller temple, it was not seen as being as important to preserve as some of the larger temples in the complex.  Ta Keo is what is left over after displays of beautiful carvings are put together at museums.

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Ta Keo, Thommanom, and Chau Say Thevoda.  

I ended my second day at Ankor Wat, probably the main attraction at the Ankor complex.  Ankor Wat is incredible, and has everything someone interested in ancient temples could dream of: the temple itself is massive, and almost completely restored to its former glory through reconstruction.  The carvings within the temple are beautifully detailed: the Churning of the Sea of Milk is simply amazing, and I spent quite a bit of time walking up and down its lengths.  I went during midday, which meant the site was relatively quiet, as most tourists were eating lunch, and I was thankful to feel as though I could explore this temple at the pace I chose, rather than being pushed forward by large tours.  Because the temple was relatively deserted, my quiet footsteps echoed down the corridors of the temple, and it was easy to feel as though I had been transported back in time, and that I might meet King Suryavarman II and his train around any corner.  A storm approached as I was ending my visit to Ankor Wat, which only made the temple all the more majestic.

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Ankor Wat.

Day Three

My final day at Ankor began with sunrise at Ankor Wat.  The temple was packed with other tourists, but that didn’t stop the sunrise from being absolutely incredible.

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Ankor Wat at sunrise.  

I then spent the better part of the morning exploring the Ankor Thom complex, including the famous Bayon, with its many smiling enigmatic faces, Baphuon, Phimeankas, Terrace of the Leper Kings, Terrace of the Elephants, and Prasats Suor Prat, which most tourists just passed on by, but which were actually quite lovely to walk among.  Even hundreds of years after it’s fall, Ankor Thom remains an impressive city, and I cannot imagine what it would have been like in its prime.

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A few of the sites within Ankor Thom: Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeankas, and the Terrace of the Elephants.

I ended my time at Ankor with a brief visit to Banteay Kdei, another monastery, and with a refreshing coconut by Sras Srang, an incredible reflecting pool.

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Two views of Banteay Kdei (left and right) and Sras Srang (center).

The sky was blue and the clouds a perfect work of art (the weather had been blessedly clear during my visit to Ankor), and I enjoyed just sitting by the water, reflecting on all I had seen during my three days at Ankor.  It’s still a little unbelievable that I had the privilege to see such a place, and I am incredibly thankful that I could do so.

 

[1] A lot of people planning to visit the region have asked me which ticket they should get, and while everyone has different goals for their travel, I can say that I was really happy with my choice.  I would spend my mornings at the temples, returning to Siem Reap around one or two o’clock, and then exploring the city.  This allowed me to more fully take in the sites, and not feel overwhelmed by temples.  And throughout the three days I explore Ankor, I was able to visit seventeen separate sites (if you count the structures within Ankor Thom separately), which, for the price of 62 U.S. dollars, seems to be a fair deal to me.

Favorite Indonesian Words and Phrases

After three years of living in Indonesia, I have been lucky to learn quite a bit of Bahasa Indonesia.  I in no way consider myself fluent, but I function fairly well, and I am incredibly thankful for that.  While learning this dynamic and wonderful language, I have come across a few phrases that I have really come to love.  Some are funny, some are beautiful.  But I love them all, and wanted to share them here.

Tidak apa apa.  This literally translates to “No what what,” and using the English version is guaranteed to make a classroom of English-learners giggle uncontrollably.  It means “no problem,” or “it’s okay,” and Indonesians say it all the time.  Yes, sometimes this relaxed nature can get on my nerves, and I find myself ranting in my head: “That is not something you can just tidak apa apa!”  But at the end of the day I admire it, and feel that people in my own country could learn something from this.  And I love the various ways different regions shorten the phrase: “Tak pa pa,” “Ga pa pa,” and even “gpp” in sms.

Hati-Hati.  This phrase means “Be careful.”  It can be used on its own, like when you might warn a small child not to touch a stove.  But it can also be used as part of the larger phrase “Hati-hati di jalan,” or “Be careful on the road,” which is said almost every time you part ways with someone.  What I love about this phrase is that hati is also the word for the metaphorical heart[1].  That this phrase so directly connects the idea of parting ways with someone to the heart is still so touching to me, even after three years of hearing it almost every day.

Mandi bebek.  Mandi is the Indonesian word for “shower” or “bathe,” and in a country where cleanliness is of the upmost importance and people will probably be shocked if you tell them that you shower only once a day, this is an important word to know.  Mandi bebek means “duck shower” and this is a short shower, in which you just rinse your body and don’t wash your hair or use soap.  Any equivalents I know of in English are either far cruder or far less adorable, and as the queen of mandi bebek (a quick rinse-off at the end of a hot day of teaching is so key to decent mental health), I was ecstatic when I learned this word existed.

Anda.  This is the formal Indonesian word for you.  It is always capitalized, while no other pronoun is.  As a native speaker of English, where the capitalized pronoun is “I,” the word for the self, I am fascinated by this emphasis on the other, and the diminishing of the self.  There is a selflessness in Indonesian culture that is beautiful, and it seems it comes out even in the language.

Malu-malu kucing.  This literally translates to “shy-shy cat,” and it is usually used to good-naturedly tease someone who is shy, or malu-malu.  Teachers use it all the time to coax students who are too embarrassed by their English to speak up in class: “Jangan malu-malu kucing!” (“Don’t be shy-sky cat!”).  And it often works.  The very fact that the phrase is amusing often helps nervous students to relax and smile at least a little, and I wish there was a phrase in English that could do the same.

Belum and Sudah.  Belum means “not yet,” and sudah means, “already.”  While there are words for yes and no in Indonesian, iya and tidak, to respond to many questions it is far more common to use the words belum and sudah, and I have always found this particularly fascinating when it comes to belum.  “Have you eaten?”  “Belum.”  “Have you studied for a graduate degree?”  “Belum.”  Have you been to Lombok?” “Belum.”  There is the assumption that just because you haven’t done something yet, doesn’t mean you never will.  And so, you don’t answer with a firm no, but merely a “not yet.”  There is an inherent optimism and recognition of opportunity in this phrasing that I find really wonderful, and it has made me re-think how I think about the future.

Mandi hujan.  This means, “rain shower,” and is the word used for playing in the rain, and many Indonesians use it even if the mandi hujan was unintentional.  If I come home soaked to the bone, because I forgot my umbrella, I joke with the security in front of the building that I was mandi hujan.  I learned this phrase from one of my students, who loved mandi hujan so much that he simply could not stay still if the rain started to fall.  Almost every time we had class together, because his English class fell at a time when the rains would come like clockwork, the way they do in Indonesia, he would start to dance in his seat and look longingly out the windows.  I would help him to focus as best as I could, and if he could finish his tasks for that day, and could show me that he understood his homework, he would look up at me and say, “Mandi hujan, miss?” and I would let him leave class a few minutes early, and would see him later on, walking home, soaking wet and deliriously happy.  Rain has always brought me joy, and cloudy days have never been dreary for me.  My student’s shared love of rain has made this one of my favorite Indonesian phrases.

Bapak, Ibu, Kakak, and Adik.  The simplest translations for these words are: Bapak as “father,” Ibu as “mother,” kakak as “older sibling,” and adik as “younger sibling.”  These are used to talk about actual family members—my brother, for example, is my adik laki-laki—but it is also used as a form of address in many parts of Indonesia.  Older women are Ibu, or Bu, and older men are Bapak, or Pak.  Anyone similar in age or only slightly older is kakak, or kak and younger folks are adik, or dik.  You use these words even when you meet someone for the first time, and I am fascinated by this immediate familiarity.  Like Anda, this seems to echo something in the larger culture that I have observed: in such a communal society, neighbors and even strangers are like family.

This is in no way an exhaustive list of the Indonesian words and phrases I have come to love, and I am sure that I will learn more wonderful Indonesian even during the last month I have left.  But I hope that you all enjoyed this list!

 

 

 

[1] Regarding physical body parts, jatung is “heart,” and hati is “liver.”  This means than an alternative translation for hati-hati di jalan is “Liver-liver on the road,” something my students in English Club found hilarious, and so we used that phrase exclusively for the year.

Third Time’s a Charm: I Finally Made it to Borneo

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You don’t get blue skies like this in Jakarta.  

Ever since I first became an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Indonesia, I have wanted to go on the riverboat tour in Tanjung Puting National Park to see the orangutans of Kalimantan (the name for the Indonesian potion of Borneo).  Typhoid led to my deciding not to go on the trip during my first grant, and last year because of a broken plane my trip to the jungles of Kalimantan turned into a completely unexpected but equally wonderful trip to Solo with two other stranded ETAs.  I was hoping against hope that this year I might finally make it to Borneo, an island I had not had a chance to visit at all during my time as an ETA.

And finally, the little bit of luck I keep in my back pocket came through.  My housemate had family visit recently, and one of the places they wanted to visit while here was Tanjung Puting.  When she asked me if I wanted to accompany them, I jumped at the chance.

The trip was magical.

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Shout out to our wonderful guide, Rini, and to Caitlin and Liane, wonderful travel companions.  (Photo credit to Caitlin.)  

We were greeted at the airport by our absolutely lovely guide, Rini, and immediately whisked away to our boat, where we met our lively crew and the adorable cook’s son, whom Reni put right in my lap as we pulled away from the dock.

Having not escaped the smog of Jakarta in over a month, I was overjoyed to find that I could already breathe so much more easily.  And while we thought that we would merely stay on the boat our first day, we actually went almost directly to our first orangutan feeding.

Seeing an orang hutan (orangutan, or literally jungle person) gently passing from tree to tree above our heads was simply surreal.  During my time in Indonesia, I have come across smaller primates, and my mind can wrap itself around their existence in the pohon (trees).  But orangutans are so much larger, that I found myself convinced that at any moment the branches would break and they would come crashing down onto the jungle floor.  But they never did.

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Just a few of the orang hutan we saw on our trip.

We went to three feedings during our trip.  Many of the orangutans that come to the feedings were what the guides called semi-liar (semi-wild), as they are the offspring of rehabilitated orangutans.  We saw mothers with babies, adolescent males, single adult females, and even the occasional older male.  Not matter how many orang hutan came our way, we never grew bored, but stayed enraptured by the privilege of bearing witness to such amazing creatures.

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You can see in this photo how the water changes from natural black to a polluted brown.  

I was also incredibly impressed by the conservation education present at each station.  There were explanations of the dangers of the palm industry, especially regarding the slash and burn techniques that pose such a threat to the jungles of the area and that were a major cause of the horrible haze of smoke in 2015.  Animal trafficking was also heavily discussed at many of the stations.  All throughout the trip, I was impressed by how conscious of these issues our crew were, and how eager they were to make us aware of mankind’s negative effect on the area.  When we came to a fork in the river, for example, they were quick to point out where the water changed from the deep black that was natural, to a muddy, polluted brown, caused by a gold mine farther up river.

Orangutans weren’t the only animals we came across on our trip.  We saw several other primates as well: long-tailed macaques, gibbons, and monyet belanda (Dutch monkeys, also known as proboscis monkeys).  A family of babi hutan (jungle pigs, or wild boars) came to one of the feeding stations and fed on the bananas that fell from the platform, and we even saw a crocodile one night, lurking in the reeds alongside our boat.  Our first night Rini also invited us on a night trek, and we came across all sorts of creepy crawlies, including a tarantula.

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From left to right: long-tailed macaques, a gibbon, and monyet belanda.

While on our night trek, we also came across a glowing fungus, which I had never heard of before and was completely fascinated by.  The ranger guiding us through the forest asked us to turn off our flashlights, and while I was a bit hesitant in doing so, I was so glad he had us do so.  Once the lights had dimmed, we could see the fungus all around us, like tiny bits of galaxy peeking through the leaves.

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Our captain (left) was clearly too cool for our selfie, and the first mate (right) was very shy but extremely sweet. (Photo credit to Caitlin.)

As impressive as this celestial fungus was, the actual night skies were perhaps the most beautiful part of the trip.  The milky way was draped above our heads as we ate a candlelit dinner on the deck of the boat, and I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw stars shining so bright.

The time to leave the boat came all too soon: none of us were ready to leave.  But our adventures in Kalimantan were not over just yet, as we still had a day in Pankalanbun before flying back to Jakarta.

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Don’t get on this raja‘s bad side.  He may point at you.

After first stopping at a place where we could buy local fabrics, Reni took us to Istana Kuning (Yellow Palace), where the raja (king) and his family lived and ruled until Indonesia became an Independent Republic.  The palace was filled with fun relics from the legacy of the raja, including a painting of one king who supposedly had a black tongue that created wounds when he licked people, and who always gestured to people with his thumb because he could cause someone to fall ill simply by pointing at them with his index finger.

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One of the teams competing at the bird calling competition.  (Photo credit to Caitlin.) 

Lunch was delicious ikan bakar (grilled fish), and as we drove through the city on out tour, Reni happened to notice a banner at the entrance of the local army base, which announced that a bird competition was happening that day.  No one was entirely sure what this entailed, so we stopped to check it out.  It turns out it was a competition for pet songbirds, in which the burung (birds) were judged by how frequently they sang.  I had certainly never seen anything like it.  Reni did worry that many of the songbirds had most likely been taken from the jungle, and I’m sure she was right.   It was yet another reminder of how mankind’s interests tend to so negatively shape our planet.

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Teaching some adorable little boys how to say “th.”  (Photo credit to Caitlin.) 

Our tour ended with a visit to an English Community, where we were able to spend a little time with a group of seven- to eleven-year-olds, who gathered each week to study English together.  The group was run entirely by volunteers, and the course was free for the children who joined.  I loved the opportunity to work with young people again, even only for a brief moment, and it was a joy to meet the people running the program.  And after having gained so much from our experience in the area, I was glad we had the opportunity to give something back, however small.

It took me almost three full years in Indonesia to finally visit Kalimantan, but it was well worth the wait.  I can’t wait for the opportunity to return, and learn more about this beautiful place.


Caitlin, who took some of the wonderful selfies and other people pictures that I used in this blog, also wrote about out trip to Tanjung Puting, as well as her other adventures in Indonesia.  You can find her blog here.

Cicak on the Wall: WORDS Competition 2017

Each year, one of the best parts of my ETA grant was the WORDS Competition, and it was definitely something I was looking forward to as part of my current position.  While working towards WORDS from behind the scenes was certainly different, and I very much missed working one-on-one with my students while they prepared for the competition, I was still very excited for the national competition in Jakarta, especially as this year marked the tenth anniversary of the WORDS Competition.

A quick review for those who might not have been following my blog for two years, and therefore did not experience my joy in Malang and Gorontalo, as well as at the national competitions in Jakarta in 2015 and 2016:  WORDS is a speech and talent competition, developed by ETAs in the 2006-07 cohort, with performances centered on a given theme.  This year’s theme was “Cicak[1] on the Wall,” and students were asked to respond to the question, “If you could be a cicak on the wall of any room in the past, present, or future, where would you choose to be, and why?”

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One of the participants performing traditional dance.

Each of the students was amazing.  Students chose to be cicaks in castles and museums, Kartini’s room of confinement and Nikola Tesla’s lab.  Some speeches were comedic, others inspiring, and still others made the audience cry.   For their talents, students danced, sang, performed traditional martial arts, and more.   The audience was captivated, and the judges—who included two past WORDS winners—certainly had a tough job in selecting the winning participants from such talent.

The night after the competition, there was a group activity planned for the students.  I had not initially planned to join, as the activity is usually exclusively for ETAs and their students, but a few ETAs were sick, and an additional chaperone was needed.  The original plan to go to laser tag fell through because of traffic, but we all took the students to see movies, and it was a grand time anyway.

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the WORDS Competition, an additional event was added to the experience: English Fun Day.  I won’t deny that I was not exactly thrilled at finding the planning I had to do for WORDS doubled in comparison to previous years, but we managed it, and the end of the day the envent went fairly well.  English Fun Day was held at @America and in addition to the WORDS Participants and their ETAs, also included participants from two Jakarta-based organizations that serve disadvantaged children: Ticket to Life and Sahabat Anak.  Several groups of ETAs developed storytelling, song, and game activities in which everyone could participate, for an afternoon of fun and English language learning.  All of the students, the WORDS participants and our guests, were enthusiastic and adorable, and though managing such events means that you rarely are able to stay in one place for too long, I loved what I was able to see.

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Everyone at the DCM’s house.

During their time in Jakarta, WORDS Participants were also able to explore the capital city with a visit to MONAS, while the ETAs had a meeting about their last weeks at site.   And following the English Fun Day, all students and their ETAs were also kindly invited to a farewell dinner at the residence of Deputy Chief of Mission Brian McFeeters. Though I know shamefully little of the DCM’s work and policies, I will say that he has a wonderful way with young people, and the WORDS students adored him.

The few days dedicated to WORDS were, of course, hectic and stressful.  This job always is.  But unlike most other things in my current position, WORDS involved the young people I love so dearly, and feel most passionate about working with.  WORDS, for me, was a breath of fresh air, and way for me to group myself in the reminder that when this grant is over, I will return to work more directly in education, where I truly belong.  I loved every minute, and I still cannot quite believe that I was able to enjoy a third WORDS Competition, something very few people have the opportunity to do.  Whatever insanity led up to the competition, I feel so blessed to have been there, and I wish all of the participants the best of luck for the future.

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All of the WORDS participants, their ETAs, and the judges.

[1] A cicak is a small lizard.  ETAs changed originally chose the theme “Fly on the Wall,” and then changed the Fly to Cicak in order to make the theme more Indonesia-centered.

Snapshot: Bandar Lampung, South Sumatra

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Beautiful Bandar Lampung, from the top floor of the hotel where I stayed.

I have been bouncing around Indonesia quite a bit recently, as anyone who follows my Instagram might have noticed.  Most of these visits have been for research, but a couple have also been to assist with the WORDS Competitions at certain schools.  One of the sites I visited for WORDS Competitions was Bandar Lampung, at the very southern tip of Sumatra.

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Ancient writing from Museum Bandar Lampung

Bandar Lampung is a medium-sized, extraordinarily diverse city, and I wish I had had more than a few days there.  The driver who took me around was a fountain of information about the history and politics of the area (elections for a new governor had just occurred before I arrived, so the latter was a very hot topic at the time), and he would pipe up every time we entered a new part of the, letting me know if the population there was majority transmigrasi[1], Chinese-Indonesian, orang Palemband (the people of Palembang, a region north of Bandar Lampung), or one of the ethnic groups native to the region.  I learned later, while visiting Museum Bandar Lampung, that while the city encompasses the whole area now, there is apparently still to this day a significant difference in the traditions of those ethnic groups who live close to the sea, compared to those who are from the hills.

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The Butterfly Garden.

Bandar Lampung is very much situated in a beautiful space.  With the mountains on one side, and the ocean on the other, it really has the best of both worlds for anyone interested in escaping city life.  My driver told me that a large number of tourists from Jakarta frequent Bandar Lampung on the weekend, and that most of them go to Bandar Lampung for the snorkeling and diving near the many small islands right off the coast.  However, as I was there for tugas (an assignment, or work), that was not something I planned for.  But the teachers at the schools I went to happily took me to more in-land tempat wisata (tourism spots), such as the butterfly garden and the deer sanctuary, and, especially after having spent this grant period in Jakarta, I was so thankful that they took the time to accompany me to such beautiful green spaces.

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Some of the SMP dancers, and the wonderful ETA

I was also lucky enough to be in Bandar Lampung during a festival budaya (cultural festival), and was invited to go by the ETA placed there. where I got to see beautiful examples of tapis (a fabric native to this region), taste local kopi (coffee), and watch part of a SMP (middle school) traditional dance competition.  This was my favorite part of the whole trip.  I have always loved dance competitions in Indonesia, but have not attended one since I stopped being an ETA.  Being able to see dances from all over the region (some students were from as far as Palembang), and performed by such talented students, was such a privilege.

The hospitality of the teachers and the ETA of Bandar Lampung meant I got to see much more of the city than I ever thought I might on a mere work trip.  I am ever so thankful, and hope that someday I will be able to return.

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Some of my favorite little dancers.  These lovely ladies are actually in SD (elementary school), and had performed earlier that morning.

[1] Java is the most populated island in the world, and over population was such a problem that as one point the Dutch Colonial Government (and the Indonesian Government later continued this program) moved the people from entire villages on Java to other places around Indonesia.  Or at least, that’s the official narrative.  Many people say that the real goal of the program was to spread Javanese culture, as it was seen as superior to the culture of the people who already lived in those areas: these villagers were to integrate into the surrounding community, and instill Javanese language and values, replacing that of the people native to the region.  If this was, in fact, the goal, it wasn’t particularly successful.  Many transmigrasi sites have become very insular communities, which maintain their own language and culture, without necessarily integrating fully.  Opinions abound regarding these communities, both from those who live near them, and those who live (or lived) in them, and it has been a fascinating topic to explore since coming here.

The Art of Pulkam

Pulkam is short for pulang kampung, a phrase which roughly translates to “go home to your hometown.”  My recent travel for research happened to bring me back to both of the sites where I used to teach and live as an ETA (Fulbright English Teaching Assistant): Malang in East Java, and Gorontalo in Northern Sulawesi.  I made sure to sneak in time to visit my own people while in both of these places, though of course most of my focus was on research.  These were whirlwind trips, and while I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to see, I did get to spend at least a little time with most of the people who are the reason I was so thrilled to be headed back to these places.

Last year, while I was an ETA in Gorontalo, I also had the opportunity to pulkam to Malang.  I have been so blessed to have been able to re-visit the various places that I have called home here several times, something not many ETA alumni have the chance to do.  Over time, I’ve noticed a few consistencies in the act of pulang kampung, regardless of when and where I have returned.  And so I offer my observations as a sort of “Grace’s Guide to Pulkam,” with the caveat that I am not an expert in anything at all (except maybe drinking jus alpokat), and these are based only on my own unique experiences.

Expect to eat a lot.  It sometimes seems as though Indonesians express their love through food (this is one of those things that I have found true across the archipelago).  Ibu-Ibu have always insisted that they simply cannot send me back to my mother thinner than I was when I arrived (regardless of how I might be feeling about my own bodyweight), because that would mean they had not properly cared for me.  Every time I pulkam, it feels almost as though people are trying to feed me as much during the few days I am there as they did during my nine months as an ETA.  Not that I necessarily mind.  Each region of Indonesia has its own special foods, and heaven knows I miss the foods from the places I lived in.   I have been craving the ikan bakar (grilled fish), binte biluhuta (a fish and corn soup)[1], and tinutuan (a sort of pumpkin “porridge” with lots of greens)[2] of northern Sulawesi ever since I left (I have found a place that makes almost passable tinituan in Jakarta, but let’s face it: it’s better in Sulawesi).  And unless you have been to Malang, you will not understand why I think bakso (meatballs, usually served in broth) is the best thing since sliced bread (which really isn’t all that great, in comparison), or why I worship tempe as the goddess of all proteins, or why I feel I can make the best apple crisp in Indonesia–even with just a toaster oven–because those apel Malang are just magical.   Just like I generally miss American dishes when I am here, and generally miss Indonesian food when I go back to the States, I also miss these daerah (area)-specific dishes when I move from one Indonesian city to another, and I am not all that bothered by the excess of lunch and dinner invites I receive (so long as I get to pay for one or two) or the few pounds I put on every time I pulkam. 

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A few photos from my pulkam to Gotontalo.

Bring gifts, but more importantly, bring stories.  I haven’t been able to pin down whether or not this applies to anyone who goes on pulkam, but at least for ETAs, there is definitely the expectation that you will bring gifts or oleh-oleh (souvenirs) back for people, and I have always tried to oblige as best as my budget and suitcase-space will allow.  This gift-giving is a way to show people that you have remembered them, and I am 100% for that.  But because I’ve always struggled with what I perceive as the materialism so prevalent in Indonesia (why do physical gifts need to be brought everywhere? and why does the size and cost matter so much?), I try not to simply bring gifts, but gifts that come with a story.  Last year I brought kerawang, the traditional fabric of Gorontalo, to my friends in Malang, because it gave me an excuse to talk about the ways in which Gorontalo culture differs from Javanese culture, something which was so influential my second year.  And this year, in addition to some little trinkets from Jakarta (the capital city is notorious for not having good oleh-oleh), I also brought small souvenirs from Korea, which allowed me to talk to about my time there visiting the South Korean Fulbright Commission, and just generally how much I have learned about the ETA Program this year, since I am seeing it from a different perspective.  In the end these stories still matter more.  Even if you bring oleh-oleh that doesn’t necessarily come with a story, you will find it quickly set aside as everyone asks you a million questions about what you have been up to, and fills you in on the latest gossip on their end.  There is a cultural expectation that you bring something material, yes, but do not confuse this with a prioritizing of objects over a person.  People are still more excited about you than anything you bring.

Anticipate a lot of selfies.  Selfies are a bit like food.  They are a way for people to show you that they missed you, that they are excited to see you again.  While teachers and other adult friends will definitely request these, you will probably get these requests most often from your students.  Don’t say no.  Be prepared to smile for so many selfies that your face hurts.  And then make sure that someone sends those photos to you.  One of my housemates, a Fulbright Research Alumna and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (in Indonesia both times), often says that no matter how many photographs she has of beautiful vistas, it is the foto-foto of people that she values the most.  And it’s true.  At home I have many beautiful fabrics from the various places I have visited in Indonesia, and USBs full of photos I have had the privilege to visit.  But it is the class photos I took at the end of each year, and the group shots I have with fellow teachers and friends, that I treasure most from my two years as an ETA.  Having the opportunity to add to that collection of photographs of the people I love brings far more joy than seeing Komodo Dragons or hiking a mountain.  And though you might have the opportunity to pulkam once, the fact is that you may not have the opportunity to do so again.  Those sweaty selfies will be priceless later.  Make sure you get copies.

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A few photos from my pulkam to Malang.

Prepare yourself for the less-pleasant parts.  It won’t all be joyous.  There may be people you never wanted to see again.  I know I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I narrowly escaped meeting a particular teacher during my first pulkam to Malang, and had a moment of panic when I did run into this guru during my most recent pulkam.  My pulkam to Gorontalo also had its share of awkward interactions with men from my neighborhood.  And, let’s be honest, I do not think that either of the cities I lived in as an ETA are perfect.  There are parts of them that drove me insane when I lived there, and those exasperating characteristics have not disappeared just because I moved away.  The bentor (becak motor, a rickshaw with a motorbike instead of a bicycle) drivers in Gorontalo are still amongst the most persistent harassers I have come across in Indonesia, and it only took one bentor ride on my way to rent a motorbike for my visit in the city for me to remember why I had chosen to ride a motorbike as an ETA, avoiding bentor drivers as best as I could. I spent my nine months in Malang navigating the politics of my school’s two campuses, including the poor treatment of my Papuan students, and was yet again smacked in the face with the Javanese idea of their own superiority when during my pulkam an entire teacher’s room—mostly full of new teachers who did not work at the school when I was an ETA there and did not know about my fiery responses to racism—immediately began making derogatory jokes about orang Sulawesi (the people of Sulawesi), after hearing where I had been placed my second year as an ETA.  But in the end, all of these irritations were like mosquito bites from an incredible hike: I noticed them, and was highly displeased, but it did not cause me to regret my decision to go.

Assume there will be changes.  Whether you were gone for a few months or a few years, you will not be going back to the same place you lived in as an ETA.  In Gorontalo, one of the few placements last year at which ETAs could boast that they had the ability to live without an Indomaret or Alfamart, because there simply weren’t any, there is now one or the other on every corner, and this change has happened in the mere nine months I have been gone.  It also has an increase in stoplights, some of which even have the recorded reminders to wear helmets that I am accustomed to hearing only in larger Indonesian cities.  “Gorontalo so mo jadi kota besar!” (“Gorontalo is already becoming a big city!”) came out of my mouth more times than I care to count.  In Malang, at the end of this academic year the two campuses of my school are actually going to split into two schools, one of which will be a military academy, and so if I do have the opportunity to visit Malang again, SMAN 10, as I knew it, will not even exist.  In both places, some of the teachers I loved no longer teach at my schools, and a few friendly faces have even sadly passed away.  And of course, my students are older, some of them even graduated.  And I have changed.  I’m no longer the fresh-faced ETA that came to Malang her first year in Indonesia: I’m a little more haggard, a little wiser, though somehow still just as stubbornly optimistic about the futures of my kiddos in spite of what other teachers may say (some things never change).  And I’m certainly not completely the small-town girl of Gorontalo anymore: though I’ll never call myself a city girl, I have changed in certain ways in order to survive Jakarta, and it shows in everything from my confidence to my accent, as noted by my friends in both my old sites.  These changes—in your school, in your community, in yourself—are often positive, though not always, and they are almost always jarring.  Take them all in: you’ll have time to digest them when you are finished with your pulkam.

Know that it will not be enough time.  You might not get to see everyone.  Even if you do, you will probably feel you did not fully get to catch up with them.  You will not be able to visit all of your favorite haunts.  You will not get to eat all of your favorite dishes.  The fact is, there is a reason this is pulkam: you no longer live in this place.  And you cannot fit nine months of an ETA experience into a few days.

Pulkam is bittersweet.  If you are the crying type (and I am) you might cry harder when you leave from your pulkam visit than you did when you left your site at the end of your grant.  Highs are high and lows are lows when you are an ETA, and that doesn’t end when you find yourself an alumnus.

Breathe deep.  Take it all in.  The smiles, the tears, the laughter, the grimaces.  It is an emotional rollercoaster, but it a privilege to be able to go along for the ride.  In the end, my only real advice is this: feel what feelings come, and then feel lucky to have felt any of it at all.  That is the art of the ETA pulang kampung.  Perhaps it is the art of being an ETA at all.

[1] Binte biluhuta is Bahasa Gorontalo; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as milu siram.

[2] Tinituan is Bahasa Manado; in Bahasa Indonesia, this dish is known as Bubur (porridge) Manado.