Hoping All Their Wishes Come True: National WORDS Competition 2016

April 10th-14th was the National WORDS Competition, an annual English Speech and Talent Competition held by the Indonesia ETA Program.  WORDS was one of the highlights of my experience last year, and it was again this year.


Noni performing her speech.

All of the performances were fantastic.  The topic was “Three Wishes,” and the range of speeches that came out of that idea were inspiring.  Students spoke about personal wishes, and global wishes, and everything in between.  Their talents were just as incredible as their speeches.  Students sang, danced, performed screen printing on stage… I don’t think I ever smile so broadly as I do when I am at WORDS.  Part of me hopes that if I am ever in Indonesia outside of the Fulbright Program that I will be asked to be a judge, so that I can have the privilege of witnessing such talent, and hope that I never end up being assigned to that task, because I have no idea how the judges are able to select on winner from so many fabulous students.


New friends.

In the evenings, there were planned activities for the students and the ETAs.  The first night was Laser Tag and Glow-in-the-Dark Mini Golf.  It was even my first time playing laser tag, and I’m fairly certain everyone involved had a blast.  The second night’s activity was ice skating, but due to traffic only about half of the students were able to get to the rink before it closed for hockey practice.  Sadly, the girls from Gorontalo were among those who weren’t able to make it in time, but they headed off to supper with their new friends, and seemed to have a grand time nonetheless. To me, the time the students spend with one another reflects what is really so magical about WORDS: that it is an opportunity for students from all across this diverse archipelago to meet and exchange their own unique cultures, and develop friendships with people they might never have had the chance to meet otherwise.


The MAN Model girls.

My student from MAN Model, Noni, was extremely nervous about speaking in front of such a large crowd, and meeting so many new people, but she performed her speech bravely and beautifully, and warmed up to students who would become new friends rather quickly.  I was very proud of her, and I’m so glad she got to have this experience.

I may have mixed feelings about coming back to live in Jakarta next year, but there is one part of returning with this program that I know will be 100% amazing, and that is WORDS. No words can adequately express the privilege it has been to attend not one, but two WORDS competitions, and I look forward to the undeserved honor of being present for a third.


The whole crew of ETAs and Students.  So much talent.  So much love.

(Note: The only photo that is mine is that of myself and Noni together.  Thank you to AMINEF for the rest of them!)


Not Done Yet: I’m Coming Back to Indonesia


“Something like a team…”

I have just under a month left in this grant, my second as an ETA in Indonesia.  That brings on all kinds of mixed emotions, which I’m sure I’ll address further in a future blog, but it also leads to the question: What’s next?

What’s next is that I am returning to Indonesia yet again, though in a different position, and in a very different place.

I will be working as the RC (Researcher/Coordinator) of the Indonesia ETA Program.  As the Coordinator, I will work with the AMINEF Team[1] and the new SETAs (Senior ETAS, the new name for Returners, the position I held this year), to develop programming for the Pre-Departure and In-Country Orientations, the Mid-Year Conference, and the ever-delightful WORDS.  As the Researcher, I will be conducting research on the program itself, in order to help the program to continue to improve[2].  My research (provided it passes the Visa process) will focus on the relationship between ETAs and their Counterparts/Co-teachers: how that relationship contributes to the success of extracurricular programming, and how that relationship can best be supported through programming developed by our supporting commission, AMINEF.

Some of the initial planning and preparation for the next cohort, and for my research, has already begun, and I am both excited and terrified for the day I take on these responsibilities full-time.  After two years as an ETA, I feel I have a wealth of experiences and lessons learned from both of my cohorts that will allow me to be of service to the new batch of ETAs, and I am glad my time spent here will be so directly useful for others.  Are there moments when I panic a little and am convinced I am the worst person for the job?  Most certainly.  But I feel that way about teaching some days as well, and I feel I’ve done a pretty good job in the various classrooms I’ve been in here.    And while I’ve never before identified as a researcher (I’m a teacher, through and through), I’m looking forward to (with a little trepidation, to be sure), trying on a new hat.  And through it all, I won’t be alone.  I have a great team of SETAs, the support of past ETAs/RCs, and, perhaps most importantly, I’ll be sitting right in the middle of the AMINEF American Team, who have seen many cohorts come and go, and have endless insight.

As the RC, I will work and live in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia.  Jakarta is a huge, sprawling, metropolis, and while this will not be my first time living in a capital city (I did a semester abroad in London my sophomore year of college), Jakarta is a special kind of crazy, and this farm girl is still rather intimidated by the prospect of living there.  But the more time I spend there (we are in and out all the time as ETAs), the more manageable the city seems to be, and complete with all the events, opportunities, and distractions any large city has, I know for certain that I will never be bored.

Being the RC in Jakarta…  It’s all a little familiar, and completely new.  It’s thrilling in all kinds of way, the good, the bad, and the fantastic.  And it’s what’s next.

[1] AMINEF, or the American Indonesian Education Foundation, is the commission in charge of all Fulbright Programs in Indonesia.

[2] To clarify, this does not make me a Fulbright Researcher.  My research position comes through AMINEF, not through Fulbright. In fact, in this new position I am technically not even a Fulbrighter, though I am still working directly with the Fulbright Program.

Unexpected Solo Trip (That Was Not Solo At All)

During the Ujian Nasional (National Exam), I had made plans with several friends from my program to go to Tanjung Puting, a Natural Park in Central Kalimantan.  But on the day we were to head out of Jakarta, our first meeting point, and into the hutan (jungle) of Borneo, we learned our flight was at first delayed, and then later canceled because the plane was broken, and the trip had to be postponed.  Thankfully, most people were still able to make the trip happen, by flying into a different city in Kalimantan first and then flying from there to Pankalan Bun.  But for two friends and I, this was not possible because of when our schools would re-start classes.  So we collected our refunds, and went looking for the fastest and cheapest ticket out of the Jakarta airport (we had been there for almost eight hours at that point, and were ready to be moving again).

That ticket turned out to be to Solo, or Surakarta, a small city in Central Java.  We didn’t know all that much about Solo, except that there were a few keraton (palaces) and that it is famous for its batik.  That was good enough for the three of us, so we hopped on the next available flight, found ourselves a hotel when we got there, and made plans to explore our unplanned destination.  Fortunately for us, one of the good people of the AMINEF[1] team was born and raised in Solo, so we sent him a WhatsApp message asking where we ought to go, and he gave us a whole list of places to check out.


The dining room of Keraton Mangkunegaran

Our first day, we allowed ourselves a somewhat late start after our harried journey the day before, and stayed within the city limits.  Our first stop was to Keraton Mangkunegaran, one of the two main palaces in Solo.  Our guide was charming and informative, and while the palace grounds were lovely, perhaps even more interesting was the collection of gifts from various countries inside the main chamber.


One of the many stalls at the Antique Market.

Just down the street from Mangkunegaran was Solo’s famous antique market.  Haphazardly-organized and full of surprises, I could have spent hours exploring its hidden gems.  My favourite find, though, was a stack of old photographs: pictures of children going to school, farmers working their fields, young couples rowing boats together, old women telling stories; pictures of weddings, funerals, graduations, and military parades; snapshots into the recent history of Indonesia, the sort that don’t make it into the history books I pour over, but which tell arguably a more poignant story.  I didn’t buy any, but it was sorely tempting.


Trying my hand at batik cat.  (It was fun, but I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon.)

We ended our explorations at the Batik Museum of Danar Hadi, which was by far the best museum I have been to yet in Indonesia, and probably one of my personal favorites ever.  Danar Hadi is one of the most popular brands of batik in Indonesia, and their founder has a private collection of over one thousand pieces of batik.  A few hundred of these are displayed in the museum behind their main shop, and with the help of a well-informed guide, you can explore batik from throughout the history of Indonesia, and from various regions.  There was even one section of the tour which allowed us to watch the process of batik being made, and try out hand at some batik cat (batik made with a special stamp).  I have always loved batik, and while I’ve learned quite a bit about it since coming to Indonesia, especially when I lived on Java, but this museum showed me I had only begun to scratch the surface of all there is to know of this beautiful fabric.

Our second day, we headed outside of Solo to see what the surrounding countryside had to offer.  We started at Candi Cetho, a Hindu Temple in the mountains surrounding Solo, one of the last Hindu temples still in use on Java.  Candi Cetho might be the most beautiful temple I have seen thus far in Indonesia, with the way it’s various levels climb gently up the hillside, and because we went on a morning when the fog pervaded everything around us, it only seemed more magical than it already was.


Candi Cetho.

After Candi Cetho, we went to our second temple, Candi Sukuh.  Candi Sukuh is most famous for its somewhat scandalous carvings, and while the temple itself was under construction when we went, we still had plenty of fun making up stories for the effigies that had been carefully placed beside the temple, waiting for when they could be returned to their rightful place.

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Candi Sukuh.


Good travel companions are just as important as the destination.

It began to rain rather hard while we were at Candi Sukuh, so we stopped for lunch at Ndoro Donker Tea Plantation, where the food was not so important as the delicious tea we were able to sample.  While most of my favourite Indonesian dishes come from Sulawesi, where I am placed now, I do often miss Javanese Tea.  As the rain came pouring down, we wrapped our hands around warm mugs of tea and found perfect contentment.


So. Much. Green.

Nearby there was also a waterfall, which we clambered down over three hundred steps through lush jungle to reach.  The penjual sayur (vegetable sellers) have told me that Gorontalo has been even drier than usual this year, and everything has been a dry kind of yellow for some time now.  Seeing so much green while in Solo filled my soul with gladness.

We only had two days in Solo, and then had to return to our sites, and I hope that I will be able to return someday, but nonetheless, if a plane is grounded and your original plans for travel tidak jadi (don’t end up happening)… I have to tell you, Solo makes for an excellent unexpected trip.


[1] AMINEF is the American Indonesian Education Foundation, the commission that runs the Fulbright Program in Indonesia, for those who may not know.

Benteng Otanaha


One of the watch towers at Benteng Otanaha.

One of the few tourist sites listed in the Lonely Planet for Gorontalo is a place called “Benteng Otanaha” (benteng being the Indonesian word for fort).  I have passed the entrance to this tempat wisata (tourist site) many times on my way to visit one of my sitemates, but have never found the time to actually stop and see what the fuss is all about.

So when my school canceled classes the Friday before the national exam, and the other English teachers asked if I had time to jalan-jalan (travel around[1]) with them, and maybe go to Benteng Otanaha, I most assuredly said yes.


The co-teachers on some of the stairs we did actually climb.

We left in the morning, so that we could be there before it became too hot—and it is sweltering by about ten o’clock in Gorontalo—in the car of one of the teachers.  There are over three hundred stairs leading up to Benteng Otanaha, where it overlooks the surrounding area.  But, in part because we had limited time (there is a special Muslim midday prayer on Fridays, and my teachers did not want to miss it), and in part because the idea of willingly making yourself sticky and gross from sweat is a somewhat baffling idea for most grown Indonesians, we bypassed all of those stairs and drove to the top.  I’ll have to go back and count the stairs at a later date.

The fort, believed to have been built by the Portuguese, itself is not very big, and is essentially made up of three watch towers.  But the stone walls are simultaneously sturdy and crumbling, the way any historical site should be, and scrambling up and down them with my co-teachers (taking plenty of photos along the way, of course), made for quite the enjoyable excursion.


Taking in the view.

It also gave my teachers the opportunity to regale me with tales of the bravery of Nani Wartebone, the local hero who was instrumental in helping Gorontalo gain independence from the Dutch[2].  I have heard all kinds of stories about Nani Wartebone since coming here, from the believable (he was born and raised in a desa right near one of my sitemate’s schools), to the not-so-believable (some say he was able to teleport, and that’s how he was able to beat the Dutch).  The man who has become a legend here did much of his fighting in the area around Benteng Otanaha, so the site is especially significant for a place that has been free from colonial rule for less than one hundred years.


Danau Limboto, as seen from Benteng Otanaha.

Because Benteng Otanaha is so high up on the hills, it offers a wonderful view of the surrounding areas, including Danau (Lake) Limboto.  The lake used to be much larger than it is now, and from Otanaha my teachers pointed out the old boundaries; in many cases, there are now whole neighborhoods where there used to be water, because those areas have been dry for so long.  It was a sad reminder as to the damage humans can do to their environment.  Nonetheless, what remains of the lake is still beautiful.

We finished our jalan-jalan in time to enjoy a delicious lunch of ikan bakar (grilled fish) together, before heading back to our respective homes.  My co-teachers have become something like family here, and it was fabulous to spend a morning with them outside of school.


The fam.  A little sweaty, but still happy as can be.

[1] Jalan is the word for “walk,” but when it is doubled like this, it can mean almost any activity that can be done outdoors: going for a walk, wandering around, traveling…

[2] Gorontalo was actually independent from Dutch control two years before the rest of Indonesia, and there was even a still-often-talked-about visit from Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, to make sure that Gorontalo was actually going to become part of the rest of the nation.