Snapshot: Labuan Bajo, Flores

Shortly after arriving back in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to travel to several cities across the archipelago, as part of inspecting and preparing sites that had not had an ETA before this year.  This “Snapshot” series is composed of short pieces about my all-too-brief visits to these beautiful and fascinating places, which are now the temporary homes of ETAs from the 2016-17 cohort.

My final site visit was to Labuan Bajo, in Flores.  It was not my first visit to the city: during my first ETA grant I visited Pulau Komodo and briefly explored the area around Labuan Bajo during my December break from teaching.  This small city in Flores is fascinating and beautiful, and I was tickled pink to have the opportunity to visit it again.

20160809_181804Due to its proximity to Pulau Komodo and Pulau Rinca, and because of the excellent diving and snorkeling in the area, Labuan Bajo is definitly a tourist destination in Indonesia, which makes it a bit different from many of the other ETA sites.  There is certainly a strong tourism influence in the actual city of Labuan Bajo, and some parts have even come to resemble a resort town, with western-style restaurants overlooking the harbor and the overabundance of dive shops that line the main street.

But Flores, in general, remains one of the poorest parts of Indonesia, and while that is still noticeable within the city of Labuan Bajo, it is quite obvious as soon as you leave town, and everything becomes smaller, a bit more traditionally Indonesian, a bit rougher around the edges.

When I visited Labuan Bajo in 2014, it was not nearly as touristy as it was when I visited in August.  As we talked to the co-teachers of this year’s ETAs, we learned that tourism in the area has increased quite rapidly, far faster than anyone can really keep up with.  This is especially felt, with equal parts excitement and trepidation, by the SMK (vocational) schools in the area, many of which have a tourism track.

The split between these two worlds, and the ever-changing tourist season, will most likely play a significant role in the grant of the two ETAs who will call Labuan Bajo home.  This is a dynamic transition period for the area, and while that is certain to create areas of confusion and frustration, it is also extremely exciting to bear witness to.  I cannot wait to hear the stories they will tell.


Snapshot: Semarang and Kudus, Jawa Tengah

Shortly after arriving back in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to travel to several cities across the archipelago, as part of inspecting and preparing sites that had not had an ETA before this year.  This “Snapshot” series is composed of short pieces about my all-too-brief visits to these beautiful and fascinating places, which are now the temporary homes of ETAs from the 2016-17 cohort.

After visiting Balige in North Sumatra, I hopped on another plane and headed to the north coast of Central Java, where I visited Semarang, the capital of the province.

Semarang is not often favorably spoken of by tourists in Indonesia: the words I hear most often associated with Semarang are “small,” “boring,” and “dirty.”  Even on the plane to Semarang, the woman I was sitting next to, who was staying in Semarang to receive Bahasa Indonesia training before going to East Indonesia for missionary work, told me, “there isn’t a whole lot going on in Semarang.”


Lawang Sewu, or One Thousand Doors, one of the most iconic buildings in Semarang.

I found myself pleasantly surprised by Semarang: the reports I had heard were simply not true.  Semarang is actually the fifth largest city in Indonesia, and while it is certainly not as large as Surabaya or Medan, it wasn’t exactly what I would call small.  And Semarang seemed to be a fairly happening place.  There is an historic district, with many impressive buildings left over from the Dutch Colonial era.  The Indonesian food scene seemed to be strong, and there is a growing cafe scene which has a very modern, hip feel to it.  With a mix of the old and the new, of the very much Indonesian influences and the fusion of outside influences, Semarang seemed a very interesting city, which I wish I had had more time to explore.  There will be two ETAs in Semarang this year, and I hope they enjoy Semarang as much as I did during my fleeting visit.


Masjid Menara Kudus, or Kudus Tower Mosque,  a famous mosque in Kudus which is thought by some to have been built upon the remains of a Hindu temple (which explains the tower on the left).

But I wasn’t actually in Semarang to visit any of the schools there, as Semarang has been an established ETA site for a few years now. Semarang was, for me, a stopover point on the way to Kudus, a small city around one hour from Semarang.  Kudus is an adorable city, simply put.  It has wide sidewalks in the city center, and plenty of greenery all about the city.  Though it is not large there seemed to be plenty of cute corners to explore, and I hope the ETA who will be placed there comes to love it.

My visits to both of these cities were far too short, and I look forward to hearing stories from the ETAs who will make this pocket of Central Java their home.

Snapshot: Balige, Sumatra Utara

Shortly after arriving back in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to travel to several cities across the archipelago, as part of inspecting and preparing sites that had not had an ETA before this year.  This “Snapshot” series is composed of short pieces about my all-too-brief visits to these beautiful and fascinating places, which are now the temporary homes of ETAs from the 2016-17 cohort.


A series of sunsets over Danau Toba.

Sumatra has been on my list of places that I have most wanted to see since coming to Indonesia.  Whenever I attend a dance competition with my students, it is the Sumatran dances I find most beautiful.  When a love song to Nasi Padang was recently put on YouTube by a Norwegian traveler to Indonesia, I identified with the song on a level that might just be unhealthy.  Images of the mountains and jungles in the heart of the sixth largest island in the world instill in me an urge to hop on the next plane to Bukittinggi or Banda Aceh… wherever, so long as it is Sumatra.  I can’t explain this fascination.  It just is.


We went to one of the highest points to try to get a better view, but even then we could not capture the full majesty of Danau Toba.

But somehow I never made it to Sumatra during my first two years of living here.  This is mostly because I wanted to spend sufficient time in the places I wanted to visit in Sumatra, and I could never find that kind of space in my schedule.  I kept waiting for the perfect time to visit, and it never really came.

But this year, one of the ETA sites is Balige, North Sumatra, a small-ish town south of Danau (Lake) Toba, which has been on my list of places to see for two years now, and you can imagine my excitement when I found out I would have the opportunity to visit.  I was practically bouncing in my seat the on the plane from Jakarta.


A morning stroll along the shore.

Sometimes you build up places in your mind and when you finally see them in real life, you find yourself disappointed: your imagination gave you expectations that reality, as incredible as it might be, could never meet.

Danau Toba did not disappoint.  Danau Toba was beyond anything I could have imagined.

Danau Toba is the largest volcanic crater lake in the world, and this title always made me imagine a wildness and a rawness to the area, but in reality Danau Toba holds a quiet power, it’s mirror-like water stretching away from the shore where children play and old men fish: its presence dominating its surroundings most powerfully in that it is so much a part of everyday life.


Blessed with color.

I was lucky enough to go to Balige with a colleague whose family is from North Sumatra, which meant I had an expert guide to all the best foods, the most colorful fabrics, and the best places to explore in the short time we had.  She has always talked about how beautiful this area is, and I feel so privileged to be able to confirm how right she was.

I was only in the area for a few days, as this was an office trip, and that certainly was not enough.  I can’t wait for the next opportunity I have to visit Sumatra.


Snapshot: Surabaya and Sidoarjo, Jawa Timur


A particularly famous statue in Surabaya, based on a legend.

Shortly after arriving back in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to travel to several cities across the archipelago, as part of inspecting and preparing sites that had not had an ETA before this year.  This “Snapshot” series is composed of short pieces about my all-too-brief visits to these beautiful and fascinating places, which are now the temporary homes of ETAs from the 2016-17 cohort.

After visiting Kendari, I flew straight from Sulawesi, the island of my second home in Indonesia, to the capital of East Java, the province in which I first found myself as an ETA in Indonesia.  While I lived in Malang I found myself somewhat frequently in Surabaya, as it has one of the largest airports in Indonesia, and when I traveled it was often easier and cheaper to take the bus to Surabaya and fly from there, rather than flying directly out of Malang’s airport.  Touching down in Surabaya produced similar feelings to that of touching down in Makassar: it was familiar, and a bit like coming home.


The clock in Masjid Agung Al-Akbar,  in Sidoarjo, a mosque that always acted as a marker for me when I would take the bus from Malang to Surabaya.  This time I got to see it up close and personal. 

But this time I didn’t board the bus to Malang.  This time I stayed in Surabaya.

This year there is one ETA in Surabaya proper, and one in Sidoarjo, which is technically the next town over.  Sidoarjo is certainly different from Surabaya: there are not as many massive skyscrapers, the streets are smaller: essentially, it feels a bit more “classically Indonesian,” as problematic a term as that is.  However, there is no distinct separation between Surabaya and Sidoarjo (I have no idea exactly where one ends and the other begins).

Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia, which made it more than a little overwhelming at first, especially for a small-town girl like me.  But there are certainly advantages to such a large city, including a diverse group of cultures that each bring something different to the city (while stuck in traffic, we passed China Town, Arab Town, India Town… and I am sure there are more).  Surabaya really is a multicultural metropolis, which makes it really special as an ETA site.  And while the main streets are filled with shiny malls and skyscrapers, reflecting the hot Surabaya sun down upon the small humans that challenge these massive buildings with their larger-than-life laughter and kindness, off of the main streets are neighborhoods that speak in the same language of giggles and goodness, but in more muted tones of side markets and peeling green paint.


Gereja Hati Kudus Jesus, an historic church in Surabaya.  

Surabaya (and Sidoarjo, in turn), are fascinating sites, which I could not come close to understanding in my short time there.  I cannot wait to hear stories from the ETAs there, come MidYear, to learn what it is like to live in the heart of East Java.



Snapshot: Kendari, Sulawesi Tenggara


A fun little rumah makan (restaurant) on the water.

Shortly after arriving back in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to travel to several cities across the archipelago, as part of inspecting and preparing sites that had not had an ETA before this year.  This “Snapshot” series is composed of short pieces about my all-too-brief visits to these beautiful and fascinating places, which are now the temporary homes of ETAs from the 2016-17 cohort.

My first site visit was to Kendari, in Southeastern Sulawesi.  In many ways, going to Kendari felt a bit like returning to my second home in Indonesia, Gorontalo.  Boarding the same flight from Jakarta to Makassar that was so often part of my way back to site after training or travel to other parts of Indonesia, I was unprepared for the way nostalgia would crash down upon me, so soon after leaving Gorontalo.  After arriving in Kendari, I was constantly struck by how similar the two places were.  The way the sun beat down upon us and The way smoke billowed up against the background of a clear blue sky (so different from the haze I am now more accustomed to seeing in Jakarta) from the ikan bakar (grilled fish) stands lining the streets took me back to nights at my favorite warungs (hole-in-the-wall restaurants) with friends.  The way the tones of their Bahasa Indonesia danced up and down like children jumping rope echoed the lilt of my teachers’ joking in dewan guru (the teachers’ room) at MAN Model, the very accent I also had developed during my time there, for which my coworkers still tease me on occasion.


In the center of Kendari there stands a massive menara (tower), originally built for a Qur’an-reading competition.  Though the stairs in the tower are slowly rusting away, I decided to follow the lead of the local young people, and climb it anyway (much to the horror of the colleague who was in Kendari with me): I was rewarded for my slight insanity with some beautiful views of Kendari.

Kendari and Gorontalo do in fact have a lot in common.  Both are coastal towns in Sulawesi.  Both are the ibu kota (capital) of their province.  Both are Muslim-majority areas.  Both are fairly conservative.  Both are stopover points on the way to popular tourist destinations, but are not often considered tourist destinations themselves.


Sinonggi, also know as papeda, a local dish made from sagu.

But of course, Kendari and Gorontalo are not one and the same.  Kendari is significantly bigger than Gorontalo, with more than twice the population size, and this changed the feel of the town considerably.  The bits of local language thrown in were not Bahasa Gorontalo, and even certain mannerisms were different, reminding me that I could not so easily slip into my Gorontalo ways and pass as someone familiar with Kendari.  These differences only made me enjoy my time there more, and I am excited to talk to the ETAs who will live there when they return to Jakarta for their MidYear Enrichment Conference, to learn more about these differences from folks who have had more than a few days there.

Nonetheless, there was something very universally familiar woven into Kendari, and I loved that.  I’m excited for the three ETAs who are placed in Kendari this year, and I hope that someday they might feel the same way I did, boarding that plane out of Java, headed for Sulawesi, headed for home.

Just How Much I Have to Learn: A Visit to the South Korean Fulbright Commission



One of the many crowded streets of Seoul.

I have had bountiful opportunities to travel throughout my life, from trips to other parts of the U.S. in high school with 4-H, to studying abroad in London during college, to somehow being able to live in Indonesia for now three years in a row.  I don’t know how to fully express how thankful I am to have had the chance to explore the globe, and learn so much about other parts of the world, and myself, along the way.

Since coming to Indonesia, I have focused most of my personal travel on exploring other parts of Indonesia itself.  I have more than once had the opportunity to visit Singapore for Visa reasons, and during the holiday season last year I was able to attend a friend’s wedding in Sri Lanka, but beyond that all of my travel in Asia had been here, in this country that has become my second home.  But on my way back to Indonesia this time around, I was able to visit yet another country in Asia: South Korea.


My colleague and I (the two of us are in the center) surrounded by members of the Korean Orientation Team.

This visit was different from any of the travel I have done before: this was a work trip[1].  I was there with a colleague from AMINEF to meet with the South Korean Fulbright Commission and observe part of their ETA orientation, to learn different approaches to training and support of ETAs, and bring some of what we learned into our own work in Indonesia.  And I cannot emphasize enough how much we learned, and how thankful I am to have had the opportunity to go on this trip prior to the development of orientation during my own year as RC.  Having been an ETA twice, I already had two years of participating in the Indonesia ETA Orientation to help me as I helped to plan this year’s, but being able to see part of and talk to the orchestrators of a completely different orientation gave me even more tools in my toolbox as I, along with the invaluable AMINEF Team and SETAs, set forth to try to create a more complete and useful orientation for the incoming cohort of ETAs, building on all the hard work of the RCs before me.


Korean barbecue… delicious AND fun.

And in between meetings and observations, we were able to explore a little bit of South Korea.  The South Korean Orientation is hosted by Jungwon University in Goesan, a smaller city towards the middle of the country.  The surrounding area was beautiful, and I loved the opportunity to wake up each morning and see a completely new landscape outside of my window.  One our way in and out of South Korea, we of course had a stopover in Seoul, a city unlike any I’ve had the opportunity to see before.  The AMINEF Team member I traveled with is a die-hard foodie, so we also did plenty of culinary exploring along the way: and Korean food is delicious.


yo, a traditional Korean bed.  It was incredibly comfortable: I loved it.

Throughout my time in Korea, I was constantly confused as to how to respond to the situations I was in.  At this point in my life there are really only two contexts in which I feel comfortable, American and Indonesian, and I am forever making mistakes in even those contexts.  My understanding of South Korea, while perhaps microscopically better than the average American, especially after spending time in Asia, remains extremely limited[2].  As such, I kept defaulting to either American or Indonesian norms, jumping through any of the cultural hoops within my reach in the hope that one of them would allow me to land upright in the circus of cross-cultural understanding.  I realized quite quickly that bowing was a sign of respect, but was never able to stop bowing in the Javanese style, with my hands in front of me, and instead switch to the Korean manner, with my hands at my side.  I cannot count the number of times I tried to communicate to someone in English, then instinctually switch to Indonesian when it became clear they did not speak English, a language arguably less helpful in this given context; I would then realize my mistake, tease myself in a mix of languages with an apologetic smile, and the person I was talking to would usually laugh and smile in return, catching my blunders and handing them back to me wrapped in the most human of understandings: that we all miscommunicate and misunderstand.


Some beautiful views from Jungwon University, where we were for most of our visit.

The entire experience echoed the Aristotle quote I’ve seen on the walls of hundreds of classrooms: “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”  It may seem trite and overused at this point to some, but I cannot help but believe there is a reason it has been plastered across my education.  Because though I have learned so much in the travel I have had the opportunity to do, what I now know is still far less than what I do not know.  Intellectually, I have known this is the case for a long time, but I always relish concrete experiences that emphasize how this plays out in real-life situations as seemingly ordinary as ordering a cup of coffee.  The more I travel, the smaller I feel, and I have done nothing but gain from this diminishment, for which I am forever thankful.



[1] Because if I already wasn’t incredibly lucky to get to travel as much as I do, I now have the opportunity to travel to whole other countries for my job.  I am the luckiest girl in the world.

[2] This is something that always makes me very uncomfortable in the U.S.: I am constantly clarifying, as I am talking about my time in Indonesia, that I have only lived in certain parts of the country, and only for a short time, and I have never formally studied the country, so I am certainly no expert: I can only speak to my own experience.  Occasionally, I am asked to make generalizations about Asia as a whole, and this is something I really cannot do, with as limited an experience as I have.

Ch-ch-changes: Where Have I Been, Where Am I Now, and Where Do I Go from Here?

I haven’t posted a blog in almost four months, a new record for me since I first started blogging, at the outset of my first English Teaching Assistant (ETA)ship in Malang, Indonesia.  If you had told me then that two years later I would find myself returning to Indonesia for a third year, this time to live in the sprawling capital city and to work in an office, I would have laughed.  A small town farm girl turned English teacher leaving the classroom to become an office girl in the big city?  No. Way.

And yet, here I am.  I’m two months in to my new position, and I am still regularly in awe (the only word I can think of that adequately combines the feelings of uncontrolled excitement and debilitating terror that I wake up to each morning) that this is where I have ended up, in a place and a position so different from any I might have imagined myself in.


The very beginnings of sunset, as seen from our apartment balcony.

I wake up every day in an apartment that is part of a mega-complex (think three separate towers of apartments, each more than 40 stories: by far the biggest building I’ve ever been in, much less lived in).  The view from my window is an endless sea of rooftops, with tenacious spots of green pushing up through the tile and concrete, because in a Southeast Asian city mankind cannot win against nature: in this climate she can find a way to flourish anywhere.  Currents of cars and motorbikes and angkots and bajai pass by full of folks from all walks of life pushing towards work and fun and life in this flood of grey and green and glass and humanity that calls itself Jakarta.  Some mornings I wake up intimidated to join their numbers, navigating broken roads and potholes, as well as pristine brick sidewalks (both of which confuse me in their own fashion), on my pleasant 25-minute walk to work.  Other mornings I wake up inspired by the sheer number of stories I have the privilege to bear witness to, from 17 floors up, and I can’t wait to dive into the depths of it all.


A hazy sunset from the office.

My days are spent sitting in one of those wonderfully distracting spinning office chairs, in my own cubical.  I have a desk job.  I have an access key card that gets me into a building with security.  My sixteen-year-old self would be disgusted and also so very pleased with twenty-four-year-old me.

I am not back in Indonesia as an ETA this year.  I’m now the Researcher/Coordinator (RC) for AMINEF.  I coordinate training and support for the current cohort of ETAs, with the invaluable help of the AMINEF American Programs Team and the Senior ETAs (SETAs) who have returned for a second year as ETAs in Indonesia, as I did last year.  I also conduct research on the ETA Program in Indonesia, with the aim to provide a concrete set of recommendations to help improve our program and other programs like it.

I don’t teach.  I am not in a small Indonesian city.  I coordinate.  I research.  At a desk.  In a mega-city.

This is my new normal.


A rare bit of blue sky, captured from the windows of the Uber I took to the cafe to write this blog post (because living in Jakarta means that now I take Ubers and go to hipster cafes…)

It certainly doesn’t feel normal just yet, and a lot of that has to do with the initial responsibilities of my new position.  My RC-ship began with a visit to the Korean Fulbright Commission with Ceacealia, to observe part of their orientation and learn from their overall programming.  Six days after arriving in Jakarta (the trip to Korea took place on my way back to Indonesia), I was off to visit new ETA sites.  Over the course of two and a half weeks I visited Kendari in Sulawesi; Balige in Sumatra; Labuan Bajo in Flories; and Surabaya, Sidoarjo, and Kudus in Java.  I’m not sure when the fates decided that I would be granted a position that let me travel for my job, but I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity.  Then it was time to finish planning the ETA orientation in Bandung—a process began over the summer, but which wasn’t able to be truly finished until I was in Jakarta—and before I knew it the new ETAs had arrived and we were in the middle of orientation.  And just as quickly, orientation was over, the ETAs all headed off to their new homes, and I was back in Jakarta, this time more permanently[1].

My new normal, consequently, has really only been normal for about two weeks, and so is still a very new normal indeed.


The sitcom of our household, airing on Instagram at all possible hours.

I’ve been lucky in that, though living in Jakarta is a completely new experience for me, there are pieces of familiarity already here.  I’ve gotten to know several members of the AMINEF Team really well over the past few years, and working with them has been a fun and amusing ride (I should dedicate an entire post to our office shenanigans at some point).  I have several friends from my previous homes in Indonesia who have made the move to Jakarta, and being able to reconnect with them has been wonderful.  I even live with two of my closest friends from Malang: Sam and Novriska (affectionately known as Vriz).[2]  Having these two along for the journey has made adjusting to Jakarta life so much easier than if I was trying to do so on my own, and also means my life resembles a sitcom at times, which I love.

There are plenty of new places to explore and people to meet in Jakarta, and now that I am finally here more permanently, I can’t wait to start doing so.  After so much movement the past two months, I have spent much of the past two weeks giving my body the rest it needs, but it won’t be long before I am impatient for new adventures.

Jakarta is an insane and amazing place.  Who knows where I’ll end up?

[1] I do intend to write about all of these adventures in more detail, and I will link to those blog posts once they are up.

[2] When I asked her what she wanted to be called in my blog, Vriz said, “My name is Novriska Adini. You can call me Novriska, Novris, or Vriz.  Your choice!”  This gives you a pretty good idea as to how cute of a housemate she is, and Sam certainly gives her a run for her money.