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. 


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.


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.


Dari mana?: Reflections on a Trip Back to Malang

Dari mana?

This is a question I hear incessantly in Indonesia.  This question translates to “From where?” and can be used in two different ways: “Where are you coming from?” (as in, “Where were you right before you arrived here?”), or “Where are you from?” (as in, “Where do you come from, as in, like, originally?”).  Since I very distinctly do not look as though I am from Indonesia, “Dari mana?” is usually intended to ask the latter when it is directed towards me.


Good friends, good food, good times.

Last year, while living in Malang, my Indonesian friends and their playful sense of humor encouraged me to play with the dual meaning of this question, and whenever we went hiking up nearby mountains or to various waterfalls, when people we met along the way asked me, “Dari mana?” I would reply, “Dari Malang!”  This, of course, wasn’t exactly a lie, as I was always coming from the direction of the city, but that wasn’t what people wanted to know.  Most folks would follow up with “Asli…?” (asli means original or originally, and “Asli mana?” is another way to ask where someone is originally from), and that would lead us into the typical discussion of where I was from and why I was in Malang, my friends still giggling off to the side.

It was a wild few days of trying to see everyone who had made my time in Malang memorable (I wasn’t completely successful—there were still a few I was not able to see, and I hope I will have to opportunity to go back again and fix that).  But even with a packed schedule, I still had time to reflect on just how surreal the experience of going back to Malang was.


AFTER wiping happy tears away.

So much was the same.  I hopped on a rented motorbike and zipped around familiar roads without hesitation, my mental map of Malang still ingrained into my subconscious.  I fell naturally back into conversations with teachers who still go to lunch at the same favorite nasi padang place.  Students (following the screaming and hugging and in a few cases crying that took place immediately upon my arrival) laughed and smiled and gossiped in the same way I remember them doing when I was their teacher. I took my place at suppers with friends, chatting and eating sambal as though no time had passed.  I’ve only been away from Malang for a mere six months: it hasn’t changed all that much.

But there was so much that was different.  My school has a new principle, which meant that the teachers’ rooms had been rearranged and school committees had been restructured.  There is a whole class of tenth graders at my school whom I have never met, and who stared openly at me as I talked to some of their seniors, before I got some of my old students to introduce me.  My site mate, the rock that kept me grounded and steady during the ups and downs that is the ETA experience, is back in her home state of Florida, and was not there to share the experience.  Many other friends, either foreigners or Indonesians, have since moved to other cities, and their presence was certainly missed.

Of course, the thing that had changed the most was, well, me.

Some of these changes are of the sort that simply come with the passing of time: I’m ever so slightly better read and more thoughtful, allowing me to better keep up in conversations with my friends’, most of whom are either finishing their master’s degree or already working and are far wiser than I am.  Some changes came out of having lived in Indonesia for a little longer, such as the increased speed and accuracy of my Indonesian.


This crew.

But there were changes that stemmed specifically from my having lived in Gorontalo for three months.  My friends, most of whom are from Java, teased me for the new accent they detected in my voice, which I had not even realized I was developing over these past few months.  As my friends weaved in and out of the thick Malang traffic, I found myself getting left behind on occasion, driving too hesitantly, having adapted to the significant lack of traffic and the slightly less aggressive driving habits of Gorontalo.  “You’re not from Malang now,” my friends teased, “You’re from Gorontalo.”

And then, all too soon, I returned to Gorontalo, to streets and rumah makan which are just as familiar and to friends whom are just a precious to me as those from Malang, at this point.  It seems now that I am from a lot of places: Pennsylvania (where I spent most of my childhood), Central New York, East Java, and now Gorontalo.

All of this is really just a result of growing up, of finding my own place in the world.  Whether they move to a country on the other side of the world or to a home down the street, most people do not stay in one place for their entire lives.  For me, the difference in my various homes is more noticeable, because they have been so very different from one another; I’m one of the lucky few able to have this sort of experience.

I’m also one of the lucky few able to share my unique experience.  Not all ETAs who return to Indonesia are able to return to their old sites, and I am very fortunate to have been able to do so.  None of my friends in Malang had ever had the opportunity to visit Gorontalo, and armed with photos, kerawang (the traditional fabric from Gorontalo), and the little of the local language I know, I was able to share at least a little of this with them, in the same way that I share a little of all I have learned from Indonesia with people in my hometown, and share the experience of having grown up in the Northeastern U.S. with folks here.

I will admit that there are days when being “from” so many places exhausts me, when all of the connections I have made and which I work so hard to maintain from all over the world end up making me feel isolated from the here and now I currently find myself in.  But there are also days when these connections fill me up and shower me with a love I do not deserve.  And for that, I am so thankful.

Tempat Paling Indah

I had intended to travel during midterms, to hop on a plane and head off to the far reaches of this amazing archipelago.  I could spend my whole life traveling around Indonesia, and still never see everything there is to see, but I wanted to go and witness at least some small wonder.

But then I stayed at home instead.  I made this decision partially because I have a lot of work to do, what with my WORDS speech competition barely two weeks away, my lessons for the second half of the semester not yet planned, and never-ending laundry to be washed by hand. The thought of traveling started to feel more stressful than exciting, and here in Indonesia I’m starting to learn my limits, to know when I shouldn’t just keep pushing onwards.  But it had also just dawned on me that I had a mere three months left in Malang, and there was so much more I wanted to see, right here in my backyard.  That was probably part of the anxiety that had crept into my enthusiasm.  So I canceled my trip, and decided to stay.

Much of this week has been spent working—catching up on my blog, trying to develop creative projects for the upcoming semester, and generally trying to plan the little time I have left in Indonesia so that I do not waste one precious moment—but, in keeping with this last goal, parts of this week have also been spent exploring some of the sites in and around Malang.

One of those places was Coban Pelangi, a waterfall just east of Malang. I had already seen a few of the waterfalls near Batu, and when my students learned of my love for all things nature, they told me that I needed to go see Coban Pelangi while I was here.  My students’ advice never steers me wrong.  With a week off and some time to spare, I was determined to fit in a trip to the waterfall.

I went with an Indonesian friend, whom I had not yet really had the opportunity to spend quality time with. I already knew he was the perfect example of orang baik hati (a kind person, a good-hearted person… there are a million ways to translate this Indonesian phrase, all of them essentially lovely), and it was wonderful to spend a morning talking to him about his family and his friends, his love of his home city and of photography (which are not necessarily unrelated).

I live for moments like this, the quiet, happy moments of small adventures with people whom I really enjoy.  This is the pleasant side of cultural exchange, the side that offers a reprieve from the tough questions and conversations about education and women’s rights and religion and race that I have almost daily.  I love those tough conversations as well—they are part of the reason I came here, after all—but there are days when my soul needs an escape, when I need a long motorbike ride through the mountains, a short hike through a jungle, and a friend.

Coban Pelangi was gorgeous, even if we were denied the rainbow its name promises.  Coban Pelangi crashes down upon the rocks below from a height of 110 meters (361 feet), into a gorge teeming with lush vegetation.  The mist enveloped us, leaving us sparkling in the ribbons of sunlight that danced through the gorge, inspiring my friend and I to make more than one Twilight joke.

I made the right decision by deciding to stay in Malang for my time off.  Yes, I’m sure I could have seen some beautiful places had I decided to travel, but it could not have compared to what I found here.

Because it’s not the waterfalls, or the mountains, or any of that that makes this tempat paling indah (the most beautiful place).  It’s the people, and the moments I am so lucky to share with them.

The Art of Being Lost, or, Finding Home

One of my closest Indonesian friends looks up from the hand-drawn map she has spent the last ten minutes explaining: “Are you sure you can do it? You won’t get lost?”

I smile at her, brimming with overconfidence: “Of course I can do it.”  Famous last words.

Chinese New Year is a national holiday in Indonesia, and so I took advantage of a day without classes to visit the home of one of my closest Indonesian friends, in a village just north of Malang.  Because I had a meeting for students interested in joining a speech competition put on by AMINEF (the program I fall under while I am here) I was unable to follow her home the night before, and so we decided that I would join her the following morning, via motorbike.  She lives a little over an hour from the campus where I live, much farther than I had ventured yet independently, but a distance I felt perfectly capable of conquering, armed with my official map drawn in hot pink.

Instead, what should have been an hour-long ride turned into a three hour adventure.

The trip started out just fine.  My friend had picked out perfect landmarks, and at no point during the first half hour of my trip did I have to make use of my expert U-turn skills.  I had left my house early enough that there was still only a reasonable amount of traffic on the road—a shocking turn of events in a city on Java—and so I was able to relax and enjoy cruising smoothly along in the still-cool morning air, shamelessly humming songs from Frozen within the safety of my new helmet.

And then I got outside of Malang, and nothing looked like what had been described to me.  I searched the sides of the roads for the landmarks I had been told I would see, but nothing seemed to match.  Assuming I had somehow missed or taken a wrong turn at some point, I pulled over at the next warung to ask the Ibu there for directions.

I pull off my mask, faintly registering their mild looks of surprise as my clearly not-Indonesian complexion is revealed, and cut right to the chase (with a smile, of course): “Maaf, bu.  Di mana Lawang?” (I’m sorry, mam.  Where is Lawang?)

Mau ke mana?”  (Where do you want to go?)

Lawang.  L-A-W-A-N-G.[1]

Ah! Lawang! Terus, terus!

Terus is the Indonesian word for “continue,” and when used to give directions I have found it is almost always accompanied by an excessive waving of the hands, so there is no mistaking its meaning.  According to the Ibu, I was on the correct jalan (road).  Relieved that I was still on the right route, I thanked the Ibu and waved heartily as I drove away.

Fifteen minutes later, I found myself on a road with nothing but rice paddies and sugar cane fields as far as the eye could see.  I feasted my eyes on this gorgeous view for much longer than I should have before realizing that I probably already should have arrived in Lawang, if I was in fact still going in the right direction.  I made my first U-turn of the trip, and drove back into the last kampung (town) I had driven through, to ask another Ibu for help.

This time, when I asked where Lawang was, the Ibu pointed back towards Malang and said, “Terus Malang.”  Apparently I needed to go back through Malang, the city I had just come from, to get to my destination.  I was more than a little bingung (confused).  I pulled out my now-very-crinkled map, determined to see if I could re-orient myself.

Maaf, bu. Di mana di sini?” (Where is here?)


This explained why the previous Ibu had insisted I was going in the right direction: there are apparently many areas with similar names surrounding Malang.  Needless to say, Bululawang was not on my map.  So I did the only thing I knew to do: I called my friend.

It didn’t take long for her to ascertain just how lost I was.  Lawang is north of Malang.  Bululawang is east of Malang.  I was still twenty minutes outside of the city limits… in the wrong direction.

There was only one thing to do.  I had to backtrack, a lot.  My friend was not exactly sure how to get from Bululawang to Lawang, so it was up to my poor sense of direction and my little Indonesian to get me there.  My friend gave me what she could: “When you get back to Malang, ask for Singosari.  Then, when you get to Singosari, ask for Lawang.  Then you should be able to use my map again.”  I got off the phone with her, and was off, determined to end up in the right place eventually.

As soon as I was back within Malang City limits, I stopped and asked for directions from the first becak[2] driver I came
across.  Becak drivers know the streets better than anyone, and they are, more often than not, friendly older gentlemen whom I find far less intimidating than the younger men whose friendliness is laced with everything that makes me feel uncomfortable as a woman traveling alone.  Speaking slowly, and painting detailed pictures with his hands of the statues I would pass, he soon had me off in the right direction.

There was just one tiny, little problem.  I needed to pee.  Badly.

Living on Java, this is not usually an issue.  Pertamina, the oil and gas company which has a monopoly over pretty much all of Indonesia, can usually be found on what seems like every corner—I have three to choose from on my half-hour ride to
school alone.  They are the only places I know which are guaranteed to have public toilets available, so I kept my eyes peeled for their familiar red-and-white sign. But there wasn’t a single Pertamina in sight.

Needing to pee while driving is never comfortable.  Needing to pee while driving a motorbike is an experience I would not wish on anyone. I was audibly cursing my daily dependence on instant coffee and practically in tears by the time I finally came across a Pertamina, my oasis in my time of need.  A dirty squat toilet has never looked so beautiful.

Much more comfortable now, even if a dull ache was beginning to form in my lower back, I confirmed with a friendly Pertamina employee, whose smile was as wide as the Indonesian archipelago, that I was still going in the right direction.  Very soon, I found myself in Singosari.  I shamelessly did a little dance as I was driving: I was getting closer.

I stopped at yet another warung, to ask how to get to Lawang (“L-A-W-A-N-G”). This particular warung was run by an adorable elderly couple, who cheerfully bickered about the details of the directions they were giving me.

Terus… lima kilometer…”

Tiga kilometer!”


It’s good to know that even on the other side of the world, partners in life will argue over the difference between five and three kilometers.

Once I finally reached Lawang, it was just a matter of finding the train station, so that I would know where to turn.  As I peered down side streets I could see that the train tracks ran parallel to the street I was on, so I knew I had to be close.  I searched the side of the road for signs that read “Stasiun Lawang,” or perhaps “kereta api” (train), but to no avail.  Finally, I performed yet another U-turn, and eventually pulled over to ask for directions from a middle-aged gentleman who looked to be out for a morning stroll, but who might also have been on his way to somewhere important (I never can tell here, because Indonesians almost never rush).

Maaf, pak.  Di mana stasiun kereta api?

Di sini.”

It seems I had pulled up in front of the train station to ask where the train station was.

Slightly embarrassed, I thanked the bapak and continued on my way. I found my friend’s road easily after that, and though I still passed by her house and had to turn my bike around for the…well, to be honest I had lost track of my U-turns by that point, I did eventually arrive at her front door, safe and (mostly) sound, complete with helmet hair and a sore bum, two hours later than I should have.

I spent the rest of that day enjoying the delights of my friend’s village, touring a local tea plantation and eating her mother’s delicious cooking (and acquiring a few recipes for said cooking).  I hope that I will eventually be able to return to her village and explore it further: it really is a beautiful area, and having the time to spend more than an evening with the woman who has become so much a part of my life here.  I just hope that next time, I won’t get quite so lost on the way.

Not that I really minded being lost, to be honest.  The ride was fairly picturesque, and there is a certain peacefulness that can only be achieved astride a motorbike.  And, though I did not have the faintest idea where I was supposed to be going for most of the trip, I always knew how to get home, and so I never reached that scary kind of lost that happens when you truly have no idea where you are.

I spend a considerable amount of time lost in Indonesia, in a variety of different ways.  I am lost almost every time I go somewhere new on my motorbike; I am lost by the conversations of quick-fire Indonesian and Javanese that surround me every day; I am lost as I try to muddle my way through unfamiliar educational regulations and traditions.  Being lost is no longer a state of being for me, but a part of my personality.  But just as I was never afraid during my trip to my friend because, at the very least, I knew how to get home, more and more I have come to embrace this feeling of being lost, because though I may not fully understand the situation I find myself in, I still have not lost sight of home.

By home, I don’t necessarily mean the small dairy farm in Central New York where I will return, at least for the summer, after my grant.  By home, I don’t mean New York, or even the United States.  Home is storytelling and home-cooked food.  Home is family and friends, and the blurred line in between.  Home is peace and conflict, laughter and tears, hope and temptations of despair.  Home is, in short, everything that lets me lay claim to being human.

All of which I am able to find here.  It might be a spicier version of home dressed in far more colorful clothing, but stories and food and community and all the contradictions that give us life are still here.  This can still be home.

This is not to say that I am planning on moving to Indonesia permanently.  I’m not sure that I could spend my entire life this far away from my family, and there is something about four seasons that calls my heart back. But I am beginning to see how home does not need to be found within a dwelling, or even within a particular country’s borders.  Home can be Planet Earth, with an expansive extended family and potential friends around every corner.  Home can be here, and there, and anywhere and everywhere and nowhere at once.

And so long as I have this, this vague, idiosyncratic idea of home, I will never really be lost.

[1] I still have not perfected the accent for the Javanese version of Bahasa Indonesia, and consequently have gotten really good at the Indonesian alphabet. Asking for directions always turns into a spelling bee.

[2] If you are familiar with the idea of a rickshaw, you understand what a becak is.

The Search for Bahagia

Due to a confluence of personal reasons in no way pertinent to this blog, this past week was rough. I slept far too little, I called home too many times, and I arrived to school late on two consecutive days.[1]  It wasn’t pretty.  I won’t go into the details, but I will say that sometimes the most difficult part of being in Indonesia isn’t being here, but not being there.

I’ve had a few low points during my grant thus far, and this was definitely one of them.  But as it so often does, Indonesia provided a series of small joys to counterbalance the negative feelings that were infiltrating my day-to-day existence.

A group of Indonesians, predominately from one of the many universities in Malang, comes together to play badminton for a few hours every Friday, and I have become a semi-regular attendee.  Badminton is single-handedly the greatest stress reliever I have found in Indonesia, save only hanging out with my students after classes, and it is something I hope to explore further in a later blog.  For now, I’ll just say that the swish of a racket as it arcs towards a birdie has become a sound I can only associate with calm.  A few hours of alternating volleying and intensive game-playing was exactly what I needed at the end of this week.

My Saturday was a lazy day of sitting in various cafes and restaurants with my lovely sitemate and some Indonesian friends, breathing in too much second-hand smoke and drinking what is hands-down the best kopi (coffee) on earth, even if it is sweetened with a shot glass of what can only be high fructose corn syrup, or some other equally bad-for-you syrup.  And that night my sitemate and another friend accompanied me to movie night[2] at my school, which was the perfect sort of relaxed fun and laughter, medicine for the soul.

One of the Fulbright researchers is placed in Malang, and she is a Peace Corps Alumni; during her three months of training, she lived with a host family in a desa (village) near Batu, a neighboring city where I have previously planted trees with my sitemate’s school and attended English Camp with my school.  She invited me to come with her to visit them, and I jumped at the chance to get out of Malang and into the mountains.


Her family was delightful, the kind of welcoming that only Indonesians can be.  Her host mother is the epitome of Indonesian wonderful: she makes delicious tempe, and has the most infectious laugh.  Her host father is the sort of chain-smoking kind-hearted you only find in bapaks.  I wanted nothing more than to find a way to slip into their family circle.

Her host father is also kepala RT (essentially the head of the neighborhood), and so various members of the community, from employees of his construction company to the one policeman in the desa, stopped in while we were there to chat and to drink the teh manis (sweet tea) that is essential in any Indonesian interaction.  Because I live in the asrama (dorm) of my school, I spend considerably less time in strangers’ houses talking to adults than many of the others in my cohort.  There are advantages to this of course, but I can’t help but feel there is something missing from my Indonesian experience.  Sitting in their living room, snacking on roti goreng (literally fried bread—think fried dough, and you essentially understand the food I am referring to) and mostly not understanding the conversations around me, I found a small hole in my heart being filled.  This was what I wanted from my Indonesian experience.

And if the day hadn’t already seemed perfect, her family was also able to lead me to cows.


There were only four cattle in their small barn, two yearlings and two adorable four-month-old bull calves who were nameless before I dubbed them Bruce and Franklin (it’s Bruce in the picture above).  I am unsure if these cattle are being raised for beef or dairy purposes, because the nanek (grandmother) of the family mostly speaks Javanese, and did not understand my question when I asked, but there is not denying they were Holsteins, which is the most prominent breed on my family’s farm. I’ve enjoyed the various Indonesian breeds I’ve stumbled across, many of which originated in India or Australia, but there is something about familiar black-and-white spots that gave these little fellas a special place in my farm-girl heart.  Scratching them behind the ears and enjoying sloppy bovine kisses, I decided that my day in my friend’s desa was the definition of a perfect day.


This is not to say that this weekend was devoid of uncomfortable moments or frustrations.  While I was in my friend’s desa a woman we met asked about my acne (thank you, excessively hot classrooms and inescapable fried food), and after hearing what it was, immediately rubbed her hands all over my face and then washed her hands, insisting that would get rid of it, if I only believed.  It’s a testament to how long I have been in a country that does not believe in personal space that I was mostly unfazed, if a little bingung (confused), by this interaction.  I also drove at night for the first time on my motorbike, and due to having eyes that do not focus correctly[3], this was exceedingly difficult, and more than a little terrifying.  But these small moments could not overshadow the absolute joy that this weekend was filled with.

I have climbed mountains, attempted to surf, and stared into the eyes of a Komodo Dragon during my time in Indonesia, but when I think about the most amazing parts of my experience here, it is days like these that stand
out most in my mind.  They are the reason why, even so far from home, even when my days are long and only marginally successful, I have found bahagia (happiness) in Indonesia.

[1] This is not to say that I missed classes, because it would probably take a national emergency or hospitalization for that to happen.  But while normally I am the first teacher to arrive at school even when I do not teach during the first period, this week I slipped into the office only just in time for the classes I teach.

[2] I also hope I am able to blog about movie nights at some point.  These are not nights of merely popcorn and a film, as the name might imply, but are, rather, huge events that include costumes, performances, and sometimes even fireworks.  SMAN 10 knows how to do movie night.

[3] I’m an irresponsible patient and I don’t remember the name my eye doctor gave for this; all I really know is that it has something to do with my optical nerve, and is the reason why I have to wear reading glasses.

Birds, Flowers, and Surprise Temples: Exploring the City of Malang

Creating and maintaining a consistent schedule has proven to be quite the challenge here, and so it was only recently that my site mate and I were able to acclimate ourselves to our weekly responsibilities and coordinate regular free time.  We are fortunately both free every other Monday, which allows us to explore areas in and near Malang while also avoiding tourist traffic.  Recently, she and I explored some of the more famous places within the city limits.

Hotel Tugu is a high end hotel near the center of Malang.  Neither my travel book nor the internet were able to give me much information about this remarkable place, but I was able to glean that Hotel Tugu has a sister hotel on the island of Bali, and that many of the trees I saw on the premise were rescued from the Malang Botanical Gardens when parts of it were destroyed by developers.  Inside the Hotel itself are artifacts from Indonesia, both from traditional culture and from the days of Dutch colonialism, as well as other parts of Asia.  In this way, Hotel Tugu doubles as a museum, and is free to the public.


Very little is labeled in Hotel Tugu, so while wandering its ground floor is fascinating, it is not particularly informative.   The occasional bowl might be labeled with a simple tag saying “Ming Dynasty,” but no more information is provided, and many items are not labeled at all.  I have always loved the education I am able to get from the more organized museums I have experienced in America and Europe, but there was something about trying to puzzle out what the uses and origins of different objects were that somehow embodied the heart of inquiry that I believe is part of any museum visit.


At one end of Hotel Tugu there is a kind of temple hidden in a corner.  Its tall, imposing sides and shadowy alcoves only sometimes occupied by statues transported us out of the bustling city of Malang and into a peaceful, solitary place for self-reflection… at least until the honking of horns reminded us that the busy street was just on the other side of it’s cool, stone walls.  Due to a lack of labeling and a shortage of information about Hotel Tugu online, I am unsure whether this temple is a restoration or a replica, and I have no idea what its name is.  But I was extremely appreciative of its lack of ropes and barriers, which allowed me to breathe in, touch, and even climb on the mysteries of this inexplicable artifact.


Near Hotel Tugu there are some fairly well-known markets, one of which is Pasar Bunga, or the flower market.  Blooms in every color line the street, and it was extremely difficult for me to not bring home a little potted plant to brighten my apartment.  I’m unsure of the regulations regarding bringing houseplants across borders, and feel it would be unkind to adopt a tiny sprig of life that might not be able to benefit from a green thumb after my time here.  But this was only my first visit to the market: I might not be able to resist next time.


After a short walk, Pasar Bunga turns into Pasar Senggol, Malang’s relatively famous bird market.  “Senggol” is essentially Indonesian for “bump into,” in reference to the crowded nature of the market on weekends, and of most markets in Indonesia, to be honest.  Fortunately for my site mate and I, it was relatively quiet, being a Monday, and while the market was still crowded with wood, metal, and plastic cages of varying ornateness, there were few people.


The bird market is filled with the calls and colors of tropical birds.  Many of the birds at the market are native to Indonesia, though not necessarily to Malang.  These winged jungle inhabitants are not the pigeons, sparrows, and swifts I am accustomed to seeing flying above the fields around my school.


The market did not limit itself to tropical song birds, and it had more than its fair share of owls, eagles, crows (which are supposedly still used in black magic rituals) and the ever-present chickens.  There were also, cats, dogs, monkeys, gerbils, geckos, and even the occasional snake.  Like most of Indonesia, it was a mix of the exciting and the ordinary; sometimes the two can be found perfectly blended into one small cage, such as the chicks we found that had been dyed various colors, for reason unknown to us.


Seeing so many animals in tiny cages was as heartbreaking as it was incredible.  I’ve never fully understood the desire to cage an animal meant to fly, and seeing these tropical birds pant under the hot afternoon sun to which they are unaccustomed made me want to break open every cage and set them free, but part of being a cultural ambassador is trying to reign in such impulses, and seek to understand, rather than judge.  After telling her that I had visited the bird market, one of my co-teachers told me of her husband’s love for birds, and how he loves his pet birds like they were his children; it seems that is some ways, not all birds in cages must also be prisoners.  Having been raised in the agricultural industry, I am acutely aware of how complicated the concept of domestication can be, and how important it is to educate ourselves about the aspects of animal-human relationships with which we are unfamiliar.  When I am able to keep the more sensitive side of me in check, I find it is actually exciting to have my own ideas of the rights and wrongs of animal care challenged.


Malang does not go completely unnoticed by tourists, as it is on the island of Java, the favorite child of Indonesia, but it is certainly not as popular as the islands of Bali and Lombok, or the cultural city of Yogyakarta in Central Java.  But with its own unique blend of familiar western influences and unfamiliar traditions and history, I could not have asked for a better city in which to have been placed.  I find it entirely appropriate that Malang is one of the university cities of Indonesia, because if there is one thing I am always doing here, it is learning.

Welcome to SMAN 10 Malang!

I have now been at my site for a little over a week, though time has flown and it feels only like a few days.  I have bounced from office to office with one of my co-teachers, the superhuman Bu Tri, in order to complete the paperwork which will allow me to work in the classrooms legally, and been introduced to more people then I can possibly keep track of.

I have not yet begun actually assisting in the classroom yet: the students are taking tests and preparing for their midterm exams next week, and I have been told I will be able to start in the classrooms once those are over.  Having studied education as an undergrad and volunteered in youth programs for years, I am of course impatient to be in the classroom working with young people again, but I have been trying to make the most of the time I have now to familiarize myself with the English curriculum, and, of course, the school itself.

SMAN 10, the school at which I will be working for the next eight months, has two campuses.  The ETA who was here last year only worked with campus two, but I have been told that I will work with tenth and eleventh graders at both campuses.

Campus one is within the city of Malang itself, and closely resembles what American’s might consider a traditional public school.  Any student can attend, and the student populous seems to have been determined largely by geographic location in relation to the school.  The classes at kampus satu are quite large: I have not observed a class there with fewer than thirty-four students, which is far larger than any class I have taught for any extended period of time.  As someone who prides herself in being able to learn student names quickly and swoop into a classroom in the second week having already built some solid relationships, the sheer number of students in my classes are going to be challenging, but the students seem really lovely and I am sure this will help me get to know them fairly soon.


Campus two is located outside of the city’s limits, surrounded predominately by rice, corn, and sugar cane fields.  This campus is more selective, and students must pass an exam in order to attend.  Students who attend this campus are not limited to Malang, but come from all over Indonesia.  I have personally met students from Central and West Java, Bali, and even as far as Papua, and I know there are students from other parts of this vast archipelago as well.  A program through the Pertamina Foundation, run by one of the largest oil and natural gas companies in Indonesia, provides a scholarship to students from Papua to attend SMAN 10; from talking with students and teachers, there does not seem to be any scholarships in place for students from rest of Indonesia, and so the families of those from other parts of the country must be able to afford to send them here. In general, classes here are smaller, with the largest class I will work with having around twenty-five students.  Kampus dua is unlike any school I have ever worked with, and I am looking forward to taking a closer look at its inner workings.


In part because many of them come from outside of Malang, and in part because the school wants to create a more encompassing and enriching academic experience for students, most of the students who attend classes on campus two live in one of the two dorms on campus.  I too, will live in beautiful Building A while I am here.


I have been placed in a small apartment of my own within the dorm, complete with a small living room, efficiency kitchen, my own bathroom, and a bedroom complete with air conditioning.  Being able to take my belongings out of my suitcase and put them in an actual living space after two weeks of hotels and airports was immeasurably wonderful.  I hung my clothes in the closet, blew up my inflatable globe, and decided it was good enough to call home.


My apartment also has a balcony, which offers a beautiful view of the farmland just beyond the walls of the school; every morning, I start my day with a cup of tea here, and I have therefore been privileged to watch the sugar cane harvest, happening right before my eyes.  It is new and exciting, as I have never seen a sugar cane field before, but also reassuring and familiar, as I know it is time for the corn harvest to begin at home.


The best part of my placement, thus far, has been the people.  The teachers at my school have been more than welcoming, and are constantly ensuring that I do not feel lost or lonely: even those who do not speak English do their best to work with my limited Indonesian and get to know me.  They have laughed at my missteps, called my brown hair red (the Irish girl in me is secretly pleased), and fed me more food than I could stomach: Indonesian hospitality knows no limits.

The students, especially, have ensured that I could never feel homesick here.  At campus one, though I am not yet in the classroom, I try to spend time with the students during their free periods, talking about traveling and culture and the grand nature of what it means to merely be people.

On campus two, if I go to wander about campus after school has let out, they invite me to sit and talk with them, and I have more than once had students come knocking on my door asking, “Miss, can we talk to you about America?” which results in our sitting on the floor amongst the photographs I brought with me, swapping stories and enthusiasm.  Anytime I leave campus, either to go to campus one or the grocery store, students ask me, sometimes leaning out of their windows to do so, “Miss, where are you going?”


This probably stems in part from Mau ke mana? (Where do you want to go?), the Indonesian equivalent of “How’s it going?”  And while I sometimes have a destination required of me, I am never happier than when I can answer their question with “Jalan-jalan” (Just out for a walk), and then ask them where they are going, and if I might be able to join.

The next eight months are going to be filled with more challenges than I can now fathom, but already I can see that, here, in this place half a world away from everything I know, I will be able to find friends, and maybe even a kind of family.