Friday, June 11, 2010

The Final Score

I’m home now. It’s wonderful and a little sad at the same time.

My friend Jeff Laub sent me Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, about hiking the Appalachian Trail, and being home reminds me a little of Bryson’s experience when he and his friend finally decided to go home:

“‘Do you want to get a Coke?’ I said to Katz. There was a machine by the gas station door.

He considered for a moment. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Maybe later.’

It was unlike Katz not to fall upon soft drinks and junk food with exuberant lust when the opportunity presented itself, but I believe I understood. There is always a measure of shock when you leave the trail and find yourself parachuted into a world of comfort and choice, but it was different this time. This time it was permanent. We were hanging up our hiking boots. From now on, there would always be Coke, and soft beds and showers and whatever else we wanted. There was no urgency now. It was a strangely subduing notion.”


Before I ever for Indonesia, I made a list of 20 goals for myself—nothing too lofty, just things I hoped I’d accomplish over the next nine months. Of course, I made my list before I ever set foot in Indonesia. Had I known what I know now, I probably would have shaped my goals differently. But here’s the final score:

1. Take lots of pictures.

2. Learn to speak Indonesian.
Well, I’m not fluent. But by the end, I understood enough to communicate nearly everything I needed to say, and I could translate most of my students’ uber-dramatic facebook statuses.

3. Eat lots of native foods, especially fruit.
I’m proud of this one. I fell in love with manggis and rambutan, and I tried a whole bunch of other things. Even dog. Woof.

4. Keep up with this blog at least twice a week.
I came pretty close to that.

5. Read all the books I brought.
Check. I switched them all out when I came home at Christmas, too. Nine months ago, I was totally not prepared for the amount of time I ended up spending by myself in Indonesia.

6. Use my new video camera.
I got one of those nifty Flip cameras for Christmas, and I used that a lot. Still, it’s hard to find a balance between experiencing the adventures of Indonesia and distracting yourself by constantly wanting to document everything.

7. Find an English newspaper in Palembang.
Well, there just ISN’T an English newspaper in Palembang. But Raj and I did host that weekly radio program at SmartFM, so that’s something.

8. Get my nails done.
Check. And tons of cream baths. And massages. Cream baths, contrary to the way they may sound, do not involve nakedness or bathtubs. It’s more like a deep hair conditioning with a neck and shoulder massage.

This was in Yogya.
Delightful, but it's usually a little cleaner than this.

9. Prepare some authentic Indonesian food.
Well, I TRIED to make nasi uduk on my own, but that didn’t turn out to be so delicious. It might not even have been edible. But I helped my friend Yanti make pindang tulang in my house. And since this is my blog, I say that counts.

My attempt at nasi uduk.
More like nasi gross.

10. Track down the Rafflesia flower.
tried, ok?! Christine, Raj, and I trekked over to Bukittinggi, with our number one objective being to see the Rafflesia. It, of course, happened to not be blooming that weekend. Then I went to the Bogor Botanical Gardens, which apparently no longer has a Rafflesia. Rest assured, I will see that huge stinky flower someday or I will not rest.

The Rafflesia bud.
So close...

11. See an orangutan in its natural habitat.
See previous blog post. Raj and I tried to go to Borneo. Sure, I probably shouldn’t have saved that trip for the end, but they shouldn’t have cancelled all their flights, either. I did get to hold one little guy at Taman Safari.

Our hair kinda matches.

12. Ride an elephant.
Check! Actually, I did it twice. The first time wasn’t so great—in Palembang, and I shared the big guy’s back with five other people. But the second time was way more fun, and Raj and I got to feed him bananas the whole time.


13. Keep in touch with people at home.
I can’t imagine having done this fellowship ten years ago. While my internet access was limited, I was still able to send emails on a semi-regular basis. And I think I sent my mom about a dozen postcards throughout the year. Still, there’s nothing like
being with the people I love again.

14. Stay up to date on US news.
While my internet was reliable enough to send emails, keeping up to date on news was harder. I did a decent job, but now I’m trying to catch up on all of it. So the news… is kinda already history… hmm.

15. Meet at least one Ball State alum living in Indonesia.
Check. I’m so excited about the people I met. I got to know Chuzai Diem and her husband, two BSU alumni, really well. I already miss them. And I met Gary Swisher, a man currently living in Jakarta who grew up in Bucyrus. And of course, Karen: my penpal who I met up with during her vacation in Bali.

Yay BSU!

16. Travel to tons of places around Indonesia.
Check. Let’s see: Jakarta (so many times), Bandung, Bukittinggi and Padang, Bali (twice), Yogyakarta, Depok (many times), Makassar, Medan and Lake Toba, Padang again for HODR Disaster Response, Medan again for conferences. We eliminated Komodo because the cost was just too high ($800ish just for transportation!), and I wish I’d gotten to Lombok and Borneo. But maybe I’ll just have to visit again someday.

Beautiful Bali

17. Bring back special souvenirs.
Check. My school gave me so many presents that I will cherish forever: my songket (the traditional Sumatran cloth woven with gold thread), batik, my kebaya, and other fabrics. I have a special tea cup set called “Pelangi Palembang” [Palembang Rainbow] and some pearls and amethysts found in Indonesia.

18. Learn more about Islam.
Check. Definitely check.

19. Get in the Columbus Dispatch Travel section.
Ooh… rejection. They didn’t print my picture at Borobudur with the newspaper! I tried.

GRR... print this!
Ok, just kidding.

20. Grow as a person.
Check. See another post coming soon.

My mid-year additions:

21. See Komodo Dragons.
Oh, I just
had to add this one, didn’t I? Like I said earlier, Christine and I were planning a trip, but we decided to put our time into the Padang volunteering instead. And I’ve seen Komodos a few times at zoos so maybe all combined, that counts as one time in their natural habitat.

22. Find somewhere to volunteer.
Check. I spent that week with HODR in Padang counts. I spent every Friday in Palembang at the English Library, and I hosted the radio show with Raj every Saturday.

English Library,
in case you couldn't tell from all the books.

23. Travel somewhere on my own.
Well, I guess I never took a whole trip on my own. I traveled TO many places by myself, but I always at least met up with someone. Although, in a WAY, I was pretty on my own when I started this whole trip. Hmm… maybe this one isn’t finished yet.


Before leaving Indonesia, Raj and I really wanted to visit Borneo to see the orangutans and proboscis monkeys. We planned a trip for one of the last weekends, and (thought) we'd bought tickets. As it turned out, the airline that was supposed to fly us from Jakarta to Pangkalan Bun wasn't actually flying any planes that month. Sure, they'd told us their prices and offered to book the tickets for us, but they were shut down for a month of maintenance. Since we'd already bought our tickets to Jakarta, we spent the weekend there and stayed with our favorite ELF Maura. When you can't actually visit the animals in their natural habitats... head to the zoo!

There's a Komodo dragon in the middle there.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

English Library

The single most rewarding experience of my time in Palembang (note: Palembang specifically) was the English Library.

When I first got to Palembang, I knew no one. My school didn’t really invite anywhere on the weekends at first, so I usually spent Friday – Sunday trying to entertain myself. There are only so many times you can pay someone to drive you to the market/mall/museum for the day by yourself before you cry out for companionship.

Through my first counterpart Yana, I met Didi. He told me how he spent Friday nights at a place called the “English Library,” and he said there were other Americans there. I was skeptical, but eager for anyone—American or not—who I might be able to have a conversation with. I ended up spending every Friday night I was in Palembang at EL for “Chit Chat Time.”

And that’s how I met Mike and Debbie, two of the kindest people I’ve ever known. They’ve been traveling to Indonesia their whole lives and signed up for three years here with the library when they retired. I don’t know what I would have done without them. They’re from South Carolina, and they said I reminded them of their daughter. I will never forget how immensely grateful I was to them for driving me home every night. It added an extra hour and a half onto their evening, and when I thanked them, they just said, “Well, of course! You don’t need to thank us for this; we love you!” And sometimes the simplest thing can make such a huge difference. I think the library saved my sanity at the beginning.

Mike and Debbie were perfect to vent to. They love Indonesia, but they said being in Palembang was worse than anywhere else. When you’re struggling, it’s nice to hear other people are struggling, too. Debbie says she regularly checks travel web sites and bookmarks tickets home, just because it makes her feel better.

The students who come there really want to learn English. A lot of college students came to work on their thesis in English, and we work with a lot of new students, too. Unlike many of my students at IGM, the EL kids were really interested in what we taught them. And we didn’t have to worry about teaching to the government test, either, so we were free to play games, tell stories, and watch movies.

Then afterwards, I’d go to dinner with Mike and Debbie. By the end of my grant, I was considered staff at the library, and I’ll miss it so much. Plus, it was shocking to me how small the community of English speakers really is in Palembang. People who are good at English know all the other people who are good at English, whether it’s through classes or friends.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Smart FM Radio

Every Saturday we’re in Palembang, Raj and I do an hour-long radio show called “Smart Up your Life.” The US Embassy in Jakarta sponsors the program, and they pick a weekly topic and send us a five-minute long sketch we play on the air.

Except for the English Library (which you’ll hear about soon), this has been my favorite Palembang activity. People actually listen, and it gives them a chance to listen to native speakers talking. Instead of focusing on grammar or structure, we talk about cultural differences between Indonesia and the US.

Testing, testing... 1, 2, 3...

We have topics like:
Small Talk

Usually, the Indonesian host asks us a few questions, and then Raj and I discuss different aspects of the main topic. Listeners can call in or text their questions during the show. And they’re very specific—How many people do most Americans kiss before they get married? Why don’t Americans like to make small talk with people on the street like Indonesians do? How important is religion in the daily life of an American?

Hendra and Erna

Luckily, Raj and I almost always agree. Sure, our audience is people who already speak at least basic English (and thus tend to be a little more open-minded), but it feels really great to actually explain the differences in our cultures. So often, we have to gloss over things and we don’t really get to talk about it.

Are Indonesians being rude when they walk up to strangers and ask where they live? Definitely not. But neither are Americans who don’t feel comfortable answering a question like that.

I’m also surprised at how many cultural norms I obey in America without even thinking of it. “What do you call your mom’s sister?” In my case, Aunt Pam. “But isn’t it rude to address your elder by his or her first name?” Well, yes, but it’s ok if you put “aunt” or “uncle” in front of it.

Here, Hendra is sporting one of the
sweet Smart FM t-shirts we just got.

“How well do you have to know someone before it’s ok to ask his/her salary?” Hmm… never? Raj and I agreed that we wouldn’t even ask our own parents’ salaries.

“If people are fat, why can’t we just call them fat? Why do Americans call people tall or short or thin… but not fat?” That’s very rude in America, even though it’s really normal in Indonesia.

We’re always careful to explain that we don’t think one way is better than the other, just that as we meet new people and try to learn more about the world, we have a responsibility to be sensitive to other cultures.

The show is the one time a week when Raj and I see each other—the one fluent English conversation we have with anyone in person most weeks. We get Pizza Hut and JCo doughnuts. This week we treated ourselves to a whole box of jPops as a grand finale. Yum.

We almost finished the box.
They have awesome names for their doughnuts,
like Alcapone and D. Berrymore.
Heavenberry is my favorite.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Marhabah celebration

Just five days left in Palembang, and I’m still having new experiences every day. Well, not every day, but close.

This weekend I went to a Marhabah celebration at Rudi’s family’s house. As a reminder, Rudi is another English teacher at my school.

The marhabah is a sort of Muslim baptismal ceremony. The word literally means “welcome” in Arabic, so Rudi says it’s a sort of official “welcome to the family” event. Yenni, another teacher at my school who recently had a baby, told me about it, but I didn’t know I was going to get to see one!

Seven days after a baby is born, its parents are supposed to cut off all of its hair. Then they weigh the hair and give an appropriate amount of money to an orphanage. According to Yenni, one gram of hair = one million rupiah, or a little more than $100. So if your baby has a full head of hair, you might end up paying upwards of $400.

Technically, that’s when you’re supposed to have the ceremony, too—when the baby is a week old. But most people cut the baby’s hair off at a week and wait to have the ceremony until later. Yenni says they “get too busy.”

The ceremony at Rudi’s house was a sort of double marhabah, because they were blessing two two-month old baby girls in the family. The baby’s uncle holds him or her and parades the baby around the house for the family to see. The whole time, men in the family are banging wildly on drums and someone else passes around a canister filled with small bills for people to grab and keep.

Those bills are worth about $.10 each.

Kids were grabbing them by the handful!

The family must also sacrifice a lamb or goat: one if the baby is a girl, and two if the baby is a boy. (Grumble grumble.) Because there were two baby girls at Rudi’s house, his family had sacrificed one goat and one lamb.

Even though the baby’s hair was cut and weighed almost nine weeks before the ceremony, the important men in the family each took a turn and snipped off some as part of the ritual. The day is also significant because it’s when the babies officially receive their names, even though they’ve been called by them since they were born.

Rudi and his niece Rina are one the right.
Rina's older sister is the cutie in the dress.

Snip snip.

Rudi was so proud of his niece; it was a really special day, and I’m glad they shared it with me.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I have my rice and eat it, too.

If Indonesian food and I were in a relationship, I would say that it’s not a particularly passionate one, and it didn’t even start out that way. In fact, one of us (me) is always looking for a way out, and I sample all other kinds of food when I’m in the big city. But for now, I’m stuck with this one, so I’m doing what a good significant other should—I’m focusing on the good qualities.

Indonesians say they have many regional specialties, which is true. But the more I travel, the more I’ve discovered that this inventive dish here is simply called by that name when you eat it there. Know what I mean? There are exceptions, but most Indonesian food boils down to this: rice with a particular meat covered in a particular sauce.

Before I left, Mom bought me a book called Eat Smart in Indonesia, which promised me—on the cover, no less—that I was about to “embark on a tasting adventure.”

“Nothing edible in the whole outdoors escapes the cooking pot,” the book begins. At first, this sounds so of-the-earth, so economical. Then you realize they mean it.

My Lonely Planet was more reserved, warning me “Palembang fare takes some getting used to.”

Still, in the interest of full gastronomical disclosure, I have a confession. But if you want a measure of my emotional growth (or regression) in the past year, then you should know…

I ate a dog.

I know, I know. Just months ago I mourned a bunny being served for dinner. (Although, to be fair, a dog has never been the patron animal of any super fun holiday.) But I ate one. I’m disappointed to admit it doesn’t taste very different from any other meat. It was dark, and I ordered it served in a mixture of chili sauce and its own blood. Perhaps I no longer have a soul.


The worst part of the whole experience is psyching yourself up for the first bite and realizing you have a whole order left to go. “If you don’t eat the rest of it, the dog died in vain,” John said. Crap. I finished maybe a third of it.

Anyway, that will not be appearing on the following list. Neither will those nasty pempek fish-balls. Nearly finished with my grant and with 9 months of Indo-culinary research under my belt (heh heh), I’m ready to unveil Katie’s Indonesian Food Hall of Fame:

Cinnamon [kayu manis, or “sweet wood” in Bahasa]: It literally grows in trees here, and you can buy it in three-feet-long pieces. I think if I made a list of things in the world that are purely delightful, cinnamon would be near the top. Along with people who can juggle.

Sweet cinnamon

Pindang Tulang: large pieces of beef still on the bone served “simmering in broth flavored with shallots, garlic, ginger, laos, turmeric, and lemon grass.” It tastes like a spicy vegetable soup, and it’s a Palembang specialty.

Pindang Tulang.
(I stole this picture.)

Nasi Uduk: “rice cooked in coconut milk… traditionally served with fried foods such as chicken, lamb, offal, and tofu. Individual portions of rice are served in banana leaves, topped with crispy, fried shallots”

Also called "fat rice."
(I also stole this one.)

Gado-Gado: “a salad of blanched or steamed vegetables topped with a sauce made with spices and ground peanuts”

Ok, yeah. It looks kind of gross.

Tempe Goreng: (I know we have tempeh in the US, but I’d never had it until I came here.) fermented soybeans “fried with palm sugar and chili peppers”

(And I stole this one.)

Sate Ayam: “chicken grilled on skewers and served with peanut sauce” (Ok, the quoting does seem like overkill, but I want to get it right.)

Mmm... sate.

Es Puter: “hand-turned coconut milk sorbet” mixed with red beans and sticky black rice. It may sound gross, but I assure you, this is divinity in dairy form.

Brrr. And yum.

Manggis: From the moment my lips first touched a manggis (mangosteen in English), I knew I was in love. My whole life, I’ve wanted to eat a passionfruit. And then I did, and it was disappointing. It looks like fish eggs on the inside. But then I tastes manggis, and I realized that’s what I’d been looking for all along.

Raj likes them, too.

Rambutan: How can you not love a fruit named for how hairy it is? Even Obama wrote in Dreams of my Father how much he loved it his first night in Jakarta: “The three of us ate quietly under a dim yellow bulb—chicken stew and rice, and then a dessert of red, hairy-skinned fruit so sweet at the center that only a stomachache could make me stop.” I hear ya, Barry.

They're like little creatures!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Rediscovering Bali

A few weekends ago, I made my second trip to Bali. Somehow, I managed to spend four days there without ever setting foot on a beach. That wasn’t really my goal, but it ended up being just fine. If the purpose of a beach is to relax, then my trip certainly did that anyway.

We were aiming for more of a cultural tour of Bali—temples, markets, and just plain good food. We spent the first two nights in Ubud in a hotel that reminded me of something like a Hindu Secret Garden, with a temple and garden behind a high wall.

One of the coolest parts of the trip was meeting up with my penpal Karen.

Apparently, towards the beginning of my grant, what had been my most recent blog post was picked up by Google as a news story about Indonesia, and it was emailed to anyone who signed up for regular news alerts from the archipelago. It was awesome, even if I really had no idea it was happening then. I received a lot of borderline scary emails from conservative Muslims we’ll say encouraging me to convert. But I also got emails from a bunch of really cool Americans who used to visit or live in Indonesia. And that’s how I e-met Karen.

An American psychiatrist living in California but raised in Ohio (whoop!), Karen was going to be in Bali visiting her boyfriend, so I tried to schedule my trip to coincide with hers. It was so fun to finally meet her. I’m hoping we can meet again when she visits her family for holidays in Ohio.

I also visited Bali with the goal of getting a bunch of souvenirs at the markets here. I used to love bargaining for my purchases, and I still get a little rush from it. But here in Indonesia, it really gets exhausting to bargain for everything you want to buy, from food to clothes to gifts to transportation.

For example, I wanted to buy a silk batik scarf. Aaron and Vidhi had both bought one earlier for between $4-$5. It helps to head into battle knowing what a reasonable price is, because sometimes you really have no idea. Here’s how the exchange (a typical one) went: (except I changed Indonesian to English and rupiah to dollars to help you make sense of it all [PUN!])

I walk by one of a billion booths of scarves set up and touch one. Almost immediately, a large Balinese woman is touching me and telling me I absolutely must have it, as though I could not have possible chosen a more perfect scarf in the world.

Saleswoman: “You are so beautiful! So beautiful! Yes, you like this. For you, I give a special price. Only $22.

[$22?! That’s almost five times what it’s worth. Now we start speaking in Indonesian.]

Me: My friend paid $4 for this scarf earlier today.

Saleswoman: Ooh, you speak Indonesian? Ok, for you, smart, pretty girl, I give you an even more special price. Just $12.

Me: No, my friend just paid $4 for this scarf.

Saleswoman: $8 is my final offer! I can sell it to you for no less!

Me: That’s ok, I understand. Thanks anyway!

She now blocks my way with a gigantic floor-length mirror and throws the scarf around my neck to show me “how beautiful it will make me.”

Me: Oh, you’re right! This IS a beautiful scarf! I wish you would sell it for $4.

Saleswoman: Ok ok ok. From you, I will just ask $6.

Me: I am not paying more than $4.

Saleswoman: I must feed my children! If I sell you the scarf for $4, I will make no profit! I have to eat! Please take pity on me!

Me: Ok, I don’t want to hurt your business. I will shop somewhere else.

I walk away.

Saleswoman: Ok, ok. $4.

Me: Thank you! I’ll take it.

Saleswoman: $4.50

Me: Uh, what? No.

Saleswoman: Ok, ok. $4. And I will not be able to eat tonight.

Me: I’m sorry about that.

Saleswoman: You want two for $4 each?

Me: Sure.

And immediately, there are no hard feelings. She wraps the scarves up carefully, smiling at me, and she throws her arm around my shoulder and tells her friend about the great sale she just made. Is it possible I still got swindled? Almost definitely.

I made a stop back at Wayan’s house, too. She’s the fortune-telling medicine woman from my first trip. I didn’t get my fortune read, but I got some of her “magical oil,” and we took a picture for Mom.

The next day we rented a car and driver and toured some Balinese temples.

We started with the Pura Besakih, the largest and most important temple in Bali. Lonely Planet got another one right: “Perched nearly 1000m up the ide of Gunung Agung is Bali’s most important temple… in fact, it is an extensive complex… Unfortunately, many people find it a deeply disappointing experience due to the avarice of numerous local characters.”

The temples themselves were beautiful, but it was nearly impossible to enjoy them with all the local “guides” constantly demanding that you pay them.

More Lonely Planet wisdom:

“Besakih’s hassles and irritations go back years and mean that many visitors now skip this important sight.

Near the main parking area is a building labeled Tourist Information Office. Guides here may emphatically tell you that you need their services. You don’t. You may always walk among the temples. No ‘guide’ can get you into a closed temple.

Other ‘guides’ may foist their services on you throughout your visit. There have been reports of people agreeing to a guide’s services only to be hit with a huge fee at the end.

Once inside the complex, you may receive offers to ‘come pray with me.’ Visitors who seize on this unsanctioned chance to get into a forbidden temple can face demands of $5 or more.”

Here’s what Aaron said afterwards in his blog:

"Despite this Pura Besakih (aka the ‘mother temple’) was pretty interesting, once we finally got in past the ‘mandatory guides’ (they weren’t but we ended up paying a guy a little, mostly just to be left alone). At several of the temples, most of us were struck by how insincere some of the temples seemed. While it was demanded that tourists wear sarongs and sashes, there were other people throwing their cigarettes around and hawkers of all kinds in the temples. I have absolutely no qualms with wearing appropriate clothing, but when it seems like that is required mostly so that tourists have to rent a sarong, that isn’t right. This is supposed to be a holy location, but it turns into a gimmick. I don’t know how else to describe it other than to say that there was not an authentic feel, it seemed the temples were there primarily for tourists to see; though to be fair we did go to the biggest temples that tourists commonly visit."

Author Chuck Thompson wrote, “It feels awkward to be a visitor in a place reserved for the intimate acts of strangers—like accidentally stepping into your friend’s parents’ bedroom when you were a kid.”

That’s exactly how I feel when I visit mosques or temples: I know I’m allowed to be there, but I just can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m going to get caught somewhere I shouldn’t be.

Per usual, there were signs warning against entering any of the temples if you were menstruating. I, uh, wasn’t, but I wondered if I really would have stayed out if I had been. I guess it’s part of respecting another culture, but it’s a difficult rule to observe when it go so much against what I’ve been taught and believe. I wasn’t entering any of the temples to pray, and it’s hard to imagine I would have somehow comprised the sanctity of the temples by going inside anyway.

We also visited a tea and coffee plantation, where we got to sample a series of different flavors: ginger tea and coffee, lemongrass tea, Balinese coffee, and hot chocolate. It was really neat, and it didn’t cost anything at all. My favorite was the lemongrass tea, although I spotted a lot of sugar at the bottom of the cup, so that may have been why.

Gunung Kawi was the last temple we visited,and by far our favorite. Huge shrines have been cut out of the rock, and they stand more than 8m high. The area surrounding the temple was amazing, too, with rice paddies and palm trees in alternating shades of bright green.

The last night we met up with my favorite ELF Maura in Legian, who had just arrived in Bali for a conference. She was nice enough to let us crash in her hotel room, and we continued our tour of most-delicious-foods-and-drinks of Indonesia.

I love Bali. Some people think it’s too touristy, and many Indonesians almost resent that it’s often the only thing foreigners know about the country. But I think it’s just another part of Indonesia, as “real” as any other part. And it has bagels. Yum.