I’m sitting at school and creating a last-minute Powerpoint for a presentation that I didn’t know I was giving until a few minutes ago, so I don’t have time for a proper blog post. But what I can do is put up a photo collage of the last week and a half, which has been my chance to more fully explore Bandung. My students were testing, so I was free to ride roller coasters at one of the world’s largest amusement parks, hike up to a sulfurous volcano, bathe in boiling hot springs, ice skate on the roof of a luxurious mall, swing dance in Jakarta, and try to charm Dendy’s two-year old nephew, who is not quite sure he trusts someone as funny-looking as his “Auntie Foreigner!” Hopefully these pictures will give you a snapshot of what a typical week in Bandung is like.

With Khandra, whose suspicion of me I shamelessly try to bribe away with hot wheels cars :-)

My friend Jackie's swing dancing lesson in front of two hundred people in Jakarta!

Superhero roller coaster at the massive indoor amusement park in Bandung

Bowling with friends for my birthday!

At a Sundanese restaurant for Dendy's mother's birthday

Rock climbing at the amusement park - I'm the one in green!


With friends at ice skating

Game night and Mexican food with friends



Playing babysitter with a policeman friend's adorable kids at hot springs to the north of Bandung

February 21, 2012 – Waterfalls, campfires, and floods


  I spent this past weekend river trekking, which was an action-filled, if exhausting experience.  My American friends, Mindy and Megan, know an Indonesian guy named Didi who organizes trips in his spare time.  So we got a group together – three Americans, seven Indonesians, including my boyfriend, Dendy – and hit the road early Saturday morning.  Out destination was Puncak Pass in Bogor, a lush and green region about three hours west of Bandung that is famous for its mountains and tea plantations.  We made it there by 8am, left our bags at a local café, and set out on our morning hike.

We trekked up into the mountains, which are heavily forested and threaded by rushing rivers.  After the noise and traffic of Bandung, it was lovely to be out in nature.  We got wet almost immediately, and I began to understand just what “river trekking” entailed:  clambering from boulder to boulder in the midst of a roaring stream, wading through chest-high water, and sliding down churning waterfalls.  Within the first hour, we had scaled a precarious ledge overlooking a waterfall in order to jump into the icy pond that lay fifteen feet below us.  Most of us conquered our trepidation and took the plunge, but two Indonesian friends of ours, Jane and Wati, needed a push to make it. 

Didi, who is an impish, constantly cheerful soul, was in his element – seeking out the best paths and helping us scale the most slippery bits of rock.  He would often indicate two possible routes that we could take in order to make it past the next obstacle, and sternly inform us that we could choose “adventure, or no adventure.”   Goaded by his teasing, we usually chose adventure, and slipped and slid our way through riverbeds, cursing him all the while.  The ten of us quickly formed a support network to look out for each other – making human chains to prevent each other from being swept away by the roaring currents, calling encouragement, and coaching each other as we sought handholds and footholds while climbing the rock walls lining the riverbeds.  It took a steady adrenaline rush to get us through the morning, coupled with the delight of pushing off and sliding down a waterfall, letting the current carry us down a “lazy river” of icy mountain water.

We broke for lunch around one o’clock and then continued our hike.  Didi had told us not to worry about leeches, but we couldn’t get him to clarify if he meant that there were no leeches, or that if we were bitten by a leech, it was not a big deal!  So we all kept a sharp eye out.   We finally finished our loop around four o’clock in the afternoon, and collapsed, exhausted, at the café where we had left our bags that morning.  We took turns rinsing off the mud and grime (though thankfully, no leeches!) at the natural pool fed by a small spring near the café, and tackled our next task: putting up the tents.  I had never camped in my life, but luckily Megan, from California had some experience, and together we puzzled them out.  We had packed a variety of food that we could cook over a fire – sausages, corn, and of course, marshmallows, but the combination of wet firewood and inexperienced fire starters almost defeated us.  Two local men finally took pity on us, and deftly built a pyramid around our flickering flame, doused it in kerosene, and put us in business!  We shared our dinner with them, and all agreed that nothing tastes so good as campfire food after a long day’s hike.  Mindy had brought a guitar and I had brought a pack of cards, so we happily occupied ourselves until bedtime.

               I woke up around 1am to the sound of rolling thunder.  West Java has reached a new stage in the rainy season, which typically goes from October to April: torrential rainstorms several times a day.  We had caught a break on Saturday, and completed our hike amidst sunshine and blue skies, but our luck ran out that night.  Our tents flooded as the wind howled and rain beat against the canvas, and we all spent a miserable night huddled together as our toes and heads steadily got soaked.  We were up very early that morning, packed up the tents, and headed back to Bandung.  As we drove down from the mountains, we could see the rivers we had hiked just the day before overrunning their banks as the swollen waters churned angrily.  We had finished our trekking just in the nick of time!  We got back to Bandung that afternoon in the midst of another rainstorm and agreed that all in all, it had been a great adventure.  I definitely feel closer to the people who survived this weekend with me!  

February 17, 2012 – WORDS Competition in Jakarta


I have a few blog posts that I need to write, because the last few weeks have been incredibly busy.  So I’m going to try to be a bit briefer in my descriptions.

We finally had the long-awaited English speech competition, which we call WORDS, in Jakarta.  My tenth-grader Anindiya, or Anin, as she prefers to be called, the winner of our school’s local competition and I journeyed to Jakarta on Friday morning.  The head of our madrasah, Pak Harun drove us, which was very kind of him.  I sat up in the front next to him, and he chattered the entire time in Indonesian, which taxed my language abilities to their very limit!  He wanted to talk about his plans for our school, his family, and his life history.  He’s in  his fifties, and comes from a very rural area in West Java, so it was fascinating to hear him talk about his upbringing.  He married his wife when he was twenty, and she was just sixteen years old!  That still happens in Indonesia, but only in very remote areas where life expectancy is still relatively low.

Anin is the one on the right

We arrived at the Hotel Alila after battling our way through the ever-present traffic that afflicts Jakarta.  The hotel was beautiful, and we sat in the lobby and sipped guava juice as we waited for the rest of the ETAs and students to arrive.  They trickled in throughout the day, travel-stained and exhuasted.  Hearing their stories, I was newly grateful for my placement in Bandung, which is only  a three-hour drive from Jakarta.  Some of my fellow ETAs were forced to take multiple boats, buses, taxis and planes over the course of two days in order to reach the capital!  It was wonderful to see everyone assembled, as most of us haven’t met since our orientation in August.  The students quickly made friends with each other, comparing schools, local dialects, and travel experiences.  Anin, however, is extremely shy, so I took her and two girls from Maluku out to lunch at a local warung (street stall).  Maluku is the easternmost island in Indonesia, and is extremely remote.  These girls had never seen an elevator or airplane, much less a luxurious hotel, and so were completely overwhelmed.  Brian, another ETA and I teased each other and joked, trying to put them at their ease.

Anin at the oleh-oleh exchange

We all met that night for a welcome dinner and oleh-oleh exchange.  As I’ve mentioned before, oleh-oleh is a very important part of Indonesian culture.  Whenever you travel, you are expected to bring souvenirs of your trip back with you to share with family, friends and co-workers.  The students had brought a craft or food native to their area, which we wrapped in plastic bags and let each student choose a gift.  So this way, a student from western Kalimantan ends up with cassava cookies from eastern Maluku, and a student from Central Java can show off a traditional mask from Sumbawa to his friends at home.

The competition began bright and early that next morning.  We held it in AMINEF’s downtown office, which was a relaxed venue.  Most of the students were tense and nervous about their presentations, so we did our best to reassure them that winning didn’t matter.  Easy for us to say – several of the students had received instructions from their schools that they had better return as winners…or else!  Anin was the third student out of forty to present, luckily, so she could get her ordeal out of the way.

Anin's presentation! Go Bandung!

I had worked with her on her enunciation the night before, at her urging, but as they called her name she grabbed my hand and looked up at me with terrified eyes.  “Ms. Kathryn,” she whispered, “I can’t remember the first sentence.  What if I forget everything?”  I quietly reminded her of the opening of the speech she had so carefully constructed, and she walked out on stage, her hands trembling.  When she spoke, however, her voice was confident and sure.  She played a video of her interview with a noted Bandung environmentalist, and urged the future generations of Indonesia to take care of their local communities and respect the environment.  She bowed gracefully when she finished, exited the stage, and collapsed into her chair to the sound of loud applause.

The story of rice farmers

The presentations lasted for over six hours, with a short break for lunch in the middle.  Each student had five minutes to deliver their version of, “What story would you share with the future generations of Indonesians?” using whatever medium they wanted.  A girl from East Java dressed in the traditional clothes of rice farmers in her community and told us of the importance of traditional agriculture.   A boy from Kupang played a beautiful stringed instrument made of palm leaves to illustrate his family’s journey from poverty to prosperity.  A girl from Sulawesi with impeccable English moved everyone with her story of grandfather’s migration from China and the discrimination he faced as a “fake” Indonesian.  A girl from Sumbawa dressed in beautiful gold batik print did a traditional Hindu dance to welcome the sun.  The day wore on, but the students stayed quiet and respectful, fascinated to learn about the many cultures and traditions that make up their diverse nation.  For me, this was the most special part of the weekend.

Our winner!

The judges, two Americans from the embassy and two Indonesian alumni of the Fulbright program, settled on a girl from Bonteng in Kalimantan as the winner.  Her original song, skilllful guitar playing, and message of hope for Indonesia’s children had entranced everyone.  Several of the students were very disappointed not to be winners, but we swept everyone off to a local mall for dinner and bowling in order to distract them.   Bowling was the perfect activity – the students let go of the stress of the competition and laughed their way through learning the rules of strikes, spares, and gutter balls.  None of them had ever been bowling before, so we all cheered the other lanes if someone knocked down their pins.  The excitement even got to Anin, who laughed and danced with me as we waited our turn to go bowling.  We all went to sleep exhausted but exhilirated.

Our very adult and organized meeting

The students assembled the next morning for a tour of Jakarta, and the ETAs headed back to AMINEF’s office for a day of meetings.  We planned a guidebook for next year’s ETAs, shared experiences, and just relished being in each other’s company.  I have never experienced this sense of cohesion with such a large group of people.  Among the 40 of us, there is no one I dislike, and many who are close friends.  Everyone is an interesting, engaged individual who has a lot to offer.  It’s wonderful to talk with people who thoroughly understand this experience – the language struggles and triumphs, the community building, the teaching challenges, and the little frustrations and joys that make up daily life in Indonesia.  I feel so blessed to be a part of this amazing group of people.


We met our students in late afternoon at MONAS, the national monument that is Jakarta’s most famous landmark.  They had spent much of the day at Taman Mini, which reproduces dwellings from all corners of Indonesia, from the intricate treetop houses of Toraja to the grass huts of Masohi.  The students showed off their local communities and learned about islands thousands of miles away.  They were all fast friends at this point, and chattered excitedly to each other.  We rounded them up and went back to the hotel for a rooftop pool party and pizza dinner.  The weekend was an interesting mix of American and Indonesian cultures, but they harmonized surprisingly well.  All in all, the WORDS competition represents what this Fulbright program is all about – bringing different traditions together, finding common ground, and creating positive relationships.  I feel very proud to be a part of this endeavor.

Thursday, February 09, 2012 – Singing in public


I just wrote a very long blog post about the wedding I attended, but the weekend wasn’t over by a long shot.  I spent the rest of Saturday afternoon with Dendy, who is my closest guy friend here, and we headed up to the north of Bandung on Saturday evening to cook Mexican food with a group of American and Indonesian friends.  We successfully made fajitas, tacos and guacamole, which was a huge achievement, and settled down to play telephone Pictionary, which is a hilarious combination of both games.  I didn’t get home until quite late that night, and was up by 6am the next morning to start an angkattrek of epic proportions.

This is how I get around!

My friend Ian had helped to organize a reunion at his high school, comprising all graduating classes from 1982 until the present.  The high school was in Ciswastra, which was an area of Bandung I had never heard of, and certainly never been to.  So I did what I always do – hop on an angkat and hope that I arrive at my destination!  People are unfailingly kind to me, maybe because foreigners so rarely use this form of transportation, and are always willing to point out my next change.  So four angkats and two and a half hours later, I finally arrived at my destination!

There were already hundreds of people gathered for the reunion, and a traditional Sundanese performance was taking place on the stage in front, featuring girls in elaborate butterfly costumes contorting their hands in an intricate dance routine.  Ian, who was acting as the master of ceremonies, grinned delightedly as he saw me and bounded up to introduce me to the assembled crowd.  Ian was one of my first friends in Bandung, a 36 year-old with boundless energy and a perpetually cherubic smile who introduced me to the English learning community at the radio station.  I met most of my friends there, so I’m always grateful for his kindness even when I feel uncomfortable as the focus of so many staring faces.  He introduced me as “Euis-Kathryn,” Euis being my Sundanese name, and promised the crowd, much to my dismay, that I would be gifting them with a song performance later in the day.  I stuttered through a few words of greeting in Sundanese, smiled my best Queen Elizabeth smile, and quickly sat down.  “Ian,” I hissed, “you know I’m not a very good singer!  Why on earth would you tell them I want to sing?!”  “Oh, it just came to me,” he said airily.  “Don’t worry, they’ll love you.  Just sing that Indonesian song I taught you.”  And by this he means the song that he played once and expected me to instantly memorize (!!)

  Half of the reunion was taken over by a bazaar with stalls selling everything from the ice with jellied leaves that is a favorite sweet treat here, to clothing, to furniture.  Clearly the community had pulled out all the stops for this reunion.  I spotted Kang (an honorific meaning “big brother”) Dede, who I know from the radio station, sitting at a booth with Vivi, a university student and good friend of mine, so I gratefully went and sat by them.  We watched the performances, which ranged from traditional songs to girls in skin-tight gold spandex outfits who performed a modern dance routine straight out of MTV.  It was fun to talk about the differences between high school reunions here and the ones I’ve heard about in the U.S.  Here, all of the graduates wore identical turquoise polo shirts, and appeared genuinely delighted to see each other.  Children ran everywhere, music blared, and happy chaos reigned.  There was nothing of the pressure to look nice, to present your attractive spouse and successful career to your classmates that often seems to occur in the U.S.

My appointed hour finally arrived, and after frantically scribbling down the lyrics on the back of a brochure and rehearsing them with Vivi, I reluctantly headed up to the stage.  Mine was not the first performance – a six-piece band had taken the stage and various people from the community had been taking turns singing, both in Indonesian and English.  My song was “Cintaku” (“My Love”) by an Indonesian artist named Chrisye, who is one of the pop greats from the 1990s.  It’s a simple, jaunty song about the power of love – of romance, family, country – and I managed to get through it without any major hiccups, although I was very grateful when two of the musicians joined in to sing with me.  Everyone clapped and cheered, which was completely unmerited, but I reflected again that it’s such a simple thing to show respect for another culture.  Indonesians have been generous to a fault with me, inviting me to cultural events and opening windows into different aspects of their culture.  If I can repay that debt at all by butchering a well-loved pop song, then so be it!

Karaoke hall!

My day of singing was not yet over, as I left Ciparay to head to the radio station to meet up with friends later that afternoon.  We congregated at the futsal stadium, and took turns playing short matches and teaching each other games using the card deck I had put in my purse.  A group of us hopped on motocycles and headed to the east of Bandung to a karaoke place where my friend Tince had a special deal.  Karaoke is huge in Indonesia.  It’s hard to overstate how popular it is.  There are entire buildings on every block that are devoted, 24-7, to karaoke.  Just make sure that you choose a “karaoke keluarga,” or “family karaoke.”  The other types are often fronts for prostitution and all sorts of unsavory activities.  I was blown away by the karaoke place, which took up two floors of a mall and featured huge replicas of monuments from around the world – the leaning tower of Pisa, the Great Wall of China, the Statue of Liberty, and the Eiffel Tower were just some of the decorations.  The entire place was dimly lit like a movie theatre, and very impressive.

To my surprise (and relief!), the area was organized into little pods, each equipped with its own karaoke equipment, so your only witnesses are your friends.  I had turned down karaoke invitations in the past because I had dreaded singing in front of strangers, but this was just like using a home machine.  Twelve of us piled onto the cushy couches and started playing with the machine, calling out suggestions and building a list of songs we wanted to sing.  I ended up singing Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon,” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” and I joined in on a host of others when the complicated English lyrics proved too much for my friends.  Some of them were clearly seasoned professionals who had karaoked many times before and had their standards down pat.  Many of them are older than I am, and flawlessly performed American pop ballads from the eighties and nineties that I had never heard of!  We sung a variety of Indonesian and American songs, and the two hours actually flew by.  We ended with a dance party to Ayu Ting-Ting’s “Di Mana,” which is a current Indonesian hit, and laughed ourselves silly with our ridiculous dance moves.  All in all, singing in public is not nearly as painful as I always expect.  That is definitely a good thing, since I seem to be expected to do a fair amount of it!

Asep singing Michael Buble!


Friends at karaoke

January 6, 2012 – My first Sundanese wedding!


I really do love it here.  I came to that realization a few weeks ago, sitting on an angkat on a hot afternoon, stuck in traffic while the van crawled its way through the teeming streets.  Groups of ragged teenage boys strummed guitars and panhandled, men hawked cigarettes, bottles of water and plastic SpongeBob figures, and people on the ankgat stared at me openly or snapped clandestine photos with their cell phones.

Typical day

Odd that this should be my version of happiness, isn’t it?  But I’m so glad that almost six months into my grant, I’ve finally found real contentment in my day-to-day life in Bandung.  Reflecting back, five months is a very normal adjustment period for transitioning into a new job, a new language, a new culture.  But I feel sometimes like Verucca Salt, the spoiled girl from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – “I want it nowwwww!”  I want to speak Indonesian fluently enough to communicate with ease, I want to start understanding the ridiculously complicated Sundanese language that most people speak at home, I want to find my niche in this culture, I want to form close friendships with people from the radio station and teachers at my school, I want to connect with my students and feel like I’m making a difference here.  Much easier said than done.  But if I haven’t accomplished everything on that long list, at least I feel like I’m having a full, rich, wildly interesting experience here.

This past weekend has been as busy as any I’ve ever had, and the upcoming one promises to be just as packed.  Saturday was completely taken up with my first Sundanese wedding.  Sundanese is the primary ethnic group in Bandung and the surrounding areas.  They are the second largest ethnic group in Indonesia, after Javanese (for whom the island of Java is named after), and the Sundanese language boasts millions of speakers.  Indonesia has thousands upon thousands of languages, many of which are dying out as the young people move to cities and focus on more business-friendly tongues.  It’s a shame, especially as I see how much pride the people in my community have in being Sundanese and in speaking the language.

BuSry, a mathematics teacher at my school, invited me to watch the wedding ceremony of her daughter.

Bu Sry (L) and Bu Yati (R)

It’s the first child in her family to be married, so it’s a huge deal.  Here, as in many other Muslim societies, children marry in order of birth.  So if the younger daughter has a serious boyfriend but the older daughter is still unmarried, there is a lot of pressure to find someone suitable and get the process started.  Bu Sry is one of my favorite teachers – we greet each other every morning with her cheerfully singing out, “Halo jelek,” or “Good morning hideous!” and I just as cheerfully reply, “Halo cantik!” or “Good morning beautiful!”  We started this routine because I quickly became tired of everyone here labeling me as pretty merely because I have white skin.  The market for skin whiteners is huge here, and I have a difficult time finding soap and shower gel that do not contain whitening agents.  The market primarily focuses on women, and an Indonesian woman with darker skin will have a much harder time finding a job and a husband.  It has to be partially class-based – lighter skin is a sign that you work in an office instead of in the fields, and is therefore more aristocratic.  As a consequence, women here are obsessive about covering up – wearing mittens when they commute by motorcycle so their hands don’t tan, staying out of the sun – and often wear layers of foundation and powder. It’s not uncommon, on a particularly hot day, to see girls and women with two-toned faces, as half of their makeup has sweated off to reveal their true skin color.

This aspect of Indonesia culture frankly drives me crazy, especially when I see girls in my class with burns and patches on their face from allergic reactions to whitening efforts gone awry.  So whenever I have the opportunity, I talk about the tanning culture in America, and how “brown is beautiful.”  I tell my teachers and students that I frequently felt self-conscious growing up when my stubbornly pale skin refused to tan at the beach.  They are often incredulous, but American culture has such a powerful presence here that maybe with enough repetitions, these gorgeous women will feel less bad about their lack of lily-white skin.  Bu Sry was delighted with this idea, that in America she would be the beautiful one, while I would be the oddity, and so our morning routine was born.  But I majorly digress.  Back to the wedding!

Yati and her husband!

The morning of the wedding, Bu Yati, my counterpart, and her husband picked me up to take me to the ceremony.  I wore a particularly fancy batik tunic that I haven’t had an opportunity to wear yet, and my mother’s skirt from the Sultan’s 50th birthday in Brunei, which was more than ten years ago!  Bu Yati arranged my headscarf into a pretty configuration, and we set off.  Most of the guests do not attend the ceremony, which is held in the mosque, because of space constraints, but the teachers wanted me to witness a wedding from start to finish.

We were held up a bit by traffic, so by the time we arrived, the ceremony had started and the bride and groom had processed into the mosque.  I was fascinated by the sumptuous dresses the women wore, called a kebaya (just like the ones in Morocco!), which featured layers of gauzy fabric dripping with beads and embroidery.  Bu Yati confessed that they are beautiful but horribly uncomfortable to wear because the tight skirt severely limits your motion and the cinched-in waist makes it difficult to breathe!  Why must beauty be pain?  The different colors marked a woman’s relationship to the wedding – white for the bride and groom, amber gold for a member of the wedding party (parents and siblings), purple for the bride’s relatives and green for the groom’s relatives.  Men and women are separated in the mosque, so I could only clandestinely peer over into the men’s section, but the men all wore batik shirts, long sarong skirts and the distinctive rounded caps that Muslim men wear here.  I think they look wonderfully dignified.


My two favorite parts of the ceremony were when the bride and groom, who knelt at the front of the mosque, went over to their parents to receive their blessing and bid them farewell.  It was very emotional for both families, as they are both gaining and losing children, and everyone cried.  The bride and groom then greeted their new in-laws, to be welcomed into their families.  It was one of the more touching rituals I’ve seen at a wedding.  My other favorite part of the ceremony was when the groom presented his wedding gift to his new bride – he had secretly memorized Surat al-Rahmani of the Qu’ran, which is the chapter about compassion, and is one of the loveliest sections of the Qu’ran, in my opinion.  It is rare for Indonesians to actually understand the Arabic verses they recite from the Qu’ran – most books have an accompanying translation into Indonesian – so for the groom to have studied the words for meaning and not just rote memorization was a huge effort.  He started out nervously, and I could tell that he was terrified of forgetting a word or of messing up the cadence, but his voice gradually gained strength and confidence as he lost himself in the beautiful words.  The mosque was hushed and silent for the entire twenty-minute recitation, which is a rarity here!

The master of ceremonies who was conducting the ceremony from a nearby pulpit, finally declared them married in the eyes of God, and the wedding party dispersed to change into clothes for the reception.

Wedding reception space

The audience gathered into an adjoining room for a quick breakfast of lontong (long-grained cubes of rice), gule ayam(a wonderfully fragrant chicken with saffron and coconut milk), and tea.  Several other teachers from school arrived at this point, so we drove over to the reception together at around 11 a.m.  The wedding party had yet to arrive when we got there, so we amused ourselves by wandering around the reception hall (an army banquet space) and taking copious pictures.

Teachers from school

Apparently the cost of a wedding can run to more than 100 million rupiah, which is over $10,000, and a huge sum here in Indonesia.  Especially when it’s the first child to be married, such as in this case, the families err on the side of lavish.  There were flowers everywhere, decorative archways decorated with garlands and vines, and ornate golden couches to sit on.  I garnered a fair amount of strange looks with my height and obviously non-Indonesian features combined with my Muslim clothes, but the presence of the teachers from my school as we joked and chattered in Indonesian allowed me to blend in more than usual.

The bride and groom finally arrived, and led an enormous procession of the entire wedding party through the center of the reception hall up onto the stage where they sat to receive congratulations.

Bride and groom leading the procession

A line quickly formed, and we moved from person to person clasping their hands and touching cheeks (in the case of women) and respectfully nodding at the men, and saying “wilujeng,” to everyone, which is Sundanese for “congratulations.”  The bride, Bu Sry’s daughter, who had been nodding mechanically at the ever-moving line of well-wishers, sat up straight when she saw me and exclaimed happily, “Oh, you must be Miss Kathryn!  My mother told me about you.  I always wanted to have a bulé (foreigner) at my wedding!”

Our duty done, everyone made a beeline for the food.  There were stations scattered all around the hall, with attendants serving everything from meatball soup to ice cream to cow tongues to, for some strange reason, chicken cordon bleu.  We collected a variety of dishes and commandeered some a patch of table to stand and sample the food.  Some of the male teachers from school joined us, and demanded to know when I would be married, always a favorite topic of conversation.  Apparently I am supposed to have a preferred age and month in mind!  My excuse is always that I need to speak to my father first, to ask his permission and get his blessing, before I even think about marriage, so one of the teachers snatched my cell phone and jokingly threatened to call my father, offer himself as a prospective groom, and settle things then and there!  The arrival of more teachers thankfully saved my parents from a very surprising phone call, and Yati and I left shortly after that.  More guests were arriving every moment, the dangdut singers (traditional Sundanese singing accompanied by very seductive dancing!) were in full swing, and this would clearly be going on for hours.  I was happy enough to head home and take a quick nap to recover from my first Sundanese wedding experience.

January 30, 2012 – WORDS competition and “Only in Indonesia”


I have spent the month since I returned from Christmas break preparing for the WORDS competition, an English speech competition hosted by my organization, AMINEF.  Each of the forty ETAs holds a local competition for his/her school, and chooses one winner.  Then all of the students and ETAs travel to Jakarta for a national competition.  My school’s competition was open to the tenth and eleventh grades, and I spent the better part of two weeks canvassing the classrooms and trying to dredge up interest.  The topic for the competition was “What story would you share with future generations?”  Students must speak in English for a minimum of two minutes, and may spend up to three additional minutes using whatever medium they like to get their point across (video, dance, painting, song, powerpoint, etc.).  For my students, speaking in English for two minutes is a really big deal, and my greatest fear was that no one would elect to participate.  Happily, that wasn’t the case.  I’ve been staying late for the past few weeks, reading over speeches, talking over ideas, and intervening when a student’s English was truly incomprehensible.

Saturday was our competition day, and I had invited two American friends, Elyssa and Mindy, and an Indonesian friend who is very fluent in English, Dendy, to judge the students.  Miraculously, the students showed up (relatively) on time, we only started forty minutes late, and there were no major technology hiccups.  It was fascinating to see what the students had come up with under their own initiative.  Eighteen students in total spoke about “corruption is killing our country,” “don’t forget where you come from,” “the importance of preserving your native language,” “save the planet,” etc.  One poor student broke down on stage and barely made it through her speech because she was so nervous, but thankfully, that only happened once.

I wanted to spread the awards around, so the judges and I conferenced for a few minutes to decide on the winners.  Our obvious overall winner was one of my tenth graders, an extremely shy girl named Anindiya, who had made a video about a Bandung environmentalist who spends his free time cleaning up the city’s trash-filled gutters.  She spoke naturally and passionately about teaching the next generation to respect the earth, which is an important message here in Indonesia, where parents teach their children to just drop their trash on the ground.  We awarded a first and second runner up, a most improved award, and two most creative awards.  The most creative went to an eleventh grade boy who I had never met before, who did a wonderful traditional mask dance, and a tenth grader who played the guitar and sang an original song she wrote.  Rather amusingly/embarassingly, the lyrics went something like, “Thanks to Ms. Kathryn, I love you so much.  Take my hand and with your help I will be a super girl!”  I can’t tell if it was mere pandering or if I’ve made a genuine impact, but it was entertaining nonetheless!

After the competition, I invited all of the participants back to my house for lunch.  I had made caramel popcorn the night before, and frantically cooked spaghetti over my one working stovetop for twenty people.  I served them pesto pasta, tempe (Indonesian fermented soybeans, somewhat like tofu), and spinach.  I had attempted to make rice, that Indonesian staple, but somehow the proportions got messed up and I ended up with crunchy, waterlogged rice, much to the amusement of all of the Indonesians in the room.  Oh well.  All in all, I think the competition was a huge success, and I am so proud of my students for taking the initiative and competing.

I spent all day Saturday at the competition, and then got up on Sunday to help out at a scholarship meeting I had promised to attend.  I can’t count how many times people have expressed to me that their ultimate dream is to study in the U.S., or at least in Australia, or Japan, or Thailand.  I try to direct them to the scholarships I have heard of, but the competition is so fierce.  So I read over CVs, conducted mock interviews, and tried to encourage the students who seemed particularly passionate.

Afterwards, a group of friends and I went to a local café to watch the most heated soccer rivalry in Java – Persib (Bandung’s local team) vs. Persija (Jakarta).   The streets were deserted, as most people were indoors watching the match.  I love soccer matches, and it was great to get caught up in the energy of the room as we cheered on Bandung.  My friends kept up a running commentary, explaning the players and history of them team to me.   Soccer in Indonesia has had a tumultous few months – the head of the national soccer association was put in jail for corruption, but continued to manage the league from his prison cell.  Then a rich Indonesian businessman, sensing an opportunity, created a rival league, which the jailed national association leader, in an ironic twist, promptly declared illegal.  The rich businessman attempted to woo successful teams over to his new league, and some teams split in two.  So there are actually two Persijas, each claiming to be Jakarta’s legitimate team.  The poor fans have no idea which team to support.  FIFA, the world football governing body, became involved, and decided to declare the “illegal” rich businessman’s league as Indonesia’s legitimate league.  So illegal became legal, and legal became illegal.  Persib decided to remain in the original league, because the level of play was higher, but they now have no chance of competing in any international competitions, because their existence is technically illegal!  Regardless of perceived legitimacy, soccer is an incredibly lucrative business in Indonesia.  Players in the local leagues make upwards of $100,000 a year, which is over a trillion rupiah.  For purposes of comparison, an average teacher makes 400,000 rupiah ($40) per month.  So the potential for graft and corruption is huge, with that amount of money at stake.

My friend telling the story ended with a shrug of his shoulders, and a phrase that I have often heard delivered in a wry tone: “Only in Indonesia.”

January 21, 2012 – Community service and futsal


This past weekend was pretty hectic, in a good way.  On Saturday, I left my house at 6a.m. to head over to the radio station.  I met about 30 other Indonesian young people there, and we all jumped on motorbikes (I was riding, not driving, thankfully!) and headed down to Ciparay, a village about two hours to the south of Bandung.   Our object was Madrasah Al-Ihsan, an Islamic campus with junior and senior high schools.  We crept our way through the Bandung early-morning traffic, and finally broke out of the city into a land of rice fields, water buffaloes, and towering mountains.  Whenever you get near the outskirts of Bandung, I’m always newly impressed with the landscape – Bandung is like the center of a bowl, with the mountains rising around its sides.  Spectacular.

We arrived and were welcomed by about 300 students, who seemed surprisingly happy to be giving up their Saturday to do an English language camp.  Ciparay is a more rural area than Bandung, so the school appeared more conservative than my own madrasah  – students were strictly segregated according to gender on opposite sides of the room.

We split the students into groups of about ten, and sent them around to the different posts.  We had fifteen posts for the high school students and fifteen for the junior high school students, each post covering a different topic.  Some of the posts were obvious softballs just to get the students hyped up.  Case in point: the post next to mine was featuring “Song and dance,” and kept distracting the students at my post!

I (wo)manned my post with two other acquaintances from the radio station, Ahmad and Al.  I know that I do a lot of good in my interactions with English language learners in terms of encouraging them to use English and practice with a native speaker.   But the occasional downside is that is can be really intimidating for those who aren’t yet confident in their English language abilities.  Ahmad in particular was really nervous about working with me.  I would have loved to step back and let the two guys take over, but unfortunately we got started so quickly that we just had to dive in and start improvising activities for the students.  I had just done a really successful lesson on body parts with my students in Cijerah, so I adapted games like “Simon Says,” and the ever-popular “Hokey Pokey.”  By the third or fourth go-round, Al and Ahmad had caught onto the games, and took more initiative, but I definitely was the center of attention, unfortunately.  I was wearing a headscarf and demure Indonesian clothes, knowing that we were heading to a madrasah, so it took the students a a minute to realize they were in fact standing in front of a strange foreigner in Muslim clothes!

  We worked with the students for hours, rotating every fifteen              minutes  to a new group.  We were all pretty knackered by that point, but there was still the talent show to be done.  Luckily, no one made me get up and sing this time, although I did have to make a speech.  We mostly gave the students, who amazingly still had energy at this point, the spotlight, and let them show off for their classmates.  It was a lot of fun.

Afterwards, we all had dinner at the house of Kang (Sundanese honorific title meaning older brother) Wanda, one of the radio station members who lives in Ciparay.  Indonesians’ ability to commute long, snarly traffic distances continues to amaze me.  Cun-Cun, my roommate, is from Ciparay, and her five year-old son still lives there with her parents.  She stays with me during the week for convenience in getting to school, but makes the two-hour trek to Ciparay at least twice a week.

Wanda’s house was full to bursting with 30+ RECC members, so the girls all went up to the roof.   We sat there and talked, and it was nice to have different conversations for once, rather than the expected questions of why I am in Indonesia, and what I think about it.  They were intensely curious about dating and relationships in America, just as I am about ones in Indonesia.  “Dating” in this society seems to be basically a way for a man and woman to hang out in groups, have a preference for each other’s company, and get to know each other better.  No kissing, and definitely no sex.  Of course, this is in an extremely Islamic context.  I am sure that young couples in Bandung find ways to bend the rules, just as couples everywhere do.  I have noticed that in the downtown, highway overpasses are especially popular.  Young couples park their motorbikes, sit on the overpass, and sit and talk, maybe even hold hands, without the prying eyes of their parents and neighbors. It reminds me of the beaches and gardens in Morocco that were always a haven for couples.

In talking to these women, I definitely painted a more innocent picture of dating and relationships in America than what I witnessed in high school and college.  I feel no guilt about bending the truth a little.  I’m fighting against twenty years of Hollywood movies and American T.V. shows which portray “free sex” as an American staple.  Boy meets girl in a bar, they talk briefly, and then go home together.  Obviously this happens a lot.  But one of my personal quests is to get the Indonesians I converse with to see America in a more nuanced light.  Just like Indonesia, with its many islands and religions and cultures, America is diverse.  The trick is to convince people who think that Hollywood represents normal daily life to see that.

All in all, I didn’t get back to my house until around 11 p.m., making for a very long day.  But I saw a new area, deepened some relationships, and hopefully inspired some students to continue with their English stories.  I call that a productive day.

I got up the next morning and went to Mass, and then met up with friends from the radio station to play indoor soccer.    Somehow in the last ten years, soccer in Indonesia has shifted from a group of ragged boys chasing a ball around a grass field to groups of highly sophisticated, highly competitive men playing in the ubiquitious indoor soccer stadiums.  From what I can gather, the government played a role in this transformation in an attempt to provide a structured hang-out environment for young men, to keep them from becoming radicalised.  It seems like it’s working – every young man I know plays at least once a week, and the schedule at the stadiums are jam-packed with different groups coming in and out.

I am definitely the crazy foreign girl because I always play in a group of all-men, but this is one taboo I don’t mind breaking.  There is no encouragement for girls in Indonesia to play soccer, even if they had the interest and the ability.  I’m an average player at best, but the young men I play with are so surprised that I even know what to do with the ball that I feel like I’m breaking stereotypes just by being there.  I also scored two goals this time, which was a personal best!

I went to the mall in Cihampelas afterwards with friends, which is one of the most popular hang-out spots in Bandung.  The malls here are gleaming sensory overloads, and so much better than anything we have in the U.S.  The movie theatre at this mall is a revelation – uniformed waiters come around to take your order as you recline in a plush armchair. From rice fields to Gucci stores, Indonesia is so full of contradictions that it’s hard to keep up sometimes!