This morning I woke up and checked my phone. 9:03…ahhhh, bless you Saturday morning and bless you Tylenol pm for letting me sleep through the 4 am call to prayer. I turn on the light, slip on my Birkenstocks, and go to open my bedroom door. I am reluctant, as always, for the critters that occupy my home to flood my bedroom as soon as they are granted access. To my surprise, I see two dead cockroaches outside my door. Is this a dream? I do a little shimmy, followed by a heel click, and let out a squeal. I grab my lap top, turn on “Train in Vain” by the Clash, moon walk my way into the kitchen and throw myself a little celebration while making some cinnamon oatmeal and a cup of coffee. I look around my home in glory. I have won. Me vs. the roaches and I have come out on top, and damn does it feel good.
Today marks my one-week anniversary of life in Indonesia, yet life in America feels many many moons away. First, let me begin by explaining my role to those who are unsure or do not know my purpose of being in Indonesia. I am here for nine months on a Fulbright scholarship as an English Teaching Assistant. I will work in high school classrooms to help Indonesian students learn English as a second language, all while immersing myself into their culture, becoming both an ambassador for America as well as a student and observer of the Indonesian lifestyle. I have been asked several times why I chose Indonesia, and to be honest, I don’t know that I have a clear answer for that. I want to travel Southeast Asia as well as experience a culture vastly different than my own (and Indonesia is about as far away from home as I can get), but also, Indonesia is a ginormous country that I knew (know?) nothing about. Thus, I am here. To learn. To grow. To teach. And to most likely get explosive diarrhea.
Now, as of last Sunday, I did not know anything about my living situation. They told me I’d be in Semarang, a hot and crowded city on the north coast of Central Java. I mentally prepared for this city life over the summer, weighing the pros and cons of having access to Western restaurants while missing out on a small community life. I’d even communicated with two of the ETAs who lived in the city last year, asking various questions about their life in Semarang (i.e. Should I bring sheets? Do they sell tampons?). To my dismay, AMINEF decided I’d be living an hour and a half outside the city, in a small village called Bringin. “It’s a…village…but developing…like…like a suburb,” I was told. Ohhhhh, I think. I am assuming there will be restaurants and supermarkets. No, no.
When I fly to Semarang Monday afternoon I am greeted at the airport by two enthusiastic women by the names of Bu Yulia and Bu Eyrne. They are dressed to the nines in their scouting uniform and I am intimidated. “Much more beautiful than in picture,” Bu Ernye says as she stares at my sweaty face. We walk to a van where a man they call “Papa” is sitting in the driver’s seat.
Bu Yulia yaps my ear off until we arrive at a restaurant that is on the water. Beautiful, but hot. Very very hot. We walk up to a small hut and they take off their shoes, I do the same, and we sit around a table on our knees. “We eat lunch now, then we go to Bringin.” Okay, works for me. When they ask if I am hungry I tell them I am starving even though I am not (?). They order lunch in Indonesian, and when it arrives, my eyes and my stomach are very overwhelmed. Bu Eyrne explains to me in very broken English that her and Papa usually fight over the fish head, but today they will give it to me. Joy. She rips the head from the rest of the body and tosses it onto my plate. I want to throw up in my lap. Then, she piles ox bone, white rice, pecel (vegetables), beef, shrimp and squid—all fried. (I forgot to mention that before the food came out, they walked me over to an ice cream stand…I am lactose intolerant…because I told them I was starving and they didn’t want me to be hungry while waiting.) I pick up my fork prepared to dig in and not look back when Bu Eyrne shouts “No, no, no! Like this.” She demonstrates by cupping her hands and scooping up a handful of food into her mouth. “Ohhhhh,” I laugh a little. “The only thing I usually eat with my hands in America is a cheeseburger,” I laugh again. They stare. Tough crowd. I eat with my hands. When I make it halfway through my plate they throw on more. I try to explain that I am full. They do not care.
Finally we are on our way to Bringin. The van is very hot and the ride is ridiculously bumpy. I am carsick three minutes into the drive. Not to mention the traffic is awful in Semarang and Bu Yulia informs me that it may take up to three hours to get home. “You look tired,” she says, “Sleep. It’s okay. No worries.” Alright, lady I am in a molester van with three strangers on the opposite side of the world I am not about to “sleep, no worries,” capiche?
After about forty-five minutes it feels as though we are finally on our way when Papa decides to park the van on the side of the road. Bu Eyrne needed to pick up some pots for her plants. Okay. Fifteen minutes later and we are on our way again. Then we stop in front of a bakery. “We want to get you some things!” Bu Yulia informs me. “Everything here is very del-ee-cee-ious.” I love the way she says delicious. I tell her this a few days later.
We go inside and I pick out some things. “That is all?” Bu Eyrne says. She then goes around the bakery and selects a few more items that she thinks I need to try. I do not have a choice in this matter. She pays, we leave, and two hours later we arrive at the school. They show me around very quickly and then they take me to my home. It is big. Four bedrooms, only one of which is occupied (by me). The walls are a lime green color, and every light in the building is fluorescent. I feel as though I am about to be subjected into an asylum. “Sit, sit, sit.” Bu Eyrne says. I sit in the kitchen chair. She begins sweeping and mopping my floors. I try to explain that I can do that and she does not have to clean everything for me. She does not respond; she continues to sweep. Eventually they leave and I have the house to myself.
I am exhausted and sweaty and not in the mood to do anything but lay so I lock myself into my bedroom, turn on the television, and listen to an Indonesian reality show (in Bahasa) as a I fall fast asleep. At this point in time, I have no Internet and no working cell phone.
It turns out that these three clowns, Bu Yulia, Bu Eyrne and Papa, whom I have grown to love over the last week, have become my go-to crew. They have paid for all of my meals, they constantly ask if I am hungry (and even when I am not they feed me), and they have shown me around every nook and cranny of the village. On Wednesday they take me to a town two hours away to buy Batik (Indonesian formal wear), kitchenware, a blanket, some groceries, towels, bug spray (for the relentless cock roaches and various bug populations), plastic bins, etc.—all of which they paid for despite my resistance. They are always asking if I need rest, they introduce me to all of their friends, and they invite me to all of their future gatherings (including sleep overs at their house). They are incredible. Yesterday, when sitting in Bu Yulia’s home, she opened up to me about a lot of personal things that have occurred over the last year. At our pre-departure orientation over the summer, the ETAs were warned that it might be difficult to form close friendships with people because of the language barrier. Bu Yulia speaks great English (and is the only one who speaks fluently) and I think that despite the age difference (she is 45) we will become good friends. She’s a progressive Muslim and an independent woman who is the principal of my school. She’s a huge advocate for women’s rights and higher education, and she has whole-heartedly accepted me, a bule, into her life and her community. Unfortunately, she is moving to Myanmar in January to be a principal at an Indonesian high school (she won an award…the only woman out of five candidates, woo!), and I know that when the time comes for her departure, my remaining time in Indonesia will be much different. But as she says, “I must follow my dream. It is my dream to go there to Myanmar,” and I’m right there with her. Do your thing, girl. I got your back.
Now for the school. Every morning I am picked up by a man named Mastri. He speaks no English, rides a motorbike, and exudes a musky cigarette scent. We make the journey in silence (it’s about a fifteen minute ride) and I am happy. For once, I am not forced to decipher someone’s broken English and I can tell neither of us want to make any effort so early in the morning. It is peaceful. I look at the scenery, which consists of extreme poverty surrounded by rice fields and mountains. I see all of the passer-bys staring at the white girl on the back of a motorbike and I wave. This is one of the best parts of my day.
At school, I have my own desk. I am surrounded by the rest of the teachers, all of whom have been welcoming and warm. They offer me snacks, they ask me questions, they smile at me when I am not looking (and then we make eye contact). Many of them have invited me to their homes, to swim, to cook, etc. They are great.
In terms of the students I am Miss Maria. I am a selfie opportunity. I am the girl with the pointy nose. I am “so, so beautiful” because I am white. They laugh when I try to speak Indonesian and they constantly shout “I love you, Miss!” in the middle of class. When I walk around the school they are shouting my name from every direction, and I wave, saying “Hello” and they giggle and laugh and run away. They take pictures of me from afar. They message me on Fakebook asking if they can come to my house. They request that I sing in front of the class (I’ve sang twice now…Let it Go and the Birthday song). They want to know if I “have husband or boyfriend,”; they ask me my religion. “Why do you come to Indonesia, Miss?” “Do you like Nasi Goreng?” “Will you come to my house, Miss?” I love them. I know that they will be the highlight of my year here, and I want to be the best that I can be as a teacher because of them. They make me so, so excited for what is to come.
As the week has come to an end I feel a little relieved. I have gotten my roach problem under control (I use spray, I cover all the holes in my walls/in the floor, and I have left corpses of my victims lying around the house as a warning to the others…I am the king of this castle and if you enter without permission you will die), I have very few mosquito bites, I have gained a few friends, and I figured out how to make my shower head work. I am spoiled.
Tomorrow I head to Bandung for a two-week orientation with my fellow ETAs. I am excited to be reunited and share stories of roaches and diarrhea, but I am also a little sad that I’m leaving so quickly. I will most likely not post until I am home again…so until then, Selamat Jalan!
Things I have noticed my first week here:
- Many of my co-workers burp out loud in the middle of conversations and it is not a problem.
- You must eat rice with your meal or you are a disgrace.
- I am much cleaner when bug infestation is at risk.
- Indonesian men often have long fingernails with hands bejeweled in gemstone rings.
- I have a very strong stomach.