12 October 2012

Indonesia, Singapore, and back

[Published on 24 September 2012]

I will be an English Teaching Assistant in Indonesia for the next year through the Fulbright Program. I have been in Indonesia since 12 August and recently found some time to write this post. So, please read on and enjoy!

Orientasi (orientation) –
On 12 August, I landed in Jakarta and boarded a bus to Bandung, a city in West Java located about three hours southeast of the capital. It was dark outside by the time my cohort members and I reached The Papandayan, a 5-star hotel, and my new home for a three-week long orientation. We were greeted with a lovely traditional Indonesian dance performance. After the performance, I went up to my room, which was more than I could have imagined. It had a large bed with soft sheets and pillows, a comfy sofa, a shower with glass walls, a flat screen television, and I had a cool view of the city and part of the hotel below. I did not know that they would spoil us rotten, but I was appreciative. After a year in Haiti, I was going to enjoy every moment of this experience.

During orientation, we had four hours of language class and four hours of teacher training almost every day. There were days when we had presentations on safety and security, staying healthy in Indonesia, Indonesian culture, and Indonesian politics and history. My favorite part of orientation was learning Indonesian. I practiced with the hotel staff, people on the street, and at restaurants whenever I had the chance. None of the housekeeping staff spoke English, so I spoke Indonesian frequently with them. I learned how to say, “Wait a minute” when one staff member came to collect my laundry. I used hand gestures and asked him in Indonesian, “How do you say this?” as I pointed to my hands and fingers to signal that I was asking him to wait. It’s tunggu sebentar.


I enjoyed living in Bandung. It has what some would call a Western vibe, and we had a chance to participate in its active nightlife. Bandung was once known as the Paris of Java and is a place where Jakartans can come for downtime. As I indicated before in a previous post, after returning from Haiti, the first thing I notice in a city is the cleanliness of the streets. Many of the streets in Bandung were clean and well-paved, but the sidewalks either needed to be fixed or didn’t exist. The streets were also always crowded with motorcycles. So, crossing the street caused me a lot of anxiety. The traffics lights are far apart so people just put their hands out and walk into the street as cars and motos come to a stop. I am the deer in the headlights that will freeze when I am in that situation. I remember thinking early on, “Wow, so this is how I’m going out?” But I always crossed with other people and could not help letting out a squeal when I crossed. According to some Indonesian street crossing experts, the trick is to walk across at a constant pace so the drivers can time you. I really didn’t care about the physics of it all. There should be more crosswalks!


During the second weekend, we attended a bamboo afternoon performance. The angklung was the musical instrument used throughout many of the performances. An angklung is a traditional Indonesian instrument made out of bamboo. Children begin with smaller angklungs and as they get better at playing the angklung, they move onto to the bigger ones. Toward the end of the performances, all of the audience members were given an angklung and every person played a note based on the assigned Indonesian island (each angklung was labeled) and hand gesture for that island. So, we followed the hand gestures of two young boys as they led us through songs by the Beatles. It was incredible.


Orientation quickly came to an end and we had to fly to Singapore to get our long-term visas because the Indonesian government did not provide us with them in time to start the grant. When we arrived on 12 August, we received Visas-On-Arrival which were valid for 30 days only. I was very excited to go to Singapore. I had heard great things about and was ready to experience the well-known city-state.

Singapura (Singapore) –
Singapore was very hot. After we landed, we boarded buses headed to the Albert Court Village Hotel and received a memorable introduction to the city. Our driver’s assistant told us about all the essentials we needed to know about the city: what time everything shuts down, the undercover police, the illegality of spitting or chewing gum in public, getting taxed on merchandise and reclaiming the money as a foreigner, the best places to go for shopping (Bugis Street!), etc. It was rapid firing of information. It was awesome. I got to my room, dropped off my belongings, and went to Little India with Catherine, Catharina, and Katie for dinner.

We crossed an underpass across the street from our hotel and as soon as we did, it was very obvious that we were in Little India; Bollywood music blared from speakers, Indian men crowded the streets, and the smell of food in the making teased our nostrils. We walked around for a while and explored some of the small shops on the sidewalks. We saw pretty silk scarfs, handmade shoes, and trinkets. At one shop, we asked the owner for the best place to eat in town and we ended up going to the Banana Leaf. I had mouthwatering chicken samosas, very spicy chicken curry with rice, and a creamy mango lassi to chase it all down. I was in heaven. After dinner we stopped by the Arab Quarter and had creamy Turkish milkshakes. Once we returned to the hotel, we changed into club wear and headed to Clarke Quay to enjoy Singapore’s nightlife.

The next day Morgan C., Morgan S., Amanda, and I left the hotel early so that we could see as much of Singapore as possible. We went back to Little India to buy some souvenirs and shoot some photos of the place during the daytime. Then we went to the Singapore National Museum and had an amazing audio tour of Singaporean history. We were there for about three hours, but we couldn’t even get through all of the sections by lunchtime. So, we left and went to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel for lunch. I have heard about the hotel and it is definitely a force to be reckoned with. I don’t know which section we were in, but once we got of the MRT (the metro system) we saw a small river leading into the mall and we all said, “Whoah” at the same time. It was spectacular. There were canoes on the river and a geyser located at the end. After we ate, we wanted to go see the iconic Merlion across the Singapore River. So, we took a colorful water taxi for about 4$. We actually missed our stop to walk to the Merlion, and we were treated to a wonderful tour of the entire river. We eventually got off at the correct stop and had a chance to see the Esplanade Theatres, also known as The Durians because they look like the king of fruits. I returned later that night with Catharina so that she could get a chance to see the Merlion as well.

Before Catharina and I went back to the Merlion, we had dinner at an Egyptian restaurant in the Arab Quarter. She was my neighbor during our stay at The Papandayan and we talked, but I didn’t know her too well. So, we got to know each other a little better as we sat on the floor and had dinner. I had a chicken shawarma with mango lassi (I really like mango lassi….). We got back to the hotel around midnight which was probably not the best idea because all of us received wake-up calls at 3:30am so that we would be ready to check-out of our rooms by 4am.

We had a great time in Singapore. It is definitely a city of the future and a longer stay would have been great. But after a month of living in the luxurious bubble of The Papandayan and getting spoiled in Singapore, I was ready to get to my site and start teaching.

Pontianak –
My placement is in the city of Pontianak. Pontianak, which means vampire in Malay folklore, is the capital of Kalimantan Barat (West Kalimantan/West Borneo). I was placed here with another ETA, Jordan. It was pouring when Jordan and I landed in Pontianak, but I love when it rains and it was a nice change from the heat wave in Singapore. I thought Haiti’s airport was a little bit unorganized, but Pontianak’s airport takes the cake. Similar to Haiti, I boarded a shuttle bus to baggage claim. When I got to baggage claim, I saw two conveyor belts and people crowded around both ends. Then, I noticed that the ends were basically dead ends and everyone’s luggage just accumulated on the floor. I couldn’t believe it. The entire thing was like a scene out of a market place. People ran to the ends and rummaged through the luggage looking for their bags. Meanwhile, I was standing in between both conveyor belts looking for my bags. I remember thinking, “This is not how you handle someone’s luggage!” My bags were the last ones to come out and under their weight and from my exhaustion due to all of this traveling and lack of sleep, I promised myself that I would get a massage within in the first week.

Our headmasters and counterparts picked us up and we went to a restaurant for dinner. I had fried rice with seafood and a whole coconut. Yes, a whole coconut. First, I drank the water first, and then I ate the meat. I was stuffed. Not sure what I was thinking, but it was delicious. After dinner, Jordan and I parted ways as we headed to our houses. My headmaster, Bu Annes, and her husband brought me bread, topped with cheese and chocolate, and then helped me move my bags into my apartment.

Some of my neighbors saw me moving in and came over to say hello. Four of them are in their late teens/early twenties and are assistant-teachers at the secondary school where I am posted. I dropped off my belongings and went to check out their apartments. After talking to them for about half an hour, I returned to my place because I was tired. I fell into my bed once I got back. A few hours into my sleep, I heard someone knocking on my door. It was Bu Jess. She said that she had been out when I arrived and wanted to introduce herself and say hello to me. She apologized for waking me up. I told her she had nothing to worry about. The only other thing I remember from our conversation that night was that she said, “Wow, you’re so tall! It must be because you’re American and I’m Indonesian.” I do tower over her though. She is either 5’3” or 5’4”. I’m pretty sure I just laughed and thanked her for stopping by. We hugged and she let me go back to sleep.

Sekolah (school) –
Every morning since I have been here, I wake up at 5am to get ready to go to school. Yes, the next morning after I arrived, I woke up at 5am to leave my apartment by 6am. I had to write that out to believe it myself. I get up at that time because I want to leave with my neighbors by six. They get a ride to school with another teacher, Herman. The school gave me a bicycle to use, but I don’t think the roads are safe enough for me to ride my bike. Indonesians are interesting drivers. I don’t think the concept of personal space exists on the road and every space is filled with a motorcycle. There are thousands of them on the roads here in Pontianak. I also saw a moto accident the other day (the student was shaken, but she was able to walk away from the accident). So, I would rather stay alive and get up at five.

The ride to school is nothing but entertaining. Every day for the last two weeks, when I get into Herman’s car a Whitney Houston track is playing. Herman is a Chinese Indonesian, is married, and he has three daughters named Hilary, Heavenny, and Honesty (yes, he came up with the names). So, his love for Whitney Houston is adorable and funny to me. The same three tracks are usually playing when I am in the car: “I have nothing, nothing, NOTHING!.... the greatest love of all….I wanna dance with somebody, I wanna feel the heat with somebody!...” “Wow, you guys really love Whitney Houston, huh?” I asked Endrew, one of my neighbors. “Yeah, we do, “ he replied. Endre likes to sing as well. Herman drops us off at school. “Dance!” – Whitney sends me off as I step out of the car.

During my first week, I observed all of the English classes. I wanted to get a sense of my co-teacher’s teaching style, what language he uses the most, how he engages the students, and how the students behave. I am supposed to assistant-teach English for the 10th graders when they have class on Tuesday, Thursdays, and Friday. However, recently, I decided to help the 11th graders as well because I wanted to make better use of my Mondays. I would rather teach some of the 11th graders than none of them. I remember when I first walked into some of the 10th grade classes I heard gasps of excitement, claps, and some random student shout, “Obama!” The latter makes me laugh all the time. After my introduction, I had them do introductions, I wrote down their names and took their pictures. Overall, the 10th graders are an easygoing bunch. The 11th graders are another story.

When I walk into an 11th grade classroom, they scream like I’m Michelle Obama, start clapping, and screaming, “Miss, miss, I love you meese!” I really can’t help it and let out a small chuckle. The 11th graders speak English better than the 10th graders, so one time, after I finished introducing myself, I told them they could ask me anything they wanted to know about me. What are your hobbies? Do you have siblings? What do you think of Pontianak? Can you tell us how twins are made? – Huh?? One student wanted me to tell her how twins were formed. Luckily, I had taken enough biology classes in my lifetime to know the answer to her question. So, I drew on the board and showed the students how identical and fraternal twins were formed. On another occasion, after telling the students that I was thinking about having a gospel choir, a student asked me to sing for the class. Luckily, I had sung A House Is Not A Home enough times to sing it well and at a moment’s notice. By the looks on their faces, I think they were impressed. I hope I have a good turnout at noon on Saturday for the choir.

This past Monday, I taught my first class. I was going to observe, but then decided to help teach at the last minute. It was a lesson on the past continuous tense and I thought I could help out with some examples. It went well for an unplanned lesson. I was able to fill time by having the students write sentences about themselves so I could gauge their writing abilities. My main issues came from the students themselves. The 11th graders are active, to put it kindly. They were always talking even when I told them to be quiet and some students would just randomly talk out loud to my co-teacher or me. I found myself trying to talk over them and reaching for my water bottle because my throat started getting dry. I started talking to myself too. This was not going to work. I was not going to strain my voice everyday for the next year. I needed to come up with a way to manage them as soon as possible. I turned to my co-teacher for help, “Can you tell them to be quiet???” He and I were able to finish the lesson on time. Then, the bell rang. It was lunchtime.

I plan to split up all of the troublemakers by assigning seats, award points to the participating students, and deduct points from the disruptive students. I will let you know how my plans turn out.

I will leave you here. As you have read, you can sense that a lot is going on in my life right now. I will do my best to post something by Sunday night Jakarta time (Sunday morning for people on Eastern Standard Time). I also created a photo blog on Tumblr at http://choumikasimonis.tumblr.com. The visuals are amazing and I thought some of you might like it. I posted more photos there. If you have any questions/comments, then please let me know below in the reply section. I will be more than happy to answer them.

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