Wednesday, October 28, 2009


There is a bug hiding under my 4 key.

Want to watch me try to kill him?


He isn’t dead. He’s trying to make it to 5. He’s mocking me.

Which leads me to an interesting question: why are there so many bugs on my desk? Yeah, the cockroaches and lizards suck, but I think everyone here will agree that the real nasty things are the tiny little ants.

Thankfully, for the most part, they go where the food is. That makes sense, right? I don’t eat in bed thanks to my suffocating fear that I wake up and ants will be crawling all over me. So they pretty much stick to the trash and the kitchen. Except for my desk. There are at least 15 crawling around every time I sit down, and I don’t eat here either! I keep looking underneath my desk to make sure someone didn’t tape a banana under there as a cruel joke.

Why would anyone tape a banana under my desk?
Christ. I need more human contact.

So today was my Halloween party! I have been prepping and planning for weeks. I mopped the floor. I lit spooky candles. Thanks to Mrs. Bower’s idea and my pathetic overabundance of free time, I decorated the whole house in an orange, black, and white paper chain. I paid $6 for one of five small pumpkins I found in the entire city of Palembang.

It turned into quite the elite get-together. I’m certain that this was the most exclusive party I have ever been to. And I threw it! Obviously, I don’t have the money or space to throw a party for the whole school. I decided to invite the English Club, about 18 students. It would go like this in class:

Student: “Miss Katie, are you having a party?”
Miss Katie: “Yes, for members of English Club after school.”
Student: “And people get to come to your house?”
Miss Katie: “Yes, that’s where the party is.”
Student: “Can I pleaseeee come, too?”
*English Club member overhears and butts in*
EC Student: “No! You can’t come! It’s for English Club members ONLY!”

Then I say not to be rude and I’m sorry, but it IS only for the English Club. But if he wants to start coming to English Club on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, he can definitely come to the other parties I’ll have throughout the year.

EC Student: “Hah! See, I told you so. I can go and you can’t!”

This happened at least four times. Is it wrong that it made smile that so many people wanted to come to the party? I didn’t want to let them down.

The students were extremely excited about deciding which Halloween costumes they would wear. Rumors began circulating about a mad scientist outfit that would blow everyone away. I decided to be a cat. I was almost a bunch of grapes (an incredible, inexpensive outfit I saw once where someone taped a bunch of purple balloons to a t-shirt), but I decided I needed to be able to move around.

Since I have Wednesdays off, I spent all day getting ready. Finally, everyone arrived.

And not a single one of them was in costume. Not ONE.

Miss Katie: “What happened to the mad scientist… and everyone else?!”
Them: “We forgot.”
Miss Katie: “…Oh. Well, that’s ok…”
Them: “Are you supposed to be a mouse?”

I was a CAT.

But aside from the severe lack of outfit enthusiasm, the party went splendidly. They’d never celebrated Halloween before, and it was touching to see how excited they were about the games.

And oh were there games—

Bobbing for apples: Not the smartest choice in my life. The girls wearing jilbabs couldn’t very well shove their face into a tub of water. Only four of them were willing to try, but everyone cheered and loved watching. I now have 25 apples leftover. (Hmm… how can I make cider?) I politely declined to play because it might have smeared my lipstick pink cat nose.

Ghost suckers: This went fast, but they liked having a souvenir. You know the one… a tissue over a sucker with a ribbon tied around it.

Scary Sam’s Food Story: They LOVED it. You’ve probably played this before, too. I told them a scary story about how Sam went walking alone one night and no one ever heard from him again. That is, until I found the body. No peeking, just touching! Brain=spaghetti, fingers=carrots, heart=peeled tomato, teeth=little candy pieces, eyes=peeled grapes, liver=hamburger meat. There was shrieking and laughter the whole time.

Guess how many pieces of candy are in this jar?: Also not my brightest moment. I bought the cheaper container at the store, not realizing that it was only SORT OF airtight. I counted out the candy the night before, and those blasted ants had claimed all 616 pieces of it by the morning. So I just had them guess from that jar, and I gave the winner another prize.

Guess the circumference of the pumpkin with ribbon: (I need catchier names for these last few games.) They got really into this one! I held the pumpkin and walked around to show them. They had to eyeball and cut a piece of string they thought would fit just right around it. One girl got it dead on.

Toilet paper mummy game: They REALLY liked this one, too. It’s so hard to pick a winner, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. I chose the one that put a toilet paper bow on top.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Great Rafflesia Hunt

Overall, I loved this weekend. Truthfully, I would probably love any mini-vacation that included hot water. Whew, though. I misjudged exactly how much traveling we needed to do.

Raj’s school van picked me up at 6:30am. We were at the airport by 7:00. Our plane left Palembang for Jakarta at 8:30am. We had a layover there (which is annoying because it’s completely in the opposite direction of where we wanted to go), and then we met up with Christine. Our plane left Jakarta at 12:30pm and we arrived in Padang at 2:30pm. By the time we got our luggage, it was about 3:15pm. We were lucky that the man we randomly asked for directions to the bus station happened to know the number of a sweet little minivan willing to drive us directly from the airport to our hotel in Bukittinggi. Add 2 ½ more hours on, and we finally set our luggage down in the hotel room at about 6:00pm.

And we did it all again starting at 10:00am on Sunday, finally arrive back in Palembang at 10:00pm.

The hotel wasn’t reviewed very well in Lonely Planet, but I couldn’t really find anything else that looked promising online. As it turns out, another company purchased the large hotel last year and completely renovated the rooms. So that part was terrific.

Another terrific part? All the windows had shutters. Like, real shutters. If there is a person in the world who can see shutters without wanting to rush to them, throw them open with both hands, and lean out and yell or sing something… that is a stronger person than I am.

I started asking about the rafflesia flower immediately upon arrival. I’m getting a little better at “going with the flow,” but I still had every single point of interest in the town written down on a notepad, along with addresses and phone numbers. I showed the hotel staff.

“Oh, the rafflesia,” he said. “Not blooming this week.”

Not blooming this week?

Well, what does this guy know? His hotel wasn’t even reviewed well in Lonely Planet.

At dinner another guide approached us about taking motorcycle tours of the area. “I want to see the rafflesia flower,” I said. “That is the most important thing.”

“Oh, the rafflesia,” he said. “Not blooming this week.”

What do they MEAN? I dropped $300 on this weekend to make sure we got here before the flower was out of season. I told every single Indonesian I know that I’m coming here, and no one said anything about needing to coordinate my trip with the rafflesia’s personal calendar. It’s supposed to be in bloom until November. I realize it’s getting close, but cut me some slack.

“It bloom ten days ago. It bloom again in ten more days,” the guide added.

I decided I didn’t care. I wanted to see the flower. If I couldn’t see the flower, I wanted to see the flower bud. Or the place where the flower sometimes grows. Or dirt, I don’t care.

There has to be one rebel flower, right? You know the kind—marches to the beat of its own drum. It blooms when it wants to, not when all the other flowers do. Yeah. No problem, I’ll just go find that one.

Thankfully, Christine and Raj were tolerant of my obsession with this stinky blossom. Despite the recommendations of the hotel staff (besides valuing good window d├ęcor, what did they know?), we hired a taxi to drive us to the jungle where the rafflesia is supposed to be.

I grew increasingly worried. I literally chose this entire trip because Bukittinggi is supposed to be the best place to find the flower. I also coerced two other people into coming, and each of us was spending 1/3 of our monthly salary over the course of three days.

And there might be no flower.

The car drove around many sharp turns, past waterfalls and hundreds of wild monkeys on the side of the road. (Did you hear me?! Wild monkeys!) Finally, we stopped at the entrance to some forest/woods/jungle. (Henceforce I will only refer to this as a jungle, just because jungle sounds so much more awesome and exotic than forest or woods.)

We hire a guide—who was more like a man that happened to be walking by—and he led us on a hike (no, a sprint) up the side of a mountain. After a heated debate that morning, Christine and I had agreed to wear flip flops. Worst. Idea. Ever.

We scraped. We tripped. We rolled.

“It’s all worth it,” I gasped, “if we get to see the flower.”

I didn’t even know this thing existed until a few months before I left. Why did it suddenly become the reason I was panting in the middle of the jungle with mud on my knees and blood on my elbows?

And you know what? They were right. The guides and the hotel employees.

The rafflesia flowers were not blooming this week.

Believe me, I am not the kind of person who is unnecessarily optimistic. But it really did turn out all right. Great, in fact.

I saw the bud. It was a big orange thing, bigger and smoother and harder than a basketball. When the others weren’t looking, I tried blowing hot air on it, fanning it a little, and knocking on the petal just to see if maybe it would open up a little. Nah.

I turned around, ready to slip and slide and trip through my half-hour hike back out of the jungle. And then suddenly our guide was replaced by another one. This one spoke English, and he seemed to know a lot more about the jungle and the surrounding village.

He brought us to another bud—the amorphophallus, the tallest flower in the world. Hmm, well this was pretty good. I perked up considerably.

He started showing us all the other plants as we walked (and I fell) the rest of the way out of the jungle. Coffee beans growing in trees. Nutmeg. And… cinnamon.

CINNAMON! I licked the bark of a cinnamon tree. Can you imagine anything more purely delightful?

By the way, cinnamon is “kayu manis” in Indonesian, which literally means “sweet wood.”

Then the guide led us to a woman’s house, where she was roasting Kopi Luwak. This has been another huge goal of mine. Kopi Luwak is some of the rarest, most expensive coffee in the world. And it’s shit. (Heh heh… literally.)

The civet monkey eats ripe coffee beans from the trees. The beans aren’t digested in the monkey’s system, however, and the droppings are filled with coffee beans. Only now, the beans have a different, less acidic flavor. People scrape the floor of the jungles looking for civet monkey poop to use for coffee. Cups of Kopi Luwak in the US usually fetch somewhere between $150 - $300. It’s not really because it’s that good; it’s just so hard to find. And imagine—we found it in my little jungle!

We each had a cup (for $1.50) and bought some to bring home. I hardly ever drink coffee, and honestly, this tasted like most other coffees I’ve had. I guess I don’t have a very selective coffee palatte. We had found a bag for about $6 in a grocery store in Bandung that said it was Kopi Luwak, but it just didn’t feel sufficiently… natural enough. Dirty enough? I’m not sure. But this stuff was the real thing.

The woman who runs the small but lucrative business spoke fluent English and was very nice. She showed us every step of the process, and she even let us take home some civet monkey droppings.

When we finally headed back into town, I was feeling caffeinated and pleased with our discoveries.

The rest of the trip went by quickly. We shopped for souvenirs; I bought a bunch of meter-long sticks of cinnamon, which I broke up into pieces for the trip home. We had dinner at a nice place where a scary man sat down and wouldn’t leave us alone. He told us he liked to do mushrooms with white people. We just smiled politely. He also said he was a cop for the Australian government and he makes spirit paintings to trap criminals. I’m a bit skeptical.

The architecture of the Minangkabau (matrilineal society) was awesome, and I’m not one to care much about architecture. According to legend, the Minangkabau people were preparing for war with a Javanese village. The two sides decided they would pit two bulls against each other instead of risking the lives of their people. So the Javanese sent out their biggest, fiercest bull. The Minangkabau entered a little baby buffalo. The bull tried to attack, but the buffalo was confused and tried to nurse from the bull. The Minangkabau had wisely tied a spear to the buffalo’s head, and he ended up ripping the undersides of the poor bull out completely, killing him. Minangkabau means “buffalo wins.”

The buildings are all built to look like buffalo horns. Even our napkins at breakfast were folded in the traditional style. There wasn’t a lot to do in terms of actually appreciating the matrilineal heritage of the place, but it just felt cool to be there.

On the way back, we stopped at a couple roadside fruit stands. Hmm… move over dragonfruit, there just might be a new favorite in town. I know I tried manggis before, but it wasn’t fresh, delicious, pick-it-out-myself-from-the-rubble-of-an-earthquake manggis. It is so unbelievably tasty, albeit messy to pick apart. And I tried rambutan for the first time! It was surprisingly good, too. The best thing about rambutan is the way it looks—like hairy round little creatures. You almost expect them to grunt and complain when you start pulling them open. I bought a big bag of each to bring back as presents for my neighbors and fellow teachers.

So the final tally—

Minangkabau houses; very cool
Stinky flower; disappointing
Tall flower; serendipidous
Kopi Luwak; unexpected and terrific
Cinnamon; enchanting

Oh, silly rafflesia. You may have evaded me this time. but I’m not giving up without a fight…

Friday, October 23, 2009

Zip code THIS, Indonesia!

I almost declared a one-woman war on the Palembang Post Office yesterday.

My mom sent me a package 3 ½ weeks ago. She was told that it would arrive at my house within 6 – 11 days. We knew better than to start thinking THAT optimistically, but we didn’t think it would take this long.

Luckily, she’d paid for insurance and tracking. According to the online info she had, the package had arrived in Palembang over a week ago. I had heard nothing. On Monday, I asked Yana (my counterpart) to call the post office for me. No answer.

So I paid my ojek (motorcycle taxi) guy $5 to drive me downtown and back. He came in with me to help. (Though, to be honest, he was very nice but not too much help.) We walked in, and I was immediately caught off guard by the throngs of people waiting in line.

Ok, waiting in line is probably a bad description. Shoving each other and throwing things would be a better phrasing. It’s what I imagine the beginning of the Great Depression was like, if somehow the post office were going to be open for five more minutes EVER. Kind of like that scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. People were just throwing things behind the counter… people were grabbing pens out of each other’s hands… and in the corner, a man was selling refrigerators. What?

I thought, “There is absolutely no way I am ever going to get through to the front of this line.” People constantly cut in front of me in a five-person line to the bathroom, for God’s sake.

But when I walked up to a security guard and told him I was expecting a package from America, he led my driver and me behind a secret-looking set of doors. We walked through winding hallways and climbed stairs. “How lucky!” I thought. “Maybe they have a special little room for international mail. I am quite worldly. “

Oh no, they do not have a special little room for international mail.

They finally led me to an office at the end of a hallway. Outside, a shirtless man was sleeping on a bench and a stray cat was peeing on an envelope. It wasn’t looking good.

Even though I showed them my ID and the package number, they said they’d never heard of my name or seen any package from America. It must not have come yet, they said. So I left my name, address, and phone number and told them to call me the second they got it. Sure, they said. Right.

So I waited three more days and begged Yana to call again. I waited expectantly with my fingers crossed the whole time. (Apparently, this is not a gesture the Indonesians “get.”) “Yes,” she said. “Your package is there. Let’s go get it.”

What?! It IS there? YESSSSS. Strangely, she arranged for a student to drive us there in his personal car. Sooo… he didn’t have to go to class the whole afternoon, and he was using his personal car to drive us around. Hmm.

We finally got to the post office, and we were led down the familiar pattern of hallways, past the man and cat (cat still there, man still shirtless), and into the same office. Bless his heart, the man did still have my name and address sitting on his desk. “NO PACKAGE, MISS!” he called when he saw me and gave me a big smile.

I turned to Yana. I think she explained that she’d already called and it must have been somewhere else. Then another guard came and led us around on another crazy path. We came to a doorway.

I could see my name on a package riiiight past the guard. Actually, I saw my name on TWO packages right past the guard. BEST DAY EVER!

“Oh yeah,” the guy said. “You have to pay customs first, though.” I began to throw a fit. I should NOT have to pay customs on this end, too. Yana said we should just go and talk to the customs people before I started blowing out blood vessels in my face.

We walked upstairs and around a corner to a padlocked door. We knocked. No answer. A man came up behind us and said, “Customs is closed. Only open until noon.”


I decide at this point that being mad does me no good. They don’t understand my mad faces and Yana makes everything polite when she translates it anyway. I opted for my very best sad face, instead. “Pleaseeee help me,” I said.

Nope. We go back downstairs, where the guard finally agrees to give me my package if I pay HIM the amount I owe customs. My sad face disintegrates and my mean face comes back.

He says that it will be 14,000 rupiah, about $1.50.

Oh. Well, ok. I’ll pay that.

“Your package has been here for eight days. Why haven’t you come to get it?” The man asked.

“HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW MY PACKAGE WAS HERE?” I say slowly and loudly, as though my manic rage will make him bilingual. “YOU DID NOT BRING IT TO MY HOUSE. YOU DID NOT CALL ME. YOU DID NOT EMAIL ME. HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW I HAD A PACKAGE?” Yana politely translated.

“Because it says your name on the box,” the man said simply, and pointed to the address label.

“Yes, I can see that this is indeed my package.” I breathed deeply. “But I only knew it was here because my mom has been tracking it from America.”

They shrugged. What do they care?

But then I took my beautiful, perfect little packages home. One was from my mom, filled with some shirts I’d asked her to send, some masking tape, rubbing alcohol, delicious tropical skittles, delicious trashy magazines, and a little stuffed cat just like my sweet little Callie. I could still smell her laundry soap on my shirts, and it made me miss her more than any emails or talking on the phone.

My other box was from my dad and the secretaries in his office at Regis Jesuit High School in Colorado. Those wonderful people—they put in hand sanitizer pens (PENS!), tide wipes, peanut butter crackers and granola bars (which I cannot find here ANYWHERE), and enough delightfully sugary things that I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to gorge my way through any other minor tragedy I might endure.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Mammoth cockroaches and mayonnaise pizza

Here’s my all-knowing, all-seeing Lonely Planet guidebook’s description of Palembang:

Sumatra’s second-largest city, Palembang is reminiscent of Bangkok 30 years ago. This is a riverine culture that crawled to land to establish an equally free-flowing metropolis. It is chaotic and sprawling but still reverential of the central Sungai Musi [Musi River].

The core industries of oil refining, fertilizer production, and cement manufacturing scent the air with a distinctive odor you might first mistake as your own funk.

They’re right—it just sort of… stinks… all the time here. But I have never once mistaken it for my own “funk,” thankyouverymuch.

Having Christine here confirmed a lot of my speculations. Everything gets filthy immediately: your body, your clothes, your home, your belongings, etc. (Or as my students say, “E-T-C,” saying each letter individually, proud because they believe this is slang.) Anyway, Christine couldn’t believe how after just going downtown and coming home, her feet were literally covered in dirt. We treated ourselves to one night in a hotel (when my house didn’t power or water), and I think we each spent at least an hour in the shower, using the rare hot water to clean off all the dirt caked onto each of us.

Christine also said that my students are “rich spoiled brats.” Unfortunately, I agree. That’s not to say that many of them aren’t genuine sweethearts who really are eager to learn English and welcome me to their school. They are. But there are the others.

The teachers at IGM make the equivalent of US $150 a month. Each of the students pays US $85 a month to go there. That is an awful lot of money in Indonesia; these are the children of doctors and lawyers. They come to class late if they decide to come to class at all, they stand outside my classroom door and make faces at my students (prompting Christine to hilariously yell at one that she was going to march him down to his headmistress if she ever saw him again), and they just don’t like to pay attention. I’m lucky I’m American— my novelty earns me a little more respect than the other teachers.

Haha… I feel so gross all the time! I am constantly sweating, so my hair is in a pony tail every day. My face is breaking out. The dirt gets in my eyes and really irritates them. I decided it wasn’t worth a battle, so I’ve just been wearing my glasses. Add in my braces and stretch pants and I could be in fourth grade again.

Luckily, if there is one place to feel ugly, it’s Indonesia. People here just automatically think I’m beautiful. They think any and all Westerners are beautiful. Pregnant woman stop me and tell me they want their baby to look like me. Strangers in the mall ask to take my picture. It’s all a little overwhelming… but I sort of like it. I can’t help it!

(On a side note, I measured the cockroach I found and destroyed in my bathroom this morning. His disgusting little body was 2 ½ inches long, and his antennae were 3 inches long. They are all like this, and I hate them.)

All Indonesians takes off their shoes before entering any home. In the school, they take their shoes off before entering any important room, like the library, computer lab, or prayer room. I’m finally getting used to this.

I don’t take off my shoes in my own house. In fact, I wear at least flip flops all the time or my feet will be covered in a layer of black grime. Everyone who visits automatically takes his or her shoes off, though. And then they all cringe as they realize my floor is filthy.

I’ve TRIED to mop it! I spent $8 on the best mop in the grocery store and bought the very best brand of floor cleaner. I think the problem is
a. I’m not very good at cleaning floors.
b. They don’t have Swiffers here.
c. The dirt is just so much more than I’m used to or can handle.

As my friend Vincent said after I told him I mopped that very floor yesterday, “Well, Katie, I do appreciate the way you sort of artistically spread the dirt around in this room.”

He said I should hire someone to clean for me, which I’m not opposed to (stimulating the economy, right?!). Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find someone here who won’t steal from you, though. I’ve heard that a lot. For now, I will continue pushing dirt around myself and wearing my flip flops.

I found a woman who does all my laundry and irons my work clothes for $30 a month. Actually, it went more like this— (through a translator)
Me: So how much do you charge for four weeks?
Her: 200,000 rupiah ($20)
Me: Ok, deal. When should I bring my clothes over?
Her: Actually, $25, because you look like you have a lot of clothes.
Me: Excuse me?
Her: $25, no less. And I’ll buy the soap.
Me: (getting upset but completely out of clean pants) Fine.
Her: Actually, I forgot. I’ll be using my own electricity to iron, so $30 a month.
Me: $5 a month will pay YOUR ENTIRE ELECTRIC BILL!
Her: I need $30, no less.
Me: So don’t iron my clothes.
Her: I’ll have to use the electricity to turn the lights on while I wash your clothes.
Me: (feeling very cheated and angry) Ok, never mind then.
(At this point my counterpart reminds me that if I don’t use her, I will have to carry all my dirty clothes on public transportation for 45 minutes into the city and then home each weekend. So I finally agree.)

We’re in the middle of the second weekend now, and she actually did a very nice job with the first load. And hey, she provides the soap.

There is a Pizza Hut in Palembang! Of course, like any American chain in another country, they offer a lot of very unfamiliar things. For example, the corn, potato, mayonnaise pizza Yana got last night. Corn. Potato. Mayonnaise. On a pizza! I am starving for any kind of fresh food here, considering I’m existing on a diet of peanut butter and jelly, cup o’noodles, and oreos. A cheese-only girl in America, here I order one with everything (everything normal, that is) and devour it.

I was also surprised to learn that Pizza Hut even created a special ribbon with its signature pattern for women to wear on their jilbabs. (A jilbab is the veil worn by most Muslim women over their head, neck, and usually shoulders. A burka is the one that covers the entire body. I haven’t seen anyone wearing one here.) It’s like… really, Pizza Hut? You’ve been mass producing brand-name Muslim veils this whole time, and I had no idea…

There’s a product called “whitening cream” that’s sold everywhere. It’s literally supposed to lighten the color of your skin. And here, as evidenced by my sudden popularity, white skin is seen as beautiful. The ads are similar to teeth-whitening ads in America. A pretty Asian girl holds up a chart ranging from dark to light skin next to her face, charting her progress. Look! Two shades lighter in one bottle!

Initially, I’ll admit, I was pretty judgmental. Then I realized… don’t I smear bronzer over my face? And use self-tanner sometimes? And go tanning? (Yes, I KNOW it’s bad for me.)

Yana teaches English at a night school in Palembang, too, and I went with her to meet her class. One student politely raised her hand and asked, “Miss, aren’t you afraid the sun in Indonesia will make your skin darker?” I replied that I’ve been spending as much time as I can out of the sun, but that I would really like to get a tan while I’m here. In America, I said, many people with white skin pay a lot money to look tan. She was truly shocked, then laughed and said, “We should all switch!”

We were planning a trip to Medan and beautiful Lake Toba this weekend, but flights were hovering near $250, and I’d rather plan out and anticipate that excursion more if I’m going to be paying so much for it. So since I was in Palembang for another weekend, I used the time to plan the heck out of my next few trips:

Ok, back to my guidebook (which is already starting to look worn and loved). Thanks to reading it every night before bed, I have discovered Something I Am Extremely Excited About, the sort of thing you learn about in introductory women’s studies classes. There have been a few matrilineal societies throughout history, though most no longer exist. Well, I found one that does. Names are still passed down through the women in Minangkabau, West Sumatra, as are property and money. I’m not actually sure if there’s much more to do there than pump my fist and shout “Girl power!” but I don’t know verbs strong enough describe how excited I am.

Guess how thrilled I was when I discovered that this village is a short bus ride from the best place in Indonesia to find the rafflesia flower (yes, another goal!)? It’s only in season from August until November, so I have to move quickly to catch it. I first heard about the flower when Jared Grigsby sent me a link to an AP story about it last summer. Oh fantastic, I thought, I am on the same island as the world’s largest flower, and it smells like a rotting corpse. Now that I’m here, it’s more like: Oh, great! I am on the same island as the world’s largest flower, and it smells like a rotting corpse!

AND this trip—which is starting to seem like it has been divinely organized for me—happens to be right next to the place described in a magazine article my mom clipped out and sent with me about the best cinnamon in the world. It grows wild on the side of Mount Kerinci in West Sumatra. Apparently, it is a more “smooth-flavored” cinnamon, one with “less bite.” I will find some.

I have decided that this trip might just be the best one I have this entire year, and if it turns out to be a bust, I will die. I’m trying to keep my expectations realistic.

I’m planning a party for English Club during the week before Halloween. I can’t wait to tell you all about it, but I’m still working out the details.

The weekend after THAT is my 23rd birthday (November 7), and because the universe is good, I am going to spend it in Bali. Then I’ll stick around Palembang for another few weekends before planning something out for Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

My mother is not a Pooh.

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost three weeks since I arrived in Palembang. I spent six weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 2007. If this were then, I’d already be home.

So, no, my mother is not a Pooh. :) I’ve introduced myself to at least 12 different classes of 10th and 11th grade students. I write out important words on the board, like my name, Ohio, Ball State University, Callie, etc. And I always write out my family’s names. Winnie comes first, of course. “POOH!” the students inevitably scream. “No,” I say. “My mother is not a Pooh.”

Christine (an ETA stationed in Depok) came to visit this week! It’s been terrific having another American here. She had the week off from school since her students are doing mid-year testing and we’re not allowed to help with that.

This was supposed to be my first week of actually teaching. It’s not going as well as I’d anticipated. I’m hoping to get a firmer grasp on it soon. I did finally get a slightly more clear schedule from one of the teachers. And next week, I’m going to put my filthy little foot down and start asking for topics and classes ahead of time. Right now, I sort of feel like the school thinks I’m a sweet American girl loaned to them by AMINEF for whatever they might need. I’m substituting in classes where the teacher is absent, etc. I really want to have my own classes like I’m supposed to. That way, I can start to really get to know my students, have ongoing lessons, and plan ahead for activities and games.

They warned us that when you’re in another country for an extended period of time, you usually experience culture shock in a wave that resembles the letter “W.” At first, everything is crazy and different and awesome! Then you go through a rough patch. Then everything gets great and wonderful again. Then it’s rough again. Then, just as you’re leaving, you hit another high peak. I think I’m probably in my first low.

Take today, for example. I continued in my never-ending quest for the internet. I have already spent more than 18 days and $150 trying to get a connection in my house. Yes, I know, I COULD do without. But I’d be happier knowing I could contact people. I’d be a better teacher if I could look up lesson plans and research ideas. And I’d be a better future journalist if I could keep track of what’s going on in the world.

So today someone was supposed to come at 1:00pm to hook up my internet. I left school early to meet him. He didn’t show up, but that didn’t really matter because the electricity was out. And then the water decided to go out, too. So I just sat there in my house: no water, no power, no internet. At least I had Christine! (I’m such a terrific host, right?)

Last week I tried to meet Raj at the Novotel Hotel in town. We were planning to get dinner and use the wireless. Yana volunteered to drop me off there on her way home. Unfortunately, we got trapped in an insanely messy rain storm and wound up sitting under an awning on the side of the road for 2 ½ hours. Her dad finally came and picked us up, and then her brother took me home on his motorcycle. I left at 5:00pm. By the time I finally got home, drenched, hungry, and without that satisfying internet fix, it was 10:00pm. I walked in the door just in time to see the power go out. That night, it wasn’t too much of a problem—I just went to bed.

The heat continues to be a problem. The school begins every week with a flag ceremony every Monday morning where we stand outside for at least an hour. This is always a little uncomfortable for me, since I don’t pledge my loyalty to their flag or pray with them. So I stand, put my head down occasionally, and suffer through the direct sunlight. Last week, I turned to tell Yana I just couldn’t stand to be outside anymore, but luckily, everyone else started to come inside then. I started to climb the stairs, my head heavy and dizzy, and I promptly fell over. I came to when I realized my foot had collided with a veiled woman’s head… the assistant headmistress. Thankfully, she was very sweet and other nice teachers helped the rest of the way up the three flights of stairs.

Oh, no. Have I complained enough yet? Let me think of some happy things.

I figured out where all the dirt under my fingernails is coming from! You don’t think that’s a happy thing? It is! I’m not digging in the dirt or anything here. (Although maybe I’d have a better shot at finding water then.) Imagine my delight when I discovered that the all the dirt… was coming OFF OF MY OWN BODY. I’ve been scratching at all my bug bites and pulling off all the day’s grime from motorcycle rides and dust everywhere. Eww. I am officially gross.

I made a couple friends. That’s right, look at me, a regular social butterfly. I inherited Yanti. She was really close with Andrea (the old ETA) last year, so now I get to be her friend, too. She took me downtown and shouted awesomely nasty things in Indonesian at the men who harassed me. I found the post office and tried anotherrrrr kind of pempek. And she’s really terrific at speaking English and teaching me Indonesian.

Speaking of, I am getting slightly and slowly better at the language. Sometimes things just click and I want to jump up and down. I had a terrible cold last week and walked around telling everyone “Saya sakit” [I am sick]. So when I saw a big building with the words “RUMAH SAKIT” in front, it jarred my memory. Rumah is house… sakit is sick… sick house… sick house… IT’S A HOSPITAL IT’S A HOSPITAL IT’S A HOSPITAL!

One of my friends loaned me a Learning Indonesian book. Thanks to the complete lack of copyright laws, I copied that whole 208-page sucker for less than $3.

On a flight to Jakarta, I met a guy named Vincent who has honestly been my savior here lately. Vincent is from the UK, but he’s been living in Palembang for the last 10 years, and now he owns an palm oil plantation. I’d gauge his age at about… late 30s somewhere. He’s married to a woman from Palembang and they have 2 little kids. He owns four cars, and he sends his driver to pick me up for dinner! I feel like royalty.

He made what is probably a very good point. He said I can certainly enjoy Indonesia and learn from the country now. But he said I don’t stand a chance at really being happy here until I can speak the language.

The one really encouraging, rewarding part of my school day is English Club. It’s Monday and Tuesday for an hour after school. I’m really able to help the students—they’re all high-level enough that having a native speaker makes a significant difference. We get to play games and just work on English, instead of having to center the discussion around specific lessons like in class. Each afternoon before English Club starts, we have “Indonesian Club” where I tell them the new words I’ve learned and they teach me a few more. They LOVE feeling like they’re teaching me, and they cheer when I get words right.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Welcome to my little home.

I thought it was time for you to see what I'm talking about!

Welcome to my school. Nice, huh? Yes, but ehhh.
They're actually in the process of building a new school.

My little house: Blok L, No. 15
(You can see my yellow curtains there, too.)

Come visit me anytime! Really.
Don't you love the blue couch?
I have a spare bedroom!
And you can see the green kitchen through the door.

Here's the view from my front door.
Good morning, Palembang!

Miss you all tons.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Miss Katie in the Classroom

I really thought my first day of school in Indonesia would be like one of the earlier scenes from The Sound of Music. You know the one: Maria, fresh from the abbey, skips down the sidewalk, nervous but optimistic on her way to meet the Von Trapps. She sings “Yes, I’ve got confidence!” as she swings her guitar case to the beat. That was supposed to be me. (Minus the nun part.)

My first day at SMA LTI IGM—an awful lot of letters, right?—didn’t go quite the way I’d planned. There was no learning to sing on top of a mountain, that’s for sure, although the thick yellow curtains in my house would probably make a nice children’s fabric.

SMA LTI IGM stands for SMA (indicating it’s a private school) Life Skill Teknologi Informatika Indo Global Mandiri. Everyone in Palembang refers to it simply as “IGM.”

Yana had arranged for a motorcycle taxi (known hereafter as an “ojek”) to pick me up at my house at 6:45am. School starts at 7:00. For some reason, the driver got here at six on the dot. I ran outside and tried to explain charades-style that I wanted him to either come back or wait. Not an easy thing to show. At any rate, he sat there in my driveway smoking a cigarette and smiling cheerfully for nearly an hour.

The school is very large, and it actually holds an elementary, junior high, and high school. Regardless, I will still be teaching grades 10 and 11. None of the ETAs are allowed to teach the 12th graders, because they spend literally all year preparing to take a standardized exam in April. Compared to what other Fulbrights are telling me, I think I got lucky when it comes to my school. The teachers are mostly young and the classrooms are air-conditioned.

Of course, the air conditioners weren’t turned on my first week, because it was everyone’s first week back from a month-long vacation, and they hadn’t gotten everything back to working order yet. It would be the equivalent of me arriving at an American school in January after winter break, except these students weren’t beginning a new semester.

Every Monday morning, they have a junior and high school-wide flag ceremony on a huge concrete area behind the school. This is where Yana brought me first, and I shook hands with all the teachers and met Agustina, who was the counterpart for last year’s ETA Andrea. She introduced me to the students over the microphone.

I couldn’t understand anything she was saying, but Yana whispered that she was telling the students that they weren’t just welcoming a new teacher, they were welcoming a sister. I tried to smile my best friendly, welcome, yet professional smile.

She then handed me the microphone, and I gave a short, simple speech (in English) about how I looked forward to meeting each of them and learning more about their school, city, and country. I said they didn’t need to be afraid to speak English to me, because I’m making many mistakes while I learn Indonesian, and I understand how challenging it is to learn a new language.

They stared blankly back at me but cheered enthusiastically when they realized I was done saying whatever it was I had said.

After the flag was raised (Indonesia’s flag is very simple: red on the top half, white on the bottom half), the teachers got in a line and shook every single student’s hand. I use that term loosely; really, each student took my right hand in both of theirs and raised it to their forehead or cheek, bowing slightly. Because there are 500 students, this took a while.

Unfortunately, the line worked itself out so that I was standing behind a large rock that was imbedded in the concrete. The students were so excited to be seeing an American that they didn’t notice it at all, and at least 40% of them tripped and fell the moment they reached me.

The English teachers in the school seem to be the most well-liked, which is wonderful news for me. It’s both helpful and frustrating to follow in another ETA’s footsteps: on one hand, the teachers have worked with an American before; on the other hand, everyone remembers Andrea as she was when she left. For example: much, much better at Indonesian than I am right now.

I have to observe the classroom for the first two weeks, and then I get to actually teach my own lessons starting next Monday. So far, I’ve spent every class introducing myself and taking questions. The students are separated into five class levels based on their language abilities. There’s a huge difference between level 1 students (who are fluent in terms of basic conversation) and level 5 students (who don’t know the English word for cat). I tried to make my introduction as simple as possible for the level five students, and I wrote a lot of the important words on a dry erase board.

In the first class, when I started to speak, the students gasped. I asked the teacher what was wrong, and she said I sounded exactly like the voice they hear on the tape recorder reading them English. I liked that. J

The students seem much more interested in how I see their country than in learning more about me, which is typical, I guess. I got a few, “What’s your favorite color?” questions, but mostly it was the same thing over and over again with slightly different wording:
“What do you think about Indonesia?”
“What do you think about people from Palembang?”
“What do you think about our school?”
“What do you think about the things to do in Indonesia?”
“What do you think about the students in our school?”
And always, always always, “Miss, do you like pempek?”

I found myself saying, “Everyone is very friendly and helpful!” repeatedly. It sounds like most of the other ETAs are getting the same thing.

Raj’s counterpart actually asked him not to teach the girls how to perform abortions. Wow, ok.

At the end of class, each student has to write about me in their English diary, and I had to read through all of them and comment. I cannot legally “grade” their papers, but I can write little notes. They were hilarious. Here are some of them (from the highest-level students), typed exactly as they were turned in:

“She came in igm to teach all the students. She has funny cat. His name Harly. (What?!) She is love it. Today I’m very happy can meet Ms Katie.”

“She born 7 November 1986. She have pointed nose, sexy lips, short straight hair and then she wear glasses. She is pretty woman. This morning Miss Katie said: She like eat pindang and mie ayam. Mike Katie like to try something new. I hope I can learn English with her.”

“She like cat, she has white skin, slim body, and blonde hair.”

“It’s nice day because our school have a new family. She is a woman, who come from Ohio, America. Her name is Katie Bostdorff. She is a nice, and kind teacher. She likes cat, she has a white skin, pointed nose, orange and long hair, she ware glasses.”

For the most part, the students seem a lot younger than American high school students. Though almost all of them have boyfriends or girlfriends, they act more like American middle school or elementary students. Everyone asks me if I have a boyfriend, and when I say no, they all laugh and shriek and poke each other. The boys scream “I love you, Miss Katie” out of windows when I’m walking into the school. They honestly seem to have a lot of trouble sitting still.

One of the teachers asked me what Ohio was famous for. Well, aren’t these students in luck—I know a thing or two about Buckeye State trivia. I explained that we grow a lot of corn and soybeans, which are crops surprisingly popular here, too. Then I said, “You know the first people to fly a plane, the Wright brothers? They were from Ohio.” Someone threw a paper airplane. I’d try again. “The first man to walk on the moon was from Ohio.” Well that got them. They started whooping and cheering. Just when I started to think that these were really some scientifically-minded young adults, one of them got up and started singing Thriller. Oooh. “No,” I said, “not the first man to moonwalk, not Michael Jackson. The first person to walk on the moon, an astronaut by the name of Neil Armstrong.” Disappointment all around. Crap.

My schedule is pretty terrific. Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday are long days; I’m there from 6:45am until 5:30pm. But I’m off on Wednesdays and Fridays! The students still have school, but no English classes. My specific class schedule is confusing as heck… I have no idea when I’m supposed to be anywhere. It looks like something out of a Dan Brown novel. Supposedly, someone is making me one I’ll be able to comprehend.

When I’m not in a class, I’m in the teachers’ lounge. It’s not air conditioned, but they let me sit closest to the fan. It’s arranged like a classroom for teachers with large desks all lined up. It’s also the only place I can access the internet.

The teachers have all been very welcoming to me. They like teaching me Indonesian words and asking about pronounciation and phrases. Most of them speak a little English. One teacher asked if I would help him learn English (through a translator) and I said I’d loved to, if he would help me with Indonesian. The next day he gave me a wrapped package. Inside was a big English-Indonesians dictionary and a phrase book! It was so sweet.

One of the gym teachers who also doesn’t speak English tried having a basic conversation with me through a translator. She told me I look like a princess [puteri]. I like the sound of that in any language, and I like the kind of person who says it. I then wowed her with my vast knowledge of the days of the week in Indonesian.

She said something to the translator and then watched for my reaction shyly. “She said she has met other Americans,” the translating teacher relayed, “but you are different. The others made her scared to speak in English. You do not make her afraid to try.”

I think that is the nicest thing anyone has said to me since I’ve been here.