Pomp and Circumstance

After a few months of getting used to a new school and teaching 1,000 kids, it was time to celebrate with the grade 9 and 12 graduation ceremonies.

It did feel a little strange celebrating these events in the middle of my contract year, but that’s how it worked out for me.

Any chance to spend time with the kids is great.  Being the only Westerner in the school/area really makes me stand out, which is really tiring, but within the confines of the school, it makes me feel special and cared for.  And I think it’s important to connect with the students outside of my mere 45 minutes with them.

I knew that I had to wear traditional dress for the events, which meant going shopping for Kebayas (traditional blouses), and skirts or sarongs to wear with them.  Over the past 1.5 years my Batik (traditional Indonesian fabric) collection is substantial, but a girl can never have too much.  I mean…just look at the high quality of fancy Batik fabrics I’ve been able to accumulate!!!


Grade 12 was first.  Early on a Saturday morning, I walked into the hall of the High School to see people bustling around getting ready.  I took some photos with my 11th graders who were singing in the choir and playing in the band.


After the parents were seated, the teachers had to leave to make a grand entrance, followed by the students who sat according to their individual classes.

A few underclassmen girls dressed up as traditional dancers for the opening production and then served as servers to hand out the medals (they don’t have caps/gowns or tassels.)


After four hours of awards, medals, speeches, songs and prayers, it was time to congratulate the well-dressed young ladies and gentlemen of the SMAK 7 Cipinang school.


A few weeks later it was time to do it again for the 9th grade.  Early on a Wednesday morning, I once again got dressed up and headed to the hall to get ready for the exciting event.  The ceremony was very similar to the grade 12 only a little less fancy and a little shorter.  We still had awards, medals, speeches, songs and prayers, but this time the entire ceremony took about 3 hours.  And, of course, after congratulating everyone, I posed for dozens of pictures.  It was great to be there to welcome the grade 9 into the High School and be able to give a nice farewell to the principal, who I’ll miss very  much.


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Yogyakarta – revisited

Last year I came to Yogyakarta to see the central Java cultural attractions of Borobudur and Prambanan temple complexes, that are just a short distance away.

After catching up with a few friends since that trip, I found out that there was a place I had not been to, that I found very interesting.  So naturally, I had to go back, just for the weekend.

Next to the Kraton (Sultan’s Palace), was Taman Sari, or the Water Palace.


It was a complex of pools and waterways and dressing rooms for the Sultan and his large number of wives and children.  The wives would all be out bathing in the pools and the Sultan would be on an observation area up above, watching.  Once he selected a wife for the evening, they would both go to the private pool area.  I find it a bit disturbing how many wives and children he had, but it was a cool building to tour.

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Just down from the Water Palace was an underground mosque.  We descended a small staircase and hallway which opened up to archways facing an open courtyard.  Being such a hot day, it was nice to be able to walk the circumference of the building via the underground walkways, and just pop out to have a quick picture taken.

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The next stop was an art shop in a hidden alleyway.  This is a place where students and apprentices make traditional Batik wall art.  It’s almost like buying it wholesale before some of the best prints get purchased by souvenir shops on the main street and resold for much higher prices.  I naturally had to pick up a few items, before returning to the hotel, taking a shower and a nap.  A very productive morning.  It wasn’t until the sun was well below the horizon before I went out again for some dinner, when it was more comfortable outside.

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In the morning I was off to Kota Gede.  This is a neighborhood just outside the city limits that is known for its silver shops.  The main street is lined with shop after shop offering intricate silver stuff: jewelry, pendants, wall hangings and sailboats in display cases.  There was something for everyone, in every price range.  Since there aren’t many things I collect, I thought a new pair of earrings would be a nice keepsake.


The pedicab ride back to Malioboro (the main street in Yogya) took about 15-20 minutes.  I got dropped off at the very end of the street, by the park with a nice tree.  School kids were out hunting for foreigners to interview for class projects, street food was a-cookin’ and some bamboo carvings were being sold nearby.  I’m a sucker for interesting international art (that doesn’t take up much space) so I was happy to take away some more wall hangings.

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A trip to Yogya is always a good choice.  The shopping is great, and pretty cheap, the temperature is always warm, and there are so many interesting things to see and do.  It’s definitely a place I’d love to visit again.

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Pangandaran – A South Coast Getaway

Thanks to Susi Air, I was able to take advantage of a quick one-hour flight from the area near my house to the beach town of Pangandaran.  It’s usually an 8-10 hour bus ride, so the flight was worth every penny.  Plus, since I was on an 11-seat plane, I was able to see Java as I never could before.  The view was simply amazing.


After arriving at the Southern coast of Java, I immediately went to see the ocean, dip my toes in the water and walk along the beach for about an hour.  Most people come to the area by bus, so it was great getting there before the crowds.  There was time to leisurely walk around and enjoy the area without being overwhelmed with tourists.


There was also a tourist office on the main street, so it was very easy setting up activities for the next day or two.

The first order of business was to see what day trips could be arranged, and a trip to Paradise Island was be the first excursion, set for the next morning.

Our guides drove us by motorbike for about an hour through small villages, over pavement with so many potholes that it could barely be classified as a road, to meet our boat.  From the dock it was a quick 10-15 minute boat ride to the island.  Once we landed, we had to trek about 25 minutes or so to arrive at the almost pristine, white sands of a seemingly untouched beach.

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We found out that only a very small number of people live on the island and that locals from the mainland don’t usually travel there because they feel it’s unsafe.  This has nothing to do with spiders, or scorpions, which we saw…but because in the center of the island is a prison.  Just a few days prior to our relaxing beach time, the Indonesian government carried out the executions of 7 foreigners and one local who were on death row for drug trafficking.  But that’s another conversation for another day.

I enjoyed the solitude of swimming in the ocean and getting some sun without random people taking my photo.  The two guides had a nice afternoon chatting to themselves and our small group relaxed the afternoon away.

On the way back to the dock, we walked through a farm growing peanut plants, coffee, bananas, and papaya (which our guide sliced up as a snack for us, mmm!)  Then it was back to the boat, on the motorbike and into town we went.

Most people go to Pangandaran to see the Green Canyon and Green Valley, so my last day was used for this day trip.

The Green Canyon is a very popular spot, and it was a holiday weekend too, so the guides took us there to get our group ticket and then immediately took us to explore the Green Valley first.  It was a pretty hot day, so taking a dip in the cool river was very refreshing.  Plus, it was fun watching the locals floating down the river in human chains with their life vests secured as if their life really depended on it…in the not-very-deep water.


We made our way back to the Green Canyon and ate some lunch to kill some time.  Finally, our number was called, we got into a boat and made our way deep into the canyon.  We motored around rocky cliffs, other boats and some people swimming as we made our way to the end of the line:  a boulder, next to a small waterfall, inside a quasi-cave.  Due to the number of people and boats of the water, there was even a traffic light system that was constructed…awesome :-)


The only things to do was take a few photos of the area before heading back to the landing, but it was worth the wait…it was such a neat place.


Not too far from the canyon was a neighborhood that solved a tricky problem of getting from one side of the river to another by building a bamboo suspension bridge.  It’s pretty wobbly, which makes it exciting or terrifying to walk across (depending on if you scare easily).  The coolest thing is that motorbikes travel across the bridge too! Because of this, every six months the locals replace the bamboo to ensure it’s safe and in good condition.


The last stop was a beautiful beach with rocky cliffs hovering above the sea.  We made it there just before sunset to see the sky and water become the most beautiful colors of the day.  It was a great spot to watch the waves crash, do a little climbing and drink in the last rays of the day before heading home.


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An Eastern Java Excursion…Part 3

The last full day I had to spend in Eastern Java was reserved for exploring the city of Surabaya.  It’s the second largest city in Indonesia and has lots to offer.

After freezing for the past two days, the heat and humidity of this city was like a punch in the face.  Ahhh…just like I was used to :-)

Surabaya is perched on the North Eastern coast of Java, so naturally, some time near the water was sought after.  A short taxi ride got me to the Sanggar Agung Buddhist temple.  The complex was a pretty nice size, with plenty of space to walk around, see people praying, lighting incense and making offerings to the sea.  Once you pass through the main area, the rest of the complex opens up to face the sea, under the watchful eyes of two very large dragons.  It was quite a vision to be greeted with.


After being reabsorbed into the tropical climate at sea level, the breeze coming off the water felt refreshing and it made a beautiful showing of the flower petals being offered to the sea.


The surrounding area was also very nice to walk around and explore.  It seemed like a type of amusement park in a way.  One side faced the water while the other opened up into a lush area with walkways and sculptures of its own.

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Next, it was time to move deeper into the city.  I couldn’t leave without seeing the “House of Sampoerna.”  It’s a free museum based in the house of the family owned cigarette company of the same name.  It’s also the only museum in the country, that I’ve seen, which lives up to Western standards.  That must translate to mean the cigarette industry is continuing to boom.

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The aroma of cloves greets you as you enter, along with the smiles of friendly attendants.  The ornate bathrooms are wall papered with brand named carton wrappers in shades of gold and an old label printing machine is on display in the lobby.  The factory work room can be seen from the gallery on the second floor and I tried to imagine how loud and hot it must be for the workers sitting extremely close to each other, rolling and packaging hundreds of cigarettes a day…each.

I may not agree with the habits, but the is industry is ingrained in Indonesian culture and I was happy to visit this tourist destination.  And, since the company has expendable funds, they were proud to show other projects that the Sampoerna company funds.


A city tour bus also departs a few times a day from the House of Sampoerna front door, which was tempting, but it was off to the airport for me instead.

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An Eastern Java Excursion…Part 2

After a freezing cold night in the mountain hotel, we were allowed to sleep in a bit.  This time we met our guide at 4am.  Our guide needed to procure a jeep and driver to trek up the steep path to the scenic overlook where we once again waited in the dark for the sun to shine on Mount Bromo.


Of the cluster of volcanoes in the picture, Bromo is the smallest one, and is ever-smoking.  But the entire area is magical and breathtaking…especially at first light when the low-lying fog still covers the ground and the volcanoes appear to be floating on clouds.

After some nice photos, we made our way down the trail, walked across the “sea of sand” to the Buddhist temple, took a horse up the steep path to the flat landing, climbed the huge staircase to the crater rim and explored the crater.

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This crater rim was small and steep and narrow with a protective railing that extended a few yards on either side of the staircase terminus.  I didn’t venture very far beyond the railing, but you really didn’t have to.  There were plenty of photo ops from the safer parts of the path.  I took plenty of photos on the way down the path on my way to meet the jeep.  Everything was easy to see after the morning fog finally burned off.

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Some beautiful carvings could be seen clearly in the rock bed, that were really cool, and unexpected.  I never found out the significance, but it was pretty cool to see these frozen faces guarding the mountain.

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An Eastern Java Excursion…Part 1

Seven hours to the East of the city of Surabaya, near the edge of Java, sits a site not many Westerners go to see…comparatively.  Which is why I was pretty excited about it.

Seeing the Ijen Crater was one of the most memorable experiences during my time in Indonesia, thus far.  It combined a unique set of travel/adventure aspects all rolled into one awesome excursion.

It felt like I wasn’t even in Indonesia anymore.  Instead of the noisy, hot, bright nights at sea level that I was used to, I was now bundled with three layers of clothing, high in the quiet mountains just after midnight, in the pitch black.  At the base of the crater I drank hot coffee to get warm, dabbed my runny nose and purchased a knit hat for my journey.  It felt very different from the home I’ve had for the past year and a quarter.


My layers began to peel off as the 3 km (pretty steep) trek continued.  They were replaced by scarves over my face, and respirators for a brief minute, as the sulfur fumes began to choke everyone near the summit.


With small flashlights or cell phones to light the way, the crowd made the ascent in the dark, reached the top in the ark and found an area to settle into, in the dark.  After about 2 hours of climbing, it felt good to just sit and wait, although it did get pretty cold as soon as we stopped moving.

It didn’t take long before the sun began to rise and brighten the sky.  We were so high and it was so foggy that we realized very quickly that the thick fog was surrounding us, so we waited for the better part of an hour before we could really make out our surroundings.  But when the fog eventually burned off…what a sight it was.

The crater was a lot bigger than I envisioned, the lake was a beautiful turquoise and the sulfur being dug up and carried away by the miners was a bright yellow.

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We saw the miners in action, carrying around 80 kg on their backs all the way down the treacherous mountain pass we had just climbed up.  I wonder how many are injured each year from falling down the mountain….

After taking some pictures and enjoying our surroundings…now that we could see them…it was time to make the return trip, which was NOT easier by the way.  Then it was time to make the 4-5 hour journey West to the base of another amazing volcano.

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East Meets West: A Showdown

Never before have I valued my high-school’s almost prison-like atmosphere.  That is, until I began working for a regular school system in Jakarta.

As someone who always tries to find best practices and appreciates practicality, it amazes me that 1.) my crappy little school system in PA actually did some good things, and 2.) Indonesia needs wide-spread change in the education system as well.

In the middle school and high school I work for, students don’t have lockers…because they don’t change classes.  This reminds me of my elementary school days where your desk was sacred because everything you needed for the day was stored inside.  With the exception of gym and the arts, all the other subjects are received in one classroom, with all the various teachers coming to the students.

I pretty much reject this idea.  This creates an environment of ownership in the classroom that doesn’t belong to the teachers, but to the students.  Subcultures form unnecessarily from this arrangement.  Students feel that this room is an extension of their home, and being teenagers, they don’t treat the property with respect.  They mark up their wooden desks, leave trash and wrappers everywhere, (because there is no actual cafeteria…with students allowed to eat in the rooms), and they don’t end their conversations when a teacher enters a room.  There are also between 36 and 41 kids to a class instead of the 20-25 I had experienced years ago.

Timing of the classes are about the same with roughly 45 minutes, and 8 or 9 periods a day, but the organization is crazy.  I rather liked my old system of 42 minute classes with a 3 minute break in between.  It was just enough time to get to your next class and go to the restroom…or maybe stop at your locker if it was on the way.  My Indonesian students have a few classes back to back and then a break of somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes depending on the time of day.  Because of this, students are always asking to use the restroom because they don’t have time to in between classes, and by the time the end of third period in a row is half-way finished…the kids have already mentally checked out, because they know a larger break time is coming up.

I also find that having the students stay in one classroom all day lowers their attention span, diminishes any ‘sense of urgency’ they may have had and takes away from their education, considering how many minutes are lost or wasted between the bell always ringing late and teachers rushing to get to their next class.

Being in the room all day makes the kids numb to certain things, feeling as though the next teachers to come is someone who is over their house for a visit…and not necessarily that important.

Now, don’t get me wrong…I’m well-liked by the students, but it still takes me a little while to start the class to really get going.  Perhaps before my year is over, I can make some slight improvements in my own little way.  I may not be able to change the country, but I’ve got 1,000 students in one school complex that will be exposed to a Western woman’s ingrained sense of efficiency.  I feel that only positive effects can come from that.

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