"It's a dangerous business, going out your door.
You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet,
there's no knowing where you might be swept off to..."
--J.R.R. Tolkein

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Report from Paradise

Bali is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been: white sandy beaches, emerald forests, waving palm trees, endless sunlight, great food, and charming people. I’m supposed to be taking a serious research workshop—one hour of language class in the morning, then guest speakers on various interesting topics until 12, then lunch, and then another class with Haverford anthropologists Leslie Dwyer and Degung Santikarma. Then it’s time to either do homework or hit the bars on Kuta Beach, however we feel that day. It’s so chilled out and fun here, it’s like an endless summer holiday.

Blah blah blah.

Meet my friend Billy. As a surf instructor, Billy has a life many would envy—spending most of his time on the beach and teaching cute Japanese tourist girls how to surf. Covered in tattoos and built of rippling muscles, Billy looks every inch the surfer. And I’ve seen him in action too--he’s pretty amazing.

Yet he lives in a part of Denpasar with unpaved roads and his house doesn’t have running water—you have to haul it from a well. I guess that’s how he got those muscles. He’s always been poor, he tells me. “When I was a kid, if I wanted a new t-shirt, I had to shimmy up the palm trees to gather the coconuts to sell.” He began surfing when he was fourteen, and eventually dropped out of high school because he spent so much time riding the waves and missing class. He’s had many jobs, he says, but he loves to surf and has finally made a career out of it. “People come to Bali and say ‘oh this is paradise,’ with surfing in the morning and spa in the afternoon. But it isn’t paradise if you have to work,” he once told me, as we drove out to Kuta Beach on a borrowed motorbike.

Billy also runs a “free school” in his neighborhood for local children. At three o’clock, after regular school, the children come to Billy’s house and sit on foam mats on the concrete floor and receive free homework help and do fun activities. Every Sunday they have English class for two hours. I taught there last week (that was the deal—he teaches me to surf and I teach at the school). I am proud to say that I taught fifteen kids, ages seven to fifteen, how to sing, “Mary had a little lamb.” The children seemed to enjoy it, though. Billy says that growing up poor, he didn’t have many opportunities, so he wanted to do something for the local children “to give them more opportunities and confidence.”

We went surfing last weekend. I wasn’t any good (it took me a whole hour to stand up on the board, and then it was only for a second), but it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done! I can’t wait to go again! Unfortunately, I have class during the best times for surfing (it depends on the tide schedule). That and I have the most epic sunburn and I’m covered with bruises.

Now meet another friend of mine, Ancak. Originally from Bali, he went to university in Yogyakarta (near where I took my language class) and graduated a few years ago with a degree in law. Now he works as a public defender in Denpasar (specializing in land disputes) and founded his own environmental advocacy NGO (which happens to be on Indonesia’s terrorist watch list). He’s joined the Research Program to learn how to do investigative research to help the cause of his NGO. We are working on a project together on surf culture (which is how I met Billy).

Ancak is “public enemy number one” (according to our professor, Degung). The Indonesian government is not exactly a fan of environmental protection, especially when it cuts into the highly profitable tourism industry. And the side he often takes in his cases is also not very popular. Once at four in the morning, he got a call from an “unknown number” and it turned out to be a death threat. He gets them all the time, he says. He doesn’t know who exactly is calling him, because the number is always blocked. Probably it’s linked to one of the cases he took, which was a classic land dispute between the rich and poor, but he doesn’t know. He of course handles these threats very well, but every time it happens it creeps me out.

A few days ago, Ancak and I went into a liquor store for vodka (related to research, I assure you). Since the bombings in Jakarta, there have been cops everywhere. One of them approached us, took Ancak’s backpack, searched it, and, upon finding no terrorist paraphernalia within, handed it back to him. Then the cop turned away, completely ignoring me. “They aren’t interested in you,” Ancak explained later. “You are bule.” Bule is Indonesian for “white person.”

Is this paradise?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Where to Start?

I have spent the past two weeks in Yogyakarta, Java taking a language class at Sanata Dharma University. It is a private Catholic university—so for those two weeks I was a Catholic schoolgirl. Hah, never thought that would happen. Actually, lots of people from different religions go there. Our program coordinator, Ngurah Termana (we call him Termana) is a Hindu from Bali, but he went there.

We had language class for 4-5 hours every day (excluding weekends), depending on how the teachers were feeling. I wanted to blow my brains out the entire time because I really don’t like language classes (BOOOORING!), but the teachers were actually really nice. A few of them have friended me on Facebook, and two of them took our class to Borobudur for the day (more details on that later).

The other students at Sanata Dharma have also been very nice. Right now it’s the summer holiday, so there aren’t very many Indonesian students here, but there is a group of ten Jesuit priests-in-training from Thailand and Myanmar (!) who have been incredibly friendly. They are here to take a two-month language course, and then they are headed to Jakarta to take a 4-year philosophy program. The only way the Burmese students were able to leave their country is by signing up to become a celibate priest—imagine making a decision like that. I mean, for me the choice is pretty easy. Travel always trumps sex, every time. But they didn’t even know where they’d be going—a few thought they were going to the Philippines. Burma must be pretty bad.

Well, now I have a new country to add to my list of places I absolutely must visit.

When we’re not in class or hanging out with the priests-in-training, we mostly just go around the city with Termana, attending discussions and visiting NGOs. One day we visited a kampong, an urban slum. Would it be horrible of me to say that I found it beautiful? Would that make me a poverty tourist?

We also spent rather a lot of time eating. The mangos are in season now, so I drink juice a lot. Most food is spicy, so eating it can take some work, but I’ve been getting used to it. But note to self: never take a whole spoonful of that mysterious red sauce. I literally felt the fires of hell on my tongue.

I can’t say that I have a favorite food here. All of it is good. Lotek and gado-gado are both vegetable-based dishes with spicy peanut sauce. I also like tempeh (Mom will know it. Ask her for a full explanation) fried in palm oil. And there’s also a Javanese dish called ayam goreng, which is chicken marinated in coconut juice, then fried. Rice is served with every meal (even fried eggs).

When I got sick the first week (just a cold, but it made me pretty miserable), Termana took me to a sidewalk café where they had fresh milk with honey and chunks of ginger floating in it. Best sick day ever!

Besides class and eating, we have had time for a few touristy things. We went to Borobudur for a day with our teachers. It’s a massive Buddhist temple complex in central Java. That day we also went to a small park at the base of the volcano Merapi, where we took a short walk through the forest and saw monkeys.

We also went to Prambanan, the Hindu equivalent, and watched the Ramayana ballet, a traditional Javanese dance telling the love story of the Hindu gods Rama and Shinta. Didn’t really follow it all, but I liked the fight scenes between Rama and the evil monkey army. And the part where they set the whole set on fire.

My favorite part of the whole two weeks was the weekend we drove up into East Java to the village of Sekaralas, where I will be doing my research. I will be living with Bram and Sari, a couple of freelance journalists studying a rather eclectic mix of issues relating to rural Java. Bram’s interest is primarily sustainable agriculture and radical Islam (which I guess has quite a stronghold in that area), while Sari focuses more on community development. Their house is amazing! They even have a dojo, where Bram practices traditional silat (Indonesian martial arts, not dissimilar to kung-fu). And they live at the base of a (dormant) volcano, which they say I can climb if I want (six hours up, then six hours back, apparently). Yes, that’s where I will spend five weeks this summer.

On Sunday afternoon we made the mind-numbing drive back to Jogja (stopping for a massage along the way), then we went to a grunge concert. The only word I can think of to describe it would be “hilarious.” The bands were all super-angry and had names like “Sporadic Beast” (which I misunderstood as “Sporadic Priest” and my friend thought was “Sporadic Piss,” much better names I think). The funniest thing was that nobody danced or did any of the regular things people do at concerts—they sat in their chairs silently and when every band was finished, they all clapped politely, like they were at the opera or something. What a strange world we live in.

Speaking of funny band names, Termana’s brother tried to start a band called “Rapist Clown.” Now that band is called “Orgasmatron.” Termana’s other brother, Hadi (who, by the way, just got into a university program to study film), is in a band called “Patrick the Bastard.” And finally, my personal favorite, the well-known Balinese band called…”Moist Vagina.”

No, I’m not making any of this up.

Now I’m in Bali, having successfully completed the language class in Jogja and beginning the next level. I am staying with a lovely family in Denpasar and taking a class on research methodology. And tomorrow we are going to see Patrick the Bastard live.

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Past Pursuits

I started traveling by myself when I was sixteen. I was bored with life in rural Maine, so I signed up with AFS Intercultural Programs for a year in Belgium--I lived outside of Brussels with a host family, attended school, and learned Dutch. It was a hard year (all I'm going to say on the matter), but I made some amazing friends and had some kick-ass adventures.

Me with my host mom on Omaha Beach, Normandy (Spring Break '05)


AFS friends in Barcelona!





And then, the summer after I got home, my super-awesome friend Ellen came to visit me in Maine. We met in Religion class (ha ha what a joke that class was) and I thought she was Australian. We've been tight ever since. She is now interning at a community center in the South Bronx and will graduate from college this spring.

***
Now fast forward two years. Damascus, Syria (Summer '07). I took a summer Arabic class at the University of Damascus and lived a Christian family in Bab Touma, Damascus.




I lived with 5 brothers and their mother, along with my roommate David (a grad student from Rice U). It was like living in a Middle Eastern dude ranch. But I had fun with them--they taught me how to smoke hookah and how to cheat at backgammon.



My host brother Simoun is teaching me how to smoke hookah in Maaloula, one of the few places where they still speak Aramaic. My host family was originally from there and spoke Aramaic as well as Arabic.


A market, downtown Damascus.


The beach, northern Syria. That's the Turkish coast in the background.


Reading Tintin comic books on the roof of our hotel, Latakia. Don't ask.



Visiting the ruins of Palmyra, out in the desert. This was where I almost got carried off by a rather lascivious Bedoiun.


I took a side-trip to Jordan to visit a friend, and to see the spectacular ruins of Petra! It was unbelievable!


Having lunch in a cave, Petra.

***

And then there was Egypt! I spent part of my junior year studying at the American University in Cairo. I liked Egypt, but I hated AUC. I missed Bryn Mawr. There was still some fun to be had, though.

Luxor! That's the Nile in the background.



Diving school in Dahab (a resort on the Red Sea). It was pretty awesome, except for having a panic attack under water.

And, possibly the best of all...Sudan! My two friends and I managed to get tourist visas simply by talking about Barack Obama with the embassy staff. I should write him a letter and tell him :)

We spent two days in Khartoum, then explored the ruins in the North (note: there are no pictures of the city because taking pictures in Sudan is illegal without a special permit, and I didn't want to get hauled away for espionage. Once we got away from the city, though, no one cared).


We camped just on the other side of this sand dune (yay for illegal camping!). The desert is COLD at night! But the best part was, we climbed up to the top of that fallen-down pryamid and ate After-Eight mints under a perfect full moon (note: the pyramid looked like that when we got there! It's not our fault it fell down lol). And then our guide was like "you do realize there's a police station right on the other side of the sand dune, right?" And we were like "uh oh." Nothing happened though.

So, all in all, good times. Now I'm at Bryn Mawr, hurrying to finish my exams and getting excited for the next adventure: Indonesia!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Hey All,

So I got this internship in Indonesia for the summer and I figured I should probably get with the program and start blogging.
More to come.
--S