Finally in Indonesia: first impressions and experiences, September 4 2010
On August 31 I arrived in Medan for a 2-night stay at the Marriott so that I could get my in-country orientation at the US consulate.After 36+ hours of no sleep I was tired but not exhausted, and was happy to go along with the new Medan English Language Fellow, Jonthon, to his university to meet teachers/students and join in a 'buka puasa', the evening meal to break the Ramadan daily fast.I ended up in a long and serious wide-ranging conversation with two of his women students, best friends though one is Christian and the other Muslim; we sat outside on the lawn - in the shade, of course - while a series of performers ( including an American exchange student in traditional Indonesian garb ) danced and sang traditional songs.The performances ended with an over-amplified hellfire-and-brimstone sermon by an imam; the hundreds of spectators listened politely if not attentively ( many,as it turns out, are Christian ).Then teachers and students separated for the dinner, which for us was a simple buffet assortment, followed by a little birthday party with the same super-sweet but super-light cake I remember from the Middle East.I talked with some older male teachers with very limited English ( unlike some other men and women colleagues I'd been introduced to earlier ).Then Jonthon and a colleague took me to a mall to buy a cell phone, my first ever.I just got a basic model and a little bit of call time.By then ( 9 pm ) I was dead on my feet and was delighted to fall into bed at last.
Wednesday's orientation was short, informal, and MUCH more interesting and informative than I'd expected.The Consul and I 'got right down to it', talking about why they wanted to put an ELF in Palembang at IAIN, and what kinds of things he'd like me to do outside the school itself: meeting with a US alumni association, visiting and presenting at 'select' local secondary schools and other universities, and more.It all sounds great to me - exactly what I've been hoping for, in fact.He showed me their room full of publications, which I can get multiple copies of for free to use in teaching - including 2 on "Being Muslim in America".He has lived 11 years in Indonesia, and many years in other countries of course.His driver took me to a famous local mosque before dropping me back at the hotel, where I stayed until he picked me up again to go to a 'buka puasa' at the Consul's home, along with Jonthon/some other countries' conssuls/ other local 'movers and shakers' all busy planning a jazz festival for next March, with a tie-in to orang utan protection ( if it ends up with 'swing' in the title, that was my suggestion ).When the Consul's ( Indonesian ) wife noticed that I was interested in all their carpets, she gave me a 'guided tour' of them and extensive other arts and crafts on display - many looked like 'museum pieces' to me. Back at the hotel I could not sleep very well - jet lag kicking in plus my mind was whirling nonstop.
On Thursday it took 2 flights to get from Medan to Palembang, uneventful except that coming in here from Jakarta we had to circle for a half-hour before being allowed to land on a runway flooded by a torrential rainstorm that I could still see moving off into the distance.I was met by my 'counterpart' ( and the director of the IAIN language center) and another teacher, who brought me to the hotel where I'll stay until the school finds a house for me ( ones they had had lined up are no longer available ).It took us an hour of driving through dense traffic, but since we had so much to talk about I didn't mind at all.Both are a generation or so younger than I am and have lots of kids at home.I fell asleep not long after they got me checked into a basic but comfortable room ( to be honest, much more to my liking than the 'luxurious' Marriott ). Comfortable bed, adequate AC, CNN, a friendly café with a varied menu….what else could I ask for?
On Friday I went up to IAIN to meet several administrators - all very curious and welcoming - and see my new office, shared with the director.A new language center is half-completed next to the existing one, which seems adequate if basic - in size and layout very similar to the Yemen-America Language Institute where I worked '88-'90. I will be able to use the internet from my desk on my own laptop, though it seems to be verrrry slow.It's in between terms now but a few young women students were around, too shy to say much but clearly very interested in the new American teacher ( a 'first' here).After visiting IAIN we went to the main police and immigration offices, crossing the broad Musi River on the famous Ampera Bridge built by the Japanese as they were leaving after their WWII occupation.The traffic was horrific and the heat was intense but not intolerable, despite no working AC in the car.At immigration we sat for hours waiting for some key person to return, but again the conversation was nonstop and it just became an opportunity to get to know each other better.They took my fingerprints and a photo, and kept my passport for now.I will need 4 separate ID cards/booklets in all - !?!
As it was nearly time for the important Friday noon prayer call, I ended up going along with my new colleagues to the nearest mosque - which by chance was one I'd read about on the internet - a Chinese design with a pagoda minaret. Unique!How odd that I should get to see it on my first day here!The mosque was filled to overflowing, all guys, and the sermon not excessively long or harangue-ish.The guys I could see ( from outside, of course ) looked distracted.Just like church, in other words.But afterwards everyone left immediately without anyone saying a single word to each other as far as I could tell.It's the closest in-person view I've ever gotten to a mosque 'service' (?) and I was glad of the opportunity; I'd certainly never have had the confidence to go on my own.I got lots of stares, neither welcoming nor hostile; I wonder if they'd ever had a 'bule'/non-Muslim there before?
We fought even worse traffic and midday heat ( no rain in sight ) getting back to the hotel, where I read/wrote/relaxed until going down to the near-empty café for a tasty dinner of sautéed vegetables/seafood with rice. ( Other ELFs in their blogs had complained about the lack of alternatives to fried food in Indonesia, but that has NOT been my experience so far - or in Malaysia last year .Anyway, I'll mostly prepare meals for myself once I have my own place.).My son called just as I was nodding off - great connection, just like at home - and I hope it will be the first of frequent calls back and forth to family, in contrast with all my previous stays/trips abroad.
This morning I was the only diner for breakfast ( too late for the fasters, too early for everyone else ).After meeting and talking with a young guy named Zack yesterday morning, I met an older manager, Widi, today, self-taught in English from movies and songs but quite articulate; he's clearly a very idealistic guy interested in getting to know other cultures and sharing his own. He taught me two synonyms for 'enak sekali' ( delicious ):lazat ( Indonesian ) and lama' ( Palembang language ).I assured them both that we will have more chances to talk, since I'll be here a while. As it wasn't hot yet,I walked a fair ways down a nearby road filled with motorcycles and green ankgots ( minibuses ).A few people waved or said hi, but none knew any English. The air had the 'funk' that the Lonely Planet guidebook describes for Palembang, which struck me as a mix of decay and ?. Not chemicals, though.Back here I spent the midday studying Indonesian, reading a classic TEFL textbook, and going through everything I brought - inventorying and re-organizing.This evening I went to a BIG buka puasa for over IAIN faculty and some kids.I'd been told I would be expected to speak - and I was prepared to start in a mix of Arabic and Indonesian - but suddenly the auditorium went black ( 'mati lampu' ) and the backup generator was so noisy and stinky that people left quickly. I was actually looking forward to it. Oh, well. I did talk to lots of teachers ( those who knew no English at least came up to shake hands, and I had my picture taken a number of times ). Anyway, it was raining so hard that even with a mike the earlier speakers had almost been drowned out.