Thursday, February 2, 2017

Surabaya (East Java)

Have you ever felt that pull inside, almost like an ache? Maybe it is for a relationship, to find that special someone, maybe it is for children, maybe it's for money, fame, and success. For me, it was to explore. I remember being a kid, no more than six or seven, and looking up at the planes flying overhead and wishing more than anything that I was on one of them. It didn't matter where it was going, I wanted to go there. It took me thirty years, but I took that leap, and boy did I leap. I applied for English teaching jobs all over the world, and within two months I boarded a plane to Indonesia. Well, technically I boarded a plane to San Francisco, then to Taipei, then to Singapore, then finally to Surabaya, Indonesia. After the most exhausting trip of my life, I stepped foot in the place I will claim for the rest of my life as one of my homes.

I cannot even begin to explain how I felt, there were simply too many emotions to untangle. The major ones were excitement, pride, and sheer terror. I didn't speak the language, I didn't know the customs, and even simple things you think you know were flipped upside down. For example, the sound uh-uh means no, right? I went around for six months thinking that when someone answered with uh-uh they were telling me no. Come to find out, they had been telling me yes the entire time.

I am absolutely certain I resembled a deer in the headlights for months. Anytime someone would speak to me in Bahasa Indonesia (the official language), I was lost. At which point, we would both get a terrified look of 'oh crap, how am I going to communicate with this person?!' And when I finally learned a little bit of the language (note the 'little' in that statement) and tried to use it, the person I was talking to would begin speaking rapid fire, assuming I knew more than the ten to fifteen words I had proudly learned.

Thank goodness God placed people in my life that put up with my cluelessness, and then some. The people at my school are exactly the type of people you want to be surrounded by when you are dropped into a strange land. They are funny and friendly, they are the type of people who go with you to the hospital when you get an unexpected kidney stone, the kind of people that are one hundred percent there for you when your father dies and you are half a world away, the kind of people you laugh with, pray with, complain with, and experience joy and heartbreak with. They are the kind of people that make the other side of the world from home seem like home.  

I am undeniably the oddity here. Where little kids used to look at me and smile, they now look at me like the alien I am. And it's not just kids. Sometimes it can be a bit of a bother, but there are definite benefits. I can go to a restaurant once, and the staff will not only remember me, but my order as well. I went on a field trip with my students one day, and ended up surrounded by at least thirty children I had never seen before. Every single one of them said the same thing to me, "Hello, my name is... What is your name? Where do you come from?" I had never seen such joy on kids' faces over asking simple questions. And it is not only children, people of every age seem interested in me. Most days it is quite charming and doesn't bother me. However, we all have those days where you haven't done your hair, you're at the end of your laundry cycle and have just thrown on your rattiest clothes, and all you want is to be invisible. And here that is never an option.

On top of just being recognized wherever I go, I also get many requests to have my picture taken with someone. Now, I am most definitely not a fan of getting my picture taken. One of my earliest photos is of me squirming out of my grandfather's lap to avoid a photo, while my cousin (who now is an expert behind the camera) is hamming it up. Once again, just seeing how excited people get to take a picture with me, I simply cannot say no. Usually, it starts out with one person, and then you end up taking a dozen pictures with the entire family. And, just because life likes to be persnickety, it always seems to happen at the worst time, like when you have been in the hospital without a shower for two days, or right after a massage when your hair looks like it's just survived an attack. Now, I know what you are thinking (well, at least what I am constantly telling myself): those sound like some champagne problems. And they absolutely are.

Sometimes, the opportunities I have been given by working in Indonesia are pinch worthy. I have travelled to some of the most beautiful places. I have seen ancient temples, sat on some of the most exotic beaches, travelled through a jungle. I got to stand beside a komodo dragon, and live to tell about it. I have a job I am passionate about, with kids who make life so much more entertaining. And prepare yourselves to be completely jealous (I apologize in advance), the cost of living and benefits are amazing. The school provides me a driver, an apartment, and I have someone who does my laundry for me. If that wasn't enough to turn you a shade of green, I get weekly massages for less that $15 dollars. I completely understand if you hate me a little. ;) It really is like a dream sometimes.

Now, that's not to say there aren't disadvantages. Being so far away from home is incredibly difficult. Luckily, I have an awesome cousin who talks to me every single day, two best friends who I talk to at least once a week, and a mother who puts up with being on the phone (one of her least favorite activities) for anywhere from a half an hour to an hour each week.  Another issue is that your stomach has to adjust to a new diet (and my stomach and I aren't really the best of friends anyway). And, man oh man, do they like it spicy here. You also have to get used to some pretty unusual customs. One of the craziest traditions, in my opinion, is that they celebrate a person's birthday completely opposite from how we do it in the U.S.. First of all, instead of other people buying you a cake, you are supposed to bring food for everyone else. Then, the ultimate craziness is that they will decorate you and parade you around on your birthday. By decorate, I mean throw flour on you, smash eggs on your head, tie you up with garland or Christmas lights, cover your face with lipstick, etc. I even heard a story about people getting thrown into canals (and the canals can be pretty disgusting). And this isn't just for birthdays- get a promotion? finish your master's degree? you are fair game. It's why many of my coworkers hide their birthday.

My funny, silly coworkers
(from left Meitha, Susana, Inggrid, Shenny, Natalia, Swari, Nike) 

Ms. Susan getting a student ready for a performance-
Ms. Inggrid stuffing her face

My partner teacher , Ms. Kristiani, looking lovely

Ms. Natalia helping me with my art project 

The English department looking fancy in their traditional clothes
(from left Inggrid, Rahayu, Abby, Renny, Amanda)

An advantage of the city is that it does not suffer from many of the natural disasters that can be seen in other areas of Indonesia, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and floods. Though I often get phone calls from home asking if I have survived the latest natural disaster. I keep telling my family that Indonesia covers more area than the U.S., and it is like something happening in Seattle and asking someone in Miami if they survived. I have threatened that if I hear of anything happening in the US, no matter where it is, I am going to call home and ask if they survived. The worst thing that has happened is a volcano erupted an hour from the city, and the wind brought in the ash, covering the city. But things like that are extremely rare.

The city covered in ash

Ash covering the backyard of my school

Alexa and Widha wearing masks to protect from the ash in the air

And let me tell you about the rain! The weather can be divided into two seasons, wet and dry. When I say rains, I'm not talking a nice little thunderstorm, nope! the rains, during the rainy season, are torrential. Within thirty minutes the roads resemble lakes and streams. However, the drainage in most parts of the city is excellent, so not long after the rain stops the roads are once again clear. Though one year the rains were so bad that Jakarta flooded and had to basically shut down for a week.  

The heat is another joy. You would think, coming from Georgia, I would be fairly acclimated to the weather here. You would be wrong. You never realize how wonderfully things are air conditioned (oh, how I miss central air!!) until you have air conditioning that kind of works. It stays hot all year round, ranging from the high seventies (24° C) to the high nineties (37° C), occasionally getting even higher.

The road in front of my school during the rains

Flooded road after the rains

There are many beautiful natural attractions and temples in the East Java area, but in the city, unless you just love spending time at the mall, don't expect an action packed city. Going to the mall seems to be the preferred pastime in Surabaya. This makes sense when you consider that they are the best air-conditioned areas in the city.

The key to enjoying the area is to visit the many beautiful temples and archaeological sites in the surrounding area. You can also visit Mount Bromo, an active volcano. If you want an especially beautiful view, and are willing to get up well before dawn, you can hike the mountain for the sunrise. Below are some great sites.

Temple of Heaven Kenjeran (right beside my apartment)

Suroboyo Monument- This represents the legend of how the city got its name. Suro was a shark and Boyo was a crocodile. They were friends who were tricked into fighting each other by a devious and cruel octopus. The Indonesian name is Surabaya, but the name Suroboyo means Brave in Danger.

Sleeping Buddha at Mojokerto

Tikus Temple (Hindu temple)

I love the trees in Indonesia, and this is a prime example

Bajang Ratu- Trowulan

Pambanan Temple

Pambanan Temple

Mount Bromo (an active volcano)

As I said earlier, food here is often very spicy, tending towards chicken, fish, and tofu. And always rice- breakfast, lunch, dinner. Even McDonald's and Pizza Hut sell rice. They also have many wonderful tropical fruits, many of them I had never heard of before, and more types of bananas than should be possible. One fruit in particular that people either love or hate, is durian. I fall under the hate category, personally, but many people are obsessed with it. It smells awful, like hot, wet garbage. I think they have found every possible way to cook tofu, my favorite being kering tempe. They also have a super spicy sauce called sambal. It makes me cry it's so hot.

Interestingly, they don't have turkey here, or at least they have it REALLY rarely. My mom is convinced it is because turkeys are too stupid not to drown (her honest to goodness opinion that she has mentioned to me multiple times). You also will have to live without Mexican food, cornbread, and biscuits (well what Americans know to be biscuits- here biscuits are cookies). With a city this big, they do have many imports if you know where to look, and many Western fast food restaurants (and yes, they all have rice).


The red sauce is sambal

The traffic here drives me crazy. I am lucky enough that the school has a driver for me because I would be terrified to drive here. My mom is a nervous driver/passenger, so I told her she is not allowed to visit me. She would most definitely have a heart attack.

I don't think they actually have traffic laws, merely suggestions. When they have lines on the road, they are completely ignored. You will often see people driving the wrong way down streets. This is complicated by a couple of things. The first is that in many parts of the city the roads are very narrow, with many potholes because of the heavy rains. The second is that the primary vehicle for most Indonesians is a motorbike. For every car, there are at least ten to twenty motorbikes. And people on the bikes seem to be absolutely fearless, zooming in and out of traffic, even in the downpours.

It isn't uncommon to see a family of four on a single motorbike. You will also see people carrying crazy things on their motorbikes; I have seen people carrying huge panes of glass and mattresses. They also attach things to the motorbike, so you will see garbage trucks that consist of a trailer and bike. With all of these conditions, I don't know how there aren't even more accidents than there are.

Another interesting thing about people riding bikes is that they cover up like the weather is freezing. In fact, Indonesians, in general, tend to get cold very easily (it will be in the high seventies and people are putting on thick jackets and scarves like the second ice age has arrived). Even on the beach you will see them in long sleeves. When riding bikes, you will often see them fully covered in jackets and with masks covering the bottom half of their face. In a large city, this makes sense to not be exposed to the pollution from car exhaust.

However, one of the beliefs here is that you can get sick if the wind enters your body, which they call masuk angin. This can be from riding their bikes, just a windy day, or an air-conditioner. The symptoms are what you experience at the beginning of a cold- achy, chilled, nauseated, etc, or what I would consider the wind entering your body to mean: gassy and with indigestion. The cure is known as kerokan. For this, someone takes a coin and scrapes it across your skin. If the skin turns red, it is proof you have masuk angin, and they think this heals you. I have had many people try to explain how the healing works, but with my Western medicine inclined brain, I remain slightly unconvinced. I can't really say anything, though, because I have plenty of non-traditional medical beliefs and cures. It is no stranger than eating cloves of garlic to get over a cold.


Overall, I am always learning something new about this culture I have been privileged to get to experience. It is filled with beautiful history, beautiful culture, and even more beautiful people.

Posted at ABC Wednesday