(Disclaimer: I tried to include pictures, but my current wi-fi is too slow. I will try and do a picture dump later this week.)
I’ve been on a random 5 day vacation from school! We had three days of teacher training from Thursday to Saturday, and today is also a holiday from school (I was told by my school it is a Catholic holiday, I don’t know if that’s a global Catholic holiday or a local one). So, to celebrate that vacation, some of my students took me to Singkawang, a coastal city about 2.5 hours north of Pontianak. Ever since I arrived in Pontianak I’ve had people asking me if I want to go to Singkawang, so I’m excited that I finally got to go.
I woke up at 5 and was picked up a little bit later by a group of 12th graders. I’ve been teaching 10th and 11th graders, and we’re not allowed to teach 12th graders as part of our Fulbright grant in Indonesia, but some of my best relationships with students have come from the 12th grade class. It’s been very fun for me to talk with them about college next year, where they want to go, what they plan to study. I don’t know if there’s a time in your life filled with more promise and anticipation than senior year of high school with college on your radar, and it’s been so fun for me to get to enjoy that a little bit with them. There were about 14 of us split between three cars, and we were on the road by 6.
The 2.5 hour drive was bumpy. The infrastructure in parts of Indonesia has some shortcomings, and the most obvious way I’ve seen this is roads that are too skinny and very uneven. I rode in the back seat, and my head hit the ceiling continuously throughout the drive. It didn’t help too much that William, the student driving us, seemed to be auditioning for a role as an extra in Fast and Furious 8, but there was only so much he could do even if he didn’t treat our family minivan like SpaceX property reaching escape velocity. Any venture outside of the city allows me to see an Indonesia more in line with the Indonesia I expected: vast green lands, bucolic houses and villages, bright colors everywhere. I’ve loved being in and learning the city of Pontianak, but I think it’s good for the soul to be lost among the tall trees or sprawled on a sandy beach for a little while too.
When we arrived in Singkawang, our first stop was at a Buddhist temple. The temple reminded me of buildings I’d seen in Chinatowns in America, but it was fascinating to actually see a temple like this in an area of Indonesia that is majority Chinese. Additionally, some of the students in our group were Buddhist. I watched these students pray, light candles, and proceed through some kind of Buddhist ritual. It was interesting to have these few students in the midst of a highly reverent activity while the other students milled and joked around, but I thought that encapsulated a unique aspect of Indonesia pretty well. In Indonesia, one of the first questions people ask you is, “What is your religion?” While that question would be seen as intrusive in America, in Indonesia the sacred and the profane continually coexist. I’ve not been involved in any of the debate-style conversations that can happen in America (and anywhere, frankly) where people try to poke holes in each other’s religious beliefs, but I have been consistently in conversation where I’m asking questions about a religion and how it’s practiced in Indonesia and I’m asked the same questions about America. I’ve definitely learned a lot about religion in Indonesia, in its many forms, and that’s led me to think about my own religion and religion in America. Nothing conclusive there, it’s just been fascinating to talk, think and learn constantly about religion here: I was not expecting that!
After the temple, we did a nice hike through the woods to a slightly disappointing waterfall. The students had built it up a little bit, but Indonesia has been so dry so far this year that the waterfall had been reduced to little more than a trickle. I washed my face and hands in the water, and it was refreshingly cool. Any traipse through the woods is worth it in Indonesia though, even if it means the waterfall is smaller than you expected and you emerge with 50 more mosquito bites than when you entered.
After the “waterfall,” we made a brief detour by a mall to enjoy some air conditioning and grab some lunch, and then we headed off to the beach. Quite different from resort or touristy beaches (in Indonesia or America), the beach was very low-key and sparsely populated. There was only probably a half mile of beachfront where we were and a strong contingent of fishermen and fisherwomen finishing up their hauls for the day. These men and women were untangling their lines and preserving their catch for the day, and I walked over to snap some pictures of them with their boats. I spoke a little bit of Bahasa Indonesian with them (people here are always so delighted/surprised when I speak Indonesian), though my maritime vocabulary is critically lacking. I also found a fantastic pier (take a peek at my Instagram if you want to see it from my point of view) that I took probably 40 pictures of (which will hopefully be featured in the picture dump later this week!), spoke with a few more Indonesians on the beach, and played in the water with the students. The water (I believe we were in the South China Sea, by looking at a map of Indonesia) was warmer and shallower than I expected, and my students’ favorite game was to gang up on one student, cover him or her in sand, and run away. Which, I have to admit, was pretty entertaining to watch every time it happened. My students also loved posing for my camera, to the point that they would find a pose or a place they liked and look at me just waiting for me to point and shoot. Pictures are a HUGE deal here (I get stopped and asked to take pictures with people everywhere I go), so I was happy to oblige.
After playing at the beach for an hour or so we loaded up to head back to Pontianak. I was pretty beat from the long day and early morning, but my students had made it such a fun day. Their willingness and eagerness to include me, practice English with me and desire to have me around makes me feel very welcome and very wanted, even though I’m not technically their teacher.
There are still times here where I feel lonely, unsure, out of my element or uncomfortable. But interactions like these continue to make me feel wanted, and I think one of the biggest criteria for a place to feel like home is for you to feel like you’re wanted there. It’s taking time, but Pontianak is slowly becoming a home for me. And I can’t believe I already have under 7 months left here.