Maleeha ke London

People often ask me why I took a gap year or what I have done. It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The answer is so huge; I’ve done so many different things that I don’t even know where to begin. And before I know it, the conversation has moved on. All my experiences – the person I have become, my love for this country – is easily missed. And that’s okay. I never expected people to sit down and listen to everything. I don’t think I’m even able to explain all those amazing experiences that I’ve had, all those moments that were hard but worthwhile and opened my eyes. And so when the question crops us, I reply with “yeah I lived in Indonesia. I was volunteering and travelling. It was really amazing” and sound like I didn’t really do anything at all.

But I did.

Exactly a year ago I started a blog called ‘Maleeha Ke Mana?’. It means something like ‘where is Maleeha going?’ or ‘what’s up?’ or ‘how’s it going?’. I only need to look at my first ever post to see how much “going” I did. That post told stories of sweat and blood and Jakarta and Singapore and starting a gap year. I wrote anecdotes, made a joke, explained a bit of culture, moved on. I look at it now and see all the ways I have grown and developed.

So, a year ago I embarked on the biggest adventure of my life (so far). Over the last fifteen months, I have worked for a writing festival; shadowed doctors in a poor hospital in Sumba; taught English in a residential farming school; lived for two months deep in a village in Flores; and travelled to eight different countries. I’ve been on thirty-five flights (not including stopovers), spent £1700 and learnt a new language. I’ve learned about life and culture; about being afraid and forcing yourself to be brave; I’ve learned to trust myself and my instincts, to believe I can do anything I want, to trust strangers and take risks, to know when to say no and when to say yes and to take everything life gives me with open hands.

And I’ve learnt (even more) about saying goodbye.

As I write this I am sitting on the airplane on my way from Jakarta to London. Twelve hours ago I said goodbye to Mummy and Amaala. I said goodbye to a country that I love in order to fly back to another country that I love and I really really don’t want to go.  Because in leaving Indonesia I’m not just leaving my family, I’m also leaving the version of myself that was fluent in another language, the girl that was happy in a country and community that wasn’t her own.

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And now I am absolutely terrified that I will forget all the things I learnt and the people I knew. I’m scared that in going back to England I will lose the person I’ve become and that no one will care enough to look beyond the surface and see all the million ways I have changed. I’m scared of going to university and not seeing my parents for thirteen weeks and being cold.

Logically I know that these are unreasonable fears. No one can take away the impact of the last fifteen months on who I am. All those experiences and changes are a part of me. That is all that really matters.

But if I’m really truthful, the thing that I’m saddest about is this. In leaving Indonesia, I am leaving behind a whole chapter of my life. Leaving Indonesia is leaving Amaala and Phun and Trinder; it’s leaving waking up at 05:30 for school and watching films when I didn’t have homework; it’s leaving picking Amaala up from the childminders in England and making pasta bake. Essentially, it’s leaving childhood behind and having to accept that I am now, well and truly, an adult.

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I’m not being dramatic. I know I’m coming back to Indonesia at Christmas. I’ll see my friends again and I will go back to Flores and Karang Widya. But I will never again be nineteen and on a gap year, sleeping in a room with Phun or showering in a stream in Flores.

There have been times when being alone in a different country was really hard.  There were times when I was scared and lonely and alone; times I felt like I was doing the wrong thing. I felt guilty about taking more than I could give and hopeful that what I could give was enough. I felt stressed and tired and annoyed with myself for always pushing myself to do new things. But I was also happy. I made amazing friends and had incredible experiences; I saw manta rays and learnt to ride a motorbike. I ran through villages and drank coffee with old ladies and I loved (almost) every single second. This year has given me so so much.

But I know, somewhere deep inside of me, that it is now time to move on. I can’t live on a gap year forever. I can’t live at home forever. And I want to learn new things – a skill and a profession – so that I can go out in to the world with something to give. So I guess, if I have to be, I’m ready. I hope.

Sampai jumpa.

Sailing through Stormy Seas: The Banda Islands

The Banda Islands: A Travel Guide

The Banda Islands: perfect white beaches, vibrant bustling coral, old Dutch forts standing like lonely sentinel high on green green hills. According to Lonely Planet, they would be Indonesia’s top travel destination… if only they were easier to get to. But it is this exact remoteness which makes the islands so special; they are completely untouched and entirely beautiful.

So, the Banda Islands. Indonesia’s original spice islands. Part of the archipelago where Alfred Wallace first discovered evolution. Throughout the 17th century, they played an important role in colonial trade. They were famous for nutmeg and cloves and were the first source of these in Western culture. Men fought over them, lives were lost and people driven from their homes. Now all that remains of this time are the crumbling Dutch forts and the overwhelming smell of Christmas as cloves lie drying in the sun everywhere you look.

Anjali and I reached Bandaneira late afternoon on a Monday. We were exhausted: in total it had taken us twenty-eight hours from leaving my house in Jakarta to arriving on the islands. This included a four hour plane journey, a ten hour overnight wait in a busy harbour and another nine hours on the huge Pelni ferry that runs Ambon to Banda. Pelni is Indonesia’s most reliable and common form of transport. The ships are a melting pot of students travelling to study, young Indonesians hoping to find work on far-off islands and families visiting relatives. The woman next to us had been on the ship since Jakarta (four days); the family opposite were on it for a week on their way to the Kei Islands. They sat or lay on foam mattresses with towels and drying clothes hanging from shelves above their heads, ignoring the tiny cockroaches that crawled the walls and floor. We found a spot next to an Indonesian brother and sister that had helped us bribe a soldier for tickets at the harbour, and fell into a deep sleep.

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This ridiculously long journey made our arrival even more special. Just being on the islands was enough. Travelling for twenty-eight hours had given us this sense of accomplishment, a feeling that we were somewhere few people had been. We felt grown up and independant and utterly in awe of how far East we had travelled. And, of course, the islands themselves were absolutely stunning.

Our first two days were in Bandaneira, the only major town in Banda and the port for long-distance ships. We traipsed around the town, stumbling into old ruined forts and eating fried eggplants smeared in almond sauce.

And then we were on a tiny wooden boat that bumped and jolted its way across the sea to Pulau Hatta. We arrived in the middle of a storm, soaked through and feeling rather disappointed that it was raining when we wanted to laze around on beaches. Luckily for us, the owner of a guesthouse was on our boat. He helped us jump down on to the shore and took our bags as we limped through the lashing rain; my foot was in agony as I had just gashed it on a piece of glass and I didn’t know yet just how bad the cut was. The owner’s name was Pak Sofyan and over the next few days he took us on boat trips and taught us how to skin and roll the bark of cinnamon trees to make the spice.

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But our main reason for being on Hatta was the coral reef. Just metres off the beach in front of our guesthouse was the most perfect coral wall: schools of huge triangular shaped fish, tiny little blue ones that flashed in front of our eyes, and even a turtle! We spent two happy mornings, heads down in the water, feeling like we had entered an aquarium. There is no way to explain how incredible the coral was: there is a whole world under the sea that we know so little about. It was absolutely incredible.

Our third island was Pulau Rhun, the legendary chunk of limestone that the British traded with the Dutch in return for Manhattan, as in the Manhattan in the USA!! I wonder who got the better end of that deal. We arrived after a morning spent moping around Bandaneira wondering how we would get back to Ambon in time for our flight. When the harbour-master rang me to tell us that the cargo boat wouldn’t leave until the Monday (it was a Saturday at the time) Anj and I grabbed our bags and ran to the small boat terminal. We caught the only boat left – the one to Rhun.

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So, one day in Rhun: playing scrabble, sitting on our own tiny deserted island and reading our books. Perfect.

And then we were back to Bandaneira in time for the cargo boat to Ambon. Anj and I were expecting cockroaches and grimy floors and crowds of sullen faced Indonesian men. Instead we climbed on to the boat and found another world. The deck had been covered with tarpaulin and the sides were rolled up. There was a sea breeze and mats laid on the ground and everyone had staked out their space  and were asleep. We stood for a few seconds, wondering where to sit and were adopted by two Indonesian ladies who spent the whole journey asking us questions about England – the joys of being able to speak the language, or the curse. While Anj read her book in peace I spent a large majority of the thirteen hour journey talking to them. Still, not being able to read was a small price to pay when they insisted that we stay at their house for the night. In the morning they gave us ABC mochas (small sachets of coffee bought on the side of the road) and fried banana; we repaid them in hundreds of photos with each member of the family.

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That was a Tuesday; our flight to Jakarta didn’t leave until the Saturday and so we decided to explore another island, Pulau Saparua, one hour from Ambon.

Our first day in Saparua was one of the worst in our trip. We’d been travelling for what felt like years by that point and we hadn’t eaten properly since the night before.  Suddenly we were in a strange little town where everyone was staring and we couldn’t find any cheap food. Both Anj and I were reading good books: we hid in our hotel room and avoided the rain and the stares. The next day we hopped on an ojek and fled to Putih Lessi Indah, a gorgeous guesthouse on the beach. It was out of our budget but the food and the view and the sheer perfection of lying in a hammock all day reading and listening to music made it one hundred percent worth it.

And so our two weeks in Maluku drew to an end.

This was travelling at its finest: before we left Jakarta we had almost no plan. We were completely and entirely free to do whatever we wanted. It was that freedom that I loved the most. The exhilaration of being somewhere new and knowing that you had made it on your own. It took us twenty-eight hours to make it to Banda – how many places are that remote? How amazing is it that we managed to get there? Travelling, not just those two weeks, but the whole six, felt like something out of someone else’s life. It was freeing and wonderful and independent.

That’s not to say that it was easy, especially as a group of four young women travelling by themselves. There were plenty of times where we felt unbearably uncomfortable: men making cat noises to call us over to them on the cargo boat or feeling the leers of men as we sat on the ferry from Saparua. It’s difficult travelling in a country that you don’t really know. However, on the whole, we felt safe and those few times that I felt truly scared were by far eclipsed by the excitement and wonder of being somewhere new. But it wasn’t always easy and I would be lying to say so.

In the end, it all boils down to one thing: we travelled to some of the most remote places we might ever see and it was, a thousand times over, worth every second.

Sampai jumpa.

And now, for those of you who are thinking of a similar trip…

Getting There and Away

When Lonely Planet said the Banda Islands were difficult to get to they really weren’t over-exaggerating. Weather, high waves or overly-cloudy skies all play a part in which transport will be running. My best advice, just rock up and see what happens.

The most reliable option is the Pelni ship. It leaves Ambon twice a month so you can, if you’re super organised, plan to take it to the islands and then return to Ambon on the same boat either two weeks or a whole month later. The boat costs 110,000 IDR and is usually completely jam-packed – think a titanic style ocean liner crowded with people and cockroaches. When we arrived at the harbour all the tickets had been sold so we banded together with a couple of teenagers and managed to persuade a soldier to get us on to the boat. It would probably be easier to stay at a guesthouse in Ambon the night before so they can arrange to buy the  ticket. Don’t be scared by other people’s horror stories: our ship, the Tidar, was fairly clean and was one of our most interesting experiences!

To get back we took the Perinkis cargo boat. This costs 40,000 IDR and takes twelve hours. It was incredibly clean and comfortable, if you’re not afraid of lying on the floor surrounded by other Indonesians. Ask at the harbour for timings.

If you’re used to travelling in more luxury, there is also an express boat that leaves from Ambon and is rumoured to take four hours. It costs 400,000 IDR. While we were there, it wasn’t running as the weather was bad and there weren’t enough passengers.

The last option is to fly. Aviastar runs a flight every Monday, Wednesday and alternate Fridays for 320,000 IDR. You can book these tickets at their office in the airports in Ambon and Bandaneira. Again, this depends heavily on the weather. While we were there two flights got cancelled because it was too cloudy and windy for the planes to land in Bandaneira.

Where to Stay

Pulau Banda: Mutiara Guesthouse. 170,000 IDR double room, including breakfast.

Pulau Hatta: Rozengain Guesthouse. 125,000 IDR per person, including three meals and snorkelling equipment.

Pulau Rhun: Homestay Neira. 100,000 IDR per person, including three meals.

Pulau Saparua: Lease Indah Homestay in Kota Saparua. 160,000 IDR double room.

 Putih Lessi Indah Guesthouse. 250,000 IDR, including three meals and snorkelling equipment.

 

Trekking jungle trails: Orangutans in Sumatra

Seeing Orangutans in Sumatra: A Travel Guide

The hardest thing about travelling in Indonesia is working out where to go. When Anjali and I arrived back in Jakarta, we were tired and hungry. All of our clothes were dirty and –

We had no plan!

Indonesia is huge: the distance from the very western tip of Sumatra all the way to the edge of Papua is the equivalent of London to Baghdad… Imagine having to pick just one of the thousands of different travel destinations. It was impossible!

Finally we decided on two things: orangutans and the Banda Islands in South Maluku. The next hurdle – figuring out how to do everything. Lonely Planet gave us recommendations but other travellers’ blogs proved much more valuable. Hence this post, in the hopes that it will inspire other people to make a similar trip.

Most people who want to see orangutans in Indonesia go to Bukit Lawang in Sumatra or Tanjung Putih National Park, Kalimantan. Both of these are rehabilitation centres which means the chances of seeing orangutans are high and the tourist infrastructure is well-organised. Anjali and I wanted to see orangutans in the wild and so we dismissed both of these options. Instead we found Wisma Cinta Alam: a guesthouse in Ketambe, on the outskirts of Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra.

Wisma Cinta Alam was the first guesthouse to set up in Ketambe and has excellent reviews. The owner, Johann, seemed friendly over the phone and was very helpful in advising the best way to get to Ketambe. He organises a three day trek for 1,800,000 IDR for two people (£50 each person) and provides all equipment and a guide. 

Getting There and Away

Ketambe is a seven hour drive from Medan Airport or, in our case, a half hour journey on a tiny propellor airplane. There were only nine seats and we were right behind the pilot! It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a flight. The plane is run by Susi Air and costs 330,000 IDR (£17). It runs every Monday and Friday; tickets can be booked on the phone or when you arrive at the airport. The plane flies to Kutacane, an hour from Ketambe, but your guesthouse should be able to pick you up.

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To return to Medan, we took a shared taxi for 200,000 IDR (£12). They run every day in the evening and early morning and your guesthouse will be able to organise it for you. We took the overnight taxi and were dropped outside the Damri bus terminal at 4.30 AM. Damri runs buses to the airport every hour for 30,000 IDR (£2).

At 4.30, it was cold and dark and there were groups of scary looking men standing around on the street corners. We were meant to spend the whole day exploring Medan. After an hour of wandering around wondering when shops would open we decided to flee to the safety of the airport instead. We sat there for ten hours.

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We arrived at Wisma Cinta Alam late afternoon and were initially a bit taken aback at how disorganised the guesthouse was. Johann, the owner, seemed friendly. He also seemed incredibly high and both Anjali and I started off feeling extremely uncomfortable. (Later, he redeemed himself by helping us figure out to get back to Medan after our trek). It wasn’t the best way to start a trip into the jungle – we sent off SOS messages to my dad making sure at least someone knew where we were.

But, in the end, it all worked out. After all, this is Indonesia. What is life without a bit of chaos?

Udin, our guide, was a young Indonesian who had grown up around the forests and knew the trails like the back of his hand. With his off-key singing and enthusiasm, he made our trip. We spent each evening playing cards and laughing over everything. He found us the best spots to camp, made Anj a walking stick and carved birds out of sandalwood. If you can’t get him, ask for Putra; another guide who joined us most evenings for our card games and spoke amazing English.  

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But of course, the true highlight of the trip were the orangutans.  

On our first day we spent an hour chasing after a male as he swung from tree to tree, branches and leaves falling down in his wake. But it wasn’t until the third day that we really got up and close with them . As we walked back to the guesthouse, hot and sweaty and in desperate need of a shower, Udin suddenly stopped. Following his pointed hand, we looked above our heads and… There they were, a mother and her baby and a young male that was attempting to woo her. We watched him chase her through the jungle and could almost persuade ourselves that he was calling after her, begging her for just one chance. She stopped and settled onto a branch and the baby crept towards him. Anj was convinced that the male was the baby’s father and that he was trying to persuade his parents to get back together. And indeed as he went back and forth between them, you could imagine she was right.

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For a while, everything was fine. The baby swung like a mad-man, round and round upside down on his spindly branch and we cooed over how cute he was, laughed at how his fur stood like he had been electrocuted and then  –

BAM. He fell from the tree.

I can’t fully explain how everyone’s hearts stopped in that moment. The baby had fallen! And he was crying – a high thin plaintive sound. His mother was climbing down a tree mere metres away from us, concern etched all over her monkey face. The guides were telling us not to move, to stay still and the mother was scooping her baby up into her arms and retreating to the safety of the trees and…

In Sumatra, the orangutans never come down. To have seen one as close as we did was truly a miracle. Udin texted me a few days later to tell me the baby was okay – apparently mother orangutans are well versed in which trees to use as medicines and how to massage broken bones back into place! It makes you wonder how much medical knowledge we’ve lost as we’ve moved away from traditional cures.

But trekking wasn’t just about seeing the orangutans. It was also swimming in a waterfall and lazing for four hours in a hot spring. It was eating fried noodles and drinking smoky boiled water; sleeping on the ground under a clear tarpaulin, showering in the river every night, watching out for snakes when you needed to pee. And, of course, dying as we trekked up impossibly steep hills.

 

But at the end of the day, we saw orangutans in the wild. It doesn’t get much cooler than that.

Watch out for my next post: finally getting to the Banda Islands, South Maluku.

Sampai jumpa.

 A quick side note:

If you’re looking for other options, you can also check out Friendship Guesthouse – especially if you’re a solo traveller. As we walked through the forest, we bumped into lots of groups who were staying at Friendship and had banded together for the trek. Their website also has the best information on getting there and away.

 

Along the well-worn path…

On 2 June, I packed my scruffy Duke of Edinburgh rucksack (a hand-me-down of Baba’s from when he was in his 20s!), grabbed the Lonely Planet South-East Asia guide and set off to Bangkok. For the next three weeks I was joined by three  of my closest friends – Alisha, Anjali and Sana – as we worked our way across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

(If you’re thinking of a similar trip, look at my footnotes for more information on transport, ideas on what to do and costs).

Our first four days in Bangkok were all about finding our feet and catching up with eachother – I hadn’t seen Alisha or Anjali since Christmas. We spent our first day wondering around the massive and congested Victory Monument, trying to make a plan on the spot and failing to find a bus cheap enough to take us to the floating markets we so desperately wanted to see.

This was the first of our learning curves. The fact that everything, and I mean everything, seems to cost more money than you expect. With our ambitious, but very reasonable, £10-a-day budget we quickly realised that the first step to travelling without parents is having to sacrifice some of the most typical tourist sites. Instead the next four days composed of looking at the Grand Palace from outside the gates on our way home from Wat Pho, a day trip to the ancient ruined city of Ayuthaya and countless wanders around busy Thai streets, finding the most appetising street-food.

Four days in Bangkok were enough for us and, of course, that is the true beauty of being nineteen and travelling on a budget: when you’re bored of a place, you find the cheapest transport option and get out of there. And so we jumped on a breezy but boiling hot train and zipped through the Thai countryside to the Cambodian border[1].

Our first stop in Cambodia was Siem Reap and the huge awe-inspiring Angkor Wat. Think massive stone temples nestled amongst the jungle… overrun with tourists. My best advice on seeing the temples is to get bikes. They gave us the flexibility and freedom to get away from the crowds and see some of the more interesting and less known temples. Our favourite: Prea Khan – huge piles of rubble which we could climb on and tall walls covered in even taller trees.[2] Make sure you buy your tickets in town. We cycled to the temples at 5:30 am to catch the sunrise but missed it because we didn’t have them. Instead, the sun rose at our backs as we took a tuk-tuk to the official ticket office, 5km from the main gate.

 

The next stop was Battambang, an old French town framed with wide, leafy streets and old European-style houses. We spent a day cycling along hot, dusty roads trying to find a temple and then almost passed out with heat-stroke in a cute air-conditioned café. The same day saw an evening trip to Phare Ponleu Selpak circus. Don’t be taken in by the $7 student price – it’s only for under twelves! Still, the circus was great and we even bumped in to an old Parmiter’s teacher! [3]

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Cambodia is a country haunted by its past. As you drive out of the towns, you’re aware of poverty and are shocked at how barren and dead the countryside seems to be. In 1975 the communist party took control of the country and during the next three years three of the eight million population were brutally killed. This was devastatingly evident at the Killing Fields just outside Pnomh Penh where you can still see bones and old cloth rags coming to the surface of the mass graves.[4] We left feeling shocked and emotional. Near Battambang we visited a killing cave – a diorama at the top of the stairs clearly depicted the horrifying violence and brutality for which this period is known.[5] I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like, especially as so much of this history is still in living memory and has effects to this day.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. On the same day we went to the Caves Alisha found her future husband. Yak Kil is a tuk-tuk driver from Battambang as well as a boxer with three championships to his name and an infuriating, but sweet, habit of asking if we were happy every five minutes. He saved us from a particularly aggressive driver in the morning and then proceeded to amaze us with his chivalry all day. We were especially blown away by his offers to carry Alisha up the steep hill we were climbing. Unfortunately he didn’t extend the invitation to the rest of us.

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Cambodia wasn’t the only place with the tortured past. The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam very clearly drove home the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the effects of Agent Orange. From 1961 – 1972, the Americans released the chemical on huge areas of the countryside. At the time, no one realised how severe the effects would be but it led to a whole generation of children born with various physical handicaps. The Vietnam War is also one of the most photographed in history; everyone can think of the photo of the little girl running naked along a road after a napalm bomb. Suddenly America wasn’t seen as the hero anymore: it was the first time that public intervened in military affairs and eventually the Americans pulled out. The photos also reminded me of how desensitised we are to war now. During the ‘60s those photos sparked massive protests. Now we see photos of death and destruction in the news every day.

In spite of this, it was one of my favourite days. Ho Chi Minh was big but easy to navigate: leafy lanes and lovely parks where we sat with a deck of cards and the most amazing Vietnamese Coffee (it’s made with condensed milk!). The food was incredible: big steaming bowls of Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), sandwiches stuffed to the brim with egg and chicken and amazing sauces (Banh Mi) and pancakes bought crispy and hot on the side of the road. The Cu Chi Tunnels, an hour outside of the city, were also really interesting. [6]  In the war against the Americans, the Vietnamese showed just how much of an advantage knowing your territory is and built an intricately complex system of tunnels stretching from Saigon to the north. We crept through these tunnels for a mere few metres and I began to feel claustrophobic. It’s incredible to think these soldiers did it for months on end with no sunlight.

Ho Chi Minh seemed to exemplify everything we were chasing in our journey. I was in a new city, surrounded by three of my best friends and I had all the time in the world. No one was expecting me to hand in homework, speak a different language, wear make-up or be anyone apart from exactly who I was. We were completely free. No one knew us, we knew no one and we could make friends and explore without having to worry about checking our phones (no data) or wandering what people thought of us.

And it just kept getting better.

A few days later we were sleeping on a spacious comfortable clean night bus to Nha Trang.[7] We spent two days lying on the beach and enjoying the relative luxury of our hostel. Happy Angel Hotel was luxurious. And by this I mean exquisitely clean – we didn’t even have to put our sarongs down on the beds to sleep on!

It’s funny how quickly such mundane things become luxury: clean sheets, hot showers and smelling nice are things that we take for granted. Unfortunately, travelling on a 19 year-old gap year budget didn’t allow for them and so Nha Trang was a lovely respite.

And then we were on a scruffier bus for the twelve hour drive to Hoi An.[8]  Hoi An was long lazy cycle-rides around the beautiful old town, hours drinking coffee and playing rummy in riverside cafes and days spent lazing at the pool-side of a fancy hotel that we just happened to walk into. We spent four perfect days relaxing and recovering from the hectic rush of travelling. It was definitely one of our favourite places.

Lazing in Hoi An was the perfect way to finish three hectic weeks of travelling in mainland Asia.  Travelling is exhausting and never let anyone tell you otherwise. There were times when I felt like finding a guesthouse and never moving again, times when everyone you’re with is annoying you, times when you can’t work out what to do or how to get somewhere or what the cheapest option for a hostel really is. All too often people over-romanticize their stories (I’m probably guilty of doing the same). When you tell people about your trip you miss out the time you felt like crying because all your clothes smelt (sweaty and damp) and the time you were sharing your bed with cockroaches; you don’t mention being leered at by creepy men or walking down a street and feeling scared and nervous. You talk about sitting on the side of a river feeling nineteen and invincible; the rush that you get from being constantly on the move; the exhilaration of being in a new place and being completely anonymous.

I started out my trip hoping it was going to be perfect. I now know that perfection isn’t enjoying every second of every day. Instead it’s those rare moments when you realise how incredible life is. We travelled through three countries in three weeks and it was amazing.

Transport, Costs and Places to go…

[1] Bangkok – Siem Reap: We took the train (35 THB) from the Central Station in Bangkok to Aranyaprathet. From the station, take a tuk tuk (80THB) to the border where we had to pay a 100 THB bribe in order to get the visa!!!! The Visa Office is in a white-walled building – just follow everyone else – and the visa itself was 30 USD. The 100 THB bribe was for three of us, after we made a big song and dance. From the border we took a free shuttle bus to a bus station and then a $10 (!!!) minibus to Siem Reap.

[2] Angkor Wat: $20 entrance fee and $1 dollar bikes – there is no excuse for not visiting. Prea Khan was set further back from the main complex. Take the road past the Bayon and keep on going. Make sure you buy your ticket in town, ask at your hotel for where to go!!

[3] Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus: $14, don’t be taken in by the $7 student price – it was for under twelve year olds! Definitely worth it for a good (romantic) story-line, impressive gymnastics and easy watching. I loved it!

[4] Killing Fields at Cheong Ek: we rented a tuk-tuk for the day and were taken to the fields ($4 entrance) and Tuol Sleng Museum (free for students, make sure you have proof). The tuk-tuk cost around $15 for the four of us.

[5] Pnomh Sampeu: $1 entrance fee for the caves and monastery at the top of the hill. Everyone will tell you that it is too steep to walk up to the top – DO NOT listen. The walk was fun and definitely not too hard. We rented a tuk-tuk that took us to the caves, a temple and the bamboo train for $15. If you’re short on money, give the bamboo train a miss. It cost $5 and was admittedly very cool but if you want to, just take a look before carrying on.

[6] Cu Chi Tunnels: In the end we decided to go on a group tour and payed 90,000 Vietnamese Dong each as well as the 110,000 entrance fee. Worth it if you have the time. Otherwise don’t worry.

[7] HCMC – Nha Trang: $9 for a ten hour journey.

[8] Nha Trang – Hoi An: $11 for a gross bus! But the best price we found.

Faces of Flores

It is crazy how quickly these last two months have gone. It feels like just yesterday that I was stressing about being in a completely new situation where no one could speak English and now I’m sitting on my bed in Jakarta again.

For the last nine weeks I have lived and breathed the library at SD Kondas. I was there every day – swapping books over in the mornings, teaching English, reading out loud – and there most afternoons just hanging out. And if I wasn’t in the library I was being asked what I was doing there or thinking about how I wanted to paint a wall or which of the children I wanted to encourage the most.

The library in Kondas is spacious and airy, with an almost constant breeze that sends the drawings strung up above our heads into a frenzy of fluttering. It is loud and noisy: there are always children running in and out and a few that just sit quietly on a table in the corner. The walls are painted red and the bookshelves yellow and there are the most beautifully illustrated books covering every surface.

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And, of course, there are the children: running, laughing, jumping, annoying me, making me laugh, at times thoughtful, at times hopelessly exasperating, almost always smiling.

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They will always be what my time in Kondas was all about. I might not have done as much as I had hoped in the library but for a short while I was there and I hope I’ve been able to inspire just a couple of children to enjoy reading as much as I do.

But my time in Kondas was also two months of learning and understanding and becoming part of a culture and community wildly different to my own.

Last week we had a party to welcome the head of the local Buparty (local government) to the village. After he had left, promising to build a real asphalt road to the village (his grandfather came from Pampa and so most people here voted for him), the real party started. In Flores, this means dancing.  By one o’ clock in the morning, the bottom half of my legs was covered in mud and you could no longer tell my flip flops had once been a bright blue. I had been introduced to more people than I could count and almost everyone else knew of the bule girl living in Ame Alo’s house.

After the party I finally felt a part of the community. As I walked around, people called out to me, asked where I was going, invited me in for a cup of coffee. It had taken two months but suddenly I felt at home.

But I was leaving. Leaving behind the families I’ve become friends with, the random ibus in their wooden houses that always asked me to stop when it was raining, the children playing in the library… It’s the kind of goodbye that hurts so much more because you don’t know if you’ll ever see the people again and you know that, even if you do, everything will be different.

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And so there is Ine (mother) Yus, my ‘mother’, small and strong, hair always wrapped in a towel. She never stopped working: pounding coffee, fetching vegetables from the garden, cooking in the kitchen. Ine Yus has a voice better suited to Bahasa Manggerai. She piled rice on my plate to get me to eat more and picked fish off the bones if I didn’t take enough myself. Throughout my time in Kondas, she was always looking out for me and helping me understand the new culture.

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Ame (father) Alo was my ‘father’, as well as the head teacher at the school. He likes to play by the rules and has an unfortunate black-dyed moustache that wiggles when he talks. He helped me in the library and with the other teachers and was forever checking if I was ok. Before I arrived he phoned Nila (the founder of Taman Bacaan Pelangi) to ask if the bed would be long enough for the ‘tall’ white girl. He quickly saw how unnecessary a question it was.

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Ine Yus and Ame Alo have four children. The middle two, Kakak (older sibling) Dedy and Kakak Efin still live at home. Kak Efin is ridiculously skinny and spends most of her time sleeping or playing games on her phone. She’s getting married in October to a roly-poly smiley man from Ruteng. While I was in the village she accompanied me every time I went to people’s houses.

Kakak Dedy never spoke to me!

Apart from the two of them, Ine Yus’ sixteen year old nephew also lived in the house. He is apparently a rebel who likes to skip school but I always felt bad for the sheer amount of chores he was expected to do around the house.

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And then there’s Ibu Ellen, the librarian, who lives in the house opposite. We were in the library together every day and she never failed to include me in anything she did: going to the market, making cakes with the other female teachers, cooking for parties. She has two children, Chelsea and Ed. Chelsea, gorgeously pretty and ridiculously shy, finally warmed up to me in the last two weeks. Ed spent two months running away every time I came near him and then decided over night that I was his best friend. In my last two weeks I couldn’t go anywhere without a snotty little nose pressing itself in to my back and sweaty hands grabbing on to my own. (I stopped wearing my nicer clothes).

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Ed’s best friend is Naldi – genuinely the cutest kid I have ever met. His mum is no less lovely. She lives next door but can always be found in our kitchen shelling kemiri (some kind of nut that can be used as a spice or sold to make oil) and sharing the latest gossip she has picked up.

Ine Bet and Ame Simon were the other couple who were always at the house, watching TV and barking out with laughter. On my last night Ine Bet and her daughter, Mel, stayed over and we slept five in one bed. I gave her my small bag and she started crying. But as I left to get in to the car to take me to Labuan Bajo she started dancing and told me that she wasn’t going to miss me. I think it was a joke because she was genuinely my best friend while I was there. She is also the person I was most terrified of when I first arrived. On my first night I went to bed only to find her already there – snoring and smelling strongly of betelnut. I would never have guessed that she would be one of the people I miss the most.

But it wasn’t just the neighbours that made up my circle of friends. The teachers, especially the women, were always up for a laugh or inviting me to their houses.

Ibu (Mrs) Irta teaches Class Six and has the most beautiful daughter. Ibu Sharida was forever handing out hugs and laughing. Ibu Eggy liked to pinch my cheeks and walked me home most days.

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And then there’s Pak (Mr) Jul who teaches Class Six. He invited me to his house every day last week to break my fast. I went to the mosque with them for tarawe every night and was told I was much prettier wearing hijab.

Pak Maxi Hindi has the most amazing family. In fact, I spent most afternoons at his house, drinking coffee and laughing with his wife. They have five children, the eldest already at university and the third, Elsa, in Class Five at primary school. Elsa was lovely – always helping the teachers and playing with her friends. The youngest two children were also adorably cute; especially Etrin, the first baby in Kondas who wasn’t scared of me.

And then, of course, there are the children.

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Meda who was always sitting in a corner of the library reading. Luqman who liked to pose in front of bookshelves. Yati: ridiculously tall and hilariously funny. Tika who came every afternoon when I opened the library. Chelsea: walking an hour to school and whose father was apparently fluent in English. Mimi who gave me bananas on my last day in Kondas and told me which boys to avoid. Noya and Chan: never in their own house, always ready to help. Ngai: bitten by a snake but still hobbling to school. And Rego and Messi and Minnie and all the others who I can’t write about or have forgotten the names of but that made my time in Kondas so wonderful.

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And Ota. Ota hasn’t started school yet. He would peer round the door of the library and if there weren’t any other teachers there he would come trotting in. Ota listened to me read and then read it back perfectly from memory. Most of the time he spoke in a whisper. He was so bright and so interested in reading.

But it’s not just the people I miss. It’s the place and the smell of the air and the person I became there. The girl who could speak Indonesian and wasn’t just another tourist.

On my last night in Kondas we had a pesta perpisahan (a leaving party). I was given a gorgeous kain songket (a traditional sarong – they use them for cultural events, especially negotiating a price for a bride) and a pile of money. The small money, IDR 1,000 and IDR 5,000 was to represent the tissues they would use to dry their tears when I left. The IDR 20,000 (about £1) showed that I had been safe in Kondas and that I would always have a family there. I wanted to cry, especially when I saw Ine Yus with tears in her eyes.

But now I’m back in Jakarta and, although it feels so weird to have a hot shower and be with my family again, it also feels like I never went away. My time in Kondas already feels like it was just a dream. I don’t know how I feel about that. But it’s ok. Living in Kondas was like taking a break from real life and living in a story. Yes, the life I led there was routine for the people I met but at the end of the day, it isn’t my reality and I can’t stay in this strange gap year limbo forever. I miss living in Kondas so much but at the same time I think I’m ready to move on.

Sampai Jumpa.

And now for a quick side story because I don’t really know where to fit this in:

A Trip to Pulau Messah

In my last two weeks in Kondas I somehow also managed to make time to visit the islands with Monik, the Taman Bacaan Pelangi coordinator in Flores.

There are times in Indonesia when you are struck dumb by the sheer beauty of the country. Sitting on a mouldy boat headed to Pulau Messah in Komodo National Park was one of those moments. Blue blue sea stretched away into the skyline to merge with hazy blue hills which in turn blended in to a pastel sky dotted with candyfloss clouds. No picture can ever do it justice.

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Pulau Messah was equally as beautiful. High raised colourful shacks dotted along perfect cement lanes bordering a sandy square where beautiful boys ran and played football. On one side stood a tall hill from which you could see the sunset. On the other, the mosque. Everyone on the island is Muslim.

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The sheer diversity of Indonesia never fails to amaze me. Just one hour from Labuan Bajo the people speak a completely different language, have different skin colours and different cuisine. All the food and the water, the water, has to be brought on to the island but the people are all well-off from their fishing businesses. The children were so much more confident than those in Kondas. They seemed to be more carefree, spending their afternoons swimming the sea and jumping off the pier. We spent a gorgeous afternoon, swimming, watching the sunset, and tidying books in the library.

 

I didn’t want to leave.

 

 

Behind the Dapur Door

20/05/2016

I have now been in Kondas for seven weeks and I think it’s time to admit that I have, completely and utterly, embraced my Manggerai self.

Seriously.

I haven’t cared this little about how I look, what I wear or how I act since I was in Primary School. Unfortunately, this means that my hair is a rat’s nest (I once left it unwashed for eight days – don’t ask, I’m still feeling disgusted with myself), my eyebrows resemble slugs and my skin is becoming clearer and darker by the minute.

And of course embracing village life means embracing the food. Bowls of nasi, labu siam (a type of marrow) and fried fish three times a day every single day, all cooked on wood fires. In fact, although I still dream of bowls of cereal and keema and rice and freshly baked home-made cinnamon buns just out of the oven, it is astonishing how quickly you can adjust to a completely new life style.

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Food plays a huge part in Manggerai life. It isn’t just what they eat but also what takes up most of their working day. Everything comes from the farm: the vegetables are picked just before we cook them, gula merah is made in the neighbour’s house, chillies and onion and all the other spices can be found just outside the kitchen door. The only thing families buy are fish and salt in the weekly Tuesday market.

They even grow their own rice!

In fact, almost everyone in the village has their own sawar (rice field) and harvests enough twice a year to feed their family year round.

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Every four months, the sawar are prepared and planted. This means using buffaloes to turn over the soil and prepare the rows. Four months after the seeds have been planted the padi (rice stalks) are tall enough to be cut. Every day for a month, all the women in the village go into the fields and work together to cut the padi that is ready.

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It’s exhausting work – the women use long curved knives to hack at the tall stalks – but the atmosphere in the fields is relaxed and jokey. A big urn of coffee and cake sits on one muddy bank. The women move around with ease, hair bundled up in towels to protect from the sun, red beetle-nut stained on their teeth. They’re covered in mud and exhausted but in a few weeks work twice a year they have enough food to feed their families without having to buy extra.

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After the padi is harvested, it is taken to a machine to be shredded in to its seeds. These grains are then spread on big tarps outside the houses and dried in the sun for the whole morning. After drying, the grains are carried to a machine behind Jek and Jeffrey’s houses to be turned in to beras (uncooked rice grains). The family charges one kilo of beras per ten kilos that are put through the machine.

People here often complain about how difficult it is to ‘find’ money. In most conversations, they’ll ask what life is like in England and say how poor they are here. How are you meant to explain to someone who has never left their village that there are poor people in England too but that they all live in brick houses and wear shoes? How do you explain that actually the quality of life in your village in Flores is in many ways better than anything you might find in a big city?

Living in the village is hard. The people have to search high and low for the kemiri, coklat and ndege that they sell. Each kilo of dried vanilla brings in Rp 150,000. Each kilo of kemiri Rp 14,000. For one kilo of kemiri, roughly three hours have been spent finding the seeds and then cracking them open. But at the end of the day, they have enough food to eat, neighbours and friends to talk to at every moment of the day and a life that is completely theirs. They work hard but not in the dreary long lonely difficult hours that they might have to in a city.

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But oh, how I miss city life.

Last weekend I went to Ruteng, the capital of Manggerai tengah. I took the bus along the TransFlores with Kak Efin, Bapak Alo’s second daughter to meet his youngest daughter at her university.

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The university in Ruteng trains students to become teachers. A big double storeyed building, it looked more like a school than what universities look like in England. But the kos (university accommodation) was exactly like I imagine it to be at uni in the UK. Students everywhere, loud music and endless card games finishing late at night. In fact, the accommodation at Atik’s university is probably better than what I’ll have in London. She has a huge room and her own bathroom and toilet. Everyone has their small cooking stoves and rice cookers inside their rooms. The corridors outside are lined with shoes and frying fish. And all of this – electricity and water – was just Rp 350,000 a month!

Being back in a city again was so nice. Ruteng is cold, really cold, and walking around and hanging out with families and young people made me feel like I was back in England. The children were so much more worldly, knew so much more English and seemed so much more grown-up than children of the same age in the village. And there was even a huge supermarket with a cosmetics section and Cath Kidston bags displayed on shelves!

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I stayed two nights at Atik’s kos and then the next nights in Efin’s fiance’s mothers house (imagine a tiny smiley woman who can cook amazing food – I was very happy).

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But homesickness hits at random, unexplainable times.

I was walking down a cold misty morning road in Ruteng and suddenly, bam, I wanted to be in England. The feeling of the cold kissing your cheeks, the smell of a clear winter day, the coziness of being in the car with your family when it’s raining outside. England might be dreary, it’s cold and wet but it will always be home.

But I wasn’t just hit with homesickness for England: I wanted to be in Jakarta with its easy luxury and a Mummy hug or, if not there, than in Kondas with its familiarity and my own bag of clothes and books.

This was all amplified by the fact that on Monday I got stuck in Ruteng. On Sunday, the Tour Flores – an international bike race – passed through the city. On Monday, they cycled on to Labuan Bajo and so all the buses in that direction got cancelled. I swallowed back my frustration and resolved to wait. But Tuesday, when I was told that there were still no buses, I was ready to burst in to tears or start screaming. I felt so guilty – I hadn’t been in the library for a week and hadn’t taught English in two because of the exams for Class 6 the week before. My time in Kondas is running out and there is still so much I wanted to do… And I was stuck in Ruteng.

Wednesday finally brought a travel (a car that doubles up as a mini executive class bus) that took us back to the turning from the TransFlores to Kondas. We waited four hours for the oto and eventually ended up getting an ojek to the village.

And then the next day I left Kondas again to go exploring with Lukas.

I seriously have no idea what I was thinking. I constantly feel guilty about going away and not doing the absolute most I can at the library and yet I went to meet Lukas the day after I came home. In my defence, the librarian was in her village cutting rice and no one had the key so I wouldn’t have been able to go to the library anyway.

Indonesia is an incredible country. Hidden along muddy bumpy roads that most people don’t know are huge lakes and hot water springs so hot you can cook eggs.

And at the end of an hour trekking in sandals down the steepest hill and along terrifyingly narrow paths through the rice fields are waterfalls so tall they make trees look miniature.

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Unfortunately for me, exploring meant that I fell over and broke my phone (half the screen is black, I can’t reply to any messages!) and that I got stuck in Lukas’ village for another night. This meant yet another day not at the school.

Feeling guilty about how much you can give to a project is something that I’m becoming accustomed to, whether I want to or not. Being nineteen without any real qualifications means that often the things you can do are quite limited. And of course never being longer in one place than two months also plays a part in how much you can do.  I want to feel like I have achieved a lot and inspired the children to read more and enjoy reading more than they would have otherwise. But is that just naïve Maleeha speaking? Because how much have I really done in two months here? Is being remembered as the foreigner that lived here enough to change someone’s life in some small way?

I hope so. Because living here has changed me more than I thought possible. A week ago marked exactly one year since I started my Gap Year and if I compare the shy awkward person I was a year ago to this version of myself, I can’t believe how much I’ve changed. It is unbelievable to think how comfortable I am speaking a different language, showering outside, squatting down in the toilet.  I have even reached the stage where I don’t wear make-up or pluck my eyebrows or, for a horrible eight days, wash my hair.

And even if I haven’t achieved that much, there are always the things I have done. Like teaching children to introduce themselves in English and encouraging them to use their imaginations to write stories.

And painting a wall mural.

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While Class Six were busy with their final exams, I spent my mornings cooking on wood fires for the invigilators, and then my afternoons creating this masterpiece.

It is no work of Picasso – our wall mural features a wonky rainbow courtesy of Class Five and a couple of teachers, and different shades of blue making up the sky – but it is the joint work of me and a few students and I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve done.

And so my time in Kondas is drawing to an end. Two weeks but so much to do and so many goodbyes to say – I don’t want to leave!

Sampai jumpa.

 

Familiar Faces

02/05/2016

Three weeks in and life has settled in to frightening normality. I wake up at 6:00 am and head straight to the cali (the pond) to shower. Once a week I carry a bucket of clothes and laundry detergent. I then trot back to the house, wet kain slapping around my legs to eat my nasi and labu breakfast. By 7:00 am (or 8:00 am depending on the day) we’re ready to head to school.

The mornings consist of me bugging Ibu Ellen (the librarian) to get teachers more involved in the library and teaching my rather scatty English lessons. We’ve now progressed to head, shoulders, knees and toes – the song is on constant repeat in my head and I’ve firmly got over any squeamishness I used to have about singing in front of people.

Indonesian schooling is wildly different to how I remember primary school in the UK. There are six classes, starting from 6 years old and ending at 13. After that is three years of SMP and three of SMA. At my school – SD Kondas – there are 180 children and around fifteen teachers. This amounts to about one teacher to every twelve children. In fact, Indonesia has the lowest teacher to children ratio in its income bracket. Every year, the Indonesian government succeeds in educating 55 million children. Nine out of ten children get through junior high school (SMP) and almost everyone I have met is literate. For a country that is scattered across 17,000 islands, this is truly remarkable. And yet, these small class sizes do not amount to a higher level of education. In the 2012 international PISA tests, Indonesia came 60th (out of 65) in maths and science. No university from Asia’s fourth biggest country has made it to the top 100.

This is, to a large extent, a result of poor teaching. Many Indonesian teachers are teachers because it is a fairly easy job. The pay might not be good but there is an official uniform and a certain prestige that comes with the title. Unfortunately, this means that not many teachers are natural borne educators. The teachers turn up to lessons late (or not at all) and spend most of the lessons lecturing half asleep kids. If the teacher doesn’t turn up, which happens fairly often, the children are left to work through their textbooks in class. Imagine a cover lesson in England. Obviously, going through your textbook by yourself is not something any child ever does.

Still, when it’s National Education Day as it was last Monday, everyone turns up in their finest. We arrived in Roe, an hour away along the worst road ever (I have a bruise on my back from where it hit against the back of the seat in the otho – a type of bus truck) at 7:30 am. There were already huge crowds of children lined up in rows, all wearing the identical merah putih uniform, a red skirt or shorts and white shirt. After another hour, an important looking man dressed in army uniform marched out. Everyone saluted and launched in to the Indonesian National Anthem. For such a scattered state, everyone seems to have a certain level of patriotism. Every Monday morning, for example, the whole school comes together to raise the Indonesian flag and sing the anthem. When I explained that I didn’t actually know the English Anthem, the children all looked aghast. Even I was surprised. I know more of the Indonesian one and I’ve lived here a year. I don’t know anyone in the UK who can sing past the first few lines of ‘God Save The Queen’.

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This patriotism in part boils down to the remnants of the Sukarno period. At the time, the whole country was controlled by a centralised government that put a lot of effort in to unifying all the islands, hence the emphasis on military and nationalism. Since then, Indonesia has become decentralised. This means that there are hundreds of different districts and local governments (buparty). This in turn makes corruption so much easier. It is also the reason for the bruise on my back – the local government doesn’t really care about just one of the hundreds of rocky roads in Flores. There is one road that is smooth tarmac the whole way along – the TransFlores, maintained by the central government in Jakarta.

While poor teaching seems to be a fairly regular occurrence, SD Kondas is actually doing really well. On the whole, the teachers do turn up and they do teach. The head teacher is there every day and, at the moment, is lobbying the buparty to set up an SMP in the area as well. Hopefully, this will mean more children will go to junior high school – at the moment, the closest is an hour walk away.

And, of course, they have a library.

I am a firm believer that books can teach just as much, if not more, than sitting in a lesson. In fact, most of my history knowledge comes from reading novels about different periods. That is why it is so important for these children to have access to the library. On the days when teachers have been excused for a meeting, they crowd in to the small building and pore over the books: stories about princesses, an overview of how the human body works, short books on different fruits and their nutritional values… Ibu Ellen, the librarian, is excellent – she gets them to sit down, to read, allows them to check the books out to read at home. The library is an example of how important literacy and access to books can be.

Of course, not everyone is overly interested in reading. Those that are, however, can also come to the library in the afternoon.

The two hours I spend in the library every afternoon consist of reading, drawing and playing volleyball – it is so embarrassing how bad I am. There’s also writing and telling stories and the odd dance party in the inner room. Yesterday I asked them to write a story about their day – at first all I got was dubious expressions and then, after my I went to school, I ate nasi example, the girls all sat down to immerse themselves in their stories. What I received varied greatly: Val’s contribution was the story of Cinderella copied out of a book, Eccy’s a short story on when Lukas came to visit that ended in a scribble of incomprehensible words. Elsa’s hari ini, teman2 dan saya menjemput kak malee dari rumah dia untuk pergi ke perpus… (today, my friends and me picked up Maleeha to go to the library…) was brilliant.

At around 5:00pm, I head back to the house for a cup of coffee, TV and dinner. After dinner, the whole family gathers round the small TV for two hours of ‘Anak Jalanan’. ‘Anak Jalanan’ or Roadman as it translates to in English is a two hour drama that is on every single night. And every single night, everyone seems to watch it. The drama is set in Jakarta (a clean, green, traffic free Jakarta) and follows the story of Boi (the palest Indonesian I have ever seen) and his friends as they battle against the rival gang. Every episode consists of at least five big fights and two relationship breakups – it’s messy. Still, everyone laps it up and everyone knows about it.

One of the people that is in love with the programme is Ine Bet.

Ine Bet has wide childlike eyes and a mouth stained blood red from chewing beetle nut. “She eats humans,” say the children in the village but, although she hardly ever speaks to me in Indonesian (choosing instead the local language, Bahasa Manggerai), she has quickly become my favourite person. Ine Bet walks in to the room and I start laughing. She’s a wonderful mix of the evil old grandma Sonia used to pretend to be in imaginary games and a crazy old woman who loves to talk. She has taken it upon herself to introduce me to everyone in Kondas and teach me Bahasa Manggerai.

 

When I don’t understand her, I turn to her daughter Kakak (sister) Mel. Mel is the only girl around my age and is hilariously funny. She also comes every evening to watch ‘Anak Jalanan’, along with Bapak Simon, Ine Bet’s husband, all twinkly eyes behind a permanent cloud of cigarette smoke.

When you’re in a new place all by yourself you often look for familiarity. There’s a thirteen year old boy who reminds me of Dhillon; a Class Four girl with long hair always in a ponytail and a smile that is exactly the same as Riyana’s; another girl looks exactly like someone I knew in Primary School. Ine Bet is Sonia’s alter-ego in the games we used to play. These small bits of home in a place where you’re always the new person help to keep you sane.

But at the same time the people of Flores, or actually, the people of Manggerai Barat (the western tip of the island) are completely different to anyone I know. Flores is a whole world away from Java where I’ve spent most of my time. The people have different skin colours, different hair, completely different languages. And this is all in one country. It’s unbelievable how diverse, how huge and wildly varied, Indonesia is.

At the end of the day that is what makes this year so special and, of course, so hard. Every time you go somewhere new, you have to learn a new way of life and bits of a new language. This last month has been incredibly hard but, at the same time, unbelievably interesting and fun. I am having the most amazing time, regardless of the numerous times I phone home to complain or how much I dream of showering in a real bathroom!

09/05/2016

And now I am finally posting this. At the moment, there is no signal in Kondas and so I have escaped to Labuan Bajo. Yesterday I went to see Lukas in his village, Molot Kondo – an hour walk from the road, no signal but the best river shower I have ever had. Today I’ve been sitting playing scrabble with the host family in Dalong, twenty minutes from Labuan, and enjoying my brief respite from Kondas life. Still, a part of me is so excited to be going back tomorrow. Familiarity, my own bed and Efin, Bapak Alo’s daughter is who is back from Ruteng!

Sampai jumpa.

 

Ten Days in Flores… And Another Two Months

09/05/2015

Finally!!! After a month in Flores, I’m bulk posting blog posts. In my village the E data is apparently not good enough to hotspot my laptop. And then even that became impossible when the signal died completely a week ago. Right now I’m sitting in a café in Labuan Bajo, literally just so I can catch up with the world a bit and get this posted! Hope you enjoy.

23/04/2016

Finally, another blogpost! This is, unfortunately for the length, two in one. The first half is about our family’s (and Antonia’s) trip to Flores, an island in Eastern Indonesia. The second half is about my latest project, a library that is based on the same island. If you can read through to the end, you’re my favourite person!

Ten Days in Flores

Ten days is not a long time, especially when you’re driving the length of one of Indonesia’s biggest islands. Our trip to Flores consisted of a new place every night, endless car journeys and interrupted sleep. It wasn’t at all restful. It was definitely one of the best holidays we’ve done.

We started with the Kelimutu crater lakes. These are the danau tiga warna (three coloured lakes) formed from a volcanic eruption hundreds of years ago. Each is a different colour: one green, another blue, and the last such a deep red it looks black. Legend has it that the lakes were formed after a massive fight between two wizards. The good wizard, Ata Mbupu, took refuge underground when it became apparent that he couldn’t win the fight – in doing so he created three deep acidic pools. The local people now believe that the spirits of the dead are kept in the lakes; the good in the green one, the bad in the black, the small children in the third.

Watching the sun rise over the lakes – golden light bringing them in to sharp relief, bouncing off the water, dancing through the air – was absolutely incredible. And then walking around the perimeter knowing that if we stood one step to the left we would fall and die… Absolutely terrifying.

The next few days saw us journeying through Bajawa territory. The Bajawa are a matriarchal society that live in Western Flores. They still place a lot of importance in traditional customs and so it is fairly easy (if you have a guide and know where to go) to stumble across desa adat (traditional villages) nestled amongst the hills. All the houses in these villages are made of wood. They consist of a first veranda for guests to sleep on, a raised inner room for cooking and the back for the family. The door is surrounded by carvings; cocks represent authority, horses prestige.

The houses are built around a central square. In the middle stands a small model house and thatched umbrella like structure – these represent the male and female presence that make up clans. The number of models show how many clans live in or come from the village. Each family has to have a traditional house, although many have normal concrete ones as well. Every time a new house is built, a big ceremony is held and a buffalo sacrificed to provide good luck.

We stayed overnight in a village called Guru Sina, out on the front veranda under a mosquito net – it was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve had.

And then we were back in the car for the twelve hour drive to Denge. The day consisted of sleeping as we bumped along broken roads, and two brief stops to see the Manggerai spider rice fields and Ranamese Lake.

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After our night in Denge it was another early start. Seven in the morning saw us beginning the four hour trek up to Wae Rebo. Up and up and up: my white t-shirt was soaked and my breath coming in pants as we zig-zagged our way up the mountain and then, suddenly, we were at a small lookout point ringing a bell to pre-warn the villagers of our arrival.

But we still couldn’t see the village. We were literally in the clouds, surrounded by white mist and hazy green bushes and then…

The mist parted and we were looking down on to a fairy-tale village.

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Wae Rebo is the last traditional Manggerai village in Indonesia. The people have no phone signal, no running water and no road access. But they have a freezing fresh spring for showering, beautiful thatched houses and coffee and vegetables and sugar and smiles. It’s incredible.

We were staying in the guest house: a small hut with a roof that formed the walls as well. Inside, it was warm, smoky and cozy. The houses are built around a central fire – the smoke makes the walls stronger. Outside, the women sat on the ground weaving ikat (a traditional woven fabric made by tying a series of knots) while children played on a smooth grassy lawn and chickens squawked around. It genuinely felt like going back one hundred years in time. It is an amazing place.

And then it was time for Labuan Bajo and our boat trip to Komodo National Park.

Labuan Bajo was a complete culture shock after the rural areas we had just been in. Suddenly we were surrounded by other foreigners and eating fancy expensive pizza in Made In Italy. That meal, anticipated for days, was one of our worst. We were tired and contemplative after everything we had seen and the restaurant was way too crowded. (Interestingly, it also had the worst toilet I had seen on our travels!).

We stayed in a lovely hotel with warm showers (!!!) and an amazing western breakfast and then headed straight to the boat the next morning. The next three days were a mix of wonder at being at sea, relaxing, swimming with Manta Rays, visiting a Taman Bacaan Pelangi library on Pulau Papagarang (more about that later) and…

 

Komodo Dragons!!!

Big, scaly, ugly creatures. Standing just metres away you could feel how ancient they were, the pure evil rolling off them in waves, and then they started making their slow crawling walk towards you and you were scared out of your mind.

Komodo Dragons now only exist on four islands in the world – all a four hour boat ride from Labuan Bajo. There are about 5000 dragons left. This is due to a low mortality rate for infants and eggs. Typically, a female lays thirty eggs at any one time. Only 15% make it to birth. From that number, sometimes only one makes it to adulthood. They are endangered and terrifying but incredible – remnants of an ancient world we no longer see.

That sums up our trip to Flores perfectly. Here, four hours and two plane journeys away from the development of Jakarta, life goes on just as it has for hundreds of years. Yes, there are mobile phones and TVs and cars, but the people have managed to retain their culture in a very different way to Java. It was an amazing trip – definitely a must-do if you are ever in Indonesia.

And Another Two Months

Just one week of the luxury of Jakarta and now I’m back in Flores, staying in a small village two hours outside of Labuan Bajo.

Pampa is small and quiet. Houses (wood, cement, bricks) spread along both sides of a bumpy, more-rocks-than-tarmac road. My house is halfway through – wooden walls but real glass windows and a front room with a TV and sofas! I have a room at the side: a double bed that is often shared with whichever guest can’t be bothered to go back to their house at night or my Ibu in the fear that I might be lonely. (On Saturday, I slept with three other girls – one the daughter who was visiting from university). Indonesians take hospitality to another level.

I live with Ame Alo and Ine Yus (father and mother respectively in Bahasa Manggerai), as well as their grown up son and a fifteen year old nephew. The house is huge by Indonesian standards – three bedrooms, a front room, an area to eat at the back and a kitchen. The toilet is a squat outside. The shower…

The shower is twenty paces down the road and two minutes along a muddy track. Water from an underground spring is collected in a dam and used for everything – showering, washing clothes and drinking. And, of course, being a pool in the middle of the forest it is utterly public. And so began my biggest learning curve: how to shower in a sarong.

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That might sound like quite an easy feat but I can assure you it is no such thing. Luckily, I had Ibu Ellen (the librarian) to talk me through the steps.

First, tie your kain around your chest. (A kain is a traditional sarong with the ends sewn together to make a big cylinder of fabric). This is your chance to wash your face, shoulders and arms. The next step is to open the kain and hold the front between your teeth. Soap up and rinse your body. Lastly, re-tie the kain and wash your legs. You’re now ready to return to the house, wearing the soaking kain and a towel wrapped around your shoulders. God forbid it should fall – if it does and a man sees he has no choice but to marry you…

So why? Why am I in the middle of a random village in Flores, showering in a pond and squatting down to pee. The answer is very simple: Taman Bacaan Pelangi.

Taman Bacaan Pelangi stands for Rainbow Reading Gardens. The organisation was set up by Nila Tanzil and aims to improve the literacy rate for children in rural areas of Eastern Indonesia. Nila has set up 37 libraries across Flores, Papua and Maluku. In each, the children are encouraged to enjoy reading, either individually or together.

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Reading has always been a huge part of my life – I struggle to think how different I would be if I hadn’t had the influences of Harry Potter and endless books on magic and fairies. Books are a way of exploring the world from the safety of your own home, a way of learning new things and seeing that your horizons are so much bigger than you ever thought possible. This is especially important for these children who, without TBP, have very little access to books. To see their excitement over reading and coming to the library is amazing – there are few Western children I know who display that same enthusiasm.

Which brings us to what I am doing.

Every morning, I’m at the school teaching English to Class 3 upwards. In the afternoons I’m in the library, playing and reading with the kids.

Teaching English is so so much harder than I expected. None of these children have learnt any English before – it’s crazy how much I assumed they would already know. I have to remind myself that at ‘The Learning Farm’ the students had already had English lessons for a number of years. Here, I’m right at the beginning. Our first lesson was Hello, my name is… Where do you come from? I decided learning phrases is better at this stage than starting right at the beginning of grammar. But seriously, it is SO hard. Children start SD (primary school) at six and end at thirteen – that means classes of thirty hyperactive children! It doesn’t help that a lot of the younger ones aren’t fluent in Bahasa Indonesia yet. Here, the local language is Bahasa Manggerai. (Throughout Indonesia, individual tribes and areas have their own languages – Bahasa daerah). Most days I end up coming home with a crazy headache and ringing ears. And then I hear them call out Good Afternoon in the middle of the street and I’m reminded why it is worth it.

After two hours of teaching and feeling like I’m about to fall asleep where I stand, I’m home again for my two hour break (naptime – everyone does it) before 3:00pm when the library opens again.

The afternoon library session is very different to the mornings. In the mornings, each class has a compulsory hour in the library: the teachers are meant to be carrying out reading activities and encouraging the children to learn from the books (needless to say, that’s something I’m going to have to push before I leave). In the afternoons, however, I want the children to be coming because they want to. At first, the Principal – Bapak Alo (I live with him) – told everyone it was compulsory. That first afternoon was a bloodbath which ended with books everywhere and Maleeha’s head feeling like it was going to explode. Totally not what I was going for. I want the children to see that reading isn’t just for school but that it is a way of relaxing as well. I want the afternoon library to be a place where they can come and enjoy reading, a place where they can discover worlds beyond the village of Pampa.

 

After another chat with Bapak Alo (and another and another and another – we’re still not on the same page), the afternoons have settled themselves. Now, I have a clear regular group that come every day to read and draw. I’ve also been planning other activities – today I’m hoping to get them to write a script so we can make short videos. Although I have no idea if it will work…

The children are amazing. They are all so enthusiastic and eager to learn and hang out with the bule. They are also wildly, incredibly different to children of the same age in the UK. Here, children from six years old and up are expected to help their parents on the farm, at home or in looking after younger siblings. They have so many more responsibilities than any primary school child I know at home. It’s humbling to see all those differences. But they are also incredibly funny and carefree. Every afternoon I’m accompanied by a whole crowd of running, jumping, laughing children. They are quickly becoming my best friends.

Another clear difference is their height. At first, I thought Class Six must be under ten years old. They’re actually twelve and thirteen. A rather obvious explanation to this is the diet. Everything we eat is grown in and around the village. This means that (in one season) the people eat the exact same thing three times a day, seven days a week: at the moment, labu siam (a type of marrow), nasi and either fish, egg or meat. The few times we’ve had a bit of variety, it’s been noodles and rice (NOODLES AND RICE? Carb on carb??? What is the world coming to?). Of course, all the food is really healthy but it is all too easy to see how this diet – too much nasi, not enough protein – can contribute to the Indonesian height.

Every day passes in much the same way – school in the morning, afternoons at the library, impromptu visits to villager’s houses to pukul kemiri and drink yet another glass of coffee. I’ve picked coffee beans and ground them, learnt to cook labu siam, gone to Church with the whole village on a Sunday… I’ve been questioned on my shortness, interrogated about my (made up to scare off unwanted attention) boyfriend and told that if I was to be married I would cost ten buffaloes (actually quite a lot). Life here is simple and easy, incredibly different to the comfort of Western life, but unbelievably interesting. And, inevitably, can be quite lonely.

Aside from me, there are three other volunteers with Taman Bacaan Pelangi; all boys, all from Germany, all ridiculously tall. They’re all also based in other villages across Flores and so, after Lukas dropped me off, I’ve been completely surrounded by Indonesians. That means absolutely no one who can speak English. At first, it was heartbreakingly difficult. Now, two weeks in and about a thousand times more confident in my speaking abilities, I am finally starting to feel settled. Yes, this is one of the hardest things I have done. Yes, there are times when I phone Mum in tears over loneliness. But this is an experience I will never ever forget. And, slowly but surely, the longer I spend here the more comfortable and happy I’m starting to feel. Two weeks in, I have friends, a family and a lifetime of hilarious moments!

So stay tuned for my next post – hopefully shorter and more to the point. If you’ve managed to read the whole of this, you’re amazing! Drop me a message to let me know what you think.

Sampai jumpa.

 

 

 

Leaving The Learning Farm

Four weeks after my last blog post and I’ve left Karang Widya, spent a week tanning on the Gili Islands and moved house. It’s been a crazy month.

Graduation was almost exactly a month ago. It was a day of laughing, singing and crying – I must have cried even more than I did at my own. The students have spent every day and night together for the last three months. They’ve seen each other grow from shy acquaintances into best friends and then they had to say goodbye.

And I had to say goodbye as well.

I think the best way to explain how I felt is to write some of what I wrote in my journal at midnight the day of graduation.

“12:16 am, 8 March 2016.

I don’t really know what to say – mainly because it’s midnight and my throat is sore from singing and my head spinning from tiredness and tears. We’ve just come back from karaoke with some of the staff.

We started the day pagi pagi [early in the morning] in the kitchen, watching as the students sang Indonesia Raya [the national anthem]. They were so happy and cheerful. And then gradation started properly.

Everyone was crying, even Sanan and he said he never cried. That was what really set me off – Sanan and Ivander in tears. I don’t think I even cried as much at my own grad – actually I didn’t cry at all. It’s so different – at least then I knew I would see my school friends again. Today, I’m not sure if the students and I will ever meet up.

I’ve spent the last two months with these people. They’re bright and funny and sometimes insensitive but mainly amazing. They have so much potential. Take Nandi, for example. He’s fifteen and from Sulawesi. He’s never been to a proper school before but teaching him English and seeing how much he’s learnt, you’d never be able to tell. He comes from a tribe and lives in the forest with no phone signal. This is definitely the last time I’ll see him. I want to see them grow and realise their dreams, I want the right to know where they are in twenty years time, who they’ve married, what they’re doing.

They’re all so brave. So young, only fifteen to twenty-six (most are eighteen), but already they have to be so grown up and independent.  Tomorrow Sanan and Ivander start work in Jakarta and Bandung. I can’t imagine myself doing the same, even though we’re the same age. Seeing them walk off in groups or by themselves to catch the bus and start their working lives was one of the most emotionally difficult things I’ve had to do. Most of them weren’t even going home – none of the Flores or NTT [Nusa Tenggara Timor – East Indonesia] kids can afford the five hour flight back. I feel so selfish and guilty that I can go home and see my parents and hang around for a few weeks doing nothing.

Our lives are so different. Here I am, living in a big house with hot showers and two parents that would do anything for me. I’m going off to uni in London and I know that I will manage to get a good job and I’ll live a privileged life. I can see why the students might call me manja [spoilt] or sombong [arrogant] even though I don’t like to think I am. Look at the difference in the way we live. But why? Why was I given this life and they weren’t? Who chooses where we are born and what lives we’ll live? Being friends with the students was a brief glimpse in to a life I’ll never really know. I am so proud of them and so confident in their abilities. I hope they can be the best.”

Volunteering at the Learning Farm taught me so much but mainly it taught me to appreciate what I have and the life I’ve been given because others deserve just as much. They were just born to different circumstances.

Karang Widya is an amazing organisation. It might not provide the most rigorous, or standardised, education but for three months it provides a place for the students to grow in confidence and maturity. To have seen that change and have been part of making it happen is an amazing feeling. But it’s not just a safe space to grow that KW provides, the staff also help the students find jobs after they have left. For example Angel, one of the advanced students, who is now doing Urban Farming in Jakarta.

So much of volunteering on a gap year is us taking more than we can give. I have no employable skills yet and although I’ve been teaching English I’m not sure how much the students have gained and learnt from me. Will they ever really need that tiny bit of English we taught them? But volunteering at The Learning Farm was worth it for me – I have learnt so much and grown so much as a person. I’ve seen differences in culture and in the way people live.  I’ve made friends and had experiences that I’ll always remember. And at the end of the day, those friendships and the brief time that we spent together will last and impact them more than any lessons ever can. As Maya Angelou said “I’ve learnt that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel”. So I hope I can have given back just a bit of the happiness and confidence I gained from my time at KW to all the people I met there.

After all those emotions and deep thoughts, Phun and I needed some time off…

So we hopped on a plane to Lombok.

My experience of Lombok was from the car window – rolling hills and rice fields, monkeys and clear blue sea. We headed straight to Bangsal Harbour and then on to the Gili Islands where we spent six nights – two on each of the three islands. It was a week of chilling on beaches and floating in the sea, eating Magnums and watching cute couples walk along hand in hand, finding cheap meals and lamenting how expensive tiny islands end up being.

It was exactly what we needed after the sadness of saying goodbye.

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And then our Gili trip was also over. We spent one night in Ubud before heading to the airport in Bali and arrived back in Jakarta last week.

And now we’ve moved house! The flat is right above the Embassy which was a bit off-putting at first. But, although there are plenty of problems to sort out, the flat is really nice! Mum has done an amazing job of making it feel like home – we’ve got spotty teapots out and billions of books on the book shelves and it’s looking gorgeous. And, of course, having Rizwaan here the last week also helped!

So all in all an absolutely crazy month. Look out for my next blog post. We’re going on holiday to Flores on Sunday so expect lots of awesome photos.

Sampai jumpa.

That Awkward Moment When…

You ask to go to the bathroom, are shown the room, brush your teeth, decide the hole in the ground is not the toilet and ask again.


Phun: Ridwan, where’s the toilet?
Ridwan: Over there.
Phun: No, the toilet. Not the shower.
Ridwan: Huh? Over there.
Phun: …..

This happened on our trip to Tasik Malaya, Ridwan’s family home (Ridwan does all the admin at TLF). It was a weekend full of eating, walking and cringing with embarrassment. Because what is a gap year without hanging around at people’s houses and feeling awkward! Especially when you don’t recognise the toilet…

Still, it was a great weekend. On Saturday, we went in to the rice fields for breakfast and caught the fish we ate five minutes before frying them. Dhenny climbed up a tree like a monkey to pick us some coconuts. And we ate rice and tempe with our hands. It was an amazing meal.

And then we climbed five hundred bloody steps to the top of Guning Galunggung – I thought I was about to collapse when we got to the top but the view totally made it worth it.

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So did swimming in the warm spring fed by the volcano. It was almost too hot, especially as I haven’t taken a warm shower for over a month!  I’m now so excited about going back to Jaks just to wash my hair in warm water. This photo is taken when it started to rain – look at that steam!

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Sitting around eating at the pool unfortunately led to another, even more cringy moment. Being asked why I wasn’t praying. For those of you who don’t immediately guess the answer, you really don’t want to know. If you do know, you can clearly imagine my mortification when Dhenny worked it out and announced it to the whole group. Erm, disrespecting my privacy much?

And then it was Sunday and we arrived in Kampung Naga, a traditional village surrounded by lush rice fields and rolling mountains. The people live without any electricity or gas – everything is done the hard way. For example, pounding rice plants in to rice grains.

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I was amazed at the strength of the women – they kept on going for so long, slapping their staffs in to the bowls. It made me realise how much we depend on modern appliances for everything in the West and how little we know about living a basic life. Imagine a life where you grew everything you ate and had no electricity or Internet. Crazy.

Of course, the village was also a bit of a tourist show. We’ll never know how much of what we saw was just a show for the tourists flocking the area. But it was still a beautiful place and an interesting experience. And, of course, a great opportunity to take more pictures…

And now it’s back to everyday life at Karang Widya. Today we had our final test – an eight page epic on (almost) everything we’ve taught. There’s only one week left until graduation and so we’re trying to wrap up. And desperately trying to avoid bursting in to tears. It feels like leaving high school all over again. If there’s definitely one thing I’ve learnt in the last two years, it’s how to say goodbye. Although it never gets any easier.

I’m going to miss everyone here so much, not least because their lives are on such different tracks to mine. I’m guaranteed a good job and a (hopefully) privileged lifestyle. So many of the students from KW have no idea where they’re going or what they will work as. They’re all so close in age to me. It makes me feel so small to see the differences between our lives. Not to mention guilty. Here I am, lording it up teaching them English, and who knows if they’ll ever really need it. I don’t really know how to feel. Happy that I made new friends and sad that I may never talk to them again. Hopeful that they will lead good lives, scared that I will never know if they do. It’s so confusing.

And then there’s always that burning question: how much have I really done? Will English ever really help them? Will their time at Karang Widya leave a positive influence? …..

But more on that next time. Expect a deep, reflective and very emotional blog post. I’m dreading leaving so much!

Sampai Jumpa.