Monday, September 21, 2009

Selamat Ulang Tahun

I step over criss-crossing cables, microphone in hand, while Pete, our resident Fulbrighting music-maker gets the guitar from its generous owner. New friend Thom (quiet humor / fellow music-maker) gets the other microphone. And off we go… “Sunday morning, rain is falling. Share some cover, steal some skin.” Maroon 5: Sunday Morning. There’s nothing quite like singing karaoke with actual instruments backing you up. Especially on your birthday. Especially in Indonesia.

I’m in Indonesia?

I’m in Indonesia.

How the heck did I get to be singing live karaoke in Indonesia on my birthday?

The morning started about as wonderfully as could be. I opened the card and present my family had packed in my bag for me. It was a book of Olivia, pig prodigy & extraordinaire, filled with just the right quotes. The quirky, be yourself, go get em quotes you need when you’re in a new country on a new journey.

I hung up the “Happy Birthday” banner that had so recently adorned the tree house Erin and Kathy and I stayed at in Hostel in the Forest.

Hugs may be better in person, but you can still feel them from halfway around the world.

Today we would be observing classes at schools in Bandung. The six of us who would be posted at vocational high schools packed into a van and headed off to our school. We were greeted by the headmaster and given a tour of the school. Perhaps the building needed a little tender loving care, but the students seemed to be getting plenty. Kalada and I went into one classroom to observe and saw a very good lesson on describing a process in English. The class of about thirty had only four boys in it. My suspicion is that this has something to do with the school being a vocational school, but I don’t know for sure. To demonstrate using English to describe a process, they were divided into groups. Each group had brought in a traditional Indonesian craft and gave a presentation explaining how it is made or used or worn. It was great to see the cross-cultural application of using English to describe very Indonesian items. Near the end of class, Kalada and I answered questions for a bit and talked about how much we loved Bandung. (It really is quite loveable.) Then, quite surprisingly, the students gave Kalada and I each a craft. They gave him a fan woven together from coconut leaves. While, I was given a traditional woven basket-bowl used to serve rice. (I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to pack it, but it’s ever so cool.) The gifts were so unexpected and so generous.

Have some love.

After that the class trailed outside with us to take pictures. Indonesia is apparently also a very photo-happy culture. Picture after picture. Camera after camera. It didn’t take long for my cheeks to hurt in the best way possible. Just when the picture-taking seemed to have waned, the students burst into a joyful chorus of “Happy Birthday.” Apparently someone had told the students that today was my birthday. Just when I thought I couldn’t feel more love, my heart made room for some more.

(Is it bad for me to admit that I was secretly hoping this would happen?)

Back in the school lobby we waited for the other ETAs to finish observing their classes. Soon, one of the particularly good English speakers from our class brought us some Indonesian sweets.

More love.

A bit later, two of the girls from class came and gave me an angklung, a musical instrument made from bamboo.

It was a birthday present.


More love.

The rest of the afternoon was sprinkled with “Happy Birthday’s” and “Selamat Ulang Tahun’s” with a couple more renditions of “Happy Birthday” from teachers and fellow ETAs.

I wasn't quite sure where I wanted to go to dinner. So, that afternoon I mentioned to the hotel staff that it was my birthday and that a restaurant recommendation would be nice. They wished me happy birthdays then suggested Stone Cafe. I had just gone there the night before, but it really was wonderful. So, two nights in a row!

Later as we were waiting in the lobby trying to organize taxis and how we'd get there, one of the ladies from the front desk touched my shoulder and said, "Miss Kelly?" "Yes?" "We wanted to give you a birthday present." Really? REALLY?

She walked me over to the front desk where she gave me a Novotel (the name of our hotel) bag with a Novotel coffee mug and a Novotel journal with a cute picture of a panda asleep on a perfectly made Novotel bed.

I can't imagine hotels in the U.S. doing this. I really can't.

Or maybe it's that I'm not staying at hotels this nice in the U.S.

At any rate...

More love.

That evening a big group of us went to a restaurant called Stone CafĂ©. It’s on the mountainside with a lovely view of Bandung. They have the option of sitting around a low table under the hut Indo style or using regular old chairs and tables. Because the group was so big we went with the chairs, but The restaurant was so accommodating with our massive group of twenty plus people. Good food. Good company. Great night.

After I finished I moseyed around the table taking pictures and making sure everybody was enjoying themselves. I turn around at one point to find the entire staff carrying a cake and singing “Happy Birthday.” My dear new Fulbrighting friends had bought a cake from the nearby Holland Bakery and brought it here completely unbeknownst to me. Eeyore perched on top, alongside candles and a slice of white chocolate emblazoned with “Selamat Ulang Tahun.”


The night continued in wonderfulness. As a few of us added up the money and paid the bill (buying my dinner as well), we could hear a few people from our group singing a little ways off. We walk out to find two from our group onstage singing with the guitarist and bass player. The much-hoped for karaoke was here.

Early on in the trip when we thought about possible birthday activities, karaoke had come up a fair bit. But as our understanding of what did or did not happen during Ramadan became more attuned, it seemed that karaoke would be pretty unlikely to happen. But here we were. Singing right along to whatever we could remember the words to.

Of course, only if remembering the words is your thing.

So, maybe that’s how I ended up on a stage singing Maroon 5 on my birthday.

Now how I ended up on a stage singing Maroon 5 on my birthday in Indonesia? I’ll have to get back to you on that. I’m still not really sure.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Ring of Fire

The Ring of Fire. Not only the myth-inducing geologic term for the loop of earthquake and volcanic activity around the Pacific, but a very real, very personal welcome to the land of Indonesia. With all the new foods and all the mysterious food preparation techniques, we are all bound to encounter our own, intimate Ring of Fire. So, as I lay in bed here with my “Rasa Grapefruit-Lemon” Powerade Isotonik drink, I’ll re-cap the past week and battle the fiery demons of my belly with almighty electrolytes.

Our first week was spent in Jakarta, a sprawling, dusty, polluted, overwhelming city. Our thirty story hotel with several neighboring condominium buildings looked like the lord of the underworld decided to spring out of the impoverished earth and rule from above for a change. Don’t misunderstand, our hotel was beautiful, very classy, and a pleasure to stay at, but it looked completely out of place from everything else surrounding it. When you walked out of the hotel, all you could see was this monster of a highway with multiple levels and ramps and intersections, which apparently made sense to all the taxi drivers and motorists, but which none of us could really decipher.

I only really ventured out walking from our hotel a couple times. Crossing the street typically involved an approach of waiting for a relative break in traffic (only four motorcycles and two trucks coming, instead of the usual twelve) and running, preferably in a large group. Once we walked to a mall nearby. There are over 100 malls in Jakarta and the range in what constitutes a mall is huge. This particular mall was housed in a bright blue building, with itty bitty shops scattered throughout. Many of the shops were closed, either for Ramadhan or because this was a somewhat crappy kind of mall. It was hard to tell.

I’ve heard that one technique stores use to keep customers shopping is to make them feel a little lost. Indonesian malls seem to take that to an entirely new level. At this mall, escalators crissed and crossed with no apparent rhyme or reasons. You’d find an up escalator but not a down. Or a down but no up. There were stories and stories and half-stories, and all the while you were surrounded by brightly colored shapes and characters and lights because apparently in most things decorative, Indonesia errs on the side of cute.

Not including the rat we saw in the middle of the mall floor, who seemed to be in the process of dying.

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, there are the malls in downtown Jakarta, such as the Grand Indonesia and Plaza Indonesia. Gucci, Prada, Valentino, Ralph Lauren, Chanel. Everything about these malls glistens. They’re massive… Plaza Indonesia has about three stories, I believe, while Grand Indonesia has about eight, a few of which are taken up by the largest move theatre in southeast Asia. And what’s even more perplexing about these malls is that are right next to each other and they both have the exact same big label stores. And the malls were certainly not empty, but it’s hard to believe there’s really the market for two Gucci stores less than a kilometer apart.

Some stores you may know that seem to be doing well in Indonesia: McDonalds, Shell gasoline, Wendy’s.

Some unexpected stores you may know that seem to be doing well in Indonesia: KFC, Circle K, A&W.

Most of our time spent in Jakarta was for the first phase of our orientation. We’d meet in a little conference room in the hotel with unnecessarily fancy water glasses and unnecessarily fancy martini glasses with mints perched precariously on the edges of our tables.

Two out of the five days we were there, a glass was knocked off and broken.

You would have thought they’d have switched to plastic after the first one.

Orientation varied from extremely interesting to extremely… numbing. It’s hard to make bureaucratic details interesting in English. Even more difficult to make them interesting in Indonesian translated to English followed by a debate in Indonesian then abruptly summed up in English. If nothing else it made all of us appreciate the work that the Indonesian director did in order to get us here. It sounded as though the past five or six months, all she has done has been filling out forms and writing letters to get permission for each and every one of us to be here.

One of the most interesting speakers was Dr. Ibu Irid. (Ibu literally means mother, but it’s also used as a title like Mrs. or Ms.; my students may be calling me Ibu Kelly.) She entered the room dressed completely in white, flowing fabric. At first glance she seemed very much the conservative, Muslim woman. And radiant. She was very radiant.

Well, in the course of her discussion on interculturalism, she seemed to twist out any underlying stereotypes of Muslim women that might have been lurking in our politically correct brains. She was such an engaging speaker, full of stories demonstrating differences in Indonesian and U.S. culture, even calling out to Richard Simmons in the midst of one story. She discussed certain perceptions Indonesians have of westerners and vice versa. Indonesians tend to view westerners as being too time-focused, loud, and stingy. She started riffing on our stinginess, the way we will always scrutinize the bill at a restaurant and divide the meal and only pay for our share. In our group the embarrassed laughs of recognition grew. Just the night before a very large group of us had gone to a restaurant. When the bill came, a few people got into checking the math and arguing that they were overcharging us (presumably because we’re from the U.S.). The staff obligingly re-checked it. The bill had been folded in half, with half of our items listed on the opposite side. We were in the wrong. But as a group we managed to demonstrate just how loud and stingy we Americans can be.

Reinforcing U.S. cultural stereotypes? check.

One of the most fascinating things Ibu Irid discussed was the difference in independence versus community. Though I don’t remember how this study was worded, on a scale of 0 – 100, 100 being the most independent and 0 being the least, the United States was at a 91. Top of the list. (We’re number one!)

Indonesia? 14.

That is one thing that will be an adjustment for me. I am fond of alone time. I like time to myself to decompress, reflect, recharge. While I enjoy being around people and socializing, I am at heart an introvert. It’ll be interesting to see how that works out once I get to my site.

Did you know that the word “privacy” didn’t exist in Indonesian until they adopted it in English? The word is “pribadi.”

The other thing that Ibu Irid discussed was the “culture shock W,” which I had seen in my college Freshmen seminar on culture shock. The details of the curve were labeled a bit differently than they had been in my class, but the basic idea was the same. The W shape demonstrates the ups and downs of visiting a new place and new culture. I’m prone to thinking that the “W” actually looks like a bit more like a sine wave, particularly with such a long intercultural experience, but you get the idea.

Strike that. Maybe it looks more like a line on the Richter scale. At least considering that my first experience with earthquakes happened while I was in Jakarta. And it wasn’t a baby either. One afternoon, I was sitting on my hotel bed journaling away, when I felt a low rumble. I thought it was probably an earthquake and tried to keep my cool. Earthquakes happen every day, right? And they’re usually just those little ones that rumble a little and then you go back to whatever else you were doing. This was probably just one of those little ones. Then, I felt the building start to sway back and forth. From eight stories up, buildings apparently have a lot of wiggle room. I was feeling alright, until I started hearing bits of plaster falling down through the walls and cracking. That was when I jumped off the bed and stood in the frame of my bathroom door. Apparently I had remembered that detail from the two minutes of earthquake safety instruction we got in second grade. Things started to settle down, and I heard all of the other ETAs on my floor out in the hall. Everyone was a little freaked out and not really sure what to do. Do we stay? Is it over? Do we go downstairs? I tried to be calm about everything, as we finally made our way down the emergency exit. Outside, there were maybe a hundred or more people standing around. Immediately everyone began to recount their experience of what just happened. What they were doing, what they thought. None of us had really experienced earthquakes before, so one of the things we really wanted to know was how bad of an earthquake it was. In a strange way, we felt a little justified when we learned the earthquake was between 7.0 and 7.3. “See? Our fear is justified.” We waited for sometime outside, after which the hotel staff invited us into the lobby, where we had to wait a bit longer. Ever the hospitable hosts, the staff began making tea and hot chocolate in order to calm us. It’s hard for me to imagine wait staffs in the U.S. being quite that attentive post-crisis. We waited a bit longer, then were given the okay to go back to our rooms upstairs.

I suppose it has all been part of my baptism by (ring of) fire.


Oh, and I forgot to mention that the title of the last post was from the song that was playing as we got on the plane from Tokyo to Singapore.

And of course, the views I express are mine and only mine. Not AMINEF’s. Not Fulbright’s. Just mine.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Something Tells Me I'm into Something Good...

Aug. 30, 2009

This is it. I’m here. It hardly seems real. For months there has been this vague idea that I’d be going to Indonesia, but it never seemed real to me. And now I am actually here, and it still doesn’t seem real.

It’s been an intense couple of days. I left my house in cozy, little Brooklet on Friday morning. Mom and Paul threw balloons on the car and on the driveway for us to pop as we drove over them. The tears overwhelmed me.

Just as I was breathing again, Dad and I arrived at Savannah airport in time for me to start sobbing again. Somehow my feet took me through security to my gate. Later, after I remembered to breathe again, I was looking at my boarding passes. And I realized disaster was upon me. I had forgotten the ticket for the last leg of my flight from Singapore to Jakarta. I had every other boarding pass but not that one because it was Garuda not United and I remember them saying something about them sending that one separately and to bring it because that’s how that airline did it or something and now that I don’t have it I’m going to have to buy another ticket in Singapore and maybe I won’t be flying with the rest of the group because they’ll have to bump me to the next flight and I have no idea when that is and –

In my fever of forgetful wretchedness I went to a pay phone (50 cents for a local call, isn’t that ridiculous?) and called my dad to let him know. He was full of everything will be fine’s and call the travel agency when you get to D.C. And I tried to breathe and let him persuade me to a happier place, even though I knew deep down everything was poised for disaster.

I flew to D.C.

And called the travel agency.

I mean, the travel agency’s answering machine.

Then Dad. And even while he was teaching class, he answered his phone and said that judging from the websites, it looked like everything would be fine.

And moments later I met up with some of the other ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) and discovered that in fact no one else had their ticket from Singapore to Jakarta and it hadn’t been sent in the mail and that everything was okay.

Everyone has that “I know I forgot something” feeling when traveling. I suppose I just needed somewhere to focus all of that energy.

Later I did realize what I had forgotten, which was a few Theatre of the Oppressed books that might have been useful for class. Kind of important, but not nearly as important as a forgotten ticket.

So, now we’re flying from D.C. to Tokyo. Up high over Canada and Alaska before dipping down south again. And I must admit there is a part of me that feels kind of proud for remembering about Great Circle Routes in middle school or whenever, so that I can explain that why we’re traveling so far north is because of the curvature of the earth.

I suppose that does make me a touch smug.

But only temporarily.

No one’s perfect.

The flight was long (about 13 hours), which was to be expected. And the movie Ghosts of Girlfriends Past was incredibly predictable, cheesy, and bad.

Also to be expected.

We then flew from Tokyo to Singapore, another 6 and half hours or so.

I must say that part of me really missed Air India, which I flew on for my study abroad. Just stepping on an Air India plane made you feel closer to being in India. The cheesy cartoon India man welcoming you on the door of the plane. The silly, but useful exercises for keeping your circulation going. Air India made you feel like you were somewhere. United felt like no man’s land.

Of course, I may feel very differently on the return flight.

Once we arrived in Singapore around midnight local time, there was some confusion about whether we were supposed to pick up our checked baggage or not. We had about an 8 hour layover and were leaving to stay at a hotel for the night. No one was seeing their bags at the baggage claim, and everyone official-seeming said that the bags would be fine overnight.

So, we went through the passport stamping and saw a sign for AMINEF (American Indonesian Exchange Foundation) and were greeted by the mass of people who had flown in from Hong Kong. Immediately there was name-greeting and hand-shaking and name-forgetting.

Our mass of very American selves walked to a large purple bus, which took us to a very swanky hotel. I was surprised to learn that we each had our own hotel room. Some people wanted to go downtown and have some nightlife, but many of us wanted to just get some good sleep. Driving there, we had seen a big group of people outside watching TV and a few stalls open still. Five or six other girls and I walked around there for a bit. The huge group of people were watching a soccer or futbol game. As we walked around the area every now and then we’d hear a big, “OHHHHH.” It reminded me of football season back in Athens when people would set up big screen TVs on campus to watch the game that was happening in the stadium nearby. I never did understand that really. But distance can make you think of things a lot more fondly.

After walking around a bit, we went back to the hotel. And I slept. Very well.

Interesting tidbit: there was a large window from the shower into the sleeping area. Maybe it’s best that we each had a room to ourselves.

In the morning we had breakfast and headed off to the airport. Excitement built about finally reaching Indonesia. We got in line anticipating our boarding passes and – found out they didn’t know where our luggage was. It was in a room… somewhere. Maybe. They just had to find it. And they couldn’t board us until they had our bags. So we waited. And then they could board us without our bags because they lied on the forms saying we did have our bags… or something. At any rate we were all good little sheep – or lemmings – and did what we were told and went to our gate and hoped that everything would work itself out, while I worked through my head what the best way to wash two alternating pairs of underwear would be.

The take-off from Singapore was a little nerve-racking. It was raining at the time and we hit some of the worst turbulence I’ve experienced. Lots of ups, downs, shaking, and nervous laughter from the third of the plane that was our group. But we made it through.

They showed a version of candid camera muted on the plane.

Laughter is international.

We arrived in Jakarta, where Nellie (our contact in Indonesia and lovely logistical lady) met us and scooted us to our own section. Eventually we gathered around the baggage claim, and amazingly every single person’s luggage made it to Jakarta.


We’re in Jakarta?

We’re in Jakarta!

This moment that was always a few months away is finally happening right this very second. Isn’t it strange how sometimes you just realize how real everything is?

We all loaded up onto a yellow and blue interior bus and were quickly greeted by Bee Gees karaoke. Not just their big hits though… lots of big love ballads. I actually couldn’t remember who it was until “Stayin’ Alive” came on. This is Jakarta.

At the hotel is an AMINEF table, where we’re handed packets of information. A waitress is passing out fruit drinks in martini glasses to everyone, and I know she wants to give me a drink, but I’m just too encumbered with baggage. So, she follows me to where I sit down. It doesn’t sound even remotely humorous now that I write it, but it made me smile and laugh a little at the time.

We fill out forms, go to our rooms, and even though I don’t think I’m tired, 4 p.m. comes around (about 5 a.m. east coast time) and I’m exhausted. I sleep. I write. I post.

Did I mention I’m in Jakarta?

Oh, and as mentioned in my packet, I ought to mention that the views posted in this blog are mine and only mine. This is not an official Department of State website (I’d be astonished if you thought it was), and the views and information presented are in fact mine and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

See Kelly Go... to Indonesia!

Wednesday night at 10:35 p.m. Approximately one and a half days from now, I will be on a plane, ultimately bound for Jakarta, Indonesia.

Yes, I'm excited.

Yes, I'm nervous.

Yes, I'm mourning the agonizing good-byes that have been crammed into this week.

There is honestly no real way for me to know what the coming year will have in store for me. But what I do know, I'll share with you.

For the next year I'll be teaching English to high schoolers in a vocational school in the town of Majene, West Sulawesi, Indonesia. Here's a map:

(See the sort of bump that juts out on the western side of the island? I'll be on the southern tip of that, somewhere in the midst of the mountains and ocean...)

The reality of this journey is still quite blurry in my mind. How do you comprehend the amount of contact solution you use in 10 months? How do you comprehend your first holiday season away from your family? How do you know what gifts to buy for people you've never met?

This note is scattered, but I will try to make order of it as I am doing in all aspects of my life within the next day and a half.

Regarding staying in touch, there should be a number of ways for me to keep contact. However, I'm not sure which methods will work best until I get there. I will be getting a new phone once I am there. I should have some internet access, but am unsure of its reliability. And of course there is the wonderful world of snail mail. I believe the address where you can send mail is:

Kelly Nielsen
SMKN 1 Majene.
Jl. K.H. Muh. Saleh No 41,
Majene, West Sulawesi

Please note, that this is the address of my school, not the home address. (It sounds like mailing here will be more reliable.) Also, I will be spending the first two weeks in Bandung and Jakarta for my training (and birthday!), so, it may be best to hold off on letters until I'm at my site and have confirmed the address.

While I'm abroad, I'll be keeping a blog about my adventures. The address is:

Put it in your bookmarks. Check it when you think of me. If you go now, it will look excruciatingly boring, but I will do my best to post soon. It may be that I have to post-date a lot of my entries... that may not be the right verb, but I'll do my best to be detailed.

You can e-mail me at No promises on when I'll be able to get back to you, but I'd love to hear from you.

Also, if you want a postcard, please e-mail me your mailing address at I'll be happy to oblige... and make you jealous. ; )

I know there are a good number of things I'm forgetting and leaving out. But thankfully that's why we'll be staying in touch.

I love you all. And miss you all dearly. Please send me your thoughts, prayers, good vibrations, karmic loveness, and anything else you might be keeping there in your soul.

Selamat malam.

Good night.