When you think of popular holiday destinations in Asia, the most popular these days seems to be in parts of South-East Asia; Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Bali, and maybe India also. In the two years that I had been living in Korea teaching previously, I had only visited Japan outside of Korea. It was harder to get away in those days as I had no vacation time from my private school. So this time around with the opportunity to travel during my vacation from school, I wanted to sample some of South East Asia. I decided on going to Indonesia, but my experience has left me in doubt on whether I should travel to any other countries in this region again, as I left with a profound dislike of the place.
I am not an average traveler, I don't like to relax; I don't like beaches, sipping on cocktails, and lazing around by the pool. I like exercise, adventure, nature, and culture. In the past I had completed two fantastic volunteer trips in Nicaragua in Central America and Fiji, which were amazing, and not wishing to be too cliche, almost life-changing experiences. Having fond memories of these two experiences I decided to volunteer again, this time in Java, Indonesia. My job was to help educate visitors and to help maintain a conservation centre in the foothills of mountains outside of a city called Malang. I was to live in a local village in pretty basic conditions, which I had no problem with because I had done it all before. It all sounded quite idyllic and was a real chance to get up close and personal with genuine Javanese people, and was a world away from any tourism. Even before I had left for Indonesia, I could sense that I may have some problems.
Two weeks to go until arrival in Java, everything was looking good and I had even prepared some material for teaching people when I got there. I had one niggling little doubt in my mind, and this was that I assumed that everyone I would be teaching could speak English, maybe they couldn't? But I thought to myself that the organisation wouldn't be encouraging English speaking volunteers to go there unless they could use us for something. I e-mailed the project leader just in case, and he replied that none of the people we were supposed to be educating were going to be able to speak English. My prepared material went into the shredder, and I began to think, 'how the hell am I going to be able to teach them anything?' One week to go and now my two day weekends off from volunteer work had turned into Sundays off only. Disturbing my plans to visit places on the weekend. No problem I thought, because volunteer working itself was so good before that I didn't require an extra day off, and maybe I would just finish a little early instead.
A day before travelling to Indonesia I had, rather stupidly, arranged to run a marathon in Yeosu, a city near me in South Korea. It was a very hilly marathon too, which was a real test, but I completed it and felt a little less guilty of taking 3 weeks off exercising in Indonesia. The only problem was that I was horribly sore for travel the next day. I had 30 hours of travelling to do until I finally got to my destination, and after the first 7 hour flight while waiting in Malaysia I was noticing how worryingly swollen my ankles were, and I could hardly walk. This is an extra worry for me as I am slightly paranoid about long haul flights as I have had problems, inherited from my parents, with varicose veins. This means that my circulation is not as it should be in my lower legs, making me more prone to developing DVT's (Deep Vein Thrombosis). Swollen ankles can be a warning sign of this, so I basically crossed my fingers and hoped it was down to the marathon the previous day.
Once I finally arrived at the conservation centre, I was ready for bed and hoped for a good long sleep. At 3.30 in the morning the first of the many unwelcome surprises to come shook me out of my slubber. Indonesia is mainly a Muslim country, and indeed the most populated one in the world. I knew this but did not realise what this meant in practice, and nothing was mentioned on the organisation's website. At an unearthly hour every morning (about 3.30am) there was to be a call to prayer. This wasn't a private matter, where people would wake up themselves and pray in silence, but the prayer was pumped out of large speakers across every village and usually lasted about an hour. There really was no sleeping through it, and it went on for so long that it kept me awake once it woke me up. I was incredibly tired.
Below: This is the village I stayed at in the mountains as seen from the conservation centre.
The internet site of the volunteer organisation that I went with made it sound as though volunteers came in and out all the time and that I would be part of a team of foreign workers at the centre. On arrival, I ended up being just one of two people from overseas among a myriad of local workers. Immediately, I noticed that the majority of these workers did literally nothing all day. They pretty much just sat around all day, and occasionally did a pointless and menial task. In fact, I noticed this at the airport in Java (Surabaya) as well. There were 5 people working in a tiny convenience store, all doing nothing, and this was the same for every store, restaurant, and cafe in the airport. All this made me wonder how busy I was going to be for the next three weeks.
Below: The spectacular view from our conservation centre of Malang city and the very active and smoking Mt Semeru volcano in the distance.
Day one, and after my unexpected very early morning wake-up call I was due to meet the volunteer supervisor at 9.30. An hour later and he was still not there. This would be a sign of things to come as by the end of my stay at the conservation centre I had developed the art of twiddling my thumbs to a whole new level. The time did, however, afford me a chance to drink lots of the coffee which they produced at the site, with fresh coffee beans roasted each day by the Kitchen staff, who were probably the only people who did anything on the site. This was the one and only good thing about the place; fresh, strong, and unbelievably good Javanese coffee everyday, and was probably the only reason I could keep my eyes open for the first few days. When the supervisor did finally arrive, he told us that some school children would be coming the next day, and later in the afternoon he would brief me on what he wanted me to do. We had a little chat and after ten minutes the morning meeting was over, which at least gave me the chance to change some money and buy some snacks in the city about 45 minutes away. The only problem was that everytime I needed to go to the city (which was frequently as their promised internet connection at the centre was non-existent), I needed their help to drive me. As genuine and picturesque our location was, we were up in the mountains and miles away from anywhere, this made for a prison-like feel to where I was staying.
Below/left: Our kitchen/bike garage.
The next day and the real tribulations began. A whole school of 12 year olds and we were told they didn't understand a word of English. My other foreign co-worker and I were told to run a couple of games for them and it became clear that the conservation centre was much more about stupid games than any real education about the environment. In a day lasting an unimaginable 12 hours of 'work' I took a game for ten minutes and then spent the rest of my time watching helplessly not knowing what on earth was going on as the entire dialogue was in Indonesian. During the ten minute game it was also noticable that most of the children could in fact speak English, something that our Indonesian supervisors and co-workers failed to mention. At least we could ask the children what the hell was going on, and we did on many occasions.
The following day was another marathon, this time 14 hours long on a field trip to a local river in the mountains and was more of the same, but at least we could have a chat to the kids, which was nice. Apparently K-Pop is very popular in Indonesia and many of the girl students were fans of 'Girls Generation' and a few other famous K-Pop groups. They were interested in us and asked many questions and conversation flowed until they asked me what religion I followed. When I answered that I don't believe in any god and have no religion, they all fell silent. I would later learn that in Indonesia a person cannot be registered as an atheist or agnostic and must choose a religion, usually Islam, Hindu, or Christian. It was, in fact, illegal to be an atheist. After I returned from Indonesia, a man hit the news worldwide for being beaten and then jailed for posting that he didn't believe in god on his facebook page. He currently still resides in jail for this 'offense.'
Part 2 next week.