Project Indonesia

A fine site

Neutral Buoyancy

As could be expected on the world’s largest archipelago, my life in Indonesia has involved a reliance upon water. Clean drinking water, of course, out of the big jug on the counter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I mean water to immerse myself in. I swim laps nearly every day and escape to the ocean at any opportunity. In effect, my experience here has been a persistent struggle to find my neutral buoyancy.

When you’re scuba diving, the first thing you do is equalize your ears as you descend, then find your neutral buoyancy. That means you are not floating up or sinking down, but suspended in perfect equilibrium, gently flowing up and down slightly as you fill and empty your lungs with air. Finding it is not always easy, and can involve a long trial and error process of puffing air into your BCD then releasing it out into a stream of bubbles, back and forth until you no longer rise or sink. It is when you are in this place, when you have landed in the zone of neutral buoyancy, that you can relax and feel at peace in the underwater world around you.

Landing in Indonesia was initially such a rush that it sent me floating high as a kite. Everything was new and wild and wonderful. Then the realities of fending for myself in a city as crazy and impenetrable as Jakarta set in. The chaotic roads filled with families of five precariously balanced on a motorbike at first were fascinating, but now the insanity of traveling from point A to point B can really pull me down. Taxi rides in and out of the city can cost anywhere from $7-$20 and take from 30 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the severity of the traffic jam, and there’s little do do out here BSD.

I have also had a persistent, chronic foot injury throughout, for what is now 15 months. This has sent me straight away forging my way through the uncertain world of Indonesian health care. What began over a year ago as an inflamed ligament caused by a strain in my plantar fascia while running, eventually turned into a 5mm tear that withstood the efforts of practitioners of every variety in hospitals and clinics in every corner of this sprawling metropolis. My brief reprieve from April to July came as a result of a cortisone injection by an esteemed orthopedic surgeon who I flew to Singapore to consult with. He assured me, having examined my MRI results, that this treatment would “reboot” my system and allow the injury to heal. What it healed, by giving me a break from pain, was my sanity. What it did for my foot was to mask the symptoms but do nothing to address the condition. When the pain returned, I shook the trees in Jakarta and uncovered the second of two podiatrists practicing in the city. This Australian doctor now has sentenced me to potentially 8 weeks in a knee-high inflatable plastic boot. While it does feel better to get around in, things it doesn’t let me do are: yoga, take a walk, run, dance, ride my bike, stand comfortably for long, go up and down stairs easily, blend into any environment except possibly a hospital. This, too, is a force that pulls me down.

Recently, I saw the movie Gravity, which I fell in love with. There is a point in the movie where Sandra Bullock’s character has detached from her spaceship and is spinning out of control into the black emptiness of Space. Feeling connected here has not always been easy. At times, I have felt like her floating, spinning past spaceships, reaching out for a foothold, but soaring past, forever out of reach.

Things that fill my BCD with air and my heart with joy are many and usually found during the trips I’ve been able to take. I just returned from a week on a live aboard dive boat in Komodo National Park that was one of the most profound experiences of my life. My 5 dive companions and I fell into a blissful rhythm of dive-eat-sleep that quickly washed away the stresses of my school, my foot, and Jakarta. The marine life we found was staggering. Sharks menacing in “the blue”, darting back and forth, manta rays flipping and soaring like dancers, napoleans and mola mola coasting by like lone submarines, octopus squishing into tiny holes in coral, turtles gracefully soaring by, eels poking their hungry mouths out from between rocks, waves of tiny fusiliers, baby sharks nestled under fan coral, it took my breath away. Time on the boat was punctuated by delicious meals, sublime pink sunrises and sunsets, and naps on beanbags. Truly, I was in the heart of one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Up, up up I rose.

And truly I am in one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. Currently, I see it as a 7 week countdown until I am potentially free from “the boot” and on a plane home for the holidays. During that time, I resolve to stay vigilant to the boot, the laps in the pool, pursuit of a job for next year, and relishing the connections I do have here. And as always, to continue uncovering more of the beauty and magic of this phenomenal country.


The Road to Sengkang

ImageThe Torajan people were celebrating 100 years since the arrival of the Dutch missionaries. The room next to mine was where the relatives of the family who owned the hotel stayed who had come from far away for the occasion. They were in the mood to celebrate and sat outside the room playing music on traditional wooden stringed instruments and singing. I was trying to be patient, thinking this was an opportunity to listen to authentic music, talking, etc. But by 11:00 I was over it and figured it was more than fair to ask them to put a lid on it as I was paying $12/night after all. They were gracious, but by 4AM they were up and at it again. When I finally emerged from the room at about 7 after wrestling with pillows over my head, I was greeted by all of them dressed in shiny green and yellow regalia – long skirts, blouses, makeup, hair slicked back complete with headdresses. They were bustling around trying to get out the door to the ceremonies, but threw another apology my way and hustled away.


It was another painfully slow breakfast waiting for banana pancakes and eventually the honey just to find out the hotel didn’t accept credit cards. So I hopped in a becak and rode to the only ATM in town at the hospital, then back to pay the bill, then into town again to find a ride to Sengkang. I had decided to go there to check out a lake where traditional Bugis still live in floating houses. The best way to get there was by bemo or kijang, as far as I can tell – a collective minivan or SUV that stops anywhere along the way to pick up and drop off passengers.


The nice boy driving me in the becaj dropped me off and indicated in a general direction where I might find one of these. I was still unable to discern what constituted one of these vehicles. One guide had said “yellow plaid” but who knows where those are. So I walked a while, feeling stupid and like an obviously lost bule, when an old man pulled up on his motorbike. I explained the situation and he told me to hop on back and he’d take me where I needed to go. So I climbed on back with my backpack pulling me back and found a good core workout as we weaved in and around muddy potholes and traffic and small children and eventually arrived at a street corner. He had sufficiently delivered me to my first kijang and I paid him the equivalent of 50 cents for his efforts.


The men I was delivered to were fascinated by my presence. They all gathered around and wanted to hear my story. I was the first arrival to fill the Bemo, so now we just had to wait until more people arrived to fill it up before we could leave. I was the only show in town so I got comfortable on the tailgate of the car and batted away at questions thrown at me in Indonesian with my best forehand, missing many times, but generally impressing them that I could speak Indonesian at all and that I was a “guru di Jakarta”. It was good practice, and I got the basics down cold to establish the essential facts. Where are you from? How long have you been in Indonesia? Are you married? Do you have children? I had successfully had limited chats with 4 or 5 men one after another until the last one pulled out his cell phone and asked for my digits and if I liked sex. I gave him my best angry face, a few scolding words, and he sheepishly wandered off.


Luckily the remaining few people we needed to fill the car finally showed up and we could leave.  The road was bumpy and windy and my hopes of catching some much-needed winks were dashed after the first few turns. I was squeezed into the back seat with two obnoxious women who regarded me like an animal in the zoo until after an hour or so were shocked to discover I could actually eek out some Indonesian qualifying me a human being after all! This subdued them and made them think twice about all their yammering about me, since they couldn’t be sure how much I could understand.


This Bemo ride ended with an abrupt stop at another street corner in Palopo where a man stuck his head in the window and started hollering prices at me, the only remaining passenger. The first driver and I had already established some rapport on the tailgate while we were waiting, so I trusted his judgment and got out, agreeing to the $5 fee for the 4 hour journey to Sengkang.


This is where it got funny. Honestly, I was still so damn tired I wasn’t thinking straight. I understood the car was ready to leave right away, so I thought if I wasn’t going to have a chance to eat lunch, I should probably at least go to the toilet. So I asked the gathering crowd where I might find one. One motioned in one direction down the street and said something I didn’t understand. So I dutifully marched off searching for something resembling a kamar kecil. No luck so I returned. Another man motioned in another direction with further indistinguishable directions. Again, I walked off, away from the staring crowd. Nope, nothing. I returned to my street corner home base, feeling my frustration and embarrassment turning to anger. How could I be so damn fascinating to these people and why wasn’t there anywhere I could pee? Another man tried to clarify, saying I could pee at the mosque. But I had to wait 5-10 minutes until all the men were finished praying. I told him I didn’t think I could probably pee in the mosque. At this point, a man with some English skills had been located and was able to negotiate with a nearby storeowner that I squeeze in back and use their toilet. When I came out, the mosque was emptying, filling the street with even more rubberneckers. I tried to be a gracious celebrity and communicate my regards to everyone while making a beeline for the vehicle, whatever it was called, all the while being informed by the shepherding resident English speaker a list of all the cities in the U.S. where he had relatives.


I landed in the back seat next to a man, wife and two little girls, all eyes huge, all eyes on me. The man had overheard that I was a guru and instantly wanted to establish that he was too. He had very limited English so we covered the basics then settled in for the ride. I reached for my snacks and muttered something about not having had lunch, sorry, and he said he was fasting. I was horrified! I didn’t want to eat in front of a fasting family! But he urged me to go ahead, that it didn’t matter.


The demographics of the vehicle shifted as the kilometers passed, eventually evolving into the two little girls in the back seat with me with their parents in front. They had been making eyes at me in the rear view mirror all along and finally succumbed to their curiosity. We looked at photos in my phone and I did my best to show and describe things to them they might be interested in. They were cold so I pulled out my scarf and draped it over them, which they wore with great pride. As we approached Sengkang, they started asking if I could stay at their house for the night. Of course I declined, took some quick photos on their phone, and said goodbye.


When I walked into the hotel, I began to wish I’d accepted! Once again, the main attraction had arrived for the freak show as I tromped into the lobby and greeted the boys behind the desk. The prospect of my staying at their hotel was enough to make them stumble with the paperwork, forget to offer to carry my bag up the long staircase, and try to sell me on the most expensive room. After a greasy fried chicken at the warung across the street and an effort to chat with the others at the table, I retreated to the room, flopped on the bed, and the call to prayer began. 


The school year ended with a punch in the stomach, as our school board randomly and recklessly fired 8 people. All the teachers were horrified, speculated in shocked whispers then hopped on planes for their summer holidays.

I had decided to spend mine in Indonesia. Everyone else was going home to family, but I decided to stay. I had been frustrated all year that I hadn’t been able to engage more deeply with the culture, able to explore and enjoy being in such a diverse and intriguing country. I was invited to a wedding on the first week of vacation and on a diving trip in Sulawesi the last week. With a month in between, I decided I’d make a concentrated effort to learn Bahasa Indonesia so I might be able to connect to locals outside of the expat international school bubble. Also, the cortisone shot in my foot was wearing off and I was having increasing pain. A friend had recommended a therapist in Ubud, the healing mecca of Southeast Asia. I figured my chances were just as good or better of finding help there as anywhere in the U.S. I might just enjoy some yoga and healthy food while I was at it. After a year of traffic, stress and air conditioning, I knew my body and soul needed some love. Image

The wedding on Nusa Lembongan was fabulous. It was full of teachers giddy from just crossing the finish line for the school year and ready to blow off steam. Lots of Bintang drinking, delicious seafood barbeques, days on dive boats feeling the fresh sea breeze in our faces then submerging into the colorful world below where incandescent blue nudibranchs squirm, rockfish pop out of the sand, and graceful manta rays soar. Back in life!


The island of Bali is utopian from our western perspective. People are gentle and beautiful. They peacefully work in picturesque rice fields nestled among lush green rainforest. For most, their traditional culture is still very much alive, living in family compounds, making daily offerings of rice, flowers and incense to the gods, and holding a multitude of ceremonies with their communities for every possible significant occasion in life. One day I saw a procession of people coming down a street carrying an enormous sarcophagus in the shape of a bull for a cremation. Another day, I came upon villagers laying the foundation for a new temple, with probably 50 women and girls methodically and systematically carrying rocks one by one on their heads and putting them in place. It was like watching ants build an anthill, each carrying one grain of sand at a time, without a word, dutifully carrying out their job seemingly with a sense of purpose and belonging. Another day, I passed a group that was breaking down a gravestone, preparing to exhume a body for cremation. On a bike ride through the countryside, a group of girls had gathered in sarongs to learn a traditional dance. Indeed, the Balinese do life differently, in many ways in a polar opposite manner to the western, “developed” world.


So people come here. In hoards in July and August. Some come to party, surf and play in the beach towns of Kuta and Seminyak. Others to Ubud for a cultural experience. Tourists arrive in buses that clog the narrow streets to take pictures of monkeys in Monkey Forest, watch traditional dances and visit museums. Others come for decadence, indulging in spa treatments ranging from pedicures and facials to massages and cream baths. Many come to enjoy art and shop for traditional handicrafts. From what I can tell, the overwhelming majority of visitors are those coming to find themselves. Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller Eat Pray Love clearly boosted this demographic. Like lost souls, the town is haunted by wistful women in floppy, hippy clothes drifting from one vegetarian restaurant to another, sipping organic smoothies and reading the Autobiography of a Yogi. They attend yoga classes, do cleanses, and get every treatment conceivable from volcanic ash mud baths to ozone therapy. In Ubud, it seems everyone has an agenda.


I’ve done my colonics, my cranio-sacral therapy, my yoga and Tibetan bowl meditation. I spend quiet time with my workbook and flashcards and drive my rented motorbike to daily language classes at Cinta Bahasa. I have enjoyed  many delicious fruit smoothies and bowls of flax porridge. Today I am finally writing this, will study for an hour or so, then go meet a myofascial therapist (recent arrival from Boulder, Colorado!) for a look at my foot before finding a delicious meal with the drifting women, going to language class, then doing hanging belts yoga. While Ubud has been interesting and productive in its own right, I feel a little like I’m stuck in the bottom of an organic salad bowl in Sedona Arizona or Santa Fe. Time to see what else is out there.




Why I like living in Indonesia


When I was home over the holidays, I got to spend some treasured time with my amazing niece Isabel. At 13, she could have just been annoyed by me and consumed with thoughts about her hair, but instead, she thoughtfully asked me one day, “What do you like most about living in Indonesia?” I was really touched by the question and wanted to answer it the best I could. “Because everything’s new and different,” I told her. “Everything’s an adventure. There’s always things happening that I’ve never seen before.”


Like there’s always crazy contraptions people are driving down the street. We went to the open space by the school today and found these kids. Another time I saw a wooden plank about that length and about a foot from the ground with a motor and steering wheel attached that 5 or so guys were driving in traffic.


This isn’t a great photo, but at the same open space, we saw a bunch of guys playing a game with pigeons. One of them walks a fair distance away from this square of sand with two pigeons in his hands. The other guys wait in the sand for the pigeons to come flying to them. I tried to interview this man today to understand what the game was, but my Indonesian didn’t get me that far. I later learned they were pigeon races.



You get to eat crazy crepe cake things like this. The butter in them doesn’t count because you’re in Indonesia. Kind of the same principle as Indoneisan Rupiah being monopoly money. When you spend it, it doesn’t really feel real.


Totally yummy.

There’s also crazy housing adventures like this one. The rainstorms we’ve been having have been so intense that they caused major flooding in the city killing many and sending out rescue by lifeboats with tens of thousands of people evacuated. People’s water sources have really been impacted, too, because of the sewers not being able to drain. For me, it only resulted in a chunk of my ceiling landing on the floor.Image

I caught a 3 inch cockroach today and nailed it with mosquito spray. And there’s huge black ants that come in under the door from the garden that are so tough they withstand my full weight under a shoe. It usually takes 2-3 good smashes to do them in.



These women are at the top of my list. Every morning when I turn out onto the main street on the way to school, I see them. I’m inevitably late and precariously balancing my over-stuffed book bag and coffee cup on my little blue Yamaha scooter. I’m consumed with the oncoming traffic, reminding myself to stay on the left side of the street, and keeping my skirt from blowing up, when they appear. The sight of them always makes me catch my breath, just sitting there peacefully under the trees or quietly meandering along sweeping leaves with their straw brooms. While it might appear that they don’t have anything, to me they seem to have it all. While so many of us are spinning around frantically doing things, they seem to have found the answer just by sitting.

So I guess living in Indonesia keeps me guessing. There’s so much that is unknown, it’s like living a giant research project. Every day I get to uncover new clues and follow my curiosity by making plans for fun, upcoming adventures. Even though I miss you tremendously, Isabel, sometimes I can’t believe what a lucky girl I am for the opportunity to research the world in this way.

Thanks for asking.







Paddle in the Water

I had a love affair with rivers. For many years. Come to think of it, maybe it was the longest relationship I’ve had. We’ve been apart now for some time, but the lessons I learned during our time together are worth remembering. Especially now.

I am home. Back in cold, crisp Colorado winter. I could have much more economically spent the 3 week break on a tropical island, but I splurged for a ticket because it was time to reboot.

When you are in a tiny kayak in whitewater, you get pushed around and if you’re not careful, pushed over. You might find yourself upside down getting thrashed so hard, you might joke later about visiting “hole chiropractic”, a hydraulic so strong, it could straighten out your spine. By the time you manage to roll your boat upright, you have no idea which direction is upstream or downstream or what obstacles might await you in a matter of seconds.

My first 5 months in Jakarta was a similar experience. While it was a gripping run through exciting whitewater, so challenging, it demanded my total concentration and strength, I still managed to get knocked over and found myself hanging from the cockpit, swinging upside down, getting washed through the swirling current, like a lone sock in a frothy washing machine on permanent press.

It had been hot. Humid. Ants, lizards, termites, mosquitoes and occasional cockroaches were in my house. Constant issues around transportation, communication, how to pay the water bill, running out of pulsa (credit) on my phone, a hot, sticky plastic couch, white walls and fluorescent lights, no curtains, no sign for the housing cluster leading to lost taxis, lost deliveries, etc. I found myself among a group of incredibly capable, dynamic educators and world travelers, whose expertise and comfortability with living abroad made me question my own capacities. The case of plantar fasciitis that had begun a week before departure to Indonesia had persisted despite visits to 5 doctors, 3 hospitals, physiotherapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, cortisone, orthotics, ice bag after ice bag, crutches, many trips to far away fancy malls to buy shoes…what am I forgetting? I felt like I would never have my foot back and comforted myself that maybe I could get it taken care of at home.

The number one mantra when you’re learning to kayak is “Keep your paddle in the water!” It’s kind of like a rudder or a sea anchor, keeping you connected to the current, more stable, less vulnerable. Also, it forces you to choose where you want to go and take action to get there.

So after insane journeys (30-40 hours each way) and lots of love from family and friends, home cooking and familiar landscapes, I’m back in BSD with my paddle blade submerged. I’m looking forward to moving toward a deeper integration into this fascinating part of the world I’m blessed to have the opportunity to explore. Ayo Indonesia!






The mammoth sign that welcomes you at the entry round about.



My craft pulled up to the runway last February when I accepted an offer to teach for two years at Sinarmas World Academy. I had recently surfaced after being smothered by a heavy blanket of heart break and had been given an opportunity for rebirth. If I move to Indonesia, I will finally acknowledge my thirst for travel, for new cultures. Maybe I will finally make it to Papua New Guinea to become that anthropologist I thought I wanted to be in college. Or go to work for Cultural Survival or National Geo or Oxfam or something. Maybe I’ll pick up another language and be further down the path to being able to tick off all the continents before I die. Maybe by thrusting myself into the wide open unknown, I will once and for all be able to cast away all the cobwebs of the past and grow a new skin, one that is true and authentically me. 

The marathon application process of rewriting my resume, soliciting letters of recommendation, researching and emailing schools, Skype interviewing with principals and finally flying to San Francisco for a job fair had finally ended. Signing the contract was like birthing a baby after months of gestation and speculation. Indeed, it felt like I’d won the lottery.



The following five months that led up to departure were a mixed bag. They began in a flurry of excitement. I grabbed a friend one day and we dedicated ourselves to “everything Indonesia”. We found books, videos, food, maps and anything else we could get our hands on. Krakatoa, Borobudur, Java Man, Gamelan, Shadow Puppets, Gado Gado…Bali! I got busy with Bahasa Indonesia on Rosetta Stone. After the initial crazed excitement, I became suddenly gripped by anxiety. What have I done??? How can I possibly leave everyone I love and move to the other side of the planet? But the lazy canoe was on its way toward the waterfall. The current was pulling hard and the sounds of pounding water were growing louder. I kicked into project manager mode. Rent house. Sell car. Rent storage unit. Forward mail. Garage sale. Shipping? No, take the allowance. Pack three huge suitcases and buy the rest there. Plane ticket? Check. Visa, passport, farewell party in park, goodbye to everyone I love, doing one last idiot check before closing the doors and stepping out into the void. The water is pounding in my ears or is it my heart and I am on the plane at last soaring over the Pacific Ocean!




My virtual future was becoming an immediate present reality as my impending destination approached. I think I slept for 18 hours. It was like crossing through the force field and I needed to gather my strength.



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