Upon sharing the news with family, friends and colleagues that I was quitting my job and moving abroad to teach English my plan was met with mixed reactions especially…when I revealed that I was going to Indonesia. There were some who were ecstatic at my apparent bravery and others, who seemed genuinely shocked. You’re going where? Is that part of China? Is it safe? Wasn’t there a terrorist attack in Bali? And what about the Marriot bombing in Jakarta? Have you read the travel warnings?
After the inquisition regarding my safety was completed, the inquiry about my sanity began. Now…what would possess you to give up a good job, benefits, security, and move to the other side of the world? I had to admit these were very valid points. Was I crazy? Quite possibly. Or, was it the smartest thing I’ve ever done?
Support and criticism aside, when I left the familiarity of my country, I was juggling my emotions. Predominately, the fear of the unknown as well as, what may seem trivial—the mounting anxiety of not really knowing…if I had packed enough of my favourite cosmetic L'Oréal Voluminous mascara and Secret antiperspirant. I was also grappling with my clothing choices. Was it appropriate—conservative and professional for a year in the tropics, in the largest populated Muslim country in the world?
Compliments of my Nana, I had Canadian flag paraphernalia clearly visible on all pieces of luggage and an active imagination in overdrive when I embarked on the longest airplane ride in my life—24 hours flying time, two layovers and a 12-hour time difference. Upon my arrival in Jakarta, I was met by the school’s Director of Studies. As we made our way to the school I was exhausted, in need of a shower and unbeknownst to me about to experience the joys of Jakarta traffic. Picture…a 10 to 1 motorcycle (ojeks)/car ratio, traffic lanes that don’t seem to matter as vehicles dart back and forth all vying for the quickest route to their destination which—for some ojek driver’s—was a ‘little’ detour on the sidewalk. All the while pedestrians roam through this craziness. Yet, it all worked. Welcome to Indonesia.
After living at Toronto’s Yonge and Eglinton where I could comfortably—and safely, walk anywhere in my hood; I would be lying if I said the concept of walking in my new neighbourhood Tebet Timur didn’t unnerve me. For my first day at work, I began my commute equipped with the map my roommate had drawn for me. I was petrified! To accommodate my fear, my route was certainly not the most direct but was one devised by roads which did not require crossing at any busy intersections.
During my walks, I was amazed at the ojek passengers and am confident to say by things you would NEVER see in Canada. My favourite sightings included: two men with a large goat sitting between them. An ojek transporting 75 chickens carefully strung together. From behind, it appeared that a tall, pile of chickens was barreling down the road without a human driver. The most common sightings were ojeks carrying an entire family. I was in awe of the Indonesian women who were far more relaxed passengers than I. While I rode with both hands gripping the back of the bike, inner thighs tightly pressed against the seat, teeth-clenched and at times—eyes shut; the Indonesian women rode sidesaddle, legs crossed, with open toed sandals dangling delicately from foot while clutching a small child, or two as well as their market purchases.
By the time the fear of transportation eroded somewhat, I had ample opportunity to explore the neighbourhood which provided a source of endless entertainment for the locals. In Canada, I am a very average sort of person but in Indonesia…I was a fascinating fair skinned, fair–haired wonder who could not wander the streets without causing some sort of a ruckus. Children pointed, adults stared—some erupted into laughter, while other’s giggled and most called out ‘bule’ which is Indonesian for foreigner. In the Indonesian language there are no masculine and feminine so, I was often referred to as ‘mister’ and greeted with “Good Morning Mister,” regardless, of the time of day. I also had a few marriage proposals. Needless to say, it was never boring when I took to the streets although, on some days I wished it was.
One day, when I was walking a man on an ojek passed by and said, “Good Morning crystal would you like a ride?” My first thought was…wow his English was good followed by… I have never seen this man before… How did he know my name? This was a reminder that word travels fast and if you told one person in the neighbourhood your name everyone would soon know your name. I was one of the few foreigners in the area hence, the entire community knew me, and I was soon to discover—my routine.
One morning, I had decided to have a bit of a sleep-in and left for work considerably later than usual and on route I encountered a very concerned neighbour who was anxiously pointing at his watch. I didn’t speak have to speak Indonesian to know someone was telling me that I was late. This transformation from average to extraordinary is the closest I will ever come to be a celebrity and having had a small taste of it I can’t imagine what it’s like to be the Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt’s of the world.
The beginning of each school term terrified me because I would have a classroom filled with students whose names I couldn’t pronounce—the students often fell into fits of laughter at my horrific attempts at pronunciation. Despite my disservice to their names, the classroom experience was rewarding. The students both young and old made me feel appreciated. Without fail, the students always left the classroom saying, “thank you Miss,” which given that they probably stumped me on a few grammar questions…I didn’t always think they should have been quite so thankful. To this day, it makes me smile to recall looking out at a classroom filled with those big Indonesian smiles and engaged faces waiting in anticipation for what I would say, or do, next. The Indonesian people are lovely.
Teaching also proved to be a great creative outlet as every lesson was a chance to find a way to drive home a grammar point in a fun way. Some of the lessons I thought would be successful were absolute disasters while others, were met with an enthusiasm I didn’t anticipate. Such was the case with a class of 6-8-year old's who I taught the hot dog song to (yes, there is a hot dog song). The kids were divided into a band who played pretend instruments. I thought perhaps, the song would last five-minutes, and it would be a great way to warm their brains up to English before the lesson ‘officially’ started. Well…I was wrong—the hot dog song was a mega hit. We sang the hot dog song over, and over again, and forty minutes later the class was over. Who would have thought a song about hot dogs would be such a crowd pleaser? And, I’m SURE their parents were delighted when their little people went home that day so well-versed in condiments.
Of late, I’ve been thinking about my time in Indonesia. In some ways it seems like a lifetime ago that I returned home from this adventure. But that was over 10 years ago, and I am still basking in the rewards this experience gave me. It broke an unhealthy cycle of being in a job I did not enjoy, and it taught me the very valuable lesson…there are careers that can be rewarding. But most importantly, it gave me courage—if I could ‘give it all up,’ move to the other side where I knew no one, I could have the courage to pursue my dream as a writer.
I have since published a novel Beauty Beneath the Banyan and am working on another. Soooo, when I think back to the time when people were questioning the sanity of my decision to give it all up and move so far away—I will have to say the decision to abandon all stands the test of time. Moreover, I can say with authority—I WAS NOT crazy. Moving abroad remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Thank you, very much.
Next brave move…TBD. What's yours?
Here's the school where I worked and a Bajaj; my alternative transportation to foot and ojek.
Activist, World traveller. Fan of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.