The call of the mosque in the early morning hours. The laugther and shouts of people, at 6am. The giggle of children, all day. The honking of horns of motorbikes and cars, an endless river of metal. The cries of the street vendors selling soto ayam and bubur and mie baso; the chimes of the bell of the ice cream vendor’s bicycle, drawing the children through the narrow alley ways like the Pied Piper. No dogs, because this is a Muslim country, instead dozens of stray and hungry cats. Young women in headscarves and tight jeans. Everywhere shouts of „what’s your name“ and „where are you from“, of „Bule, Bule“. The youth meets up at milk bars and shisha places, the old ones are sitting in front of their houses and comment. Many have a smartphone.
A country, an experience – this time as a volunteer in Cianjur, Western Java, Indonesia.
Cianjur isn’t really a tourist hot spot – the town is inland from Jakarta, a ca. 2.5 hours (or 8 hours, in my case, time in Java is „rubber time“) bus journey. It’s quite a big city, about 300,000 people, surrounded by beautiful rice fields, a volcano towering above. When tourists stray here, they are usually taking part in the homestay- and volunteering program Volunteer in Java which I am highly recommending. Against a small fee for food and accommodation, you live in the house of Kumis and his mother, mostly together with other volunteers, live the local life, and visit the schools to speak a bit of English with the pupils.
Differently from my previous teaching assignments, no teaching skills were required; instead, I was pushed in front of various groups in all sorts of schools, to answer the usual questions of „where are you from what is your name where do you live what is your favourite food“, motivate the pupils by emphasizing the importance of English for their future, and play simple games with them. It was more exhausting than it sounds, and at times felt a bit like „The Travelling Freak Show feat. Miss Dorothy“.
In many ways, „developed“ und „developing“ countries are worlds apart, and both sides can learn a lot from each other. A banality: Living in the West isn’t Nirvana; and yet, our way of life is the idea of paradise for so many people, who, strangely, look so much happier than us. Life here isn’t Nirvana either, the daily problems are too real – loss of employment, an illness, an accident have grave consequences for the chances of survival, much more so than in the West.
The dream of many is to study in the US or Europe, to better their chances in their own countries. It is the look in the eyes of the pupils that expresses this dream, and which makes it clear that it’s not about teaching a few words of English, but that one embodies dream and motivation. It doesn’t matter that the „civilized“ West has it’s own problems – who are we, to deny progress and prosperity with reference to lifestyle diseases, burn-out, depression, heart attacks and social isolation? To experience a different culture, a different way of thinking and working, and a higher level of education and income will help the countries in the long run in the fight against poverty, environmental problems (a huge issue in Asia), and illness. When, at the same time, the „Westerner“ adopts some of the happy laughter, the joy of living, the hospitality, the living in the „Now“ and in the community, both sides profit, and that is what volunteering really is about, because you can “live” both sides, and act as a bridge. I really recommend it, also in one’s home country, it’s a great aid against lifestyle diseases.
On a less philosophical note, teaching English can also help to avoid these typical conversations, such as the ones I just had in a hotel: „My room stinks of cigarette smoke, do you have non-smoking rooms?“ „Yes, madam“. „Thanks, I’d like to move into one then, please“. „We only have smoking rooms“. „Eh…??“ – „Here are your access details for the internet.“ „Thanks.“ (Half an hour later). „Sorry, I cannot access your internet, what am I doing wrong?“ „We don’t have internet.“ „Eh…??“.
Of all the experiences at the schools, the one at a primary school was the most impressive. Approximately 35 pupils, a teacher, and I. The kids were to ask me questions. For a nerve-racking 70 minutes, the children screamed – just because, or at each other; they kicked each other; they hit each other; one fell off her chair; another banged on his desk. During all this, the teacher stood calmly in front of the class, sometimes shouting over the din, and didn’t think anything unusual was happening. I was stunned – that’s not how I remember my time at primary school. Nostaligia overcame me, for Nepal – pupils who don’t say anything at all – I’d underestimated the peacefulness of this. We did manage five meaningful questions (and shouted answers), and then I fled, to spend the remainder of the day on the terrace, trembling and withdrawn – I am too old for these things. After that, I was kept away from primary schools, and whilst the classes at all the schools were very lively, they couldn’t match this.
Light-skinned, blond haired foreigners are called „bule“ (pronounced boolay), which means „albino“. The kids loved to stand in front of the terrace every morning and shout Bule Bule for what felt like hours.
Rather involuntarily – wearing a headscarf or hijab. The only dress code for us was usually “long trousers, long sleeves” (Java is mostly Muslim). Only at a Muslim school was I asked to please wear a hijab. All Indonesians who saw the picture thought it looked great – I on the other hand don’t think I am a headscarf person…
I had, after some teething problems (I am getting used to the fact that it always takes a while until I get used to new living conditions, and mine change constantly), a great time in Cianjur. Kumis is also a tour guide, and he makes sure that his guests can discover the beauty of his country with mountain- and motor bikes. I met wonderful people, had a fun time at the schools, ate way too much tasty food, and am happy that I had this experience.