An ETA’s First Week at Site

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Although I had a big smile on my face I was terrified as I walked out of the airport with the three other ETA’s living  in West Sumatra. We were greeted by our principles, our vice principals, and our co-teachers. It is hard to describe the fear when first arriving to a foreign place on the other side of the world and immediately travelling off alone with people you have just met. I could not speak bahasa Indonesian and though my counterparts could speak English, the struggle to communicate was still apparent.  This only added to my fears of isolation as I left behind the three other ETA’s and headed to my new home for the next 10 months. I shed my doubts and embarked on the great new adventure with a beaming smile on my face and a positive and open mind. Our first stop was a restaurant where we ate traditional West Sumatran food. Instead of a menu, you walk in and the table is full with an array of ready to eat dishes! You simply start eating whatever you choose, and at the end of the meal the servers only charge you for what you ate.

    In my attempt to culturally emerge myself I insisted against eating with a fork and knife as my counterpart offered, and instead chose to eat the West Sumatran way, with my hands! Eating a chicken leg with my hands was much easier than with a fork, but rice posed as a bit of a challenge. I made my first cultural blunder by eating with both hands, as in West Sumatra it is polite to eat with only your right hand. Luckily, my co-teachers laughed it off as they understood I was still an outsider to their culture. I smiled back and was glad I made my first mistake eating, rather than handing something to someone or waiving to them with my left hand (which is also not the cultural norm). 

    A long car ride filled with sites of rice paddies, beautiful landscapes, mountains, monkeys, and waterfalls finally ended at my destination, Payakumbuh a small city surrounded by rice paddies deep in the valley of West Sumatra. I was given a room in a kost, which is very similar to an apartment. It is in a gated community, of visually appealing modern townhouses. I have my own room, a full-sized bed, an air conditioner, a shower with hot water (a luxury for most ETA’s), and a small balcony overlooking Payakumbuh with a view of two of the three volcanoes surrounding the city. My Counterpart took me over to the head of the neighborhood to introduce myself, he spoke hardly any English, but a simple exchange of smiles is all we needed to communicate our mutual respect and his welcoming of me. Afterwards I was given time to unpack and rest for my first day of school tomorrow. 

When I arrived at my new senior high school in Payakumbuh, I thought I was walking into a college campus rather than a public high school. The beautiful outdoor campus is full of tropical plants, koi ponds, and students walking around, hanging out, and playing games. I was in awe of the astonishing buildings with horns protruding out of the ceilings, a signature West Sumatra architectural feature. At the center of the school features an elaborate Mosque. After being welcomed and introduced to most of the teachers and principals, I was taken down to the center basketball court where the entire school awaited my arrival. A welcoming ceremony in my honor was underway. Seated students filled the basketball court with an open pathway in the middle, who cheered enthusiastically as I walked down the aisle with the principle. Students displayed  traditional performances in martial arts, singing, and dancing with beautiful and intricate costumes. I was presented a basket with leaves inside and told to take one, I picked up a leaf and said Terima Kasih (Thank You in bahasa indonesia). The school erupted in laughter as I had made another mistake unknowingly. I was only supposed to take a piece of the leaf to eat, not the entire leaf. But a big smile and a bow of my head to acknowledge my ignorance was appreciatively received.

Later they put me on the spot and asked me to perform a song as they ushered me to the podium in front of over one thousand students. Luckily, as an employee of the Boy Scouts of America, I knew a few camp songs off the top of my head, so I sang my favorite song called the Great Big Moose Song. It was a hit. Students cheered, laughed, and to my surprise, sang along with me in the repeat after me format. Once the ceremony concluded I was flooded with students asking to take selfies with me and shaking my hand. Before coming to school, I was terrified of how I would be received by this new community, but upon leaving school I felt more welcomed than I ever did back home.

I made many friends at school. Here in Indonesia, it is encouraged for teachers to be friends with their students, they ask to have your phone number, to follow them on social media, and meet up with them for dinner with their parents. The closest friend I made this first week was the technology teacher, Endo, who happily took me to the local gym. A common interest of ours! The people there were enthusiastic to have me as their guest, they showed me how to use some of the equipment that I was unfamiliar with and (again) took many photos with me afterwards. The communication barrier was present, but once again, a warm hearted smile expressed the good intentions of our interactions. 

The next day after school I went to my sitemate Nick’s house, another American ETA living in Payakumbuh, only a 5-minute drive away from my place. He showed me his house and we sat outside talking and taking pictures with some of the neighborhood children. We decided to go for a walk and after smiling and waving at the next-door neighbor we were stopped and asked to help get fruit down from her tree. She gave me a scythe and I reached up to the top of the tree and cut down a few rambutan fruits. They are red and hairy on the outside, with a sweet jelly-like white fruit on the inside. The neighbor then asked us what our plan was and insisted that we go to the Ngalau caves. She kindly dropped us off on her motorbike, where Nick and I began our ascent up a mountain. It had some amazing views overlooking Payakumbuh. There was a nice park at the top and entrances to some spectacular caves. Some parts easily reaching over 50 meters high!

The following day was a Friday where schools let out around 11:30. The headmistresses planned a field trip with some of the teachers. We got on a bus and set off for Harau Valley, only a 15 minute drive away. It was a massive valley, with large cliffs on all sides. It has over 9 waterfalls within its borders. We walked around and saw two of them. There were areas to swim underneath them, and one had a fun, but scary, bridge to walk across that led to a zipline over the waterfall. It was an exhilarating experience I got to share with eight of my fellow female teachers.

My last day at site was a Saturday so I stayed in and took a much-needed rest during the morning. Caught up with some friends and family over facetime (yes there is decent wifi here), and later got picked up by my friend Endo who took me to a place that locals refer to as New Zealand. It’s a government pasture with cows imported from New Zealand and Australia, but it gets its name from the beautiful landscape of rolling hills and open green fields. We walked around for almost two hours at dusk. It was so peaceful and relaxing, there were no sounds of the loud constant motorcycle traffic of Payakumbuh, just the wind breeze and a cows mooing in the distance. 

It seems there is so much to do in Indonesia, and even within Payakumbuh! But what really stuck with me as the first impressions of Payakumbuh was just how friendly and welcoming people are. A smile goes a long way here,  just by smiling at the people I crossed, they were eager to smile back, introduce themselves and welcome me into their communities.

For more visuals of this week, watch this video!

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