My time with the incredible teachers of Bintan and Tana Toraja ended a couple of days ago, and I’m now a tourist again. The transition from purposeful teacher to aimless tourist is a bit of a challenge. Now I have to make my own decisions!

There’s so much more to tell about all I’ve experienced so far. I’ll just start with some rather random thoughts and hopefully it will all make sense by the end. Tana Toraja teacher training will take a lot more time and another blog.

First, language: the Bahasa Indonesia language is the most comprehensible language I’ve experienced yet in Asia. It’s not a tonal language like most other Asian languages. So, even though one word may have several meanings, the meaning has more to do (I think!) with context, suffixes, or prefixes, not the way it’s pronounced. Because of the way it’s pronounced, it sounds more familiar to me. Hallelujah!

There is a lot of repetition in Bahasa Indonesia, meaning I’m hearing the same words, though in different contexts. This repetition gives the language a certain rhythm that is easy to follow after a while. By hearing them a number of times, I’ve learned a disjointed set of words and phrases, mainly having to do with food and education.

Indonesians, like Americans, seem to be expressive with their hands, and to use a fair amount of body language – both of which look familiar enough to me that they help me make sense of, at the VERY least, what is being discussed.

And perhaps the most obvious reason I seem to be kind of clued in to teachers (with whom I’ve spent a lot of time) when they speak Bahasa Indonesia is that many education terms used in English and their language are either shared, or they are cognates – they sound alike. Sometimes I can follow a simple explanation of a teaching idea or strategy just by paying careful attention and listening for education-related words, which the two groups used expertly and frequently.

Does all this mean that I have learned Bahasa Indonesia in the last three weeks? Sadly, not much. My best excuse is that my brain has been swimming with education terms, ideas, planning, and evaluating, not to mention learning about yet another Asian culture. At this point, I’m more than ready to start using some simple Indonesian phrases for small-talk and other occasions. The challenge now is to get these words to really stick in my head and flow from my mouth.

Culture: the national slogan, translated as “unity through diversity” pervades every aspect of Indonesian life. The ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity (hundreds of cultures; over 700 languages) that defines this massive country also appears to unite it.

From what I have observed, acceptance, harmony, collaboration and community are strong cultural values. Most Indonesians appear to practice some kind of religion faithfully (even silently praying before meals). Religious tolerance is the norm; while religion is not “in your face,” it is certainly omnipresent.

Community – in the family, village, neighborhood, etc.- is extremely important. In Bintan, my first Indonesian home away from home, resort workers and their families have created their own “family” and village away from their homes. They eat together, pray together, work together, and celebrate together. They are generous with their time and their homes. The teachers and principals know each other very well, and they seem to really get along. It was a very comfortable place for my first Indonesian experience. I look forward to returning.

Tana Toraja – 8 hours from the closest big city, Makassar – is a built entirely around family relations; even though it’s a rather large community, people know each other – or at least know OF each other. Family (last) names are important, and can even signify which part of the region a family is from. This fact becomes very important during celebrations of life and death; Tana Toraja is well known for its elaborate funeral parties. Merda and I went to a 50th wedding celebration for some relatives of hers and there were EASILY 1000 people there – she seemed to know everyone!

I have been the delighted recipient of the Indonesian value of politeness to strangers more times than I can count. A smile goes a long way here; like in Thailand, losing face or getting angry is considered very poor form. Some friends of Merda’s joked that this smiling – and sometimes even laughing – is a kind of defense mechanism used to reduce tension; sometimes it goes on long after the seriousness of the situation has been realized. In encounter after encounter Indonesians have cared for me, provided me meals and A LOT of coffee, and have assured my safety and comfort when my total lack of language was an issue. I have felt like a welcomed, honored guest in most every situation. Merda confirmed that this way of treating newcomers and guests is a strong cultural norm throughout Indonesia. It even went so far that, when we were en route to a “remote remote” (read: hours of barely drivable road) location, we used the toilet in the homes of people Merda and her family either knew or were related to. These potty stops also involved coffee and tea – unbelievable to this American that, after barging in on a distant relation to use the toilet, that family not only warmly welcomes us and engages in friendly conversation – they also offer us coffee!!! (Two notes here: if we stay for more than an hour, food will also be served. Note two: coffee makes you have to pee more – hence more potty stops!) Charming, but does not make for a quick road trip. My American cultural norms were challenged to the extreme.

Frugality/ lack of consumption/ resourcefulness: Indonesia, with its abundant cultural and natural wealth, is still a poor country. Ask different people, “why,” and you will get different answers. As no expert on politics or social or economic issues in this or any other country, I can only report what I observe: in Indonesia, people cherish and use resources well; they are not a people of over-consumption; they value what they have; and they have to work very hard for it all.

Bintan is a resort community, but the workers who support the resorts live in provided employee housing, shop locally, and have little resembling a tourist experience. They are paid decently, but still have to save for a long time for precious plane and ferry tickets to visit home and relatives. The township was comfortable and safe, but not lavish in any way. Humble, resourceful people living the best lives they can.

Tana Toraja is a very rural community. Merda and I talked about the words “remote” and “rural,” and I had a hard time differentiating these terms when discussing the area. At times we would drive hours on seriously challenging roads, after which she would declare that this was simply a “remote” – rather than a “remote remote” area. The way I see it, a “remote” area has government supplied electricity (albeit limited and spotty) and a water source. The road to reach it can be driven with a 4×4 vehicle, but you might just feel like you have been for a violent spin in a brand-new washing machine by the time you get there. Your car might bottom out and lose parts (true story). But this is just a remote community; imagine how challenging it might be to get to a “remote remote remote” place? And what one might find when she gets there?

There are places in Tana Toraja (and, I imagine, in other parts of Indonesia) where children walk four hours EACH way to school. Which is compulsory. Can you imagine sending your six-year-old out the door at 4:00 am to walk to school?

And yet, school is so greatly valued by Torajans, and Indonesians in general. They see the need to educate their children; the challenges for many are nearly insurmountable. And yet, you don’t hear a lot of complaining, demanding – the “bitching and moaning” so often heard in other places.

That’s all I have for now, but I have 20+ pages of journal to share, and some unbelievable stories to tell. Thanks for coming along!