Some of you have asked how this whole teacher training/ Indonesian adventure unfolded. So before I talk about how it went, I will explain.

Last summer, my dear friend Hope and I were traveling Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam together. We had an ambitious itinerary which included, among other stops, Angkor Wat, the Killing Fields, Hanoi, and Ha Long Bay.

We took an overnight cruise in Ha Long Bay on one of the famous “junk” boats called The Golden Lotus. That is where the picture on the top of this blog was shot. It was a great trip for so many reasons.

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After cave touring and kayaking on day one, Hope decided, and I was persuaded, to jump off the three-story uppermost boat deck into the bay. This stunt HAD to be captured on film. We did it a few times with no photographic luck. My little camera just wouldn’t cut it.

Through the tour and kayaking, we got to know Ranan, another guest on the boat who was traveling with his wife and daughter. He is an avid photographer who was kayaking around the bay with a very impressive camera that I feared might fall into the water at any moment. Not that he appeared careless; rather, if that camera had been in my hands, it would end up at the bottom of the bay.

Long story short, Ranan shot a multi-frame action sequence of us jumping off the second deck of the boat (by this time my adrenaline was pumping and I couldn’t go up to the third any more without having a heart attack). I asked him to email me the photos, and he did. Here’s one:

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I kept in touch with Ranan via Facebook throughout the year, learning that he works in a resort town in Bintan, Indonesia – a favorite retreat for Singaporeans, who travel there via ferry for holiday.

On a whim, when I was thinking about how to continue the Asian adventure started last summer, I emailed Ranan and asked him if he had any contacts in Indonesia for whom I could volunteer. I pictured maybe doing some kind of physical labor or help in tourism. Little did I know that he had bigger ideas based on my teaching career.

Ranan connected me with super- Principal Dina and super-woman Merda who both jumped at the opportunity to have a teacher trainer at their disposal this summer. A few million emails later and it was all set: after a month of being a tourist in Vietnam, I would travel to Bintan for eight days and then to Tana Toraja for ten, to train teachers and learn about education in Indonesia.

It has been great to have a “purpose” on this trip other than mere tourism. I have learned and experienced more than I imagined was possible in such a short period of time. Working with Dina, Merda, and these teachers put me in touch with two very different areas and cultures in Indonesia that I would have never seen as a typical, street-level tourist.

So that’s the how/ why this adventure was born. It’s crazy how life works, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure I’m committed to come back to both communities next summer – just need to work out the details and save pennies. And now that I have more of a clue about Indonesian education and teachers, this training can only get better.

I want to send a huge “thank you” to Ranan, Dina, Merda, and all the teachers and others I’ve met here. You have changed my life and worldview in a tremendous way.

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Here is a collection of photos that highlight my time in Tana Toraja.

Ester, my seat-mate in the 10-hour ride from Makassar to Tana Toraja. She took VERY good care of me!

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Merda and me next to one of the stars of the buffalo fight: part of the Torajan funeral celebration.

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The sign that greeted me – along with 80+ teachers – to training. Made my knees shake a bit.

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Teachers, having fun but also showing what they learned.

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I signed a lot of certificates!

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It wasn’t all work; Merda took me to the local market and many other places. Here is where i learned why the chicken here tastes so good. Before (right) and after (left).

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Parents at the meeting “opening” a new, remote pre-k and kindergarten. Merda delivered what the parents had wanted for years. 55 students who didn’t have school until 1st grade will now have a place to prepare!

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The views here are outrageous.

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School visits.

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I learned so much from this truly life-changing experience. Can’t wait to go back to Toraja and Bintan next summer!

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!

I arrived in Tana Toraja last Saturday night. After I realized that both my host and I forgot to confirm where I was to meet her (we’re alike in many ways!) I found her at a lovely, traditional hotel where she and the regional government are hosting me for the next week and a half.

I have a quite a few photos and lots of stories from TT already – and little in the way of internet resources from which to share them. Let’s just say I’ve arrived in 1994 and am struggling to keep a viable internet connection long enough to post a blog while not crashing every program on this dear little computer.

This area is REMOTE – ten hours’ bus ride from Makassar, Sulawesi. The guide books and most local people say it’s only eight, but I’ve found out that’s because most people take the NIGHT bus, on which no one actually counts the hours:) Or maybe that’s because I was on an exceptionally slow bus?

Merda, my host, and her husband Kris took me to a buffalo fight on Sunday – one event in a series for a traditional Torajan funeral party. That’s right – funerals are referred to as “parties” here because that’s exactly what they are. These parties are months or years in the making, and cost more than most weddings.

In an incident that will be detailed in photos later, I smashed the heck out of my foot jumping over an irrigation ditch as we left the buffalo fight. In a matter of minutes I grew a second ankle on my right foot. As Merda called her “traditional” Indonesian masseur to my aid, I struggled to not envision all the ways this injury would ruin my trip. Looking back at the photos, I’m surprised I was at all calm. After all, Lonely Planet (cough!) says that medical care in this region is nonexistent, with the most serious cases (of what?!?) evacuated to Singapore and Australia. Was this serious? It sure felt like I broke something in my foot, and I DEFINITELY heard a “pop!”

The doctor massaged the swelling in my foot; this did not feel at all like a “massage.” Rather, it felt like someone putting all their energy and pressure on a very sore nerve which was, in fact, what he was doing. Apparently my hard landing had not broken a bone; it had displaced a nerve from the side of my foot, entrapping it in a place it clearly was not meant to be. He had to put it back where it belonged. Ouch!

After this treatment Merda escorted me back to my hotel for dinner, and after dinner I couldn’t walk. I had to be wheeled up to my room (embarrassing!) where I fretted and Merda re-assured me about our first day of teacher training, which was the next morning. She also told me that if I wanted to see a “Western” doctor the next morning, she would get me to one. I told her that if my foot didn’t feel better the next morning that I would want to go to the hospital.

Well, wouldn’t you know it – the next morning, when I expected to feel much worse, my foot was actually better. Yes, it was swollen, and a bruise was beginning, but I could walk with a limp and stood on it all day.

Every day it has gotten better, and now on day three it’s significantly improved. I am photo-documenting this process because even though it’s my foot, it’s hard to believe that this traditional treatment has taken an injury that could certainly be a deal-breaker and made it into no big deal.

Teacher training had 82 participants on its busiest day – a bit of a freak out after 11 last week!  They are great, however, and are digging in with enthusiasm and expertise.  Tomorrow we will throw them into unique teaching scenarios that will FORCE them to be creative.  Should be a treat to watch these teachers find creative ways to present “how to wash the dishes” and other such gems.

Merda has taken me to local restaurants and her family houses which are light years away from the tourist track.  Like in Bintan, it’s been a pleasure to be hosted by a local who wants to make sure I have an authentic experience.  After seeing chickens going from “before” to “after” at the local market yesterday, I can say that this experience has been authentic in every way.

I have a lot more to share about this experience, but I’m tired and it’s time to turn in for the night.  This hotel has many modern amenities and a swimming pool, but the guest rooms are screened, not sealed, and one truly sleeps just steps away from nature.  It’s been a few nights of blissful rest here in the jungle!

The whole group after five incredibly productive days together.

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I’m pretty sure those are some big words on the board.

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Susy (foreground) is smiling in every photo I got of her. Love her laugh, and her confidence. She and Primary 6 are going to do great on the national test this year!

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Teachers shouldn’t be allowed to have so much fun! Gugun leading a PE lesson. He SO gets how to incorporate the content areas into PE.

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Feby teaching and Santy participating. We did some incredible “practice” teaching.

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Dina is not just a principal – she’s a true instructional leader.

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Kindergarten teachers Mega, Genia, Kristina, and Putri putting the puzzle together. Collaboration at its best!

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Yanne’s laugh is infectious.

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Gita practicing great questioning techniques. She even has the teacher “I’m asking a question even though I know the answer” look down pat.

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Honestly, these teachers could teach the telephone book. Putri made the most “well loved” pop-up book entertaining.

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Santy teaching about coal production, relating it to some very real mining problems happening in Java.

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Another broke-down pop-up book – Genia made it fun and took us on a journey.

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Our Bollywood girl Mega stole the show with an Indonesian folk story none of us knew and that NONE of us will ever forget.

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Kristine made this Kangaroo and Monkey story come to life.

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What an incredible week. Thanks for playing along!

Saturday was our first day of teacher training. There are 11 participants – 4 from the local kindergarten and 7 from the elementary school, including the two principals. The teachers vary in English speaking/ writing/ comprehension level from one who understands and can speak, read, and write in a native-like way (which is amazing, considering that she has never studied abroad) to one who can follow most of what’s going on, but does not speak or write much English. The group is young but diverse in so many ways; although many are from Java, they are from all over that province, and some are from different provinces. Only one is from Batam, the closest “large” city in this district. From what I can guess, most if not all are Muslim or some sort of Christian. Faith, ethics, and good manners/ civic responsibilities are highly valued by all members of the group, and are practiced freely and with mutual acceptance.

Teachers here, like students, wear uniforms. Most days they wear a yellow and white (Bintan Resort color) checked cotton shirt and black pants. They also have matching blue and yellow batik shirts for Fridays. On the day when they did not wear uniforms, all wore batik shirts of some form. Dress is conservative but relaxed. I think the uniforms exude professionalism, and the batik highlights the importance of cultural backgrounds and values. A few of the Muslim women cover their heads with scarves, though this is a personal choice and not all do so. When I see them outside of training they dress casually but women’s shoulders tend to be covered. Again – conservative but not fussy.

Because they work in a tourist area, most of the teachers live together in an employee dorm. Some live in employee apartments which are in the same complex where I am staying. As Dina, the Primary Principal said, “They know each other well and they fight well.” This was a well-intentioned poke meant to mean that they are very familial, and spend day and night together – they can bicker like siblings but really are quite close.

Most employees of the Bintan Resort and other resorts in the area live in the “township” area of Bintan about 10 kilometers from the resorts and beaches. The township is small – about four square blocks. There is a market (produce, prepared food and mini-marts); two small shopping centers that cater to tourists getting off the beaten track; a few ATMs; a laundry; a couple of restaurants; a spa; the elementary school and kindergarten buildings; the commissary where most people eat; and some other employee apartments. One restaurant that charges Singapore prices for food and beverage is the only place with free public WiFi; there is no “paid” internet or Internet cafe that I can find. I made friends with the people who work there and they now charge me the “local” price for food and drink, but the Internet is so painfully slow that if I use my iPhone and iPad at the same time I just slow myself down. This place is SMALL.

That said, the smallness of this little township is quite charming. After the hustle and bustle of Vietnam, being able to trust that a smile and “where are you going?” is not going to be followed by “you need motorbike” is refreshing. I can smile back and say something like “just walking” (literally eating wind, if I say it in Indonesian). People are genuinely friendly, curious, and kind. The area is safe enough that bikes and doors don’t need to be locked.

The principals and teachers have been impeccable hosts. In just five days I feel like I have known this group for months. They are giving, helpful, polite, and curious; they participate eagerly in the training and actually know quite a lot. There are very few ideas I’ve introduced that are completely foreign to them. In fact, I find them light-years ahead of many experienced American teachers in their expertise with cooperative teaching methods, best practices, and other pedagogical concerns. They are creative and hard-working; they genuinely care about their students and know those students well. It’s like the “dream class” full of eager learners with great experiences and ideas to share. Resources of all kinds are scarce, but you would never know it. Although some bemoan students’ lack of enthusiasm or discipline, I’m not hearing the bitching, moaning, and complaining I have tended to hear in American educational circles. Perhaps they are saving that for when I’m not around? I somehow doubt that.

This group works cooperatively like a well-oiled machine. They have translated for me and for each other spontaneously and without being asked. They question me and each other and give great feedback and suggestions. They are not competitive, they are naturally collaborative. I don’t know if this is a cultural trait or not. I guess I will find out next week when I meet a group of 70-100 teachers who don’t know one another?

In just two days of training we have covered scores of inquiry-based teaching ideas and techniques; we have written rubrics and used them for self-assessment; we have applied new learning to existing curriculum guides and lesson plans; we have shared ideas and given and received feedback. I have modeled technique after technique to heighten student interest and engagement, teach English, use inquiry to promote learning, etc etc etc. I might be tapped out by the end of tomorrow!

And this group continues to absorb it all like a sponge, eager for more and more, and for opportunities to practice, apply, and evaluate.

My first experience in Indonesia is one that has lain a great foundation to build upon in the upcoming weeks. I feel so fortunate to know and to be working with this group.

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So, yesterday I met some of my new colleagues in Bintan’s Tunas Bangsa school. Dina, the principal of the primary school, is young, energetic, calm, bright (can I come up with more adjectives!?!) and an amazing hostess. She picked me up at the ferry terminal and then escorted me all over the “township” area of Bintan to help me get oriented. This area is mainly where the resort workers live, and is quite small and easily walkable. That doesn’t mean I didn’t manage to get lost on my own later – just that it’s small enough that you can only get 1-2 blocks “lost” before you figure it out. Refreshing!

After the ruckus and “you need motorbike!” shenanigans in Vietnam, this little island in the far north of Indonesia is a paradise of tranquility. Home to several mega-resorts catering to the wealthy from around the world, you would never know it from the township, which is a couple of kilometers inland and about 1 square kilometer.

It was the last day of school for the students. This was fantastic luck because I got to meet some of them and actually taught/ modeled a little ESL mini-lesson with a group of eager, bright-eyed fifth graders (while students in other grades peeped through the windows of the classroom!) The students know a lot of English already but were a little shy about interacting with me, the alien being:) I was happy for this opportunity as it helped to break the ice for the students, teachers, and even me.

Dina and I got to work pretty quickly after lunch, going through the week’s agenda and changing/ expanding, and tweaking where necessary. It seems that here my style of collaborative, participant-centered training is an incredible fit, as we fell into a natural question/ compromise and give and take conversation about the details of the workshop. She has a great sense of humor and we even had some good laughs.

After lunch we went to meet the kindergarten teachers who will join us for the training. Apparently they were a little worried about speaking English with me; I worked hard to put them at ease, emphasizing that I’m there to help, not to “judge” their English. We talked and Dina translated – again, they seemed so collaborative, open – happy to have me there. Compliments about my “long thin nose” were peppered into the conversation during which one lovely young teacher said that she hoped her unborn daughter would be as beautiful as me. I melted, laughed, and blushed simultaneously. Are these women for real? And did I mention how beautiful they are?

Our day was winding down. There is so little stress and pressure here that it honestly didn’t even feel like work. Before I knew it we were finished and the night’s agenda was disclosed: after dinner Dina and some marketing people from Bintan Resort were going to take me to the Bintan Cultural Festival to watch some traditional Indonesian dance. The venue? Club Med.

That’s right, folks – there’s a Club Med in Bintan, and the cultural festival is being hosted there this year. We were picked up from dinner and headed out to the beach. This Club Med is much like the one in Copper was, albeit on the beach and a little, shall I say, less like employee housing?

The traditional dance was beautiful, enjoyable, and a great way for me to get a brief taste of the variety of cultures in Indonesia. Participants showed great pride in their dancing and cultures. I had no idea how culturally diverse Indonesia is until this night.

Then we were invited to enjoy the expansive Club Med buffet dinner. I had pizza and mashed potatoes to get a little “taste of home.” The pizza tasted EXACTLY as I remembered it from Copper – apparently food is consistent across Club Meds around the world.

And THEN we were invited to the Club Med after dinner show: Latin!

Let me just say that by this time I was having so many Club Med flashbacks that it was difficult to discern fantasy from reality, and I was blown away that on my first night in Indonesia, I was at Club Med. Surreal.

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Once I got home from this extravaganza, I collapsed into bed and slept a solid six hours of dream-filled and much- needed sleep.

Today I had the privilege of working with the kindergarten teachers and principal in preparation for training, which begins tomorrow. This work was remarkable as well, and again turned into an amazing collaboration/ give and take discussion about their needs and how we would work together to meet them.

I have a lot more to write about all of this, but it’s time for me to join the group of teachers for the meatball-eating celebration in honor of one of the school’s teachers who is leaving tomorrow to re-join his family in Jakarta.

Here’s the gang:

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Leaving Vietnam was definitely bittersweet. Tom and I had some great times there; I’ve made some potential business/ education contacts; and I grew to love the country and its people even more than I could have imagined.

This trip to Bintan, via Singapore, has been quick. I arrived in Singapore around 1:00 the afternoon of the 14th; took the subway and walked to my hotel in Little India; grabbed some great Indian food and explored a bit; then collapsed into bed early.

I chose to stay in the Little India area of Singapore because I hadn’t seen it on my last trip through and it looked interesting. It was easily accessible to the subway and would be a short taxi trip to the ferry terminal when I left for Bintan.

Wednesday I woke up with a plan to explore Little India and Arab Street and to possibly buy a watch to replace the $10 Target watch I had already broken. I wandered through the “market” streets, headed towards Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour shopping mall. On the way I stumbled upon Veerama Kaliamman, a busy Hindu temple in the heart of the area. The temple was vibrant and beautiful, teeming with colorfully-dressed devotees and drab tourists. Monks made devotions to the various deities inside, and musicians played music that pierced the incense-laden air.

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I continued on to Mustafa Centre which was GIGANTIC. The first section I saw was full of watches of all brands and price points for as far as the eye could see. If I couldn’t find a watch here, I wouldn’t find one anywhere.

Although there were some watches that I had never seen at home, all the big brands that we have in the US were there, and in massive quantities. I kicked myself for not just buying a more expensive watch when I was at home, forgetting that the prices displayed were in Singapore dollars, exchanging at a rate of about $1.23 to the American dollar. I looked at every watch in my price range that might fit my criteria – tough, plastic and water-resistant, and settled on a Swatch of all things. As I put on my new watch I had flashbacks to the 80s, when we used to stack 2-3 Swatches and any other tacky wrist wear from hand to elbow. Chuckling, I left Mustafa Centre and headed back to my hotel for a quick minute.

Hungry, I consulted Trip Advisor and headed out to eat a delicious chicken curry that thoroughly filled me up, one again, I knew, ruining my dinner.

A brief glance at my tourist map and I was off to Arab Street and Haji Lane – an area known for its textiles; shisha bars; and boutiquey shopping.

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The area was small, clean, and exactly as described in my tourist map. I stopped in a small clothing boutique where the shop owner immediately engaged me in friendly conversation about my travels. When I told her I had some time at the end of my trip that was not yet planned, she enthusiastically suggested that I visit Burma (Myanmar), her home country. She detailed what I should see and do there, should I go, and gushed about how wonderful her country and its people are. We exchanged contact information and well-wishes, and I headed back to my hotel for a little relaxation.

Following the advice of many friends and tourist resources, I walked down to Raffles Hotel in the evening for a drink. Now, everyone says that the drink of choice is the Singapore Sling; at $28 that was a bit out of my budget. Little did I know that the two Tiger beers I would have paid 50 cents each for in Vietnam would end up costing me more than my flight from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City. As I’ve said before, I can’t wait to come back to Singapore with a MUCH bigger budget. Right now I feel like every time I’m in Singapore someone turns me upside down to empty my pockets.

This morning I was going to take rapid transit to the ferry terminal and, with the help of a woman at the front desk of my hotel, had the route all mapped out. I got up early to allow more time than a taxi would take, and was down in the lobby ready to go with ample time to spare. Little did I know, in my room with no window, that it was raining quite hard. Walking to the MRT and transferring to a bus were out of the question, so I called a taxi and was at the ferry terminal TWO HOURS early.

The ferry ride was quite comfortable and uneventful.

My friend Ranan who has been the Indonesian contact for these teacher training gigs was there with Dina, the principal of my first school, to pick me up. I was nervous but excited.

I had a great first day which is going to take a good deal more time to detail than I have right now. I’ll add photos to this blog and update ASAP – it was a great day and I’m really looking forward to working with these teachers!

During the last couple of days I’ve felt more and more tired and run-down. Yesterday, when I got to Saigon, I hit a wall and was exhausted. I went to a favorite pho spot around the corner from my budget hotel and on my way back to my room grabbed a beer from the lobby fridge to settle in for the night. The manager laughed, reminding me that it was VERY early. It didn’t feel early at all!

I had a lazy night full of good American TV re-runs such as Dog Whisperer, Glee, and other favorites. At about 9:00 I fell asleep in front of the TV and woke up today at 6:30 feeling better, but wondering why I was so tired.

This morning I looked at the date: June 13 – one month ago I landed in Singapore at 2 a.m. I’m now about 1/3 of the way through this trip. WOW.

This morning a fellow guest at my hotel asked me about my travels. I listed the places I had been in the past month; his eyes were wide as he also said “Wow!”

This realization has prompted me to review my journal and doings in the the last month, as much for myself as for my readers. I also realize I’ve left out photos of some great sights and places. This will give me a chance to share those as well.

May 14: Arrived in Singapore at 2 am. Spent the next day “recovering;” the day after that sightseeing.

Chinatown was cool and quite close to my hotel.

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The Marina Bay Sands Casino is truly amazing.

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Singapore was beautiful

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And quirky.

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And the “surprise” Dali exhibit was spectacular.

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I loved Singapore and look forward to spending more time there – when I have ALOT more money to spend:) Actually I’ll be traveling through several times in the next few weeks.

May 16: arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Stayed at great inexpensive hotel in the “touristic” part of District 1. Spent a few days sight seeing, scoping out the town and what to do once Tom arrived.

Saw some amazing Vietnamese Art at the Fine Arts Museum.

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May 19: Tom arrived in the morning. After declaring himself “not jet lagged”, he passed out for most of the afternoon. We spent the next day walking/ touring. Saw the War Remnants Museum (formerly the Museum of American War Atrocities), which was mind-opening.

Also observed a plague of cockroaches escaping a downpour.

One of Tom’s favorite things to marvel at, besides traffic, was the massive octopi of power lines that dot almost every corner of Saigon.

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May 21: Went on a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels which was also quite an eye-opener.

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May 22: Tom and I boarded a tourist bus, headed for Mui Ne for our 19th anniversary. Grace Hotel was gorgeous. And even though there wasn’t much beach where we stayed, swimming in the ocean as well as the pool was quite nice.

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Mui Ne was pretty quiet and very relaxing after the hustle and bustle of Saigon.

May 26: We boarded another tourist bus, headed for Nha Trang.

Nha Trang is also a beach town, but it’s more of a city with a lot more going on than Mui Ne. We mainly just chilled here:

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But we did see some cool Cham Towers

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Met some Coors Girls

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And played a fun game of “jumbo” Jenga

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We enjoyed Nha Trang so much that we stalled out there until June 2nd, when Tom left.

June 4: I finally tore myself away from Nha Trang and had a very scary overnight bus ride to Hoi An (see blog).

I didn’t write a lot about Hoi An because, well, I didn’t do a lot. I did go see the girls at the shop where I had boots and a purse made last September. They remembered me because they had dragged me and friend Kristina out to karaoke on our last night there. I learned that one of these bubbly young women is getting married on the 25th of this month. I’ll be sad to miss the wedding, as I imagine if would be quite a party!

Two new observations in Hoi An:

1) tourists should not ride motorbikes in crowded streets. I saw a group of two almost take each other and a few locals out. That would have been bad.

2) when a restaurant serves “duck,” said duck is bought live at the market and transported live to wherever it will meet its demise in a plastic bag, many times slung over the handle of a motorbike. I only know this because a couple of times in Hoi An I was “quacked” at by ducks in this mode of transport. Makes me think about being a vegetarian again 😦

I spent quite a bit of time on Cau Dai Beach, which was heavenly – tranquil and peaceful.

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I also went on a tour to My Son – Vietnam’s Angkor Wat – and got so sick of the heat that i decided to go to Dalat for a couple of days.

June 9: I sadly departed Hoi An for Dalat. Dalat is definitely “bizarre-o” Vietnam, especially because the temperature is almost always 68-70 degrees. I enjoyed the respite from the heat, but didn’t have the right clothes for much. I took a motorbike tour, and on my foot tour the next day saw some crazy paddle boats.

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One night I met a friend of my new Vietnamese business friend, who introduced me to a fun group of expats and other various foreigners who have made Dalat home. And finally…

June 12: I headed back to Saigon, to my same now favorite hotel, where I am relaxing in anticipation of some business meetings this afternoon. Crazy times!

Tomorrow I leave for a short stay in Singapore before I take a ferry to Bintan, Indonesia, on Thursday to start teacher training.

This trip has certainly been a whirlwind so far – I can only imagine how interesting it’s going to get teaching teachers in a country so completely new to me. I’ll keep you posted!

I have a confession to make: I knew before I came to Dalat that I would take a tour on the back of a motorbike. It’s one of the “things to do” here – a must-do, in fact, suggested by almost everyone I’ve talked to who has visited Dalat.

There’s a group of “organized” motorbike drivers who refer to themselves as “Easy Riders;” they’re actually all over Vietnam. But in Dalat they are more prevalent and more organized than in other areas. I can understand why – it seems like touring the central highlands region of Vietnam just lends itself to motorcycle travel.

There are also a lot of people who call themselves “Easy Riders” who, in fact, have no affiliation with the organized group; there are those who have organized in opposition to the Easy Riders; and then there are lots of guys who own a motorbike and don’t have another way to make money who appear out of every nook and cranny of this hilly city to tempt you with the offer of a cheap ride on their motorbike – just like in every other city in Vietnam.

When I arrived on the airport transfer bus, I was immediately approached by a kind of sketchy looking guy whose shoes I literally spotted as I looked down the stairs out of the bus. “”Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” I find this immediate, in the face extremely unsettling when all I’m trying to do is get a location on a map and figure out how to get to the next. Out of reflex I replied, “No motorbike.” Well, this was about the stupidest thing I could have done, because then he was engaged. He said, “Why not?” I’m an Easy Rider!” Ugh. Even if I had wanted to book this tour right then, I was just not impressed. He said, “Oh, you’re scared!” I repeated that I didn’t want a motorbike, and he thrust a card into my hand as I got into a taxi to my hotel. Lo and behold, guess who followed me to my hotel? I spotted him as I got out of the car; he turned away thinking I hadn’t seen him. Creepy! When I told the woman who owns this hotel about him she said that it was actually quite common to be followed by “Easy Riders” in this way, but to not engage him, and if I wanted help arranging such a tour she could help. She said he would be harmless aside from that first annoyance, and she proved to be correct. I never saw him again.

After checking in and chilling out for a bit, I ventured out onto my little street in search of food. I had consulted Lonely Planet and had some nearby restaurants in mind; after waking around a bit I ended up at one right across the street from my hotel.

The restaurant was empty when I walked in. Apparently I was a little early for the dinner crowd and caught the server off-guard. He quickly got a menu for me and I began to browse.

I ordered a Dalat red wine (first wine in a long time!) and a chicken clay pot. The server started talking to me, and, lo and behold, he is an English student at a local college. He asked me if I knew about the Easy Riders and I rolled my eyes. “I want to do one of those tours, but I’m kind of freaked out by the whole thing,” I said. “I’ll take you tomorrow!” he replied. Oh, geez, I thought, another one!

As it turned out, Viet merely wanted to use me as a “test tourist” and to practice his English; all I would need to do was pay for gas, entry into the sights that charged, and for lunch. These tours can run from $20-50 per day, also not including these things; this day would be a bargain by comparison. I asked him if he was a safe driver, if he had a helmet for me, and if his bike was reliable. Of course he answered “yes” to all of the above, and he seemed honest enough. I knew where he worked and could let people here know who I was going with. Even if the “tour” was a bust, I had another day here and could try again. We agreed to meet at 8 the following morning at my hotel. Although I figured he knew where to take me, I made a list of common sights in and around Dalat that I would consult the next day.

He was there at 8 on the dot. We headed into rush hour traffic which was a little unsettling, but I quickly relaxed when I realized that his bike wasn’t going to go much faster than 35-40 mph under the stress of my additional weight.

We fueled up and headed towards the first sight – the Dalat Cathedral. Then we went to the Lam Dong Museum. This was an intersting museum with a little bit about a number of different topics, inclduing the flora and fauna of the local area; the ethnic minority groups in the region; the American War, and other slices of Vietnam life. This was one of my personal favorite items:

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A communal wine jug used by indigenous peoples who would all sip from long bamboo straw.

What was more interesting, though, were my guide’s personal stories about growing up in the Mekong Delta right after the American war ended. Born in 1975, he had vivid childhood memories of family members and friends killed and maimed by land mines while farming; watching young men cry as they were shipped off to fight communism in Cambodia, knowing that they would likely die in that war; and families and friends who killed one another in battle, fighting on both sides of the war, with an impact they would only realize later, in reunions.

When we saw this boat

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and he translated the sign for me, I was floored: this meter-long boat – constructed of bamboo and plastic – had been used during the war to escape an island prison for the mainland. The prisoner, whose picture was on the wall beside the boat, survived and was reunited with his family. These were Incredible stories of a war we learn so little about in American schools – already the highlight of this tour.

We then headed to the Hang Nga Crazy House, a surrealist architectural wonder created by a local architect with a fabulous imagination and clearly no regard for OSHA safety standards and recommendations for building.

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This local oddity is the first sight listed in Lonely Planet and is clearly a must-see. It reminded me of Barcelona and Gaudi, while also eliciting some strong and even strange childhood fairy tale allusions;

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After the Crazy House we took a long ride up to a reservoir/ lake called Tuygen Lam Lake. Viet didn’t take me to the “touristy” side of the lake; rather, we went down a bumpy dirt and gravel road to a picnic area people from Saigon use when they come up here for day trips. We sat and admired the lake, watching the families picnicking, when suddenly we spotted this beauty and her motley little crew of six piglets.

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I don’t know if Viet was more entertained by the wild pigs or my enthusiasm for them.

We then traveled through a minority village called Lat Village, to Lang Biang Mountain, where i spotted the famous zebras described in yesterday’s blog.

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The view from the top of the mointain was great, but soon socked in by fog and mist.

We then went back through the minority village, and Viet asked me if I’d like to see the “minority group” Catholic church. I didn’t think it would be that much different from the other Catholic church I’d seen earlier. Of course it was.

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We then headed back towards town, stopping at the “Domain” church which was TEEMING with visitors.

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It was, indeed, a very pretty church, and NOT one mentioned in the guidebooks.

It was time to eat some lunch and, frankly, I was tired. Having not spent that much time on a motorbike, and on sensory overload, I’d had enough. Viet looked at his watch and surprisedly announced, “Wow! It’s 3:00!” I was amazed, too, by how much time had passed and how much i had seen.

Then came the question, “So, do you think I could be a good tour guide?”

“You already are!” I replied.

We enjoyed a lunch of his choice and a beer, and I tipped him $20 for his time and expertise.

It was a good decision and frankly, there wasn’t much more I wanted to see in Dalat that I couldn’t walk to the next day. Viet was a good, honest, safe guide who will one day, no doubt, be out there one day as a professional – Easy Rider or not.