Sarah M. reflects on her 6 month United Planet Quest to Indonesia after returning to her home in Canada at the end of July. We hope you will enjoy reading about her adventure as much as we all did, what a wonderful example of building cross-cultural understanding. Thanks, Sarah, and thanks to all volunteers!
I will never forget my first morning in Indonesia...
Just as the sun was about to peek over the horizon, I was jolted awake by a strange sound. In a matter of seconds, the dark and silent city was hit by waves of high pitched cries, enveloping the sleeping houses and hills beyond.
It took a few heart-pounding moments for me to remember I was in Semarang, Central Java, and recognize that these loud, eery voices echoing out of the darkness were the Islamic calls to prayer.
Closing my eyes and listening to these rhythmic, haunting sounds gave me goosebumps.
It hit me for the first time that I was thousands of miles and worlds away from everything I knew.
I couldn’t wait to start my journey.
For six incredible months I lived and assisted teaching English at a Pondok Pesantren, an Islamic boarding school in Indonesia led by an expert of Islam called a Kyai.
It was a bumpy 15 minute drive from the nearest main road through steamy forest and scattered villages.
Eventually, a large sign welcomes you to the school, a collection of small buildings.
In the centre of the clearing, surrounded by natural mango trees and flowering bushes, was the home I shared with the family of the Kyai, my host family.
To the left were the student dormitories housing approximately 1,000 students and to the right, the classrooms.
A typical day for the students starts at 4:00 am when they arise to pray and read the Koran.
Standard curriculum classes, such as math, history, and English, start promptly at 7:00 am and last until 3:00 pm. After that, school activities are focused around religious studies and reading the Koran. Sometimes they continue until 10:00 or 11:00 at night!
I was always amazed at how everyone could get through the day with so little sleep. They liked to tease me by saying, “selamat siang” (good afternoon) if I woke up at 6:00 am!
My favourite time was late at night when the students finished their activities and I would relax and chat with them in their dormitory. Mixing English and Indonesian, we talked about everything.
It was amazing living at a boarding school because I was was not only a teacher, but became a close friend to many of the students as well.
On my teaching days, I would walk from my home to the classrooms wearing my long, batik patterned skirt and brightly coloured hijab covering my hair, which I wore out of respect for the culture.
“Assalamu alaikum!” I would greet my class in Arabic and they would enthusiastically reply in unison, “Wa alaikum salam!”
The classrooms were often very crowded and I had little more than a whiteboard and marker to teach with, but we always had a great time.
The children were so full of energy and every day we would practice our English through songs, acting or games.
Whatever we did, I was usually exhausted by the end of class but always walked out smiling. It was fulfilling to see the students respond so energetically to the lesson plans I worked hard to make for them.
I think the most important thing I took home from my journey was the cross-cultural experiences and exchanging of ideas and knowledge.
It’s now clearer to me than ever that to create a better world we need to foster respect, understanding and acceptance between people of different cultures, different ethnicities and different backgrounds.
I find it troubling how easily western societies associate Islam with terrorism. I can say from first hand experience that generalizing about a group of people like this is completely unjustified and wrong.
For the people I lived and worked with in my Islamic school, as well as those I met traveling around this predominately Islamic country, the primary values in life were taking care of family, helping those less fortunate and keeping their religious and cultural traditions alive. These people are some of the kindest and gentlest people I have ever known.
I feel extremely lucky to have experienced a Quest with United Planet in Indonesia. It allowed me to immerse myself in life in another part of our world.
When I arrived I found a culture that at times left me feeling bewildered and confused. By the time I left six months later I had learned so much that Indonesia felt like my second home.
My mind has been opened more than I imagined it could be and the way I see the world, myself, and those I know will be forever changed.
I would like to continue working with people from all walks of life and continue fostering relationships and building cross-cultural b
ridges that are essential to make our world a better place for everyone.
This certainly will not be my last Quest!