Don’t believe anything you see, read or hear

The Buddha in Laos

Always with wisdom

I just came across this quote this morning and thought it was worth sharing. I’m not Buddhist nor do I want to convert but there is no denying some incredibly insightful words from the Buddha.

“Don’t blindly believe what I say. Don’t believe me because others convince you of my words. Don’t believe anything you see, read, or hear from others, whether of authority, religious teachers or texts. Don’t rely on logic alone, nor speculation. Don’t infer or be deceived by appearances.”

“Do not give up your authority and follow blindly the will of others. This way will lead to only delusion.”

“Find out for yourself what is truth, what is real. Discover that there are virtuous things and there are non-virtuous things. Once you have discovered for yourself give up the bad and embrace the good.”

Banda Aceh and the Tsunami Sites

Before I go any further. For reading purposes. Aceh is pronounced: “AH-chay”

I wanted to see more of Banda Aceh so on my final morning in Aceh I rented a motorcycle and after eating a quick breakfast I made the 17k trip into the city center. I was armed with only a simple tourist map written in only Indonesian. My first stop was the tsunami museum. Many of the exhibits were closed but I got to see a little bit about the post tsunami damage and efforts of restoration. Unfortunately, most of the exhibits were in Indonesian only and only a few had English. The museum opened in 2007 and admission is free.

Aceh Tsunami museum

Aceh Tsunami Museum opened in 2007

After the museum a few local school girls helped me find an internet cafe. They hopped on their bikes in pairs and I followed them down the street. I took care of some website business then crossed the street to a travel agent to book a flight back to Medan for the following day.

My next order of business was to find a power generator vessel that came ashore during the tsunami. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful as it was tucked away in a residential area. I then headed off in search of the grand mosque.

Since the map was labelled in Indonesian I wasn’t sure what much of it said so on my way to the mosque I accidentally came across the Aceh Thanks the World memorial park. After the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean (Boxing Day) earthquake and tsunami disaster, Banda Aceh was completely devastated. The maps that showed how far inland the waves damaged was incredible. Indonesia alone suffered anywhere between 170,000-220,000 of the 200,000-300,000 total deaths from this disaster. The province of Aceh alone had a death toll of nearly 100,000. There was a huge response to this tragedy around the world and in order to show its gratitude Aceh built a memorial park with a large wave monument and individual plaques to each country who gave support.

Aceh Thanks the World

Aceh Thanks the World

I spent some time in the park reflecting back on December 27th, the morning after the disaster. I vividly remember sitting by the computer reading articles and following message boards. I had never donated to a disaster prior to the tsunami but I felt compelled to and have done my best to give at least something when a major disaster happens. I remember not even knowing about Banda Aceh prior to the tsunami and here I was 6.5 years later standing in the city center that didn’t exist when I first learned about the place.

Aceh thanks the USA

Aceh thanks the United States of America

After taking a walk through the park and reading all the plaques dedicated to each country, I hopped back on my bike and headed for the mosque. The grand mosques in Sumatra have a Dutch colonial look to them. They are massive and a gathering place for Muslim men and women at almost all hours of the night and day. An afternoon call to prayer was being announced as I parked my bike and walked into the yard. I get looks when I’m in the city but I seemed to get extra attention inside the mosque compound. I wasn’t dressed appropriately to enter so I just hovered around outside and took photos.

Grand mosque Banda Aceh

Mesjid Raya Baiturrahman

I was hungry and since Sharia law in the Aceh province makes it illegal for Muslim and non-Muslims to consume food and drink during fasting hours, I had to be discrete about it. I headed back to the beach and had a quick lunch at the bungalows then returned to Banda Aceh. It was a nice ride so I didn’t mind doing it.

Joel's Bungalow

A nice discrete afternoon lunch to break fasting.

I wanted to try and locate the power generator vessel that was carried through Banda Aceh into its final resting point where it is today. My second attempt was more fruitful and right in the middle of a residential community was this enormous power generator. The museum and the memorial were interesting but the devastation really hit home when I saw this giant ship that was quite a few kilometers inland from the Indian Ocean laying in between a bunch of houses. Then sadness sets in when I realized this vessel rested on top of several homes killing the families that lived there. They’ve put the vessel to good use and it gives power to Banda Aceh.

Power generator vessel

Power generator vessel

The final stop I wanted to make was “kapal atas rumah.” Translated this means, “ship on a house.” It was in a small neighborhood along the riverside. There were several boats that rested on top of homes after the tsunami but this one was left in its place as a memorial. Again, like the power generator vessel, this was in a residential area. I wasn’t sure where to look for it so I asked some locals and they told me the way to go.

Boat on a roof

Boat on a roof.

How the Tsunami Ended Decades of War
I didn’t quite spend the amount of time in Aceh that I originally planned. I wanted to take a slow journey back to Medan by bus stopping along the way in various towns and cities. There is virtually no information about the province in guide books outside of Banda Aceh and Pulau Weh so it would have been an interesting adventure where I could have put my Indonesian to good use.

Aceh has never really been a tourist destination due to the ongoing armed conflicts that the region has suffered for decades after Indonesia became independent. There have been attempts by armed separatist groups to declare Aceh an independent nation as it was prior to Dutch colonialism. There were demonstrations in the late 90’s and conflict leading all the way up to 2004 before the tsunami.

I don’t want to talk too much about the politics and take any sort of a stance on it since I’m living in Indonesia now and free speech does not mean the same thing as it does back home but one could probably be forgiven for sympathizing with the separatist movement. Read more about it or watch the documentary The Black Road if you’re interested.

If just one good thing came out of the tsunami it is the almost immediate impact it had on the war. By December 28th, just 2 days after the tsunami, the GAM separatist movement in Aceh declared a cease fire and less than a year later the Indonesian government and GAM came to a peace agreement that ended decades of civil war. The tsunami itself was stated as the main motivating force for an agreement as the separatists felt the Acehenese people had suffered enough and deserved peace.

Banda Aceh is a pleasant city. Unlike many other Indonesian cities.

The peace agreement still stands to this day and the city of Banda Aceh has at least recovered from the physical scars of the tsunami. The situation in Aceh still remains volatile as the war with Indonesia was not that long ago. Hopefully, things stay as they are now and peace continues because the Aceh is a beautiful place. I do look forward to making that journey through the province at a later time.

In search of one last Adventure

I’m back home in Medan after spending a few nights visiting friends and “family” from the village I spent two month volunteering in. I am 3 days from my 31st birthday and trying to figure out the best way to celebrate it. Aside from my one month TEFL certification and two month teaching in Bukit Lawang, I’ve been on the road since January and unemployed since November of 2010. This means I have exactly one month left of freedom before I’m locked into a contract. I might as well make the best of it. I want one last adventure…

I find that my blog tends to get more readers when I’m doing more interesting things. I picked up quiet a few while traveling in Somaliland and even landed myself an article on ABC News (re: Revolution Chasers Redefine Adventure Travel. South East Asia, compared to Africa offers much fewer challenges. The region has a pretty laid out trail for backpackers to follow with easy to find comforts from home. I hear from word-of-mouth that even secretive Myanmar is not too difficult once you’ve got the documents needed to travel within. So creativity is important if I’m going to seek out a new challenge. However this might just be the perfect time of year. Ramadan.


Aceh, Northern Sumatra

Sumatra, while not exactly a walk in the park, is doable for most travelers if they can get past the initial shock of Medan upon arriving. It’s an island with a history of violence, war and natural disasters. Their is a bit of hassle for the newcomer but a lot of reward for those who veer off from the more popular destinations of South East Asia. Even during Ramadan, Medan, Indonesia’s 4th largest city is still very manageable.

The challenge lies in the northern province of Aceh where strict Islamic law (Sharia) is practiced. Aceh also received worldwide attention from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami where 62,000 Indonesians died in the most heavily effected area of the disaster. Occasional travel warnings pop up for the semi-autonomous and fundamental Islamic state due to violence but there have been more than enough positive news ranging from the beautiful restoration projects after the tsunami to the friendliness and hospitality of the Acehnese people. The fasting month of Ramadan is typically a turn off for most travelers but I’m looking to experience something a bit more challenging and different so it seems like the perfect time to go.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. This means no eating or drinking anything, even water. There is an early morning wake up call from the mosques to let Muslims know fasting will begin shortly and they must eat before the prayer. In Medan, this is hardly a set back for non-Muslims as there are plenty of opportunities to find food. Although, walking around the streets, smoking cigarettes and consuming liquids is considered quite rude.

In Aceh however, Islamic law requires Muslims to take part in fasting and even earlier this week there were three people arrested for failing to fast. A bill recently passed that extends Sharia law to tourists as well. If I decide to go this week I’ll make sure to get clarification on any law that I might encounter. Punishment under Sharia law ranges anywhere from getting a number of lashes in a public venue to stoning to death. While this may sound scary, and believe me I’m taking it serious, problems are easily avoided if proper preparations are made. Most visitors to Banda Aceh, the regions capital, pass through en route to the ferry to Pulau Wei, an island just off the coast of the northern tip. However, I plan to stay in Banda Aceh for a few days and really get to know the people.

I must wear long pants or at least shorts that cover my knees. No tank tops or singlets. Drinking alcohol is prohibited and even though there are some Chinese restaurants and NGO hot spots where alcohol can be consumed in privacy, I would rather not even test it. Adultery, as defined in the Biblical sense, would mean any relations outside of marriage are strictly prohibited. So, no, I won’t be holding hands or having a romantic walk through Banda Aceh with any women I might meet.

My biggest challenge will come from having to respect the Ramadan fasting period. I plan to do as the locals while I’m there. During the day I’ll lay low, read a book, listen to music and relax as to not require too much water. Fasting, or “puasa” in Bahasa Indonesian, is one of the 5 pillars of Islam and those who truly believe here have told me over and over again that it is not difficult for them because they want to do it. I can imagine that since I’m a non-believer, the fasting will be quite challenging. I look forward to it as I think it will offer a unique insight into the culture.

So this is home…

This is somewhat anticlimactic for my readers in that I sort of left things hanging as to what my final decision was going to be on teaching. After a rather disappointing interview with the school in Medan I was left hanging for about a week waiting for an answer. I had already made provisions to go to Jakarta. I sent a follow up email and the job I wanted, I got.

Fast forward a few weeks of hanging out in Bangkok, I’m now in Medan, Indonesia where I will call home for the next year. My contract doesn’t begin until Sept 12 and ends Sept 30th of next year. It’s been a rough first week here as the accommodation they placed me in is rather uncomfortable. If it’s one thing I’ve learned about myself it’s that I have one absolute non-negotiable when it comes to any housing going forward. There must be A/C. I’m miserable in this room with just a fan. It doesn’t cut it.

I had heard some unpleasant things about the other house so I was afraid that I wouldn’t be happy with it but I decided to check for myself right away so I could make a final decision on whether or not I could stay here. The other house is absolutely amazing. There have been reviews online about the conditions there, with leaks and rats and break-ins, but I addressed those issues with the teachers living there now and have assured me those things have been resolved. Although, rats are a part of life here, I see them everywhere.

The house I’m in now is big but the one I’ll be moving into is just massive. It has 4 levels, several bedrooms, a big garage. The roommates there seem like they will be easy to get along with. Having fellow beer drinkers is always important. The girls I’m staying with now are really nice but they pretty much keep to themselves. Which is good but at the same time occasionally letting loose will be nice, which just won’t happen where I’m at. The new house has WiFi, a big bed, a washing machine and a balcony. My room will be very big.

I observed a class today and it gave me some real incite into how things are going to be. It’s really structured with a specific curriculum, however it’s not so strict that you can’t add your own personality and flavor. In fact, anytime I want to deviate from a lesson plan, I’m allowed as long as the subject matter they want covered, is covered.

Most of the students at the school are Chinese-Indonesian. They seem a bit more shy than the Indonesian students I had in Bukit Lawang but I think it will be a fun challenge. I’ll be teaching every age group from around 5 up till adults. Classes seem to range from about 10-15 students with the occasional one-on-one tutoring. This is not a public school, it’s a language center so this is not their primary education.

Back to Bukit Lawang
I have over a month before I start so there is no sense in sitting around waiting. Tomorrow I’m going to take a bus to Bukit Lawang to go visit. I was going to wait until I bought a bike but I’m not prepared to make that trip just yet. I want to get some city driving under my belt. I’m excited to see all the friends I made during my volunteer stint. My first stop will be the clinic and then make my way towards the river saying hello to anyone I can. I’ll stay through the weekend probably and maybe even longer. A week long public holiday for the end of Ramadan starts at the end of August. I have to make sure I get wherever I’m going to be, before the holiday and then leave after. There will be no buses running before and after. My plan is to head to Lake Toba and stay a week on Samosir Island. The island is predominantly Catholic so it would eliminate any risk of being stuck somewhere, unable to find food due to the fasting periods of Islam. Plus, it’s really nice on the lake and I can cool off for a little bit.

I’ll be back in Medan for good right after September 1st. That’s when I’ll shop for a motorbike and start learning my away around the city. Unfortunately, the guy I’m replacing doesn’t leave till after I start so there will be a 10 day overlap before I move into his room. It would have been nice to settle in the room before but what can I do?

That’s about it for the update. I’m just going to be touring around a bit and relaxing so I don’t expect much updating.

Waiting game…

The waiting game is about to be over. I’m still here in Ban Phe, Thailand. I decided to stay for the weekend and not move around too much because it’s easier to not spend much money that way. If I was in a bigger city the baht flow a lot faster. I have a beautiful room at Christie’s with A/C, hot water, TV and a great WiFi connection. I spend most of the days inside trying not to spend any money. The job in Medan is what I’m holding out for and I was told I would hear an answer a week from last Tuesday. If I do get the job I have to decide if I want to wait till the end of August to start. It is a tough decision because I really want the job but going that much longer with out a salary isn’t the best idea.

If I do decide to wait it out I’ll probably stick around Ban Phe longer and rent out this guest house for a month along with a motorbike for a discounted price. The interview itself didn’t go really well last week so I’m not expecting much with that job.

Could be worse places to wait around for employment

That leaves Jakarta, my eternal safety net of a job as my probable final destination. This is by no means a consolation prize as Jakarta is sure to be a great city for me. A lot of people don’t like it because it is a crowded mega-city but I can find the good in most places. If this is the plan then instead of flying the expensive $200 route from Bangkok to Jakarta, I’ll instead take a train south through the Malay peninsula to Singapore and then do a short hop on to Jakarta for much cheaper.

Either way, by Tuesday my future should be clear. Either I’m going to live in Medan or Jakarta for at least the next 12 months.

Offers Coming in…

After spending the entire month of April in Ban Phe staring across the gulf at Ko Samet, I finally took the 45 minute ferry ride to the island. I have been vigorously applying for jobs since getting to Thailand. I even started sending out my resume to schools I don’t really have any intention on working for in locations that are not my top choices just so I can gauge my worth and perhaps take the chance to get an interview under my belt with the intentions of declining any offer.

Just before hopping over to the island I got a job offer for an international school in Khon Kaen which is a small city in the North East of Thailand in a province called Isan. Isan is the poorest area of Thailand and has always been a possibility as a landing spot for me. It’s often less Thai and starts blending into Lao and Cambodian culture the further north east you get. It is interesting to me and the job offer itself is pretty sweet. It’s only for about 3 months till October but the pay is good for the location. The best part is that they want me teach more than just English. I would get experience teaching mathematics, science and arts to students around 9 years old. This would be really valuable experience.

Ko Samet

Drinking a coffee shake on the beach in Ko Samet

However, once I arrived to the island I got a reply back from my top choice school in Medan. They like my resume and want to hear more through a phone interview. I’m kind of in limbo right now. I don’t really want to be far from a fast WiFi connection and phone lines so I have stayed in Ko Samet town away from the beaches. It’s OK because I’m spending less money by not going out and eating at a fancy resort. I’m hoping that by Monday I have the interview and a possible offer so that I can make my final decision. If Medan wants me, I take it. If they don’t want me I will go to Khon Kaen and do 3 months in Thailand.

For now though I’m just going to hang around Ko Samet town and maybe hit one of the beaches tomorrow. It would be nice if the school would give me an exact time they will call me so that I can go off and play but it’s worth it to wait around. The school in Thailand has laid out the offer officially so if I want it, it’s mine.

These are very good predicaments to be in. There was a time where I thought the only job I’d ever be able to get was in a cubicle with a headset. This is exciting! Time to get beat up with a Thai massage.

Sumatra, I’ll be back. Inshallah.

I’ve committed blogger sin and in the heart of my first teaching gig I went off the grid. I want to apologize for the lack of updates. I spent the second month of my volunteer contract in Sumatra just experiencing it. Sometimes it’s best to be that way. I didn’t put too much thought into writing. The contract is finished and due to strict immigration laws I was forced to make my way out of Indonesia. If I had it my way I would still be in Sumatra spending my money there but instead I am in Thailand now and will vacation for a couple of weeks in here before heading back to Indonesia.

Everything finished up smoothly in Bukit Lawang. I eventually got the hang of lesson planning and execution. I started to get really comfortable with myself and with the students. It started to become fun. Life in the village was good and the last week I spent by the river at a guest house with some great friends that I’m sure I’ll keep in touch with.

Bukit Lawang

Hands in the air for Mr. Joe!!

Next Step
I’m faced with a tough decision right now. For the last three months everything has been set up for me. I was doing my TEFL certification in April and immediately jumped into the volunteering in Sumatra. I haven’t had to make any decisions on what I’m doing as it’s been laid out in front of me. Now, what though?

For years my final teaching destination was always going to be Thailand. Specifically, Chiang Mai. Indonesia was also in the mix but I never really thought it would appeal to me as much as Thailand. The tables have turned dramatically now after having experienced the warmth of Northern Sumatra. I find myself missing the language and the people the most. I came back to Thailand with multiple motives. One was obviously to just have some fun for a couple of weeks and hang out by the water. The other was to see how I would feel after 2 months in Indonesia and whether or not Thailand would still appeal to me. I’ve confirmed Thailand as a holiday destination and not a place for me to live. The language is too difficult and I don’t want to live somewhere that I can’t pick up the language. One of my goals in living abroad was to acquire fluency in another language and Bahasa Indonesia is easy enough for that to happen. In 2 months I’ve become quite comfortable with holding pretty solid conversations with people. The population is far more eager to teach and there is less English overall so the necessity is there.

Now that I’ve narrowed it down to Indonesia with out any doubt, there comes the question of where? I’ve had a connection in Jakarta for some years now that has offered me a position if I’m willing to come take it. However, I’ve kind of fallen in love with Sumatra. I love a lot of things about it and I can see myself living in Medan, taking a job teaching English for a 12 month contract and really becoming fluent in Bahasa Indonesia by the end of it. I have friends that I have made already and places within the island I haven’t yet visited so plenty of new opportunities to explore.

Medan is a short flight away from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bangkok which could all make for long weekend getaways. I plan to purchase a motorcycle if I live in Medan so that I can travel myself outside of the city back to Bukit Lawang and Lake Toba on the weekends. Public buses take way too long and the tourist buses are really expensive. I sent out my resume and cover letter to a school in Medan that posted a job 2 days ago. I feel good about my chances if they take a look at my email, however I can’t tell how many people are trying to get jobs in Medan. I did include that I am currently in Thailand and my availability to start is immediately. This means that the school wouldn’t have to prepare a flight from the west and could save money by hiring me. That being said, there could be candidates showing up at the school in Medan in person who would be a better choice. I really have no idea what to expect but I’m hoping one way or another I hear something back shortly so that I can decide on what I’m going to do.

Flights from Bangkok to Jakarta at the end of next week are around $200 where as a flight to Medan is only about $80 and another $100 to Jakarta. So my thinking is that I will go back to Medan next week, purchase a tie and some slacks and go door-to-door with my resume and see what happens. If I don’t have any luck finding something then I will know I did my best and can head to Jakarta and take the position at EF that is available.

I kind of feel like I belong in Sumatra. Jakarta would be really fun and I’m certain there is a lot more to do as an ex-pat, but Sumatra is just where I need to be.

Spiders, Wasps and Other Stingy Creatures

In addition to weather, mother nature also brings an onslaught of annoyances from the animal kingdom here in Sumatra. I’ve become more comfortable with spiders but have grown to fear bees and wasps much more. I’ve come to terms with spiders being a part of life here and I know that they do keep the other bugs at bay. I prefer the spiders that make webs so I know where they are at all times but these little jumping spiders around the clinic seem pretty harmless. If I freak out every time I see one I wouldn’t get much done so I’ve decided to co-exist with them. I tend to talk to spiders and wasps and try to make agreements with them where we don’t bother each other. A wasp in my bungalow last weekend broke our agreement and kept flying a little too close to me for no reason. I got rid of him and his friend who made home inside my room. Hopefully it taught the other bugs a lesson. I sleep with a pretty nasty looking spider that has a web a few feet from where I lay my head at night but since he is in a web and should have no reason to come down, we co-exist nicely. If he breaks that trust I think he knows what will happen.

Pretty, but what the hell is it?

The monkeys around town are pretty cool. They are short tailed maquaques that march around the guesthouses in packs in search of the lazy tourist who leaves food open in their room or out on the porch. I know I made the mistake of leaving a half eaten bag of crackers in my room and when I returned the bag was gone. Luckily, monkeys aren’t interested in money or passports. While sitting at a restaurant by the river this week, a large pack of monkeys came to stalk the area waiting for a slip up. One of the bigger ones was brave enough to come into the common area, snatch a bag of biscuits and take off with it. I tried to shoo him off before he grabbed it but I ended up only managing to scare him enough to spill my coffee on to my iPod and cell phone. Aside from a distinct mocha odor my phone is fine.
Bats are pretty common here as well. The Indonesian word for bat is kalilawar. I thought that was interesting enough to share. There is one bat that flies around the front of the clinic every evening at pretty low altitude right over your head if you stand in the right place. Apparently he’s swooping in to eat some bugs so he’s OK with me.

Ants are quickly becoming a non-issue for me. I often find ants in my bed even though I never have food in my room. I ignore them or flick them off the side. They are real tiny and not the ones that bite so I try not to think about them.

An old friend from home, the gecko, is also another welcome guest in my room at night. Aside from the occasional screech they mostly just run around the walls and ceiling and chomp on unsuspecting mosquitoes.

I’d love to report that I’ve seen a Sumatran tiger but I’ve talked to people who have lived here their whole lives and have never spotted one. Tourists generally have to take a 1-2 week jungle trek to get even a chance to catch a glimpse of one. They are obviously really quick and evasive.

Holiday in Cambodia

It’s now 3 weeks into my two month contract. I’m in Indonesia on a 30 day tourist visa which meant from the beginning that I would have to handle my visa issue at the end of May. Luckily, there is a contact in Medan that works who will sponsor me to get a 30 day extension till the end of June. This is good because my only other option would be to fly out of the country to Penang, Malaysia and back in. Not only the money is a problem but if you’ve read my blog over the last several months you’d know that Penang is not one of my favorite places.

I sent a message to my contact and got a reply this morning saying that if I needed his help I would have to come this week and not wait till the halfway point next week. There is a certain visa processing time that I have to allow for. He said I have to bring my passport, disembarkation note from when I arrived in Indonesia and proof of onward travel before my visa runs out. This means, at the end of my stay here in Sumatra I won’t be traveling around the area like I had hoped. Instead, I have to choose a destination to fly out to so that I don’t overstay my time in Indonesia. Visa restrictions have gotten tighter recently here and I’m not really sure why. Instead of an extra 30 days spending my money as a tourist, Indonesia has forced me to other places.

(Update: I’ve arrived in Medan and I am going to do the visa extension at my guesthouse. It’s about $20 cheaper than the other guy)


I'm probably not going back to Angkor this time

This brings me to my next order of business. Where do I go after my extension runs out? I had absolutely no time to really go over it in my head since I have to be in Medan tomorrow with the confirmation for a flight in my hand. Internet is really spotty here so I can’t depend on being able to go in the evening due to the nightly storms and power outages so I made my decision early this morning. I’m going to fly back to Bangkok. (Obviously?) The flight isn’t too expensive and I plan to visit a good friend that I didn’t get to see my last time through. I’ll head south east again and pass back through Ban Phe and say hello to the TEFL International crew as well as some of the locals I had made friends with. This will be a quick trip through Thailand as the ultimate goal is to take a couple of weeks to relax in Cambodia before I start work. The border isn’t too far from Ban Phe and it will be nice to meet up with a good friend from the TEFL course who is working in Phnom Penh now.

I plan to return to Indonesia and start working in Jakarta as early as August 1st. I know, I know, why do I need a vacation after working only 2 months? Well, if you had the ability to travel for a month in between jobs, wouldn’t you? I’ll be locked into a 12 month contract with little vacation time so I’ll take it when I can. The job isn’t guaranteed yet but I have the feeling it’s just pending some copies of my degrees and certifications. There is an opening at English First and a friend of mine is a contact there so I should be OK, if I want it.

So, How is the Teaching Going?
I’m having my good days and my bad days. The bad days are pretty rough as I tend to lose all confidence in myself. The good days pick me back up nicely as soon as I realize where I am and that what I’m doing is something really special. Murphy’s Law applies strongly here in Sumatra. If anything can go wrong, it will. There are already very limited resources at my disposal and the ones I do have are dependant on mother-nature. Internet is a luxury and since I don’t have my own arsenal of lessons plans to fall back on, it’s imperative that I get online. The power goes out daily and there are storms in the evening that prevent me from being able to plan anything as internet places close down at the first lightning strike. Hujan deras! Raining profusely! The rain is bittersweet here as it hinders movement, is usually accompanied by lightning and causes the students to understandably not show up for class. On the other hand, without the rain it would be unbearably hot. The first week I arrived here it hadn’t rained for 10 days and if my readers can recall, I was pretty miserable. Since then the temperature has been mild due to the heavy rainfall every day.

I’m really enjoying the village where I’m staying. Everyone is extremely friendly and all the children in the neighborhood scream HELLO, HELLO!!! HELLO!!!!!!!! as I walk by. It really puts a smile on your face to get to leave the house to the sight and sound of children with absolute elation on their face. When the neighbor’s kids have friends over there are about 6 adorable Indonesian kids yelling “HELLO TAFUUUURO!! HELLO TAFUUUUURO!!!” It’s pretty amazing.

Bukit Lawang


It’s turning out that my evening class with the 7-8 teenage girls is becoming the easier class to plan for and teach. This is opposite of my feelings earlier in the month where I was struggling with them. They’re all really eager to learn and at times bordering flirtatious. When they’re not calling me “sir” they’re usually smiling and saying “ganteng,” or “handsome.” I don’t care what they call me to be honest. Mister, Joe, teacher, pak, guru, sir… just not Justin Bieber.

I took on an extra two classes that weren’t a part of the contract. There is a guy who lives in the village who has students come to house two times a week. These are the most difficult classes for me to plan for because the age difference and skill levels makes it complicated. On Tuesday there is a 6 yr old girl who just stares back at me with a blank look on her face. The problem is, if I take it back too basic, I’ll lose the interest of the students who have basic English already. The last thing a 15 yr old boy wants to do is count his ABC’s and call out ” C is for CAT!” at some lame flash cards.

I think my confidence is growing as the weeks go on. As with every jobs, it seems my low points are Mondays when I have a fresh set of classes to teach. If I plan properly there is zero stress in teaching. My problem is wanting to unwind on the weekend instead of planning out the following week. I moved around some class times to free up Friday night so I have Friday and Saturday entirely to myself. The Friday night class I switched to Sunday night, since I’m already back at the clinic at that point. This will give me more proper me time after teaching so that Sunday afternoon I can start figuring out the plan for the week.

So, that’s what has been going on. There is hope here. When this first started out I questioned whether or not this is for me. If I’m being honest with myself, I know I’ve been lazy about lesson planning but as each week goes on I’m organizing myself and my time to better accomplish what I need to. Teaching in Jakarta should be a breeze after this as there will be much more structure and most likely a specific curriculum to follow.

5 Habits You Should Change When in Thailand

I’m not an expert on Thai culture but as I recently finished up my fourth month in the country I feel there are 5 tips I can share that might set you apart from others when visiting. I gathered these by talking to Thais and asking them to speak to me candidly about certain habits that foreigners have when in their country.

1. Don’t wai unless you mean it
The wai is a traditional way of greeting and showing respect in Thailand where the hands are clasped together. As a general rule when going to Thailand foreigners should avoid wai’ing at all. You tend to want to respect cultures by emulating locals but there is an intricate social hierarchy here and more often than not you’re probably wai’ing inappropriately. I’m still guilty of doing this when it isn’t necessary, often drawing polite laughter from Thais. Even the level at which you place the tips of your fingers is significant. You never wai someone younger and there is no need to wai when you walk in and out of a restaurant like so many of us “farang” do. It takes time to understand the wai unless you have been in Thailand for awhile it’s probably a better idea not to.

2. Turn that frown upside down
Welcome to the land of smiles. If you’re in Thailand, you must smile. This isn’t optional. Even on those days when you just want to be left alone and have no desire to show any sort of cheer you have to force yourself to give a pleasant smile as you pass by a local who is waving to you or giving you a polite greeting. A lack of a smile and a straight face can come off as hostile in certain situations so it’s better to keep it on your face as often as possible.

Ronald always shows respect.

3. Don’t speak pigeon English.
This is one of my personal pet peeves when traveling anywhere in the world. As native English speakers we should be speaking to locals in proper English. Dumbing down sentences in order to make your point doesn’t help. It only reinforces poor spoken English. If you mean to say, “I don’t have a phone,” then don’t say, “Me no have phone.” That’s pigeon English. Just speak normally but slightly slower if they don’t understand you. If you use proper pronunciation and full sentences it is no more difficult to understand than “Me work English teacher, what you do work?” For some Thais, even if not many, it can come off as condescending and insulting.

4. Put a shirt on even if they say it doesn’t bother them.
Thailand is a conservative Buddhist country. No matter how many Thais tell you to your face that going topless in a restaurant or around town is OK, it’s just not. They’ll save you the embarrassment by saying it’s not a problem but in reality it makes many Thais uncomfortable. This goes for the south as well where there is a large Muslim presence. I’ll never forget being in Phuket and seeing a bus full of Muslim students staring off at a topless European woman walking up and down the beach. This is disrespectful to the people who live in Thailand. Sure, they tolerate it, but is that really all we’re looking to do? Having Thais simply tolerate us? So in short ,if you’re a man, put a shirt on if you’re not walking on the beach and for a woman, never go topless.

5. Stop saying thank you all the time.
This one was so difficult for me to stop doing. I’m so used to being at restaurants back home in America and saying thank you for every little thing that the waiter does. Here in Thailand there is no need to do this. When the waiter or waitress brings out a menu, drops off the drinks, or brings you a fresh spoon, it isn’t necessary to say anything. This is difficult habit for westerners to break I’m sure but in Thailand, politeness is always implied and there is no need to actually say the words. There are phrases for please and thank you but they’re just not used the same way.