Live Now, Make Now the Most Precious Time

One of my favorite quotes is from an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation called the Inner Light. Captain Picard was knocked unconscious by a probe sent by a long extinct alien civilization with the purpose of downloading an entire lifetime of memories into his mind that he would experience in a mere 20 minutes so that the civilization could live on and not be forgotten. He spoke these words to his daughter:

“Live now. Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”

They’re words that I have tried to live by even before watching the episode. I know that there will be a time when I’m older and looking back on life wishing I had done more even though I’m accomplishing much of what I’ve always wanted to do. Life is obviously short. I’m in my early 30’s and as quick as it seems to be moving along I know it will only get quicker.

Why am I discussing all of this right now? Well, it’s just a big giant excuse for me not updating my blog much lately. I’m living. I’ve been having some great experiences with my job starting here in Medan. At different times since 2010 I have reached milestones and achieved small goals that I set out for. I knew that once I graduated in August of last year it was going to be a roller coaster ride. First with turning 30, then quitting my debt collections job, then leaving home, then traveling off the beaten path in Somaliland, then getting my TEFL certification in Thailand, then volunteering in Bukit Lawang and then finally settling down in Medan to teach English in Indonesia. The journey is far from over but I can say with confidence I’ve landed and I’m ready to see where this takes me.

I’m a Teacher Now

While I was in Bukit Lawang and doing volunteer teaching I couldn’t help but feel like I hadn’t quite become a teacher yet. It was a great learning experience for me but there was something missing. Now that I’ve been at my current job for three weeks, I’ve finally felt that the career shift is over. When I left my last job I kept thinking that going back to collections was always a safety net. It’s a skill I now have after 10 years in the industry and if things don’t work out as a teacher I have plenty of job opportunities. I’m happy to report however, that it will be a cold day in Bangkok before I go back to any job that requires me to wear a headset and have my production controlled and monitored by a machine.

Over the years people kept telling me that I would make a good teacher but I never really knew for myself if it was something I could pull off. My TEFL trainer said we would know after our first day in the classroom. I know now. I’m a teacher.

So Where Have I been?
I returned from Aceh with the idea of hanging out for a few days and then heading to Lake Toba later in the week. On the Monday of that week I arranged to observe some classes at school. I went in and after a couple of hours I was asked if I could start work immediately the following day rather than a week later. I took a deep breathe and accepted. Ultimately this way was much better. It was like ripping off a band-aid rather than pulling it off slowly. I would have spent the rest of the week and the weekend thinking about my first day and instead I was thrust into it.

There are three schools that I need to be available to teach at on any given day however my home school is literally next door to where I live. I teach four days a week there and then one day at the flagship school. The good thing about starting early was that I was doing substituting for local teachers. This allowed me to learn the ropes a bit and get used to it without having my normal classes. The real reason I’m here is because another native English teacher finished his 12 month contract and is heading back to Canada. As of September 16th I took over his classes and will now have the same students throughout the semester.

Jln. Jemadi House in Medan, Indonesia

From the balcony of my room.

Home Sweet Home
I’m finally settled into the house I’ll be living in for the long term. It’s a huge four story condo with big bedrooms with AC, balconies, a roof top, a shared kitchen and shared bathrooms. I couldn’t ask for better roommates. We seem to be on the same page so far. My bedroom has some work to be done. There was a leak in the ceiling that is supposedly fixed. The AC isn’t too strong but there is a leak in it and I’m waiting on the mechanic to come fix that. The door to the balcony is an absolute mess and it looks like a giant rat has been trying to chew its way through. I’ve moved in a couch and coffee table from the living room, bought a rug for the floor and moved some things around so it’s starting to come together. Most importantly I switched the dreadful white light to a softer yellow which makes such a big difference.

The Expats
The ex-patriot community (westerners living and working in Medan) seems quite nice. There are probably only about 100 or so of us here which is part of the reason i wanted to live in Medan. Westerners are rare so we get a unique experience. As opposed to Bangkok where there are tons of foreigners and you just blend in as another face in the crowd. There is a core group of guys that occasionally meet up for drinks and only a few western women. As far as I know there are only three Americans living Medan. I’m sure there are more but I’ve only met the two others and one just arrived as an art teacher from Texas.

This is it for now. I’ll try and make sure I update more about the classroom. I absolutely love

Hari Raya and Idul Fitri

I’ve been wanting to get inside this mosque for awhile. While it’s perfectly acceptable for a non-Muslim to enter, I never really felt comfortable on my own. On the eve of Hari Raya, the day that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, me and my friend went to mesjid raya (grand mosque) and ate sate padang outside the gates. She told me she would take me inside so we could take photos.

Grand Mosque

Mosques are quite simple on the inside

This would be the second mosque I’ve been inside. The first was the national mosque in Kuala Lumpur. Very few are open to non-Muslims in this world but Indonesia and Malaysia seem to be pretty open about it. We took off our shoes and entered. She told me to come with her into the prayer area but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. I have no real connection to the faith, where as at least inside a church I know what is acceptable and what is not. It’s the same way I feel inside of a Buddhist temple. It’s kind of an awkward experience.

The inside was quite ornate. She took my camera and got few photos for me. The prayer areas are separated by gender with a makeshift wall in between. The loud speaker from the minaret was calling “allahu akbar!” (God is great) repeatedly for several minutes.

Hari Raya

Indonesians celebrate in the streets of Medan

It was raining at first so there weren’t too many people in the streets but after the rain stopped the motorcycles, cars and parade floats took to the streets for a carnival like atmosphere. Some trucks were rigged with loud speakers with young Muslim boys reading from the Koran. Other vehicles had truck beds full of children and adults shouting “Allahu akbar!” It was an interesting experience. A month full of fasting had finally ended and Indonesians were celebrating with the rest of the Muslim world.

Sate Padang

A night food stall near my house sells sate padang. A dish from Padang, Western Sumatra. It’s traditionally made with beef in Padang but in Medan chicken and lamb are commonly used. This particular sate padang was chicken (ayam). The spicy yellow sauce on top is made from rice flour, turmeric, ginger, garlic, coriander, galangal root, cumin, curry powder and salt.

I’ve never been a real adventurous eater. It’s not so much that I’m afraid to try new things but I’m shy about ordering when I don’t know what it is that is available. I was hungry tonight, it was raining and I knew I had limited options so I pulled my motorbike up to a sate padang vendor and just pointed.

It doesn’t look like much but it was very cheap (less than $1.00) and it was quite delicious!

Sate Padang Ayam

Food tastes better served on banana leaf

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.

Pulau Weh

Photos of Pulau Weh can be found on my facebook fan page. You can view them by pressing “like” on the left hand side of this page and becoming a member of Joey Goes Global on Facebook.

Last week I left Medan for the northern province of Aceh with the intent of spending a few days in Banda Aceh. My birthday was on Friday, the 12th of August and I figured it would be quite a different experience to spend it in the least festive type environment as possible. However, before I left I got in contact with a fellow Long Islander that I met while I was in Bukit Lawang who convinced me to come up to Pulau Weh (Weh Island) for my birthday. She arranged to have a friend of hers who drives a becak to pick me up at the airport and bring me to the ferry for a good price. Pulau Weh is about one hour into the Indian Ocean from Banda Aceh.

I arrived at the harbor on the island and was approached by an young local asking me where I was going. I told him, Iboih (a small diving village) and we negotiated a fair price for the motorcycle taxi. I hopped on the back and met up with my friend. She introduced me to a couple of girls from the UK and Ireland who I would later spend much of the time hanging out with.

Pulau Weh is known as a world class diving location. Indonesia has some of the best diving in the world I’m told. My three friends all had just finished getting their open water diving certificates (PADI) the day prior so they were in a celebratory mood. We chatted into the evening and started making plans for my birthday the following day.

The next morning most of us got up early and rented motorbikes to take out on to the island. The main town on Pulau Weh is Sabang. We made our way to the Friday market and did some shopping. Fasting, or “puasa” as it is called in Bahasa Indonesia, is taken place throughout the month of Ramadan which falls in August this year. In the rest of Indonesia this is usually just a minor observance in the grand scheme of things however, in Aceh and Pulau Weh it is considered mandatory under strict Islamic law. As thirsty as we were once we left the confines of our small tourist village, we couldn’t drink in public. There are restaurants and resorts spotted throughout the island where eating and drinking can be done but it’s at your own risk and clear signs on the wall that consuming any beverage or food during fasting hours is strictly prohibited for all people, including non-Muslims. The island has a Christian and Buddhist population as well so there is no discrimination.

The day was wonderful. We rode around quite a bit and searched for a resort called Freddie’s where we hung out for awhile and ate lunch. The beaches on the island are all quite empty. After we relaxed for a bit we took off Sabang again to wait for sunset so that we could eat at the food courts. Sabang is quite busy in the evenings and myself and the two other girls were quite the novelty walking around. Both them were covered appropriately and it’s good because you could see the Sharia police checking us out to make sure. Women must cover themselves fully and not show any leg or shoulder skin. A full burca and head cover is not necessary. Even for myself I was concerned about my shorts being above my knees so at the first chance I got I changed into a longer pair.

We arrived at the food court at about 6:30pm. With 30 minutes to go before the end of fasting the stalls were already cooking their meals. At about 6:45 people began ordering food and drinks. You can see an entire food court full of people with drinks in front of them that they aren’t touching. At 6:50 the mosque begins a prayer and approximately 5 minutes later an alarm sounds. It is an air raid horn that can be heard from very far away. This is the signal that fasting is over and as soon as it sounds everyone begins drinking on queue.

We spent a few hours having a delicious meal. Everything from roasted duck and chicken to fantastic fruit shakes. We then took a 30 minute night drive back to our village on motorbikes. This was my first time riding a bike at night and I was surprisingly comfortable. I have to get used to it since I’ll be buying one in Medan for work soon.

The following day I went snorkeling with the three girls. I hadn’t snorkeled in tropical waters since I was 8 years old in the Virgin Islands. It was breathtaking going underwater for the first time. There were so many colors and so many different kinds of sea life right under my feet. Unfortunately this meant a lot of sea urchins as well. Iboih sits directly across from Pulau Rubiah and is a decent swim across a channel. The water gets so deep in the middle that even with goggles the bottom is not visible. About three quarters of the way across a strong current started pushing us to the left. One of the girls made it across quickly but the rest of us struggled. I could see how easily one could get swept away if they’re not careful about the currents. We finally managed to get across to Rubiah Island where we sat in on the beach and relaxed.

The girls wanted to show me the sea garden which is on the other side of Rubiah. We made a quick hike through the center and came out on a small beach. I was warned when we got to the rock coral to not put my feet down. This was to avoid sea urchins and more importantly not damage the ecosystem. The sea garden is one of the main attractions on the island and we had it to ourselves. There was beautiful coral reef and tons of sea life. I really didn’t even know what most of it was but that didn’t take away from it. The girls would point out certain things to me as they just got done with their diving course and the names of all the sea life were fresh in their minds.

We headed back to the channel to make our swim back to the island. The girls knew a lot about the ocean currents and before jumping they tried to figure out the best way to go about it. The margin for error is probably smaller than one would expect for a casual day of swimming, If we went in too far to the right there was only a few thousand meters between us and the open Indian Ocean. If we drifted too far to the left the girls would be coming ashore in the village in bikinis which would create problems under Sharia law. The decision was made to get in further to the left of course and if we happened to float too close to the village it would be better than going out to sea. The swim back was tough and towards the end I just had to put my head down and push on. One of the girls had an ankle injury so we had to keep pace with her as to not split up. We made it back safely and enjoyed the rest of our night.

Sumatra continues to get better and better with each new place. Although, I wouldn’t exactly call Pulau Weh better than the rest but it sure adds to the already large variety of things that this part of Indonesia has to offer. It has been interesting being here during Ramadan in the already strict Islamic state of Aceh. I had thought that Pulau Weh would be more relaxed in regards to adherence to it but it turns out it’s not. This was evident when one of my friends on the island went off to have some alone time with a guy she met and was stopped by Sharia police and given a warning. They were in a quiet private area having a chat, sitting several feet from each other and this was still enough to get the attention of a plain clothed officer. He told them they’d have to leave and if they are caught alone again they would be put in jail.

Now I’m back in Banda Aceh on the mainland in a bungalow right on the Indian Ocean. This was ground zero for the 2004 tsunami and tomorrow I plan to rent a motorbike and spend half of the day seeing the many tsunami related sites of the city and then the rest of the day in the countryside along the ocean and up in the mountains. I’ll just be armed with a map and my bahasa Indonesia in order to get me around. This will be a fun test of my ability to navigate Indonesian roads. Banda Aceh is a small city with not a lot of traffic so it will be a good warm up for the bustling havoc of Medan.

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.

Where am I from? (One man’s struggle with updating his Facebook profile)

Since I’m about to settle down in Indonesia I figured it was time to confront a question I always have trouble answering. Whether it’s to a curious local or while editing my Facebook profile, I can never quite figure out what to say and often change my answer depending on my mood.

Where am I from? Well, I was born in Westbury, New York. An average sized town in Nassau County on Long Island. In 1991 my family and I moved to Tampa, Florida. This is a moment that will forever define who I am as a person. The struggles I went through adapting to the move effected my family and social life as well as my education. To say it was a difficult move for me would be a gross understatement. I don’t feel like all the effects of the move, which was in the middle of my final year of elementary school, went away until well after I had graduated high school. I never felt comfortable with who I was during my middle, junior and high school years.

It wasn’t until, ironically, my darkest years that I really started to see light at the end of the tunnel. Now, of course I can’t blame every set back I’ve ever had on a traumatic mid-school year move. That wouldn’t be fair to my parents whom I’m sure if they had it to do over again might have made a better effort to make sure I didn’t get pulled out of my comfort zone and thrust into the “new kid” role.


This is me pondering the question. Deep thought. Deeeeep thought.

I speak of this transition in depth because I feel that I’m going through a similar period of my life right now where this is relevant. I guess I’d also like to take the next few lines to express my complete forgiveness to my mom and dad for the move. It wasn’t easy and at times I outright hated them for it but now I feel like saying thank you, because while I can’t possibly predict where I would be had we not moved, I can look at where I am today and be thankful for the strength I gained from being thrust into a new culture at such a young age. And, if you don’t think there was a large culture gap between Nassau County schools in the late 80’s & early 90’s and Tampa, Florida then look no further than the demographics of the area of Westbury I lived and the integration of schools in Hillsborough County.

How I didn’t come out of this with extreme prejudice can only be credited to a strong interest in culture and geography that was instilled in me at a young age. My favorite parts of junior high were always culture days where I got to share my Italian heritage or excel in naming world capitals in class. Even though “cracker day,” where people of other race groups would gang up on whites and punch, kick or rob them on their way to the buses after school could have given me ample excuse for bigotry, it didn’t.

I think it had the opposite effect and made me crave knowledge of other people and to learn first hand through experience how people of different races and cultures truly are rather than looking at a small sample size. If I’m bigoted in any way it’s against people who succom to mob mentality or act belligerent towards others just because someone else says it’s what they should do. Or worse, a two thousand year old book that carries similar instructions. Good thing that doesn’t happen in the grown up world, right? I’ve always wanted to say this next phrase; but I digress.

I felt it was necessary to give a strong background of where I was born and the event that moved me to where I spent the greater portion of my life thus far, Tampa, Florida. After getting past the fact that I’m either assumed to be American or they’ve asked and I’ve answered, the instinctive reply to the question, “Where are you from?” is almost always, “Florida.” And depending on how off the beaten path I may be, I’ll either go further in saying, “about an hour from Disney World.” or “about 5 hours from Miami.” People all over the world know Mickey Mouse and Miami Vice, they haven’t quite heard of the Cuban sandwich or Gasparilla yet.

The problem is, that to most of the world (and Facebook apparently) you come from where you are born. Your birthplace is a representation of who you are. This just doesn’t feel right for me as I no longer feel “New York” represents who I am. This goes a step further where many cultures define where you are from by where your parents were born. That would make me a mix between a New Yorker and Pennsylvanian. I’ll admit it would be cool to raise some eyebrows here in Indonesia by telling them I’m from “Bethlehem.” (Pennsylvania, not the Palestinian city) None of this even considers the idea that you’re from where your blood is and in that case, as with most Americans, I’m a mix of European flavors. I have been pegged as Italian by people from Italy that I meet in other countries.

I guess what it all really comes down to is updating my Facebook profile. It asks me where I’m from and I don’t want to answer it in the literal sense. If I say I’m from Westbury, New York and my current city is Medan, Indonesia, then nearly 2/3’s of my life goes unrepresented and my Florida years are forgotten. I’ll be damned if Facebook strips me of Ybor City, tailgating at Raymond James Stadium and crossing the Courtney Campbell Causeway en route to Clearwater Beach. I demand they add a “Where did you spend most of your life?” question in the profile.

All joking aside. I’m American, I was born in Westbury, Long Island New York. I lived most of my life in Tampa Florida and raised by parents who are a mix of German, Hungarian and Italian heritage from New York and Pennsylvania and now I currently will be residing in Indonesia for the foreseeable future.

So, where am I from? I don’t know. I just can’t wait until we develop warp drive and I can answer that with a simple, “Planet Earth.”

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.