All about the climb

This was a post I started in March and never finished because Indonesia is too beautiful to stay inside and type on a computer for extended periods of time.


March 2016

My experience in Indonesia has largely been shaped by fortuitous instances in which a new friend extends an invitation to come along on a trip somewhere, and every time it has felt like stepping through the wardrobe to Narnia.

Details are always fuzzy or completely lacking. What time are we going? Later! What will we be doing there? Not sure yet. Who else is coming along? We’ll see! What time will it go until? Until it’s finished.

I learned pretty quickly to stop asking questions and just say yes.

Always say yes.

Because these moments of spontaneity have taken me to beautiful places, shown me valuable cultural glimpses, and have begun friendships I’ll hold on to forever. That’s how I met some of my best friends, learned how to ride a motorbike, attended an Indonesian funeral, saw my first Javanese wedding, hiked an active volcano, the list goes on.

But most importantly, that’s how I met the rock climbers of Yogyakarta.

Sometime in January I woke up on a Saturday morning to a text from a new friend, Aden –

“Me and my friends will doing rock climbing at Siung beach, would you join us?”

I looked at the clock and thought about it. I didn’t really know any of the people that were going, I hadn’t been rock climbing since I left America in August, and I had no idea what outdoor climbing at this beach was going to be like.

An hour later, wind whizzed through my helmet as I sat on the back of Aden’s motorbike and chatted as he wove through trucks and cars.

Two hours and one sambal-licious lunch stop later, we pulled up to Siung beach and stretched our legs. Siung beach is like any other beach in Wonosari- soft white sand, clear blue water washing over lush green algae, beautiful cliffs and dark ash colored rock. To get to the climbing area, you have to hike up into the hill, and then you’re surrounded by towering slabs and soft green grass.

There was a whole group of people climbing that day, all of whom were Javanese and also from Jogja.

You should have seen them.

If there is one defining characteristic of Indonesians that will always be ingrained in my mind, it’s the consistent presence of humor in every situation. The climbers on this trip were no different. They joked as they climbed – laughed as they moved – and because of this, it took me a while to realize that the routes they were climbing were actually insanely difficult. These Indonesians were flying through routes that were way beyond my level and definitely would have given the climbers I know back at home a run for their money.


Aden on the boulder


Naya on lead.



Coko free-climbing way too high.


Angga on lead.


Tikha almost to the sky on top rope


And finally, me giving it a go.


Long story short these routes weren’t easy, but the people I was with were awesome about having me try everything. And just like in American climbing communities, the Indonesian climbers gave me their beta, spotted me when I climbed, caught me when I fell, and made me feel welcome.


The greatest part about climbing with Indonesians was it suddenly gave me all of this common ground with them. We could skip fishing for small talk and we could talk about climbing instead.


What I learned was that all of these climbers were part of a community that practices every day in Yogyakarta. This community ranges from recreational climbers to professional athletes that represented Yogyakarta in national and international competitions. Their daily training sessions take place in a stadium called Mandala Krida, where they have bouldering, top rope, lead, and speed, and they said I should come climb with them during practice.

As the year went on, these 4pm practices became the highlight of my day outside of teaching. This was where I really got to know the climbing community – where I could joke and laugh and climb with them in the golden hours of the afternoon, and where I made some of the greatest friends I have in Indonesia.


Luki on top rope at Stadium Mandala Krida.

Meet the climbers of Yogyakarta!
Or the ones I could get pictures of anyway.


Kibli – super silly and free spirited. He told me he just started climbing but he’s already getting those long legs up routes with no problem.


Argo – has so many other cool talents like martial arts and extreme mountain biking. Also has competed internationally in speed.


Atmaja – the perfect example of an incredibly sweet person but a mean lead climber.

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Ismu – an extremely committed national and international speed climbing competitor. The first time I saw him climb the speed route at practice my jaw dropped. He’s won so many gold medals I’ve lost count. A great friend who loved to practice his English – he introduced me to the Indonesian equivalent of the NBA, and sometimes we went to watch basketball games after practice!


Surya and Lintang – the power siblings. They’re both in their pre-teen years but are two of the best climbers in the entire group. They take home gold and silver medals left and right at youth competitions all over Indonesia, and they make Jogja proud.


These climbers set their own routes.


Luki, such a spunky girl!! She’s only been climbing for a couple of months but she’s got enough sass to make up for any lost time. This is her in front of the score sheets of her first competition ever! She did super well.


The climbing community opens its doors to climbers of all ages. Ranging from as little as this munchkin to climbers well in their thirties.


Coach Mate. Humble and soft spoken, and the whole team respects and loves him like he’s family.


Fitri – a really inspiring female climber, she competes in national and international competitions and has taken gold in the Southeast Asian Games. Honestly one of my favorite things to do was watch her do pull ups at practice – she’s such a strong and grounded woman. Before I left for Indonesia, she gave me her jersey from the Southeast Asian Games as a parting gift!

Not only were these people great friends and such fun people, but they were also some of the most dedicated and impressive climbers I’ve ever met. They all come from humble roots in Yogyakarta and their commitment to climbing has taken them to different cities across Indonesia and even countries across the world. Check out one of their awesome climbing videos here!

These climbers train hard and laugh hard. They’ve taught me that you can push yourself to pursue something challenging that takes a ton of discipline but still have a smile on your face and laughter in your lungs.

I learned a ton from these athletes, and I miss them so much. I miss parking my motorbike in the stadium and being greeted by smiles, high fives, and laughter. I miss the way they hollered at me to get my harness on and clip in in next. I miss blasting music, finishing each others lyrics, and singing “wrecking ball” while swinging from the rope after a fall. I miss helping them with their English homework between climbs. I miss being a part of the circle as they closed each practice with prayer. If I ever had a bad day, I knew rock climbing practice would turn my mood around. Their energy was contagious, and I left every practice beaming. Even after returning to America, they still send pictures of their climbing trips and I love hearing updates on their upcoming competitions. And to think I might not have ever met them if I hadn’t hopped on the back of Aden’s motorbike that Saturday morning in January.


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A Taste of Teaching

I am a month into the second semester of the Indonesian school year, and teaching is still the heaviest occupant of my thoughts every day. Did they enjoy today’s lesson? Are they learning something meaningful? Do they understand what I’m trying to do? Do they look forward to English class? DO THEY LIKE ME?

It is already February (5 months passed like a bullet), and I am now in the home stretch of the grant. Teaching the 10th grade students at SMAN1 has been the most creatively challenging, physically exhausting, fret-inducing, and just all-around fascinating learning experience I have ever taken on, and I wanted to use this post to share some of the adventures I have had with my students in the last five months.

imageWhat my classroom typically looks like. 30 students to a class. 10 classes.

I’ll start with my very first lesson plan.

The national curriculum topic for that week was “Expressions of Congratulations.”

An oddly specific lesson topic, but sometimes specific makes it easier to lesson plan. Out of all the possible things they could be learning about the English language, I’m not sure focusing on how to congratulate someone was the most practically useful, but nevertheless this remains one of my favorite lessons of all time.

We began with a warm-up activity in which my co-teacher showed a photograph of a student receiving a trophy and the students could ask questions about the photograph to guess what was happening in the picture and what the lesson would be about.

Then we jumped straight into Jeopardy. There’s a theory that the way teachers teach is completely shaped by the way that we learned when we were students, and if there’s anything I remember about being a student it was playing Jeopardy in AP Biology class. I don’t think I realized back then how cool of a teacher Mr. Jones was for having slides that said “Baba Ganoush” after you answered questions correctly about the Krebs cycle. Jeopardy is quite possibly one of the most versatile teaching tools. In AP Bio we used it for review. In this lesson, I used it to introduce different expressions of congratulations. The students were divided into two teams and the teams chose from categories like “Family” or “School.” Then I read an example of a congratulatory expression out loud.

Example, “Family for 300” would be “Congratulations on your new baby boy!” and if students could guess the real life situation that corresponded to that expression, they would get 300 points. Later on in the game, I sometimes gave the situation and asked for an expression to see if they picked up on some of the new expressions.

Jeopardy worked wonders because it was a listening activity that came with the excitement of a game show, and it put competitive pressure on my otherwise very shy students so they were raising their hands like lightning before they could remember that they were shy. It was also a way for me to show them all the different ways to congratulate someone in different situations without having to do the traditional white-board/take notes method.

It was amazing how seriously the students took Jeopardy. My favorite part was watching the little heads bump together to whisper to each other for a split second before snapping back to declare an answer, or the thunderous cheering when I gave them their points in my best game show voice possible. As the native speaker, I did the reading out loud, and my co-teacher manned the points for each team on the white board, and together we kept a nice rhythm until our jeopardy board was all crossed out.

We’ve been taught in teacher trainings that generally, after presenting new material, a lesson should progress to having students practice and then ultimately produce the material on their own (formally called the PPP method of lesson planning for Present, Practice, and Produce).

For the practice portion of this lesson, my co-teacher and I had students pair up, and we gave each pair a picture ranging from sports tournaments to wedding anniversaries. One partner had to come up with an achievement based on the picture and the other partner would congratulate them accordingly. I’m a huge fan of using pictures in class because it gives students somewhere to start but it forces them to think of their own vocabulary.

The final part of the lesson consisted of one of my favorite activities of all time – it’s a game I made up to try and get the students conversing with each other without thinking too much about it. I put on some music and told the students to wander around the classroom. When the music stopped, students would have to grab the nearest person and strike up a conversation – telling their partner one of their own personal achievements, and their partner would congratulate them and continue the conversation. This game had the thrill of musical chairs and the candidness of spontaneous conversation. The excitement of scrambling for a partner was great for fueling enthusiastic conversation without them realizing it. It’ll be a long time before I forget the image of my students parading around the classroom like a train, hands on each others shoulders, a marching chorus of Maroon 5 that would scatter into a million squeals at the touch of the pause button.

The reason why I like this lesson is because it had variety and diversity of skills. Jeopardy was teamwork, pictures were pair work, and musical partners was individual thinking. Jeopardy was listening and contextualizing, pictures were practicing in the comfort zone of a picture and a partner, and musical conversations was synthesizing on your own in a random situation that you’re thrown in. I thought the lesson was a win, but what did they think?

For their exit ticket, I asked them to write one thing they liked about the lesson, one thing they learned, and one thing they would like to do next time.


Exit tickets are kind of a guilty pleasure for me because afterwards I feel like all of my students just wrote me private notes, but they’re also great because I am always wondering what they’re thinking. I think for the most part, this was the first time they ever played games like that in English class – the first time they ever had pop music in class, the first time they were asked to get out of their seats and wander around the classroom.

Few things feel better than a happy class. Going through a lesson plan from start to finish is like white water rafting. Push off strong, ride all the waves, work around the rocks, keep tabs on all paddlers, and then let the leftover adrenaline ooze as you finish smooth sailing.

It can feel as boss as dodging all the rocks in an even rhythm, and it can feel as helpless as getting stuck backwards on a boulder with paddles and limbs flying in the air.

Here are some other activities I’ve done in the classroom.



One of my favorite writing activities. During a lesson about the simple past tense, my co-teacher and I divided the class into three teams. Each team was responsible for making a story that fit their genre. The first team was in charge of making a comedy, the second team made a romance, and the third team made a thriller. I gave them one sentence to start off with, and the rest was up to them to complete in a relay race format. Each team formed a line in front of their part of the whiteboard, the first person in line wrote one sentence, handed the marker to the next person in line, and went to the back of the line. The next person continued the story with another sentence, and so on.


What’s great about story building on the board is that afterwards, we could go over spelling or grammatical errors together as a class. One piece of advice I got during orientation was that it’s better to have students do an activity before you start teaching new material like grammar, because it isn’t until then that you can see where student needs really are. In these lessons, it wasn’t until the stories were on the board that I realized my classes needed a lesson on conjunctions, and we were able to take 10 minutes on the spot to learn how to make conjunctions and where conjunctions would have fit into their stories.



Some of these stories had me in stitches- like when James Bond “jumped out of the helicopter and Goldfinger shot him while he was still airborne but fortunately his car was waiting for him with Sam Smith inside it.”




For this activity, there were five students in the front of the room, who were potential suspects in our detective investigation. Another student would silently choose one of the five to be the “suspect.” The rest of the class could ask questions like “does your suspect have glasses?” or “is your suspect wearing a watch?” and based on the yes or no answers, the class would guess which individual the student had picked. This activity was actually intended to be done with a picture of five different characters on the projector, but in one of the classes the projector wasn’t working. My co-teacher asked if we should scrap the whole activity, but I glanced around the classroom, picked five students that looked different enough, and we improvised by using real people instead. A skill that is absolutely essential to teaching: being resilient, flexible, and able to improvise (creatively) on the spot. In Indonesia, classroom technology isn’t the most reliable, and it helps to be able to bounce back fast.



Hot seat is a great activity for describing people. A student sits in the hot seat at the front of the room with his/her back to the whiteboard. Another person writes the name of a person on the board and the rest of the class has to help the person in the hot seat guess who it is by using descriptions only.


On this particular day, it was Kamis Pahing, a special day that comes around every month or so where students and teachers wear traditional Javanese clothing. It marks the day on which the 7 day solar calendar lines up with the 6 day Javanese calendar for a day. Women wear kebayas and men wear surjans. It’s awesome. I love Kamis Pahing.




Good old fashioned presentations. A student’s worst fear and potentially the most uncomfortable 90 minutes of class if students aren’t feeling it and are reluctant, but with a couple tweaks and the right momentum presentations can be a great time. In this lesson we were learning how to describe places, and I asked students to present on a place they’ve always wanted to go to.  Ways I tried to make presentations more fun and interactive:

  1. Present in pairs – students felt much more comfortable when they had a buddy.
  2. Make it competitive – put pairs up against each other to see which team could better persuade the class to want to go to their destination
  3. Give the audience a task so they don’t goof off – the rest of the class had to vote on which place they would rather visit based on each pair’s presentation
  4. No notes – After one or two students gave their entire presentation with their nose in their paper, I seized the opportunity to switch up the rules while we were still early in the game. I told the class we were adding an extra challenge – you may not use your papers. After the gasps of horror passed, the students totally rose to the challenge (they didn’t have a choice) and gave stellar presentations. They were stellar because they were candid. They were forced to be candid. Hah.

One of the really endearing highlights of this lesson, though, was how many students wanted to go to Mecca and complete the Hajj. I really love when I get a glimpse of my students’ spirituality in class. A couple weeks before that I was reading essays of many students who admired their mothers for never missing a prayer. The majority of the students at SMAN1 are Muslim, and Islam is a large part of the school’s daily schedule. Students read the Qur’an  over the loudspeaker on Monday mornings. They pray at noon. They gather in small group discussions all over the school grounds on Friday afternoons to discuss the Qur’an. They have large assemblies of religious lectures in the auditorium every so often. My students are great examples of religious discipline, and I admire them a lot for that.



Skits were a great way to get a glimpse of students’ personalities. One of the topics last semester was “announcements” which I thought was an extremely boring topic (the national curriculum can be as strangely specific as announcements one week and as vague as recount text another week), but it was made infinitely better with acting. I typed up situations in which announcements are relevant, like “you just saw a flyer for a local concert and you want to tell your friends about it” or “you just saw an advertisement on the internet about a tourism package and you want to convince your parents to go,” and asked students to come up with skits that would act out the scenario and include all the components of an announcement. These turned out to be absolutely delightful, and most of the time downright hilarious. One student, Fienna, gave a superb Romeo & Juliet-like performance of dramatically choosing to end her life with a knife to the heart when her parents refused to take her up on the vacation package.

imageAditra, speaking in the picture above, even broke down which airline you would take based on what economic class you belonged to. lol!



Towards the end of last semester, the students were stressed out about exams, so my co-teacher and I decided to have a class dedicated to some fun English vocab games to give students one less class to stress out about. We played pictionary on the whiteboard and charades, which had me laughing the hardest I’ve ever laughed in front of my students – that kind of silent laughter that comes when you’re laughing so hard you can’t do anything for a couple of seconds.


A lot of my students ask me what the difference is between Indonesian and American schools.

Objectively, Indonesian schools pack in many more subjects. During midterms and finals, my students are studying for 15 subjects at once (extra subjects that we don’t have in America would be things like religion, Javanese, etc.). This enormous breadth of subjects is achieved at the cost of depth of material. For example, Indonesian students only have English for 90 minutes once a week. Learning a language requires constant reinforcement and practice, and you can see why this makes it difficult for both students trying to master English and teachers trying to ensure steady improvement. A lot of the victories we have in the classroom feel like they’re dissipated in the 6 days before I see those students again.

Subjectively, I’ve noticed that in Indonesian classrooms, there is a really strong collectivist culture where students will always check with their partners, if not everyone around them, before speaking. Students are always at the ready to help other students out with the correct answer, even when it means hollering out the right pronunciation in the middle of a student’s presentation, and this takes precedence over the independent thinking and individual participation that’s encouraged in America. More often than not, I receive answers in the form of a chorus rather than a raised hand. Overall, the energy, enthusiasm, and respect for teachers in Indonesian classrooms is higher than that in America, and this has made teaching here a real pleasure and a privilege.



Before the second semester began, all 34 ETAs flew to Jakarta for a midyear conference during which we received some really practically relevant training from English Language Fellows in Indonesia (very qualified English teachers from America teaching ESL abroad). The conference came at a great time – we all had a semester of teaching successes and challenges under our belts and we were all looking for some new inspiration for the new semester. My own personal takeaway from the abundance of advice and direction we received at the midyear conference was when one of the language fellows ended her presentation with some real talk.

We could carry out our lessons about the English language talking about Sally and David in the park, or we could take the opportunity to incorporate global issues into our examples and reading passages and teach students meaningful things while they learn a new language.

This struck a chord with me, and with Martin Luther King Day and Black History month quickly approaching, I sat down with my co-teacher and crafted a lesson about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and the March on Washington.


My co-teacher and I centered this lesson around reading comprehension. As much as I would love to get my students conversing in English all day, at the end of the day their exams are almost all reading comprehension, and I wanted to cover that in class as well. For this class, my co-teacher and I pieced together a biography/narrative of Martin Luther King Jr. and his larger civil rights movements and had students answer questions about the passage at reading stations. We divided the students into groups of 4 and set up biographies all around the room.

imageIt was basically group reading comprehension on the wall, but it’s incredible how just the slightest switch-up can make a boring activity much more fun. The simple action of taping the biographies  on the walls made students view this activity as something new- something different from an ordinary bland reading exercise- and having the paper on the wall turned out to be much easier for the students to read together at the same time, which I realized they wouldn’t be able to do if they were sitting down and reading at their desks and spinning the paper around until everyone could get a turn to look at it.


I really wasn’t sure how a lesson on racism and the civil rights movement was going to be perceived by Indonesian students. In Indonesia, the general sentiment around skin color has a lot to do with perceptions of beauty – a lot of Indonesians think fair skin is more attractive than darker skin. People are constantly covering up in the blazing sun (down to the fingertips with pink fuzzy gloves) to avoid getting tan, and hygiene and beauty products all contain whitening agents. Regardless, my students seemed to grasp the seriousness of racism and the importance of civil rights, although I was wondering why some students were consistently getting one of the reading comprehension questions wrong. Then it occurred to me that I had assumed they would be able to perceive why Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus would be a big deal. I realized I had to explain (with a diagram and some acting) what segregation on buses and in schools looked like in the first place before proceeding to talk about the civil rights movements that ensued. Explaining what segregation was like in America out loud to my students made it feel even more absurd, and the genuine concern and furrowed eyebrows on my students upon hearing stories of segregation confirmed that.


Every year, the Indonesia ETAs hold local English Speech Competitions at their schools, called the WORDS competition. It’s a creative English speech competition that gives students the freedom to incorporate any talents (music, dance, poetry, acting, comedy, etc.) into their speech. The winner from each local school travels to Jakarta, courtesy of the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation (AMINEF), to deliver their speech alongside winners from every other ETA’s school in the national WORDS competition.

This year’s topic is

If you had three wishes to change something about the world, Indonesia, or yourself, what would you wish for?


Brainstorming for this topic has yielded incredible results. It was like an in-class rally as students shouted out words like “Corruption!” or “Education!”


Some ideas were derived from recent news, like ISIS and terrorism. Some ideas were fueled by personal experiences, like the Indonesian curriculum or bullying or public transportation and pollution in Indonesia. Others sprang from personal interests, like space research, and others came from places of impressively deep thought and global awareness, like the public perception of Muslims, or perceptions of beauty.

I’m still in the middle of working with students to develop their ideas into speeches. My main focus is for them to incorporate as many specific personal stories as possible to explain the basis for their three wishes – like their personal experiences with pollution, bullying, the curriculum, tolerance, etc.

Whereas last semester was chock full of interactive and fun activities to get the students up and running around using and liking English, my focus this semester has shifted to longer, somewhat more serious projects. There’s less laughter and joking around in the classroom, which I miss, but it’s being replaced with deeper thought and discussion, which I really hope the students are liking as much as I am.

Having an influence over 300 high school students’ perception of English is frightening, thrilling, challenging, and so so rewarding.

Teaching has not come without challenges. Sometimes a class is just hot and tired and not feeling the lesson, and I am pulling teeth to get students to participate. Sometimes group work turns into “only the people Miss Julia is sitting with need to work.” Sometimes trying to help an individual student turns into a scared and confused student shaking their head at me thinking what does she want from me?!? Sometimes students get sarcastic. Sometimes students just refuse to present. But when I sat down to write this post those simply weren’t the first thoughts that popped into my head. The first images that came to mind were the smiling faces and chorus of “good morning”, or the boisterous witty remarks from the boys in the back corner. Or the laughter of students in the middle of a game, or the sea of heads bowed down in brainstorming. The ever so satisfying nod of students who understand, or the split second shock when a student says something so incredibly insightful.

These are all just a taste of what it’s like to teach in Indonesia. The student that is face-down passed out in the corner of class is outweighed, outnumbered, and outshined by the students who come to the teacher room during breaks or after school to bounce around ideas for their speech. Just when I feel like I’ve failed when a student haphazardly throws down two sentences for a presentation and sits down, another student brings the house down with a performance worthy of a standing ovation. Just when I feel like a class could really care less about my existence, a student asks for my help with editing an essay after school.

I am not a certified teacher, and I have not had classroom teaching experience prior to coming to Indonesia. All I have is something close to resembling desperation for these students to have a good time in the classroom and for them to try new things. I would not be able to muster up the energy to try and move 300 students every week if it weren’t for the enthusiasm that my students reflect back. At the end of the day my teaching experiences in Indonesia have been positive by and large because of the open-mindedness of my co-teacher and the encouragement and support I get from the smiles and cheer of the students of SMAN1. Their willingness to hear me out, to holler out their thoughts, and to try new things with me is what gets me to splash cold water on my face every morning and speed off to school on my motorbike at 7am.




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A birthday for the books

December 16th was the 58th anniversary of my school. My calendar was marked, and the school was buzzing with preparations for the “ulang tahun” (birthday) of SMAN1. Exams were over, but students were still at school like it was in full session. The marching squad drilled, students sold snacks to fund raise, and a few teachers and I crammed in some intensive gamelan practice for a wayang performance.


Students in the back of the school sifted food-dyed flour the day before. The hype was contagious, and I was getting excited for this epic birthday party. The details I was given were as follows:

  1. The day would start out with a super upacara. Upacara is a flag ceremony held every Monday morning in the school yard to raise the Indonesian flag and recite nationalistic pledges. It is taken quite seriously – students stand like soldiers in a line in the school yard and those whose responsibility it is to raise the flag march like nutcrackers. It’s actually quite impressive that they do this every Monday with such diligence, but the upacara on this particular day was going to be the ultimate upacara with Yogyakarta officials present and a special marching routine.
  2. Jalan sehat! Literal translation: healthy walk. Will it be a 5k? Will we parade through the city? Will we walk around the block? Who knows. In Indonesia, “jalan jalan” is this wonderfully unbounded term for walking/traveling that has come to mean anything from walking in the neighborhood to traveling overseas.
  3. Color wars. A universal good time.
  4. Wayang kulit in the evening – what our weekly gamelan practices had been amounting to this whole time (unbeknownst to me until a week prior). Wayang kulit is a Javanese shadow puppet show that tells the tales of Hindhu epics, and a twelfth grade student who has trained as a puppet master was going to perform for the school.

If it sounds like a packed day, it’s because it was.

– Jalan-jalan like the Javanese –

While upacara was full of formalities and declarations, all smiles broke loose once upacara ended and the entire school lined up in parade-mode to walk the streets of Jogja. Jogja isn’t the most pedestrian-friendly city, and there were motorbikes whizzing past our elbows as we walked, but walking and talking with students was an opportunity that I’d happily take a puff of exhaust to the face for.



As we turned corners and crossed bridges, I got to hear about students’ lives outside of school – their parents, their hobbies, where they were born, how they grew up. As we walked through quieter neighborhoods, I learned some Javanese as students greeted locals as we passed. The people of Jogja are predominantly Javanese, and while the national Indonesian language is used in the classroom, most if not all students speak casual Javanese to each other when they’re hanging out and speaking colloquially. Javanese is an incredibly complex language that changes based on the level of respect you are speaking with. The language you use to speak to those older than you is a completely different language than the one you use to speak to your peers, and there’s even a level of respect reserved for someone like the Sultan that is another completely independent language on its own. Respect is a huge part of Javanese culture – the Javanese are generally known to be extremely polite to each other, very considerate, and very confrontation averse.

– Colors and squeals –

Color wars are just as fun halfway across the globe. This particular color war actually did resemble a battle field – for the three seconds in which the two sides of the school yard charged at each other with mouths screaming and fists full of powder raised above their heads, I thought I was watching a scene from 300 except when swords and shields would have collided there were puffs of blues and pinks instead.


The girls took the front of the school yard and the boys battled it out in the back.



There are few things Indonesians love more than a good old Instagram post and a follow back.


These are some of the teachers that are my age at SMAN1 – a Japanese native speaker and the Javanese teacher.

– Let the Gamelan begin –


Every Monday, I look forward to gamelan practice after school with the teachers because I love how all the different mellow instruments sound when they’re played together, and I love listening to the teachers joke around in Javanese. For the week leading up to the wayang performance, however, our usual 1 hour-long practice per week turned into 3-4 hour practices every day. It was a gamelan cram session. I was thinking, humming, dreaming gamelan.

Wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) is an amazing cultural tradition in Indonesia that I had read about before the start of my grant. Kulit means skin, and refers to the leather into which the puppets are carefully chiseled into. The stories are usually drawn from the Hindu epics, like the Ramayana, the Mahabharata or the Serat Menak, a story about the heroism of Amir Hamza.


This is a photo from a couple posts back when I had seen a Bapak chiseling a wayang puppet in Taman Sari, the Sultan’s Water Castle. After a month of tap-tap-tapping and subsequent painting, you get a puppet complete with details that will make your eyes twitch.



When I imagined a wayang show, I pictured shadows dancing across a warmly lit background. I envisioned characters bopping back and forth to the grand tones of gamelan and a puppet master seated with his hands and arms busy at all times. I knew being a wayang puppet master was not easy – there are tons of characters and only two hands – but I definitely didn’t realize that wayang would involve so much more than just his hands. For one thing, his feet were engaged also. He had a cymbal attached to his toes and every time there was a pause in dialogue he would rapidly clap the cymbal against a wooden surface near his foot, almost as if he was creating his own laugh track to fill the transitions. For some reason, it completely slipped my mind that there would be dialogue between the puppets. In my mind the shadows were silent, but in reality, each character had its own voice, and so the puppet master switched back and forth between seven or so different voices. Not only was the student a master of puppetry, but he was a master of the Javanese language, which is essentially a master of three different languages. While most people in Jogja speak Javanese, very few can say that they can speak all three levels fluently. I was extremely impressed.

And he was funny!! I would say that this student had the entire auditorium in stitches for a good 60% of the show, which is a LOT of time considering wayang shows typically extend long into the night (I went home at 1am that night, and that was an abridged version). This 12th grade student moved puppets like butterflies flick their wings, had extremely coordinated hands and feet, spoke elaborate Javanese, embodied over 7 different characters, and had a golden sense of humor. It was awesome.


I was also sitting right behind him. The gamelan orchestra plays right behind the puppet master to time the songs with the story, and watching the show from “the pit” was like watching wayang in IMAX. It was the biggest dilemma choosing between looking at what I was doing as I played the saron and looking up to watch the puppets fly back and forth. The music stops when there’s extended dialogue, and so I got to sit and enjoy the puppet banter, but the gamelan picks up during the battle scenes of the story, and so it was only when I was able to steal a glance or two in between notes that I saw the puppets twirling and fluttering through the air.

The wayang lasted a total of 3-4 hours, and there was this interesting progression of atmosphere in the auditorium as the night stretched on. What started out as a formal performance eventually morphed into what felt like a late night hangout with a talented fellow entertaining a room full of people. After hour 2 or so there was coffee and tea being passed around the gamelan orchestra, and we were stretching out our legs under our instruments during rests. Sometimes the teacher behind me struck up some small talk during an especially long segment of dialogue. Sometimes all the teachers were just bent over their instruments in laughter- the student puppet master even started to incorporate jokes about SMAN1 into the storyline.

That night I got to check off one of the highest things on my Indonesian bucket list in the auditorium of my very own school, but I also left with a new camaraderie with the teachers in gamelan that came from hours of rehearsal, hours of performance, and hours of laughter – kind of like that feeling you get when you hike a mountain with a group of friends, and when you return from that adventure you have this new memory you will forever associate with their faces.

For me, I’ll always have a mental video reel of flickering wayang puppets, the laughing faces of the teachers at SMAN1, the over-the-shoulder smile as the puppet master looked back after a particularly good joke, the steady movement of wands coming in contact with brass bowls, and the swooping tones of Javanese.

If you would like to watch any part of the Wayang Performance, you can find them here!

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Jack and Games

Although my students are aware of the concept of Halloween, they have never dressed up in costumes or trick-o-treated or carved a jack-o-lantern. Thus, I give you Jack-o-watermelons by students at SMAN1!


I initially did try to find pumpkins, but they’re small and expensive in Indonesia, and watermelons are not, so we carved ten 6kg watermelons in the front yard of our school afterschool on Friday Oct 30th. It’s not often that I get to sit down with my students and relax to some tunes while eating spoonfuls of watermelon and talking about what music we like. It was a juicy blast.


That is ten watermelons full of fruit in those buckets, and what was probably even more fun than carving was running around the school afterwards and finding people to help us finish all the watermelon we had leftover.


No tutorial was necessary. They got to work way before I even sat down.


Kevin, the master skinner!


Leave it to the girls to finish first. I was ecstatic when Zahra sent me pictures of her jack-o-lantern at home after her parents helped her put a candle in it.


“Now make the same face as your melon”


I really like how the pink pops out of the green. Watermelons > pumpkins.


We talked and sipped on watermelon juice deep into the evening, and I found out that hanging out at school late at night feels just as badass here in Indonesia as it did in America. No teachers. No parents. Just friends under fluorescent lights. The marching troop was finishing up practice in the courtyard, theater was crafting props in the auditorium, and I was just beginning to get a taste of the night crawlers of SMAN1.

All in all, it was a lovely afternoon with some of my 10th grade students, but they’re not easy to get a hold of. SMAN1 is teeming with extra-curriculars, and the students are very involved outside of class. In so far as I’m aware, there’s gamelan, volleyball, badminton, basketball, marching, journalism, science club, a hiking association, tae-kwon-do, theater, Islamic society, and Red Cross. Basically, enough to keep them very busy.


Volleyball after school with students on Tuesdays. The coach doesn’t speak much English, so for the first two weeks I got a lot of “I set. You smash.”


The Teladan Hiking Association practices descending exercises for caving trips. A couple times a year, the students in the hiking association grab harnesses and rope and lower themselves into caves to explore.


The Teladan Hiking Association also did a demonstration for National Youth Day earlier in the week. They descended from the third floor with the Indonesian flag spanning their ropes to celebrate the day that young Indonesian heroes took an oath in 1928 to unite the country by speaking a national language.


The theater club portrays the young heroes of the past in a dramatic outcry to the youth of today to “stop being glued to your social media” (direct translation from a student)


Not only are students super active in clubs, but they’re incredibly musical as well. So many of them play instruments and sing, and they can pull together a performance for many an occasion, including the morning of National Youth Day.

What’s amazing to me is that these student clubs and performances are run entirely by the students themselves. Teachers and club advisors played a large role in my high school extra curriculars in America, but here the students take responsibility for running the entire show.


The students are usually preoccupied with all the awesome things they have going for them, but I did manage to snag some to go for a rock climbing trip with me at a local wall after midterms.

Getting involved with my students has called every activity I have ever dabbled in to the fore – debate, volleyball, rock climbing, etc. It’s been a fun challenge continuously trying to find new avenues to connect with people, and Indonesia has really forced me to put all my cards on the table. It kind of feels like I can be quizzed at any moment. You never know when you’re going to be asked to give an impromptu speech, or when you’ll be asked to come on stage to sing a song, or give a 90 minute lecture on teaching strategies. All I can do is muster every semblance of experience I have collected to this point and turn it into something presentable.

A Teacher Tourney

The day after jack-o-watermelons, there was a tournament with teams of teachers from high schools all over Jogja playing volleyball, ping pong, badminton, and Gobaksodor. There were loads of teachers, lots of sportsmanship, and tons of laughter.

Gobaksodor – (Go Back So Door)


A game of guarding your square while the other team tries to run all the way through to the other side without being touched, and you can only move back and forth on your side of the square. This game is a hit amongst Indonesians It’s fun, it’s fast, and looked real tiresome. Kind of like tag, but the person who’s “it” is limited to a line and the runner gets to tease them a bit before making a run for it. The title refers to having to run to the end and “back to the door” of the square without being touched.


Do not underestimate these Ibus. They were pretty damn good at volleyball. The women teachers from my school were not. But it was all in good fun!!


Waiting for our turn to play. Outdoor games on dry dirt leads to lots of dust, hence the masks.


The mens volleyball team from SMAN1! Bump set spike.



The full name of my school is SMA Negeri 1 Teladan. Teladan is Indonesian for “role model”, and boy do these students (and teachers!) live up to the name.


I kept hearing this word over and over again during the tournament, and now that I know what it means I pick up on it quite often around Indonesians. Literally, the word means “spirit”, but it encompasses a lot more than that. When the teachers wanted me to cheer them on from the sidelines, they said, “Julia, semangat!” When we lost a bunch of points in a row, it was “Semangat, semangat!”. When someone’s a step behind – “Ayo semangat.” When I’m excited for something, “Saya bersemangat.”

It’s a very versatile word, and I’ve found that it’s one that resonates pretty deep within Indonesian culture. Indonesians never lose spirit. They’re always smiling, always laughing, always cracking jokes and always looking up. One of the most common phrases that I hear every day is “tidak apa apa” (no worries!). I feel like a really large part of why I don’t feel homesick yet is because I am surrounded by so much positivity all the time. Moving across the world and jumping into a new language and culture isn’t difficult when everyone around you is always easy-going and happy you’re there, and for that, I’m extremely grateful to be in this country. Indonesian people inspire me to patient and optimistic, and it’s an attitude makeover that is changing my physical and mental health for the better.

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Food diaries

Mau makan apa?

My favorite question. What do you want to eat?

Food has been the best conversation starter and an unwavering opportunity for me to connect with people here in Indonesia – from introductory dinners to teachers snacking during school to meeting locals at food stands. The sharing of food and the good feels that come with a hearty meal have been a huge part of my experience so far. Thus, I dedicate this post to Indonesian cuisine.

Here are some of the dishes I’ve had so far.

Soto Soto Soto


Soto ayam is pure comfort food. It’s a warm herbal chicken soup with soaked rice and soft shreds of chicken on top. Soto is different from warung to warung, and it’s always cool to see how different places tweak the recipe to make their own version. I could eat soto all day long, but it’s typically a breakfast/brunch kind of thing, which makes a lot of sense to me because it’s like a big warm hug for your throat first thing in the morning.

Mie Ayam


Mie = noodles

Ayam = chicken

Does this bowl of noodles cry out to you as much as it does to me? Mie ayam is one of my top 3 favorites, and it’s sold right outside my school. The noodles are soft and slippery and the broth is nice and onion-y. You can get wontons and mushrooms in your bowl too. I get mie ayam so frequently that the Pak just laughs when he sees my face and turns around to start stirring up a bowl for me. During my first week here I got it twice in one day and he made fun of me for it for days.


This is the corner of our school yard where students usually eat during break or after school. On the other side of the wall is the mie ayam stand as well as a coconut juice stand, meatball stand, and a mini Indonesian crepe stand. You just holler over the ledge and they hand you a bowl of mie ayam. When you’re done, you slide the empty bowl back under the gate. It’s a great system, and one of my favorite things to do is order a bowl of noodles and sit down and chat with a circle of students. They ask me about America and I ask them about the extracurriculars they’re all so passionate about.



I’ve already talked about lotek, and it’s still my favorite dish in Indonesia. It’s jam packed with veggies like spinach, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and bean sprouts and mixed with tofu, tempe, sticky rice, javanese noodles, and fried gluten – all tossed in a sweet and spicy peanut sauce.

Lotek ladies


A large reason why I like lotek so much is that it’s always made in front of you, and I get to chat with the lady on her bench as she cuts the vegetables fresh and grinds the peppers, spices, and peanuts with a mortar and pestle to make the sauce. She talks about her siblings, or her children, or the rain, and I talk about how her lotek is the best I’ve ever had.



Pecel is basically a derivative of lotek with exclusively vegetables. There’s another cousin dish called gado-gado that has more potatoes than veggies, but the same peanut spicy goodness.



This is just a random assortment of vegetables I like to get at my absolute favorite restaurant in Jogja, Flamboyan. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet style restaurant with brown rice and the best vegetable dishes. The cashier had to ask me what kind of rice I got because she couldn’t see it under all my vegetables.

Nasi Goreng


Nasi goreng is simply fried rice, but it’s still somehow significantly better in Indonesia. It’s tangy, spicy, and hits the spot when you’re looking for something quick but substantial. The chips on top are called krupuk, and they’re usually shrimp flavored.


One thing I love about Indonesian warungs is that they leave all these snacks on the table for you to help yourself to, and you just count up the ones you’ve eaten at the end and pay for them altogether with your meal. It’s a great marketing strategy.


Sesame balls and crunchy potato balls with peppers in them.


Bolukukus. This soft purple muffin is made from sweet potato, and that color is all naturale.


Getuk, mushy/chewy sweet snack made from cassava with coconut shavings on top, and an eggroll with a savory bamboo filling. This is my desk in the teacher room. At school, teachers are always snacking and always sharing (God bless them). A lot of the times when I come back from class there are new snacks on my desk.


Jus Mangga aka a cup of sunshine


When the juice lady puts two mangoes in a blender with ice and sometimes milk. It’s bright, it’s fresh, and it’s the greatest reprieve from a hot sweaty day of teaching. There are juice stands everywhere, and you can get it for about thirty cents.

Es teh


People order iced tea like it’s tap water. Indonesians like their drinks SWEET, and you can usually see an inch or two of sugar at the bottom.

Javanese drink w/ mixed fruits – tasted like candy


Warm lemongrass and ginger tea at my favorite night time place to sit and unwind with equally tired friends, House of Raminten.


Kopi Joss


The word “joss” means great! Awesome! This coffee got its name from the sound it makes when they drop a burning piece of charcoal into steaming hot coffee (josssssssss). The charcoal acts as a hot cube that absorbs some of the caffeine. How is it okay to drink a beverage with charcoal in it? I don’t know, but it’s pretty joss.

Wedang Jahe – warm ginger drink with lots of sweet goodies in there and fermented rice.


Nothing like sipping warm ginger in the city square while watching fluorescent neon-lit bicycle-mobiles go by at a snail’s pace with electronic music blasting from mini laptops in the front of the vehicles.

Nasi Kuching at Alun Alun Kidul


Literally translated, cat rice, because of the snack-sized portions of rice that are small enough for a cat. There’s usually something salty on top, like anchovies or spicy tempe. In the other plate – sweet tofu, chicken feet, chicken heart and liver, and quail eggs – your typical street food snacks.


After you order you can plop right down in front of the food stand on some straw mats.


Sate Ayam


Chicken shish kabobs that are smothered in spicy crunchy peanut sauce and served over sticky rice. According to my roommate, this particular satay stand is the best in Jogja, and you can find it tucked away on Jalan Bantul.

Sate Kambing


Lamb satay that is juicy and oh so satisfying. This one was from a place called Pak Pong.


My mouth starts watering the minute we park and I can see the Pak making the satay right out front. All the smells.

The whole chicken and nothing but the chicken.


Waste no part of the chicken! Spot the chicken head, body, (very neatly strung) intestinal tract, and liver in the picture above.


Why yes, yes I did try every single one of those things, and there is no graceful way to eat a chicken head.


Eating dinner with Pak Asrori, the vice principal of my school. Good thing I wasn’t struggling to eat new shapes and sizes in front of anyone important or anything.

If I have you grossed out in the slightest, let me remind you that Indonesia is a beautiful tropical island, and because of this almost every restaurant makes me feel like I’m eating in a secret garden. The palm trees, fruit trees, the straw mats and roofs, glowing lights strung here and there, and just the overall openness to the outdoors that is enabled by being on the equator and having summer weather all year round. I am never closed in by walls in Indonesia, and I love being this in tune with the outdoors. Here are some really lovely atmospheres in Jogja.



This place is actually called Secret Garden


Al-Khaf – a peaceful cafe by day, a buzzing shisha lounge by night


Milas, a very very organic vegetarian restaurant with great food and their own books and crafts store as well.


Chanting, a rooftop restaurant and bar on top of Galeria Mall.

ESCO cafe

Epic coffee, a cafe and a furniture store combine to make this illuminating warehouse.

Sasanti restaurant

Sixsenses restaurant

Zerts – the sweet stuff

Roti Bakar


This is my favorite thing to get late at night. They have these stands everywhere, and it’s basically just extremely buttered up toast with cheese, chocolate, or peanuts inside. It’s salty when it touches your tongue, crispy when you bite down, and sweet when you take it all in and roll your eyes in gustatory happiness.

My sitemate, Kendra, with a mess of chocolate on top of her roti bakar.


Mpok Durian


This dessert place puts a dollop of the notoriously smelly fruit in condensed milk with ice and other sweet jellies. It’s pretty good if you can get over the smell.

Living in a tropical island means fruit grows naturally everywhere, and I have tried so many new and interesting fruits upon coming here.


My breakfast every day. =D


My absolute favorite fruit is papaya – and it just so happens to be the cheapest and most prevalent fruit in Indonesia.



Rambut = hair. Ramutan = hairy fruit. This fuzzy fruit grows right in my neighborhood and while the ones in this picture aren’t ripe yet, they’re just as hairy.


I don’t know what these berries are called in English yet, but they also grow in my neighborhood and I love picking a couple on my way back and washing them when I get home. Each of them is a burst of sweetness, and I feel like they should be froyo toppings.



This fruit tastes like a mix of guava and pineapple, and the flesh tears off in strips. It’s super fun to eat.



There are coconut trees everywhere, and at the beach you can upgrade your meal by getting a whole coconut for under a dollar.

Ikan Bakar


At the beach you can also order freshly caught fish that they barbecue for you and serve with a bowl of sambal. Sambal is spicy sauce made from chilli peppers and you can find it as often as you find salt and pepper in America.

And of course, there’s homecooking


Meet my roommates! From morning weekend lunches to late night instant noodles, it’s always fun cooking at home, and Isti (right) is a pro in the kitchen.



Isti made this dish one Sunday morning, and I was hooked. It’s pumpkin, green beans, and all sorts of herbs that were completely new to me, like galanga, salam, and melinjo, all stewed in spicy coconut milk.

Enak sekali.

When Indonesians talk about food they use the word enak, meaning delicious, so when food is good it’s delicious – there’s no in between, and every meal I’ve had thus far has proven this to be completely and utterly true.

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Tunnels of Taman Sari

The students at my school are in the heat of their mid semester exams, and as a result of some rule that doesn’t allow me to be present during exams, I had the week off to get to know this city more – and there’s a lot to know.

Something I’ve been meaning to see in Jogja that is actually just a short bike ride from my neighborhood is the Sultan’s Water Castle, Taman Sari. So, I hopped on my bike at noon on Thursday, and after stopping only once to ask for directions, I rolled in through the gates of the Water Castle. When the man who collected my ticket struck up a conversation and walked in with me, I thought he was being friendly like Indonesians always are, but the conversation turned into a complete personal tour of the water castle grounds. The pleasantness of being taken around on a private tour was complemented by the added challenge of the entire tour being in Bahasa Indonesia, and here’s what I managed to take away from it.


Taman Sari was a luxury bath house used by the Sultan of Yogyakarta and his many wives, children, and guests. It is now a cherished relic of the past, and is actively maintained and renovated, especially after taking a hit from the 2006 earthquake that shook Jogja and ruined places like Bantul, a village just outside of Jogja.


The castle itself has a blend of Chinese, Indian, and European architecture, and is set up with multiple houses that hosted orchestras of gamelan that the Sultan could observe from above. The baths are surrounded by sweet smelling jasmine bushes and exotic bird cages.


Kepel, a fruit only found in places like Taman Sari or the Kraton (Sultan property).

Underneath the bathhouse is a series of underground tunnels that leads to a subsequent underground mosque. Sometimes these tunnels were used as a means of escape during war, but most frequently they were used to get to daily prayer.



The mosque at the end of the tunnel was circular in structure, providing excellent acoustics for prayers to travel.



At the center of the mosque is a convergence of five staircases symbolizing the five salats (prayers) performed each day.

Around Taman Sari, there is a tight-knit community rich in timeless Indonesian traditions.


This Pak was using tools from a buffalo horn to carefully chisel in the intricacies of a Wayang Kulit puppet onto thick cow skin (kulit=skin). Wayang Kulit is the famous traditional Indonesian shadow puppetry that usually depicts the stories of Hindu Ramayana.


A finished product. One puppet takes about a month to complete.


This Ibu was dripping hot wax one drop at a time onto the fabric in a process of color dyeing to make batik. The wax covered areas on the fabric remain untouched by the dye once it emerges and can be removed to reveal beautiful motifs, patterns, or in this case, drawings.

Outside the castle is an effortlessly hipster art community.



House graffiti of Ramayana characters and traditional Jogja batik motifs.


Indonesians express themselves in so many ways, from painting to singing to beautiful age old cultural traditions, and they do it so well.



This little store was selling t-shirts made from bamboo cotton, the softest cotton I have ever felt.

To my pleasant surprise, there is a small community here called Kampoeng Cyber that promotes the spread of Internet use as a means of empowering the local community through the availability of greater communication.




I was happy to see that Mark Zuckerberg had paid this little village a visit last year, but I think the Indonesians were happier.


Last but not least, Pak Nanto! My tour guide and new friend, who patiently explained to me the magic of Taman Sari, who led me deep into tunnels underground, who entertained all the questions I was able to piece together in Bahasa, and who shared with me the cultural traditions that are still very much alive in and around Taman Sari.

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Eid al-Adha

Number of times in my life that I have rolled out of bed and seen a cow slaughtered: 1

But for Muslims in my neighborhood and all across Indonesia, it’s once every year.

Today is Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday that calls for sacrificing cows and goats and sheep, because Ibrahim had sacrificed his son as affirmation that he loved God above all else.


Members of the community who are able to donate a cow will receive a third of the meat, and another third will go to friends, family, and neighbors. The last third goes to the poor. Charity is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and Eid is a time of great community engagement.


These animals are well-fed, and respected. Cutting the jugular is swift and performed with a very sharp knife for the least amount of pain. The one who cuts is usually a religious leader in the mosque, Imam Masjid, and will recite “Bismillah Allah Akbar” before cutting. This verse makes the sacrifice halal, and then community members can begin skinning and preparing the meat.



My apologies if these pictures are gruesome for anyone, but I thought they really captured the essence of community collectivism that I witnessed this morning. All hands were on deck, and men, women, and children were all present and very much a part of the process.


Everyone helps, and everyone benefits.

The Festival of Sacrifice is a beautiful tradition. The respect the community had for these animals made their death seem natural, and as the cows and sheep bled out into a well of blood in the ground, I never felt like I was watching something terrible. The people in this community cherish what these animals mean, and I left the mosque very much in awe of this special Muslim tradition.

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Hari ozone

“Tomorrow, we will sort garbage.”

That’s what my co-teacher said to me yesterday, and after some follow up questions I found out that my co-teacher, my roommate (also a teacher), and I were to compete against other teams of teachers to see who can sort garbage into organic vs inorganic…the best, I guess. Details were fuzzy, I wasn’t sure why we were sorting garbage on a random Friday instead of teaching class, and I had no idea how 60 something teachers sifting through garbage was going to go down, but like everything else that’s unclear and confusing in Indonesia, you kind of just clap your hands, say alright! and run with it.

So, today I came into school at 7 am mentally prepared for some competitive garbage sorting.

A lot of the teachers kept saying it was some kind of special day, and after a couple of times I finally realized that they were saying OZONE day – “hari ozone.”

Very similar to Earth Day, today was a day of recognizing the environment and thinking about ways to be environmentally conscious. The students had a day of making projects and posters, and the teachers had their game faces on. Not really. They were still laughing and joking like Indonesians always are.

Right off the bat, the teachers and I all filed out to the yard for the big game. Turns out the bins of “trash” were actually baskets of colorful balls labeled with items you might FIND in a garbage.
What a pleasant surprise. Except the balls were all labeled in Bahasa. Realizing very quickly that I would be the weakest link in my team just from not knowing what the items were that needed to be sorted, I dove into the basket and began speed-memorizing vocab. “What’s this one? What’s this one? What’s this one?” Lord help me.

Rules of the game were as follows:
Three teachers on a team, each person can only take one ball at a time, and you need to sprint to the other side and put the ball in the organic or inorganic basket. The team with the most correctly sorted balls after three minutes wins.

I don’t think I’ve laughed this hard in a while. Seeing teachers run is hilarious, but seeing them try to read something on a little ball while running is even better. Turns out, I learned enough Bahasa in the last two weeks to last me three minutes of ball sorting (Thank you Wisma Bahasa). My strategy: pick the fruits. We learned the names of all the fruits in Bahasa class last week.


Getting ready to rumble.


Some teachers’ sprints were more like taking a walk in the park but hilarious nonetheless.


The “garbage”


Team JUSTAMI. (Julia, Isti, and Ami) hahaha

The chatty ibus. Listening to them chirp chirp chirp during the game was oddly soothing.

After a final tie-breaker, a winner was hailed (my team was quite far from winning lol), and we all went inside to join the students.

What ensued was a series of me getting mind blown over and over and over again.

First, we walked around to see all the projects the students had been working on while we were outside playing “Sprint and Sort.” They were working with recycled materials only. Just take a look at some of these:


Plants in a bottle.


A tissue box from recycled newspaper


A broom made of bamboo and stripped plastic from water bottles.


A functioning CLOCK from newspaper and a CD.


A toy tank from cardboard!


Watering can.


A bunsen burner from leftover palm oil in a light bulb.


Pencil holder weaved from newspaper.


My all time favorite and the first prize winner. A flood alarm that rings when the water level rises and brings one buoyed spoon in contact with the other, completing an electric circuit and causing the popsicle stick to spin like a helicopter that repeatedly hits a little bell off to the side. Amazing. Just. Amazing.

I had never seen this artistic and creative side of the students before, and I was completely awestruck.


1st-6th place winners!


I even got to see a student band perform. They sang an Indonesian song first, and I was super impressed. Then they busted out Uptown Funk and I was beaming.


Each class also made environmentally themed posters with poems, short stories, insanely good drawings, and even jokes. I asked for a translation of one of the jokes and it went something like this:

” Why is Indonesia so hot nowadays?”
“Because there are too many Matahari shops.”

Matahari department stores are everywhere. I got the impression that it’s sort of like the Macy’s of Indonesia, and the word Matahari means “sun.”

Get it?

SMAN1 is a very green school to begin with – they have won awards for their environmentally friendly methods of handling waste.

Trash is sorted from the start.

Compared to the rest of the community and even the rest of Indonesia perhaps, this is a very special effort. In my own neighborhood a couple streets down from school, there isn’t really any concrete established way to dispose of your waste. No garbage trucks, no one picks up items for recycling. As a result, a lot of littering happens, and people turn to burn their trash in the street. School seems to have the only working system of proper waste disposal, and my roommate and I bring our trash there.

Things like this reinforce the positive reputation that SMAN1 has in the community, but today I got to see a completely different side of my school. In my fellow teachers I saw the playfulness and good humored jest that comes with field-day type games, and in my students, I saw so much innovation and creativity and it was so so so inspiring.

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To Bandung and Back

These last two weeks, my fellow ETA’s and I stayed in the squeaky clean, utterly pristine Sheraton Hotel in the city of Bandung, West Java (a very much appreciated respite from blistering heat, ants and mosquitos). Our days were spent in a pleasant bubble of Indonesian language learning and teaching workshops, and our nights were filled with angkots, music, and Bintang.

The Sheraton Hotel


Angkots are these colorful vans (at least on the outside) that circle the city with their door open so that anyone and everyone can hop in and ride it to wherever they need to go.


The city square of Bandung, with architecture leftover from periods of Dutch colonization.


Karaoke karaoke karaoke.

Going into orientation, I was definitely most looking forward to learning Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia, and language class turned out to be exactly what I could have hoped for – super chill teachers from Wisma Bahasa and extremely useful phrases and vocab that have gotten me very very far since I’ve returned to Jogja. (Very far being I can make small talk with teachers at school and taxi drivers, and… deliver an impromptu speech at school…in Bahasa).

Learning Bahasa was such a pleasure because unlike the years of unmotivated Spanish classes I’ve taken in the past, Bahasa class was simply a group of adults looking to navigate a language that we absolutely need in order to survive in the coming year. Having spent a week at our cities already, we were each able to learn in our own context, and that made all the difference.


Playing telephone in Bahasa.


Team Ermita 😇

Wisma Bahasa gave us plenty of context too – from homework assignments that required us to interview hotel staff in Bahasa to bargaining at the local market.


Overwhelming amounts of fabrics and motifs at Pasar Baru.

Orientation may be over, but my language learning is not- I most definitely want to continue with Bahasa classes in Jogja. Because I’m Asian, Indonesians can’t tell that I’m a foreigner at first glance, and I get a lot of rapid fire Bahasa at first interaction. My goal for the year is to see if I can carry a conversation for as long as I can before they realize I’m not from around here.

On the topic of goals, if there’s one thing I took away from the many hours of teaching lectures we received in Bandung, it’s that my goals for teaching this year are not grammar-focused, but speaking focused. Our Indonesian co-teachers were able to join us in Bandung for a part of our training, and bringing Indonesian teachers from all over the country together was no small matter.



My co-teacher, Bu Ami.

Aside from being able to practice teaching with our co-teachers in one of the high schools in Bandung, one of the activities I found most productive was sitting down afterwards and goal-setting with my co-teacher. Together, we agreed that our aims for this year are to shy away from reading/writing exercises and to incorporate as many speaking and listening activities as possible instead. Indonesian students are shy, and all the grammar and vocabulary in the world won’t help if it’s never used to communicate. If I can get my students to just be more comfortable and confident in conversing in English by the end of my grant, I’ll feel pretty good about the year as a whole.

How am I going to do this? Games.

Games games games.

This week’s lesson plans consisted of Jeopardy, picture prompts, and some spin-off of musical chairs that I made up to get students walking around to some Maroon 5, and then frantically running to grab a conversation partner when the music stops. The objective was simple – learning how to give various expressions of congratulations in different situations. The secret objective? To get them excited and talking to each other naturally without realizing it.


The exit ticket for this week was to write something you learned and something you’d like to do for next week’s class.

Now that I’m back at school for the long haul, I’ve started looking into extra-curriculars at my high school. There is a beautiful collection of gamelan instruments displayed in the lobby of our school, and I finally got to take a swing at it this Monday with the other teachers. I sat down with the easiest instrument, a giant mellow xylophone (saron), and it wasn’t hard to pick up at all, but the collective tones of all the different instruments together is a pretty mystical/magical sound.


I also sat down with the debate team. They have a competition coming up next week, and one of the topics they’re preparing for is whether Indonesia should pay fines to neighboring countries for their forest fires. Forest fires in Indonesia are often a product of the slash-and-burn techniques to clear massive areas of land very quickly, used by farmers but also by rubber, palm oil, pulp, and logging companies, some of which aren’t even Indonesian companies (think Singapore and Malaysian companies operating on Indonesian land). Smog from these fires gets carried over to countries that are downwind from Indonesia, like…Singapore and Malaysia. Throwback to when I worked in Singapore two years ago and walked to work wearing an N95 mask, eyes stinging and unable to see across the street for a whole week. What does Indonesia owe to the international community? It’s up to three 11th grade students to debate. In English. Heavy stuff.


Having returned to Jogja conversational in Bahasa and with clearer teaching goals in mind, I’m very ready to buckle down for the long haul and get to the heart of this community. Feelings after having gone to Bandung and back? Glad to have experienced the big-city feel of Bandung alongside 34 fantastic humans that make up the ETA cohort, grateful for a crash course on Bahasa that has already done wonders for my independence in Jogja, and positively excited to be teaching over 300 of the most enthusiastic students I’ve ever encountered.

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Home Sweet Home

Hello from Jogja! More specifically, from the safe haven of the school computer lab where there is air conditioning, peacefulness, and most of all, carpet, which means everyone takes off their shoes. After three back to back classes of being on my feet in super hot and muggy classrooms, I couldn’t be happier to set my toes free.

I don’t have wifi at home, so I’m going to get right to it.

Pics of my new home!



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This simple showerhead that only puts out cold water is all I think about towards the end of the sweltering hot school day.

Now for my second home.


SMA Negeri 1 is a public high school, and from what I’ve been told, it’s also one of the best in Jogja, which is saying a lot because Jogja is a huge center of education. A full score on the national placement exam is 40, and the students at SMAN1 have 37s or higher.

One of my favorite authors once said his best word of advice is to “always count something.” Thus, I give you

SMA N 1 in numbers

Students in the school: ~600

Students in each class: ~30

Boys in each class: 6-10 (aka not many)

Teachers: 60

Classrooms: 30 (each with a projector that sometimes shuts off randomly)

Computers: 50 (impressive)

Floors: 3 (each with multiple jam packed trophy cases)


In the front lobby is this magnificent display of traditional gamelan instruments. Gamelan is kind of like an orchestra of percussion instruments, and it’s an afterschool activity for the students here at SMAN1. I’m dying to see a performance.


Each floor belongs to a grade. Tenth grade students are on the top floor, which is the hottest floor. Guess which grade I teach.


The school library, in which I strategically position myself so that I can oversee the students working on their group projects while being downwind from the air conditioning.


Each classroom is designated for one class of students, and the teachers, not the students, move from classroom to classroom when the bell rings.


If there’s a portion of a wall long enough to fit a trophy case, there’s a trophy case. Inside are the winners from national competitions in biology, chemistry, physics, economics, etc.

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I love how open the school is to the outside. A lot of the walkways connecting the different parts of the school are outdoors, and the walk from the classroom to the library is a breath of fresh air.

Even at home, the very center of the house is completely open to the outdoors.


It’s great for letting in light and a nice breeze. Terrible for letting in mosquitoes and ants. The ants I don’t mind. The mosquitoes, on the other hand, have gotten every piece of me from my head to my toes. I was slightly shocked when I looked at myself in the mirror for the first time at school (there’s no mirror in the house) and found bites all over my neck. Hickies, my roommate called them. I slept with the covers sealed tight around my neck that night, and I woke up with two bites on my forehead. It’s a good look.

Oleh Oleh

It’s a tradition to bring small items to share with everyone as a sign of thoughtfulness when returning from your travels. They also make for good icebreakers. I brought bags of tootsie rolls for the school teachers, and a Rutgers mug and t-shirt for the Headmaster/principal and vice principal. It just so happened that it was also a teacher’s birthday that day, and so before I had even gone to my first class I was being encouraged to try a bowl of green bean soup (which is actually a home favorite of mine, except here they add a spoonful of sticky rice and coconut milk which is as good as it sounds) and different types of noodles (Medan vs. Javanese). I thought my bowl of tootsie rolls would be completely overshadowed by this birthday feast, but a little while later I looked again and the bowl was empty.


Class is awesome. The students are extremely polite and bashful, and they applaud and cheer after I say just about anything. There are frequent uproars of boisterous laughter when a gutsy student drops a daring one liner, or after anyone raises their hand to speak, really. There’s normally a moment of silence as they listen intently to whoever’s speaking, and then a tsunami of a reaction immediately ensues, usually a storm of giggles or an outburst of woahs or ayyyyys and laughter. Lots of laughter. Indonesians love to laugh. They make a raucous when I crack the slightest hint of a joke. It’s like the best laugh track any comedian could ever hope for. (not a comedian, but these students are feeding my humor ego with steroids)

Questions for Julia?

After I introduce myself to each class, Bu Ami (the Indonesian English teacher that I’m assisting) opens the floor for questions, which gradually emerge from lots of giggles and/or students egging on other students to ask.

How old are you? (Guess!) Where in America are you from? (New Jersey!) Why did you choose to teach in Indonesia? (Because I want to learn about Indonesian culture!) Who is your idol? (My mother) Do you like K pop? (No not really! – I regretted this answer immediately because the girl looked absolutely heartbroken)

In one class, I was asked what my favorite Indonesian food is and I answered “lotek”, which looks like this:


It’s full of vegetables and sticky rice mixed in with a peppery (spicy) peanut sauce.

Later that class, three students bashfully presented me with a bag of take-out lotek that they ran out and bought during the fifteen minute break. Then they asked for my picture. Hands down the sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for me.

My favorite part of class is when they break off into group work because:

1) I get such a kick out of their reactions when they find out who is paired with who. The girls are absolutely elated to be partners, and there’s usually a groan when a girl is paired with a guy, but every once in a while the room erupts in OOOOOOOOOOOHOHOHOHs when a particular girl gets paired with a particular guy and I’m just dying to know the back story there.

2) I can go around and talk to the students more candidly. This is when I test the waters and see which students are down to make small talk in English. They usually ask me about America, where I’ve been, or how I’m liking Jogja. A lot of them have never been outside of the island of Java, but they’re all super active on social media. I’ve been asked many times for my Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Line, Twitter, the list goes on and on. They’re incredibly active, and they demand you follow back.

Indonesians are possibly the most friendly and welcoming people I’ve ever interacted with. They’re always offering snacks or sweets and asking about where you’re from. A common reaction that I’ve gotten from some teachers and students is “You’re from America? But you look Asian!” The melting pot version of America hasn’t completely reached Indonesia just yet, and American still seems to mean caucasian to the majority of the people here, but after I explain to them that my parents are Chinese and that I was born and raised in America, they seem to get a kick out of the idea that I speak Mandarin in addition to English. Hopefully by the end of this year I’ll be able to tack on Bahasa Indonesia to that list as well.

Last but not least,


Despite the sweltering heat and humidity, Indonesians dress fairly conservatively and usually wear long pants/skirts and shirts with long sleeves. There is a Muslim majority in Jogja, and most women wear a jilbab, but Indonesians by no means lack creative expression in the way they dress. Indonesians in Jogja wear these beautiful elaborate and colorful patterns – known as traditional batik. Batik is made by crafting extravagant patterns on fabric using a dye-resistant wax so that when you dunk the fabric in a certain color, the parts of the fabric covered by wax remain untouched. Indonesian batik was designated by UNESCO as a “masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity.” Seeing as the teachers wear batik to school, I went shopping for batik in the bustling street of Malioboro, where the colors were dizzying and the fabrics never ending.



Ta da! My first, but certainly not last, batik.

All in all, a wonderful first week in Jogja! More pictures on vscocam. (

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