In this part of my story I would be undergoing my first try at volunteering, living life with locals in the Indonesian countryside. My initial reasons for volunteering were admittedly selfish, charmed by the notion of free accommodation. However, I also KNEW I’d have an experience which was completely unique, opening doors otherwise locked.
I left Surabaya in the early morning of February 2nd to the train station headed for Klaten in Central Java. I was helpfully shuffled along by staff to the correct platform, and caught my 4-hour train ride. I arrived at the single platformed station, whom obviously don’t see many tourists around these parts. Emphasised when a train porter asked as I was about to disembark
“Are you sure this your station sir?” and every single waiting passenger’s bemused look as I walked along the platform. Next step, find my contact.
A few months previously (since September) through www.workaway.org, I’d been in contact with English schools in the area which took volunteers. I had a few positive responses (6 in total). Ms. Dee and her school “HCT” would be the lucky pick for my stay. The last time I contacted her was the day before, and with no internet, I didn’t have a way to contact her, but no panic. I sat in a close by warung (somewhere I felt completely at ease by now) as the lone patron, and had a charming conversation with the owner who was interested in why I was there, and if I ever needed a taxi during my stay, her husband had the only one in Klaten.
I still hadn’t contacted Ms. Dee, and just assumed she’d turn up eventually. I sat beside the train station and watched Klaten pass-by in front of me. Eventually a kufi wearing man with perfect English sat beside me and talked about his time in the Netherlands and the difficulty to acquire certain herbal merchandise in bumfuck Indonesia. He immediately correctly assumed
“you are here to volunteer yes?” and seemed certain he knew who’d be picking me up. He invited me over to join his friends who were sat on the other side of the road.
I stayed with those men for probably an hour, five 50+ year old tattoo covered, mostly toothless men. Only the one I’d talked to earlier could speak ANY English. Despite that they all generously offered me cigarettes, some delicious chicken and authentic sugar-cane moonshine whiskey, all of which I gladly accepted, and was encouraged on the latter. I’d actually completely forgotten about Ms. Dee as she shuffled up to the group with an utterly disturbed look on her face. These men weren’t your high-class business men, no. They might be what some people might consider…rough. They were after all sat on the side of the street drinking illegal moonshine covered in tattoos; I’m told a sign of a criminal or very low class in Indonesian society! The very first thing she said to me was
“Were you not afraid with those men. Very scary!” My utterly bemused reaction was simply
“That’s the sort of people I hang out with back home!”
I rode on the back of her scooter uncomfortably, wearing my backpack and my luxury item filled bag between her legs as we rode towards the school via a quick pitstop for
“try of local cuisine”
I took the opportunity to survey where exactly I’d be volunteering. All I knew was I would be volunteering in an English school, that was it. My prediction that they would be young schoolchildren was inaccurate; the students were aged between 19-24. It was also an English school specifically to prepare students for work on cruise ships, a very prosperous career route in the country. The school was located down quiet streets in the more rural part of Klaten. We arrived at large marble building wrapping around a central courtyard. We pulled into a group of students sat smoking around a small picnic table with a central umbrella. Here’s where the introductions took place and the very familiar questions.
“Where are you from? How old are you? Why are you here? etc.”
Hold on, where would I sleep? I was told, if the headmaster showed up that night, I’d have my own bedroom. If not, I’d have to sleep with the students who’s bedding consisted of the marble floor and a blanket. Thankfully he turned up. I was given an unused office complete with a double-bed; my first this entire trip, and good god it was heavenly. I was also cruelly seduced by the promise of a bath. It was a 3x3x4ft tiled pool. One tap, cold. Not strictly a bath.
The volunteering itself, was fantastic. Although that was the “work” that I needed to do to earn my stay, it couldn’t be considered work at all. It was too easy, and too enjoyable. Lessons would start at 8am, where there would be a few speech exercises until 10am. This was lunch, where daily the students would take me to the canteen style warung down the road. My perfect place. A “help yourself” selection of every Indonesian dish, amazing home-made ice tea (a new personal favourite), with charming flirtatious older Indonesian women who’d I’d come to recognise. These golden girls would regularly congratulate and giggle as I thanked them in my finest Indonesia in a Bahasa dialect as they’d reply “come again tomorrow”. The class would then resume with a 2-hour conversation where I’d have a couple best English-speaking students, literally just a chat. We covered everything; personal lives, ambitions, likes, cars, movies, government, law and the rest. That would neatly conclude the day at 12am, leaving me free for the rest of the day. Easy day at the office
The students were unbelievably generous and accommodating from the start. They had varying levels of English, but enough for us to hold conversation, and they all helped in trying to translate. The very night of my arrival they took me to a back-alley warung, a tin roofed 10x5ft shack, with all a restaurant needs with 20p platefuls of the best food you’d ever eat, which the students generously paid for. I’d visit this warung many times. On the second night, the students invited me to go camping on the beach with them. They rented a car and 6 young Indonesians and a lone bwle Welshman took a 6-hour road trip, occasionally getting lost, towards a beach of unknown location. By the time we arrived it was 1am, so I had no idea of my surroundings in the pitch black. We set up the tents, and brewed a quick coffee as we sat beneath the stars. We planned to sleep a few hours and wake up for sunrise. With the windy conditions and the mounds of sand within the tent, the thought of sleep would be difficult. However, the wind was rather relaxing along with the sound of the near waves. Unfortunately, there was no decent sunrise due to bad weather. However, sunlight did reveal a quite spectacular view along the beach.
The student’s kindness continued. They invited me to their homes to hang out, drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, an Indonesian way of life. I’d meet their families, and taken to various warungs with them. The students slept in the school throughout their course, so we’d always be in contact, and being able to build a friendship with each of them.
A special thanks MUST be given to dearest Ms. Dee. She also invited me to attend her private classes which she held at her home. This could be considered part of the “work”, but just as enjoyable and relaxed as the rest. She’d bring me into her home and kindly feed me each and every time despite my protests. She’d constantly worry
“I don’t want your mother to think that you have not eaten”. I met 3 of her students, 1 of which had very good English, who was also kind enough to invite me over to her home for Ms. Dee’s lesson and kindly offered dinner. These lessons were nothing more than conversations over coffee and food. After enough interactions with English learning youngsters in my time in Indonesia, I’d gained a few base questions I’d ask everyone I’d meet when volunteering.
“How old are you? Any siblings? Any sports? How old are your parents? What do they do? What do your siblings do? Favourite music? Favourite movies? Any pets? etc.”
Ms. Dee and one of her students Mary even took me on a day trip! First to see the close-by, and quite spectacular Al Aqsa mosque, one surrounded by corruption due to Ms. Dee. Why would this enormous, incredibly detailed, clearly horrendously expensive mansion be built in such a smll rural town?
We also travel out to Yogyakarta, taking the hour-long journey on the back of Mary’s little scooter which was thoroughly entertaining. We visited the sites and ate at local warungs. I was also taken to Plaosan temple. They didn’t take me to the main attraction, as they were certain the gullible tourist would be ripped off. We went to a lesser one further behind it, free of the hordes of tourists.
The temple and structures that surrounded it were apparently a gift from one of the Indonesian kings of history and were spectacular. It gave an unique opportunity to channel my inner Tomb Raider as you could enter the temples and marvel at the artistry within. A group of quite annoying schoolchildren ruined my perfect photos and insisted on posing with the strange tourist.
Another unwelcome site in Yogyakarta became the appearance of white tourists. Not many, but once in a while you’d spot a 3/4 short, wicker hat OAP sat with his ice-cream on a nearby bench which would just make me cringe. The sight of any other tourists became an annoyance to me. I’d gone almost 2 weeks without seeing a single other foreigner, let alone a white person. I became incredibly comfortable in the environment of being the odd man out, and knew that was exactly what I was searching for on this trip.
Quick culture shock. The students suggested we go get a few beers and hang out in their house, I eagerly agreed having not drank in a while. We went to the local Indomart and grabbed a few Bintag Radler’s, perfect to quench a thirst. They went down easily…too easily. They were non-alcoholic. There was no alcohol at all in the shop, only non-alcoholic alternatives. The liberal life of Bali is long gone, here particularly in Klaten, they are strict Muslims. No alcohol served outside the VERY few bars around Java. Everyone were strictly religious, praying regularly amongst the audible prayers heard from nearby mosques.
In total, 1 week was spent at the school, volunteering for 4 days, 4 private 2-hour lessons and an extra stint at a local kids school, all of which were easy and enjoyable. Even the local police chief came to visit the school to meet the tourist… and a copy of my passport. The generosity of the students, Ms. Dee, —-, and everyone I met was extraordinary, giving me experiences I never would have had if I hadn’t of volunteered. This generosity was emphasised just as I was about to leave. The headmaster (which I’d only met once before) came to thank me for everything that I’d done, hoping I’d enjoyed myself, and handed me a school leaflet. Inside sat 200,000 rupiah, about £60. To put that into context, the average income for an ordinary Klaten citizen would be 200,000 rupiah for 2 months work. Immediately I refused, I couldn’t take such an amount of money for doing practically nothing!
“To pay for your travel”. To put this even clearer; in my 7 days in Klaten, including beach camping, trip to Yogyakarta, daily meals and cigarettes, it didn’t even total 100,000 rupiah.
Ms. Dee took me for one final ride on the back of her scooter to the bus station where she helped me find a bus ticket to take me to my next destination, Cianjur, on the West of Java. Here I’d jump straight back into volunteering.