Exploring Raja Ampat’s Magic

Day 1


Landed at sunrise at a tiny airport in forest drenched Sorong with a rusted roof on the one carousel baggage claim area filled with porters.


Airport bathroom

Took an ojek ride past markets and trash-free streets and Papuan women’s slow smiles, massive silver, gold and blue mosques interspersed between churches topped with towering crosses, kids in blue and green school uniforms marching, yellow bemos blaring music, and two people asking if I know their friends: Alex and Tom from America.


View from Sarong

Bugs crawled on ferry walls while a Middle Eastern musical with Indonesian subtitles played. Arrived in Waigeo and Waiwo Dive Resort to sandy paths weaving between rainforest overlooking brilliant blue waters, a crab skittering across my porch, mosquitos the size of horse flies, and the resounding music of bird calls: Welcome to Papua.


Waiwo sent a driver to come fetch me, so when I got off the ferry and was swarmed by men offering rides, I explained I was awaiting the Waiwo driver.

“Oh yes,” a skinny man with a stained shirt said in perfect English, “They sent me. What was your name again; I’m sorry I forget. I am your ojek to Waiwo.”

I stared at him dubiously when a voice called, “Sara!” from a car in the lot. Nice try clever ojek driver.

Day 2


In typical “Sara in Indo” fashion, I fall sick: stabbing pains throughout my digestive track, so I spend the day in bed, windows open. The waves roll against the shore. Birds call. One sounds like a high-pitched siren and last 3-6seconds at a time. At first I thought it was someone’s alarm, then realized it was emanating irregularly from the forest. Another bird makes the most beautiful 6 note call I’ve ever heard. Cicadas pulse. In the distance, speedboat motors.


To help with my belly, the staff agrees to substitute out the sambal slathered fish and oil drenched vegetables for white rice, boiled eggs, boiled veggies and bananas. Dinner is beautiful: hard boiled egg, potatoes, grilled Spanish Mackrel (“No oil—grilled like in Bali”) and a gorgeous apple.


Where I spent the day

Day 3


Raja Ampat is a collection of breath-taking, forested islands in a vast expanse of ocean. Schools of thousands of fish jumped in the distance, and I couldn’t help but laugh. I have seen small groups of fish jumping before, maybe 20-100 fish. This was thousands moving in vast, arching ribbons. My guides thought my reactions odd: growing up with this bounty, they have no idea how touching it is to see for the first time.


Our first stop was Arborak Village.


Putting on my snorkel gear and jumping in after Jecky (my amazing guide—a Master Diver who has over 2,000 dives logged), I almost burst into tears. 1000s of fish in a beautiful underwater dance.



I flashed on Evan and I visiting the Colombia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon where there was information about the salmon that drew people to the area; salmon so thick people were said to be able to walk on salmon backs across the Columbia River (which is 14m wide between Astoria and Megler, WA). Raja Ampat is the world before huge salmon hatcheries and massive fishing industries cause devastation, which makes it both feel magical in its healthy vibrance and terrifyingly fragile.

A brilliantly colored nudibranch.


The largest lionfish I have ever seen. A scorpion fish tucked back and camouflaged so brilliantly, I never would have seen it without Jecky.


scorpion fish

My first school of bat fish.



Pipefish (like snakes that nearly blend into the sand).


pipe fish

A dozen giant clams with vibrant colors.




I was blown away; by far the best snorkeling I had ever done in my life was under one little dock off Arborak Village.






I got out my notebook, wanting to record all the life we had seen. As Jecky was helping me to remember, I saw a massive crab 2x the size of my hand crawling on the dock. “Crab!” I yelled excitedly, writing it down. He laughed, shaking his head. “Crab…”


His sister-in-laws appeared on the island, well-dressed (loose-fitting, sun-protecting island wear) with big hats and huge smiles.



A sick trigger fish that was swimming in circles

They loved teasing Jecky. They chatted, and then we were off. 100m from the dock, our engine stopped working. Jecky took out tools and started tinkering while I watched the island, the waves. 100s of fish nibbled just below the surface, so you could hear slapping and see bubbles rise.


Looking down into the water from our boat

It became clear after 15min Jecky was going to need a little time, so he paddled us in towards the shore. I explored with Jecky’s sister-in-laws: villagers chatting under bale, dirt road, women weaving palm leaf, a naked four-year-old girl with sun-dyed red hair manically chewing on sugar cane, sucking the juice out of the stalk and then spitting the rest out.


Once Jecky fixed the boat, we headed to Yembuba Conservation Area.


Again, so much life! Schools of fish (not nearly so many as our first stop, but here instead of 1000s of a single species there were schools of 100s of various species, looping in and out of each other).



Many trigger fish (which I cautiously avoided after being bit by one in Menjangan). A leatherback turtle with a patchwork pattern that we watched rise to the surface, and then dive back down again, camouflaging with its surroundings.



Huge schools of barracuda.


Sweet lips. Unicorn fish. A giant leopard fish hiding under a rock.



Yellow trumpet fish










My first shark! A black tipped reef shark swam underneath us, and then looped back a second time before receding into the darkness.


Jecky pulled on my leg, pointing intensely: a massive morey eel swam below us and then curled into a crevice between two rocks, looking out threateningly.



Jecky pointing at eel which you can just barely see=




Bat fish. Parrot fish. A massive Napoleon. Brilliant.

Boating away from the island (where our motor almost did not start again), there were kids paddling about in boats. A man fishing with a rainbow umbrella as sun protection.


Our last stop was a sandbar


where another boat was already docked and a crowd of people laughed and played in the water: Jecky’s family. As soon as we had landed, they asked Jecky to ask me if they could take pictures. There were photo shoots with separate members of his family and then big group shots. A little girl maybe a year and a half old, was handed to me, and as I held her she started at me with wide eyes, one wrong move away from tears.



They left with huge smiles and waves, and we snorkeled. The current was so strong that we started at the far end of the sandbar, swam out as hard as we could, and then let the current wrap us around the incline. Because of the speed of the current and the shallowness of the water, I didn’t think there would be much to see, but again the area was teaming with life. Tons of “nemo fish” (as Jecky called them—talk about a movie that has powerfully integrated itself into the language of the global culture) slipping in and out of the anemones.



On the way back, hawks dipped. A constant call of birds between the drone of the motor, and I wrested with competing desires to have people see this beautiful place and an intense fear that it will be exploited and destroyed within my lifetime: the trees razed, the islands mined, and the fish populations decimated. Maybe Raja Ampat’s saving grace is it’s remote location; maybe that will help keep the pressures of development at bay.


Another huge benefit the area has is the clear belief in conservation. Instead of selling me plastic water bottle after plastic water bottle as they do across the rest of Indonesia, all their water is treated and boiled and given to you in a glass or refilled. I have watched people here very consciously put trash in trashcans instead of discarding it on the ground or dropping it in the ocean, as I have seen so many people (people I respect, well-educated women I work with) do in Bali.

In 2007, seven marine protected areas covering 9,000 sq km were set aside to protect the area from the dynamite and cyanide fishing ravaging Indonesian reef. In 2010 the entire 50,000 sq km area was declared a shark sanctuary and rays are also protected species. (Lonely Planet Indonesia, May 2013).


Thriving, wild and beautiful Raja Ampat; my favorite part of Indonesia.




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Logistics for Raja Ampat on a Budget


Here are some details about trip costs & logistics:

  • Fee for tourist tag to enter Raja Ampat is Rp1,000,000 (for KITAS holders as well as foreigners), and a large part of that money goes to conservation efforts in Raja Ampat, so it is important to purchase it.
  • Raja Ampat Tourism Management Office where you purchase your tourist tag is in the J.E. Meridian Hotel and easily walkable from the airport (leave the airport, turn right, it is a block down on the left hand side of the street).
  • Ojek (motorbike taxi) should be Rp10,000 from J.E. Meridien Hotel to ferry
  • Boat leaves at 2pm daily
  • Fast Marina Express Boat is Rp120,000 for economy (I recommend ditching your seat and sitting up stairs where you can get some air, although you will miss the Middle Eastern musicals with subtitles in Indonesian)
  • Boat back to Sarong leaves at 2pm daily, except Saturdays when it leaves at noon.
  • For Women traveling alone: I would suggest wearing shorts that go at least to your knees, t-shirts, rash guards and board shorts (instead of bikinis). Even dressed in loose-fitting pants and t-shirts, I got some unwanted male attention. At Waiwo, I made a point of staying covered, but was still a bit uncomfortable with the stares, requests for pictures, etc from the Indonesian men. At Kornau and Biodiversity, wearing a bikini or tank top would not have been a problem, but as a woman traveling alone, I still thought it was better to keep covered.
  • Don’t stay at J.E. Meridian Hotel in Sarong. The room they tried to give me had wet, ripped wallpaper, the air was thick with the smell of mold, and there were stains on the sheets.
  • It is really, really helpful to speak at least a little Indonesian; Raja Ampat is really remote
  • Things to bring:
    • Thread and needle to mend mosquito nets
    • bug spray
    • malaria meds (there are four types of terrible malaria in Raja Ampat, so this should be considered mandatory. I took doxcycycline, which is inexpensive and the only side-effect I experienced was burning easily on my face)
    • sunscreen
    • CASH! (Only the fancy hotels in Sarong could take cards and there were no ATMs that I saw anywhere in Raja Ampat)
    • Your own snorkel, mask and fins if possible (depending on where you stay, they may or may not have quality equipment and/or fins in the right size)
    • Underwater camera!!!
    • Books/journal—there is a lot of mellow down time to read/write/be
    • Any antibiotics, topical creams, etc you think you might need
    • Booze (it is really hard to find beer/alcohol in Raja, so if you’re set on having a sunset beverage and you’re at a homestay, you will want to bring your own)
    • Keens/tennis shoes/ something that is not flip-flops if you are interested in trekking. At least in Gam, the path was thick with sharp limestone.
    • Non-Indonesian snacks if you want them (all the food I encountered, except at Raja Ampat Biodiversity Dive Resort was Indonesian, and even then it was mostly Indonesian, so if you desire other types of treats, bring them)
    • Assume it will be difficult or impossible to get about anything you think you might need, so pack accordingly



Waiwo Dive Resort, Pulau Waigeo




Rp500,000 a night (includes 3 meals a day plus water/tea/coffee)

Waiwo was a 20min drive from the ferry in Waisai, and they sent a car to come get me from the ferry. It is nice accommodations for a budget that are aimed at Indonesian clientele. I had my own little bungalow (a cement structure with my own bathroom, running shower and electrical outlets that could be used while the generator was running at night). The snorkeling out front was good, not mind-blowing but solid, and they have their own dive shop on sight with gear for rental and a really talented guide, Jecky, (he has logged over 2,000 dives) available for trips. It was a relaxing and comfortable place to land and get my feet in Raja Ampat.

Snorkel trips: Costs are dependent on where you go, but US prices. I went to Arborak Village, Manata Point and Yembuba Conservation Area with a guide + boat (with no covering, so bring a sarong to shield you from the sun), and it cost Rp1.700.000.


  • only one woman working at the resort and Jecky spoke English, so communication was difficult
  • A bit far from good snorkeling/diving, so there is a cost to get to the sites


  • shower
  • electrical outlets in room (which work all night as the generator runs)
  • experienced and knowledgeable guide
  • close to ferry, which makes arrival and departure easy
  • locks on doors (made me feel safe when traveling alone)
  • snorkel and mask free to use

Koranu Fyak Bungalows, Pulau Kri




Rp250,000 a night (includes 3 meals a day plus water/tea/coffee) plus Rp300,000 for boat to the island

Robbie will come pick you up in a motorboat (whose engine may or may not be working well) and bring you to the beautiful island of Kri. The place is set up as palm thatched rooms on the beach. Really simple, really beautiful.


  • structures made from dried leaves, so some leak
  • no locks on doors
  • one communal squat toilet
  • one communal bucket shower
  • I would carefully consider whether diving here is a safe choice (equipment is outdated or non-existent, there is no oxygen on the boat, the staff appear to be self-trained as opposed to actually certified). For snorkeling, the equipment was fine.


  • electrical outlets in dinning space with many outlets to charge devices while the generator is running at night
  • snorkel and mask free to use
  • spectacular drop off just out front teaming with life (I saw turtles, eagle rays and a multitude of other life along that drop off)
  • Robbie speaks excellent English and some other family members have good English as well

Snorkel trips: If you go with divers, it is only Rp100,000 per trip (which is great) but you will not have a guide to help point out all the amazing, harder to spot ocean life.

Raja Ampat Biodiversity, Pulau Gam




Rp1,000,000 a night (includes 3 meals a day plus water/tea/coffee) plus Rp500,000 for boat to the island

Biodiversity will come pick you up in a nice, new dive boat with a cover to protect you from the sun. The resort is gorgeous palm thatched rooms with a touch of elegance on a beautiful stretch of beach. Dinners are served communally and delicious, warm affairs.


  • no locks on doors but lock box in office where you can keep things if desired
  • one communal toilet
  • one communal bucket shower
  • highly trained dive instructors/owners from El Salvadore and Spain


  • electrical outlets in room (which work from 6:30-10:30 while the generator runs)
  • spectacular coral garden and drop off just out front teaming with life (I saw 6 devil mantas, half a dozen black tipped sharks  and a multitude of other life)
  • beer available (Rp35,000 a can)
  • best food I had in Papua
  • you can take a guided hike at 5:30am to go see the Bird of Paradise perform its mating dance (if you are lucky, and there are females for them to perform that morning) along with spotting and hearing tons of other birds. Rp100,000

Snorkel trips: If you go with divers, it is Rp150,000 per location, but you will not have a guide to help point out all the amazing, harder to spot ocean life. (I was only there one night and spent some of that hiking to see the Bird of Paradise, so I just snorkeled at the amazing coral garden out front)

Helpful Websites:


http://shop.lonelyplanet.com/indonesia/indonesia-travel-guide-10/?lpaffil=lpcomsearch-shoplinks (you can just download the chapter about Papua for $4 (US))


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At a cute coffee shop in Colorado over the Winter Break, Jana Clark (my former teacher, who mentored me to become a teacher myself, and dear friend) said, “For your Christmas present, besides continuing your subscription to The Sun Magazine (which has been a great gift to receive in Bali!) I would like to get books for your students. One for each of them to keep. Send me a list of their names and what book you think they would like.” It was such an amazing, generous gift, and I knew my kids would be delighted. I tried to put together a list of the kids and what books they would want, but I found it was hard to think up a specific title, so instead I sent her my students names and some information about each of them such as:

Arjun— LOVES anything about US presidents!

Bara—Bara loves crazy cars, interesting scientific discoveries and animals.

Ella—I think humor is the thing that pulls her in most. She loves to laugh.

When the box arrived in the mail, my students immediately wanted to open it, but I decided that they could open the box as a prize for positive behavior in the classroom. After a few weeks of smiley faces dominating our behavior board, the day had come for them to open the box.

The students were delighted! It was so wonderful to see their faces as they each received their books.














group photo3

Even better was watching them lay on the pillows in the back of the classroom totally engrossed in the books for the next few days.

Sasha reading


Kyle and Bara



Damai & Manon

Thank you, Jana Clark, for this most wonderful gift you’ve give my students in Bali!

Arjun working with presidents on desk

Arjun keeping his new books nearby even while he works on other projects.

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Trekking in Sumatra

Our plane arrived in Medan, Sumatra 30min late. We headed to the toilet (“Wait, so the bucket and the…” “Yep, it’s a squat toilet. And no toilet paper.” “This is an airport; I’m sure there will be toilet paper.” “This is Indonesia. I doubt we will find it in any bathrooms the rest of our journey. Or hand soap. Bring your sanitizer.”) and then outside into a crush of people, where I heard a man say, “Sara? Jungle Eddie.”

“Jungle Eddie! I’m so excited to meet you.”

He nodded and walked away, a stalky, silent man. I wondered what my friend Marnie had been so excited about in this guide…

Once we got in the car, the man handed me his phone with Jungle Eddie on it. “Sara! You made it. Are you hungry?” Ahhh no wonder this guy had seemed both confused and disinterred. The driver took us for Indian in Medan (I had been missing quality, inexpensive Indian food in Bali), which we got as take-away, since we had another 2+hrs in the car to Bukit Lawang. Eating Indian food in the car without plates is tricky, but we managed to devour mutton masala, chicken samosas and palak paneer without spills.

Our driver kept trying to get gas, but everywhere we went the attendants would shake their heads and send us off. At the 8th stop, he started explaining desperately that we needed to get to Bukit Lawang, but with no luck. He even stopped at a roadside vendor who kept gas in clear liquor bottles, but they were out. At our 13th gas station, there was a huge crowd lined up for gas, men and women pushing motorbikes or holding empty cans. Finally, we were able to get fuel.

12:30am we arrived in Bukit Lawang. Jungle Eddie, a serious, solidly muscle Indonesian man greeted us, leading us to our second floor hotel room with a fan. As is mostly true of Indonesia, there were no sheets on the bed, no towels, no hand or body soap, no hot water, no toilet paper, no flush handle on the toilet but instead a bucket. There was a fan, which was a treat. “See you at 8am.”

At 7:30 we rose to pack for our trek and watch the river race past our balcony.



Jungle Eddie met us downstairs and talked us through the trek preparations. 2 days. Tubing to get back. Bring water. And he needed to leave in the afternoon to attend a wedding, so we would continue with his friend.

After a breakfast of fried rice, we started walking from behind the restaurant up into the mountains.



First we hiked through a rubber plantation, which provided a buffer zone between Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser and Bukit Lawang. The buckets on the rubber taps were emptied 3-4x a week from each tree and sold in town to men with rubber factories.

There was a large information board to demarcate the dividing line between the rainforest and the plantation, and then we were hiking up and in. First we rounded a corner and saw a troop of funky monkeys with adorable mohawks. Then up in the trees, the brown bodies of gibbons were just visible in the emergent layer.



Then we saw our first orangutan, a seven-year-old female in her nest high above the forest floor. She got out briefly to snag more branches and then lowered herself back into her nest away from view.

There was a group of maybe 20 tourists attempting to snap pictures and watching the nest intensely while our guides squatted and smoked cigarettes together. When we had had our fill, we grabbed Jungle Eddie and continued our journey, stumbling upon another group whose guide was feeding an orangutan pineapple. Both Jungle Eddie and the guidebook espoused the importance of not feeding the orangutans, yet here was a guide doing just that. We were able to get really close to this one, watching it swing through the branches, beneficiaries of a broken system.


We joined this new group to share snack: fresh pineapple and delicious bananas whose remains were left in a pile on the forest floor. Jungle Eddie explained to all those gathered, “I see these new things—these newspapers but with the…”

“Ink?” a Dutch guy offered.

“I think he means an ipad,” corrected a girl from Hong Kong.

“The ipad—this very good. Then you don’t need to go to forest to cut down trees. If you can afford it, buy an ipad.” At this point he started laughing hysterically, “I should tell the companies that idea. ‘Jungle Eddie says Save Trees—Buy an ipad.’ I could be rich!

You are all superheroes. By being here with us, you not only support us, but money goes to pay for the national park, too. You are helping save the trees, so you are all fucking superheroes!”


Jungle Eddie chatting with us and showing us a termites nest.

At this point, Jungle Eddie headed back for his wedding, and we continued with this new group on a more arduous trek to get to Mina’s domain. Mina is a large orangutan famous for being aggressive, having attacked a number of people. When we found her, the guides immediately approached with fruit to supplicate her. There were three other orangutans up playing in the trees behind her.

Our last orangutan spotting was a pregnant female with her five-year-old. The momma watched us quietly while her little one swung from far off to come join mother. When he tried to come closer, curious about us, mom pulled her baby back.


We stopped for lunch of nasi goreng (fried rice with eggs and veggies) wrapped in a banana leaf. At this point, another group passed, with a ten-year-old girl wearing a leaf crown proudly leading the way.


Our guides playing in the trees on one of our hiking breaks.

The next round of hiking was extremely arduous. Intense uphill stints followed by slicker downhill plunges.




The final leg actually required us to carefully lower ourselves down a rock ledge on a waterfall before we arrived at our camp. Tarps had been set up to make a sleeping space and a kitchen with three gas burners. Four-foot monitor lizards patrolled the river while long-tailed macaques flitted about in the trees overhead.



We rang our shirts of sweat, and it poured off as if they’ve just been washed. We went to play under the waterfall and sit in the cold river water while dinner was prepared. It was sweet relief after the hot, exhausting hike.



It is amazing how cards create connection and build community. As soon as all of us were sitting down playing 3 man and 7 diamonds, teasing and laughter and comfortability ensued.


Dinner was delicious veggie curry, curried chicken and a spicy tempeh/tofu dish. Fireflies emerged. One of the cooks showed us matchstick tricks—brain twisters which made him laugh in delight when they couldn’t be solved. Late at night, the nearly full moon emerged from a canopy of trees, illuminating the forest. Sleep was tumultuous. The thin mat on the hard earth required me to wake every hour to turn acheily to the other side.


In the morning, the long-tailed macaque were more aggressively approaching camp.  They sat on our “drying” clothes strung on a line (a rain during the night having left everything more wet than the day before), creeping towards our breakfast of tea, biscuits and a veggie omelet between two pieces of disgustingly-sweet white bread, finally successfully stealing our sugar bowl and devouring it. When they approached and we tried to scare them off, they would bare their teeth and hiss. David returned the posture, effectively squashing their bravado, but I was surprised to find myself terrified of those bared teeth (all the diseases swirling in my head that had been transmitted from monkeys to man).


Most of the last mile or so to camp we descended by sliding over the slick, muddy ground on our butts. In the morning, we had to ascend it again.


It was steep, slippery, dirty journey and my legs were sore from the day before. We reached the top of this mountain and there was a nice, flat stretch where we could look down at the forest canopy extended out as far as the eye could see. An eagle soared below.


The final stretch of the hike is crazy-rainforest-trekking at its extreme. The descent required us to use vines like ropes to slowly walk ourselves down. Or cling to tree roots while lowering ourselves from ledge to ledge. It was exhausting and exhilarating; I felt like Indiana Jones.



We arrived at the river and collapsed totally soaked in sweat and mud. Here the river was wide and fast. There was a massive, 10ft high boulder perched along its edge which a couple guys jumped off, crawling out on the fallen tree perched across the top to cannonball into the water below. It was cold and refreshing. I jumped in wearing only a sports brae and shorts. The girl from Hong Kong looked me over and asked, “Do you think that’s okay? I don’t want to be offensive.” I realized that being so removed from cities and mosques, I hadn’t even considered that I was in a very Islamic part of the Indonesia. The guides were working to lash intertubes together and prepare lunch, seemingly not noticing me. As soon as I was done with my swim, I threw on a shirt.



We had mie goreng (fried noodles with veggies) for lunch and then jumped into the intertubes that have been secured together to “raft” back. Our guide with a big, beautiful, afro who smoked weed the entire journey and mostly refused to talk to any of us except to show us the quinine plant, which we each tasted (extremely bitter), is the lead paddler for this leg of the journey, using a bamboo pole wedged against rocks to help navigate the class two rapids. It’s funny rafting in Indonesia; in the States and Argentina, the guides moved with the clear purpose of trying to avoid rocks, but here there is apparently no equivalent desire, so a lot of time is spent pinballing against rock walls. There were beautiful views of deep, thick rainforest accentuated by flowering trees and massive ferns in all directions.

Our other guide, a kind-hearted guy with a huge smile and only a little English, started singing (to the tune of Jingle Bells) “Jungle trek, jungle trek in Bukit Lawang. See the monkeys, see the birds, see the orangutans! Hey!” We all sang along as we paddled into Bukit Lawang, suddenly back in the thick of it with hundreds of families on the banks of the river enjoying their Sunday.

*Many thanks to David Blatt for all these photos!

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Shorts: Traveling in Lake Toba

Riding the ferry alone to Tuk Tuk from Parapat in Sumatra, an older man with slightly rheumy eyes and a long, left thumb nail smoking a hand rolled cigarette yells to me in Indonesian from where he sits with his family, “Do you speak Indonesian?”

“A little.”

He comes and sits close, asking many questions in unfamiliar Indonesian, thickly laced with local phrases.

“Gama-gama?” he asks. “Muslim? Kristen? (he makes the sign of the cross) Buddha?”

“No, saya tiduk punya agama-agama.”

“Tiduk agama-agama!” His eyes widen in surprise and horror. “Mengapa? (Why?)”

I do not have the language to explain that many people in American have to religion. That I am spiritual but don’t subscribe to a more rigid set of religious tenets.

“Apa yang anda makan? (What do you eat?)”

“Sudah. (Already)”

“No, apa yang anda makan? (What do you eat?)”

I stare at him blankly.

“Babi?(pig),” he asks.

“Ya, babi, ayam, ikan, daging sapi, sayur…”

“Ahhh! Babi! Anda Kristian!”

“No, saya tiduk punya agama-agama.” He stares at me blankly again. Blinking.

“Keluarga? Anak-anak?” he asks, turning his arms into a cradle for an invisible baby.




“Barapa lama?”


“Apa nomor telepon anda?” Here I hesitate. I do not want to give this man with a three-inch yellowed left thumbnail my phone number

“Saya tiduk tahu. (I do not know)”



He types his number into his phone and asks me to write it down. I do. I ask his name and he pulls out an ID badge to show me: Situmorang. We sit in silence. I stare off at cloud-coated Samosir Island in the distance. He continues to sit, smoking. I return to writing in my journal. He scoots closer, leans in, his leg touching mine, starting at the incomprehensible English cursive.

The shorts. I’m wearing shorts that stop 2in above my knee. The entire morning, as I walked around Parapat hoping to retrieve my missing camera from the van where I spent 10hrs the day previous on the painfully long drive from Bukit Lawang to Danau Toba, women have been giving me dirty looks from underneath head scarves or clad in toe length dresses and men look me up and down (from the black sweatshirt to the knee-revealing shorts). The shorts have given him the wrong impression.

I scoot to the other side of the cracked-white metal bench and tell him in English, “You’re making me uncomfortable. That’s too close.” He continues to sit, watching me write for 10min before returning to the women of his family who’ve been staring during our interaction.

It is only a few more minutes before the ferry will land in Tuk Tuk, and I can put on pants.

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Planting Trees at Besikalung

As a part of our unit on rainforests, my students created a service project in conjunction with Friends of the National Parks Foundation (FNPF). FNPF runs three orangutan rehabilitation posts in Kalimantan where they also do preservation work with turtles and sun bears. In Nusa Penida, a small island just off the coast of Bali, they rehabilitate Bali Starlings, a critically endangered species of bird, and manage a massive reforestation project. Additionally, they manage Bali Wilderness Rehabilitation Center (BWRC). http://www.fnpf.org/

The students were ecstatic about the organization and voted to not only plant trees with them but to raise money to help FNPF with their work. They created a class goal to raise RP3,000,000 (about $300 US).

The day after our class started this project, one of my students, Ella, arrived with baked goods she’d made and wanted to sell to reach our goal. In one week, the kids raised RP1,000,000.

One of their ideas was to screen a movie to raise funds. In order to make this happen, they surveyed all the students at SIS to find out what movie they’d like to see, emailed Power of Now Yoga Studio about hosting the event, made posters, gave presentations in each classroom about the rainforest and our event, and baked treats to sell.

Lorax flier2

Power of Now was not only willing to host, but also collected donations for our cause at their Sunday yoga class! Power of Now is a beautiful, bamboo yoga studio overlooking the beach. Outside are hammocks strung between trees and a cow grazes peacefully between prayer flags.

Power of Now

I had feared, organizing this event with 4th graders, that maybe none of them would show, and I would be at Power of Now watching the movie on my own. My fears proved entirely unfounded: almost all the students attended, and they did a wonderful job collecting donations at the door and selling baked goods before enjoying The Lorax. That night, we were able to bring our donations to RP5.700.000, far surpassing our goal.

yoga studio photo2

yoga studio photo

To head to Besikalung outside Tabanan in the west of Bali, all the students arrived an hour early for school. We quickly loaded cars, passed out maps and wrapped red fabric around rear view mirrors and antennae so our six vehicles transporting students would be easily recognizable.

Entering Tabanan was beautiful: lush, green hills with carved statues that give way to a bustling metropolis. We headed through Tabanan and then continued another half-hour north into rice paddies with Batur & Agung’s volcanic peaks lurking in the background. We took a left onto a steep road that wound down to the river and then back up again past chicken farms.

view of rice paddies from temple

When we arrived at the temple, we were warmly greeted by Pak Bayu and staff from FNPF.

interview with students

First we put on our sarongs, proper temple attire, then Pak Bayu blessed us with holy water

blessings before entering temple

before leading us to a “seka nem” (a Balinese shaded structure) where we enjoyed snacks.


Pak Bayu toured us through the temple, explaining that mostly politicians and military people visited for blessings, as it is a temple for warriors, but many others for financial blessings and abundance as well. The temple was created before Javanese Hinduism arrived in Bali, so it is uniquely asymmetrical in its shape. From the water source near the rice paddies along the outer walls,

temple tour

he then led us to the center of the temple towards the priest.

temple tour 2

Ella at temple

After admiring its beauty, he led us out to the beginning of the 350 hectares of land surrounding the temple that has been set aside for reforestation. In conjunction with that land, the surrounding villages have all signed an agreement pledging not to hunt birds in this area in hopes that it will allow for a repopulation of species that are becoming more and more rare.

Sasha celebrating planting trees

students in woods

Khalil and Bara hiking

Back outside the temple, Pak Bayu explained how to plant the trees.

learning how to plant trees

The holes had already been dug, so my students were to take the seedlings, remove plastic covering from the roots, fill the hole with soil and stomp it down firmly. Immediately the students got to work.

Manon planting trees

Noa planting trees

Momo and Damai planting trees

Luciya and William planting trees

Momo planting trees

Kyle, Sasha and mom planting trees

Khalil, Bara and Putu planting trees

Jasmine and Haruka planting trees

Ella and Athena planting

Damai planting

Chloe and Momo plnating trees

Arjun and London planting trees

In an hour and a half we planted over 100 trees.

Pak Bayu suggested that we eat lunch down at the waterfall 450m away. “Do you think they can make the hike?” he asked me. “I don’t know; I haven’t done it. They are 9-11 year-olds. Do you think they can make it?” “They should be fine,” he nodded.

hiking to the river


The first part of the hike was mellow and beautiful. Then we reached a break in the path where we needed to jump two feet across a river three feet below.

Once we’d all gotten safely across, Pak Bayu moved in front of the line to demonstrate how to get low and carefully crawl down the mountain. He helped the first handful of students work their way down, and then adults integrated themselves in line between every three students.

Haruka and Manon climbing down

It was extremely steep, muddy, slick and only two feet wide with a sharp edge before a 30ft drop. There is no chance in the world I would have taken the students on this hike had I seen it beforehand. When we reached the river, it was wide with a fairly quick current.

Ella, Noa and Kyle at the river

Again I filled with panic as the Indonesian staff moved to create a human chain to help students ford the river to eat lunch on the far bank. Once half the group and a couple of the parents had safely reached the other side, I took a breath, trusted this system would keep my kids safe, and made my way across the river.

those eating on the other river bank

Sitting on the far bank in the sun enjoying lunch and watching the students’ faces beam, it seemed like the most perfect place in the entirety of the world.

lunch on the river2

lunch on the river

lunch on the river 3

Athena and her mom at river

Bara eating on his rock

After they’d finished eating, they wading, started water fights, and stood under the tiny waterfall nearby.

playing in the river2

playing in the river

On review of the fieldtrip as we drove home and back at school the next day, the river was by far the top attraction. Maybe it is the risk that makes the reward so sweet.

Ascending back up the same, muddy, slippery stretch was exhausting. All of us were again coated in a layer of mud by the time we returned to the temple,

wet students

and everyone’s spirits were high.

We created another chain of cars and made our way into Tabanan for our final stop at the BWRC. BWRC is inhabited by animals that were kept illegally as pets. Upon confiscation, they are brought here to be acclimated before returning to the wild. A few of the animals, like the salmon-crested cockatoo who lost a foot in transit, can never be released. For the rest, it is extremely important that there is minimal contact with humans, so few tours are allowed. The kids delighted in the mischievous siamangs and javan lutung swinging around their cages, the palm cockatoo fluffing its Mohawk to scare us, and the brilliant blues and reds of the southern cassowary.

kids at wrc

aussie bird

On our way out, Pak Bayu thanked us, inviting us back to volunteer again. These are my favorite moments in education: where a theoretical concept from the classroom becomes dirt around fingernails, a massive black and white butterfly flitting past, swarms of dragonflies. After we’d finished planting the trees, one of my students Sari asked, “Do you think we could come back in Grade 6 or 7 with Mr. John and see our trees?” That, I think, is a great idea.

group photo

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Illness in Bali

Since I arrived in Bali a year and a half ago, my body has been beset by illness. From Bali Belly where your insides turn to liquid to weird rashes to discovering I have an allergic reaction when bit by many red ants.


I was racked with appendicitis, salmonella and a UTI two Octobers ago and spent four days in hospital.

My and my appendix.

My and my appendix.




Last October, I was diagnosed with an amoeba. In November, amoebas and typhoid. The amoebas proved resistant to the first round of treatment, so it took almost a month of antibiotics to purge them from my body

Returning to Bali in January, I come down with hives and a sinus infection. Two weeks later, belly cramps and achiness set in around lunch. I spend the night in bed and head to the hospital the next morning. “It’s nice to see you again,” I say to Dr. William.

“Not so nice for you, I think,” he responds with a laugh. “You’re sick again?”

“Yes, I think it’s typhoid. I feel achy like I did in November.”

A nurse comes in to take my blood. She is young, Indonesian, pretty. She puts on her latex gloves and then realizes she has forgotten the vials in back, so she opens the door, retrieves them, and returns to draw my blood, all while wearing the same gloves. I watch her dirty, latexed-hands insert the needle in my vein.

 As tests are run, a couple emerges from another exam room and sit to my right. He wears orange robes with a long bushy beard, probably in his 60s, and has his arm wrapped in a cloth sling. His wife is in her 50s, wears yoga clothes. She explains to their Balinese tour guide, “We just need to chant mandala. We don’t like to DO many things. We just like to BE. If we can just chant mandala and meditate, his arm will heal.” You’d be surprised how often this happens in Bali: people in the emergency room calling to consult with their spiritual advisors in California while their partner is being examined. “My spiritual guide says it’s in his lungs” Or asking the doctor about a patient in the ICU, “Can he continue his juice fast?”

Dr. William explains that I have amoebas. I test positive for typhoid, but it was a weak positive (level 4), so I don’t need to be treated. I will take Flagyl for the amoebas and then prednisone, Levoquin, Sudafed and Loratadine for my sinusitis.

I cannot sleep the next two nights, my heart and mind race. I ask my friend Lindsay, an amazing nurse from the States, what the deal is the next day when she comes over. “Let’s look at your medicines. God, do you have pneumonia?”


“Then why did he give you this? Stop taking this,” she says throwing it on the table. “Are you taking this one before bed?”


“No wonder you can’t sleep. It basically has speed in it. Stop taking it! And this… predesone is given for rashes and other… stop taking this, too. Just stick with the Flagyl for your amoeba. Here instead of making a clear diagnosis, doctors just prescribe a little bit of everything. Medical practices in Asia will be the death of antibiotics. They’ve already found a antibiotic-resistant strain of TB in the slums of India…”

 I am finally able to sleep, but Sunday night, I still don’t feel better. My whole body aches: the darts from one part of my body to another joint. I call Lindsay, and she offers to go with me to the doctor to help navigate the medical system and language gap.

It is a different doctor, a rotund Indonesian woman who wears colored contacts and a warm smile. “So what seems to be the problem?”

“I was in on Wed and diagnosed with an amoeba, which I am taking flagyl for, but I really think I have typhoid, too. Everything hurts.”

She opens my records and looks at the notes from my last visit. “Yes, you have typhoid and you were given medicine for it.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“What?” she asks, looking down. “The Levaquin was for the typhoid.”

“No, the doctor told me that since the typhoid was only a level 4, I didn’t need anything for the typhoid. The Levaquin was for my sinuses.”

“No, it was for the typhoid. What medicines are you taking?” Out of my backpack, I pull the Flagyl, Paromomycin, and the Panadol (like Tylenol) that I have been knocking back every 3 or 4 hours to try to get rid of the pain.

              “Where are the other medicines?”

              “I decided to stop taking them, they were making it hard to sleep.”

              “You should not be taking both of these,” she says, motioning between the flagyl and paromomycin. Chose one. They do basically the same thing.”

              “But doesn’t the Flagyl kill the amoebas floating in your intestines while this one works on the amoeba that have burrowed into the lining?” Lindsay asks.

              “They do the same thing. She needs to choose one.”

              She has me get on the examination table. Unlike the last doctor who just checked my blood pressure and temperature, she listens to my belly, checks my abdomen. She calls the nurse in to take blood and I cringe, realizing it is the same dirty-gloved nurse as last time who left a huge bruise on my arm.

blood drawing 2

I want to ask for another nurse, but I feel like a jerk, so I hold my tongue. The first part is smooth and without glove contamination, but then she takes the vial of blood off the needle, and instead of taking the needle out of my arm and then applying pressure, she applies pressure first, jamming the needle deeper and deeper into my vein. “Oww!”

“It hurts?” she asks, surprised.

“Yes!” When she removes the needle, the bleeding refuses to stop for a few mintues. Hours later, my arm still throbs. I remove the band-aid and see this:

arm from drawing blood

They run tests for dengue (a dip in white blood cell counts is a customary indicator) and typhoid again. My typhoid levels are up, as expected since it has gone untreated for 5 days, but my white blood cell count looks good. Lindsay delicately broaches the medication issue again, “In America, I know we tend to be more aggressive in our treatment, but the American standard is that both these medicines are administered at once. Since she was already resistant to Flagyl once, she had to do two, 10-day doses in November, isn’t it a good idea for her to do both?”

“I have read about that. Yes, since she is American, maybe that is a good idea. Indonesians can often get rid of the amoeba on their own, so if they need medicine, Flagyl is enough. But she has an American belly…” the doctor nods her ascent.

Five days later, I am still in bed, achy and unable to work. I call Lindsay, and she invites me to another hospital at 8am to see a doctor she respects. “He’s like my grandfather, smiley and gentle. And he is a really good doctor. He thinks critically about things, reads medical journals. You’ll be in good hands.”

I take a cab to the hospital. A trailer truck has tipped over, and there are no tow trucks in Bali, so traffic is basically stopped. We inch along, painfully slowly.

When I arrive, Lindsay comes to meet me in the lobby, which is also a mall (nothing like being able to shop for groceries or buy a new camera in the basement of your hospital). “May I borrow your identity?” the nurse asks when I check in.

Lindsay, Dr Benny, the nurse and I sit in his examination room. He asks smart questions. He wants to know my last test results, but I do not have them, and Lindsay somehow remembers all the information—white cell count, typhoid levels…

He examines me and explains he is going to check my blood and stool to run tests on my white blood cell count, typhoid, liver, and for chikungunya (similar to dengue and malaria). I cuddle up and wait four hours for the results, watching shows on my laptop.

The results all appear normal; it is still the typhoid ravaging my system. I just need to rest, be patient.

I have often pondered how sickly I was as a baby and whether or not I would have survived in this climate had fate found me birthed here. Or maybe I would be stronger now, had I survived through the delicate stages of infancy and childhood, my body already resistant to the things that arriving in my 30s are tearing me down.



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