Spending Time with Elephants

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By Amy

For years now, I’ve loved elephants. I don’t know what it is about them that gets to me. Their size, their intelligence, their stories? These giant beasts have been used by people for hundreds of years for logging, building temples, and, now, tourism. It’s harder and harder to find them in the wild due to the destruction of their environment and poaching. It seems that they are the underdog of the animal kingdom even though they are so big!

So when we were looking at spending our tourist dollars in Thailand to see elephants I felt very strongly that we needed to do it the right way. You may have heard about Elephant Nature Park without realizing it. Maybe you’ve seen the documentary on Animal Planet where the park and it’s founder Lek Chailert were featured. Maybe you’ve seen one of the many viral videos from the park such as this one of Lek singing a baby elephant to sleep. Elephant Nature Park rescues elephants who have had hard times. Maybe they worked as logging elephants or gave people rides for decades. Maybe they are orphaned babies. Maybe they had injuries from land mines or abuse. No matter the story they get to be elephants again at the park.

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As visitors to the park, we got to meet the elephants, touch some of them, feed them and give them a bath. We also ate lunch and watched a documentary about elephants. What we didn’t do is ride them. During my research about where to go I learned that for an elephant to accept a rider, they must go through “phajaan” which is a process of breaking the elephant’s spirit for work or tourism. They take elephants at about three years old, and beat and poke them for days or weeks until they submit. It’s horrible. The little elephant, separated from it’s mother for the first time, is confused, terrified and injured in the process.

Now, onto the happy stuff.

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Lek has rescued orphaned baby elephants and pioneered a process of showing them love and positive reinforcement to “tame” them and make them safe to be around at the park. Seeing the work she does is truly inspirational and heart-warming. Not only does she have around 30 elephants at the sanctuary but there are also 400 dogs and 150 cats–all sterilized. And oh yeah, she has adopted 14 children too. We couldn’t believe our luck that we actually got to meet her the day we were there! She had just brought in a litter of kittens who were orphaned when their mother was killed by a car.

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Spending the day with elephants and seeing them look so happy, doing what elephants do, was a dream come true for me. I had a permanent smile on my face. If you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai you have to visit Elephant Nature Park. In the mean time go to their website and check out all the fun videos about the work they are doing.

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Thailand: Beaches, Temples, Food

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By Amy

Well our six-week trip of a lifetime around Southeast Asia has commenced and we are here to report that it’s been amazing so far.

Our first stop after Surabaya was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where my friend Jessica lives. We dropped our big bags off at her place, did a few loads of laundry, ate some fantastic meals and packed our little travel backpacks before heading off to Thailand.

Our first stop in Thailand was Ao Nang Beach in the Krabi province of southern Thailand. Ao Nang isn’t the most scenic place, but from there you can catch boats to some lovely places. We spent our two full days there boating over to Railay beach, which is one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand (and, therefore, the world).

After three nights in Ao Nang, we flew to Chiang Mai. I loved Chiang Mai. It’s a small city and you can walk to almost everything. There’s also a lot to do. Weeks before, we had pre-booked a trip to the Elephant Nature Park (separate post on that coming), and the Siam Rice cooking school. Both were fantastic experiences.

Our trip to Siam Rice started with a trip to the market to see the kinds of ingredients we’d be working with. Real Thais shop at the market, but it still seemed pretty nice and touristy compared to our local market in Indonesia! At the cooking school, Will and I were able to cook completely different dishes. When you first get there you look through all the options and decide what you want to make. Then the staff gets going to prepare all your ingredients. We made soup, noodles, salads, curry paste, curry, appetizers and desserts! And we ate it all too. Barely. We were absolutely stuffed! So much fun.

We also had fun walking around Chiang Mai and eating at food stalls. Our guest house owner gave us his personal map of recommended places. One of them was a food stall where a lady wearing a cowboy hat serves up slow roasted leg of pork and rice. Our first night in town, we went looking for her, found her, got in line, ordered two and sat down. Soon we had two plates of delicious food in front of us as well as tin cups full of ice to pour water over.

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Cowboy hat? Check. Large vats of delicious pork cooking? Check!

In addition, our friends Zach and Clay of The Bitten Word food blog had recommended we look for Mrs. Pa’s fruit shake stand. We went in search of Mrs. Pa and again were successful. You wouldn’t think that one fruit shake could be that much better than another (or, life changing), but man, that woman knows what she’s doing! She recommended pineapple, mango and passion fruit. YES.

Mrs. Pa, a mad genious of fruit smoothies

Mrs. Pa, a mad genius of fruit smoothies

After Chiang Mai, we flew to Bangkok. We stayed in the area near the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, which is where most of the cultural sites are. Our first night in town, we found ourselves eating dinner at a nice restaurant on the river with a view of Wat Arun (wat means temple) lit up across from us. After dinner we went walking around to explore the area. We found ourselves walking past the entrance to Wat Pho, and the security guard motioned for us to go in and walk around, even though it was closed. I felt like I had wandered into a jewelry box as the temples glittered around us. Other than some temple cats on their nocturnal prowl we were the only people there.

The next day, we needed to visit the Embassy of Myanmar to apply for tourist visas for our visit there in mid-July. That took most of the morning and we were ready for lunch. We found a food barn of sorts with food stalls where Thai professionals eat lunch. Then, since it was the middle of the day and we didn’t feeling like walking around, we decided to go to Siam Square and see a movie at one of the big malls. We bought tickets to see Maleficent, and stood along with everyone else when, before the movie, they played a song and slideshow in honor of the Thai King!

The rest of our time in Bangkok involved sightseeing and eating. We enjoyed Bangkok, but four nights was enough for us and we were excited to move on to the next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia and the temples of Angkor!

So, Where To Next?

By Amy

Now that Peace Corps is officially over for us, we have embarked on a six and a half week journey around Asia. We will be in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal and Myanmar.

Our luggage is safely resting at our friend’s apartment in Kuala Lumpur while we travel super light. We’ll update here about our travels. Stay tuned…

The Long Goodbye – Part 2

By Will

In Part 1, I talked about the weeks leading up to our departure from Ngoro. Here we start with our departure to Surabaya on June 11, which, like our two years here, was filled with surprises.

The day before we left, we received several visitors at our house and then we made the rounds in our village. We finished packing around 1am and crashed to get about 4 hours of sleep.

June 11 – Amy’s School Takes Her to Surabaya

Amy left for Surabaya around 8am and was joined by her counterparts, her principal and the vice principals from her school.

Their plan was to go up to Surabaya early and then jalan-jalan (or, hangout) until my school arrived at the hotel. Once in the car, Amy discovered that they were going to Radio Suara Surabaya, a popular news radio station broadcast around Surabaya and parts of East Java, to join the celebration of the station’s 31st anniversary. Amy and I had been interviewed by station 18 months ago because one of the journalists is somehow related to our host family. So, it was no surprise that she was again interviewed and broadcasted to the millions of listeners. While there, Amy also bumped into the American Consulate General who we had befriended during our time here which just added to the surreal nature of the day.

After a few hours there, they left to bring Amy to the hotel where all exiting Peace Corps Volunteers were staying in Surabaya. After my school dropped me off, we went upstairs with Amy’s teachers and spent a few more minutes in the hotel lobby.

All the folks from Amy’s school then left, except for Bu Kis who stayed behind. Her family was driving up to Surabaya to see us one more time so we killed time by taking her to our favorite coffee shop and treating her to her first cappuccino. Once the rest of her family arrived, we all went to McDonald’s. Amy and I felt conflicted about introducing them to one of the worst parts of American culture, but they enjoyed the experience of what is considered a luxury here.

It was a really fun afternoon, so much fun that the goodbyes weren’t tearful, but happy. After spending so much time with this family over the past two years, we don’t even question that we will see them again down the road.

June 11 – Will’s School Takes Him to Surabaya

Pak Eko picked me up at 6:45am to take our bags to school. Why did Amy’s bags come with us? Because my school rented a bus, with plenty of luggage space, so everyone could accompany me to Surabaya! The school had arranged for a lunch and ceremony (for me and the retiring teachers) at a restaurant outside of Surabaya, so we made a day of it.

Before leaving, I was first able to make the rounds at school and say goodbye to the students one last time. It was hard and sad and I won’t forget those last moments with the students who I had taught for two years. The bell then rang, signaling that classes were finished, the students could go home and the bus was leaving for Surabaya.

We boarded the bus and took off. As is the norm here, as soon as the bus got moving, the karaoke started. I was happy to oblige in singing (badly) one last time. We stopped for the lunch and ceremony, which was really nice. All of the school leaders spoke about the retiring teachers and me. Then my first counterpart, Pak Eko, gave a speech about me which was so nice and touching. He talked about how uncomfortable things were when I first arrived, as we were both nervous and didn’t know what to expect. But then, our friendship formed.

Next the teachers all hugged and shook hands with us, wishing me luck in my travels and wishing the other teachers luck with their retirement. We were presented gifts, which for me included batik from the school and traditional Javanese shadow puppets from my close friends. I still can’t believe how nice the gifts are.

Finally we boarded the bus again and made our way toward the hotel. After we arrived, the teachers all got off the bus and said goodbye to Amy and me one more time as we exchanged hugs and tears. Finally the bus pulled off and my life as a teacher at SMA Ngoro had ended.

June 13th – We Become Returned Peace Corps Volunteers

After our schools dropped us off, we spent the next two days in paperwork, exit-interviews, and last medical appointments. We were tired and exhausted, but finally on Friday around 3pm, we were finished. Peace Corps Indonesia has a tradition of the exiting Volunteers giving a short speech and then ringing a gong to symbolize the end of our service.

We celebrated that night at our go-to dive bar in Surabaya before waking up way-too-early on Saturday to head to Kuala Lumpur. As the plane took off, there was a real rush of emotion – excited about the next chapter of our lives, but conflicted with not wanting to close the previous one. Two years is a long time to spend in a foreign country and in a foreign culture, but we don’t regret a single second of it and we can’t wait to come back and visit.

The Long Goodbye – Part 1

By Will

The last few weeks in Ngoro were one endless emotional and joyous goodbye as we packed up our lives and prepared to end our Peace Corps service. There were tears, hugs, smiles and laughs as we spent our last moments in our village and at our schools with our close friends and colleagues.

Saying goodbye to our friends was the hardest. Harder was having to do it spread out across weeks when we would realize that there were certain people we wouldn’t see again. We did our best in visiting everyone we love. We made it to Batu one more time to see our original host families there, and then they returned with us to our village to see what we had been up to for the last two years!

In addition to our families and schools, we said our farewells to all of the small communities that we found ourselves in during these two years. Amy said goodbye to her aerobics club and we visited all of the food stalls where we had become regulars (and left with recipes or gifts from all of them!). We paid a last visit to our friends that ran the local photocopy shop (you know you are a teacher when…) and the village shops where we regularly stopped for ice cream, flour, eggs and sugar. Our informal english lessons wrapped up with a graduation ceremony for one and a dinner out for the other.

Where we couldn’t say goodbye, because friends had moved away for school or work, there was a flurry of Facebook and text messages.

Our schools held events for us, we threw a going-away party ourselves to treat our friends, and finally our schools took us to Surabaya where we finished our service on June 13th.

Here is an overview and photos of some of the events leading up to our departure. Our next post will focus on our trip to Surabaya and finally becoming Returned Peace Corps Volunteers!

May 27 – Farewell at Amy’s School

Coinciding with the national holiday for the Prophet Mohammad’s ascension to heaven, Amy’s school held a morning-long celebration for the holiday that ended with celebrating Amy’s time at MAN Genukwatu. It was a sweet ceremony as the principal spoke, followed by two students and then Amy’s counterparts. Amy’s counterparts gave a heartfelt and touching speech as they talked about what their friendship with Amy meant to them.

The students presented a series of drawings to Amy, her counterparts gave her a purse and jewelry and her school gave her a gold ring engraved with the school’s name.

Amy then gave a beautiful speech in bahasa Indonesia about all the things that the experience had given her and how much she would miss being part of MAN Genukwatu. The students then all salim‘ed Amy (brining Amy’s hand to their forehead) and the ceremony ended.

June 3 – Farewell at Will’s School

A week later, my school held a farewell party for me and three teachers who are retiring this month. We held it in our school yard and it was very emotional as there were speeches from students about the teachers, as well as farewell songs from the school choir.

I gave a speech to the assembled students thanking them for their friendship over the last two years and then one of my classes surprised me by singing an Indonesian song that we had translated into English a few weeks prior.

At the end of the ceremony, all of the students salim‘ed me and the retiring teachers. Following the ceremony, I visited all of my classes to give them my contact information and wish them luck with the end of semester tests that began the next day. As I was making my way back to the teachers’ office, a student asked me to return to the yard, where a group of students were circled around the keyboard and speaker that had been used for the morning’s ceremony. After Amy and I joined them, they sang me a song in bahasa Indonesia about leaving and then they sang Adele’s “Someone Like You” as many of the girls (and I) cried through it. It was definitely one of the saddest things I have ever experienced.

June 9 – Our Community Farewell Party

Two days before leaving, we threw a party to treat our friends and colleagues. Amy’s counterpart, Bu Kis, worked with us to put together the party and offered her home as the location. We rented the tent from the father of one of our informal English lesson students and he gave us the seat covers for free. The cake came from a neighborhood baker and all of the drinks were prepared and donated by the female teachers at Amy’s school.

We invited the teachers from both of our schools, people from our community, friends we had met throughout our time here, and English teachers from other schools we had worked with. We had a great turnout and we spent a very hot afternoon with speeches from our principals and us and ate food from our favorite warung in town. We received some really nice gifts and everyone that came was invited to take the clothes or other things we brought to be left behind.

 

The Nickel Tour – Amy’s School

By Amy

A couple of weeks ago, you got the cheap and quick tour of Will’s school. Now, just before the buzzer, you get mine. Here we go:

My school is much different than Will’s. His is nearly 700 students, while mine is only 300. His school sits on one of the county’s busiest roads, while mine was dropped in the middle of a bucolic setting surrounded by rice fields and farm land.

A pleasant ten minute bike ride on a small road takes me to my school where I am greeted by a tree-lined driveway with fields on either side.

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This is the driveway into my school. This is the view from my school looking out to the road.

Visitors to my school often comment on how green and peaceful it is. During flag ceremony there is often a silent prayer. You can’t hear anything but birds and insects. It’s so nice.

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There are a handful of outdoor covered walkways. Each classroom is entered from the outside.

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Bu Kis and I walking to the auditorium for my going away ceremony. 

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Though my school is small we have a library, a science lab, a computer lab, a language lab (in disrepair), a canteen, a cooperative, a large multipurpose room and a musholla (small Islamic prayer building).

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Our “musholla.” This is a small prayer building. It’s different from a mosque, which is much larger.

I’ve really enjoyed my two years at my little country-side school. I will miss it!

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Some students buying some snacks or school supplies from the cooperative.

 

 

114 Down

 

By Amy

I have a very clear memory from our pre-service training in Batu. It was the end of the first week. Will and I were walking home from class and he said, “Well, one week down, 114 to go.” It felt so daunting.

Just a few weeks in

Just a few weeks in

Somehow, we now find ourselves on the other end of that—114 weeks down, one to go. Never again in our lives will we measure a two year period (or 26 months to be more accurate) with such precision. While the time went fast, it was still two years, and things have changed for us and things have changed in the world.

In our time here the Kentucky Wildcats won their 8th NCAA basketball championship (and almost their 9th). There were tragic mass shootings including one at Sandy Hook elementary school and a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Barack Obama came out in support of gay marriage and was re-elected. Syrian protests escalated into a civil war. A new and more progressive Pope was chosen. A royal baby was born. There was a tragic bombing at the Boston Marathon. 7.1 million people signed up for the Affordable Care Act. Same-sex marriage became federally recognized (and the Peace Corps started accepting same-sex married couples). Nelson Mandela passed away. Putin invaded the Ukraine and a Malaysian airplane went missing. Oh yeah, and Beyonce came out with a killer album.

For friends and family back home there were some wonderful life events. Several good friends got married. Sixteen of our close friends brought new people into the world. To Maddy, Eleanor, Lila, Amelia, Max, Lucie, Davis, Addie, Louis, Beckham, Camden, Jamie, Katie, Nina, Matteo, and Brady congratulations on being born to some truly wonderful parents.

There were personally sad times during these 26 months. Three friends lost parents while we were gone and we wished we could have been closer. And then we did too. We’ll be going back to a very different world without Will’s dad and my grandma.

While we were here we made some amazing new friends. Real friends. Friends that really pull through for you in hard times. Friends that can make you laugh. Friends that share their care packages.

We learned a new language together. We learned to cook a Mexican meal from scratch. We learned how to fry tempeh. We learned how to eat with our hands and our bodies became used to spicy food. I learned that getting deodorant on the knees of my pants is just a hazard of the squatty potty. We learned what it feels like to chew on volcanic ash.

We saw my parents Peter and Debra, Will’s mom Betty Jane, my cousins Steve, Stephanie and Brent, our former boss Ben, and our friends Michael, Scott, Carolyn and Mitch here in Indonesia—many of them came to our site. How lucky are we?

We met orangutans and lazed about on white sand beaches. We saw ancient temples. Will ran his first half marathon—around a volcano. We visited Australia and Malaysia. We went to Bali seven times.

We held camps, started clubs and connected with our students. We were accepted into families and we will be sad to leave our adopted mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews. Life will be a little different when our weeks don’t include the usual visits to our favorite food stalls in our village, playing Uno with our 9 and 10 year old neighbors, or having the daily exchange with the people on our street that we wave and yell good morning to on our way to school.

We were high school English teachers. We were Peace Corps Volunteers. We had two years we will never forget.

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