A Puppet Show and Other Acts

Who knew rubber time ran so fast? Luckily, the photos on my phone allow me to backtrack a bit. Between back-to-back school activities, trips to the tailor for new uniforms, and your everyday food poisoning, I’m usually just sipping those oral rehydration salts and writing a few lesson plans with my counterparts. And then there are the events. And events and events and events. Here are some happenings from the past 6 weeks.

Saturdays at MIN

Fellow Madiun English teachers invited me to give some mini presentations and lead a Q&A with elementary students. In Indonesia, public schools fall under one of two categories: Ministry of Education or Ministry of Religious Affairs. Madrasa is an Islamic school, so that’s why all the girls where jilbab, or hijab in the photos — it’s part of their uniform. MIN (pronounced mean) is the elementary level of a Madrasa.


I visited on Saturdays (elementary school is 6 days a week here), and I gave a short presentation about the US, mostly in Indonesian with some English vocabulary thrown in. We sang songs and learned about US geography, diversity, seasons, holidays, and a few landmarks in Maryland. When I showed them a photo of snow, two hundred kids screamed all at once. Then I showed them a photo of a snowball (shaved ice flavored with neon syrup and topped with marshmallow fluff). The crowd went wild.


While I can’t imagine teaching small kiddos every day, I’m so glad that the full-time teachers were there to help manage the classes and act as my bodyguard. (Shout-out to Bu Titis, Bu Mega, and Bu Wulan for inviting me!)

After a few sessions at the school, we went out to lunch and enjoyed gourami (freshwater fish).

Ulang Tahun Sekolah

The last week of September, my school celebrated its birthday. When I heard the birthday was coming up, I thought, That’s cute. I figured there’d be an especially long upacara followed by party snack boxes. (The white cardboard boxes of lemper and cheese-topped cake show up at any official event). I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Ulang Tahun Sekolah3

The school’s birthday was a week-long celebration: a parade across the city, complete with a drum band; a mural-painting contest; futsal, basketball, and volleyball tournaments; an English debate competition; relay races; and a recycled costume contest. It was a whirlwind. I mostly took photos to help my friend, Bu Nafi, who runs the school’s social media.

Ulang Tahun Sekolah 9

Ulang Tahun Sekolah 8

To set off the week, students released hundreds of balloons into the air, and then went inside to attend a presentation about “Anti-plastic.” They signed a large plastic banner with a pledge to not use plastic straws. On the way out, they each received a baked treat (packaged in plastic) and a disposable plastic water cup, with a straw, also wrapped in plastic. I tried to keep my cool but couldn’t really manage. There’s still a long way to go here in terms of environmental education. At least they made some cool costumes with plastic, right? (Even if those, too, end up in the trash).

Ulang Tahun Sekolah 4

The most ridiculous (and most fun) part of the week was watching the relay races:

Ulang Tahun Sekolah
Step 1 was a spin-in-a-circle and run-in-a-straight-line race. This is step 2: a board-walk race where four peoples’ feet are strapped to boards
Ulang Tahun Sekolah 5
Step 3: Using a sarong, toss water balloons over a volleyball net for your other teammates to catch in another piece of sarong fabric.
Ulang Tahun Sekolah 7
Step 4: Wiggle across a slippery, soapy plastic surface with your arms behind your back while the 12th graders pour water on you.

The birthday week was wild, and a nice break for students —no class time whatsoever.


In late September, Bu Nafi and I went to a wedding (pernikahan) for the daughter of another teacher at our school. It was held at the Airforce base in Magetan, about 40 minutes from us. Not all Indonesian weddings are the same. While those in the desa might be open to any and all guests, this one, in the city, was invite-only. But as far as I could tell, everyone was invited.

Wedding 2

Before entering, we line up to sign the guest book and drop an envelope of cash in a box—gifts for the newlyweds. Then there’s a receiving line, where the guest shakes hands with the bride and groom and close family members. Then we eat food, sip some juice, and bounce.


Thanks to Bu Nafi for the ride here!


Breakfast at Church

Sometime earlier this year, I gave up on pretending to appear Christian to conform to Indonesia’s religious norms. But I still join my family at church now and then. And while I usually sleep through the service, I meet up with the pastor and his church friends on weekday evenings for our cycling club. (It’s true, I’m in a bike gang). Half-way through our ride, we usually stop along the road to eat gorengan, a whole bunch of fried foods.


The other week, I actually got myself to church. I may or may not have heard there would be food. Following the service in the one-room church, we cleared the chair aways and spread banana leaves across the floor, laying the grounds for a banquet.

Church food

Every church event is a potluck-style meal. This time, the ibu-ibu prepared what they jokingly call a Javanese salad: Urap Sayur. There’s a mix of steamed papaya leaves, green beans and bean sprouts, tossed with shredded coconut that’s turned red with chilies. Then, you’ve got the protein: tofu and tempeh cooked with spices and coconut milk, hard boiled eggs, and chicken. Like this spread, a lot of Indonesian food is incredibly soft. So to add that much-needed crunch, many dishes are topped with kerupuk, which is like a fried rice cracker. It’s crispy and light. It’s also not so secretive. There’s no way to eat kerupuk discreetly because it’s SO DARN LOUD.

Church food 3


Training Trainees in Kediri

The first week of October, I found myself back in Kediri, Peace Corps Indonesia’s current training site. The new group of volunteers arrived at the end of September, and I helped out as a Resource Volunteer, co-leading sessions about ICDI (Intercultural Competence, Diversity and Inclusion) and PACA (Participatory Analysis for Community Action) for the start of their pre-service training. ICDI and PACA are two frameworks that guide Peace Corps Indonesia Volunteers’ work. It’s basically about how to integrate, learn about a community, and support community interests and projects. The focus is on concepts like human-centered design and asset-based community development so that volunteers can build bridges across cultures. We covered a lot of information, and while I enjoyed meeting the 70 (!!!) new trainees, the highlight of my week was eating this bakpaow:


I mean, no offense to trainees, they were nice, too. But allow me to break down this bakpaow situation for you. It’s a steamed bun filled with whatever you want: strawberry, chocolate, kacang hijau, or even chicken. Sometimes it’s sold straight from the steamer, but this one is also fried in butter, which adds a whole extra level of everything. Isn’t it just the cutest little baby bakpaow you ever did see? Golden-brown, warm, and oozing. I chose kacange hijau, which is one of my favorite fillings here. Kacang hijau translates to green bean, but it’s really made from mung bean. It’s got a sweet and nutty flavor. And if your bakpaow guy has the hookup, you can top it with chocolate spread in case you regret not choosing chocolate, because, chocolate.


Mid-October, my school held inaugurasi. I asked, what are we inaugurating? Usually inauguration means the start of something new a la High School Musical, but we were already three months into the school year.

Inagurasi 2

For the first three months of school, our tenth grade students aren’t allowed to communicate with their parents. Since the school is semi-military, these first three months have been a sort of initiation for the new students, and their schedules have been packed with military exercises. They were sleeping for about 3 hours a night (which is no problem, because they catch up on sleep in our English classes on the reg….), and inaugurasi was the first time they’d see their parents since July. Then, they’d get to go home for a full four days to celebrate their military survival thus far.

Inagurasi 3
A few of our teacher pals looking sharp in their new batik

My job for Inaugurasi was to get some matching batik uniforms made, greet the parents in Javanese by saying sugeng rawuh, and take photos for the school’s social media to help out my girl, Bu Nafi. I don’t know why this photo was taken at this angle (or why it’s so blurry), but aren’t we cute?



Gamelan and Wayang in Ponorogo

In the past 6 weeks, I’ve so enjoyed a couple of overnight trips with another teacher from my school. Bu Narmi teaches music and dance, and she has three daughters all around my age. She and her family invited me to family gatherings in the mountains of Ponorogo, about two hours from my town. The first was a family reunion, which they organize every few months at the birthplace of Bu Narmi’s mother. Her extended family is enormous and includes some of the warmest people I’ve met in the past year. Not to mention, the mountainous area is actually COLD at night which was a sensation I briefly experienced in Wonokitri last month, but instantly forgot about as soon as I started sweating it out again in Madiun. Last week topped 100 degrees.


This last visit to Ponorogo was for a special event at Bu Narmi’s mother’s house. They were hosting a big, week-long party, complete with a cow slaughter, and we tagged on to the last day and a half of it, following our school’s Inaugurasi ceremony.

Ponorogo 10

As guests arrive, they are greeted by a receiving line—a mix of family and friends of the hosts. At these kind of gatherings, thousands of people come and go over the course of several days, often only stopping by for an hour to eat daging sapi (fresh from the slaughter), sip sugary coffee, and catch a bit of the performances. The women sit in the back, and the men are funnelled into the front section, by the stage. You could call it the men’s section, or the smoking section, but on Java, those two areas are essentially the same thing. SO MANY CIGARETTES. Luckily the smoke doesn’t bother me, so I could invade the front seats to get a closer look at the performance.

Ponorogo 11
These are Sinden singers. They dress in kebaya, which is usually a fitted batik skirt and a lace top

Bu Narmi knows how to play gamelan, traditional Javanese percussion, and an entire gamelan set has been in her family for generations. Most people do not have an entire orchestra in storage, but Bu Narmi’s parents do. They hired a gamelan band and group of sinden, Javanese singers, to perform for several days. There was even a comedian. I understood exactly zero words, but it was still cool.

Ponorogo 5

Ponorogo 6

That night, we slept at Bu Narmi’s parents’-in-law home, just a short drive from the house where she grew up. It was the best sleep of my Indonesian life and maybe the third time I’ve used a blanket in the past year. They cook over a wood stove, and we had ayam kampung. It was as homey as it gets.

Ponorogo 8

The last day of the party, on Sunday, we waited for the Wayang to start. Wayang is a traditional shadow puppet show. It’s a 10th century art form from India with painted puppets made of perforated leather, which let light shine through. The Javanese people adapted it, and it was later used as a storytelling tool to teach Islamic values. The storyteller is called the Dalang, and he speaks in Javanese, playing the voices of dozens of characters.

Sinden singers gotta eat, too. I love that the servers brought rice to them on-stage.

This is no easy task. Javanese has three levels to the language, and the one you use depends on who you’re talking to: Ngoko (informal), Madyo (semi-formal), and Kromo (formal). Using Ngoko is fine with children, but you’d have to use the highest level, Kromo, to address your grandparents or your boss. Wayang is told in Kromo. Nowadays, most people around me still use Javanese at home, but it’s usually the first or second level. Speaking in Indonesian, I asked men around me if they understood the Javanese story. The general consensus was, No. One guy explained, “If I want to know the story, I can read the book.” I said, “When’s that gonna happen?”

Kidding, I didn’t actually say that because I’ve been working on cutting back on the sass (as much as one can do). But I did think, man, I sure am glad I’m not the only one who hasn’t got a clue what’s going on. There’s a special sense of belonging that comes from mutual confusion. It’s really helped me with integration.

Ponorogo 12

Wayang performances start late at night and can last five to six hours. They are almost always held outside, like this one. Technically, you can watch from either side of the screen, because the story is told through shadows cast by the puppets. But most people like to watch from the puppet side, so you can actually see the painted characters.

The puppet master tells the story, the sinden singers provide the sound effects and some song, and the gamelan musicians add the drama to the war scenes. It’s like going to the opera: long, slow, and, once the spectacle wears off, kind of boring. (There, I said it!!) Even the sinden singers, when they weren’t singing, were scrolling on their phones while they sat on-stage. Thirty minutes into the show, Bu Narmi’s daughters went inside to take a nap. Only the continuous flow of sugar-spiked coffee combined with chain smoking seemed to keep people awake. Bu Narmi and I had to teach the next morning, so we left the show early, around 10pm, to drive the two hours back to Madiun. I don’t own a key to my host family’s home (oops), so I crashed at Bu Narmi’s, got home around 6am, and showed up to school only a little late this time. Rubber time is a way of life.

Bu Narmi
Bu Narmi 😊


Tingkepan: Bun in the Oven!!

Our neighbors, Mas Nino and Mbak Myta, run the restaurant next door. I buy mie goreng from them almost weekly.  The other night, they celebrated Tingkepan (also called Naloni Mitoni) to recognize the seventh month of pregnancy for their first child. (Baby is on the way!!) They closed the restaurant, and all the neighbors gathered on the tiled floor outside the warung to watch. It’s sort of like a baby shower, and most of the crowd is made up of women—especially Myta’s close friends.


The ceremony goes like this: There’s a big basin of water and flower petals, with coins at the bottom. A woman from the family rinses a green coconut (kelapa mudah) in the water and then passes it from the top of the mom-to-be’s dress, to the bottom. This symbolizes a fast and painless birth. Then they put the coconut on the floor and smash it to figure out the sex: If it breaks into two half, it’s a boy, and if the coconut cracks but doesn’t break open, it’s a girl. Next, the parents-to-be sit side-by-side and are showered (read: repeatedly drenched) with a bucket made from half a coconut and filled with the flowery water. After they’re sufficiently dripping, they towel off, change clothes, and have their faces powdered. The ladies in attendance help dress the mom-to-be in different patterned batik clothing. While this is happening, everyone else empties the bucket to get to the coins.



Finally, it’s time to “open shop.” The couple sits in front of baggies of rujak buah, a sweet and sour fruity syrup made from seven different shredded fruits. The guests toss the coins they collected in a bowl and take the treats, pretending to buy them. The bowl of coins symbolizes a family fortune. I didn’t get a great photo of this moment because it was absolute mayhem with a lot of kids’ hands chasing their dessert. In summary: Tingkepan is a lot of fun. The whole thing was a whirlwind that lasted about 15 minutes. Another 9 months from now, when their baby is seven months old, I’m told there’ll be another ceremony similar to this one. I can’t wait to meet this little babe!!


There’s been a lot going on lately, and I’m doing my best to document it all. Here is the mural that my host sister and her class created for the school anniversary. She’s so artsy, I love it. I didn’t get to vote on the best mural, but I would’ve picked this one. Also, shout out to mum back home—Happy birthday!! 🎈

Ulang Tahun Sekolah 11

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s