A Week in Lombok

For some context, read my previous post on the Recreation and Health co-op I’m doing in Ubud, Bali. 

A few weeks ago I found myself with an unexpected opportunity: for just $40 Canadian for a ferry ticket and a click of a button, we could go to Lombok, Indonesia for a week to volunteer. In Lombok, we would be teaching kids who’d never had foreign volunteers teach them before.

To give some context, the Bali program sees almost 120 new volunteers come through in a week in the peak of summer. Our organization, Green Lion, tends to stick with the same schools for many months, meaning that one class of children may see dozens of volunteers per year, especially since most volunteers often only stay for around two weeks. In contrast, Lombok’s program was an infant, and the potential to make a big impact was large.

And yet, typical Ali, I found myself struggling with the decision. Leaving my class of fifth graders for a week seemed irresponsible, as I had committed to teaching them for the rest of my time in Bali. I took my project very seriously, and if I was going to go to Lombok, I wanted to make sure that I would still have enough time to teach my kids in Bali everything that I thought was important for them to know.

After reviewing what was left of my curriculum, and realizing that I had more than enough time to cover it in the weeks remaining, I said yes to Lombok. Two days later, and three of my Bali best friends and I hopped on a small boat, sailing across the Indian ocean to the mysterious Lombok.

Lombok is often described as being like Bali was fifteen years ago. Essentially, it has far fewer tourists, people speak less English, it has greater poverty and is garbage-ridden, its nature is untrammeled, and it’s difficult to get around.

However, the same pure natural beauty exists in Lombok as it does in Bali, and I found myself wishing I had more time to hike its waterfalls and surf its beaches. Notably, Lombok was also Muslim, in opposition to Bali’s Hinduism. Instead of the bamboo-leaf offerings we were used to seeing on everyone’s doorsteps, it was shocking to see Indonesian women as young as three years old dressed in the hijab, or hear the call to prayer five times a day from the Mosques. It was so interesting to learn about the Muslim culture from my friend Kaoutar, a fellow volunteer and Muslim from Morocco. She noted many interesting disparities between the religion of her home country and Lombok.

Because the Lombok program is so new (i.e., you can’t even sign up for it yet), there were no volunteer accommodations or food services. We were put up in a strange but basic homestay in the middle of a concrete alleyway, near the town of Senggigi. There was no hot water, but there was AC(!!!!) and better wifi than in Ubud, so we considered that a win.

Our coordinators brought us take-out food from local Lombok restaurants, and we toyed between having far too much food, far too little food, or far too spicy food. It was a strange week for my stomach, and we ended up eating a startling amount of peanut butter, and too many coconut oreos (yes, those are a thing).

Details aside, Monday morning came and it was time for our projects to start. We were driven to the school on the back of our coordinators’ motorcycles (with no helmets, might I add). This struck me as infinitely humorous, as before I became a volunteer I’d been forced to sign a document that assured the organization that I would not ride a motorcycle for the course of my trip.

We turned down a small alley-way, hardly wide enough to fit a smart car. Teetering through, we arrived in a small shanty-town. My coordinator, Andy, led me through a doorway to the “homeschool,” informing me that since the power was out, he was unable to copy my worksheets for me.

Left with the shock of realizing I had no material with which to teach my new students, I looked up to see that my new, cute “kids,” whom I’d hoped to play “heads, shoulders, knees and toes” with, were in fact old. Really old. Like, actual teenagers. Sixteen.

I found my face flushing, the bit of teenager left in me feeling self-conscious. It was one thing to teach ten year olds, but teenagers can be ruthless with their judgement, and I felt my guard go up. Over the next few minutes, it dissolved.

My group of twenty 16 year olds positively beamed at me and Dominique, with our blonde hair and blue/green eyes, walking into their classroom in their village. I felt a bit like a celebrity, instantly realizing the impact we could have here. I was so excited. We went back that night and compiled a list of topics we thought it would be most important for them to learn in a week: the names of body parts, the organs and their functions, the effects of smoking and alcohol, first aid and helmet safety, and nutrition.

On the second day, the sky screamed and drenched us with buckets of water. At the end of our class time, there was no way for us to head back on the scooters, so we spent an hour sitting with our kids, awkwardly trying to communicate with our broken Bahasa and their broken English.

They had a lot of questions for us, and I did my best, mostly just smiling a lot. They showed us their puppets and traditional instruments, and one of my most eager students, Danni Marley “I am like music reggae,” invited us to his house the next day. “I want to show you wood carving,” he said. Unsure, I nodded, eager for the cultural experience.

The next day at break time, our class paraded us around their small shanty-town, introducing us to their shy uncles and grandmothers, who shook our hands and beamed but could not speak a drop of English. I watched six year old children dive head first into their chocolate-brown river, swimming through pieces of trash. “Bath time,” one of them said. The houses were tiny, and best described as shacks, lacking much of anything at all. They were dirty and open-air, but every family had its own temple.

Proud, Danni Marley led us into his own house, where we sat in his family temple. His grandmother made us “traditional Lombok coffee,” and was pleased to meet us. Everyone gathered around us, just watching. The coffee was delicious (because it was extremely sugary), and Dominique and I shared unsure glances, taking in the moment. I walked back to class with a lump in my throat. They had nothing. Almost, absolutely nothing, and we had so little to give.

In Indonesia, the government pays for school up until the end of middle school. After that, students who can’t afford to go to school don’t, leaving many teenagers without proper education. The school I volunteered at this week was a homeschool organization, set up to give some of these kids who couldn’t afford real school an education. Our class’s English was scarce, but they were just so eager to learn. They zipped through every work sheet, laboured over pronouncing “emergency,” or “intestine.” I savoured their smiles and hoped they would remember the things I taught them.

Our last day came too soon. We had stopped at the school supply store, stocking up on notebooks, erasers, pencils, pencils and a class set of markers for our kids. The girls tied bracelet after bracelet to my wrist, leaving it heavy and off balance to the other one. The goodbye was strained; I didn’t know how to convey all that I felt.

We said nothing on the scooter ride home, and when we got home I cried. The guilt of my own privilege welled up inside me. What would happen to my kids? Sweet Cici, the first to answer every question, or Izi Marley, with his slow smile. They were so young and yet they would have maybe 1/20 of the opportunities in their lifetimes as I would have in mine. The injustice of it was startling, to see it so close up. I knew that they were likely better off for the week of class that they’d had with me, but just one week seemed so little to give.

At the end of the week, I hopped back on the ferry with a heavy heart, but a greater sense of purpose. Despite the guilt of not staying longer, I knew that I was trying my best, trying to do something good. Something important. In fact, it was exactly what I came here for.

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