What Does It Mean To Be Poor In America?

In June, I got the opportunity to be included a meeting with the high school headmasters (principals) of Ogan Ilir Department of Education in Indonesia. The meeting, attended by approximately 55 people, introduced the New Curriculum 2013 for Indonesia. An emphasis was placed on the roles principals must serve in ensuring their schools and students are successful. At the end of the meeting, the principals asked Lauren and me questions about education and life in America.

The gentleman who posed the most important question of the day.

One headmaster acknowledged that TV portrays America as being a very rich country and this view of America resounds around the globe. And so he asked, “What does it mean to be poor in America?”

My fellow teacher and my responses were not taken seriously. The principals had a difficult time believing there are people in America who are homeless and starving. They seemed unmoved when we told them that in many instances, the lunch at school is the only meal a child may eat. There were mumbles of disagreement when we said that in America, there are people who have may not have running water or electricity at home.

To them, our American responses were unbelievable. And although we were slightly offended by their reactions, I have to ask, “Should Americans feel guilty when we compare our quality of life to millions of others around the globe?”

During my experience in Indonesia, only the hotels had running water. The other places gained access to water from nearby wells, rivers, lakes, or even puddles of water on the side of the road. I witnessed the same water source being used to bathe and wash clothes. Too often, I saw children and men cast their fishing lines in water covered by tons of trash. I can count on one hand the number of times I saw soap easily accessible to wash your hands. We swatted flies and bugs away from our food as we ate and our utensils were most likely washed in water from the wells or rivers, thus repeating a continuous cycle of lack of sanitation.

This is everyday life in many parts of the country. While people were excited to see Americans, at the same time, they despised us. I am not quite sure how I feel about their views of us. People have no control over where they are born or the situations in which they were born into. But, I am glad I got to experience a lifestyle which was totally different from my own.

Here are a few photos.

I want to emphasis that not everyone in Indonesia lives in these conditions. I was stationed in a very rural area of the country so my views and photos are representative of what I saw. Other members of my program were stationed in more developed areas of the country and their experience is very different from mine.


The Ogan River. We crossed this river daily to get to our host school. The river is the main source of life for the village. Here you can see villagers playing, washing clothes, and bathing.


Some of the local kids followed us to the river. A couple of the kids were in the middle of their baths.


This was the view as we walked to the mall near our hotel in Jakarta.


One of the houses near our host school.



If I Can Just Touch The Hem Of Your Garment

During our time in Indonesia we were introduced to several people who were kind enough to show us around. One of those experiences was surreal. Lauren and I were taken to an elementary school graduation where the crowd was nothing like I have ever seen before. I would guess that several villages were in attendance- probably in the ballpark of 400-600 people. As soon as my American travel partner and I stepped out of the SUV, we were swarmed. Young children, older children, mothers, grandparents…all wanted a chance to shake our hands or touch us. It was similar to any live footage you’ve seen of Michael Jackson trying to get to a stage to perform. I don’t even believe I’ve seen Beyonce’s fans so aggressive to touch her. And while my comparison to Michael Jackson and Beyonce may seem unreal, I am not exaggerating.


A small sampling of the crowd that was seated under the tent. There were hundreds more standing up along the perimeter of the tent. You can also see the our seats on the front row are quite fancy compared to the others.

Instantly, several of the guys in the village began to serve as security and helped part the crowd so we could make it to our seats. We were introduced as honored guests and there was a sudden change in the program. Instead of the principal presenting the students with their graduating certificates and giving a short speech, Lauren and I would be doing that.

As a part of the ceremony, five young students performed a traditional dance.



We were able to see a small part of it because people were steadily tip toeing to the front row to snap photos of us.


The guy who was recording the ceremony neglected the children and instead made Lauren and me focal points of the video. Even as the head of the school district and the principal gave speeches, the cameraman didn’t move an inch from recording Lauren and me. The performers and the students all faded into the backdrop.

As the program came to an end, we were rushed to a back gate that led to an unfamiliar route. Down the road was a house where food was waiting for us. Before we could make it there, the crowd swarmed us again. “Keep moving, Jacqueline. Do not shake hands. Push through the crowd!” Agustina, my host teacher told me. I tried but I couldn’t. The women and kids nearly fought over the chance to grab my hand, to shake it, or put it to their face and kiss it. When they couldn’t shake our hands, they pushed through the crowd hoping their babies would be fortunate enough to touch us. It was truly unbelievable. We had to be escorted out down a small alley to a place where the car was waiting for us so we could make a quick escape.

I truly did not understand the crowd’s fixation with us…to touch us…to hear us speak. By their actions, you would have thought Lauren and I were gods. I was deeply troubled by this. Especially because I knew back home, I was just an ordinary person who was no better or any worse than anyone else on this planet.

How is it that European and American cultures have had such a profound influence over the rest of the word that these people would see us as being of such a high statue? Or maybe, as the American, I am the one with the warped view of the world. Maybe because of my easy access to books, TV, and education I have grown numb and uninterested in the rest of the world. Maybe it is I who needs a reality check, not them.


I Love My Host Family

I appreciate my Indonesian host family. Yes, there are Muslim. Yes, their village had electricity only in the evenings. There was no running water and it was dreadfully hot each day. But, I preferred staying with them in their village than in the bustling city. Because Americans are such a rarity in that part of the country, Lauren and I were constantly the center of unpleasant attention when in the city. Although the presence of Americans is even more uncommon in the village, the villagers did not make us feel like outcasts or superstars. Even though they were curious, they sought permission to ask us personal questions. For example, several of the ladies in the village asked me if my hair was authentic and they often wanted to know if we grew rice in Mississippi.

My host family is composed of 5 people. The mother is fifty years old. She gets up every morning and sweeps the trash from the yard into a pile and burns it. Then, she washes the family’s clothes and hangs them out to dry. She ensures the family’s chickens, ducks, cats, and goose is fed. Once her early morning chores are complete, she works in the family’s rice paddy. Deta is the oldest daughter. She is a teacher at our host school. She wakes up early each morning to cook breakfast for us and the family. Regita, the youngest daughter, is an adorable 16 year old girl. She was more like a big sister to us because she always looked out for us and took such good care of us. Each night she hung mosquito netting over our bed and took it down before leaving for school each morning. There is a son, Topan, who worked in the city and another sibling who had a baby named, Bintang, which is Indonesian for star. Regita is the only one who speaks English but, she prefers the help of an electronic translator to communicate effectively with us.

Part of my host family. From L to R: Deta, the mother, me, and the father.

Part of my host family. From L to R: Regita, the mother, me, and the father.

During our first day in the village, the family moved all the furniture from the front room. They were preparing a dual program- one to honor us and one to thank Allah because their son survived a motorcycle accident. The mother had been cooking most of the day.

An hour before the start of the program, the father began writing several speeches. Slowly the house began to fill with visitors.  Men congregated in one room, women in the other. That is the standard for traditional Muslim worshipping. Lauren and I were allowed to sit in a corner of the men’s room because they wanted to look at the Americans. It felt weird being in the room with the men because I knew from my readings that it is not usually accepted. I couldn’t help but wonder what the women might have said about us as we sat in the presence of men.

Lauren and I with other family members. As you can see, my oily skin was not fairing well. You would be surprised how comfortable you could be when covered from head to ankles in a tropical region.

I was so grateful that my travel group was given an orientation on Indonesia and Islam before we traveled to the village. Because of the orientation, I was not caught off guard by a lot of the religious customs and the local traditions. Regita coordinated everything so that all of us would have ample time to bathe prior to the program. She reminded us that the women would need to be covered from neck to ankle and showed me how to position the scarf on my head so it would look similar to a hijab.

I didn’t understand anything said in the program. It was all spoken in Bahasa Indonesian or Arabic. I was shocked that the family had their own microphone and amplification system. Speakers were set up on the front porch to allow the entire village to hear the program. There was a speech to honor us and one for the brother. Men read passages from the Quran and there was a song that lasted about thirty minutes.

By the time the program was over, most of the people from the village were in the front yard. I guess you could say they were the overflow crowd. Every one of them welcomed us, talked with us, and shared wonderful food with us. It was one of the most prestigious welcomes I have ever been given.


People around the world are similar in so many ways. During the day, the women sat around talking as they prepared the food for the program. The kids played in the yard and everyone was so happy.


This is where the men hung out each day. But they would gladly give up their seats so the ladies could get a little shade while drinking something cool.


We took tons of photos after the program was over. I just wish I would have powdered my face a little. 🙂


Me and Deta. She is one of the teachers at our host school.


The most adorable host sister in the whole.

Michael Jackson is the Capital of Mississippi

SMPN 3 is the middle school that hosted Lauren and me while we were in Indonesia. The school is located in a small rural village in Ogan Ilir.

My host school, SMPN 3.

During our time there, it was very refreshing to interact with students who were extremely grateful to be at school. Each morning, they lined up one by one to greet their teacher with a traditional gesture of respect- kissing the teacher’s hand and then placing the teacher’s hand to their forehand.

Students also swept outside, in front of the classroom.

The students, who arrived to school early, prepared the classroom by ensuring the desks were in order and the floors were swept. This was done each morning before the teachers arrived. The students’ shoes were always lined up along the exterior of the building. It is Muslim tradition to refrain from wearing shoes in houses, mosques, and parts of some buildings. I asked my host how would we know when to take our shoes off and when to leave them on. She said, “If the floor is tiled, you must take your shoes off. If the floor is concrete, you can leave your shoes on.” The teacher was the only one allowed to wear her shoes on the tiled classroom floors.

During our first day at the school, Lauren and I observed a seventh grade math class and a sixth grade class that was learning to speak English. Because it is rare to have a native English speaker in that part of the country, the students were excited to practice their English with us. The children excitedly asked about our favorite foods, sports, colors and questions about American culture.

Afterwards, we played traditional games. If someone lost the game, they had to do something silly such as dance with the teacher or sing a song. I lost one of the games and had to sing a song. I struggled to think of a song that the students would know, so I ended up singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

We played another traditional game with the older students in the next class. One of the girls lost and instead of dancing or singing, she had to answer the question, “What is the capital of the United States?” She did not know the answer so Lauren told her. I told her the capital cities of New York and Mississippi. We continued playing traditional games and enjoying each other’s company.

When it was time to leave, their teacher, Agustina, reviewed all the things the students learned in class that day. As any good teacher would, she called on the same student who lost the game earlier. Agustina asked the girl what was the capital city of Mississippi. The student thought really hard for a minute and said, “ Oh, I know… Michael Jackson is the capital of Mississippi.”


Don’t Carry Your Dog To Indonesia In Your Left Hand

dog photo indonesia1

For my trip to Indonesia, I’d planned to create a photo book about my school, my city, family, and other interesting talking points about America. The lost dog I took in three years ago is definitely a part of my family and I planned to share photos of her… until I read a chapter on pollution as it relates to Islam and Islamic duties. It turns out that my dog is seen as a source of pollution. My left hand is also a pollutant. If I were to carry my dog around Indonesia in my left hand, that would be seen as a double whammy in the eyes of Muhammad.

There are two major forms of pollution as it relates to Islam. Najasa is pollution caused by external factors and hadath is caused by one’s engagement in certain activities. Coming in close contact with a discharge from a dog is considered very impure and would require me to clean myself seven times to remove the najasa. And as for me carrying her around… In many Asian cultures (where Islam was founded), the left hand is used to wipe oneself after using the restroom. Because of this, you should not touch anyone or pass them an item with the left hand. That hand is symbolically unclean and to use it during your interactions with others is considered an insult. But when you know better, you do better. The more we know about each other and our diverse cultures, the more tolerant and understanding we become in regard to the differences that exist among us. Therefore, I will continue reading about Islam to learn that I should not brag about my dog, know why I should remove my shoes before entering a mosque, and expect that mostly everyone around me who is Muslim will perform the salat (ritual prayer service) five times a day.

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The Costs of Getting Around Indonesia

When I first arrived in Indonesia, I exchanged my American dollars for rupiah (the Indonesian currency). The exchange rate on average is 9,900 rupiah for every American dollar. Here were a few of my expenses from the trip:
Indonesian Currency (rupiah)

Indonesian Currency (rupiah)

In Jakarta (the capital city):
Side of view of my hotel room at the Mercure Hotel in Jakarta.

Side of view of my hotel room at the Mercure Hotel in Jakarta.

  • 5 days, 4 nights at a U.S. standard, fancy hotel
    • 4.3 million rupiah ($430 American dollars or $107.50 a night)
In Palembang (capital city of the South Sumatra province):
  • 1 night in a low budget hotel. You will have to tolerate the  roaches that might crawl around, stained sheets, and giant lizards racing across your wall.
    • 400,000 rupiah ($40 a night)
Ogan Ilir (a smaller city in South Sumatra):
  • One 250ml Coke
    • 11,400 rupiah (57 cents)
  • A hired driver to take us to meet the head of Ogan Ilir Education Department
    • 10,000 rupiah ($1 for the 20 minute ride)

  • One way moped ride to the traditional market
    • 3,000 rupiah (30 cents for 15 min ride on the back of the moped)
The locals call this boat "quak quake" because of the loud clacking noise the motor makes. It sounded like the motor of a lawn mower attached to the boat.

The locals call this boat “clack clack” because of the loud clacking noise the motor makes. It sounded like the motor of a lawn mower attached to the boat.

  • 15 minute boat ride from the village where my host family lived to the village where the school was located
    • 5,000 rupiah (50 cents)
Although we were asked a few times about the pay for American teachers and administrators, I failed to ask them what was the typical pay for an educator in Indonesia. I am curious to see how the two compare.
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When Living in a Fishing Village…

I have spent a lot of time in Palembang which is on the Musi River. While staying in the village in Ogan Ilir, the banks of the Ogan River was just a brief walk from our host family’s house.

Not only do these rivers serve as the main source of water for bathing and washing clothes, they also serve as the main food source. I thought I was a seafood and fish lover until I spent 10 days with majority of my food coming from these rivers. I have been offered every kind of fish from these rivers, cooked every kind of way. My plate has been filled with fish of all sizes, fish guts, butts, and even fish eggs. Remember the scene in Forest Gump when Bubba named all those different kinds of shrimp dishes. If I were taking notes, I could easily do that with fish. I’ve had fish soup, fish pasta, even fish chips made from the tails. After 3 days, I had consumed enough fish to last a lifetime. I stopped asking about the names and ingredients of the fish dishes but, I continued to snap photos.

They take these little fish and put handfuls of them in a meat grinder and churn out a mush that is made into patties and placed in the sun to dry.


Small fish caught directly from the Ogan River.


A local villager churns the fish out of a meat grinder.

Once dried, they are cooked slowly over an open flame.

This was the final product. It tasted similarly to a rice cake but with more of a fishy taste. I probably would have eaten more of these throughout my visit if I hadn’t seen how they were made.

Small fish caught in the Ogan River and fried.

Obviously they didn’t get the memo. I am not a food adventurist and I DID NOT even attempt to taste the fish head.

Big fish or little fish, it doesn’t matter. If it is looking at me, I am not going to eat it.

We went into this restaurant’s kitchen to see how one of the traditional fish dishes was made. This is called pempek. Fish is ground up to a pulp, mixed with a local brand of flour, rolled into a ball, and boiled.

I got to make this kind which was filled with egg yolks before it is cooked. Unfortunately, I didn’t really like pempek and I began to notice that washing hands with only water was the standard when handling food. This really affected my views of eating in the country especially since using toilet tissue is not common but more of a luxury. Traditionally, the left hand is used to clean oneself after using the restroom. Knowing that and seeing a lack of soap, my stomach dropped each time I was offered food. But, it is their custom to constantly offer guests something to eat. One day, within a 5 hour period, I was offered full meals on 7 different occasions.

Pictured here is pempek salad, pempek soup, and pempek pasta. In the green bowl is a pempek made with only the skin of fish.

This fish soup is typically served over rice. The principal of the school in the village cooked it for us.

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