My name is ZheWei, and this summer I volunteered with the International Humanity Foundation’s Work-Study program at their center in Jakarta, Indonesia. I came to Jakarta not knowing what to expect. It was my first time in Indonesia, and I was on my own. In the days leading up to my flight, I went from being mildly excited about the affair to feeling a strong sense of trepidation. I realized that there was a high chance that I would not like it there and that I might be in for a difficult time. Little did I know, I was in for a great surprise.
More than what it seems
At first glance, Jakarta was just another bustling city, no different from any other that I have been to. And if you were just a passing visitor, that is probably what you would get. But, in my weeks here volunteering with the International Humanity Foundation (IHF), I have experienced a side of Jakarta that I would not have thought existed. Behind the façade of the city landscape, Jakarta was more than just fancy malls and international brand names – it was a city that was incredibly diverse and complex, both in terms of its people and its culture.
As an international volunteer, I lived at the IHF center with the co-directors, all of whom are also volunteers. I was pleasantly surprised that they were all from different parts of the world – Jamaica, China, Canada and the United States. All of them have travelled a fair distance from their homes for the same cause – to contribute to children’s education in Indonesia. It was delightful to learn about the different cultures they came from – read: chilling to reggae and learning the Electric Slide – while simultaneously immersing myself in the rich local culture.
Meeting the people
We lived in a residential area, where there were hardly any tourists or expatriates around. It looked like any other middle class neighbourhood, with spacious, if not large, houses. It was only when we ventured down one of the unsuspecting alleys in between those houses that we discovered a whole network of small alleyways that were lined with rows upon rows of dense housing. The alleyways were often too small to let more than one motorcycle through at a time. As we wandered around giving out fliers for the classes at the centre, we met with dead ends, wrong turns, but more often than not, welcoming faces.
As we walked around, groups of children trailed after us. They laughed and played, pointing us in the right direction when we started going in circles. At first, the thought of approaching strangers in dark, damp alleys was intimidating, but the presence of the children and their buoyant laughter lightened the atmosphere. Before long, I was chatting comfortably with eager parents about the program that we were running at the IHF. I knew then that I would surely miss the little alleys of Jakarta.
Learning through teaching
What I enjoyed most, however, were my classes with the students. I taught some of the mathematics and aflatoun (life skills) classes at the center. Seeing that I was a new face, some of the students were initially wary and reserved. It took some coaxing to get them to come out of their shells. But, after a while, they started telling me about their families, their hobbies and their trips back to the village, smiling and giggling as they did. I did the same, speaking in my awkward mix of Malay and Indonesian, while they laughed at my choice of words and bad grammar. Hanging out with the children, talking to them and playing with them, reminded me why I was here in Jakarta. Even though some of them could be terribly headstrong sometimes, their unabashedly cheerful smiles were enough to cure the worst of days.
A smorgasbord of sights, sounds and flavours
Staying at the IHF center in Jakarta also allowed me to see some of the local sights on my days off. Kota Tua (Old Town) in Jakarta, is host to an array of museums, covering a range of Indonesian culture and history. Another local attraction, Taman Mini Indah Indonesia (Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature Park), boasts intricate replications of traditional dwellings from all over Indonesia, ranging from the horn-shaped roofs of the Southern Sulawesi dwellings to the dome-shaped huts of the Papua region. The park also features a Bird Park, beautiful gardens and a variety of museums.
Other than the local sights in the town, Jakarta is just a train ride or a cheap flight away from places like the breathtaking natural sceneries in Lombok, the historical monuments in Yogyakarta, and the lovely beaches in Bali. For the adventurous thrill seeker, there is the option of scaling live volcanoes such as Mount Rinjani or Merapi, while history buffs would definitely enjoy exploring the beautiful Borobudur or Prambanan temples. One thing is for sure – there is no shortage of things to do in Indonesia.
Indonesian cuisine is also a wonder in itself. The range of flavors and smells can surprise even the most skeptical foodie. There are a thousand and one ways to cook tempeh, a fermented bean cake that is a staple in this region. One of the locals I met here also introduced me to nasi bebek. The delightful duck and rice combo is so spicy, you wouldn’t know what hit you. However, my absolute favorite is still the soto ayam, which is available at one of the hawker stalls near the IHF center. Add just a hint of lime to the rich, spicy chicken broth, and you will get the ultimate comfort food; perfect for a cold, rainy day.
Why I volunteer
Volunteering with the IHF has helped me experience a different side of Jakarta. I have learnt more about the city than I ever could through sightseeing and walking down the same paths as every other traveller. Best of all, I have forged friendships with some of the people who make this city what it is. Looking back at the past few weeks, I am really glad that I chose to spend my summer volunteering in the bustling city of Jakarta.