I wanted a different kind of holiday. I was 65. My funds were limited. I was travelling solo and I wanted an adventure. I decided to spend 6 weeks teaching English to high school students in Bali. I checked out volunteer organisations, signed up and headed off with an Indonesian for Dummies book in my back pack.
I knew Bali quite well and had been to Ubud many times. Ubud, in central Bali is surrounded by rice paddies and the artistic heart of the island. It has changed a lot in the years I have been going to Bali- traffic chaos, tourist mayhem and rubbish a real problem. But take a walk 2 streets back from Jalan Raya and you see the postcard Bali of terraced rice fields, sleepy villages and warm and friendly people. I was staying in a homestay in the village of Penestanan just outside Ubud. I made a new friend in Nyoman, the taxi driving university student who drove me into the village.
Balinese families live in family compounds. Mum and dad in one house and members of the extended family in different houses in the same compound. Scrawny chickens scramble underfoot, lazy dogs seek the shade and children safely play around the family shrine and grounds. The homestay was in one of the traditional family compounds. The teachers’ house accommodated around 10 volunteers, mostly university students from North America and Europe. No teaching qualifications were necessary and it’s a very cheap way to live abroad for 3 months. I also met Roselyn, a 60 year old woman from New York who rented out her apartment for 6 months of the year and spent those months living in Asia cheaply and happily.
I arrived at the teachers’ house late one evening. The gaggle of 20 year old Uni. students from US, Europe, Canada, and UK asked if I was here to visit my son or daughter. Once we’d established that I was their new house mate there were a few shocked looks and a scurrying to clean up the house. I was offered a room to myself with no bunk beds. The Balinese family too adjusted to their guest being “nenek” (grandma) or Ibu.
We student teachers had 3 days of orientation. Bahasa Indonesian language classes (rote learning), an information session on culture, customs and a cooking workshop. My favourite though, was a morning spent making bamboo sacred flower baskets. These are offerings to the Gods that you see on every street corner, temple and shrine. Each flower has a special significance and the placement of the flowers in a north or south position is also ritualised.
The mornings were ours. My house mates went to Ubud for wheatgrass smoothies and tattoos, while I walked the rice paddies, drank great coffee and chatted to locals. At noon we climbed into the minivan that drove us to school in the neighbouring village. My class was a group of 40 students aged between14-17. Afternoon class, the classes taught by overseas students were not compulsory. The principal called by to introduce himself and explain I need to teach grammar- past participles. Ok..Not a problem except I hadn’t a clue what that meant. The students had no books and pencils, paper and chairs were shared around. I had one piece of chalk and a blackboard.
My 15 years teaching experience had not prepared me for working in 33 degrees, 96% humidity, and no aircon. classrooms. Most days I looked like a melted candle. The beautiful students sat smiling and serene as I dripped before their eyes. I was told there would be a drop off in numbers as the days went by…..didn’t happen…. I had up to 50 students some days as students bought their brothers and sisters to see this curious specimen of a melting nenek.
I had to innovate. These students were in their final school year and were looking for jobs in hospitality. Abandoning all hope of teaching grammar, I struggled through the class and then went to see my new friend Nyoman. In Denpasar I raided the stationers and bought boxes of supplies- a book for each student, pencils and coloured paper, scissors, glue etc. Masses of bags and boxes carried to the car. Think Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts with her shopping splurge on Rodeo drive. This spurge cost a total of $45! A local café whose patrons are Europeans loaned cutlery, serviettes, plates and glasses. They were happy to help as they were renovating.
Next day the adventure began. Nyoman helped me cart supplies into the classroom. I had found one student with a very good command of English. She was my translator. I had decided these aspiring hospitality students would set up a pretend restaurant! Desks were rearranged, paper became tablecloths. We learned how to use and name cutlery (Balinese eat with their fingers) and we made menus. We even dealt with difficult customers who complained about spicy food. We had so much fun. The principal meanwhile looked aghast. But he could see the students having fun and learning. They invited him to the “restaurant” to have pretend lunch served by the students. He just smiled when he saw me and always liked to drop into the classroom to see what mayhem I’d created. The students were very polite and absolutely lovely to work with.
Back at the homestay I was becoming resident counsellor and mum to stray students but the lack of aircon, endless noodle meals and late nights were wearing me out. I decided to move to a guest house with a pool, in the middle of the village and complete my 6 weeks teaching in comfort.
This was one of the most memorable, least expensive and happiest experiences of my life. It was hugely rewarding and I return to the village and the school frequently.
Volunteering overseas can take many forms- health related, building, environmental work, working on village projects. There are volunteer organisations who can organise your trip for a modest fee. It’s hugely rewarding, helps shake out your thinking about what life is all about and I became very fit and healthy during those 6 weeks. Have you been on volunteer holidays? We’d love to hear about your experience.