Volunteer in Java: A Homestay in West Java, Indonesia

Volunteer in Java: A Homestay in West Java, Indonesia

By Zoë Smith

Village Cianjur, West Java Indonesia. photos by Zoe Smith.
Village Cianjur, West Java Indonesia. photos by Zoe Smith.

I scoop the wrinkled, wind-beaten hand in mine and touch it lightly to my forehead as I bow my head. The old lady in front of me blushes and dips her head in reply, pressing a coconut into my hand. I duck back into the shadows and watch as the woman and her daughter feed tubes of bamboo into the oven and pour a thick, dark liquid into the pot above it.

This is the sap collected from the coconut trees; a sweet sugar that is boiled and reduced to produce the palm sugar blocks that sell like hot cakes at the local market. For us, it’s a pre-dinner treat, dribbling over slices of fresh coconut – delicious hot treacle that would make even the most hardened sugar-addict weak at the knees.

I am huddled, along with two other volunteers and our host, in a tiny bamboo hut and having trekked for an hour up the slippery, muddy rice paddies to get here, we are exhausted. The rice plantation is one of many in Cianjur, one of Indonesia’s principal rice growing regions, located in West Java.

It’s a sprawling region of tiered rice paddies, sloping tea plantations and lush green hills speckled with the bobbing heads of farm-workers in their conical hats. The few people in this room are the only westerners in town – participants in a local volunteer scheme that allows English-speakers to donate their time to local schools and, in return, experience firsthand the lifestyle of rural Indonesia.

A homestay with a heart

Working in the rice fields, helping the villagers.
Working in the rice fields, helping the villagers.

Irwan Kumis, a local teacher and tour guide, is the co-founder of the Volunteer in Java homestay scheme and one of several local hosts who offer a room and meals to visitors in exchange for a minimal sum of money and a heart full of enthusiasm. For him, it’s an opportunity to connect his students with English speakers and explore his own travel aspirations through his guests.

For volunteers like myself, it’s a gateway to a side of Indonesia that would be impossible to experience otherwise – a chance to sleep in a local, Indonesian-style house, sample fresh, home-cooked fare and socialize with a group of inquisitive and friendly young Indonesians.

From the early-hour call of the muezzin that draws the locals to prayer, to the fresh heaps of papaya, pineapple and sweet green tea that appear as soon as I drag myself out of bed, this is an experience that drags you headfirst into the local lifestyle. I scoop cool water from the mandi to wash, snack on sweet rice crackers and munch through more parcels of sticky rice than I care to remember.

Inside the bamboo sugar hut where the palm products are made.
Inside the bamboo sugar hut where the palm products are made.

I learn Bahasa phrases from Indonesian pop songs with one of our local guides, barter for handfuls of galingale at the local food market and cling unsteadily to the back of my host’s motorcycle as we navigate the zooming traffic.

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In the evenings I join my host at the local bar where he sneaks a few sips of beer into our soda glasses beneath the table and we watch a live band sing American pop songs for our benefit. In short, this is anything but a package holiday.

Giving something back

The homestay counts cultural exchange high on it’s list of priorities and visiting the local schools provides a way for local children to gain a real insight into the western lifestyles that they so often idolize. During my stay I hold basic question and answer classes with the younger students and conversational classes with the older teenagers who impress me time and time again with their astute observations, cheeky sense of humor and remarkable grasp of the English language.

Working in the flooded rice paddies.
Working in the flooded rice paddies.

The classes are easy and fun, aided by local teachers where necessary so there’s ample opportunity for both experienced teachers and first-timers to get involved and make a contribution. At the end of our class, I am accosted for photographs and Facebook addresses and I’m even dragged to the local fast food haunt with some of the girls. They convince me to try their favorite snack – delicious thick buttery pancakes oozing with chocolate and cheese (yes, cheese!), a bizarre yet surprisingly delicious treat.

Cianjur: the lost city of West Java

It’s not all about the volunteering though. Kumis has ensured his scheme stays small and flexible enough to allow his guests the freedom of creating their own schedules. In essence, you can ‘work’ as little or as much as you want and be as busy or as undisturbed as you wish.

He’s similarly flexible with the length of your stay – some guests have stayed little more than a weekend, others for months on end. For the majority, a few mornings teaching in the schools and a few days exploring the sights is a fair compromise.

In spite of its mere paragraph in the Lonely Planet, Cianjur has a horde of sights to offer the inquisitive traveler from sprawling botanical gardens to remote floating fishing villages to visiting a local tea plantation and exploring the factory where the leaves are dried, pressed and crushed.

lunch of rice porridge in West Java.
lunch of rice porridge in West Java.

I even had the opportunity to accompany one of our guides to his home village, a sprawling neighborhood of rickety bamboo structures adorned with satellite dishes, where the locals posed excitedly for photos with me, cooked up a delicious spread of local dishes and insisted that I catch my own fish for dinner, a task that proved much harder than it sounds.

I even got the chance to help out in the rice fields for a morning, an experience that found me knee deep in squelchy mud and shaded beneath a conical hat, undertaking some of the most back-crippling and sweat-inducing work I’ve ever attempted! Not one for the weak-hearted, but an unmissable insight into the work of the awe-inspiring local women.

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A new perspective on Indonesia

And so, after a week that has somehow seemed endless and far-too-short all at the same time, I find myself on the final excursion of my stay, the taste of the palm sugar still tickling the back of my throat as I await our home-cooked lunch. We sit cross-legged on tatami mats as a cluster of heaped dishes are laid out around us – rice steamed in banana leaves, caramelized tempe with hot chilli spices, a tower of stir-fried vegetables dripping with sweet soy.

Irwan Kumis, center, a local teacher and tour guide, is the co-founder of the Volunteer in Java homestay scheme.

From between the slats of bamboo a dozen charcoal eyes are watching us, darting from our pale, chubby arms to our fair hair. I catch the eye of a boy no older than 10 and raise my hand to wave to him.

There is a shuffling and a chorus giggles as the kids scurry around the side of the building. The boy steps up to the door, tripping into the room as his friends push him ahead and peer nervously over his shoulders.

He blushes furiously and bows to me. “Hello, miss” he grins, tugging at the frayed hem of his shorts. The girls behind him cower shyly beneath their headscarves, whispering in rapid Bahasa to the nominated speaker.

“Do you have Facebook?” he asks quickly and I can’t help but laugh. Indonesia, for all its religious heritage and traditional practices, still has one foot very firmly in the modern world.

Zoe SmithZoë Smith is an ESL teacher, NGO worker and writer currently based in Australia. She is also the winner of the 2011 World Nomads/Rough Guides Travel Writing Scholarship.

Volunteer In Java (email) offers guests the chance to stay in a homestay environment in Kampung, a small neighborhood of Cianjur, West Java. All homestays are with English speakers and include accommodation, 3 meals a day and unlimited Internet and laundry services for 75,000 rupiahs a day (at the time of writing around US$8-9). Some tours may incur an extra cost for fuel.


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