An Expat among Expats: Life as a Teacher in Makassar, Indonesia
The prospect of working abroad can be a nerve-wracking and anxiety-inducing experience for a lot of people. Uprooting one’s life and leaving behind a support base of family and friends is a life-changing decision, but one which my girlfriend and I decided to make in the summer of 2013. After completing our 120 hour TEFL certificate we immediately began the job hunt. Ever ready for new experiences, we decided to look at teaching in Indonesia, as we had already traveled around much of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. We were rewarded with two early morning Skype interviews, one for positions in Solo, Java; the other for positions in Makassar, Sulawesi. The latter city we knew nothing about, apart from reading Lonely Planet’s description of it being an “unnerving place”. After much deliberation, we decided to go for the path least trodden, despite the fact that the school, Fluo Institute, had no website and very little online presence. So it was with TEFL certificates in hand, slight trepidation and much praying that it wasn’t a scam, that we left rainy old England at the beginning of 2014 for a year’s long teaching contract in Makassar. It would turn out to be the best decision of our lives.
Wet season was in full swing as we landed at midnight at Sultan Hasanuddin airport, Makassar, and continued incessantly for our first two days in the city. Welcome to the tropics! As we collected our luggage and exited the airport, we hesitantly searched for the Director of Studies of the school, with only a Skype image of him to go on, whilst numerous taxi drivers crowded around, shouting a cacophony of prices at us. Eventually he arrived and took us to our new home for the next year. Our first glimpse of the city was through the pouring rain and misted taxi windows, through which we were greeted with dark, foreboding alleyways, neon lights reflecting in pool-wide puddles and cavernous potholes. Not a great first impression and one which was about to get worse; Fluo Institute provides teachers with housing and we were told beforehand what it would be like, but nothing could have prepared us for what we faced; a small, unwelcoming ground floor house that had a grimy, outdoor kitchen, which flooded when it rained for long periods, a squat toilet and mandi for shower and on top of that an infestation of cockroaches, only half of which were already dead. It was basic to say the least! However, we soon made it homely after a period of cleaning and help from our circle of new friends who were willing to do anything to help us settle in. It’s fair to say that we would come to love the city not for the aesthetics, but for the community atmosphere and friendships we built with the expats living there.
With a population between 1.5 – 2 million, Makassar is the 10th largest city in Indonesia and certainly the largest on the island of Sulawesi. It is a sprawling mass of shacks, run-down buildings and potholed roads combined with modern day shopping malls, hotels and highways, making it a nightmare to drive around. The words ‘city planning’ are probably not in the Indonesian lexicon, such is the messiness of the layout. One-way roads cause traffic mayhem, pavements are non-existent and construction sites populate the city. This being the case, it is not unsurprising to hear that most tourists stay for one night only before heading up to Tana Toraja, home of the fascinating, funeral-based culture of the Torajan people. Thus they come away from Sulawesi with a negative or at least indifferent opinion of Makassar, which I completely understand. It’s a city not for the faint-hearted. However, when you actually live in the city and meet and socialize with the expats who live there, you begin to form an appreciation of the lifestyle they all have.
There are roughly 100 expats in Makassar from ‘western’ countries, that’s just .005% of the total population, making it a very close-knit community where almost everyone knows each other, and if you don’t know a “bule” (Indonesian term for westerner), you’ll promptly be introduced to them. This is a community of not only teachers, but also of people who work in travel, the hotel industry, coffee and the cocoa industry, making it a fantastic mix of personalities and backgrounds. Our first proper evening in Makassar was spent at the local expat bar with our new colleagues, where we met former teachers from Fluo Institute who had remained in the city even after their contract had finished, such was their enjoyment of the Makassar pace of life. This teaching group became a core part of our support base, but it was only the beginning of a social circle that grew and became like a family to us.
Makassar Hash House Harriers: for drinkers with a running problem
For our first weekend in Makassar, a mere couple of days after we had landed, still jetlagged and in culture shock, we were invited by one of our colleagues to the Makassar Hash House Harriers running community. We had never heard of the Hash, never heard of its grand tradition across South East Asia, so we turned up open minded and ready to embrace the opportunity to meet new people. We were rewarded with a smorgasbord of expats and locals, young and old, fit and unhealthy, the first timers like us and the veterans like the Hash Master. It was a kaleidoscope of personalities and nationalities, from those there for the social experience, the gossip and the beers, to those wanting to test their fitness, get some kilometers under their belt and release some energy. Regardless of their primary motives, the one thing we all had in common was the desire to get out of the polluted, crowded city, breathe in the fresh air of the Sulawesi countryside and enjoy life among friends old and new.
For those of you who have never experienced the Hash, it is a non-competitive, social running group formed in Malaysia in the late 1930s by British army officers and expatriates. They would meet up to run a traditional paper chase, otherwise known as ‘hare and hounds’, in which a paper trail is set by a ‘hare’ on the morning of the run and the ‘hounds’ must follow this trail to the final location. There are false trails, check-arounds and check-backs, all in order to keep the pack together, regardless of fitness levels – the front runners have to spend time finding the true trail, allowing the back markers to catch up. This style of running provides a great opportunity to explore the countryside and experience places you might not have otherwise seen. As a front runner, I would often be charged as a “blind runner”, as I was constantly looking around at the breathtaking scenery rather than searching for the paper trail. At the end of the run everybody partakes in the Hash circle, where arbitrary rewards and fines are handed out in the form of downing your own drink, or occasionally sitting on blocks of ice. It is also a chance to recognize individuals, such as newcomers and returnees, formally name members and provide news about upcoming Hash events. The beauty of Hash is its relaxed style, evidenced by its slogan “for drinkers with a running problem”, highlighting the fact that the social aspect is just as important as the exercise. The Makassar Hash formed in the 1970s and has a great heritage, of which old photos can be seen on the walls of Kios Semarang, the bar on the Makassar beachfront that serves as a meeting point for Hashers before and after a run. This became a Saturday afternoon tradition for us throughout our year in Makassar, as it was for most of our friends in the city. It was an event to look forward to, a catch up with acquaintances, a relaxing ice-cold beer as the sun set over the lush landscape of paddy fields, forests and beaches. By the end of the year, my girlfriend and I had both been hares twice and were endowed with formal Hash names, which we will now carry on to other Hashes around the world.
From my experience, the expat community in Makassar is underpinned by the Hash House Harriers running group. It is a weekly talking point among friends, a remembering of hilarious moments, a friendly rivalry between hares and a shared experience that provides the foundation for friendships. It offers the chance to meet locals and expats, swap numbers and expand ones social circle. For us, it was the perfect remedy for our culture shock. We were able to quickly embed ourselves in the Makassar lifestyle and create a friendship network that supported us at any turn; whether it be helping us get the motorbike serviced for a local price or simply showing us where to shop for certain products and the best restaurants to eat at. But for me, the most important function of the Makassar Hash is the escapism it provides the participants. For those living thousands of miles away from home, away from family and friends, it is a chance to switch off and live for the moment, to forget about our worries of faraway lands and to enjoy life in the now. Makassar is not an easy city to live in, with regards to traffic and general customer service; patience is needed in abundance when dealing with another incompetent waiter, or another unlicensed, lunatic driver. So when the weekend arrives, with the promise of a good Hash run to come, it is a chance to let off steam, enjoy the sun filled day and appreciate the opportunities we have been given. We will never forget our Hash experiences and the paths it opened for us, and as I look now at photos from last week’s Makassar Hash, I yearn to be there, caked in mud, among friends with the sun on my face and a chilled Bintang in my hand.
I have been waxing lyrical about our expat friends in the city, but it would be remiss of me to exclude mention of all our local Indonesian friends that supported us with their cultural knowledge, infectious laughter and a generosity that knows no bounds. We owe them much gratitude.
Teaching English in Makassar
My girlfriend and I taught at Fluo Institute, a private language school that students attend in the afternoon and evening, after their normal school routine. It is one of two schools in the city that hires western teachers. The other is English First, a well known language franchise that is spread throughout Indonesia. We met and regularly socialized with the teachers from this school, despite the rivalry and competition for acquiring new students. At the bar, there was always friendly banter about the number of students, our teaching schedules and general work routine at our respective schools. There is a further language school in Makassar called Briton, although for the year we were in the city, we never knew of any westerners who worked there.
Both Fluo Institute and English First provide teachers with accommodation, but in very different parts of the city; English First teachers have a shared house towards the city centre, whereas Fluo teachers are provided with shared houses in the outskirts of the city, about a 20 minute motorbike ride from the centre itself. This means that it is quiet and relaxing, situated right next to a lake and garden centre where lush plants and brightly coloured flowers are sold right on the lake side. However, at night it is a long, dangerous road back, full of potholes and stretches without street lights. This makes it ripe for motorbike gangs to prowl at the dead of night, looking for lone or drunk riders to attack.
One such incident happened to us as were making our way back from the bar one Thursday night; after an enjoyable evening at the opening night of a new restaurant with lots of expats and locals. We rode home around 11.30pm and were stopped less than 200 meters from the guarded gates to our complex by two motorbikes, 2 masked hoodlums on each, one with a machete in hand screaming at us in Indonesian to hand over my bag (which at the time contained our laptop). Unwilling to do this, we hastily jumped off the bike and started backing away towards a lighter area, which was when we were rescued by an expat friend of ours (the same one who introduced us to the Makassar Hash). Fortunately, she had also been at the restaurant and was 30 seconds behind us on her motorbike. So, with quick thinking and presence of mind, she immediately started flashing her lights, honking the horn and making all manner of noises to alert anyone in the area to this heinous situation. This had the desired effect of scaring off the thugs and we walked away from the incident unharmed and without anything being stolen. Unfortunately, this is not a one-off incident, and has happened to many of our expat friends in Makassar, particularly solo female riders at night, despite it being reported to the police on numerous occasions. Without our friend there to back us up, our own incident would have certainly been a different story.
Getting a visa for teaching in Indonesia
In terms of getting a visa for teaching in Indonesia, the situation has drastically changed in recent months and anyone looking to work there will need to monitor it carefully. Unofficially, this is due to the child abuse incident in June of last year at the Jakarta Intercultural School, which garnered worldwide news coverage. Consequentially, the government has decided to impose stricter measures for those wanting to get a KITAS, the visa foreigners require to be allowed to work in Indonesia. Of these measures, there are two that have far reaching consequences for the English teaching community; firstly, you must work in an industry which your degree was in, meaning that if you want to teach English, you must have done a teaching degree at University. For an industry that is known for its career changers, people with various educational backgrounds and people who want to work and travel, this has resounding implications. I don’t know the figures, but I wonder how many TEFL teachers across Asia actually have a specific teaching degree! On a personal level, I completed a Psychology degree but now teach English as a foreign language, meaning that if I were to move back to Indonesia, I wouldn’t be able to get the visa.
The second measure is the compulsory language proficiency test, known as TOIFL (Test of Indonesian as a Foreign Language), which is rumoured to be implemented from February onwards. The implication of this is that if you want to work in Indonesia, you will have to learn Bahasa Indonesia before you come to the country, which means paying for hours of expensive lessons, and that’s if you can find anyone in your own country to teach you. These two measures are the reason why there may begin an exodus of TEFL teachers in Indonesia; it is now no longer as viable as it once was, which is a loss for the TEFL community. Potential TEFL teachers looking for work may have to ply their trade elsewhere in Asia.
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By Thomas Lee-Eveleigh
If you have any questions for Thomas or also have experience teaching English in Indonesia and would like to add some additional advice for prospective teachers please leave your reply in the comments section at the bottom of the page.