In and Out of the Smog: Life as an Evacuated Fulbrighter

The smog must be seen to be believed at the weekly flag-raising ceremony at SMA5 Palangkaraya.

The smog must be seen to be believed at the weekly flag-raising ceremony at SMA5 Palangkaraya.

— By Mackenzie Findlay —

We recently crossed the two month anniversary of our time in Indonesia – and I have only taught for three days at my school.

I’m supposed to be teaching at SMA 5 in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, a public senior high school. But from September 10th – November 2nd, they had only five calendar days of school. Six out of seven weeks of school were canceled due to the hazardous smoke conditions that have enveloped the island of Kalimantan, and in particular Palangkaraya. Other ETAs this year, and in previous years have written about the terrible effects of slash-and-burn agriculture practices from palm oil plantation workers that cause smoke to hang over much of Sumatra and Kalimantan every year. However, this year due to the El Nino weather pattern and thus, a prolonged dry season, the smoke has reached catastrophic levels. Schools closed for weeks, airports shut down, hospitals ran out of oxygen, and the government even considered evacuating residents to military warships. It’s been unbelievable. And here I am, smack right in the heart of the biggest environmental disaster of the 21st century.

I’d never imagined my Fulbright experience would start like this. I’ve now spent 58 out of the last 77 nights in a hotel, away from my site, my school, and my host community. I’m still living in a hotel, uncertain of exactly when I’ll get to return. I’ve been to the hospital four times in the last two weeks to receive oxygen or meet with a pulomonologist to check my lungs and oxygen flow, as occasionally I have had difficulty breathing due to the smoke exposure. In Jakarta, I was finally diagnosed with a respiratory infection and bronchitis. Every day, I scan the newspapers for articles on the condition in Palangkaraya and I’m quite certain that my little, remote city of Palangkaraya has never been mentioned so many times in regional, national, and international headlines. I miss my school, my students, my fellow teachers, and the neighborhood kids who ran squealing and shrieking into my arms when I returned from my second evacuation (currently on round four…). And not only do I miss them, but I ache for them, many of them still living in Palangkaraya, because they have nowhere else to go and must continue breathing the incredibly hazardous air.

Mackenzie and a fellow teacher at SMA5 Palangkaraya don masks and helmets in preparation for the daily commute to school.

Mackenzie and a fellow teacher at SMA5 Palangkaraya don masks and helmets in preparation for the daily commute to school.

We’ve been evacuated four times now, and during the short opportunities in which I was able to return, I saw (and also lived) the hazardous and difficult life that my community must suffer through. I’m lucky enough to have AC in my bedroom, which helps keep the smoke levels low. But in the rest of my house, which is open to the air to allow for ventilation of the usually hot, sticky air, I choke on the thick, yellow air that constantly permeates my house. Whether I am filling my water bottle, getting a snack out of my refrigerator, or just going to the sink to wash my hands, I’m exposed to this terrible air. For those without AC, they breathe it constantly. I try to wear my N95 mask as much as possible, sometimes even to sleep, but many residents of Palangkaraya don’t wear even the flimsy masks. They tell me, “What is the point? I’ve breathed it all my life. It is much worse this year, but what can I do? I live here and can’t cover my face all the time.” For many, they must continue their daily lives going to work, going to the market, going to school… The air may be yellow, but life must go on.

The hazey, yellow air from which there is no relief for permanent residents of Palangkaraya.

An unfiltered image of the hazey, yellow air from which there is no relief for permanent residents of Palangkaraya.

As it’s clearly (or not so clear…ha) unsafe for my sitemate and I to stay there, we have been evacuated to several cities over the course of the last few weeks. In Jakarta and in Banjarmasin, we had the privilege of working with the Regional English Language Office’s (RELO) ACCESS Program. ACCESS, funded by the US State Department, is a two-year English program for underprivileged high school students. Classes range from 10-20 students and meet twice a week for two hours. Students selected for the program typically have extremely low English language skills and because of their socioeconomic status, are unlikely to have further opportunities to improve their English.

Over the course of the last few weeks, I was able to work with students at both sites in Jakarta (Menteng and Rawamangun) and at the Banjarmasin site. I assisted the teachers by leading activities on differences between food in America and food in Indonesia, playing games to introduce each other, leading pronunciation exercises, teaching tongue twisters, acting out skits, and even teaching a lesson about the International Day of the Girl.

Mackenzie and students in the ACCESS program celebrating the International Day of the Girl.

Mackenzie and students in the ACCESS program in Jakarta celebrating the International Day of the Girl.

I loved working with the ACCESS Program. These kids are enthusiastic, motivated, and extremely smart. Their English level is far more advanced than most students I have met in high schools in Indonesia. They are eager to learn and clearly willing to put in the work. The teachers I worked with have seen dramatic progress in their English ability – something I find extremely exciting and rewarding. Since most Indonesian high school students only have 90 minutes of English class every week, it’s vital that driven students who truly want to learn English find other avenues beyond the traditional classroom. And the ACCESS Program provides one way for select students to have that opportunity. It’s a pretty cool thing. Knowing how important this opportunity is for students, I hope to be able to be able to provide similar additional English opportunities for my own students in Palangkaraya, whenever I get to return…

Thus far, my Fulbright year has been a wild ride. I haven’t stayed in one place for longer than 14 days. I’m living out of a suitcase, doing laundry where I can, and making a lot of friends with hotel staff. I’ve texted with AMINEF more times in the last five weeks than any ETA should have to text with them in their entire nine-month grant. But I now have students all over this country and friends to call on in so many cities. It hasn’t been the ideal start to the year, but I’m still having the time of my life.

Despite multiple evacuations, Mackenzie makes the best of her grant period by working with students in the ACCESS Program.

Despite multiple evacuations, Mackenzie makes the best of her grant period by working with talented students in the ACCESS Program.

I cannot wait to return to my host city of Palangkaraya, to move back in to my house, to play with my neighbor kids, and eat dinner with students in the dorm. I cannot wait to teach in the same classroom, with the same students, and with the same co-teacher for more than one week at a time. I cannot wait to have something besides the weather to talk about with other teachers in the teachers’ lounge. But in the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy my hot showers, my free hotel Wi-Fi, the relatively clean air of my temporary sites, and the wonderful, avid, and enthusiastic students I have been able to interact with and teach at SMA 7 in Banjarmasin, Universitas Lambung Mangkurat, Banjarmasin Access Program, Menteng ACCESS Program, the Rawamangun ACCESS Program, and Universitas Sam Ratulangi in Manado.

If the first two months of this grant are any indication of what is to come during the rest of this year, I’m in for one exciting adventure!

Mackenzie Findlay is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant placed in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan at SMAN 5. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2015 with a double major in International Development and Women, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. She enjoys connecting with her students over social media, tasting every new food in Indonesia that she can find, and working her way through her book list – thank god for Kindles! You can follow her blog at http://www.neverskipdessertblog.com/.

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3 thoughts on “In and Out of the Smog: Life as an Evacuated Fulbrighter

  1. Hi Mackenzie,
    Wow, the circumstances of your post so far in Indonesia have been quite an experience for you. How nice to see your positive attitude through diversity. I am so impressed with all of the posts you super smart Fulbrighters have contributed to Indonesiaful. Please keep sharing.
    Martha Fitzgerald
    (mother of Kelly Fitzgerald, a co-ETA)

  2. Pingback: Life in Indonesia, One Breath at a Time | Indonesiaful.com

  3. Pingback: A Day in the Life: Military School | Indonesiaful.com

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