This last week in Palangka Raya felt so right. I was living in my own house, teaching my own students, eating lunch at warungs in my own city, and struggling with internet, as usual in the middle of Kalimantan.
I jumped right in to teaching classes on Monday. Grade 11 was learning “Hopes and wishes” and grade 10 was on “Congratulations.” Although I hadn’t lesson planned with Bu Juniar or Bu Tisia, we were able to talk briefly before the class and divided it up so I could do the pronunciation and speaking activities. My students are just so, so sweet. They are very shy and nervous to be talking to me – but I tried hard to encourage everyone to speak loudly and clearly and when they were working in pairs I made a point to go check in with every pair to ask what their topic was and how they were doing on the task. Most were terrified to talk to me at first but after a lot of high-fives and “that’s perfect!” they seemed to feel more comfortable with me in the classroom. We’ve got work to do but it was a good start 🙂
Much of my week was spent at imigrasi. Monday afternoon, Tuesday morning, Tuesday afternoon, Thursday afternoon… But, on Thursday I picked up my passport and am now legal for another month! Woohoo! We also finally received the remaining document for the visa conversion so when I picked up my passport, we resubmitted everything right then and there to convert my visa from a 60 (now 90) day visa to a limited stay work visa. Hopefully, in a few weeks I’ll be good to go!
Wednesday was a holiday for the start of the Islamic New Year so some of my crew took me on an excursion! Bukit batu (Stone hill) is about 90 minutes north and is this national park-esque area with these massive rocks that you can climb and explore. It’s supposedly a very mystical place – with certain rocks giving you good luck, certain rocks driving away spirits, the water making you younger… at least, this is according to wikipedia. My crew doesn’t speak English and my Bahasa isn’t nearly advanced enough to be learning the history of mystical places. Despite the language barrier, we had a blast! Carlie and her counterpart, Bu Halimah (who does speak English so that helped quite a bit) came with us and we had a wonderful day exploring some of what Kalimantan has to offer 😉 Unfortunately, the smoke came back with a vengeance that day so the views weren’t quite as cool as they should have been. Bukit batu itself wasn’t too smokey, but the drive was pretty frightening…
I’m getting so tired of wearing my glasses. I hate wearing my glasses. But the smoke is so bad that it’s impossible to wear my contacts without them clouding up and burning my eyes. But…this was a super fun adventure. I was so happy to be able to spend the day with my gang and to have Carlie and Bu Halimah come along with us. I can’t wait for more days like this.
Unfortunately, on Thursday the smoke continued to get worse. I taught two classes with Tisia and then we went off to imigrasi again. That evening, after dinner with my students, I realized I was really starting to feel the effects of the smoke. All day my throat had been feeling worse and worse, I felt like I had a really bad sore throat – except, I didn’t. It hurt from inhaling all the smoke 🙁 I was coughing some and although I allowed myself to just chill in my AC bedroom all night, I was coughing, my voice was hoarse and I definitely couldn’t breathe normally.
We’d been keeping aminef updated throughout the week and they knew we had finally received our visa extension. Rizqi had told us they’d been discussing our situation and would make a decision on what to do with us the next day. But although I had initially told Rizqi that part of me really wanted to stay to be able to continue teaching and settle in to my school, I realized that was pretty stupid as I was beginning to really feel the affects of the smoke. So… I texted Astrid, the head of our program and in a much longer message, essentially said, I can’t last here. 🙁 She called me soon after and we discussed our options. She decided that regardless of our long-term plan, which may need approval from Pak Allen (the exec. dir), we needed to leave first thing the next morning. An hour later (this was around 9pm…), the plan was in place – they’d check the air quality in Banjarmasin early the next morning and if it was okay, we’d go there in the morning. If it wasn’t… well, we’d discuss that in the morning.
I woke up Friday morning to a text from Carlie saying “OMG IT’S SO BAD TODAY!” I peeked out my window and literally gasped. This is what I saw:
Yeah. TERRIFYING. I began packing, despising every moment that I had to walk out of my AC bedroom and choke on all the smoke. A little while later Astrid said we’d be leaving at 11am for Banjarmasin and to let all my people know. I texted the headmaster, bu lusni, and Tisia and then quickly tried to finish packing, expecting one of them to be knocking on my door shortly… And in typical, wonderful Bu Lusni fashion, she and Bu Anny pulled up on their motobike a little bit later around 9. Neither of them speak English so laughing and smiling, we stumbled through some talk of the weather and my departure and then they told me we were going to eat. I snagged my N95 mask and jumped on the back of the neighbor’s bike and we rode the short distance to school.
So yeah, it’s just a little hazardous. At school, all 400 students were standing outside. OUTSIDE?! WHAT?! I learn later that the headmaster was announcing that school is closed until Monday (today is Friday, and yeah, we have school on Saturdays) because of the smoke. Seems a tad ironic that they are making this announcement OUTSIDE.
I climb in Bu Lusni’s car and we drive to her favorite (and mine!) nasi kuning warung (yellow rice with chicken and idk what else. It’s a very typical Indonesian breakfast). As it’s a warung, we eat outside and I try and only take small breaths in between bites. I have only two thoughts in my head: my bu’s are so sweet and I love them and aminef would be less than thrilled if they knew I was outside eating a meal in this…
I finish eating and put my mask back on. Bu Lusni walks me across the street to the Indomart and stocks me and Carlie up with snacks for the drive. Um, LOVE. Ps – most of the last hour has been silence and gestures. My Indonesian only gets me so far so I just continually say “makasih bu!” and give her side hugs.
We drive back to school and find the driver already there and ready to take me away (it’s 10am, he’s supposed to come at 11). I’m ready but I don’t know where Carlie is. She had gotten sick last night, either from bad food or the smoke, and when aminef learned that this morning, they asked her to go immediately to a doctor before we left. While I’m texting her and trying to figure out where she is, the whole administration crew rolls outside to see me off. The headmaster, Wanlo the security guy, Fajar, Bu Lusni’s assistant, and of course bu lusni and bu anny. After getting a hold of Carlie, I say goodbye to all of them, we load up my stuff and off we go…
We find Carlie at her house, say goodbye to her crew and head out of the city again. I’ve never seen anything like this. (Oh, and none of these photos are edited or have any filters. This is straight up what it looks like)
The drive between Pky and Banjar was even worse. We literally sat in shock staring out the windows… The drive takes us through some of the worst of the fires – you can literally see flames for much of the drive.
So yeah, terrifying. And tragic. And just plain unbelievable.
When we get to Banjarmasin, we are happy to be out of Palangkaraya but can tell immediately that the air isn’t as clear as it was the last two times we were evacuated to here. Usually, about two hours out of Pky, the air begins to clear substantially and then by Banjar, it’s totally clear. But this time, it was still very smokey until an hour outside banjar, and then even just outside the city you didn’t have full visibility… GRRRRRR.
Once here, we’d promised aminef and Carlie’s mom that we would both go see a doctor. Carlie still looked pretty terrible and although I could breathe a little easier, my throat and lungs still didn’t feel very good. We had no idea what a hospital visit would entail. Would anyone speak English? How could we convey our symptoms? How much would it cost? We almost didn’t go but Carlie still looked terrible so I said, alright get up, we’re going!
We found the hospital, checked in and were led to two beds. I explained in Indonesian that we live in pky and the air is obviously very bad. We just arrived here today and feel bad. That’s about all I could say in Indonesian so then I just pointed to my throat and my chest, mimicked coughing and pointed at Carlie’s head. Everyone was laughing… 😀
My nurse started to ask me questions and I could not follow her… Realizing this wasn’t one of those moments where I could just nod along and smile I grabbed my phone out of my bag and opened the translator. She laughed and started typing in words, “kesusahan” (trouble), “pernafasan” (breathing), “batuk” (cough) – yes, I nod vigorously! We laughed and she had me lie on the bed and checked my pulse and my blood pressure and that normal stuff. A few minutes later, the doctor comes in and in half English, half Indonesian I explain my symptoms. He listens to my breathing through his stethoscope and then orders the nurse to put me on oxygen. LOL. I don’t know why I found this so funny but picture this: I’m lying here on a hospital bed, with doctors and nurses who don’t speak my language, with a screaming baby in the bed next to me, and now tubes up my nose. Like… good god what have I gotten myself in to?! Meanwhile, I can hear Carlie’s voice on the other side of the room talking to the nurses and doctor but I have no idea what they are doing to her…
Tisia is frantically texting me at this point and lucky for us, she had also decided to flee to Banjarmasin and had left a few hours after us. She arrived to Banjar right as we were in the hospital and I was amusingly texting her that I’m lying here hooked up to oxygen with no idea what in the world is going on. She says, “Mack. Hang on. I’m on my way.” Oh good, glorious, wonderful Tisia! She’s coming to our rescue <3
I can actually notice a difference in my breathing and my throat and lungs feel clearer. The doctor comes back after ten minutes or so and asks how I feel now… “lebih baik!” (better!) After another ten minutes the nurse takes the oxygen off, checks my pulse and whatever again and then they ask me to go sit at the table outside. Carlie is already sitting there and we wait while the doctor talks on the phone to a doctor in Jakarta or something (Carlie has ISOS so some doctor in Jakarta is now checking up on us…) Tisia arrives at this point and I’m so relieved to see her. She and the doctor talk for awhile and then he starts prescribing us medication. I’m not exactly sure what all he told her but something along the lines of, take it easy, don’t go out in the smoke, and if you still feel bad in three days come back.
He prescribes Carlie something for her headache and an anti-inflammatory for my throat and lungs. We check out and pay the whopping fee of Rp 45,000, maybe $3.50 and then Tisia walks us over to the pharmacy where we get the medication. We part ways with Tisia and her husband and decide to reward ourselves with Pizza Hut for dinner. The doctor had said to eat “normal food” for the next week and we laughed, having no idea what that meant. He clearly meant more Western-type food but for us, Indonesian food is normal at this point!
After we left the hospital, I felt so much better. But slowly I begin to feel it coming back 🙁 Not nearly as bad, but I don’t feel quite as good as I had before. We head to bed soon after hoping sleep will do us both good!
This morning, we both felt better but not 100%. Astrid told us this morning to “please stay inside as much as possible” and we happily obliged. We have thus spent the majority of our day sitting in our beautiful air conditioned hotel room, curled up in our beds under big comforters, with unlimited wifi (you have no idea how amazing good free wifi is until you live someplace like this where you pay for a modem and simcard with 2GB of data – trust me, goes fast) . We ventured outside twice, to find lunch and dinner. In the afternoon, the air felt clear and good but this evening when we stepped outside, OMG. It’s like the smoke is back to haunt us. It was bad. Real bad. We cover our noses and decide to just run across the street to the Texas Chicken. We eat a salad and fried chicken (checks and balances right?) and then run home. UGH. DAMN SMOKE. GO AWAY.
Now it’s Saturday evening and I’ve had the most relaxing day ever. Tomorrow will likely be much of the same and then Monday we’ll check in with aminef again to see what is in store next. We’ll likely be attending an English conversation club at the local university Monday afternoon and potentially working with the ACCESS program here in Banjar if the situation is still bad in pky (with no rain in the forecast I cannot imagine it will get better anytime soon).
It’s been a wild ride so far! Who would have thought my first two months of Fulbright would look like this? But as ridiculous, and occasionally frustrating, as it’s been, I’m still having the time of my life. These evacuations have let me travel and see new places, spend literally almost every moment for a month with Carlie, and provided me with stories most Fulbrighters will never have. And… I’m becoming passionate about an issue I had never cared about much before. I’d always felt like environmental issues were a battle someone else should fight, I knew it was important but it wasn’t something I was all that interested in learning about. But now… holy shit, how can I not when I’m living in a situation like this and being evacuated but having to leave my friends and students behind to breathe in the hazardous air. Who knows the impact this adventure will have on my future?
It’s an exciting time my friends…