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Volunteer travel in Indonesia

Are you a boomer traveler who’s yearning to use your skills to volunteer in far-flung destinations? In today’s guest post, Heather Boylan of Travel With Heather explains about the rewards of Indonesia volunteer opportunities.


Heather Boylan volunteers in Indonesia

Two years ago, I caught the Southeast Asia travel bug. Using my teaching skills to volunteer in Asia catapulted me into a couple of years so full of adventures that I now see it as my passion and vocation.

Indonesia volunteer opportunities

When Ranan, a Ha-Long Bay, Vietnam cruise-mate from Indonesia took my contact information for a photo exchange; we stayed in touch. Eventually, I asked him if he knew of any Indonesia volunteer opportunities where I could offer my teacher education skills. I contacted his two suggested leads and within days had arranged week-long volunteer gigs in Bintain and Tana Toraja, Indonesia.

Volunteering in Bintan

Bintan was a great place to start my Indonesia volunteer adventure. It’s a small resort community just a short ferry ride from Singapore. I worked with 14 young, dynamic playgroup and elementary teachers for a week. The experience was fabulous and got my feet wet for the 90 teachers who awaited me in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi.

Toraja is a ten-hour bus ride from Makassar, the region’s capital city.  I flew from Singapore and spent one night in Makassar. Merda Mangajun, my host in Toraja, had arranged my bus trip to Makale for the next day. Finding the bus office was a bit of a challenge, but the taxi driver ensured I was in the right place before he left me there. This sense of responsibility for the tourist (seen as honored guest) is typical of Indonesian hospitality in most every part of the country. It makes travel here—even for someone with NO Indonesian language skills—fairly straightforward.


Indonesia funeral celebration

After a breathtakingly beautiful bus ride along the Sualwesi coastline and through mountains that greatly resemble the Colorado Rockies, I arrived in Makale to be greeted by Merda at the hotel she had booked for my stay. The next day she and her husband Kris treated me to the activities of the first day of a traditional Toraja funeral— the buffalo fight. Big money changes hands at these fights.

“This is our Las Vegas,” Merda told me with a laugh.

Training teachers in Tana Toraja

The teacher training Merda arranged was well-aligned with my abilities and experience. The teachers and I explored what active student participation looks like in the classroom, and we worked on tweaking their teaching to make it more student-centered and less teacher-centered. I wasn’t prepared, however, for working with an interpreter for the whole 40 hours of training. It was a great learning experience for both the interpreters AND me. The week was a success, and I was asked to come back for more training whenever I could. It felt good to have a concrete reason to return to this beautiful place.

Tana Toraja’s main tourist attraction is its elaborate “funeral parties—a cultural tradition unique to this region and its people. Over a period of 3-5 days, hundreds or thousands of community and family members travel great distances to mourn around the traditional house with the family of the deceased. Buffalo and pigs are offered to the family in honor of him or her. Normally only a few buffalo are offered, but for more important community members, that number can top 300 or even more. The buffalo are not all sacrificed, but many are, with the meat distributed to funeral guests.

Merda, my incredible host, is well-connected in the Tana Toraja community where she owns several small businesses and pre-schools. In addition to teacher training, my ten days in Toraja were filled with cultural experiences around several funerals, and also tours to various famous local grave sites, an organic farm, and a coffee plantation. One day we traveled to a very remote location where Merda held a parent meeting to open a new school offering pre-school to 55 local children who were otherwise unable to attend school. Merda kept me busy, entertained, and well-fed.


Indonesia lodging

Lodgings in the Toraja area are greatly varied. Last June I stayed at the Toraja Misiliana Hotel, a large complex organized around several traditional Tongkonan houses and a pool. This is one of the nicer options in the area, though I found it to be crowded and noisy with large party and convention facilities. Other lodgings in Rantapao and Makale include small wisma-type guest houses with minimal facilities; nicer guest houses with Western-style amenities; and even the posh Toraja Heritage Hotel (once a Novotel).

Baby boomers have skills to offer the world. Providing those skills at the right time to the right person can create volunteer opportunities of a lifetime as well as travel memories you’ll never forget.

Are you a boomer travel volunteer? Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts.

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