If I asked you to point to Sumatra on a blank map, do you think you could do it?
I know I certainly wouldn’t have been able to 6 months ago.
A place so remote and tropical that I only knew it as a Starbucks coffee blend. Never in my wildest dreams would I think I would be sitting here looking at the Sumatran jungle while writing about this life changing experience.
My view while writing this post
Teaching has long been a passion of mine. One that I have pursued through many vessels; whether it be teaching dance, working as a para-educator or teaching in a remote village here in Indonesia.
No experience I have ever had teaching has compared to this. Everyday I am enamored by the eager ears of the children as we help them learn new English songs and games.
Our students at the Soban School
The desire to learn is truly remarkable and inspires me to push myself in my own academic endeavors.
As a child I remember begging to stay home from school or pretending to be sick when there was an activity I found unsavory. Today, I am reevaluating every opportunity I have been so fortunate to have.
We are often told we take for granted the things we have because we have them. I am finding this to be more than accurate everyday that I am here.
And, because I have been so fortunate to be born where I was born and have the parents I have, it is imperative that I give to those who may have been dealt a harder hand.
So with out anymore of my anecdotal ranting, I will break down how I got here and why you should make the journey too.
Where In the World Is Bukit Lawang?
Boasting one of the last places on Earth you can see Orangutans in their natural habitat and a jungle view like you wouldn’t believe, Bukit Lawang is located just on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Forest in Northern Sumatra.
Brady and I entering the jungle! A post on this is soon to come.
Although a recent boom in tourism has swept the small village due to its eco-diversity, a demand for English teachers here and in the surrounding villages has not been met.
With a growing tourist population, English is a building block for success for many locals.
Given the fact that many government-run schools don’t even have consistent teachers in smaller villages; the need for teachers is extreme.
Why Teaching English Is So Important
Brady and I strive to travel always in an ethical manner, from packing fair-trade toiletries, to only supporting small local businesses.
So, what better way to travel ethically than to volunteer?
The cultural immersion you gain from an experience like this is not found on a resort or in a shopping mall.
It comes from meeting and engaging with new people, the people of the land you wish to visit. It comes from going to local markets and buying fruit only indigenous to that region from the people who picked it with their bare hands.
The Bohorok village market with our new friend Yuni
But most of all, it comes from working with the youth and ultimately the future of the nation you are a visitor in.
If a place like Bukit Lawang is to remain authentic in its culture and appeal, then we must work as tourist to make sure it is preserved.
The only way to do that is through education of the local people and most of all the children.
By promoting the education of the youth here, I am investing in the future of this village.
Reading to my students
I hope to come back in 15 years and see all of my students running the guest houses, warrungs, and jungle treks.
I hope to see them thriving in an industry that allows them to share their unique corner of the world while educating all of us on why it is so important to travel here sustainably.
My worst nightmare, if I am honest, is coming back one day and seeing this place developed and pillaged by western investors.
And if the locals aren’t able to get the necessary education it takes to succeed in the tourism industry, that is the reality.
How YOU Can Get Involved
I have mentioned in previous posts that one of my favorite resources for finding volunteer opportunities is Grassroots Volunteering.
In a world where greed seems to be the theme, I find it extremely important to find locally ran programs.
Imagine if someone showed up in your home town and started exploiting every resource you had whilst making a pretty penny. Meanwhile you’re left impoverished, resource-less, and resentful.
This is exactly what happens everyday in countries and small villages all over the world.
Yet, we sit bewildered at the hate for Americans and “westerners” in general.
Getting a little education on the unique ecosystem here with Adi our jungle guide.
Choosing a program that gives back to the local economy and supports local businesses allows the places you love to stay authentic and culturally rich!
Ultimately, isn’t that why we travel? To experience something new and different?
So I encourage you to visit Grassroots and research your next travel destination. See if there is a program you’d like to get involved with or even visit the small business page and choose a community to support during your adventures.
If you are looking to volunteer in Sumatra specifically I highly recommend contacting Jungle Edie.
Jungle Edie’s Volunteer Program and The Bukit Lawang Trust
A local born and raised here in Nothern Sumatra, Jungle Edie has dedicated his life to helping his people.
He has assembled a team of locals who are the kindest, most driven, and ecologically aware people I have ever met.
From building a school with his brother-in-law to training and employing jungle guides, his program embodies sustainable tourism.
Jungle Edie’s Soban School
We have been so fortunate to teach in the Soban School, which is even located in the backyard of his sister’s home.
The school was created to not only teach English to the local children but also to educate them on their environment.
After Jon, Edie’s brother-in-law, explained to us the vast difference in resources between the different schools, we had to see for ourselves.
Students at Bukit Lawang Trust
We took the time to visit the Bukit Lawang Trust School on our day off. The school itself is far more centrally located and as a result has far more volunteers.
Bukit Lawang Trust playground
The people we met teaching at the Trust School are truly some of the brightest, compassionate humans you will ever encounter. But, the differences in tools and facilities is undeniable.
Head teacher Lily working with her students at the Trust School.
The trust School has legitimate classrooms, a floor, walls, and books galore. While the Soban School has plastic coverings on a dirt ground and chicken wire for walls.
The Soban School
I aim to see every village have a school like the Trust School. The reason why the Trust is so successful is because of the volunteers and the exposure it has gained through the many internationals passing through.
Teaching ballet on the rooftop of the Trust School
Every school here is in need of volunteers and donations, including the Trust school. In fact, one of my favorite things about the Trust is that they send volunteers out weekly to schools who almost never see volunteers.
However, it is important to do your research and try to choose a program that may be less fortunate in the way of volunteers.
The birthdays of our students in Bohorok
No matter what program you choose, it will be a rewarding and life changing experience! I hope you all are feeling inspired to get involved.
Keep an eye out for my next post on where to stay in Bukit Lawang while volunteering and how to get around! Thank you all for reading and I wish you all a life of adventure.