Kupang, West Timor has no major tourist sites, and remains an afterthought for most foreign travelers going through Indonesia. Most just stop in Kupang as a point of transfer to other Indonesian islands, or occasionally to visit the consulate. I don’t want to frame Kupang as exotic or different than the rest of Indonesia, even if it does draw fewer tourists than other areas, because it certainly isn’t; it’s just a place that can be difficult to navigate as a foreign tourist, in the sense that Westerners often receive excessive attention from locals. For me, this engendered a peculiar dynamic of curiosity and even admiration that was characterized by a sort of misunderstood isolation.
Thus, one of my great fears in traveling solo would be a sense of loneliness augmented in the context of a foreign environment of Kupang. Knowing this, I thought the quality of my trip would rest upon the interactions I had with people, both fellow travelers and locals that attempted to bypass surface level exchanges and cross-cultural barriers. The ultimate catalyst in this equation was a combination of basic Indonesian language skills and CouchSurfing. CouchSurfing is a website that essentially allows users to set up profiles to both host non-locals or to be hosted by locals when traveling in foreign areas, enabling ‘surfers’ to experience a place with a knowledgeable local, often for free. My time in Kupang would have undoubtedly been drastically different had it not been for the CouchSurfing experience. After some exchanging of messages, I found myself staying with a Pak (Mr.) Martho, a 58 year-old Indonesian man who teaches English to local high school students.
Staying with Pak Martho and his family not only provided invaluable access to local familiarity and information, but also allowed my integration into the Kupang community in a way that would have otherwise been impossible. The first morning, I accompanied Pak Martho to his school, much to the surprise of his students. He introduced me to his year 12 students and before I knew it, Pak Martho had me writing English sentences on the board, explaining grammatical concepts, and essentially teaching his class! Having had no previous teaching experience, I certainly learned a significant amount of teaching during my two-week stay, trying to keep in mind how beginning foreign language instructors had taught me Spanish or Indonesian.
Pak Martho also had me assist the students that he tutored in English. I soon came to learn that he is perhaps the best English teacher in all of Kupang, having lived in Australia for seven years and having taught English for over thirty years. Many students pay him as a private tutor, knowing the inadequacy of English taught in Indonesian schools. As the resident native English speaker, he would often leave me to converse with his students, asking them questions about themselves while helping them with words and pronunciation along the way. I soon learned the value of having even a basic understanding of their language. In Indonesian there is no verb 'to be,' no plurals, and no tenses; therefore 'I am tired', 'I have been tired' and 'there are no beds to sleep in' can be difficult to conceptualize as a native Indonesian speaker. The experience not only cemented my desire to teach English abroad, but opened my eyes to the value of being able to speak the native language of the students you are teaching, in order to best understand their obstacles as language learners.