I volunteered to teach yoga for 1 month in Sumatra at a resort called Taman Simalem. They provide room and board in exchange for teaching yoga to guests. The resort was huge, sitting on over 500 acres at the top of a mountain. The draw is the view of Lake Toba, over 1,000 feet below. So beautiful, that if it the cloud formations weren’t different every day, I wouldn’t have believed that the view was real.
Much of the resort has been left as natural rainforest, but it is still large enough that cars and/or buggies are needed to get to across the resort.
They have about 300 employees, almost all of which are hired locally, straight from school. Since many do not have hospitality experience or exposure to the western world (other than TV or movies) management created a volunteer program to facilitate development.
During my stay, there were other volunteers coming and going. 2 of us were yoga teachers. Others were there for landscaping, recycling and various other reasons. Other than the roles we applied for, we were also asked to provide feedback on the resort, ideas for improvement and to simply be around to talk to the employees, giving them a chance to practice their English.
The resort was much nicer than I anticipated. We were all told in advance that we might share a dorm room with staff, but ended up in very nice private rooms. A few nights, my room even had a jacuzzi in it! The room with the jacuzzi however was noisy, damp and cold, with no window, so I did asked to be moved out. The really nice rooms were reserved for guests and had floor to ceiling views of Lake Toba.
There is still a lot that needs to be done there, as the resort is only 60% complete, but it’s great that they use volunteers to provide suggestions for growth. It was started in 2010 and they expect it will be complete in about 6 more years. The volume of guests changed daily, sometimes there were as many as 250 guests. Most were from Indonesia and were on tour busses with groups.
Taman is an eco resort that grows most of their own fruits and vegetables using their own organic compost of lemongrass, ginger, coffee skins and animal waste. They also make their own coffee, several teas and use solar power to heat water for showers.
The employees there work long days. Many worked from 7AM to about 9PM, lived in dorms and only had 5 days off a month to visit family or significant others. They were not always busy, and nothing happened fast, but their days were long. They are a very social culture, so were often found in groups talking and always posing for photos.
Yoga and Volunteering
My goal in coming here was to gain more experience teaching yoga. Although there were 2 free yoga classes offered a day, guests did not always sign up. Plus, there were almost always 2 yoga instructors, so I ended up teaching only 15 classes.
When guests did want yoga, it was great, but it was also challenging as some students spoke no or little English. I certainly have a new appreciation for students that speak English fluently. Teaching a full class suddenly seems much less terrifying than it was during my teacher trianing!
When guests signed up for a class, it was often the first time that many had ever taken yoga, so I really had to focus on the basics and explain poses in a lot more detail. This was challenging for me with the language barrier, or required someone to translate to a friend. I was also surprised to find that those who wore headscarves for religious reasons, wear them when they do yoga. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issues with different religions, but I worry about safety when doing semi-inverted poses with headscarves, like downward dog and forward folds.
It was rare to teach a class where the students had experience and/or spoke English, but greatly appreciated. At the very least, I hope I inspired a few yoga newbies to pursue it outside the resort.
The resort currently uses several different venues for yoga, as well as the amphitheater. This photo shows the room where I had most of my classes and the amphitheater below.
The two that we used the most were beautiful, although sometimes dirty and noisy. Classes were also shuffled around depending on other events.
While I was there, management decided to create a specific yoga space, and asked for suggestions. I suggested that they build a simple hut on a hill above the resort called ‘One Tree Hill’. The director really liked the idea. I thought it was perfect as it’s quieter (no motorbikes zooming by or dishes clanking while students are in Savasana) and the simple nature of the hut suits the eco friendly nature of yoga. It will also be easier on the body if they proceed with wood floors.
Although I created a sketch for them, the director had more formal plans developed. They think it will take 3 weeks to build, so I’m hoping that I get to see pictures of it completed. It will be open on 3 sides and the view from this area is even more beautiful than at the main resort. I think it will be fantastic!
They currently only have a boat perched up there for photo ops, and organize sunrise tours here at 5:30AM. Very serene. They will also have a cafe next to the yoga hut for breakfast afterwords.
In addition to yoga, I volunteered to spend 1 day a week teaching English to the massage staff. I was happy to help as there wasn’t really a lot to do there otherwise. I wasn’t sure where to start at first, but ended up writing down a series of phrases in English that they would use to greet and massage a guest. I also reviewed the names of body parts in English, in case a guest requests a focus in a specific area.
Their massage services were new, so we were also encouraged to try it out gratis. Even though I learned that they just use kitchen olive oil for the massage, it was very nice to get a free 1 hour massage.
Sumatra and Medan
Sumatra is the largest of the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia and the 6th largest island in the world.
I flew into Medan, in northern Sumatra. Although I had never heard of the city before, I learned that it’s the 4rth largest city in Indonesia.
I was supposed to get the extended visa when I landed, as I was staying 3 days past the free 30 days. When I landed, I was surprised when they told me that immigration was closed. I insisted and someone finally walked me back to immigration, where several guys were sitting around looking at their phones. They walked me to the head guy and he explained to me that paying the fine for overstaying the 30 day visa would less than the cost of the extended visa. He smiled and said I could leave the country as long as I could pay my fine.
It seemed really odd that this was his suggestion, and it felt like he just didn’t want to be bothered, but what he was saying made sense, so I decided to trust him and went with it. When I left, my fine was $67, which was less than the extended visa.
The night I arrived, I had to stay 1 night in a hostel in Medan as the resort picks people up from the city at 6:30AM. It was late when I arrived, but needed to go to the ATM since the hostel only accepted cash. The area I stayed in was pretty chaotic. Even at 10PM there were a lot of cars, motorbikes and people on the streets. The lady at my hostel told me not to carry my purse on the street, but my only other option would have been to leave it with her, or the others guests in the hostel, so I ended up bringing it along.
Using the ATM was a disturbing experience as there was a woman that had her children sleeping on the steps in front of the 3-4 machines. There were also a lot of people standing around them. I felt horrible walking away without giving her anything, but all I had were large bills when I left. I told myself that I would stop by at the end of my trip and bring her food, but the resort ended up giving me a ride directly to the airport, so I didn’t have a chance. It’s disheartening that there are so many desperate people in the world.
Lake Toba and the Surrounding Volcanos
Lake Toba, the lake that the resort sits above, is a caldera formed by a super, volcanic eruption over 75,000 years ago. According to Wikipedia, it was the largest volcanic eruption in the last 25 million years and possibly resulted in a volcanic winter that killed most of the people, plants and animals in Asia and surrounding areas. The lake is also the largest volcanic lake in the world at 62 miles by 19 miles. It has an island in it (Samosir) that is the largest island island within an island. It’s the size of Singpore!
Today, there are 4 volcanos surrounding Lake Toba. After being inactive for over 400 years, there have been several eruptions from 1 of the 4 (Sinabung) over the past 6 years. Several times these eruptions resulted in evacuations of the surrounding area. In fact, it erupted the day I arrived. As we drove through the area, I could see ash on the ground/on cars and smell the smoke. A news report from Jakarta stated that ash spewed as high as 2.6 miles that day. The other 3 volcanos here are inactive.
Batak People and Culture
The people in this area are called Batak people. There are actually 5 different, but related groups that make up the Batak people. Wikipedia states that they are most likely descendants from people who arrived from Taiwan and the Philippines over 2,500 years ago.
They are lovely people that are very social and love music and bright colors. It was not unusual to see a home or business painted bright pink, orange, blue or green. The women also wear bright colors for their weddings. A few couples came to the resort for wedding photos while I was there, like this woman in her bright pink wedding dress.
They eat a lot of rice, spicy food and sweets. At the resort, there were usually buffets set out for guests. Fried chicken, fried rice, fried noodles and curries were popular on the menu, along with BBQ shrimp or chicken, and lots of their organic fruits and vegetables. I think I ate my weight in bok choy and spinach on this trip. It was good, and good for me, but I will never be able to eat bok choy again without thinking of Sumatra. 😉
They also served fantastic fresh organic juices including bok choy/pineapple, beet/pineapple and passion fruit/pineapple….that I already miss.
My flight to Medan and my trip to Samosir were my biggest expenses, so my costs here were less than $16/day.
It was a good experience and I’m glad I did it. The management there insisted several times that I was welcome to come back anytime (as we’re all the volunteers), so maybe I will get get to teach a class in the new yoga studio one day…