December 20, 2010

Another Christmas in Tarakan

A few friends have asked me this past week, "Ibu mau pulang kampung untuk Natal?" Are you going home for Christmas?

Nope, it's another Christmas in Borneo for the Holstens.  And strangely, this year, I am perfectly okay with that.

I miss my family, of course, and the wonderful Christmas ambiance that permeates every shopping mall in America.  Some days I wish I weren't sweating away like it's the Fourth of July, and I would really, really love to be part of a flash mob and belt out the alto line of "Hallelujah Chorus" with gusto.

But I have come to appreciate our Christmases in the tropics.  In some ways, holidays overseas have become more meaningful because of the effort I have to put into them to make them happen.  And there are some traditions unique to our location that I enjoy - like driving all over Tarakan on Christmas Day and visiting our Indonesian friends.  And getting together with our MAF friends Christmas evening, eating yummy desserts, and trying to get the group to indulge me in singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

This has been by far our most "Christmasey" Christmas in Tarakan yet.  A few weeks ago we went to a tree-lighting ceremony at one of the local hotels.  A choir sang, punch was served, and I basked in the glow of Christmas tree lights (so what if it wasn't a Frasier fir?).

Zoe participated in the children's program at church, where her class sang "O Christmas Tree" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in Indonesian.

Our church also hosted a Christmas Carnival, which included a nasi goreng (fried rice) cooking contest, volleyball tournament, a coloring contest (Grace won first place in her division), and a visit from a clown and Sinterklas.  Not exactly what we might expect from a Christmas carnival, but it was fun nonetheless.  And I got to chow down on one of my favorite foods, daun singkong (cassava leaves).

Yep, Santa wears shades in the tropics

Last week we had our last English Club for the year, and we played a game where kids had to create a snowman out of toilet paper, which then turned into a crazy free-for-all "snowball fight" with the toilet paper. 

Grace as an Indonesian snowman, with friends from English Club

So this week on our agenda is Christmas baking, getting ready for our open house on Thursday (I'll be serving chicken fajitas for our Indonesian friends to try), and hopefully finding some quiet moments to sit and contemplate the Word becoming flesh.

Merry Christmas from the Holstens!

November 20, 2010

Birthday Madness

Our baby girl turned five this week.  Our kids look forward to their birthdays and plan them months in advance.  So back in August or so Zoe decided she wanted a My Little Pony birthday.  My mom sent us some My Little Pony themed party gear, and then last week Zoe decided she wanted to invite all the MAF kids to her party, especially all the little boys in her preschool class.  So I quickly came up with a craft (a stick hobby horse) that could reach across the gender lines.  Although, most of those rough and tumble little boys have at some point played with Zoe's My Little Pony dolls at our house.

MAF kids enjoying their stick horses

I love to make and eat cakes, but unfortunately I am not very talented in making them look pretty.  Alas, I lack skills in all areas of decorating, crafting, sewing, etc.  But for the love of my kids I do make an effort; over the years I've made cakes in the shape of squids, pandas, snakes, and fish.  So I found a pony cake online that looked easy enough and decided to give it a whirl.

I have a newfound appreciation for the cakes my mother decorated for my brothers and me over the years.  She took a decorating class and her cakes looked and tasted GOOD. Whatever shape we wanted - be it Holly Hobby or R2-D2 - she could do it.  But one year, maybe it was not too long after the R2-D2 cake, she gave it up, and I never really understood why.

Until the other day. Standing in my kitchen, sweating buckets (the electricity was off), trying to make four pieces of cake come together into some kind of equine shape, I was feeling ready to throw in my decorating spatula.  But an hour later, the cake was done and I was feeling pretty good about it.

Then I showed it to David.

"What is it?" he asked.

He almost got a pink pony cake in the face.  But Zoe loved it, and that was all that mattered.

Tomorrow my oldest son turns 13.  For years - pretty much as long as I've been a mom - I have dreaded the teenage years.  But now that we're almost there, I'm not feeling so intimidated.  I know there will be challenges, but I'm not quaking in my boots, er, flip-flops, like I thought I'd be.  Carter is already showing some signs of teenagedom - he has, of late put some effort into his appearance - at least, his hair.  He wants to have hair like Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter.  However, his attempts to grow his hair out have not gone how he planned.  He resembles not his favorite reptile wrangler, but instead that teenage wonder, Justin Bieber.

We recently were interior, a million miles from anywhere, and a group of teenage girls saw him and squealed, "Justin! Justin!" and ran over to get a picture with him.  Carter was mortified.  Zoe has picked up on it and informs people that Carter looks like "Justin Beaver."

Though he may not have the Crocodile Hunter's hairdo, Carter does share his passion for animals.  He spends a good many hours looking after his many critters.  It was a real thrill when a few weeks ago one of our neighbors called saying a huge python had been found nearby.

Carter aka Justin and friends with big mama python (photo by D. Forney)

We are looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving next week with our MAF teammates.  David and I picked up the turkeys for our feast when we were in Balikpapan a few weeks ago.  For two birds - $100!  David's mom told us they're selling for 59 cents a pound in Georgia.  That makes me ill.  We will nonetheless enjoy our Thanksgiving - one of my favorite holidays we celebrate over here, despite the heat, distance from family, and lack of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  It's a fun time together with friends.

And then it will be on to Luke's birthday and a few days off from home school.  

October 24, 2010


Packages.  Oh, how I love them.

Normally, packages from America contain some sort of goodies from my dear mother - dark chocolate, sugarless gum for the kids, t-shirts she found on sale.  Sometimes we get packages from sweet little Awana groups or Sunday school classes - gifts for the kids, grits, supplies for care packages for our medivac patients.

But this week I received something totally unexpected in a package.

A family friend in the U.S. mailed me two books that belonged to my grandfather, the Rev. John Beam, affectionately known by many as "Brother Beam" (often shortened by kids to 'Butter Bean'), and in our family as "Pop".  This friend found Pop's books among her things and thought I would like to have them.

Pop's books (photo by Tripp Flythe)

What makes them especially meaningful is that when we packed up and moved to Indonesia nine years ago, we took very little with us that had sentimental value.  We'd been advised not to, because in the cross-pacific trip, things are often damaged or lost, and once things arrive in country, whatever made the trip intact can be damaged by mold, critters, etc.  So we took the bare essentials with us, leaving behind letters, old photographs, our nice dishes, etc..

So when I received these books, and saw again for the first time in years my grandfather's beautiful handwriting, it touched a place down in my soul that I rarely go to over here.  I am a sentimental sap at heart - I tend to save every letter, photo, and scrap of paper that has any kind of memory attached to it.  I remember before we left to come overseas - which coincided with my parents' move from the house of my childhood -  I went through boxes and boxes of the most random assortment of junk:  ticket stubs to movies from 1989, a note from a seventh-grade boyfriend (complete with the obligatory "Do you like me? Check the box" postscript), neon green cassette tapes of my brother and I singing.  Most of it got tossed; the good stuff was promptly squirreled away again.

Having reformed my junk-collecting ways, I have no desire to return to the life of a packrat.  Thus, piles of papers and old junk sort of freak me out now, and are quickly tossed.  But these are two old books that will stay on my shelf forever, because they belonged to Pop, the all-time King of Packrats.

I have found myself missing Pop - who passed away in 1999 -  a lot lately.  My growing-up years were spent at his inner-city church in Savannah, Georgia.  I remember riding the bus with him as he rode through the projects to pick kids up for Sunday school or weekday clubs.  He was one of my heroes - a man of faith, a man who believed the best about others, a man who lived out Jesus' command to love "the least of these."  He is one of the reasons I am serving in a far-flung corner of the world with my family.

I wish I could discuss ministry matters with him.  How did he deal with being surrounded by needy people, knowing he probably couldn't help everyone?  How did he avoid burnout?  Did he struggle with doubt and discouragement?

I will take care of these books.  They will stay in our air-conditioned bedroom, safe from the tropical heat and humidity.  I will pull them out from time to time, maybe even read through the one that is an old commentary on Mark's gospel.  And I will remember Pop, and thank the Lord for such a heritage.

Thank you, Tami, for sending them.

September 06, 2010

Indonesian Anniversary

Today, September 6, marks the nine-year anniversary of our arrival in Indonesia.  Nine years ago, we were stepping off the plane in Jakarta, scared to death and wondering what we'd gotten ourselves into.  I'll never forget stumbling down the jetway from the airplane and encountering the sights, smells, and sounds of a new country - the faint scent of clove cigarettes, the warm blanket of humidity, the distant call to prayer from a mosque.

Those first few weeks of language school, trying to make my mouth twist around new sounds, were challenging, all the more so after the events of 9/11.  Back then I never could have imagined how much I would come to love this country, which in many ways seems more like home now than the U.S.  

Grace (age 17 months) and I experience culture shock in 2001

As a tribute to our nine years in this country, I'd like to share some things I love about living here - there are many, but here is a list of 10.

1.  The friendly people.  Indonesians are soooo friendly.  Total strangers frequently strike up conversations with me, curious about where I'm from and what I'm doing here.  I love that they are open and easy with a smile.  It is easy to get to know people and make friends here, and I'm really thankful for that.

Amal Beach, Tarakan, 2009

2.  The gift of another language.  It didn't seem like a gift when I was struggling to make myself be understood in the beginning, feeling like an idiot.  I still feel like an idiot much of the time, but I love, love, love being able to speak a different language.  Knowing Indonesian has been crucial to developing relationships, but it's also opened up my world and (hopefully) flexed my brain in new ways.  I love the simplicity of the Indonesian language, and saying lovely words like "perpustakaan" (library).  Plus, when we're in the U.S. it's like knowing a secret language, since very Americans speak it.

Teaching a song, Long Alongo, 2008

3.  Orpa.  Orpa has lived with us for almost eight years, and I can't imagine life here without her.  She is my right-hand woman and is such a huge help to me around the house and with the kids.  She would kill me if she knew I posted the picture below of her, but I think it captures her personality quite well - she is so much fun and loves the kids.  The whole employer-employee relationship can be a little weird at times, but she's so much more than our employee - she's family.

Orpa and Zoe, 2006
In 2008 Orpa's sister Dorkas came to live with us as well.  They are both from a poor mountain community in Sulawesi, and Orpa and her family wanted Dorkas to have the chance for a better education.  So Dorkas goes to high school and works part-time for me.  Like her sister, she is a joy to be around.

Dorkas, Zoe, Orpa, Grace, 2009

4.  Watermelon all year-round.  And pineapples, mangoes, papaya, rambutan, etc.  You get the idea.

5.  The food!  Aside from the fruit, there's nasi goreng (fried rice), srikaya (coconut jam - my latest obsession), fried cassava, chicken sate, spring rolls, soto ayam (chicken soup), and so many other yummy dishes here, including the one pictured below, gado-gado.
Gado-gado, 2008

6.  Rain and the weather in general.  I have always loved rain and thunderstorms and while I really, really miss the Weather Channel, I love that we get lots of rain and when it's not raining, lots of sun.  I have moments of longing for a crisp fall day, but most of the time I love the fact that I get to wear flip-flops all year round.  Which reminds me of another thing I love about living here - a salon right down the road where I can get a cheap pedicure.

7.  The beauty.  Orchids, virgin rain forest, rainbows that span the sky, bright blue kingfishers, crystal clear seas - there is much beauty to behold in Indonesia.

8.  Amazing vacations.  We've been able to take some pretty cool vacations in our nine years here - to Malaysia, Singapore, Bali, and some islands close to Tarakan that have great snorkeling.  

Carter, Grace, and their friend Britton on a weekend snorkeling trip, 2008

9.  Going interior.  One of my favorite things to do here is a weekend trip to a village interior.  The mountain air is so refreshing, and I love just going for walks and hanging out with the people, getting a glimpse into their lives.  On our last trip interior I met the young lady pictured below, who is going to the Bible school there.  She was disowned by her family for her faith and has a very inspiring story.  

Sarah, Kampung Baru, 2010

10.  The crazy experiences I have here, and the beautiful friends I've made.  

Cuddling a sun bear, 2007

Riding down a river in the heart of Borneo, 2008

Learning to drive a motorcycle, 2009

My friend Maylan, 2010

Ibu Markus holding Zoe, 2006

Church cell group, 2007

Neighbor Kids, 2006

MAF women, Family Conference 2010

Young couples class we teach, 2010

August 24, 2010

Baju Adat

Last Sunday a dream came true for me.  I have for over a year been the owner of a beautiful traditional Dayak outfit, given to me by a friend from an interior village.  It is gorgeous - black velvet decorated in colorful sequins - but there aren't too many opportunities for me to wear it.  It's not exactly the kind of thing that you throw on to run out to the store...or even to church.

Until last week.  It's missions emphasis month at our Indonesian church, so everyone was asked to wear their baju adat (traditional clothing) from their own suku (people group).  Alas, being a Heinz 57 American, I am seriously lacking in the traditional clothing department.  I feel very culturally poor in this regard.  The German, Scotch, Irish, English, and Native American blood that flows through my veins is so diluted that I can't truly claim any of them as my suku, hence the lack of traditional dress.  If I had access to a Goodwill store (or, better yet, my parents' closet) I could have put something interesting together - like a German dirndl, a Scottish tartan, and a Native American headdress.

We tossed around the idea of dressing as cowboys, since many Indonesians have that perception that Americans are all spur-wearing, lasso-toting cowhands.  Luke wore a cowboy hat and vest (David did grow up on a working ranch in Colorado, so he does at least have that in his heritage) but, in a nod to our island residence, wore flip-flops in lieu of boots.

So, not having a traditional American costume, I became Lun Dayeh (one of the tribes of the people interior) for a day.  Several older women in the church came up to me and said, "Oh, you need a belt" or "You need bracelets" so that by the time I went home I had a complete outfit with all the accessories.  

The church service itself was a glimpse of Heaven with many suku from across the Indonesian archipelago represented - Java, Toraja, ethnic Chinese, Bali, Lombok, Sumatera.  David and I looked at each other during one of the songs and we both had tears in our eyes, moved by the visual reminder that even though we are a diverse group, we are unified by our shared faith.


August 02, 2010

Remembering Hannah

When we first arrived in Tarakan in the fall of 2001, we quickly became close friends with our MAF teammates, Dave and Linda Ringenberg.  Their daughter, Hannah, was Carter's age and they played together often.

A year later, Hannah had some strange symptoms, and a trip to Singapore confirmed everyone's worst fears for sweet Hannah - an inoperable brain tumor.  The Ringenbergs left for the U.S. where Hannah received treatment for several months before passing away in August of 2003.

After Hannah's death, Dave and Linda began serving at MAF's headquarters.  We have kept in touch over the years, and I have been so blessed and encouraged by how Dave and Linda have trusted God through the worst possible circumstances for a parent.  

A month ago, after being away for eight years, Dave and Linda along with their two boys C.J. and Ryan (ages 9 and 3) came back to Tarakan so Dave could help with some of the flying for six months.  It has been so fun to have them back, though there's been a bit of a weird role reversal - when we were the newbies here, they were the ones showing us around.  Now, it's the other way around, with us reintroducing them to life in Tarakan.  Some things haven't changed in their eight year absence (the heat, mosquitoes, etc.), but many things in Tarakan have changed for the better - wonderful things like a really nice swimming pool, higher-speed internet, and fresh butter.

So today, August 2, marks the seven-year anniversary of Hannah's passing.  Yesterday the Ringenbergs asked us to help them commemorate together.  

We shared memories of Hannah, the kids drew pictures for Hannah - mostly of butterflies.  During Hannah's illness, the butterfly became her symbol - to this day, I think of her every time I see one.

At sunset we released balloons and reflected on how Hannah is with the Lord in Heaven, and while we feel sad and miss her, we know we'll see her again one day.  

Our lives were forever touched by knowing Hannah.  She taught me some very important lessons - how I need to cherish my children and take the time to really enjoy them.  I also learned that they are in God's hands - no matter how much I may try to protect them from harm, what happens to them is ultimately up to the Lord.  And that is okay, because He is a good, loving God.  


July 11, 2010

Women's Retreat

This past weekend the gap that exists between "American Natalie" and "Cross-cultural Natalie" got narrowed a bit when I attended a women's retreat with ladies from my Indonesian church.  I constantly strive to be one with the culture, and in several areas I have adapted and am more Asian than ever before - but there are still some things, some very basic things, that I cling to as an American.

Bathing, for instance.  We still take hot showers here in Indonesia, though some days I opt for a cold one.  Indonesians, however, for the most part take splash baths - just you, the water, and the bucket, splashing away.  I have done this type of bath numerous times and while it's very refreshing after a hike in the jungle, I still prefer my American hot shower.

This past weekend though I went a step further than the splash bath and entered a new realm.  Our retreat was held at a little elementary school on the beach, and there was no bathroom, other than just a toilet.  So those who wanted to bathe had to do so out in the open, wearing a sarong.

I have long been in awe of women who can bathe wearing a sarong and somehow go from being completely clothed under the sarong, to being undressed, showered, and dressed again - and not show any flesh doing so.  It's truly amazing.  A few ladies took me under their wing and gave me some pointers with the sarong bath and I think I was successful - I got clean and flashed them only once.  

Another aspect of life I cling to as an American is how I sleep.  A soft mattress, a fluffy pillow, a cool, dark room makes for perfect sleep.  But having slept on floors many a time on our trips interior, and being one who loves to camp, I was up for whatever on this retreat.  We ended up sleeping in one of the classrooms; some were on the floor, like the ladies in the above pictures, and some - like me - on tables.  Okay, sleeping on a table - no problem.  But then there was the issue of the light.  The conversation went something like this:

Me: Um, are we going to turn off the light so it will be dark?

The other ladies: But if we turn off the light it will be too dark, like a cave.  Ibu Natalie, if you want it to be dark, just close your eyes!

So the light stayed on all night.  Long about 1 a.m., when we finally went to sleep, I was so tired they could have shone a flashlight in my eyes and it wouldn't have mattered.  It was entertaining to lay there and listen to these ladies - some of them grannies in their seventies - tease each other and giggle as we were settling down for the night, like a bunch of middle-school girls at a slumber party.

I was up by 5:30 (!) for our morning service, followed by games and exercise.  I was amazed to see the aforementioned grannies playing soccer, at six in the morning.  We played partner soccer, where you had to hold your partner's hand while playing.  After being drug up and down the soccer field by a very athletic woman and making pathetic attempts at kicking the ball, I was glad the next game was something I could actually do.  One team had to keep a balloon up in the air, while the opposing team tried to knock the balloon to the ground.  Effortlessly I - who at 5'6" is considered a tall woman - could rise above the crowd like Michale Jordan to bat the balloon around.

Swimming in the ocean, eating fresh coconut, singing together, and playing bingo into the wee hours of the night were all highlights of the retreat. But the best part for me - aside from learning to bathe in a sarong - was getting to know the ladies from church a little better. Even though we've been attending this particular church for about two years, I had yet to form any deep relationships with anyone.  But there's nothing like an overnight trip to help you bond with people.  I especially enjoyed getting to know the woman in the picture below, Ibu Elisabeth, whom everyone affectionately calls "Oma".  

I really miss having older women in my life to look up to and to emulate.  I see Oma at church every week and this woman ALWAYS SMILES.  And you can just tell by looking at her, that her smiles well up from real joy in her life.  I told my friend Novita, who also went on the retreat, "I want to be Oma when I grow up!"  I am so thankful the Lord allowed me the opportunity to get to know her - and hopefully she can help fill the need I have felt for a mentor.

And lastly, one of the most amazing things about this retreat, and something that really impresses me about the women who attended was that NO ONE COMPLAINED.  About anything!  I mean, we all swatted mosquitoes and had a few disparaging remarks about that, but overall everyone was just happy to be there.  This is another aspect of American Natalie I would like to shed forever - my tendency to complain when my personal comfort is threatened.  

June 11, 2010


I love vacation.  I know, who doesn't, right?  But I really, really, REALLY love vacation.  I dream about it.  I plan for it months in advance.  I rip articles out of magazines and save them in file folders as fodder for future vacation fantasizing.  I know I spend way too much time thinking about and pining for vacation.  Part of it is my over-active imagination, and part of it is a by-product of living on a little spit of an island that seriously lacks in the diversions department.  I know that to hear we live on an island in the tropics conjures up all sorts of images of white-sand beaches, crystal clear water and pina colodas, but to quote a former MAF teammate, "Tropical island it is; paradise it ain't."

We live in a small typical Asian town - noisy, hot, dusty - and for most of the year we don't travel outside of a 5-kilometer radius around our house.  Every other week we make the long (10 kilometer!) drive out to the beach, or pool, and that's it.  No road trips, no trips to the next town over for dinner, nothing.  David gets to fly to the jungle interior a few times a week, but for me and the kids, most of the time our world is quite small.

All that to say, I was really looking forward to our trip to Bali.  I once visited Bali years ago when I was about  8 months pregnant with Luke to attend a women's conference, but we'd never been with the whole family.  And to make it even more wonderful, my parents flew to Tarakan and spent two weeks here with us before we all traveled together to Bali.  I got my love of traveling from my dad, who is a master at it and makes any trip fun.

One of the best things we did in Bali was to rent a car and ride around, getting lost in the lush countryside.  We saw rice fields and volcanoes, and I ate about a kilo of one of my all-time favorite fruits, the mangostein.  We hiked to some Buddhist stone carvings that pre-date Hinduism.  The place had an ancient, other-worldly feel to it.

We enjoyed a day at the water park, and a trip to the Bali Bird and Reptile Park, where we got to hold some different birds.

When my parents were in Tarakan, Dad got to fly along with David and had lunch at a village interior, where he was fed monitor lizard.  At the reptile park in Bali he got to see what he it was he ate:

The hotel grounds where we stayed were just lovely, and I enjoyed seeing several of one of my favorite types of trees, the sea fan.  I would love to have one of these growing in my backyard.

So all in all, Bali lived up to my vacation expectations - lots of playing, relaxing, and eating.  Dad left from Bali to go back to Georgia, but Mom came back to Tarakan with us and will be here another week.  It's so nice having her around.  

Sampai nanti,