Three years ago I was selected to be a part of the AIYEP family. Eighteen brilliant young people from eighteen different provinces in Indonesia met eighteen great young people from Australia for two months of unforgettable experiences. In December 2013, we met the Australians in Sydney to learn about each other, conduct meetings, arrange planning and organize the programs that would be implemented when we got to Indonesia. In Indonesia we went to Koto Sani in Sumatra for the first month, and Bukittinggi for the second month.

Rahmah before a cultural performance. Photo: Rahmah Eka Saputri

Rahmah before a cultural performance. Photo: Rahmah Eka Saputri

The first month in Koto Sani was an unforgettable experience. Koto Sani is a small village located 40km from the capital city of West Sumatra, Padang. It is a refreshingly natural place to live. There are rice fields for farming and fishponds to grow fish. Since most people work as farmers, fish breeders and traditional artists, this place is also renown as the center for high quality rice, fresh fish and also for learning traditional dance.

It was amazing when the 36 of us were first welcomed into the community. They performed the traditional dance of West Sumatra, tari piring, which involves the use of plates. The plate dance is a dangerous dance as performers dance on and balance plates on their hands.

At the end of performance, a group of dancers dropped the plates on the floor, smashing them and jumping on them with a big smile. We were shocked that they could still smile while stepping on harmful glass. While it appears harmful, it actually does not harm them at all. The dance is a way for the West Sumatran people to welcome their guests, provide traditional food and show their guests that they are grateful for their presence.

The group after completing a water irrigation project in Koto Sani. Photo: Eka Saputri

The group after completing a water irrigation project in Koto Sani. Photo: Rahmah Eka Saputri

During one month in Koto Sani, we undertook a community development project where we worked with the community and the participants to increase the quality of the society and bring about developmental changes. The participants lived with host families in different houses and parts of the village. This was a great way of directly understanding how West Sumatran people socialize and interact with their family members, and they treated us as not only guests, but as their family as well.

Koto Sani is renown for their rice trade and we discussed with village leaders about what the needs of the community were. They had irrigation issues and needed to fix a broken pipe located at the top of a hill that was used to provide fresh water to the rice fields. A large group of us climbed to the hill to find the broken pipes, and after sourcing the material to fix the problem, the participants and the village community worked together to carry the heavy pipes into the forest to repair the pipes and construct new ones. For me, this was a very special moment, seeing Koto Sani’s local community working with the Indonesian and Australian youth to climb through the forest and fix the problem together. The mission was accomplished when we enabled the water to flow again.

Rahmah and the group in Sydney. Photo: Rahmah Eka Saputri

Rahmah and the group in Sydney. Photo: Rahmah Eka Saputri

At the end of the village experience we arranged a farewell party with the community. To show respect, we had learned and prepared a traditional dance from West Sumatra to perform at the farewell party. We practiced the dance every night and had training with Uda, a local dance teacher in Koto Sani. Uda understood that the movements of the dance were difficult to learn, so he was patient with us until we were ready to perform it. On the day of the farewell party we performed the dance in front of all of the villagers. In return, they performed the Randai dance and the plate dance to say thank you.

It was an incredibly rewarding and memorable experience, and I learnt many great things.

This article is part of a series of reflections from alumni of Australia-Indonesia student exchange programs. Read the experiences of other AIYEP participants here. The editors of the AIYA Blog would also like to thank Samantha Howard for her assistance in commissioning and editing these articles. You can find her solo and collaborative blog and journal writing here and here.