The Blog in Which I Try to Catch My Thoughts as I am Catapulted Back to the Other Side of the World with my Head Spinning

or…I could not sleep during all of my travel so I wrote down thoughts on the goodbye-saying, the leaving, and the travel instead. These blurbs are in no particular order, except the order in which they came out of me. They are my un-edited and exhausted scribblings. I hope they can be of entertainment/interest/something to yall reading this 🙂

Note: I decided to come home after getting news that my Grandmother has advanced cancer and only a number of days remaining. Among the countless things I’ve learned in the past year, one is that, post-Peace Corps, I’d like to move myself homeward, so the past 8 days seem sort of like this universe enforced homecoming that was sooner than I ever expected but feel is right.

——-

They love what you are for them when you are there. They nurture it, shape it, form familial ties to it. But what can’t be explained is the part of you that is not you when you are there, the part of you that’s subdued, altered entirely, even, thanks to cultural norms, behavior patterns, communication lapses, and understandings that, at the end of the day, have deep and different roots.

I could shape a family out of relationships I had there. Hands down, no questions, I could choose a Bapak, an Ibu, a sister, a best friend. I could love them, appreciate them, fulfill certain roles for them. But that could never change the fact that I have a family– a mom, a dad, brothers and sisters. And what I can understand by having formed and analyzed ties to so many of another culture, while existing within that other culture, those there, busy growing attached to their perception of me, cannot understand for never having been dropped, alone, amidst a society carrying on in ways so different from their own, themselves. To them, I am one thing that has appeared from elsewhere to be nurtured. To me, they are so many things– a whole society– comprised of characters and figures to be sifted through and assessed alongside all the many things I have known in many places else.

So naturally, I think, the difficulty of saying goodbye to that connection is a larger weight on their end than it is on my end. Though that’s not to say that I didn’t feel the bittersweet weight of many goodbyes.

Kiky, probably the hardest to leave, broke our traditional handshake/cheek press combo to reach in for a big, un-Indonesian hug, bursting into tears on my shoulder. My heart fell down a little bit toward the cold tile floor. But I couldn’t cry, not ever, thanks, I think, to such swift and overwhelming happenings that my brain and emotions were on numb overdrive.

And as I kept telling them, and as I kept telling myself, for each of you so sad here, there is someone so happy there, so happy that I’m home-bound.

“And I’m confused,” I’d say, “But it is right, I know. And they’d say yes, if Allah wants it…”

And maybe it’s not Allah, but something, somewhere, making it so.

——-

In 48 hours I went from being something that still had a year’s worth of presence to on a one-way plane America bound. The news delivering began with Kiky, moved to Bu Eddie, to my host family, to school. And there’s no full understanding to be had, no indirect way to break news of my decision.

Ibu: Wait first, Sophie, still want to buy dinner.
Me: (hesitates) Ibu, I will go home.
Ibu: When? Go home to where?
Me: America. Tomorrow. Wednesday.
Ibu: How long there?
Me: Ya, that….after this, Bu…no return.

Why?? And so begins one of so many explanations…

——-

For those I didn’t tell the first evening, thanks to brain overload, phone calls, too many conversations happening at once…

“No say say to [insert name in 3rd person here]!”
Ya, sorry Bu, headache, confused..
Aduhhhh, shocked! Shocked here!”

I told Kiky in Indonesian that it felt like my brain was going to erupt, and I think the student who overheard was sort of scared.

——-

Because my passport was three hours away at the immigration office, I wasn’t able to go to school the morning after my decision, and thus had no time to go to school pre boarding the plane. So they solved the problem Tuesday evening, flooding right into the living room. Teachers, students, administrators. I’ve never received such an outpouring of love. I saw tears from those I wouldn’t have thought so affected, got more well wishes, declarations of care, and Indonesian apologies for undone wrongdoings than I could ever possibly deserve.

The going home for my grandmother– that part was easily translated. There’s no question in the mind of an Indonesian as to why you need be present for a loved one’s pending death. But then came the well why can’t you come back after? and my most graceful attempt at Indonesia-fying a perspective I know can’t really translate.

“This difficult explain,” I said (I’ll use literal translations), “Here like one world. There like world other. In both I feel at home. But if I already go back to other world, later too hard for me return again.”

“Ahhh, iya,” they kind of get it.
“We feel heavy very, lose Sophie. Like loss big.”

“Yes, me too. Like loss big. Very sad, splitting. But remember, everyone here sad, everyone there happy. Here feels like family, but there family too.”

And for appeasement purposes: “Maybe later, if I already married, husband and I visit to here.”

“Iya, must! We pray you fast married. Iya, must fast. Here pray.”

And “Ahhh, iya,” they get it a little more…enough, maybe.

Then, “Who pay?”

“Program. If I not return to here tomorrow.”

“Ahhh, iya, iya..” and they get it perhaps as much as I could hope.

——-

I feel like I’ve died in one place, moved toward rebirth in another. Some strange gelatinous substance moving from one life to the next. And no, the distinctions are not so definite. I never died at home, I will never lose touch with Asembagus. But the feel of it, the best I can describe, is that gelatinous thing. I’m forming, gradually, formed and re-forming, perhaps only to be formed and re-formed again..

——-

It’s wonderful to know that one can mean so much to so many in such a small place. Looking out the plane window I thought of all the little desas out there, past the lights of Surabaya, all the little schools, all just dots on an island, just a dot on the world. And the love in the dot. That’s how I imagined it. So many dots, so much love to offer. Plop a PCV in the doth and watch the love tumble in.

The amount of warmth I felt from others in the past 48 hours…from community members, to students, to Peace Corps staff, to other volunteers…I told Rachel (who I brought partially home in spirit!) that I felt like I just wanted to hug the world. There’s a rightness in things, I know there is. And when you feel it and you know it, it’s a beautiful place we have.

——-

And then there’s the question of what is the Peace Corps? What is this thing that ties us to sort-of-lengthy and sometimes transparent puppet strings as we wind our way through village days and lesson plans and bowls of rice and bucket baths. It is not a marathon, not an extended survivor episode to be fought through. It is a job that one steps into and a job from which one can step out.

Perhaps that’s easy to lose sight of when you’re in this thing alongside these intermittently placed others with whom you have to rejoice in your successes, laugh at your sufferings, and meet up as often as possible to maybe take a shot or two so you don’t lose your mind at site. You’re on a journey together, on a bus that sometimes feels like it will stop for nothing. But if at some point a sign points a passenger in another direction, then, by all means, the door can be opened and the driver will kindly remind you that PC is but another vessel that can be stepped onto and off of as you see fit.

No one in my volunteer group had left in so long, really since the very beginning of our lives at site, that it sort of seemed like everyone was in it for the long haul. I certainly never would have thought that I would be the one to remind us that the Peace Corps is not the only thing controlling us. But the sudden realization that I really could leave, that one year can be enough and that outside things can be of understandably higher priority was empowering in a way that I can’t fully explain.

I have no negative feelings toward the Peace Corps and would never, ever trade the past year’s experience for anything in the world. I don’t think I’d even have considered leaving had an outside catalyst not come in and forced a sudden re-assessment of my priorities. But now I know what it was was right for me until something waved, I looked out the window, and had to ding the bell to make the bus stop.

I could never thank the staff enough for how wonderfully supportive and efficient they were in getting me on my way out of there. And now home will bring weirdnesses, too, I’m certain. A different kind of isolation in which I alone get what there was, what I was there, what here is, what I am now…

——-

People seem so sophisticated at this gate, waiting. They are quiet, not staring, not making odd conversation, not smoking. They’re not squatting, not spitting, not plucking facial hairs. No one is picking weird things out of their teeth.

——-

And the anonymity! I feel the comfort of the anonymous blanket suiting me like a warm glove. A part of me looks around and thinks, hey, don’t you want to look at me? I’m special, I’m interesting. But most of me thinks, thank you, thank you for knowing I’m human. I too know that you’re human and I’m glad we could silently agree on that.

——-

The boy in front of me turns around to make causal conversation as we depart for Tokyo, where you headed? sounding htrough a small town Southern accent I know well. He’s from North Carolina, an hour south of Carrboro. He doesn’t ask where I’m coming from, thank God, cause I can’t yet manage a non-overflow answer. My eyes are stuck in this so tired, so wide open, so over stimulated state.

The airport is so many shiny, varied, all-item-in-the-world-encompassing things, and I can only think how it will be nice to know I have ready access to these things eventually, but right now I just have to sit down.

I have some trouble with the soap dispensers, some trouble turning a lamp on. I find myself saying, “What is the world?” and so full of thoughts that I could mungkin write a philosophy book.

I try to watch Top Chef in flight but really I’m watching my mind spin in circles. And then I’m writing this, feeling I can’t process words right now, but still the pencil is moving across the page. They are talking about omelets. There is no sign of frying oil. That Southern accent is a seat away from me. And I am content.

——-

And my skin is so dry when I’m not sweating profusely on the Equator. I feel like I need to be bathed in lotion and chapstick and re-hydration oils (is that a thing in the world?) And it’s cold and I love blankets and still my brain is hurting.

——-

I’m home from school, I’m in a second phone call with program staff, I’m leaving Wednesday, it’s decided, I’m needing to prepare my things. I’m in robot mode, pulling things out of the dresser and tossing them into home and donate piles. I’m talking out loud “Take home. Donate. Donate. Donate. What am I doing. Donate. Keep going. Take home..”

I come up with a giant pile of I don’t see any sense in transporting whatever this is stuff. Once news has spread, the housekeeper and my host sister have at it like Muslims on the first Christmas morning they’ve never seen.

“Really?” they say, “You no bring this?”

“No, no want, take already!”

Mifta gets so involved in taking my things that she even tries to take my last hanging towel off the wall hook.

“Mifta, I still have to mandi tomorrow!” I say.

“Oh, iya, iya, sorry!”

“It’s ok, Mifta. You can take it tomorrow. Just wait first.”

——-

The moving sidewalk/”Travellator” of Singapore’s terminals is so technological and metallic and uncomfortably swift feeling after one stretch that I have to move to the safety of the carpet and use my legs to walk human-paced through the remaining lengths.

——-

And I’m on my second episode of Top Chef and could barely tell you a thing that’s happened.

——-

I do know that hot water comes out of the airplane’s sink!

——-

My Bapak looks at my things, my stuffed bag, the stacks of stuff I’m leaving. This, he says, pointing the the big green exercise ball. You not want bring this? Why?

As if, Bapak, I could bounce that giant thing onto an airplane…

——-

My Ibu, before seeing me off, asks if I really want to carry that guitar with me. Like terrorist, Sophie, she says, In movies terrorists always bring guitars.

——-

Delta’s herbed focaccia rectangle with deli meat tastes like gourmet to me.

——-

Southern boy does ask where I’m coming from post-landing.

“So what, you in Singapore on business?”

Ha. Do I look like i”ve been in Singapore on business?

“No, I was actually in Indonesia.”

“Oh, what for? Just visiting?”

“No, I’ve been there a year.”

“Oh, doing what?”

“I was in the Peace Corps, teaching English, now I’m coming home early.”

“Oh, what made you decide?”

Seriously. Are you seriously going to keep asking me questions. Try as I did my eyes did not allow a minute of sleep on that six-hour flight.

And then… “So what are you gonna do when you get home?”

Oh my god. I appreciate your accent. It’s wonderful, really. But you just have GOT to stop asking me questions. I’m dying. Please stop, now.

——-

And I half want to buy a snack in the Tokyo airport but between the weirdness of the US dollars now in my wallet and the Japanese currency symbol and the Japanese-ness of the products themselves, I just walk in a couple of circles instead.

——-

My student has been texting, sending words of goodbye and Ya’Allah miss and I love you and the sort. Then she says, Miss, Dina says miss already married and have child. Is it true miss?

Oh lord, I guess a sudden leave is good cause for the desa rumor mill to start churning. No, that is not true, I say.

Really miss? Are you sure?

——-

At site you find these sort of “havens” I think– these certain people around whom you can be and know that, to a comforting enough extent, your character and our human-ness is appreciated and understood.

For me, these were Kiky, Bu Eddie, the teachers in the school canteen. I could sit and feel as if nothing was so expected, nothing so under observation. And now I’m sitting feeling like the whole world is a haven– at least the world into which I’m stepping. I’m not the outsider, I’m just one among more ones.

——-

People are throwing around words like San Francisco, Florida Gators, Hilton Head. Where am I?

——-

There are so many less babies!!!! Much less? Fewer? Many fewer? errr….much fewer?

——-

The water in the water fountain is so, so cold.

——-

The crossword puzzle is impossible. 23 Across says Other side. I’m staring at it, dazed, writing sebelah lain in the margin, as that’s the only thought arising. The flight attendant hits me in the head with his elbow. Ow.

——-

Now I’ve ordered a glass of red wine and holy sheeeet Delta is liberal with the servings. I’m scared I will fall into the lap of the Asian but non-Indonesian man next to me and spill out-of-PC transitionary observations on life to his uncomprehending ears.

——-

The shrimp on my plane plate looks factory produced compared to those fried, fried, tail-on, head-on, whole crunch, straight from the pantai things Ibu served up. Ya know, maybe they are factory-made…

——-

And there is turbulence and I think of Mt. Bromo erupting but those have no correlation, I am sure.

——-

It is absurd, really it is just crazy, that I can get this plentiful red wine complimentary on my Delta flight but must naik a bus six hours from site to Surabaya for an expensive wine bottle in a store that, even in the capital, seems like it doesn’t really belong in the country. It’s tragic, actually. Tragedy in non-red-wine form.

——-

I imagine the plane dropping. I can’t help it, ok. We are just bumping. I’m holding the wine but not sipping it for fear it will splash. And i’m thinking that if I’ve felt anything within the past five days it’s that things are connected, little wheels turning everywhere, getting things where they need to be in the world. And I need to see my Grandma. I won’t not see my Grandma. The plane is not meant to fall. Just wait for smoothness. It has to come.

——-

And the plane on the moving map touches the western tip of Alaska. The Spanish image says Mar de Bering and Estados Unidos. Languages. So many! The English image shows yellow dots on Alaskan cities. Fish Village. Mountain Village! Maybe America and Java are not so different after all…

——-

Coming out of the lavatory I do the Indonesian thing where I bend forward slightly and put my hand out front to politely pass by the waiting passengers.

——-

The Detroit airport is a weirdly quiet igloo.

——-

People are calling me darling, sweetie, honey.

And what was the purpose of your trip to Indonesia? says Mr. Immigration.

Uh, I was in the Peace Corps.

Well, welcome home, sweetie.

I’d smile in response if I had any connection to my brain right now.

——-

Nashville is so simple, so clean, so not intimidating, like a storybook. The Delta employee helping with my lost bag tells us to have a blessed day. Tracking that bag was 10 thousand million times easier than doing anything, ever, in an Indonesian bank.

——-

There are people sitting in rocking chairs next to the baggage claim. I laugh out loud. Is this life or Cracker Barrel?

——-

It’s so green, like landing on a bed of broccoli. I’ve never seen so many treetops as on this plane landing in my whole entire life.

——-

And we make it to the house without seeing any other people on the roadside. There aren’t people sitting, watching, squatting, talking, hanging, eating. It’s just quiet, calm, noiseless. So free of interruptions, of chaos, of people packed tight.

——-

We go to a taco restaurant and I think, oh my god, I might have to get a job in a cave. I don’t know if I can handle this.

——-

Everything is cold. Me, the dishes. My breakfast spoon is heavy. The milk is good, but like, artificially cold. The air is a quiet coldness. But a good quiet. A pressure-free and liberating quiet. If I weren’t freezing to death I’d take advantage of the fact that I can now wear a tank top.

——-

Mom calls. We’re heading later to her and Grandma in Alabama. It’s just my Mom and hospice, I believe, waiting with her in the house.

This morning Grandma asked where her doll is, she says, explaining that Grandma has reverted to a child-like state. Your doll? I said to her. I don’t know Mama, what’s your doll? You knowwww, Grandma said…Sophie!

And I’m assured, despite the inexplicable weirdness that has been the past week, I’ve done what is right.

🙂

Some Scenes of Late

—-First, a glowing scene….

We glowed, we did it, we did it! The volunteers, the participants, the counselors. Our camp iGLOW was successful and ran surprisingly smoothly, thanks to attention to detail as we planned. Rather than trying to explain the entire four days of activities, I will describe the final evening’s candle ceremony, as it was one of the most telling, glowing, and entertaining portions of the whole GLOW shebang.

We instructed counselors to wake the girls from their sleeping rooms about 30 minutes after “bedtime,” whispering that they were going to a secret place for something special and to please follow along. Counselors led the 85 participants in a single file walk around campus, landing eventually at the open area near their sleeping rooms where we volunteers and a handful of counselors were ready and waiting with candles in recycled (yay for our go green efforts) plastic cups. Girls walked into circle formation and counselors distributed candles. The two counselors who volunteered to introduce the ceremony and begin the wish-making and flame-passing took their place in the circle’s center and we looked on. Part of camp planning meant putting activity execution into the trust of trained Indonesian counterparts. They did well (some remarkably well) but the Indonesian flair woven into everything took some surprising turns, as what ensued next will show.

The first Ibu begins her explanation, addressing Allah, addressing the girls. She thanks them for their hard work over the weekend, reminding them that they are the young generation of Indonesian women, that with perseverance (and prayer), they can go far. She speaks in a motivational tone, in this overly expressive way that Indonesians adapt in the story-telling performances, poetry-reading performances, and speech contests that happen often over here. She explains that each member of the circle, participants, counselors and volunteers alike, will make a wish and then light their candle, passing the flame to the person by their side.

Ya Allah, she begins, saya ingin (I wish)…

for my body to be healthy.
Somewhere in the course of that phrase a sob emerges, and Ibu is left in tears. The subsequent Ibu makes a wish, resulting in her own sobs. The flame is carried to a counselor in the circle, and the passing and wishing begins as the tears inch along. When the flame has just passed through the volunteers, a nearby counselor’s cup catches fire, resulting in a fast and dramatic throwing backwards of the cup. She says a single word, the noun form of grill (really meaning ‘caught fire’), after thrusting her arm back, and calmly resumes a forward-facing position in the circle that’s growing more tear-filled by the second. By the glowing end, I think that only about 10% of the circle (volunteers included) was not crying. And when I say crying I mean (for the most part) tears plus whimpering plus shoulder shaking— a whole body cry. Meanwhile, Melanie and I are trying not to burst into laughter at the fact that that particular Ibu caused the one dramatic interruption in the solemnity. She’d been causing small frustrations and making odd appearances all weekend long..

Then, tears still flowing, the circle slowly reshapes itself into two lines, participants passing through other participants and counselors, offering each a handshake and a spoken I’m sorry. This happens during the holidays, families going to their neighbors’ to apologize. I guess it also happens during wish-making ceremonies, initiated in an unspoken but natural feeling way. It was touching, though odd, too, trying to think of how to respond to a crying student who is shaking your hand and saying “I’m so sorry, Ms. Sophie.”

Well, child, you didn’t do anything wrong..
I’m sorry too..
Thanks..?

It’s like there are these feelings of guilt instilled in them that I wish someone could cancel. Perhaps iGLOW at least put a layer of empowerment in there. We learned from the candle ceremony, that those involved were, at the very least, moved by the camps’ activities, and motivated, too, I hope. I know they felt like they went through something– something important, but it will be interesting to see to what extent the skills they learned can translate into real life, as many of the girls’ home environments present challenging foundations for strong, independent selves. As volunteers, I guess we can only hope for the best and keep going, keep glowing on.

(I’m only kind of kidding..)

—– Second, the scene upon my return to school…

I finally returned to normal school this week after weeks of glowing and testing. I walked in to groups clustered, conversing, teachers asking if I have heard the news. I had not, so I was filled in quickly. The daughter of Pak Imam and Bu Mia, an SMA teacher and administrator, was killed Sunday morning in a motorbike accident just after leaving home. She was a freshman in university, on her way back to school after returning for her mom’s birthday. As is the way here, all the teachers went straight to Pak Imam’s home after school to offer condolences, eat rice together, and pray. I ikut-ed, arriving last and sweatiest thanks to my non-motorbike. I found my way to the open spot in the guest-lined walls in the women’s visiting area (men and women are separated at these gatherings) and ended up right next to Pak Imam and Bu Mia’s eldest daughter, just about my age.

We introduced ourselves, she tried out her English on me. “My sister is die,” she says. I tell her that I’m so sorry to hear the news, transitioning us to the topic of age and university studies as that seems like a more comfortable conversational train. She says she’s in her final semester, studying engineering.

“Would you like to come to Malang with me?” she asks, “Maybe you can be like my sister since mine is gone.” She apologizes for her English, which is actually quite good.

“So fast,” she says, “My sister was gone so fast. She..” and then, interrupted by the realization that prayers have begun, she bows her head with her hands facing upward, one rested atop the other, like the rest of the Ibus in the room. I take the extended head-bent-down time to think how sad it is, the loss of this sister, and how sweet it is, her openness towards me, a stranger just minutes before. Once that train of thought ends, I study the floor mat placed beneath us, which shows colorful labeled pictures of pick-up trucks, ice cream trucks, and trucks in other varied forms.

Mid-prayer, the sister runs to the kitchen for something. Post-prayer, we are passed bowls of rice, eat quickly, and then stand up to file out. Teachers form a line, shaking hands with Bu Mia, Pak Imam, and their eldest daughter. I am last in this line thanks to the fact that my leg fell asleep, as it always does when I ikut one of these prayer things and have to sit on it for too long. I lean patiently against the wall, trying not to let out an expletive that would attract attention away from the emotional handshakes and cheek-touchings going on just to my right. When I finally file out and reach Pak Imam, who I had yet to see, he holds my hand extra long, his eyes tear-filled. “Sophie, my daughter already died,” he says.

Goodness, it was sad to see him say that. Pak Imam has been dad-like towards me ever since I got here. He’s the one teacher who still asks if I’m brave enough to cross the main road on my bicycle, if he should follow along on his motorbike to ensure that I’m safe. I’ve visited his home but he was never quite satisfied because I hadn’t managed to visit yet when this daughter was there.

“My daughter wants to meet you, Sophie. You come to our home when she’s here again,” he would say.

Whenever I’m on the school’s computer, I can count on Pak Imam to say, “Fiii?” in his deep voice. I turn around and see him at his desk through the doorframe, smiling, smoking, seeming all manly (in the Indonesian sense of the word).

“Gut morning, Fi. I am fine,” he says, with his best English effort, as if I’ve implicitly asked how he’s doing, and nods his head. He wants to take me fishing, wants to repair my broken sunglasses, wants me to call him if ever there is a problem on the jalan. And I didn’t realize how sweet this offering of family-like attention here is until seeing one of those attention-givers distraught at his own family’s loss.

—–Third, a not-so-sad little scene at my rumah…

Pak Halim mentioned a couple of weeks ago that he has an artifact he keeps in the house– it’s a bit of a secret, but I can see it. Mifta has seen it, Ibu has seen it. He uses it, sometimes, with his close friends. He was gifted this “thing” because a friend was told in a dream that he should have it. I’ve just washed my bowl after dinner when the time seems right and Pak says he will get it out. He comes back with a 6-inch something wrapped in gauze.

“Ahhh, ini,” he says, in his knowing way, as if I should already be impressed.
He unwinds the wrapping, revealing a thin pipe-like thing with small carvings encircling it.
“Ahhhhhh, ini,” he says again, as if now I should really be impressed.

Oh, one of those things that come by the hundreds in Bali’s marketplaces, I think.
“So what do you do with this?” I ask.

“If I have a question, I ask it. It tells me the right answer. If others have a question, they ask it, but they have to ask me, and then I ask this.”

My Bapak, the channeler of answers.

He proceeds into a lengthy explanation of a time when a woman’s relative passed away in an accident, his body floating away in the river. They couldn’t find the body, but she asked Pak Halim, who asked little stick, who clarified if the body was less or greater than 500 meters from such and such point, and then clarified at what time the body would appear there, and out in the woods, by the river, wherever (some details lost in lengthy translation) voila!, just at the stick-designated time and distance, the body of the deceased showed up.

“Ahhh, ini,” he says.
Ahhhhh, this, I think.
“If you believe it,” he offers, “We can ask.”

He rises and returns with a weathered, tall clay vase. It’s the kind that’s wide and round at the bottom but has a long, thin neck. He explains that the vase is used only when two people are present. We sit across from each other, Indian style, each with a finger below the rim around its mouth. The vase, both of us applying pressure, is easily lifted. It does not turn to either side but stays straight. Pak says some sort of prayer, invoking higher powers to “enter” him and answer his questions. He lays little stick across the mouth of the vase, and we set our fingers in ready-to-lift place. He asks if Bu Tib really, truly loves him. If yes, move, if no, be calm. He nods, and we lift. A half spin counterclockwise, our fingers pointing sideways..

“Ahhhhhh, itu,” he says, “It knows!”
“It’s true, ya?” he asks.

He’s waiting, I can tell, for my declaration of overwhelming amazement. I don’t ever give that overwhelming declaration, as I don’t think it’s hard for a human finger to spin a vase. But it’s fascinating to me that he quite literally consults this thing in times of need. If it’s only him, he says, the vase is replaced by a string that holds little stick by both ends, horizontally. He dangles it, asks, and waits a moment. Sometimes it spins, sometimes it stays. So now I imagine Pak Halim sitting alone in confusion on a cold tile floor, a stick on a string his conversation partner. I don’t know if it makes me more amused or concerned, though I do know that any time I need an answer, I’ve been promised I need only ask and the trusty vase will come out. I guess I don’t have to worry about making any more decisions for the next year. What a lucky girl I am!

——And finally, a brief scene at the police station…

Adhy, the ATM key keeper, has accompanied me to the police station to get a form confirming the loss of my bank card and booklet. (One was the ATM’s fault, one was mine.) It has been a frustrating day plus of back and forth between the bank and police office trying to figure out how I can get a new card when both of these things are lost. Finally, we’re making progress, though I’ve almost had it with frustration in both places, thanks to the dead-ends and circular reasoning, the standing in clusters and saying “How? How?” over and over again, the wanting only to take pictures of me and not comprehending a sense of urgency, or at least urgency that’s some step above yes I know it’s already been 5 days, but maybe next week, information will come…

Adhy is the life-saver in the situation, finding solutions and prodding along the other men. We’re sitting, waiting, they trail into Madurese conversation.

“E pada thedung e bengkona,” says Adhy.
“She understands that!” says a policeman, also in Madurese.
“You understand that?” Adhy looks at me.
“E pada thedung e bengkona,” I repeat, “Tidur bersama di rumah.”
(Sleep together at my house, he intended..)
“Yes, I understand that.”

Deep breath. Even the helpful ones, damn it. Thank god for your presence to figure out the bank situation. But please, Adhy, do not take this conversation to that level of discomfort.

No, we will not sleep together at your house.

🙂

Almost a Year!

or Almost a Year?
or Almost a Year…
(cause I don’t know what fits best)

As of April 2nd, I will have been in this country for a year. A year! What in the name of Allah. When the realization sinks in (in the half sunken in but never really going to be sunken in way that those time realizations go), I can only think, that’s crazy.

I think, what have I been doing for a year over here?
Really…..what have I been doing?

Well…let’s see…last week was a holiday for the 10th and 11th grades (and thus, me) thanks to a casual last minute announcement of 12th grade testing. Soo, I worked sporadically on iGLOW things (that’s important), read (I guess that’s important), went to Surabaya and had wine and Italian food (for mental health, important), bought tickets to Thailand (for refreshment, important!), lounged in front of the fan (useless), picked at the guitar (necessary), wrote a poem (questionably important), wrote a song (questionably important), played with the baby (important for the baby?), engaged in a drawn out and very Indonesian attempt to politely refuse becoming the face of some artifact locals found and hope to “share with the world” via YouTube (lord, not important), swept ants astray from their determined marches (sorry, ants), found new music (questionably important), ate chocolate chip cookies and fried snails with my English club (an interesting juxtaposition) aaand….spent a lot of time on buses?

This weekend is iGLOW, our long-planned and highly anticipated girls’ leadership camp. This will be important, and I can’t wait to see what comes of it, though it comes as a productive hump in this stretch of time during which I am starting to feel like I will never again be at school.

That’s not true. I will be at school again. And for some reason one week away feels like two months away. But in the near future there’s still break, after break, after camp, after test, after interruption to come…

I’m not complaining. Give me a writing utensil and perhaps a guitar and I’m content with no structured “job” to occupy me for days on end. Give me wine and Italian food with that (or a ticket to Thailand) and I don’t think it could get better. Alas, both of those require a sufficient amount of journeying and are not quite so suited for a Peace Corps budget. Not to mention that that’s not what I’m “supposed” to be doing here. But what am I supposed to be doing? I think this is a question that greets every PCV time and again..

Perhaps there’s not one good answer. Perhaps there are many little things we do daily– being friendly, adapted, attempting understanding– that fall into the “duties” category within our volunteer role. But then there’s the English teaching, the skills building, the small change inciting that happens along this start-stop Indonesian time frame in such a way that it becomes necessary, I think, to be comfortable doing nothing and something at the same time here.

In talking to some of the ID-5 volunteers about the Peace Corps service time frame, one mentioned the difficulty of initially connecting with volunteers who arrive when you’re a year into service. That will be the ID-7’s, landing in Indonesia just two weeks from now (!), making my group, the ID-6’s, the “experienced” class. It’s exciting to think of 55 new faces popping up right here in Java, and I don’t anticipate a total lack of connection at all, really. But I get what the older volunteers meant. There’s this thing– an understanding, as one put it. “We were waiting for the understanding to happen to you,” she said, “it comes about 6 months after being at site.”

An understanding. Hmm…

I understand! I get it! I’m six plus four months at site into this. I’m not sure I know how to explain it, but I’ll make an attempt. It’s like… this realization that a lot of what you had imagined or idealized being possible is not going to come to fruition in the way you had hoped. This vision of site through fresh eyes seeking space for adventure and assisting wares down a bit. It doesn’t go away– it just takes on a new shape, a realistic shape, a shape that can work its awkward sides into this strange Indonesian thing that isn’t the same, no matter which way you look at it, as the thing I came here with or grew up on.

I don’t do amazing things daily. I don’t see fruits of my labor falling from the mango trees in ripe, succulent, life-changing form. I don’t get expected results from my efforts. Some days I don’t even get an effort-making chance. But sometimes I do, and sometimes there’s a tangible outcome, and sometimes I even get a result unexpected from an effort unplanned. And there remain potentials for a handful of fruits– one student, one counterpart, one neighbor, one program– to turn into just that kind of ripeness (though still perhaps not the kind you expected) that could make two years of wondering what in the heck you’re doing here but learning from its ups and downs and confusions and milestones worthwhile. But I start from a point of expectation that’s perhaps a half-a-world of steps down from the one I had a year ago. And the steps themselves look different, too… if that makes sense…

And at the end of the day, there’s this understanding that it’s only life in another place over here. I have a job different than any I’ve had previously. But I have similar well what if wonderings as I’d have anywhere else. (What if I just tried to be a pedicab driver instead for a day? a market seller? an artist’s assistant? I could write a poem about it…make a collection of them… Would that be more satisfying than “helping” a counterpart who leaves to go to the bank by leading an exercise on the present future tense?)

The pace, the resources, the available modes of entertainment, took a bit of adjusting. Local language habits result in far too many conversations begun by things that don’t need saying (You’re already home. What? No, this is my ghost. I’m still at school, actually.) and people request far stranger things of me (ie. that YouTube video) than they would (I hope) somewhere else. My existence is blown up by those who only observe me into some magnificence that’s a direct result of my foreignness, while those I know as people and I mesh our personalities into relationships spanning the spectrum of rewarding, comfortable, awkward, frustrating, friendly, you name it (just don’t name romantic) like any array of relationships I’d have anywhere else.

A day is a day, a society is a society, a result requires patience, and I am the same.

The parts of my brain that say you’re helping, you’re trying, you’re having an adventure, appreciate it don’t always outweigh the parts of my brain that say good lord, we are running in Indonesian circles, I just want a beer, casually intellectual conversation and UNC not losing during March Madness in a bar, please. But sometimes they do. Enough times, really. I only can’t always predict which kind of day (or which kind of hour!) it will be.

I’ve learned, I’m learning, and I’ll keep on learning, that’s for certain. But there are things I know beyond my certainty of knowing that will not, no matter where you plop me in the Muslim or non-Muslim, Peace Corps or non-Peace Corps, idealized adventure or familiar home world, change.

I don’t like logistics. I’m not good at handling them. I’d rather do things myself than ask a question. I prefer to think in the abstract. I waver between overly distracted and overly focused. My psych major side wishes I could just listen to and solve the emotional dissatisfaction of my Ibu neighbor or students instead of introducing a lesson. My anth major side wishes I could just observe Indonesian classroom behavior and deduce theories about it instead of carrying that lesson out.

And when all the assigned tasks are taken away from me, the thing I find most satisfying is creativity. Poems, songs, sentences. I don’t remember if I thought that going to all corners of the world would aid me in settling on a line of work that’s more straight-shooting and reliable, or if I thought that I needed more in the way of varied experiences to make interesting sentences take shape. The first of these thoughts– it just isn’t going to happen. The second thought, I stand by. Everyone could use a jalan-jalan to spark perspective evaluating and idea gathering in any unknown corner of the world. And I’d like to keep jalan-ing around this time next year when my group becomes the ones who have to figure out where it is we’re going next.

But in an unexpected way, I feel like I can see a destination to the jalan-ing (or an attempted structure behind the jalan-ing) that I couldn’t previously pinpoint. Last Thursday, I turun-ed from a bus ride from an iGLOW meeting, thought I was tired, sat down, picked up the guitar, and out plopped (and I mean plopped…like in a shit I didn’t even know I was pregnant but now there’s this living, growing thing I must nurture manner) the words and melody to a song more country than anything I thought I had inside. Maybe this isn’t surprising. Dad said the apple didn’t fall far. And in the past year and three-quarters since I started this guitar learning business, I’ve been terrifying myself with a hinging inkling that perhaps I’d most like (Allah-willing its potential as something more than a hobby that leaves me living roadside) to write songs.

Who knows if they should be country. I don’t think it matters, currently. Most that have plopped out are not country. (I’d say I’d like to fall back on poems, but that’s an even more roadside-bound trajectory..) I think all that matters is that I let myself admit that I actually do have a dream of a desired direction once this Indonesian village living thing is all said and done. And I feel like it has been slowly tapping on my shoulder but decided to hit me in the face this week, thanks to too much guitar-piddling time in the wake of another Indonesian holiday.

So that’s where I stand over here now, a year into things: scaring myself with the realization that what I just might most want quite literally terrifies me, but thankful that I have a year more of these current happenings to focus on before I have to make a decision as to what’s next.

It all seems a bit crazy. A year here, a year there, a year longer. It’s noteworthy, it’s valuable, it’s hard, it’s not hard, it’s something, it’s nothing, it’s thought-provoking…and it’s strange.

That’s a positive thing– an ever-stimulating thing– in case you’re wondering in which direction I’m leaning. And I’ll report back on how Indonesia’s young female leaders respond to the slew of nutrition maintaining, team building, baby making, goal setting information they’re about to be flooded with (in an atmosphere that GLOWs more than you ever thought GLOWing was possible) post-camp. 🙂

Some Deliciousness, Some Not Deliciousness, Some Signs of De-evolution

There’s this weird contrast happening as I’m here longer and longer. I become more comfortable in my surroundings, more capable of handling Indonesian logistics, more ‘myself’ in certain relationships. I take these things as positives; they make me feel at ease, accomplished. But the fact that the positive side of things is progressing as such makes another side of things all the more frustrating– the talk that’s directed at someone unaware of this culture and language, the introductory conversations and misconstrued “America” conversation that was acceptable at the very beginning, I guess, but now just seems to discount the fact that I’ve been at site for almost nine months.

The conversations. Their repetitiveness. Their repetitiveness that’s been repeating this whole time now. In the beginning, it was okay for people to wonder if Indonesian food was cocok (fitting) with my stomach. But after 11 months in country and the fact that I am living and breathing daily, walking, bicycling, interacting, talking, do you still need to ask me if I can eat this country’s food? I haven’t died, have I? Or to ask me to list what foods I’ve tried here. Do you really want me to tell you all the dishes that, over 11 months, have entered my mouth?

And the placement of negatives. Why do you ask me these questions with negatives in them? I swear they would frustrate me infinitely less if you just asked it with a positive spin that reflects the likelihood that, during my time here, I have done something other than sit and fail to understand.

Selama di sini, tidak pernah jalan jalan?
While here, you’ve never walked? (ie. you’ve never been anywhere)

What do you mean. I’ve been here for 11 months. Of course I’ve walked. And no, not only to Jangkar, the beach 20 minutes north of here. Yes, now I will list, per your request, the Kabupatens (and other islands. woah. shocker.) that I have visited and watch your expression change as you sort of maybe realize that your question, phrased like that, was a ridiculous one.

Kalau malam, tidak pernah ke luar, ya?
At night, you never go outside, ya?

What do you mean. I’ve been here for 11 months. No, I don’t have a nightly social routine that involves carrying myself to the young person hang out spot (the wi-fi sporting coffee shop) but, in all the nights I’ve been here, yes, I have ever been outside. Sometimes, I use my feet to walk somewhere. Sometimes, I go to the neighbor’s. Sometimes, I go with Kiki to that hang out spot. Sometimes, I go to an acara. Sometimes, I ride my bike. Sometimes (most times), I read in my rumah and wish that that coffee shop were a wine bar full of artistically inclined and internationally minded young professionals from the world over that stayed out past 9 pm and didn’t abide by the mosque’s loud speakers, but hey….you can’t win ‘em all…

Bahasa Madura tidak bisa, ya?
You can’t speak Madurese, ya?

And then they say tak ngerrrte or (in Indonesian) tak mengerti or (in English) doesn’t understand.
And I say, saya mengerti. I understand.
And they say, aduhh! Ngerrte! interjection signaling amazement. Understands.

And I wonder why it is so very amazing when tak ngerrrte and tak mengerti sound almost the exact same minus the extra-rolled ‘r’ and the inflection with which it rings.

And then we continue.

Berati, bisa bahasa Madura? Soo…you can speak Madurese?
Ummm, niq-sakoniq. A little.
Apa bisanya? What can you? Kalau ‘enkoq’ apa itu? ‘Enkoq’– what is that?
Saya. I.
Aduhhh! Pintar, ini! interjection signaling amazement. Smart, this one!

‘Enkoq’ is I. I have been here for nine months. Don’t you think that ‘I’ is probably the first word I learned in my Bahasa Madura efforts months and months back? Even if I had made no efforts, I would have learned the word ‘enkoq’ simply from hearing it said every day on either side of my head in all directions. I am not flattered by your declaration that I am smart. Rather, it concerns me with the thought that we need to revisit some basic facts about the human mind.

There is this process, you see, whereby when an input is repeatedly placed at your attention, be it for a handful of minutes, a handful of hours, or a handful of months, your brain begins to make sense of it. It takes what once appeared novel, perhaps confusing, and sorts it into something intelligible. It even begins to figure out how it might imitate the process all by itself.

We call this phenomenon learning. I have been learning here in Asembagus. Fast-paced sort of angry sounding clatter has entered my head daily and, in the course of many months, it has begun to make sense. Don’t you want to know if I can say the cardinal directions or make a full sentence? Don’t you want to know if I can name the times of day or tell you what I will do tomorrow or say “already! let it be,” with an accent like Ibu has?

It would be amazing if a full-length story came out of my mouth as quickly as those noises come out of yours and with the same soul-filled trill behind each ‘r’ sound. But that didn’t happen. I said ‘I’. It wasn’t that special. It’s no more impressive, really, than the fact you can say “yes yes yes.”

Okay. I’ll stop venting. I only needed to write those answers out so that I don’t say them to the next innocent Indonesian who really only wants to hear a white person speak their local dialect.

A nearby volunteer on a recent visit expressed the concern that we are “devolving.” Is that happening? Maybe…
Devolving, detaching, de-something, I think..

I think what’s happening is that I’m getting dumber due to lack of intellectual stimulation. Or I’m achieving the amount of stimulation needed through reading and internet-surfing efforts but the conversation about the sources of stimulation necessary to make that material manifest itself in the form of intellect dies somewhere beneath the sound of calls to prayer, shouts of delicious or not delicious, and poor english grammar that I accept as sufficiently correct because, compared to what could be produced, it really does look good.

But. Who said life’s about building intellect day in and day out? I’m certainly building my base of experiences over here. And that’s something I’ll never question no matter how much I question the weight of the day-to-day conversation that plops its lazy and circular Madurese rear on the cushions of my taught-to-think-critically and in forward progressions, Western mind.

I wore a skirt to school on Thursday. It was a day highly anticipated by the teachers who had the skirt made for me. “Heart red”, knee length, pencil(ish) silhouette, one pocket on the right hand front. I was the only calf-showing member of the whole school community. And I felt it. I felt the attention, not really in a good way or a bad way. Just in a way that reawakened the fact that I’m not a regularly circulating member of the life cycle that’s all that most of Asembagus will ever know. I made certain with the teachers that it was okay for me to wear it. As I’m not at a religiously based high school, and I don’t wear a veil, they all promised it was fine.

Wear it already!
It’s no problem?
Well. The students may look at your legs. But don’t worry. It’s okay.

The odd thing is, I know that I wore a knee length skirt to school way back during my first week. It was before I was teaching, before I had become a regular something. It was before I could put faces with names, personalities with people, before I knew the protocol of sitting in the teachers’ room, sitting in the canteen, waiting to see the principal, entering class..

And I wear knee length things around town all the time, when I’m not supposed to be in some position of “respected authority.” But wearing it at school didn’t pass so unremarked this week. It was like a rebirth. Pak Imam insisted that not only was my skirt new but also my earrings (I wear them at least twice a week) and my beauty. Bu Hassana, the hilariously forceful gym teacher, squealed, cried “Fiii,” and spanked me. (Really.) Other teachers said “sexyy!” in front of students. (Really again.) Some students had that same palpable anxiety as I circulated their desks offering assistance as they had the first few times I (in pants) entered their class.

I’m noticing that I keep wanting to use the word ‘enter’…perhaps this is another sign of devolving…using one word to catch far more meanings than it would catch in a vocabulary that spans far and wide.

Anyway, my skirt-clad self wanted to say to students, be free! Unseen forces won’t punish you. (Here’s where devolving comes in again: when I see a knee length skirt as pure freedom) But then I had some sort of allergic reaction all over my body on that very day, so maybe something was punishing me……hmm…

I don’t know what happened. In my whole life I have never had an allergic reaction like that. I don’t even have any allergies. But Wednesday I had nice red dots popping up from my ears to my toes. Luckily they vanished, for the most part, after 24 hours. I’ll let you know (and then posit some theories on God) if it happens again the next time I mold young Indonesian minds while showing my calves.

I’ve been giving my students Candy Hearts and Hot Tamales as prizes for participating. It’s amazing how much more control one young teacher can have when there is a small American candy at stake. At first, I was having students share the message on their Candy Heart reward. It turned a little awkward though with the “Marry Me” heart, which, translated into Indonesian, is essentially an invitation to [insert word here that rhymes with duck]. The students asked for the meaning and my counterpart offered a calm, “It doesn’t matter,” urging the lesson onward. After the lessons I got questions like, in America, everything is delicious, isn’t it?

No, dear child, America, though filled with Candy Hearts one month a year, is not a utopia. It’s just a more developed and diverse place in this same crazy world…

The Hot Tamales were almost like punishment, if unintended. That kick of cinnamon doesn’t translate well to the Indonesian palate, it seems. They thought it was hilarious though– like I tricked them into eating something ‘not delicious.’ And even the ones who hated it at first were willing to fight for another because of its novelty and its source. In true communal fashion, the winners divided their Hot Tamale among friends and table-mates . I saw a single Hot Tamale split into four pieces. Leave it to Indonesians to make sure that an already bite-sized portion is enough to go around.

Beyond bearing my calves and distributing Hot Tamales, much of my time lately has gone to working on GLOW, a girls’ leadership camp held in many Peace Corps countries, that will make its first appearance in East-East Java in just four short weeks. There will be team-building, there will be inspiration, there will be sex talk. There will be adorably motivated girls from ten schools attending. There will be Suci, my class 10-1 student, who I think is just the kind of caring, creative, intelligent but self-confidence-lacking student who needs this three-day you girls can really do something with yourselves message to put some pep in her step. One day, this camp will get a whole blog post, but for now I’ll just mention that it’s on the horizon and English-Indonesian materials are being cranked out thanks to the effort of patient and willing to try to understand what on Earth these Peace Corps volunteers are trying to start over here souls.

Alright, I think that’s all for now. I can’t believe it’s March. Time is flying. We kind of had a rainy season last week. How out of the ordinary. I actually got rained on on my bicycle. And not one but three times! But now it’s already the month when they tell me the rainy season will end. Hmm…

🙂

Valentine’s Day Update

(that only has a little bit to do with valentines)

I’m not sure I know what to say anymore with certainty that it will be interesting. That’s the weird thing about all these living abroad blogs. The goal is to keep blogging long after you really feel like you live somewhere “different”, and the keen eye that once noticed things of definite interest becomes like another of many eyes inside a society that’s just going, doing, living, like any society anywhere else. My ability to observe dies then resurfaces, leaving me feeling a part of things, not a part of things, a part of things all over again..

Whatever my perspective, though, it doesn’t take away from the fact that things are still happening. Daily, hourly, come noteworthy occurrences. Sometimes I only recognize them as if from a local perspective, sometimes as if through a window-like barrier of foreignness through which I must look. And then come the times when I flip back and forth between these repeatedly, confusing myself. Take the following, for example:

I’m half-hurrying down the stairs with an empty basin that held the wet laundry I hung out to dry earlier. My hair is damp underneath but windblown on top because I’ve been playing guitar with my head directly in front of the fan in the time since I mandi-ed. I’m waiting for teachers from a nearby high school to come inform me of what exactly they’d like me to do when I visit for the next two days. As I round the turn of the stairs, I’m stopped by a young man’s head in the doorway saying saya cari Mbak Sophie (I’m looking for Miss Sophie) to my host sister. I say ini! (This! People refer to themselves and others as this and that here. Evidently, I do also..) And then, as he’s telling me that teachers are waiting out front, I’m thinking

goodness, you are so attractive. Who are you? Did you just come off of the street outside? Do I look frazzled? I think I look frazzled. I just called myself “this”. That was weird. And I don’t find Indonesian men attractive. Something is happening. Agh. What.

I set down the basin, compose myself and fix the state of my hair before going to receive the teachers in the guest room. The young man is still with them, so I figure he’s someone’s son, though I really thought he was only a message carrier from the street outside.

I’m asked to give motivation at the high school and judge their speech competition. I’m good at “giving motivation” these days, though I still don’t know what exactly the instructions mean. Throughout the conversation, had mostly in English, I’m flustered by occasional eye contact with this young man who looks on quietly, as he can’t understand us. I’m still uncertain why I find him so attractive, and I’m thinking that this should perhaps be a warning sign that I need a break from this country/from site.

I imagine the confusion that would ensue if I introduced myself as “this” to a man in America. Imaginings like that are unproductive here, but sometimes they seem like the only reality check. But then I think…well, here is my only reality, at least for now and a significant chunk of time in the future. So what does that mean, even– this thing called reality? And why am I pondering it anyway? I should just be paying attention, sipping my Frestea, planning motivation with these teachers who have brought me their hopeful faces and a loaf of square bread in a plastic bag.

I learn that the “son” is one of the school’s drivers and maintenance men, named Untung (translation: Lucky). He greets me again at 7:30 the next morning (and the next) for the drive to the SMA.

I’m reminded of Untung’s Indonesian-ness as he sings along to butchered English lyrics and laughs at bad vocabulary puns as we’re driving. But I find myself making mental excuses for those oddities (he was raised here, he can’t help it..) and continuing to find him attractive, all the while wondering what in the hell happened (is happening?) to my brain.

I guess when you feel disconnected from “home”, you have to feel connected to what’s around you, and I realized recently how separate from home this world really does feel.

I got news last week that my family’s dog had to be put down. Alone in my room reading the email, looking at his fluffy little picture backed by blue sky, I cried and cried and cried. I Skyped with my parents and kept crying. I read another email and cried again. But as soon as I was on my bike, headed to school, passing the markets, in the classroom, I couldn’t conjure up expressible feelings about it even if I tried to. A stubborn side of me tested others with the news, thinking I’d explain what the death of a dog can mean to an American family, make them get that I was sad and that Skeeter wasn’t trivial. But that failed. Quickly. And so I kept it to myself and found it eerily unchallenging because, to be honest, it’s hard for me to imagine, when I’m interacting over here, that pet dogs even exist.

On the flip side, it’s hard for me to imagine that I can refer to people as this and that, but I guess I do, regardless. So things are becoming subconscious, weirdly natural, weirdly not weird, weirdly in tune.

Last night I dreamed I was with an Indonesian at a Sonic drive-in. She asked me in Indonesian what I’d like to order. I ordered a plain coffee then turned my head to see if the milkshake menu had special holiday shakes. It had no such specialties. Nor did it even have milkshakes. I woke up thinking of Sonic, which I never go to. What an oddly unriveting yet telling sequence of events.

I’m entertained by little things, constantly, finding myself laughing at the structure of my thinking:

I have ever been there, maybe.
I think, it is no problem.
Yes, okay, enough?

Things so common for Indonesians speaking English are slipping into my vocabulary. I really did say “yesterday” when I meant “6 weeks ago.” I say ya with this weird inflection that I’m certain I did not use before.

My students are wonderful. More and more wonderful, weekly.

My English Club turned into Let’s Go to the Beach Club, and we sit in the sand and talk about teenage gossip, culture and, lately, Valentine’s Day. We race and they tire after 20 yards or so. I try to get them to do cartwheels and the attempts are so, so sad. But it’s okay. Children here aren’t enrolled in gymnastics. And hearing them talk about who’s pacars with who and how Evan is gay (they are teasing, though I would make that assumption in a non-Javanese village setting) is like watching a sitcom.

After our Valentine’s discussion, I got a text from Irma, a club member:

*yawn* 5 mins ago. When I was slept, I had a dream about you. In the dream I celebrated the valentine’s day with my teacher, it’s you 🙂

And then, on Facebook:

I wish, my dream will be come true

Aw. That made my heart melt as fast as I think a Reese’s peanut butter heart would melt in this Allah forsaken evasive rainy season (it appeared only to disappear and leave us hot again). I slipped Irma a chocolate bar decorated with a Valentine’s message in the canteen this morning, pleased by just how simple it was to turn her dream into something real.

The entertainment factor hasn’t lessened, whether it be around home, out “walking,” or in the classroom.

My students were given pictures for a comparison exercise recently- simple things like sun and moon, beach and desert, America and Indonesia, rain and snow. They presented their sentences in groups then asked other groups questions about their topic. Because points were awarded for correct answers, these Q & A sessions resulted in some forceful hand raising and projection of non-point-worthy thoughts like this:

Why more pig meat in America?

Because many hunting pigs in America!
Because not cow in America!
Because pig meat make our bodies warm!

Why desert hotter than ocean?

Because it God’s destiny!

Why car in America more expensive?

Because Hollywood actress there!

Students in my smartest class actually managed to have a rather intellectual debate resembling nature versus nurture. They weren’t labeling it as such (it stemmed from a twin comparing activity) but their back and forth about differences caused by environment and differences caused by what’s inherent was worthy of a gold star in my book. In a place where I often feel like I can predict the conversations I will have with people, thanks to their repetitiveness, I’ve developed a new appreciation for disagreement, independent thinking, wanting to challenge others… And to see it from students! And in English! And for a good 15 minutes! Regita and Musdalifa, you are just great.

So these are some things happening of late, whatever category they may fall into. I think I strayed from whatever point I was trying to make originally, but I guess I don’t always have to make a point.

I had one of those rare run-ins with an Indonesian who has spent time in America yesterday (and by that I mean a few days ago). After three months in Hartford, Connecticut, the thing he most wanted to comment on were the libraries that we have in the U.S.

Libraries. Agh. Bookstores. Agh. Coffee shops in bookstores, or just coffee sipped in libraries. Even more agh.

As much as I tell people here to read, and set an example with my constant reading, the feeling of a bookstore that manages to be cozy despite its overwhelmingness is something I may never be able to translate.

Ok, I think that’s all of my rambles for now. Happy Valentines Day to everyone! I hope you appreciate the heart-shaped candies and abundance of arts and crafts supplies in America, as the situation in regards to ease (and frequency) of Valentine making is certainly not the same over here.

🙂

A Poetic Approach

I’ve been reading poems lately- the kind of poems where things aren’t rhyming. Usually I like to rhyme things, but these are just sentences turned verse. So that’s what I have for you. Some poems, if you’d like to call them that. They are in honor of special things- some good, some not so good- but all things that, lately, have come across my mind..

To Bu Eddie
my neighbor

To Class 10-3
my favorites

To the Pak and Ibu Who Let Me Watch Their Child Emerge
so kind of them

To Fatima
stalker

To the Wakil Bupati
the assistant of someone important

To Dragon Fruit
deliciousness

To the Water
H2O

To the Ants
everywhere

And maybe later there will be more, later.. 🙂

Home from the Holidays

Sorry my blog died momentarily. Vacation happened and that’s no good time for concern with things like blogging. But now I’m back in the desa, and time with family in paradise threatens, already, to dissolve to something dream-like. The fact that they came here, sat where I sit now, ate from this rice cooker, should prevent that from fully happening. Just yesterday morning, for instance, the art teacher followed her typical handshake in the teacher’s room with a weirdly Indonesian embrace of sorts.

“Your mother say hug you, miss,” she said.

So there ya go, Mom– you left a little loving mark to be transmitted via Bu Sri. I hope you can sit in Nashville and feel content. 🙂

Knowing that my parents have seen where I walk, where I bike, where I teach, where I visit, makes the two parts of myself that weeks ago still seemed so insufficiently explicable to each other now feel not so distant. The perspective meshing was entertaining, making me realize that I really have started seeing from a desa-informed point of view. As we strolled gracelessly down the main road alongside the mess of motorbikes, pedicabs, ox-drawn carriages, trucks, cars and bicycles, I told my parents of another volunteer’s recent visit. She said my site was “like a modern city,” the main road “wide and shiny.” Mom and Dad thought it was loud, polluted, dirty, hectic– a place to be avoided rather than admired. I guess it’s worth saying that it all just depends on where you’re coming from..

I showed them around my house, pointing out the cleanliness, the fruit-filled refrigerator, the high ceilings.

“It’s like I’m not even in the Peace Corps, isn’t it?” I asked.
“No, honey. It’s exactly like you’re in the Peace Corps…” they said.

They must have been focused on the odd smells, the foreign noises, the fish sitting out for hours…the bare walls, the cold of the all-encompassing tile, the heat of the rain-craving air. And probably other things that I can’t single out at this point. But I’ll leave that perspective for them to fill in and say that the oddness of my own reality sunk in a little more once our vacation began.

Bread and hummus. I think I might write an ode to bread and hummus. That first evening’s dinner of a handmade veggie burger on wheat bread with fresh lettuce and hummus. My palate has never been quite so satisfied. A fellow volunteer and I managed to end the vacation with more bread and hummus, carrying it in the small van that winded us back to our desas as we held on to multigrain remnants of holidays dressed in roasted red pepper form.

My thoughts did a 180 and landed back at some resting place over the course of those two weeks. In the beginning, I was so happy for the freedoms– to be able to wear shorts, a swimsuit, to choose my non-rice meal, to shop for clothes that I don’t need and can’t wear anyway, to enjoy juice served to me in an overabundance of fresh forms. And I thought, this is sad. This is so sad…

All those people in all those villages will never know the pleasure of diving into a swimming pool in a swimsuit and actually swimming, rather than walking into a littered sea in pants and long-sleeves and going under, with fear, just once. And no, Allah didn’t strike me with lightning for having my stomach exposed or doing just as I pleased for one day. And doesn’t the conservativeness, the sheltered-ness, the claustrophobia of that lifestyle, just seem so, so sad?

People are so beautiful, so interesting, when they’re walking around in all shapes and sizes and nationalities; when they’re full of expression, and independence, and opinions shaped by who knows what. I had a headache waiting at the airport Starbucks just processing the Christmas cup in my hand and the worldliness and variety of the people and languages around me. And there, too, I thought how sad it seems, how much I just want to bring my students to sit in that airport Starbucks and look at these people and imagine where they may have come from and what days might be like there and of what their thoughts on things might consist.

And then, a week into the vacation, I was thinking, well…screw that…the villagers might never know these pleasures, but isn’t it my responsibility to myself and my youth to enjoy them? What they don’t know can’t hurt them, but I do know this and I could be living it. Shouldn’t I be indulged, liberated, free from days shaped by a culture and religion that never have been and never will be my own?

When the adorable Ibu hotel owner offered another volunteer and I the invitation to just stay there, to help her, I actually thought we’d need to be driven from the paradise just then to prevent us from quitting and saying yes. Days could feel so simple, so peaceful, so easy. (Go to Murni’s in Ubud and you will agree with me.) And so freeing, and so hummus-filled, and so many, many things more!

Alas, I did not quit. Nor would I even entertain the thought of quitting, now that I’m back here. It’s weird, but I feel more calmly content and capable of focus now than I have yet at site. I thought maybe this would be the toughest time to be here, missing my family and freedoms and hummus (and Murni), but I think the Peace Corps is teaching me to stop thinking that how I think things will be actually has a strong foothold in realistic ground.

Something happened and I feel…well…just…calm. I’m calm in general, let’s be honest. But now I feel like woah, calm. It’s like the new year turned and I just acknowledged that this is where I am, this is where I’ve chosen to be, and this is what’s happening until that calendar runs out and has to be made new all over again (plus a little bit). I think I breathed in Murni’s air and carried it back with me, feeling simply like each day is each day and even within what looks chaotic from the outside (at least from my Mom and Dad’s perspective), I can maneuver and make progress while feeling relaxed.

Now I did get a little over-excited yesterday thanks to the NY Time’s picture-filled 46 Places to Go in 2013 coupled with the large world map on my wall. I literally stood on my desk chair and plotted what route I might take from the nonexistent dot of my desa on East Java through not even enough of the all-too-many sight-worthy places to get me, in some months time, back home. I’m sure the notes I have taken will be dusty a year and a half from now, but, hey, I’ve got plenty to keep me occupied until then.

So…Christmas happened, family happened, vacation happened. It was better than a blog could capture (hence why I’m not going to write out for you the weeks worth of activities), but the tragedy that I thought would be its end is actually turning out to be quite alright.

And with the new year came the rainy season (FINALLY!) to Asembagus. Alhamdullilah, I am not fanning myself with every step, and sleep overlain with the sound and air of the cool downpour is so very, very nice. Turns out that the rain really does pour into that built in hole in the next-to-the-living-room ceiling. It does odd things for a room, just having a downpour in the corner. But it also does odd things for a room when it’s huge with no wall decorations and a foam mattress in the middle of a floor equally as undecorated, so I just accept it, enjoy the cool air, and carry on.

🙂

Miss you Mom and Dad and Jill and Dylan. You know you can come back anytime…

Combining Perspectives

I could use this space to update you on my recent activities…the final weeks of class before testing, our volunteer Thanksgiving efforts, my adventure getting on the wrong bus…but I’d rather write about some quotes on life (don’t worry, I’m not going too deep) that I’ve come across lately. It seems more interesting to me- to consider nearby and distant opinions. From recent reads, there’s Bukowski and there’s Hemingway, and from right in Asembagus, there’s my good ole’ Bapak.

I value all of their opinions, which, despite their differences, offer a surprising amount of room for an overarching conclusion. At least, mungkin…maybe…

I’ll attempt one by one and you can see what you think..

First, there’s Bukowski.

I spent a day and three quarters with my eyes glued or wanting to be glued to my iPad as I touch-screened my way through Ham on Rye. In his laughably depressing commentary, Bukowski told me that:

We [are] all in one big shit pot together. There [is] no escape. We [are] all going to be flushed away.

Now, I’m a hopeful sort…not because I don’t see a doomed side of things, but simply because I attempt to focus on positive potentials. I do understand the impending flush that awaits us. Though here in Indonesia I’d say we’re all in a sweat vat rather than a “shit pot”. And I’m not so sure that a vat of sweat really gets flushed…

Anyway, after devouring disheartening crudeness in the extreme for a day plus, I had to look at my surroundings and laugh, because, if what we have is a shit pot, and if, as I’m certain is the case, no resident of my desa has ever read Bukowski’s opinion that shit is indeed the state of things, then they are going about in their colorful fabrics- sweating, sweeping, smiling, playing, frying, praying, and having a decent old time- without being aware of a possible reality that leaves little room for sincere hope in the grand scheme.

Bukowski found his minuscule joys in alcohol (and women, later), which is certainly not being used as a crutch in these parts…so here I am, amongst neighbors who almost seem to be above the shit pot, beyond the shit pot…somehow living as if in opposition of the shit pot, or so one might think at first glance.

I’m a far, far cry from the impoverished parts of post-depression Los Angeles that colored Bukowski’s first opinions of things. And a far cry, I hope, from the devoid-of-love home life that made those opionions worse. So maybe in this microcosm where daily complaints center mostly around the heat’s intensity, having to stand occasionally, and lazy students, one wouldn’t anticipate the public’s conclusion of a shit pot state.

Now let’s consider the words of a local..

My Bapak. He’s a smiling man, intensely religious, a teacher of “character development” at an elementary school and a principal of another school nearby. He’s fulfilled the pinnacle his of his religious duties by traveling to Mecca, and now he reads up on how to be a good Muslim, teaches his children to do likewise, and counsels his school community members if there are issues in need of smoothing out. In his spare time, you can find him sleeping, telling jokes, playing badminton, entertaining the baby, and driving long distances for short visits in the family car.

Never would I look at this man and say he, too, thinks we’re out here in a shit pot. But the other day he said something that took me by surprise.

I told him that a fellow volunteer was coming to stay for the night because she was having problems at site and needed a break from things. After getting some minor details out of the way, he said, smiling:

Kehidupan, itu masalah. Kalau ingin tidak punya masalah, ingin mati. Tapi harus sharing…itu yang buat masalah kita tidak berat untuk kita.

Translation:

Life, it’s a problem. If you want to not have problems, you want to die. But we have to share (our problems). It’s what makes them not heavy for us.

He followed the statement with an aaaaahhh that’s typical in his talking. It’s almost a yaaaa, but not quite. More like a reverberating sigh with the strength to say that he’s realized what he’s saying and I, accordingly, should realize it too.

So now we’re in a shit pot- or a problem pot- but we’re sharing the things that weigh us down together, which makes floating a little bit easier and gives us the will to persevere. We shouldn’t want to be flushed because we’re interconnected. Perhaps it would be selfish, even, as others bear burdens similar to our own. We fight the flushing, mungkin, with the supports that keep us afloat.

So thank you, Bapak. That’s a little brighter. There’s positive potential. Though still I was surprised to hear him declare outright that existence is a problem in and of itself. Bukowski left us there to be flushed without relief, but Bapak gives a layer of hope to things. He recognizes the assistance that we can give and receive.

Then there’s Hemingway, whose version (or one of his versions) of the story I also came across recently.

I didn’t make it through Hemingway’s Boat yet, though it may happen one day. Along my distracted way I did underline this quote, however, from one of the countless letters he wrote:

It seems as though now we were all on a boat together, a good boat still, that we have made but that we know now will never reach port. There will be all kinds of weather; good and bad; and especially because we know now that there will be no landfall, we must keep the boat up very well and be very good to each other.

So here we are, again, in some other sort of contained entity, bound for problems. A boat. I’d prefer it any day to a metaphorical shit pot. There’s room for fresh air, for sticking one’s toes in the water, for a joint change of course..

Bukowski may be right. There’s no escape, and Bapak and Hemingway aren’t disagreeing. We won’t reach port or climb beyond the walls of the thing. We’re floating until some flush takes us. But that’s not to say that we can’t succeed in keeping the vessel upright and doing good for each other, and ourselves, while we’re the ones afloat.

Who would’ve thought that my Bapak is a real life Hemingway turned Javanese and Muslim, offering a similar intention but lacking a boat on which we can metaphorically float together (and prolific writing skills/desires and best selling publications to his name and about a million other things that I won’t bother to list currently..)

He floats in Asembagus, I suppose, alongside his neighbors on a journey with turns marked by bath times, meal times, and calls to prayer. And they encounter problems walking around, but they’re never far from one with whom to share the problem. And for him that makes it better, makes it bearable, frees up space to greet the daily trip around deck with a smile.

If we conclude from these three men that life’s vessel, whatever it is, inherently poses some sort of problem, and that the larger problem presents countless little problems in its wake…and that everyone seems to recognize this problematic state in their own way….then it just seems funny, beneath it all. Because the truth is we deal as we can, we find good where we can, we help another deal when we can, and we recognize that others face the same unawareness of how really to deal in those times when we are bleakly aware of the problem, of our own uncertainty, ourselves.

So we’re never alone in a problem, never alone in uncertainty, never alone in a shit pot. And we might as well just laugh at the fact that all perspectives are recognizing that there’s difficulty at the core of things. Even Bukowski, the Grinch himself, in his young bitterness, said, “Someday my dance will begin.” And he meant that it would begin somewhere, someday within the very shit pot that he labeled things. There was no escaping, but still, he could, and would, have his dance.

So I don’t know how or when each individual is going to get dancing. A daily spin seems the most ideal option. And it’s possible in countless ways, I know, as my Bapak laughs his way through this problem that he, evidently, sees himself winding through day in and day out. And I pick up the baby and we spin around to the Bollywood music blaring out of the TV screen. And Mifta shakes her hips one room over by the kitchen sink and asks, with a laugh, if she dances smart.

Perhaps its so possible to dance that what Bukowski was referring to was only a pot set on the side deck of a vessel upon which the majority of people in all shades of brown, black and white were discovering that they could have a good time. The smart ones on board know his deck exists- that deck where you look beside you and see nothing but the shit pot- but that only makes the ability to enjoy oneself in lieu of it all the more worth a laugh.

The whole boat can’t be a shit pot. It just can’t be. I’m determined. Because there are people who (whether smart or not smart, in Indonesian terms) continue to dance…

And those are the random musings that came out of my head thanks to two days spent with too much Ham on Rye (and rice) running through me. Now I’m going to make a concerted effort to read something else before I read another of his books so that my mind isn’t entirely given to entertaining a brilliant but despairing view of the world as I act as some warrior of peace.

(But by that I mean that I’m downloading the next book currently and will read a happy poem, maybe, in between.)

PS. My family will be here in two and a half weeks!!!

🙂

Things

Things that seem noteworthy. Some because they make me smile, some because they make me wonder, and some because they make me feel slightly concerned..

————

The students are writing sentences using possessive adjectives. I’m circulating, checking. One student has written “My goal is external”. I think hmm…thats odd but potentially thoughtful…maybe this student only desires things that are beyond his individual self.

I point to the sentence and ask for the meaning.
He says, “Kambing saya melahirkan, Miss!”

Translation: My goat had a baby.

I ask for a new sentence, explaining his errors, and he produces a quick my sheep is expensive to take his unintended abstraction’s place.

————

I find an unusual amount of violence in students’ sentences when allowed a free range of topics:

Punishment is from dawn to dusk.
They dispose me with stone.
(He meant they hit me.)
Teacher reprimands me with stick. (This is not in my class, don’t worry, though I have witnessed a student endure a flag ceremony slap.)

And in a recount writing:
The student found his friends drinking “booze” beachside.

I did not drink because I did not like it. Soon a soldier came and yell at us. Then we must push up as much as 30 times. Later soldier hit us head with bottle. I am very bad luck with this experience.

Apparently, our possessive adjectives lesson slipped his mind…hopefully no thanks to brain cell loss inflicted by being impaled…yikes.

————

There are more funny, dictionary-caused mix-ups than I can remember.

ie. I and friends listen to music and wobble.

I guess wobbling could be dancing?

and

On Sunday, smattering.

What does this mean?
I don’t know, Miss
, as he searches for ‘smattering’ in the dictionary.
Well I don’t know either..
Maybe…on Sunday…after some moments of thinking...I walk? he says.

And maybe the best/worst I’ve seen yet..
I’m sitting in a teachers’ meeting, perusing the stack of notebooks.

When I class two SMP I love girl. The girl was beautiful sweet. When she sat in front of class I came to her. I sat inside her

And the story stops. There’s not even a final period. Enshallah, he means ‘beside’ her, but there’s only what’s written on paper and me trying to stifle laughter as the principal goes on and on about things I don’t really understand.

————

I’m waiting to cross the street, and I read the shirt of the market-goer beside me. In correct English it says: Love is a blind whore with mental disease and no sense of humor.

Ha. What the heck. If you really feel that way (or if you don’t understand your shirt’s message), then let it be known…I guess…

————

Mifta and I have a routine mealtime conversation that unfolds as she watches me eat her day’s specialties:

Mifta: Delicious?
Me: Very delicious.
Mifta: Who cooked it?
Me: I cooked it.
Mifta: Who’s smart at cooking?
Me: I’m smart at cooking.
Mifta: Smart. You are smart, she laughs.

And some days, when still it’s just me eating, just her cooking, it reverses…

Me: Delicious?
Mifta: Very delicious.
Me: Who cooked it?
Mifta: Sophie cooked it.
Me: Who’s smart at cooking?
Mifta: Sophie’s smart at cooking.
Me: Smart. Mifta, you are smart.

————

And then the non-routine words follow:

Sophie, how would you feel if I didn’t work here? Would you feel confused? she asks.
No Mifta, not confused, but I would miss you, I say.
Why?
Because I like talking to you.
What were you like when I was away for my wedding?
I thought…where is Mifta?
You asked Ibu?
Well no, I knew you were at your wedding. But I missed you.
Yes. Thank you. Good,
she says.

————

I’m reading “Woman in the Dunes,” this odd but worthwhile novel about a man who wanders his way into a village sunken in sand dunes. He’s walking along and meets a local who glances him up and down.

“Are you an investigator?” he asks.
Immediately I think what are the chances…an English speaker!

Naturally, both characters are in their native country and the whole book is in English. I only assumed it was a PCV, wandering through a village far, far away..

————

Baby Afdhan wants a kue (said like kway; cake in English). He gets what he wants, his teeth will fall out regardless. He uses his 18-month-old speech to say way, reaching. Ibu won’t yet consent.

Cake, she says.
Way, says Afdhan.
Cake, says Ibu.
Way, says Afdhan.
Cake, says Ibu,
Kue atau…cake!
Ake!
says Afdhan, and she hands over the kue.

————

I’m telling my English club about the election. We look at the candidates, the winner, the electoral votes and the red and blue distribution map.

Obama! My father! they cheer.
But what about Justin Bieber? they ask.

————

Kiki leads me through a maze of village alleys to get a massage from a “strong” ibu. The door to her half-walled bamboo home is so short I have to turn my head sideways to pass through. The bed I lay on leaves my toes sticking out the footboard. And tiny, muscular Ibu threatens to crush my bones for an hour while making conversation that consists of Madurese plus the English words you, good, ticklish, and pain.

When I say sakit (aka ow!) she says ticklish? pain?, pushing harder. She declares it a small problem but does have the consideration to ask once if I’m crying. I say no, only sweating. She says that I’m funny, can she come with me to America? I say yes, she can come in my bag, thinking, honestly, that she might fit.

She climbs over and around me as I’m cringing/melting. Eventually she kneels atop the backs of my thighs. She grabs hold of my arms and pulls me upwards like I’m some kind of dog sled. She says, harooo…the softness! ….which might also translate from Indonesian as flexibility but is just weird, either way.

————

I’m heading home on a bus, in my own little world made of headphones. I’ve been looking out the window, not taking note of the girl by my side. I notice she’s eyeing me as I take a sip of water. She then takes out a notepad, and I watch in my periphery as a slow and deliberate HELLO takes shape. I take off my headphones and tell her that I can speak Indonesian. She’s a shy middle schooler, who I honestly would have guessed was 18. She tests her English skills on me, telling me she would like to study English and travel abroad someday. She’s a pleasant surprise of a seat mate (on the next bus I had a young Indonesian soldier who requested that we share my headphones, “listening one and one together,” and tapped me on the arm every 90 seconds even after I said no, sorry…), though I’m continually distracted by the bus attendant behind her who plucks his chin hairs with two coins as he waves people on and off the bus.

————

And, finally, my Ibu texts me to announce that she has brought Pizza Hut to the house for me. I don’t even know how much I can thank her. It was a three-hour home delivery and a stuffed cheese crust. Now I’m going to start talking about the sushi that’s six hours away in Surabaya and see how long it takes for a California roll to show up..

🙂

From Bali to Bungalows to the Desa

Sorry for the break in blogging. Things have been happening…I’ve been moving all over the place..and I keep finding myself in contexts that don’t seem to be appropriate for what one expects when reading a Peace Corps blog. But I guess expectations are only tools for assessing reality. And I guess I didn’t have such solid expectations coming into this thing, so you blog-readers shouldn’t have expectations either….which means that I’ll blog candidly about the goings-on of the past month.

First there was the trip to Bali. I think that’s where I left things off on here. We drank Bintang, we relaxed poolside, we explored multi-level night clubs with little thought to our village homes. The first day back at site was rough, if I’m going to be honest. Its not that I don’t appreciate certain things about Asembagus- the slow pace, the quiet, community-filled evenings, the people who are still as welcoming as four months ago. But I felt conflicted not being able to explain all that I had done in only three days away. It’s not like I even did anything that story-worthy. I only couldn’t say, I’m sorry Ibu, the reason I feel like sleeping for the next two days and have lost my voice is because I’ve been hungover and have gone too long without a REM cycle. And I know I’m supposed to be helping, learning, teaching, adapting…but how nice it felt to forget that for three days and eat and drink and dress as I please..

I guess the extreme of the villages creates an extreme need to compensate for it when given the occasional opportunity, so compensate we did and suffer slightly upon return we did as well.

Soon after Bali there was In-Service Training. IST is a requirement of all Peace Corps posts– a time to reflect on the first months of service, share experiences, learn a little bit more language, and, in our case, work with our teaching counterparts to fix budding problems and get everyone on the right track. Turns out, it’s also a time to compensate for those extremities of village life thanks to two weeks in the big city. So after locating Surabaya’s beautifully named Pub Steakhouse, decorated like a western saloon merged with a cruise ship dining hall, we relearned what it feels like to be hungover in early morning class. The Pub Steakhouse-ing leveled off a bit after the first few days (though I don’t mean that it went away entirely). And we spent a good amount of time in information sessions looking forward to evenings and freedom and the ease of intra-American communication…and wifi and sushi and cereal and every other kind of non-rice food. The Peace Corps set us up in a hotel that might as well have been bungalows nestled in a Hilton Head cul-de-sac. There was a pool, American tv, and everything else that could make a Peace Corps volunteer never want to return to desa (village) life.

Unfortunately, IST cannot last an eternity, so I returned home on Sunday feeding myself mental reasons why Asembagus is just as wonderful as an air conditioned bungalow.

There are people I care about,
There are students I’m affecting,
There are adventures I haven’t had yet,
And I actually do miss Mifta’s tempe…

Not to mention that my counterpart started crying at the training when I included the phrase “after I leave” in a sentence. That right there was enough reason for me to keep doing what I’m doing (even if I don’t feel like I’m doing much of anything, at times) for the next two years.

Not four hours after I got home, my first visitor from America arrived on the main road, outside the post office. He made it here by bus from Bali, thanks to the oh so simple art of traveling Indonesian style. But talk about throwing another corkscrew into my brain as it tried to shift between extremes of environment. I felt like I was leaving America (or some secluded version of it) after training, but upon seeing Andy I felt as if I hadn’t been in America for years. After a few days here, he was still making observations about things that no longer strike me as unusual. Nor do I even know how to talk about the things as if they were once very strange to me too..

There are people pooping in the river. Yeah, they do that.
They’re carrying a live chicken in a basket. Yeah, they do that.
They’re still feeding me. Yeah, they’re gonna keep doing that.
The mosque sounds like someone seizing. It isn’t that bad.

And they don’t hug. And the bus system is inefficient. And they wear sweatshirts when it’s hot out. And no, we can’t walk around together after the sun is down, even if it wouldn’t signify anything in our minds.

This is just how they do things, and this is just how they’ve done things, and for better or worse it’s not going to change because foreigners deem it weird.

I watched Mifta watch him at the table, as she stood by the sink, laughing..

He didn’t put rice in his food bowl. He doesn’t want rice, Sophie?
He set his fruit peel in his food bowl. Why? Why is he doing that Sophie?
He kept his sunglasses on his head. Why does he wear those Sophie?
He ate leisurely, talking, and we stayed at the table for an extended and un-Indonesian period of time.

And he had an iPhone. And he couldn’t speak Indonesian. And he tucked in his Polo. And he wore swim trunks. He brought even more granola bars to add to my American goods cabinet. And he, too, went for a run.

I’m already weird and do things that raise questions, but after Andy, I think I’m “normal”…or at least almost…in Mifta’s eyes.

We went jalan-jalaning on my day off and walked home down the main road after returning, our sunglasses and backpacks making us look like tourist types. Some students saw us and yelled hello, Miss Sophie! from the roadside.

“It’s weird for my students to see me in this context,” I said.

“Why? Because teachers don’t have a life outside of school?” he asked.

And no…it wasn’t that at all, really. It was because it made me realize that I don’t have an overly American identity, much less a tourist-like identity, when I’m alone as my desa self. Sure I’m seen as a foreigner– as someone who didn’t grow up going to the mosque or eating rice or speaking Indonesian. I bring different things to the village table– a long nose, questions, elsewhere-formed opinions, and a bowl with a little more sides and a little less rice. But I eat the rice, regardless. And I wear the batik, and I brave the hot teacher’s uniform. I sit and visit for more hours than seem necessary, and I try not to wield things that look expensive all over the place. My skin is getting tanner, my ability to make the ng noise is getting better. And no I don’t want to become Indonesian, and no I would never settle down in my desa, but for two years worth of living purposes, I do try to blend in as I can when at site.

So it was strange to have a straight-from-America American by my side highlighting my American-ness. And even I could look at his actions and guess just what my desa community members were going to laugh about.

That said, it was also entertaining, and it made me appreciate the ways that I have adapted. I felt proud that I can feel at ease in this place and work within the daily flow of things. Only now am I readjusting to the reality of the situation in which it’s only me in the desa. But I’m getting attached to people, so I don’t actually feel alone.

Mifta came to sit with me upstairs after I came home yesterday. I made her sit on the exercise ball I found in the city (the chairs make my back hurt) despite the fact that she was scared. She almost fell off initially, but soon she was bouncing up and down, declaring its deliciousness (Comfort? They overuse the adjective delicious..). She wouldn’t lean her stomach against it after I showed her how it could be used that way.

“I already have a baby inside,” she said.
“But don’t tell, Sophie! It’s not yet time to tell people.”

I asked if she was happy and she said very.
“I want this,” she said.
“Me too,” I answered.
“You want a baby?”
“No, Mifta, I want you to have a baby!” I said.

“Thank you,” she smiled, using her best English effort. It still sounds like shank ew, but it gets a little better every time.

I can tell I’m getting closer with Mifta when she braves letting out an English word. She even went on to recite the words she’s learned from her cell phone, which only operates in English, leaving her confused. I can tell I’m getting closer with Mifta when she braves letting out an English word. She even went on to recite the words she’s learned from her cell phone, which only operates in English, leaving her confused. I tried to tell her something along the lines of my own secrets in return for her sharing. She listened as intently as I’d want any friend to. Then she offered her advice, talking of prayer and what God wants. What He wants will happen. We have to be patient, Sophie, she said.

As much as I’m not one to suggest praying and waiting as advice for anything, hearing Mifta’s words as she wobbled on my exercise ball and told me she’d miss me two years from now made it seem like the most precious ever offered.

So at the quiet end of the desa day I’m glad, for now at least, that I don’t live in Kuta or next door to the Pub Steakhouse. We all need occasional refreshing, and there’s more sense in balance than most forms of extremity, but I like the people around me and the little adventures that comprise life at site.

That said, I might be melting. Quite honestly, I think I am melting.
But at least there’s a whole refrigerator full of ready to slice mangoes and cool mandi water waiting when I move from in front of the fan.

And I could say more…
There was Idul Adha aka Day of Slaughtering on Friday, but I will let my Facebook pictures speak for all the blood and raw meat that the morning at school entailed.

And then there’s Kiki…there’s always more about Kiki. And there’s my Ibu who’s concerned cause the neighbor texted me I love you. And the fact that I’m also concerned because that’s the neighbor who just got TLC and Discovery Channel and I want to visit over there and cook with his sweet Ibu wife and watch TV as if he weren’t a potential creep. And there’s Diki, my favorite student, who continues to be full of questions. And there’s the fact that I’m on standby to watch a child birth because I actually think I can handle it after watching those animals surrender to a knife.

I’ll try not to wait as long to blog again next time. For now, that’s my update.
Happy Halloween in America! I suppose I’ll be dressed up as a melting Indonesian teacher over here…

🙂