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.

🙂

11 thoughts on “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

  1. Sophie this is a wonderful post-I love it and I know your Grandmother can’t wait to see you-just like us! I have to say I love your description of how green Nashville is when you fly over it-exactly what I thought when we moved here.

  2. Pingback: One Year in Peace Corps Indonesia: Things I’ve Learned | in the land of dragons

  3. Sophie, sorry for the why of coming home, but sure glad you are here. You will be a real comfort to your mom and her mom.

  4. Sophie, This is so beautifully written. I laughed out loud at “People seem so sophisticated at this gate, waiting.” The rest of it brought me to rears. Sending lots of love and healing to you and your family. Enjoy your new beginning, and the gelatinous forming and rebirth you’re experiencing. And, of course, hati-hati miss.

  5. Hi Sophie,
    Always remember that you will always have a home over here in Jatim. Just last night, Andin pulled out their family photo album and flipped it to the last page. Lo and behold, there were 3 photos of you that I guess you gave to them when you were here. They were of you, your friends, and your family.
    When I first moved in with the family, pak Hendri’s favorite saying was “Sophie the Best!”. All I could think was, “How am I going to live up to this girl’s reputation?”
    My first day with the family, they showed me a picture of you and your grandma that they had. That picture is now resting comfortably in the family photo album, where the family will always have it. I knew how much your nanek meant to you.
    This post was amazing in so many ways. I’m sitting here in BATOS, trying not to show any emotions. I find myself now wishing I could just sit down with you for a day and talk to you about all the things that I’ve experienced with the family. I wish that we had that ice cream social after I met the family. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The family is wonderful and I’m happy I got placed with them.
    I’m happy that I got to met you, even if it was for just 5 minutes. I hope that you find peace and happiness with your return back to the states. Good luck with whatever you decide to do in the future and always know that East Java will be here to welcome you back if you ever make it over here again.
    -Steven Sola

  6. Dear Sophie,

    I am very sorry for your grandma. I am very sorry too that I could not make it to meet you when I was in Asembagus last February. Hopefully everything will be doing fine there in the US. And someday as you wished you and your husband will visit Asembagus. I guess Steven is replacing you in Asembagus. I hope he will be writing so I can enjoy his stories about Asembagus. So enjoy at your kampung. Mudik nich ye! LOL.

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