On Visiting Home

I awoke at 2am with some urgent notion which escaped me moments later. I had dreamt about my family and high school friends reunited and everyone was the same as always. Karma led me around, Adam stayed in the basement, Chaslyn was laughing in full sprint. I tried to fall back asleep but my mind was already too alert. I turned over and saw a small green light floating in the darkness and I thought, ‘you’ll have no luck finding your mate in this place but I’m grateful for the glow.’ Then I decided to write.

I’ve been a very negligent blogger over the past year. I got distracted, re-focused and busy again. In the fall, my sister had her first child – my mother’s first grand-baby. This was the capstone on the course of her 2 Great Years of Change which happened to coincide with my Peace Corps term. First the engagement, then the house, then the wedding and finally my beautiful niece. I was feeling some stress; homesickness and guilt about not being home with my family and my sister during all of these changes – especially the wedding and the baby. Upon entering the Peace Corps I had no intention of going home early or visiting a place so distant. I had the idea that to do so would be sort of a sign of weakness and that the really committed volunteers stuck it out for the full two years. Plus, there was the great expense of the flight and time away from work and life in this place. I was concerned about a trip home having a negative impact on my focus, connectedness and dedication to the community here.

As it turns out, my decision to go home over the holidays was, I think, one of the best choices I’ve ever made. The trip itself was absolute bliss – I spent quality time with friends and family, ate some really good food and got just enough of winter to make me start to miss the heat of the tropics. The time at home gave me some unexpected gifts too. The very act of my decision-making to go home helped me to more clearly see my priorities in life – my family and close friends over my ambition, pride, wander-lust and even my concept of social justice. The idea that my going home would have a negative impact on the natural environment (the unnecessary pollution from travel) and that it would be a frivolous waste of my time and money which could be spent on higher causes like building my school a language lab, plagued my mind. How could I spend seventeen hundred American dollars on a trip home while the people in my community live on just a couple bucks a day, their backs sweating and burned by the sun as they bend and toil in fields of rice? (Welcome to my mind.)

The kick that sent me over the edge was my sister’s complications in her delivery. I got so scared and homesick that I considered terminating my service early so that I could be with them. I felt that I simply could not stand not being there anymore. I cried and fretted about it and felt like a zombie at work for a couple of days before finally giving up the fight and buying my ticket home.

I feel very fortunate to have realized fairly early in life that good, strong relationships are a top priority for me. Being at home over the holidays with this newly strengthened affirmation was remarkably sweet.

There were obvious changes to the world I had left – mom got a new boyfriend, my little brother got engaged, others got new jobs, new homes, projects, new pets, new stuff. I noticed that everyone was more connected to technology than they seemed to be before I had left – all my friends and family now have fancy smart phones and tablets and they’re always at play. I noticed that TV or movies in general didn’t draw me at all when I was home – perhaps because that’s what I use here when I’m desperate for escape. I also couldn’t get used to the new HD television monitors and didn’t want to watch them because they made me a bit dizzy. I felt a little like Red from the Shawshank Redemption saying, “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” (okay not quite as extreme as his experience, but you get it)

My friends and family noticed some more subtle changes in each other too. A big thing for me was that I was pleasantly surprised by my newfound strength in communication. I figure that because I’ve been spending so much time and energy on good, effective communication in my life here in Indonesia (using foreign languages, working with foreign counterparts, trying to communicate my foreign needs), my brain must have re-wired itself in that dimension. Perhaps it also has to do with my great realization of the value of investing in my relationships – something which I think stemmed from a combination of my own personal social/emotional/spiritual process and also from the impact of Indo-Javanese culture on me (more on that another time). I had conversations with some people that I never had the courage to have before and oftentimes, shockingly, it didn’t even feel very difficult. Perhaps at times I was even a little too honest and blunt (Mama Z might recall one or two amusing commentaries). I’m so grateful for having been able to get to know my loved ones better, to break down some barriers that we didn’t even fully realize or acknowledge before and so that we can understand and support one another more fully.

I didn’t realize how much that homesickness and guilt was affecting my life here in Indo until after I got back from the States and felt the lightness of life without it. Of course I still miss my friends and family and especially my sweet baby niece, but after my reinvestment back home the dissonance in my mind is finally put to rest and I can focus so much better on my work and life here.

It’s remarkable to me how time is flying now – just three months left! My days lately are full and sometimes a bit hectic – teaching, writing materials for the new curriculum and putting together a girls’ empowerment camp to be held in April. Now it’s 5am and the sun is coming so I’m going to go catch it with a run.

Thanks for reading. Salam – Ellen

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A Day in the Life

I actually wrote this some time last spring. I’ve just been busy and traveling around so I haven’t had much extra time to think about blogging.

On my normal life:

It’s remarkable to me, when I stop to think about it, how normal life has become. I get up at 6 am and stretch. I drink a bottle of water and make myself a breakfast composed of oatmeal with bananas and cinnamon and an orange. Then I take my vitamins and malaria pill, wash my face and change into my teaching uniform. I tell my family that I’m going in to work (very important to do this every time before you leave the house) and hop on my bike. It’s not far from home, but it’s cooler to ride than to walk in the sun. I call out to my neighbors along the road as I go, ‘pagi!’ ‘halo!’ ‘mari!’ ‘monggo!’ ‘ngeh!’ (morning, hello, please, ya)’ and arrive at the school, which sits overlooking a beautiful tropical forest.

I greet my students and coworkers as I see them on the school grounds. My coworkers and I shake hands and my students take my hand and press it to their cheeks, lips or forehead. After either type of ‘handshake,’ I touch my hand to my heart as a sign that I am greeting them with sincere love and respect. Then I pull out my laptop and check my email using the school’s wifi. I talk to my Indonesian co-teahcers and finish up any planning or prepping for class. We enter class and teach for an hour and a half. My students and I have developed a good rapport now and they understand my English much better than they used to. I ask them about how their weekend was and joke around with them a bit before telling them to take out their homework and we begin with our lessons for the day. In my down time I chat with fellow teachers or students and family back home via facebook, etc.

Classes end around noon. I pack up and bike home. As I enter the house, I call out, ‘walikum!’ (short for ‘assalamualaikum,’ an Arabic/Islamic greeting meaning, ‘peace be upon you.’ If one of my family members hears me, they respond with ‘walaikumsalam’). My ibu (host mom) might see me and say, ‘sudah pulang?’ (already home?), and I say, ‘ya, sudah.’  This is more of a greeting than it is a question, but sometimes I used to joke around with them and say ‘belum!’ (not yet!) She has lunch waiting for me on the table under a bamboo basket covering. But before I eat, I take a very refreshing cold-bucket bath in the mandi and change into some long shorts and a tee-shirt.

For lunch, I usually have about a half-cup of white rice (miniscule portion by most Indonesian standards), some cooked veggies, chicken and fruit. Then I take a few minutes to rest before starting my private English lessons at 1 pm. I teach Monday-Friday at 1pm-4:30pm or around there for the local elementary school students who want to take advantage of the free English tutoring. We use one of my ESL books from home and spend the first hour practicing some new phrases and vocabulary and then for the second hours we usually paint, draw, play cards, watch part of a movie or documentary, or just hang out outside.

The afternoons here can be a very hot time of day (usually people use that time to take a nap) so sometimes it’s a bit hard to stay up-beat during our lessons at home, but we keep it pretty fun and just do what we can. (I’ve learned that the hottest days come right before big rains – the humidity is the real killer here. When the rain does finally come – and with it the cool air – it feels so reviving! Just like waking up for the first time all day.)

After my tutoring, I like to work out. I’ll go biking through the hills or go for a jog in a loop through part of the village. If it’s raining, I’ll just work out in my room (I’ve recently been doing some P90x in my room – gotta get in good shape for surfing!).

I’ve especially been enjoying yoga and running lately. About an hour before the sun goes down (between 5:30 and 7pm in this part of the world) is my preferred time to go running. I start at a crisp walk and greet my neighbors along the way. There are people hanging around on front porches at about every other house I pass. They say ‘Mau ke mana?’, ‘Arep nengdi?’ or ‘badhe dhateng pundi?’ All of these phrases mean the same thing; ‘where are you going?’ The first is Indonesian, the second is low Javanese and the third is high Javanese (reserved for talking to people who are respected or elderly). I respond with ‘jalan-jalan,’ ‘mlaku-mlaku,’ or ‘mlampa-mlampa,’ which are respective responses, all meaning ‘just walking around’ or something like that.

I pick up the pace in my run and go deeper into the forest, still waving and saying ‘ngeh!’ as I pass my neighbors. I cross a little bridge and look out over one of my favorite scenes in my neighborhood; a beautiful little valley of terraced rice fields surrounded by tropical forest. At dusk, the sparrows are swooping, catching up bugs, and everything is glowing orange.

 I start up the hill and keep a look out for the Giant Wood spiders which make webs along that part of the road, in the trees and power lines. I’ve seen some as big as 7 inches from tip to toe.  They can’t kill me, but you can see their jaws from ten feet away sometimes, so they could leave a mark on you if they felt threatened. I love them.


I reach the top of the hill and continue on for another mile or so, up and down until the sun finally relents and I make it home. I stretch, greet my family, take another bucket bath and change into pj’s. Sometimes my family and I eat together (I equivocate picking up some Madurese chicken sate to have with the family with ordering pizza in the US). We sit on the floor around our knee-high dining room table, load our plates with steaming white rice, chicken sate grilled with peanut sauce, and spicy chili sauce and talk about life. We complain about work, joke around about something funny that happened to us that day, or talk about plans for upcoming holidays. Oftentimes, I ask questions about Javanese or Indonesian language or culture and they’re happy to teach me.

After dinner, I help clean the table and dishes and then do any ‘homework’ that I might have (lesson planning or studying the language if I want) or else read or watch tv. My family usually watches tv all evening after dinner, unless they have guests to entertain. Sometimes I sit with them and work on my laptop and every once in a while there’s a program on that I pay attention to with them, but I’m not taken with much of the Indonesian programming. Sometimes I take a night stroll with my sister and a neighbor friend. We might go get some noodles or just walk around and chat. (I try to keep up with them, but as they speak Javenese with one another most of the time, most of it is lost to me)

Finally, I’m all tuckered out by 9pm and I rest up to do it again the next day. Before I go to sleep I look up at the pictures pasted around my bed of all my friends and family waiting for me back in the USA. I miss everyone very much – it’s certainly the hardest part about the Peace Corps for me. But I also feel so content in my village and so lucky to be a part of life in this corner of the world for a time.

I can’t believe it but I’ve been here for about 17 months already! Here’s to making the best of another 10 before coming home.

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I’m an English teacher! Sort of…

I wasn’t too sure about myself being a classroom teacher at first. I think it’s a scary prospect for anyone who isn’t used to speaking in front of big groups. But now I’ve made it through one full year at my vocational high school, and I feel alright. I’ve made a ton of mistakes over the year and I’ve learned a lot. One thing that I wish I would have done when I first arrived was stress that I’m not actually a teacher, but rather an English expert – a resource volunteer for the classroom. The teachers with whom I was to work had varying degrees of experience – some had just started and some have already been at it for years. ALL of them were very nervous about teaching with a native English-speaker. I don’t blame them. I’d be a wreck if I was expected to teach Spanish with a native Spanish-speaker looking over my shoulder. As it was, this Peace Corps program was still budding and the staff didn’t tell me much about how I should start out at the school. Just like my Indonesian counterparts, I felt pressure to dive in and teach like a pro, so that’s what I did tried to do. (I was glad to learn that the new trainees have been instructed not to start teaching for the first few weeks/months so as to get acclimated better before teaching – a very good idea).

It all started out fine because the students, teachers, etc. were still hypnotized by my ‘bule aura.’ This means that they were so excited and in awe of my being there that I could do no wrong. I fumbled through my first lessons and gave materials that were a bit too difficult, but my students were on their best behavior. They hung on to every word, laughed at my jokes and tried their best to follow my instructions. Well, after a few weeks the bule aura wore off and they got bored. Basically, the honeymoon was over and I had to work a bit harder to maintain their focus and plan engaging, level-appropriate lessons. So, the first semester was pretty messy. Probably not worse than what the students are used to as far as quality instruction goes, but not much better.

I had three different counterparts and they all had different styles and expectations for me. Each of my classes were also very different – the business classes, made up of all girls, have been sweet angels. The vehicle mechanics classes – all rowdy boys. The computer mechanics classes are a fun mix of boys and girls – very smart and also very active. It took me some time to understand each class and counterpart and longer to begin to know how to work effectively with each (this, I’m still working on). Some lessons and activities were successful. Some lessons flopped in one class but worked in others. Some just stunk altogether! But we got through it.

The turn of the semester brought mostly good changes. With the help of the Peace Corps staff, I managed to change the class schedule from having just one (4-hour) period each week to having two class periods each week for all my classes. I also had some good meetings with school staff and managed to work out some plans for improving classroom management. We made some sticker charts, seating charts and rules posters. All of this stuff was a step in the right direction but its success varied for each class. My class of angels (business students, all girls) were the only ones who didn’t tear down the sticker chart and rules poster. The mechanics students were the first to vandalize theirs, of course. But, after some bumpy days we got to the point where we understand each other better and can have somewhat productive classes.

One thing that’s been a great joy for me in teaching this semester is my Special English Class, which is like an English club that’s organized by the teachers. They picked two groups of about 25 students from 10th and 11th grade (the only grades PCV’s are allowed to teach) who are very motivated, responsible or good in English. Other students can also join the clubs if they ask permission. They still have their normal classes but they get extra credits for this special class. The clubs are basically to serve those students who are very motivated and would like to improve their English – we cover all the same material as in their normal class, but try to focus more on speaking and listening activities and just have fun. We listen to music, watch videos, sing and play games. I plan almost everything and my counterpart does the logistical planning and organizing. It’s a dream! My favorite moment was in the 11th grade club when we listened to “Wonderful Tonight” By Eric Clapton to build on their ‘giving complements’ lesson. The students got so into the song, we listened to it 10 times and sang it all together a couple times. It gave me goosebumps.

For the end of the semester, my 10th grade English club wanted to give a performance for the 12th grade graduation ceremony. I brought a few ideas to them and they decided on doing a performance of Romeo and Juliet and also a song and coordinated dance. I wrote a Romeo and Juliet themed play about our school in which two students from dueling programs fell in love. We met and rehearsed the play for a couple of months leading up to the ceremony. It was difficult and my counterpart who was responsible for it was very stressed out and anxious about how they would do. In Javanese culture, it is standard to demand perfection. So while I would tell the students, “It’s OK to make mistakes.” and “You don’t have to be perfect,” my counterpart was basically saying the opposite to them. As a result, they were a bit confused and very nervous about not being perfect for a live performance. I encouraged them as much as I could for them to do it live (i.e., without lip-syncing to a recording, which is common for student performances here and which I hate). But my counterpart kept telling the students that they would make mistakes and embarrass themselves in front of hundreds of people – she was pushing for lip-synced ‘perfection’. So I ended up compromising and conceited to the lip-sync as long as they spoke along with the recording and we could also do a live performance next time. It’s the Peace Corps – you gotta keep things friendly and pick your battles. They were still super nervous on the day of the performance, but they did a great job. I was so proud of all the work they put in and impressed with how their English improved with all the practicing! 🙂 The audience loved it too.

So! I’m looking forward to the next semester, which is sure to be the best yet. We’re going to strive to keep every class engaging and productive. My counterparts and I have made plans for a new classroom management strategy which I feel very confident about and we are also well on the way to finishing a new and improved English workbook (so that we don’t have to use the crappy ones that are made by non-native speakers). Aside from that classroom teaching stuff, I’m hoping to do more with my at-home tutoring groups and extracurriculars and maybe even raise some funds to develop a new business center, library or language lab for the school. One thing that I’d love to teach my community and school more about is environmental awareness and sustainability. The local knowledge about that stuff is really abysmal and it’s something that I’ve always felt passionate for so we’ll see what we can do. Wish me luck!

Photo-0009 (2)
Not a very good quality photo because I took it with my phone. This is one of my counterparts teaching in a computer mechanics class. I’ll have to try to get some pictures of me teaching some day (when I’m not too busy actually teaching :P).

Sampai Nanti!

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As I attempt to write about my work…

My school is a vocational high school, and it lives up to the stereotypes of these kinds of schools being more boisterous and loose than standard public high schools or Islamic schools. While we have a mosque, not very many of the girls wear head scarves. Some female teachers even wear tight, knee-length skirts, short-sleeved tops and high heels. While my Javanese skills are still pretty pathetic, I gather that much of the banter between teachers is about gossip or dirty jokes. They’re mostly still Muslim, but some are quite moderate and even liberal (I related it to the way many self-proclaimed Christians whom I have known in The States to be lax about following their own religious doctrine very closely).

As I said, vocational schools are often pretty loud and hectic (even by Indonesian standards). For Americans who may be used to quiet, orderly classrooms with students who raise their hands to answer questions and at least make an attempt to conceal their cheating, vocational high schools in Indonesia can be a bit of a shock. The students who are in the motorcycle mechanics track (about 99.9% boys) especially have very little motivation to study English (who could blame them?), so they spend most of the class period actively trying to ignore or disrupt the lessons. They yell and talk throughout class, they get up and walk around, laughing and groping one another. I’ve been warned that sometimes they harass female teachers inappropriately. There was one instance last year when a group of boys cornered and threatened to hurt a teacher because they thought his discipline methods were ‘over-the-line.’ They could have been right – corporal punishment is still an acceptable form of punishment here (usually just pulling or flicking students ears or making them do push-ups for being late to class). I found out that this bullying by students is common in technical high schools such as mine. Perhaps the students at these schools feel a bit closer to adulthood than others – they are on the job track, after all.

The unique culture of the region also plays a big part in shaping the atmosphere at my school. City and town-folk call my community ‘hill people’ and joke about the people living out in the sticks not having things like water and electricity. This is much like way that people from Lower Peninsula of Michigan make fun of us “Yoopers” from the Upper Peninsula – believe it or not, I’ve been asked if the U.P. has running water and electricity too. So I suppose I feel a special kinship with my village in our shared stigma. It’s only 15 kilometers outside of a village that could be said to be modern, but that distance is great when it’s through rough terrain, and many are without means of transportation. There is one main road that leads from the city of Blitar through the middle of this sub-district and to the south shore of Java. The roads that branch of it lead to several smaller villages and thousands of farms and homes. The problem is that those branching roads are made by volcanic rocks and mud, and weave through the forests, and up and down steep hills.

We have over 700 students who come from as far as 30 km away. It’s the first and only high school in my sub-district, and just five years old. Before its establishment the students who wanted to go to high school could only do so if their family had the means to transport them to another sub-district every day or send them to a boarding school (my host family sent all of their kids to boarding schools after elementary).

I’ve surveyed about 50 of my students (the top 10th and 11th grade students) and almost 100% of them come from families who are farmers (and keep in mind that these are the best students of their classes). With the exception of a couple parents who work as maids in distant cities or other countries, most of these families spend every day breaking their backs; harvesting rice, corn, coconuts, palm oil, etc. If they make it to graduation, most of my students will be the first from their families to have completed high school. So far I’ve had between 1 and 4 students from each of my classes drop out since the beginning of the school year.

I try to remember all of this when I’m teaching. I think about their homes in which they probably help their families to cook early every morning, take care of their younger siblings, feed the chickens and goats, tend to the rice and corn each day and share a foam/thatch mat on the floor to sleep each night. I try to remember that they have been crippled by an epidemic problem of cheating and copying throughout their schooling, and about the awful, erroneous workbooks that they’ve had to use (so it’s hardly any wonder that many of them can’t answer the most basic of English questions accurately despite having studied the subject since 3rd grade). I think about the rocky, muddy paths they take every day to get to school and about them taking the time to pray about what they’re thankful for five times every day. Because I didn’t really get it at first – not until I lived here and visited with my neighbors and had some conversations my students and fellow teachers.

I realize that I tried to talk about my work and ended up talking mostly about the community again! Actually, it’s impossible to separate the two worlds here. The school is very involved in the community. All of the teachers and students will visit one another for family events like weddings, funerals and new babies. The students organize themselves to collect money if one of them is sick or in need in some other way. My principal just brought me with him to visit one of our students who ended up in jail for a traffic violation. Back at his home, the family of the student was there and my principal stayed up late on a Sunday night to console them. How’s that for family-school-community partnership?

I love my students! Yes, many of them are pretty sassy and hard to manage, but the majority is very sweet to me and I can tell that some try very hard in my classes. I am constantly making mistakes in my teaching and in speaking Indonesian or Javanese (and am still quite awkward culturally at times), but they are patient with me and we have fun figuring things out together. I’ve learned to be better at going with the flow and keep a good mood despite unanticipated class cancellations and disruptions – whether their caused by unruly teenaged clowns or other school community activities (like collecting money for the mosque or student marching practice). Sure, I still have my moments of exasperation, but I feel more connected to my students and the community – I’ve found peace in the pandemonium of the school. I feel like I finally get it.

OK. Next time I’ll actually talk about teaching English and stuff. I promise.

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BOOM, BABY! Back in my (new) groove

It’s hard to get a grip on the fact that it’s actually the beginning of February when it still feels like an endless summer. As a result of my warped sense of the seasons, I suddenly get the feeling that time is slipping away from me. It’s already been 10 months! That means there’s just another 17 months until the end of my term (unless I decide to extend). So far all of the Indo volunteers who have extended (and the potential extenders whom I’ve talked to) wanted to move to a different region for their third year. I certainly can see the appeal of moving – all of us PCV’s have a fair bit of wanderlust and it would be nice to live in a place that’s a little more accessible/urban. Then again, as far as PC sites go, I’m one lucky V. I love that after I leave my village, I always look forward to coming back home. Well, that’s what I thought before I stayed here…

This was the view just a few steps away from our bungalow on Kanawa Island.

After my excursion to East Nusa Tenggara (Flores and Komodo) it was pretty hard to go home and readjust to Java and village life. My five travel buddies (all PCVs) and I meandered across the island of Flores and did some boat trips on the north and west end. The landscape was absolutely beautiful. I was struck by how lush and mountainous it was in most places and refreshed by the lack of people – such a contrast to the over-populated island of Java! We also drove through a spot that was dry and resembled almost a desert or savanna. Trippy.

Let me try to sum up this trip for you: Ende; charming, but dirty port town, we went swimming with kids, and had an impromptu dance party with locals (where I learned some Ende dance moves and experienced socializing with tipsy Indonesians for the first time). Moni; small but tourist-savvy village, famous for Kelimutu; a volcanic mountain with three uniquely colored crater lakes, surrounded by gorgeous lush mountains, rivers and waterfalls – it was refreshing and beautiful. Riung; small fishing village known for its 17 Islands National Park – a place for island hoping, flying fox-sighting and fantastic snorkeling. We spent Christmas Eve and day here by attending the local mass (large Catholic population) and then we made a yummy Xmas morning brunch and pretty much just lazed around all day because there wasn’t much else to do. Komodo National Park; A group of small islands on the west end of Flores, famous for having a large Komodo dragon population, along with an impressive marine ecosystem surrounding the islands. It’s said to have some of the best diving in the world, so of course, I had to do it. We stayed for about a week in some bungalows on the tiny island of Kanawa- just a two-hour boat ride from Komodo Island and right in the midst of some great snorkeling and diving. My highlight: diving in Komodo National Park with manta rays, sea turtles, sting rays and a plethora of tropical fish and coral. Wow. I’m hooked! We rang in the new year on the beach of Kanawa with a drum circle, bonfire and dancing. Whew!

Swimming with the local dare-devils in Ende.

Taking in the view at Kelimutu. We had this tourist destination pretty much to ourselves while we were there. This local vender is keeping warm with an ikat sarong (traditional textile made by the peoples of Flores).

A dog named Bingo that we met in Riung. He wanted to come out to the 17 Islands Park with us for some snorkeling.

View from the top of Kanawa Island at sunrise.

SONY DSCGodzilla.

SONY DSCScuba diving with manta rays at Komodo National Park.

So you can probably understand my difficulties in leaving the beautiful islands of East Nusa Tenggara and  going back to my village in Java – separated from the people who really understand me (other PCVs, or even just other people who speak English or have similar beliefs and customs)… Amazing how much you miss that stuff once it’s gone. It’s pretty normal for PCVs to go through periods of depression / discomfort upon returning to their site after time away with friends. Such was the case for me as well, but it only lasted a few days before I started getting back into the swing of things. It took some time for the semester to start up, but now that it has, I’ve been very happy with the way it’s going. I’ve managed to change my schedule so that I no longer have one 4-period sessions for each of my classes every week, but rather two, 2-period sessions per class, per week. This is SO much better for both me and the students. I’ve also started teaching a special English class for advanced students in 10th and 11th grade. This is a lot of fun for me because instead of following the national curriculum, I can teach whatever I want and the students are super smart and motivated – we just have a ball. Along with my classes at school, I’m still teaching three days per week at home for elementary students and now I’m going to be starting an English class for the teachers at my school as well. All good things. 🙂

More on my current and prospective projects in the next post!

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Terima Kasih

*Terima kasih’ is Indonesian for ‘thank you.’ It literally means ‘love has been received’

Right now, I’m sitting in the internet café of my village, feasting my eyes on photos of Flores, Indonesia. Colorful crater lakes in lush volcanic peaks, traditional villages set in tropical forests, and pristine beaches lining a splattering of small tropical islands… This will be my scenery for the holidays. Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas! Flores is the only Catholic-majority island in Indonesia, so it is a fitting host for the season. In case you were wondering, the ‘season’ in Indonesia right now is rainy. This is the only damper (tehe) on our travel plans over Christmas break, but we were assured that while it might be a bit harder to get around (let’s hope not too hard!), it will still be quite beautiful.

Just a little image of Flores from the internet

The wide array of tourism options for me and my fellow PCVs here in Indonesia is very fortunate, because most of us have a hard time with missing home during the holidays. We need all the distractions we can get! Although I’m not Christian, Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me. I just love the spirit of the holidays; potlucks with mimosas, pumpkin pie and mistletoe, a Christmas tree, decorated with our family’s collection of old rag-tag, sentimental ornaments and twinkling white lights, my other family’s big fat tree, adorned with colorful LED lights, glass balls and tinsel, Elvis’ White Christmas, It’s a Wonderful Life, stockings, chocolates, chestnuts and open fires… Blarg! I miss it already.

So, in this (somewhat isolated) holiday spirit, I baked some oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies this morning and fed my family and all the staff at my school. This recipe has been a favorite in my family for years, made popular by my brother, Adam. I had to make a few slight variations, but this batch tasted much like the real deal. After the feedback on them I got today, I’ve decided that these cookies are a remarkable tool for furthering world peace. They LOVED them. Multiple people asked for the recipe. This is a big deal – villagers who don’t travel much (and eat mostly just white rice) don’t have much chance to expand their pallets, so they generally don’t like foods that are different from those they’ve grown up with. Other things I’ve cooked here have received not much more than quick whiffs and crinkled noses. These cookies are very different from anything they cook here, but also, apparently, universally delicious. My principal even noted their deliciousness in the official all-staff meeting (and demanded in front of everyone that I bring more the next day). SUKSES! (Thank you Adam, & Betty Crocker)

For Thanksgiving, I was feeling particularly nostalgic and home-sick. I knew it would be this way for me, so I planned a trip to visit my old host village (during training) in Batu. There would be about 15 volunteers congregating there for a Thanksgiving potluck. I love families. Not just being a part of them (which is very important to me), but also, I’m just fascinated by them. Being a psych/soc person, and a person who comes from a gloriously complicated family, I find family dynamics very interesting. Here, I find myself thinking of the other PCV’s as family. It’s true, we’re not perfectly harmonious all the time and we’re slightly incestuous, but we’re so important to one another to rely on for mental and emotional support. Who else in the world can we relate to better?

Anyway, I was really looking forward to spending some time with both my fellow PCVs and my first host family. The latter I had seen a few months ago, when they came down to visit me at my new site. They actually drove their motorcycle for three hours – mom and pop, toting 2-year-old Zahra, a big box of guavas and 4 kilos of my favorite mushrooms! They spent an afternoon with me and my new host family and went home the same day. Poor Zahra was sick for a week afterwards – it was the longest trip of her young life!

When I was planning to go back to Batu I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When I told them I’d be coming, my family didn’t invite me to sleep there, so I wasn’t sure of what they had in mind. What’s the protocol here for bules who once paid room and board with a host family then return ‘home’? Given their visit to my permanent site, I really needn’t have worried at all. While they made no mention of me staying with them beforehand, they had a beautiful room set up and waiting for me on the top floor. They had assumed that I would stay with them – it wasn’t a question in their minds. Now, this is family!

They were wonderful for that weekend. They cooked my favorite Indonesian foods (so many fried mushrooms!), helped me prepare for the thanksgiving potluck and took me on a walk through their fruit orchards (not to mention putting up with me coming in and out at odd hours for visiting with my PCV family). My Ibu was distraught about not being able to give me food (oleh-oleh) to take back to my permanent site (because I had to pack light, in anticipation of biking 20 miles with my bags), so she gave tons of guavas and apples to my PCV friends instead. My Bapak told me that he wished he was rich so that he could have a car and drive me all the way back home and if he could, he would. I stayed with them for several hours longer than I had planned, playing with Zahra all morning before finally tearing myself away from the familial bliss. It was heart-breaking, really. One minute she was laughing and happily playing with her plastic kitchen set on the floor and then I told her that I had to go and she became a sad little stone of a child. I vowed to return in a couple of weeks.

So many things to be thankful for this year! Despite the limited resources, we had a good turn-out for our feast in Batu. Several pumpkin pies with whipped cream, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, fried mushrooms, creamed corn, and bbq chicken! ENAK SEKALI! We cooked together, shared stories, sang and gossiped. We pigged out and then played some word games. We even went around and said all the things we’re thankful for (my favorite part). I said that I was very thankful for our host families, my new best friends in the Peace Corps, and for my friends and family back home. The distance is hard on many relationships, but it also fosters a greater appreciation and effort to be supportive. I’m far away, but in some ways I feel closer to some folks back home than I did before. Perhaps part of it is just me wisening up.

Cookin with the girls

In any case… To everyone out there who’s had my back, held my hand and lifted me up; Mom, Dad, Z, all my wonderful siblings, and so many amazing friends, I gotta say thank you. I’m so blessed to have you all in my life – love you!

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Hello world! It’s been a while…

Things have been alright here in Indo. You may have noticed a bit of news coverage of Indonesia in recent months. Despite the harmful effects that the film, “The Innocence of Muslims” had around the world, folks have settled down now, so no need to worry. Here’s a little re-cap and some stories from the past couple months:

After Ramadan, there was Idul Fitri. This is the holiday right after Ramadan, in which Muslims around the world make pilgrimages to visit their families. Activities here included visiting neighbors’ houses to eat food and chat, expressing regrets to all of our loved ones “I’m sorry for anything I’ve done wrong by you,” visits to family graves and small gifts of cash to children. This was at a time before I was allowed to travel, so I stayed home and hung out with my family and neighbors for a couple weeks. It was lovely!

family shenanigans

After the holidays, school finally got underway. I am a new teacher and a new ‘Indonesian,’ so I’ve been learning a lot about teaching in Indonesian classrooms. For this semester, I have five classes that I partner with an Indonesian teacher to instruct each week. All of my classes are made up of 32-41 ten or eleventh grade students. I’m assigned to a vocational high school, so one of my classes is a business/marketing class (made up of all girls), two are auto mechanics classes (made up of all boys) and two are computer mechanics (a mix of mostly girls and some boys). They’re big classes, even by Indonesian standards, and the auto mechanics are extra energetic and challenging. Another difficult aspect of my job is that the classes at my school are only held once a week, for four periods (that’s about two-and-a-half-hour classes)! WHEW

I’ve only taught in vocational high schools here, but I’ve observed lessons in some Islamic state high schools. From my own experiences and from what I’ve heard, vocational high schools (SMK’s) are more active and energetic than Islamic or other public high schools here. Students go to an SMK so that they can learn some practical skills and go to work straight out of school, if they so desire. It seems that they can specialize in almost any discipline; dealing with technology, mechanics, customer service, cooking, fashion design business, agriculture, animal husbandry, and even fish farming! They’re unique and fun schools, but it’s true that the students can be a bit more challenging. Just imagine, a classroom full of pubescent boys who aspire to be motorcycle mechanics in the local villages… what motivation could they have for learning English (a required class for all public high school students here)? Motivating the students is a huge challenge for the English teachers at my school.

Soooo, it’s been a bumpy ride with ups and downs and I’ve been learning a lot. I really want to make a difference for my school – to be able to leave here knowing that I contributed something really helpful for the teachers and community that will last. We’ve got a lot of ideas hatched. One of my co-teachers is really interested in building a language lab for the school. I was told that those are really expensive, but maybe we can at least get a start on it with fundraising. Also, I’ve started re-writing the English workbooks for each grade. They current materials are really awful – they’re riddled with mistakes and all over the place as far as sequencing goes. It really just makes things more complicated and teaches the students bad habits. So this project, at least, I know will last and will be helpful.


Let’s see, other than school work, I also took a lovely weekend vacation to visit Yogyakarta (Jogja) in Central Java with a few fellow PCV’s in September. That was a great trip, although I could have stayed longer! Jogja is a cool, culture-infused little city, full of sites and other travelers. We went and visited the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia; Borobudur, and several other ruins including the massive (Hindu) Prambanan temple. Amazing!

Prambanan Temple

In October, my fellow PCV’s and I had a fun-filled in-service training in Surabaya for about two weeks. It was such a treat to stay in a hotel, swim in the pool, take hot showers, soak in the air conditioning and eat delicious western food (yummmmm cheeeese)!!! I really appreciated getting to know the other PCV’s better as well. They are my support network here, and it’s important that we can all have time to get to be better friends. It’s sort of a big, dysfunctional family, with all kinds of interesting characters. They inspire me, care for me and challenge me.  I feel so lucky to be a part of this group and for the life-long friendships we’ve made. 🙂

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