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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How the Javanese do the Holidays

As you may know, Indonesia and other predominantly Muslim countries around the world were celebrating the holidays over the last month during Ramadan and Idul Fitri. As someone who grew up in a Christian-dominant society, I had very little knowledge about what these holidays meant to people. It turned out to be a great experience for me to learn about Islam and to get to know my family and neighbors.

It started right after my birthday (which was July 19th). The official first day of Ramadan is determined by Indonesia’s Ministry of Religion. They determine it by the moon. All around the world, Islamic leaders turn their eyes to the skies to mark the beginning of a month of fasting. When they see the new moon after the 8th month of the Islamic calendar for the first time, it’s time to fast. In my community, the sub-district community leaders all drive out to the nearest beach (about 15km south) for the first moon sighting from a special observation deck built onto a cliff overlooking the sea! How cool is that?

My first birthday in Indo – my family threw a little surprise party for me! Complete with a Nasi Tempung and a cake! (That’s my Ibu clapping and my Bapak behind her)

Almost everyone in my area is Muslim, so almost everyone fasts during Ramadan. The exceptions are young children, the sick, or pregnant or menstruating women. Fasting for Ramadan requires that one does not eat, drink or do anything pleasurable (like smoking) while the sun is up. For those thirty days, Muslims are also expected to show more brotherly love; to donate what they can to the poor and to be patient and kind with everyone (despite their crabbiness from being hungry!).

Every day for Ramadan, most families wake up to eat a big meal at about 3am. Then they hang out and maybe watch TV while they wait for the first call to prayer, which usually comes around 4am. After that, they may go back to sleep for a couple hours before going to work. Work and school schedules are shortened during the whole month so that generally, people go home around 11 or 12. They may nap some more or else get to cooking for the evening ‘buka puasa’ (break-fast). Right after the sun goes down, there will be some drum-beating and Arabic chanting (on the mosque megaphone or the radio or both) and families will gather together and say a prayer before eating. After the evening feast, most people go to their local mosque to pray together for an hour or so.

Our mosque is divided down the middle by a sheet to separate the men from the women, but when there are more women they just line up in the back. Men where hats and sarongs and women wear mukenas.

Because I’m a Peace Corps volunteer who wants very much to understand and fit in with the people in my new community, and because I’m very stubborn, I decided that I wanted to participate in the 30-day fast with my family. (Many other volunteers here made the same commitment). Those who know me, know that I like to eat and that I’m usually very unpleasant when hungry. I’ve always had a fast metabolism and some difficulties with absorbing nutrients and knowing this, I suppose it was pretty foolish of me to think I could not eat or drink for 14 hours every day and be fine. After about five days of waking up at 3am to eat and fasting all day, I started to feel ill. The symptoms that developed were so much like the flu that I didn’t realize what I was actually experiencing was severe dehydration. Nausea, dizziness, fever and all kinds of irregularity knocked me out of the fast after one week and kept me off my feet for another. I had no idea dehydration could do all that too me!

It was hard to keep up with the fasting during that first week and quite painful to suffer the consequences of my foolishness during the second week. After that, I felt a bit like I had lost the challenge I put myself up to. My family, neighbors, colleagues and students didn’t expect me to fast for the month but they were very impressed and approving of my participation. I missed those looks of awe and excitement from them when I told them I was fasting right along with them.

There were many other opportunities for me to participate in Muslim-Javanese tradition though. I always very much enjoyed breaking the fast each night with my family. While my Bapak (father) would lead the prayers every night, I would take the time to say my own prayers; remembering all the things and people in the world that I’m thankful for. This gave me a wonderful feeling of peace and love for my family and friends – those who have been taking care of me right here in Java and those abroad, sending their love around the world to me.

A couple of nights during Ramadan, I was invited to come along with my family to the mosque – to learn how to pray the Solat (Islamic prayer) or just observe in the back if I wished. My sister dressed me in a mukena (full-length covering for women to wear to pray the Solat) which left only my face exposed and made me look a bit like a ghost. I brought my camera and took some pictures but tried not to offend or get in the way of anyone’s praying. Our Bapak leads the prayer on some nights – he’s the guy who stands in front of everyone, chanting in Arabic and making all the appropriate body gestures. The Solat reminds me a bit of yoga sun salutations. First you stand and put your arms up by your head (to receive Allah’s/God’s guidance and focus completely on prayer), Then you bend at the waist and touch your legs, then you come back up with your hands raised again, and then you go down to your knees and put your head to the ground. After that you kneel and turn your head back and forth (a sign of your greeting the rest of the world in peace). This is repeated about 15 times and ended with a round of ‘Amin’s (Amen).

In between the bending and kneeling, my sister was teaching me about Islamic beliefs. She told me that for Muslims, Allah created everything and everyone and was omnipresent and omniscient but did not have any form or being. She said that when she prays, she thinks about her love for Allah and her love for all of the good people in her life and how thankful she is to Allah for all the wonderful things in the World. One thing that I really liked about the Solat prayer is everyone’s unwavering focus. At one point I went to ask my sister a question but she had just started a new round of the prayer cycle and she completely ignored me. I felt like an idiot, remembering that once started, one cannot break their focus from prayer. After she was done, about 5 minutes later, she said ‘I’m sorry, did you want to ask me something?’ My sister has been so helpful and patient with me and so open about answering questions regarding language, religion and customs. I am so thankful to have her here with me. It pained me to hear her say, “…And we are not terrorists. We are nice people.” There are small groups of extremists in (or outside) any religion who do hurtful, misguided things to people. We must not let them steer our beliefs about entire religious groups.

I’m breaching on bigger topics here, but for now let’s leave it at that. Still learning a lot about this Javanese – Muslim culture in which I live. I hope that the stories I share on this blog will help you to learn some things right along with me.

Thanks for reading! Sampai Nanti – Ellen

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Just roll with it.

In spite of a week of confusing miscommunications leading up to it, this Sunday was a good day. I’ve been in Indonesia for almost four months now, but the cultural and language barriers are still challenging me every day. I feel that my language acquisition has plateaued a bit, although I know I must still be learning… It just feels so hard some days as I try to understand what my family, co-workers and neighbors (and of course the police and immigration office) are trying to tell me. When you live in a very foreign country, for a very long time, isolated from anyone who understands your language, values, beliefs, sense of humor, emotions or habits… it’s hard at the beginning. Pre-service training was to help us to be self-sufficient and culturally-shocked enough so that we could get take care of ourselves at our respective sites. And it did… but it’s still hard at the beginning.

Last Monday marked the beginning of the first official week of school in my village. I say “official” because there wasn’t actually any classroom learning going on this week, which is what I normally associate with “school.” Indeed, when I asked one of my counterparts about my teaching schedule on the Saturday before that, she just chuckled and said ‘Don’t even ask about that yet.’ So I took a step back, reminded myself that this is Indonesia and the Peace Corps and that the real motto of this organization should be “Just roll with it,” because that’s what we volunteers have to do much of the time here. Things happen and things don’t happen and sometimes too much happens and sometimes you don’t know what’s actually happening even as it is happening or after it happens, but it happens anyway… and you just gotta roll with it.

As I was saying, first official week of school and I was doing my best to gear up for it; mostly by lazing around the house, watching Breaking Bad and eating lots of food (so as to roll more aptly?). I was expected to be at school every day from 7am until around noon, in uniform and ready for action. Day one started as no surprise – a flag ceremony to mark the beginning of the school year. I smartened up this time and seized the opportunity to observe from behind the students. That way I didn’t have to stare into the sun for an hour (Part of my educating here includes explaining that blue eyes are more sensitive to the sun than brown eyes are. This is important here because it’s rude to wear sunglasses here ever. Ouch!). After the flag ceremony, I was assigned to go with the 11th graders to the military office and then to the soccer field, where the students practiced receiving orders, saluting, marching, etc. for a couple of hours. I found it slightly interesting at first. I’m not a fan of military culture and I didn’t have a role there aside from sitting on the sidelines with a few other teachers who were smoking, chatting, and paying no attention to the student-army drills. It wasn’t my favorite assignment and I was pretty disappointed when I saw that I was listed on the schedule to go to the field with our students every day this week to …supervise? I’m pretty sure that the school just didn’t have anything else to do with me yet.

After the marching, I went back to the school and hung out with some teachers for a few hours in our big teachers’ room before going home. This is where the confusion leading up to this weekend began. There was a group of us sitting together; chatting about this and that, laughing at their attempts at making jokes in English. At one point they get more serious and seemed to be talking about me (with the language barrier still pretty high, I can never be sure what’s going on exactly if it’s all in Indonesian or Javanese). One of the English teachers turns to me and says “Bu Ellen, you have program for next Sunday?” After some clarification, I gathered that she was asking if I had any plans for Sunday. I said I didn’t yet, and then she asked if I would like to go to visit President Sukarno’s grave with the other teachers. I said that sounded great, as long as I could either get a ride in a car or perhaps sleep in the city for one or two nights (I’m not currently in good enough physical shape to make the round-trip by bike and spend the day site-seeing as well). I mentioned that I could probably stay with one of my fellow volunteers in Blitar. They seemed to be weighing the options and when I left to go home my participation in their Sunday plans was a ‘maybe.’

On Wednesday, there I was; sitting in the field, lazily observing the students’ marching drills and reading my Kindle when the village security guard came and sat down next to me. He’s a sweet old guy who doesn’t speak any English, but he tries to speak slowly for me. He was talking to me about some people (in the village, from the school?) who wanted to make plans with me for Sunday. I didn’t understand most of what he said, but I knew he mentioned a car and another village and a beach. So I told him, ‘maybe,’ and that I would like for his people to talk to me directly so as to clear up the confusion.

The whole week was filled with practice ceremonies and marching drills like the first. I noticed that the students made it a bit more interesting by wearing colorful sports uniforms, mismatching socks and crowns made out of leaves on some days. Not quite interesting enough though – I made sure to bring my Kindle and laptop with me each day after Monday.

Where the Wild Things are (Indonesia)

The few days leading up to Saturday had me puzzled as well. Teachers told me that there was a special activity planned for that day. Something to do with their boy/girl scouts, a flag ceremony (of course), a student performance and sleeping at the school. They asked me in the middle of the week if I could perform a song for the school on Saturday, and what song will I sing? I don’t much like singing in public unless it is amongst friends who are highly and equally as intoxicated as I am, and I have a teleprompter. Truly, I am not vocally gifted. So, in spite of their hurt and pleading faces (Indonesians really know how to make puppy eyes), I declined. They persisted the next day asked again if I was practicing a song, and so I asked them, “Are other teachers performing on Saturday?”


“Is every teacher performing on Saturday?”

“Well, no.”

“OK, I’ll be one of the teachers who don’t perform this time around.”

This turned out to be the right choice, as I found that in fact, not a single teacher had prepared any performance for that Saturday evening. Nice try guys.

In addition to them trying to get me do a song and dance in front of the whole school, teachers were asking me if I was going to sleep at the school on Saturday. To this I had two questions; why & where? Well, they said that all the students and teachers were sleeping at the school, and as to where, they pointed to the tile floor and joked about maybe sleeping on tables. This did not bode well for me. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a wink of sleep at the school if that was the arrangement. But I’m a good sport – I said maybe.

Saturday brought the first rainy day that we’ve had since I’ve arrived in the village. It was a welcomed change which brought nourishment for our dying plants, drinking water for the poorest villagers, and for me, that peaceful feeling that I always get when it rains. My appreciation did wane a bit when I encountered the muddied school buildings that afternoon. It didn’t seem to dampen the students’ spirits though, as they ran around carrying bundles of sticks, musical instruments and costumes. Everyone seemed busy and excited for the day’s activities (which I was still confused about, of course).

After a few minutes of standing around watching the activity, my principal found me and had me come and meet some school district leaders in one of the classrooms and give a little speech for them. No problem. Next, we conducted a flag/scouts ceremony with the students. It seems that just about every student and many teachers are involved in scouts here. Maybe it’s because we live in the woods? Everyone rested and prepared for the evening’s festivities after that, and by the time it was dark we were all getting lined up again for another flag ceremony. This one was a bit more interesting though because it involved the lighting of a huge bonfire right in the middle of the school grounds! Ok, so the marching and flag ceremonies don’t do it for me, but lighting fires in the middle of school is pretty cool. After some speeches (of which I was grateful to dodge this time around), the stage lit up. Students performed skits, sang songs and played instruments while the assembly watched, danced and sat around the fire chatting. We even had some little fireworks shot off in the middle of the crowds. This definitely would not fly at an American school. It was fun!

Before the end of the evening, that same old security guard who talked to me before came up to me as I was standing alone in a doorway and seemed to be asking me if I still would like to go and participate in whatever activity that he had mentioned before (which I still didn’t quite understand, as nobody else had yet talked to me about it). I tried to find someone who spoke a bit of English to clarify, but before I got the chance, the guard had to leave with just my answer of ‘Umm, mungkin?’ (maybe).

That night one of my counterparts (and a very helpful friend here) told me to come back to school the next day at 7am. When I arrived home, my sister (who thankfully speaks a fair amount of English) told me that the administration in our sub-district’s office (right down the street from our school) invited me to go with them to a neighboring village to witness the election of a new head-of-the-village and also to a beach that was just a few km south of said village. So thaaaaaat’s what’s going on. Unfortunately, I told her that I already had obligations back at school the next day. She said that was OK and maybe next time, but before I went to bed I sent a message to my counterpart to ask if it would be alright if I skipped out of Sunday’s activities for this opportunity to witness the election event (she didn’t get back to me on that).

I woke up at 6am on Sunday with a text from my counterpart. She was on our front porch at 5am. Sigh. I got up, bathed and ate breakfast. She took that opportunity to tell me that one of the other teachers brought their car to school that day so that I could go to Blitar city and visit my American friend there. Oh! Well, I said maybe and I needed to call my friend to see if she was in town, and wasn’t this supposed to be a ‘teachers’ outing?’ Sigh. Just roll with it…

As we were going the house to leave to go to school, a car pulled up with some men and women in formal clothes asking if I was ready. I looked at my counterpart and my parents and sister for help. What am I to do? The admin from the district office made the decision for me. They called my principal right then and got the OK for me to drop everything else and go to the election in our neighboring village. Whew.

I went back inside, apologized to my counterpart for the change in plans, and got into some nice batik (Indonesian dress clothes made out of specially dyed fabric). My sister was invited to come along for the day as well, which I appreciated. As we were leaving, they insisted that I take the front seat and I gratefully accepted. Upon entering the SUV, noticed a strange brown stain on the front right corner of my seat. Hm, what’s that from? I didn’t have to wonder long though, as we made our way out of the village and into the jungle – the roads were so rough and hilly, I had to hold onto my seat at precisely that brown location.

We had a nice sunny day together. An election in a developing Muslim country is quite interesting to behold. The venue consisted of a big line/blob of people at the entrance to the village office. In the courtyard there was a large tent and stage. Voters walked or road motorcycles or in the backs of pick-up trucks to come and vote for one of two candidates for kepala desa (village leader). After they submitted their proof of residency, they were directed to some little booths bearing a piece of paper with the pictures of each candidate on it. Behind the booth, they were to take a small metal spike and stab the candidate whom they wanted to be their next kepala desa. Then, they folded it up, dropped it in a box and got their thumb stamped with ink so that they wouldn’t be able to vote twice that day. All of this took place in front of the two candidates, seated in big fancy chairs (I called them thrones, because that’s what they looked like to me) and surrounded by decorations. Another thing I forgot to mention about these candidates; they are husband and wife!

After spending some time socializing with some other politicians from the area and eating some yummy soto ayam (chicken soup), my sister, two district workers from my village, our driver and I went to the beach! This beach was way out back! The road was bumpy, broken and single track most of the way. Aside from one bored-looking vender selling coconut drinks in a shack, we were the only people there at first. The difficulties of getting to this spot were compensated by the beauty of it. The mostly-white sand seemed to be made entirely out of tiny broken bits of shell and coral. We had to watch our step for pointy shells, crabs and little jelly fish that had washed up. My sister explained to me that when the tide was low, you could see the reefs just off shore. Awesome.

After walking the beach, taking pictures and collecting shells and bits of coral, we grabbed some coconut drinks and hit the bumpy trail. Back at the election, they were preparing to start counting votes. This, they did out in the open, in front of everyone. Every single vote was called off on the microphone and tallied for all to see. The husband won by a landslide, which made me wonder. It was a bit painful to sit through with almost every vote shouted out being for the man of the house, but I was appreciative to experience the process of democracy in the Muslim world and of my hosts who brought me to the beautiful beach. I was also very appreciative of my wonderful sister who helped me to better understand what was happening, as it was happening, all day. I really don’t know what I would do without her!

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At home in Indo

Selamat dari Blitar! (Greetings from Blitar)

Finally, I am home! The 2012 batch of volunteers in Indonesia were officially sworn in to service after the close of training ceremony on June 15th. On that day, all of us wore our best batik, sang the Indonesian anthem and took a pledge in front of our host families, principals, media, the American Ambassador and other distinguished guests from the Indonesian government. After our oath with the Ambassador each of us was whisked away to our permanent sites throughout East Java.

I was very excited three weeks ago when I found out that I’d be living in a small village in the region of Blitar and just about 10km from the ocean!  My village is a bit more remote than some others. The closest public transportation is about 15 km away and the roads are very hilly, so it’s more difficult to get in and out. We are surrounded by a teak forest ; it is very fresh and peaceful.  Miles of clean woods and a big body of water nearby reminds me of the UP! It makes me feel right at home. The village itself has about 8,000 people, but it’s spread out for quite a ways in the woods, so it seems much smaller than that. There are just a couple of mosques in my area – nothing like the sea of them spread throughout the city of Batu. It’s very nice and quiet. 🙂

Some students from my school on a hike through some woods surrounding my new village.

The last Three Weeks in Batu

For the last few weeks in my village in Batu, I spent my time finishing up with TEFL training, learning some bahasa Jawa (Javanese is very different than Indonesian and many people speak the former most of the time!), packing and spending quality time with my fellow trainees. I was advised that it is very important to strengthen the bonds with our peers before we all separate. We have a great group and it’s not hard to find many good friends amongst them. I’m glad to be in such good company. Together, we have been playing lots of ultimate Frisbee, jalan-jalaning around Batu and Malang, and singing some karaoke.

We also met several interesting neighbors while still in Batu. One day a very kind lady stopped her car and offered me a ride to the city. It turned out that she was originally from East Java but lived in Italy for 10 years with her Italian husband, whom she met in Indonesia. Now, they live in the same village that I was staying in. She offered to make us some authentic Italian pizza! The night that we went and had pizza with the Indo-Italia family was wonderful. Authentic Italian pizza made with capers, homemade cheese, sauce and crust in a big brick oven… it was such a treat!

The last week was filled with activity and anticipation for moving. The Saturday beforehand the Peace Corps staff put on a picnic for us at a waterfall called Cuban Rondo. The waterfall was beautiful and surrounded by monkeys who took advantage of the snacks tourists brought. It was a really nice day with everyone. Then, on Wednesday I went with a few other trainees to visit some temples in Batu. One was Hindu and was up on top of a mountain which overlooked Batu and Mt. Panderman. It was closed, but the drive and views made it worth it. The other temple was a modern Buddhist institute situated on the main road leading to the city which also had a museum. I would love to spend more time learning about Buddhism at a place like this someday.

Wednesday afternoon my village group all got together to cook some delicious American food for an Indo-American potluck send-off. It was quite the feast! At the end of the evening our AMAZING cultural facilitator, Ido gave us a surprise. He made a 30 minute video with pictures and clips of all of us throughout the 10 weeks of training. He even interviewed each one of our host families, asking what their favorite memories with us were. Ido is the man.

The next day we all met our principals for the first time! It was a very positive day for me as I found my principal to be very kind and highly motivated. That night was busy and bitter-sweet. I had made a photo album and framed a bigger picture of a mosque in my village at sunset to give to my family. We also watched Ido’s video together. Then they helped me pack and gave me lots of snacks to bring with me. I miss my Batu family already.

PST Host Family

My host family in Batu was really great regarding the process of making me into a good Indonesian. My Ibu and Bapak both were very concerned about my well-being and happiness in Indonesia ; they liked to be informed and involved for every step of the way. My bapak could be very critical sometimes, but he’s also sat down with me and asked me if I am truely happy here. They wanted to make sure that I know I am part of the family and that I should feel free to do things on my own, without asking.

Right after I got my permanent site placement I had a lovely conversation with them about my future in East Java which left me feeling so full of love. They were asking questions about how things might go tomorrow (when I will find out about my site placement) and reminded me that I can always move to a different home if I am not comfortable with the new family that I am assigned to. They reminded me that it is a lot hotter in other parts of Java and that it may be difficult to adjust.  They reminded me also that I have to put myself out there in the community and build relationships. And of course, they told me that I need to always be careful with my valuables and myself – that Indonesia can be very dangerous. After all this, I let out a long sigh and smiled at them, saying, with sincerity, that I think I can do it. Their response to this was so wonderful and parental. They both said (in Indonesian), “No, there is no ‘I think’. You must be able to do this. You will do this. You are a volunteer and you will do this.” I was surprised and delighted with the conviction in their speech, their steadfast belief in me and high expectations for me. I felt very much like a part of the family right then.

My family in Batu just before saying our goodbyes

Settling in to my new home

The first few days in Blitar have been really wonderful. I’m still getting to know my lovely village, new family, neighbors and school and finding everyone to be so friendly and helpful. The day that I arrived, my principal brought me right to my new host family’s house for a special welcoming ceremony. My parents, sister, neighbors, co-workers and other community members were all sitting in the main room waiting for our arrival. My principal and the head of the village gave speeches and then it was my turn to speak to my new family and friends for the first time (in Bahasa Indonesia and Jawa). They had a microphone and speakers for us (an essential item at community and religious gatherings here) and food for everyone at the end of the speeches and prayer.

After all of our guests went home, I settled in to my room and then talked with my family for a while. They are wonderful people. My new Bapak is a retired teacher (of Bahasa Jawa) who likes to play badminton and listen to Javanese music. He’s always got a smile on his face. My new Ibu is a retired teacher (bahasa Indonesia) and school district admin. She loves to cook and sew. She’s one of very few older female Indonesian villagers who has achieved a bachelors degree (in Education). My new sister is 26 years old and has recently graduated from a university in Surabaya with a teaching degree. She’s currently looking for teaching jobs in one of the bigger cities, but is staying at home for now. She is very helpful because she speaks a lot of English and is a wonderful resource for learning my way around my new village and Javanese culture. She’s currently making a report on the history of our village (for the Indonesian government) which I hope to translate and learn about as well. I feel very lucky to have this family of kind and helpful educators!

Hanging out with Pipit and friends at the beach near my village 🙂

On Saturday, I went to my new school for the first time and got to meet many teachers and students there. The school I’ll be teaching at for the next two years is a vocational high school specializing in marketing, trade, computer information technology and light vehicle engineering. It is the first year that Peace Corps Indonesia is sending volunteers to work in SMK schools and it feels good to be a part of the beginning stages for this program.

After visiting the school, I went with my principal’s family to our school’s first soccer match of the season. Earlier that morning the principal and I both gave motivational speeches to the soccer team at the school. What I said was very simple (in Indonesian), but the boys loved it! I got goosebumps for the first time at my new school. At the game, our boys started out ahead but sadly lost the shoot out after the game was tied up. I could not have imagined how devastated the players would be after that loss! The whole team ended up lying face-down in the grass and sobbing! I didn’t have a clue as to how to make them feel better so I got some advice from my good friend Ido. 🙂

After a relaxing Sunday, I went back to school on Monday and took part in the flag ceremony. These ceremonies are held fairly often for special events or holidays. All of our students (about 700, grades 10-12) lined up to observe the raising of the flag, the anthem is song by the choir and the Pancisilla (5 guiding principles held by Indonesia) is recited. At the end, my principal gave a speech and then had me come up on stage to give a motivational speech to all of the students in my newly tailored Indonesian government employee uniform. As I approached the stage, my Principal gave me a necklace of flowers. It was very touching. In my speech, I told the students how fortunate we were to be living in such a beautiful place and to have the opportunity to learn together. I tried to convey to them the importance of taking this opportunity of having a native speaker at their school to learn English and to be responsible for their own education – to take the initiative to learn and to not be shy about trying to speak English. I invited questions then, and of course the first question from a student was ‘Are you single?’ Don’t worry, he wasn’t expressing romantic interest. This is a very common first question in Indonesia!

After the flag ceremony at my school we visited the graduation ceremony for our local elementary students and I gave another speech on stage in front of all of the elementary students, parents, teachers and the media. Mostly, this was just to say how happy I was to be living in their village and to get to know everyone (and yes, there was another inquiry about whether I am single or taken). Just like a politician, I descended the stage with my big smile, waving at everyone as I walked through the crowds and went on to my next appearance, pausing briefly for some photos. We visited 4 village offices then. I shook a hundred hands and impressed everyone with my very basic Javanese. I was pooped by the end of that day – It’s been quite exhausting to perform these PR duties but I don’t really mind it and I know how important it is for me to have a lot of exposure to the people in my village.

Students at my school gathered for the flag/welcoming ceremony.

And there you have it. The first few days in my village have been busy and overall, quite lovely! I’m still learning my way around, memorizing names and making myself comfortable here. I just bought a bike yesterday and while it is a decent bike for the price, I miss my bikes that I left in the US. After making maiden voyage 35km from the city of Blitar back to my village (a very hilly journey) I found that I will definitely need to make some adjustments (a new seat, water bottle cages, etc.). Biking makes me very happy, and for the distances that I will have to bike (because of the remoteness of my village) I know that I will need to spend a little more to be comfortable and capable on my travels.

Sampai Nanti – Ellen

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