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?”
“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!