Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dispatches from West Java

I abandoned long ago the pretense that this blog is a venue for ‘explaining Indonesia to outsiders’ or even ‘conveying my experiences in a meaningful way’, settling instead on ‘telling about some things I’ve been up to or making excuses for why I haven’t done even that’. I don’t feel terribly comfortable blogging, because I don’t want to clutter the internet with stuff that could be said equally well or better by someone else (all those tubes can get clogged, you see), because I’m not making the grand insights and observations that would make for a really interesting read, and because I can’t shake a self-consciousness that pervades every sentence I put down, about striking a balance between too personal (hello future employers, would you like to hear about my bowel movements?) and too detached (boring, shallow), too positive (dishonest, not ‘gritty and real’) and too negative (equally dishonest, reflects poorly on the Peace Corps experience and my host country).

That being said, here is how this entry will go:

  • I taught my first Spanish class (at the request of students) with a huge turnout of overwhelmingly enthusiastic and engaged estudiantes, and while I am following in the Senor Chang/Peggy Hill line of Spanish teachers (having studied the language only briefly about thirteen years ago), I would venture that it is definitely the best (re: only) Spanish class in my district.
  • I saw a man who speaks no English and has heard the song maybe six times in his life mumble/shout/yowl through ‘Mustang Sally’ with a pretty solid backing band. The experience was transcendent. 
  • I traveled 21 out of 28 hours over a Saturday-Sunday after a week of very little sleep and learned that this is a sure cause for absolute and total exhaustion.
Maybe I can provide a little more than that. So here’s what’s up: I moved over to West Java four months ago. And before that…I forget what I was doing. Painting a world map, training, striving for sustainability, wrapping up loose ends, visiting Sri Lanka, saying goodbyes, figuring out life goals, things like that. In any case, I’m now 492 kilometers from where I was for my first two years, and this is where I will be for the next seven months.

Let’s talk about my new home by talking about my old one first. (Sounds reasonable.) I recently took a week back in East Java for meetings with government partners, training for the newest batch of volunteers, and a trip back to my old school. The visit was the highlight of my month, though I was immediately (and a bit awkwardly) aware that while this homecoming was important to me because I’ve moved, I haven’t been away for very long and things keep going without me; it’s a school, their whole deal is moving on and moving on every year.

It was incredibly heartening to see my former co-teachers and other partners at work, excitedly talking about the activities and practices they’ve continued and improved upon and made their own, to meet new students and pop in on old ones. I didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to because of the whirlwind (and exhausting, as noted in the travel stats above) nature of the visit, but it was both comforting and comfortable, helping me better contextualize my work in West Java (not comparing too fondly or too insensitively with East Java, or even comparing at all) and, not to contradict the previous statements about exhaustion, reenergized me for the coming month.

West Java is difficult for me to explain. It is a place in Indonesia, very similar to the other place in Indonesia where I lived before. Both are provinces in Java, this one’s just further west. Can I direct you to a wiki perhaps?

I can’t help but compare West Java to East Java, and that makes explanations particularly difficult for those without such context. This part of West Java is not actually ‘Java’; it’s on the island of Java, yes, but is home to the Sundanese ethnic group, while East Java puts the Java in Javanese (or, more correctly, is the Javanese from which Java comes). Questions about ‘when I lived in Java’ threw me during my first couple weeks in west.

Sunda (not to be confused with the Sunda Islands or Sudan or Sudetenland or Sumba or Simba the lion) people are friendly like Javanese, though not as emphatically so, welcoming but not quite as outgoing and warm (to be kind to the Javanese) or as ‘all up in your bidness’ (to be somewhat less kind). Still, while East Java often felt overwhelming because of this exuberance and closeness, it was also preferable for learning about and making relationships in my host community. And it’s the kind of thing that becomes almost-but-not-quite commonplace for an √©migr√© so that only when you move do you recognize it again, the kind of thing that you long for only after you’ve been gone.

Moving venues has, most importantly, given me a greater perspective on (what I perceived to be) Indonesian people, culture, behaviors and ideologies—that while there are constants across the country, many of the things I assumed to be Indonesian were actually Javanese, or even more specific to particular regions, villages, and families. To be very superficial, I had no idea (because I found them everywhere, even traveling) that all of my favorite foods were particular to East Java, and so was disappointed to not find them over here on the west side. Lalap (raw veggies eaten with the meal), are a nice change, but no substitute for a big bowl of rice and greens with peanut sauce and a few hunks of crispy fried tempeh. In what I assume is direct recompense for a lack of pecel, at least it is markedly cooler here, living up on the side of a small mountain with a nice second floor balcony where I can read and enjoy the afternoon breeze while watching the trucks up the peak transport sand and rock down from the quarry (our main industry, followed by ‘producing dust’).

A third year is undoubtedly different from the first two. I have the cultural and technical skills and knowledge developed and honed over two year securely in my back pocket, and coming into a new community and school was a thousand times smoother and more efficient, although perhaps without the charm of the spontaneity and foibles associated with being tossed ‘fresh’ into a new home. It was both more methodical—I know exactly how to integrate into the community and how to work with you to determine and meet your needs and goals so let’s get started—and more relaxed—less worry or stress associated with the learning-curve, leaving more time to build relationships. It was amazing how easily some things got off the ground. Still, some of the same challenges and set backs exist (anticipating and knowing how to deal with or just accept them is the key), and more than that, I find that I have to step back and take things slower with my teaching counterparts. I forget sometimes that we haven’t been working together for two years, that I’ve done this all before (with someone else) and they haven’t.

All this is to say that work is going well, if slowly. Plateauing job and personal growth, coupled with a sudden death in the Peace Corps staff, lower coworker motivation, and a dissatisfaction with the ‘more’ I hoped to accomplish compared to the first two years (in school, community and Peace Corps) led to a few low weeks from which I’m just now digging myself out. But things are turning a corner, and I’m looking forward to upcoming projects (Spanish club, teacher training workshops, participating in site development and selection for next year’s volunteers, working more closely with government partners to give teachers an avenue for feedback/involvement) and to my first trip back home to the states. I've got an exciting and busy three weeks ahead of me, so it's an all-out sprint to November 19.

Glenn and Dad visited Indonesia in August and you can see tons of awesome photos here.
Sri Lanka photos are here.
I have not yet taken a single photo at my site. Apologies.

Noel and Glenn in Bali, 2012
Noel and Glenn at the Farm, 1995

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Erika said that I should share this story: This week at school we’re doing Try Out (practice tests for the national exam in April, in which everything’s made up and the points don’t matter). Today was the English test (a two-hour test in which 13 of the 50 questions were unanswerable, to give you some indication as to the test’s quality and the students’ ability to pass it). Proctoring Try Out always gets my ire up (Rage Levels at Maximum) because of the cheating, the disinterest of both students and teachers, and the futility of the whole exercise. (What is the point of a practice test if you can't check your answers, you cheat, and the test is riddled with errors to begin with?) BUT, thankfully, it only lasts a week, and it only occurs somewhere between one and five times per semester. AND it is a chance to read a book or knit while the students test.
All of that is just to preface that I spent the first twenty minutes of the test standing precariously on a broken creaking plastic chair on the wet tile floor in the doorway of the classroom, holding together a tangle of live wires with both hands so that the speaker in my room would work and my students could hear the listening portion of the test (still nearly incomprehensible even to me, due to the quality of the speakers and the reader’s impenetrable Australian accent). I’ve stood at the precipice of a crater and held on for dear life on busses careening around the mountains during rainstorms, and this was still probably the most dangerous (and hilarious!) thing I’ve done in the past two years.


Speaking of craters! A few weeks ago I visited Mount Bromo with two other volunteers and some Indonesian friends. We drove up most of the mountain and started the hike to the crater around 3am in the pitch-black dark (walking into the abyss). It was freezing cold and it was pretty foggy so we didn't see the glorious sunrise that people rave about, but it was really incredible and otherworldly. Literally. It looked like the moon, just barren gray-brown hills and heavy fog all around as far are you can see. PCV Elle has some awesome photos up on her blog here and here.

For the amusement of the knitters that I know and love: Mbak Noel is now giving knitting lessons at school in between classes. They are going pretty well. I am also doing guitar lessons with some of the little dudes, but I don't have photos of that.
Everything else is normal and generally very good and unremarkable.
A few new sets of photos up, all courtesy of Pak Lukman, our Japanese teacher: OSIS Elections, the ceremony for our old and new principals, and more photos from the teacher trip to Jogja last year.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

How do you solve a problem like Mbak Noel?

I have not blogged in a long time—a few things and/or not a lot of things have happened since my last post, depending on the perspective. School and life have been chugging on in a routine that is sometimes boring, but most times comforting. Semester three ended. I settled into my new home (I love it so much, except for the birds). I did some training events. At the end of October I visited my parents in Hawaii (with a quick 18-hour stop in Manila on the way) and had an amazing week spending time with them. Thank you Aunt Cathy and Uncle Lou, again, for letting us use those sweet digs. Being back on American soil was not as strange or jarring as I anticipated—on the contrary, the whole week was very chill and relaxed, and I was happy to come back to Indonesia.

I’m now into my last of four semesters (at this school at least*) and am starting to feel the press of the all-too-quickly approaching end date (May-June-ish). Five months left is not a lot of time. I don’t feel pressured in such a way that ‘OH GOD GOTTA DO SOMETHING BIG TO SECURE MY LEGACY QUICK HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO BUILD A STATUE OF MYSELF AND MAKE EVERYONE FLUENT IN ENGLISH’; it’s more that I want to make sure that I make good use of the rest of my time (not squander it watching TV in my room) and keep a good handle on the relationships I have.

This week in particular—the start of a new semester, back from holiday vacation, new students and new classes—I’m seeing inklings of what my impact has been on my community/school, how the things that I’ve tried to do will be sustained after I leave. It’s bittersweet (because I won’t be here forever, a lot of the day-to-day challenges remain, and I haven’t achieved everything I wanted to in two years, which, admittedly, was foolhardy and those goals were tossed out the window three days into my service), but mostly it’s heartening to see that, yes, I think a little but of what I’ve been doing (intentionally or not) sunk in and had a positive impact on one or more persons.

Here are three anecdotes (about my co-teacher, my students, and my neighborhood kiddos) from this week:

Cip is justifiably super duper excited about a workshop he attended

My counterpart, Pak Cipto came back from the semester break extraordinarily excited to tell me about his experience at a workshop he attended. While we were leading English Club on Tuesday afternoon, he said, “I couldn’t wait to share about this amazing experience with you.” He was surprised (and proud) to have been invited to a civil servant workshop (he is not a civil servant, and he was also one of the youngest participants in attendance) and, further, to be spotlighted as a ‘model teacher’ and asked to present a session about lesson planning. He taught the other 90 (all more senior than him) teachers about lesson planning and how working with a PCV and attending training has helped him become a better teacher.

He was astounded by the awe and excitement expressed by the other teachers following his presentation, and their intentions to try and share these new “so simple and fun” methods. He said that he came a bit late to another session during the workshop and he asked some other attendees what he had missed; they told him, “We haven’t been doing anything, we’ve been waiting for you to teach us more.” I was so happy not only to see how Pak Cipto independently and enthusiastically passed on this information, but also how excited he was to tell me about this event and how proud he was to share with others how his experience with Peace Corps has improved his teaching.

The beauty of Batik Bojonegoroan

On Saturday, several students from my school presented at an expo for Project Based Learning (basically, educational projects funded by grants from the Sampoerna Foundation). One of thirteen schools, their booth was on the production of batik, and the science, art, and history of batik in Bojonegoro. They demonstrated how to paint batik, presented on their studies, sold the products, and modeled some super fly self-designed clothes. They worked hard on their project and it showed. Not to be biased, but SMANESS definitely had the best booth at the expo. (SMA Dander also had some tasty snacks to sell.) Photos can be seen here.

I was really happy to go support them and spend a morning hanging out, joking around with the students (especially Johan and Ayu, two of my best, most motivated, smartest students from last year, who asked me beforehand to help prepare an English presentation for the exhibit), and I got a pang of sentimentality over how I’m going to miss them. And miss beautiful Bojo batiks.

It was probably unsafe to have that many kids jumping on my bed

Today, when my kidlings were hanging out at my house (as they are wont to do most every day) and asked to take drawing paper home with them when they left, they said ‘thank you’ (unprompted and in English, no less), which was a big step since we’ve been working for a long time on politeness, socializing and manners (also basic music theory, art, English, cooking, football, and how to be a dinosaur).

I’ve recounted to a few people that I often feel like Maria Von Trapp in my neighborhood (minus any romance, intrigue or Nazis), and I don’t mind it. I kinda like it. I’ve unwittingly become an afternoons-and-evenings ward to 8-16 children; I’ve taken them to the market and (not) impressed them with my (in)ability to juggle tomatoes, we’ve run rain-soaked through the streets, I’ve led sing-alongs while wearing a kerchief, and have comforted them during a thunderstorm…no alpine-themed puppet shows yet, but there’s still time. They’re fun companions, and it’s nice to know that the parents like me and that the kids are learning something.

I still have a text message from Johan (the student mentioned above) from a few months ago, on a day with the kidlets and I went to the market to get lemons for tabbouleh (they didn’t love it, but they were excellent mint leaf pickers): “Miss… who is the childs together with you, when you’re in the pasar??… They look so happy with you and they’re so cute..hahah… xD”. Here and here and here are some photos taken by the kiddos (burgeoning photographers all).

*So with five months to go at this assignment, I’ve requested to extend my service (originally 27 months) for a third year at another site, either in Java or another province (dependent on if the program and Indonesian government wants/needs/can use me). All of this is tentative until final decisions are made, but I’m really excited for it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hey so about those updates...

Haha, remember when I apologized for the lack of updates and promised I’d write again in July?Funny joke, that.

Here’s a rundown of (what I can recall) has happened since I last posted in June:

  • I traveled with Nisha, Sam and Travis to Central Kalimantan where we spent four glorious, relaxing days floating down the Sekonyer River and communing with orangutans in the Tanjung Putting Wildlife Reserve / National Park. Then we went up to North Sulawesi to Bunaken Island for six days of amazing snorkeling with coral reefs and fishes and turtles and other underwater creatures. It was an incredible vacation, but seriously, never take a 26-hour boat ride in steerage-class across the Java Sea. Never do it.
  • The new group of volunteers has been at site for four months now and they’re great. We have an addition to the Bojo cluster, Erin F, who is pretty darn awesome.
  • The new school year has been going well—now that I know what to expect (and so do my co-teachers), things are much easier and I can be a lot more hand-off and let my co-teacher take the lead. It was a really slow start because Ramadan took up essentially the first two months of school, and things are finally picking up steam again now. I’m having a really great time at school and I feel like I have a much better relationship with my co-teacher this time around.
  • I moved to my own house (well, my own half of a house with a shared kitchen)! It is wonderful and such a huge improvement (not that anything was particularly difficult before) to be lebih independent. I get out more, I can cook and clean and play hostess and come and go as I please, I have lots of little ones in my neighborhood who hang out with me and color and play soccer in my living room in the afternoons after school. I spend a lot of time at the market and am making my way through all of the warungs (food stalls) in town, and I have a kind of regular place that makes some great nasi pecel—Mbak L, the proprietor, said to me when I was eating lunch there on Thursday and then hanging out because it started pouring rain that ‘there are a lot of cowoks (dudes) here all the time, so it’s cool that you like to eat here.’
  • I went to Jogja back in June with a group of students from the local teacher college, and then again last month with the teachers from my school and their families. Both trips were fun—I particularly liked palling around with my teachers.
  • I’ve done a few workshops and training events that I’ve really enjoyed over the past few months, and I’ll be in the city on Thursday to lead a session at PC Indo 5’s In-Service Training. Then the next day I’m leaving for Hawaii to see my parents. I’m crazy excited.
Am I missing things? Probably. Check out my flickr page for photos from vacation and Idul Fitri, and hopefully I'll have more to report when I return from Hawaii!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Apologies (and a promise for an update next month)

Sorry guys! I'm a jerk! I haven't updated since the last entry where I promised I'd have an update up soon. Sorry! The semester is finished and I just got back from seeing the new volunteers swear in in Malang and spending time with my Tlekung family. I'm heading out of site tomorrow for vacation in Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

I'm been lax to write any blog posts because I've been back and forth out of site a lot lately, and everything has been pretty routine as the semester wound down and I hit the 'one year at site' mark so I haven't had the motivation to write. I've been trying to post photos to flickr but the internet doesn't seem to be having any of that, but I'll try to upload smaller-res photos from English Camp, Madura, graduation and vacation once I get back next month!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A few updates

More to come when I get photos from last Friday and finish my write up about camp. For now, a few updates:
  • English Camp went great. We had almost 90 students from three schools, three bules and nine counterparts.
  • National exams are over so the 12th graders are gone. I'm finishing up the world travel unit with my 1oth graders and steeling myself for the six week sprint to the end of the semester (with a one week break when the 11th graders go to Bali and I go to Madura and Malang!).
  • D was 'let go' (suuuuuuucks), but now she is having adventures (woooooooo).
  • The 30 new trainees of PC Indo 2(5) have arrived and are currently in training.
  • We passed the 'one year in Indo' and 'halfway through our 27 months' milestones.
  • I'm doing very well, but am itching to do some traveling around Indonesia during the semester break in June. Suggestions?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Round-Trip of Central Jawa Timur

This week we are holding School Exams (end of high school exams for Grade XII students, not to be confused with the National Exams, held next month) and I’m not on the proctoring schedule, so I’m off for the entire week. With all my free time, I went back to visit my PST host family in Tlekung and then had a spur of the moment visit to Erika’s site in Jombang.

On Sunday Luke and I hopped a bus from Bojo to Malang (via a loooong stopover in Surabaya). Highlights: meeting a neat university freshman who spoke great English, air-con bus for half the trip, PB&J sandwiches. Lowlights: switch to non-air-con bus and layover in Surabaya, crying babies, traffic. His host sister picked us up in Malang and we had lunch before going back to our respective villages.

It was so so so so great to see my family again. It had been six months since I saw them last (back in September after Idul Fitri). I hung out with Ibu, Nenek, Icha, Torik and Bu Ju, swapped stories and shared Christmas candy that I brought along (sugar plums, candy corn and spice drops courtesy of the Schroeders). I spent time over a Bu Asmaul’s house (Erika’s host family) and ate dinner there and then a second dinner back at home (sooo many tasty dardar jagungs). (Sidenote: I know Peace Corps wants their volunteers to be spread out during training, but I loved having another volunteer next door because I got to know two families really well, and both families were more likely to let us do things on our own because we were together.) Erika and I hung out back at my place while Icha and Irma played. Then I chatted with nenek and kakek in the family room while I entertained the new baby (who is not really new anymore and is much bigger and can almost stand on her own) until really late, and then I went to bed, bundled up with a sweater and socks and a cozy blanket because it was cold in Tlekung (or I am becoming more Indonesian).

The next day, Monday, I went for an early morning walk with Erika, then spent the rest of the morning with the family (I showed Icha pictures and she was mighty impressed by the photo with Obama and amused by my singing video). Mid-morning Bu Asmaul drove us to Junrejo and we chilled at Luke’s house watching animal shows on TV, until his host parents came back and (very graciously) took us to Malang, where we ran some errands and got lunch.

In the late afternoon Erika and I left back to her site in Jombang, where we arrived late that evening. On Tuesday morning we visited her tailor to get her uniform before school and she showed me around her ville. Her site is much more rural than mine, and it’s very pretty out there. I borrowed some clothes (I hadn’t brought any school clothes) and we went to her school. I met her teachers and got to observe one class before classes were abruptly because of testing. Sad that the school day got caught short, but relieved that that doesn’t just happen at my school, and very happy to get to observe.

So, because school was let out early we went into Jombang (the biggest city near her site) and did some shopping (batik fabric to make a new school shirt, guitar pick holder, and a sweater to frog for yarn and a plaid shirt from a ‘thrift store’) and ate lunch before I went back home. On the bus back I met a guy who works for the Forestry Department who studied in Jakarta with a Forestry prof from MSU. Crazy! We talked about climate change and he confirmed that it is currently the dry season (even though it still rains every day).

Back at site, I’ve been hanging around, going into school for a bit (I went in to teach my Teacher English class but was told it was cancelled for the second week in a row). I got a haircut, started some new knitting projects, graded papers and watched a bunch of TV.