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Saturday, March 27, 2010

My village: DAY 1

Yesterday I arrived at my village. It’s a cluster of several hundred houses near the town of Batu in East Java, Indonesia. It’s about 20 minutes North West of a major town, Malang, which houses the University Mohammadyah which is our host university and location of training office for Peace Corps. (PC)

In Malang all 20 of us volunteers stood in line and were given 4 injections: Dengue fever, Rabies, Hep A and Hep B (I think – all I know is that we got a little piece of candy, a chewable aspirin and a drink of water when we were finished. We had been told that we were going to the mountains where it would be cool. Cool is a relative term. It was a little cooler than Jakarta, but the sweat was dripping from all our faces.

After shots, the head of the University came to welcome us to Indonesia and we had a delightful box lunch with a little green bean stuck in the middle of a sandwich, like a toothpick. I was hungry so I basically gobbled the sandwich and Wow! That little green bean was a mega hot chili pepper in disguise! I tried to keep my eyes and nose from running too much while the officials gave their speeches.

There are 5 Peace Corps volunteers in each village. I had been told that my family consisted of a mother (ibu) a few years younger than me and a father (bapak) a few years older and a naughty grandchild who lived next door. As the bus pulled into my village, a very happy four and half foot tall woman came up to me and wanted to take my bags and hug me on both checks. I gave her a flower that we had been given on the airplane when we arrived in Jakarta. Then the 5 Americans went inside to a meeting and official welcome from the head of the village, and then we walked 2 minutes up an alley with a stream and goats to the “office” – the small classroom where we will have language and technical instruction. When we returned to the main village offices the same woman and an older smiling man took all my bags and put me in the back seat of a teeny tiny minivan. I waved goodbye to my Peace Corps friends and embraced the ambiguity. (That’s the phrase that we were given in San Francisco that will enable us to survive for the next 27 months.)

My training village home has 2 living rooms, a front bedroom where I am sleeping, and a bedroom for my Ibu and Bapak, a kitchen and a bathroom. The kitchen has a bunk bed, wardrobes, a table and chairs and a counter with no sink. Between the kitchen and the bathroom is a small area where there are pans of water on the floor.

The bathroom is all tiled and has a platform about 4 inches off the ground with a ceramic swat toilet. The ceramic piece has a washboard like area about the size of a foot on either side of a hole and a sloping depression a few inches deep into the hole. The hole is about 4 inches across and has water in it. Next to the toilet is the mandi. It’s a tiled water container about 2 feet across and 3 feet tall. It’s also on a raised platform. There is a tiled ledge around the mandi and a dipper setting on the ledge. At the hotel in Jakarta I had practiced using the water hose which came with each western style toilet. There’s no hose in this bathroom. There is a little shelf with toothbrushes and a bar of soap and 2 towels hanging on a peg. And no toilet paper.

I sit and chat with my host mother and father. In less than 60 seconds I have used up all of my Indonesian words. They keep smiling and talking in a foreign language saying things which they want me to repeat. Each time I repeat the word they just said, they say it again with exaggerated mouth gestures because I’m not repeating it back right. After they say the word 5 or 6 times I say something that approaches what they are trying to get me to say and they nod and smile. This goes on for several hours as many people come to the house and I shake hands and smile, pretend to chat for 20 minutes till they are no longer using the one word I can recognize: America and then go to my room to put stuff away before more people come. I take out my stack of pictures and point and explain who the people are. My children become #1, #2 and #3. There is a teenage grandchild who lives next door. She arrives home from school and can interpret some of my English.

I need to use the bathroom so I say the word for it, “small room” and excuse myself “permisi” and figure out how to pee. I try to splash the dipper of water over my private area. I get water everywhere but my clothes are kind of dark and it doesn’t show. For dinner we have rice with 2 bowls of soupy stuff that you spoon over the rice and 1 inch squared chicken cubes with bones and brown fried things about ½ the size of a deck of cards. A few times I catch myself picking up the food with my left hand and seeing my host mother stare at me. Ooops.

I forgot to mention, you take off your shoes or flip flops when you come inside a house, sometimes you put on a different pair of flip flops – my host mother asks me: mandi? And I nod yes. She pantomimes that when I take a mandi, a bath, that I should wear flip flops so I don’t fall. I take my towel and hang it on the spare hook in the bathroom. Take off all my clothes and pour the water from the dipper all over me. It’s chilly but not horrible. Kind of like jumping into a cold swimming pool.

My host mother calls me sister. She sits close to me and pats my leg and puts her arm around me and teaches me to say “I love you” in Bahasa Indonesia. My host father shows me the 8 or so picture on the wall. He is a retired tax official and can say a few English words. The pictures of each of his 2 daughters as they were married are very elaborate. The bride and groom have fancy outfits and crowns on their heads. The other women in the family have unusual make-up on. He teaches me the words for: East Java culture.” In the evening we go next door to the little shop which is owned by my mother’s daughter. She is one of the people I have met on our front porch. We sit on a little bench which will hold my mother, me and one other small older Indonesian woman.

In the evening, Maggie, another PC volunteer in my village and the young man who is to be our host country national language and culture teacher came to my house. I had just gone to bed and had my knee length night shirt on. There was a lot of knocking at my bedroom door and I opened it to discover that several well dressed men and women were sitting in the living room. My bedroom door opens to the living room. Ooops, I know we’re not supposed to be seen with this few clothes on. I went back in, put on a pair of pants, tucked in my night shirt and visited with Maggie and her family. Our families are related. I think my Bapak (father) is cousins with Maggie’s Ibu (mother.) While the Indonesians were chatting away Maggie looks at me with terror in her eyes and asks if I’ve figure out how to use the toilet yet. Some of the people in the room can speak a little English, so very quietly and carefully she tells me that there’s no way she can poop into that little hole and what are we really supposed to do with the dipper of water. I tell her –let’s talk tomorrow at language class.

During the night I figure out the logistics of how to poop into the hole. How to hold the dipper with your right hand and pour the water onto your left hand, how to scrub off the poo from my butt and then wash my hand by using more water poured from the dipper onto my left hand. Then I turn around. Oh my gosh. The poop is floating. This will never do. I use a huge dipper of water and thank goodness the poop disappears into the hole. Never letting go of the dipper in my right hand I carefully wash my left hand some more with a little piece of soap.

In the morning I wake up around 4am as the mosques began the call to prayer. I thought I could hear praying from 4 or 5 different directions. After 30 minutes the closer ones stopped and I could hear that the prayers were coming from perhaps 20 different directions. After the call to prayer, the chickens and the rooster began to make noise.

My host mother has asked me the night before if I would like to go walking at 5am. I readily agreed. We go outside into the cool morning light. I have my sandals on but I notice many older people are walking barefoot. The kids have flip flops on. We walk to see the rice fields and the school where my teenage granddaughter goes. She calls me Oma – the name for grandmother. When we come home I ask my host mother and father and from what they say I gather that people like to get the cold from the ground into their feet and up into their calves. It promotes good health. Every day since then I have walked barefoot with my mother in the morning.

At breakfast I become a lot more conscious of only touching the food with my right hand.

The Indonesian from the University Mohammadaya who set up our home stays comes and offers to take me to the training class this first morning. I would rather walk, but it would be impolite to refuse, so I get a ride to the class. We spend all morning learning the Indonesian national language. In my home, they mostly speak Javanese but when kids go to school the classes are taught in the national language and that is the language that we will be using to teach English.

After lunch the American in charge of training comes to our class and asks us to evaluate what we have learned so far. Every person says we absolutely should have been given some information about what to do in the bathroom. Several women tell me that they are afraid to poop. I give a little demonstration in Potty Training 101 Indonesian style and offer to teach the next class of volunteers too.

After class I walk to another volunteer’s house because his host uncle has offered to drive him to Batu, 20 minutes away to purchase a cell phone. All of us are required to purchase cell phones for security. I ask him to please call my host mother so she knows I will be late. We go to a town square with lots of little shops and the uncle negotiates a good price for us for our cell phones and minutes. When he drives me home, it is dark. I have only a vague idea where my house is. He drives slowly and suddenly it makes sense. I find my house, thank him profusely, walk inside and hug my host mother and she serves the food which she and her husband had been waiting to eat until I came home. The teenage granddaughter comes over and figures out how to install the sim card and set up my cell phone. She has it in the Indonesian mode so I can learn more Indonesian words. After a few minutes, it becomes obvious that I don’t know how to do this in English, much less Indonesian and she changes it over for me. I send a text message (my first ever) to my training officer giving him my new phone number and settle down for a few hours of Bahasa language practice. I’m totally exhausted, fulfilled and happy when I fall asleep.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


I’m in Jakarta, home to 9.2 million people in the night and 12 million people during daylight hours. It’s amazing. Traffic goes in the “wrong” direction. Crossing the street is a major adventure. We were told there are 5 million motorcycles in the city. They don’t have to obey the traffic rules, so they come from both directions. My fellow Peace Corps trainees are wonderful. We travel in groups, and generally the cars seem to pay more attention to several, glassy eyed, tall, white people in the middle of the road. The little song that I used to sing with my grandchildren, “look both ways when you cross the street.” takes on new meaning.

There are twenty of us trainees. We won’t become official Peace Corps volunteers until we pass the language competency test and swear in sometime in June. At 61, I’m the oldest. There is a 57 year old man who’s a retired principal in the California school system and 7 young men and 11 young women between the ages of 22 – 25. My new best friends have been to almost every country in the world! Angela was born in Malaysia; Gio was born in Puerto Rico. Nisha is from India. Sarah is from Hawaii and first saw snow when she was 18. Diana has lived in the Middle East. Maggie was in Germany for a year. Samantha worked on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Travis has lived in Malaysia. Luke was born in Poland and as a child met a Peace Corps Volunteer who inspired him to submit his application. What a group! We were chosen because we had no medical issues, had foreign experience or interests, appeared to be self starters and didn’t hesitate when the PC staff in Washington DC first approached us about ‘Something different.” Being the first ones in a new country means that we won’t have the support systems set up that the volunteers who follow us will have. The PC office is Surabaya is not yet ready for business. There is no address where you can send mail or packages.

The Peace Corps staff explained the process that culminated in us getting here. The government of Indonesia has been requesting Peace Corps volunteers and when the US (and the lawyers from both countries) finally ironed out all the details, the Indonesian government felt they could use 2000 volunteers! The 20 of us are treated like royalty. In San Francisco the Consul General hosted a dinner for us in his home. We were on the agenda to meet with President Obama but his visit has been delayed.

At first I did get special treatment because I knew more Bahasa than the others. They wanted me to sit beside them during language training and ask me questions when we couldn’t understand what the language trainers were telling us. In San Francisco I greeted the Consul General in his national language. Now that we have had our first language sessions I am no longer the number one student. I’m so glad I practiced before I came. My brain is slow but there is a little storehouse of words that I can use. The young volunteers can hear something said TWICE and have it stored in their memory. The things that took me two days to finally remember they master in 2 minutes. The pace is intense. Instead of the word of the day we have the 60-70 words of the day.

Our day starts at 6:00 AM breakfast and Bahasa Indonesia conversation practice. From 8:30 – 6:30 we have language lessons, culture training, explanations of what is expected of us, safety briefings, and medical updates. The idea is to give us enough information and practical experiences that we can choose whether we want to become volunteers or not. Once we “swear in.” after 3 months of training, our permanent assignments are counting on us being there for the remaining 24 months.

The Language and Cultural Trainers are women from the area near where we will be staying. They are less than 5 feet tall, have long Muslim head scarves and smiles that go from ear to ear.

On Tuesday we go our training villages. They are all near Batu, East Java, which is near Malang, the major University City. The PC staff has told us that the families have as many questions about us that we have about them. One house will have a regular toilet, the rest have squat toilets. None have toilet paper. We’re expected to “wash off.” We will all have a bedroom to ourselves. The families have been told that we are to eat whatever they serve, don’t make anything special; just give us typical Indonesian food. We are to be treated like extended family, not guests, so we help out around the house too.

At each of the 4 training sites there are 5 homes that have offered to take us in and one home where our trainer will live. We will meet at the offices for the official in charge of each village for lessons every day except Sunday when we will have specific assignments that need to be accomplished – cultural trips and visits to other places. Our malaria medicine and rabies shots begin once we are “in village.”

Almost all our host families are farmers. Almost all are Muslim. Some have children, some are retired people. Each house has electricity, but it may not be on very consistently. None of the families speak English. They normally talk in their local dialect, but have agreed to speak Bahasa, the national language, which they learn at school, while we are there. The staff who visited the villages said that little children will come and take our hands and kiss them to show how much they appreciate us being there. There is a high risk of getting TB from the people in the village when they cough.

Eleven families requested women, 5 requested men and 4 had no preference. That works out well because we are 12 women and 8 men. None of the families have pets, which is good because we’re not allowed to get anywhere near an animal until day 28 when we have the 3rd rabies shot in our system. I think we’re not supposed to touch animals after that either. We’re not allowed to travel to Bali until further notification because it is having a rabies outbreak.

Yesterday we got lessons in how to set up the water filtration systems and today the topic was “diarrhea.” Lyn, the medical officer went through a flow chart of all the different colors, consistencies, and styles of onset, duration times and side effects to correctly diagnose which of the 6 types of diarrhea we are having and how to treat it. For every single one of them the treatment is to let if flow rather than stop it up. For most the solution is to drink more water. For some you should get bed rest. For some you take an aspirin.

The training is intense, to put it mildly. I’ll try to find an internet cafĂ© and update the blog a few times during the next three months, but mostly I’m just trying to keep my head above water as the waterfall heads over the cliff.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Two Days till Indonesia – Last Minute Details

Peace Corps has been sending out lots of information. My group will be Jakarta for 5 days – during the same time that President Obama is there! You can see the totally posh hotel they are putting us in by going to I expect to have access to email during those first few days.

Then it looks like we take a 10 -12 hour train east to Surabaya, where the Peace Corps Indonesia headquarters are located. From there we head south to the city of Malang, which has cool mountain breezes and a most interesting blogspot: Check out the top and bottom items on the list – a bridge to an island with a temple and the birds and flowers market in the city. For the next 11 weeks our group of 20 will be spread out in 4 little villages near Malang. Although the pictures look inviting with lots of tourist spots, this training will be an intensive time of living with our Indonesian host families, and lessons 6 days a week in language, culture, safety, health concerns and the skills, attitudes and behaviors we need to partner with our Indonesian colleagues and achieve the English teaching project goals. My target is to be able to update the blog and access email at least once a month during Training.

We’ll be receiving support and information so we can purchase cell phones for staying in touch with the PC office from our sites. We only pay for outgoing calls and it’s too expensive to call home, but at some point I may be able to receive cell phone calls from the States. I’ll let you know in an email.

Based on how well we all do during Training our Swearing In, which is contingent upon satisfactorily learning all we need to know, the official day I become a Peace Corps Volunteer will be the 3rd or 4th of June.

The Swearing In Ceremony will be attended by our host families, our Indonesian counterparts (fellow teachers) and the US Counselor General to Indonesia and Indonesian Government representatives. After that we go to our teaching sites. The plan is that we will be housed with local families during the 24 month teaching assignment. Under a section titled “Meals” it was noted: “You should be prepared to be flexible and learn how to adjust to what your host family can provide. You may have some challenges meeting your nutritional needs within the family and should be ready to independently supplement what is provided.”

The information from Peace Corp made a special point to tell people that sending packages and letters can be a frustrating experience because of delays and heavy customs taxes. Even cookies and candy can be taxed! The PC office in Surabaya is undergoing final construction and renovations and we have been informed to tell friends and family to not send anything until we arrive in Indonesia and are given a proper address. Generally padded envelopes get through without being opened. From other sources I’ve read that packages are opened, inspected and sometimes the contents get “shared” with the postal workers. All expensive items are not worth sending because of the customs fees.

Another point they made was
“Volunteers often enjoy telling their “war” stories when they write home. This is one of the exciting and adventurous elements of serving as a Volunteer. Anecdotes in letters might describe recent illnesses, lack of good food, isolation, transportation challenges, etc. While the subject matter is good reading material it is often misinterpreted or exaggerated on the home front. There is a Peace Corps medical officer at the Peace Corps office in Surabaya, Indonesia. In the event of a serious illness, the Volunteer is sent to Surabaya and is cared for by our medical staff. If Volunteers require medical care that is not available in Indonesia, they are medically evacuated to the nearest medical hub site or the United States.

And there was a warning about using alcohol. Indonesia is a Muslim country and it’s not appropriate to drink in homes and many other situations. At this point in my life that seems fine. I do have to admit that 27 months without candy or cookies from home seems harder than 27 months without a drink.

So, I promise I won’t whine or beg for goodies!

I want to write just a bit about my World Wide School. Paula Michel’s 4th and 5th grade gifted class at San Antonito School in New Mexico has agreed to be my partner in the Correspondence Match program. One of the students has a grandfather who was imprisoned by the Japanese on Java during World War II. So they will be sent this blog and we’ll stay in communication with each other. I’ll tell them things about Indonesian students and answer any questions they have. I met with them last week in New Mexico and told them that it’s impolite to let your feet point at another person. They wanted to know what to do with your feet when you are all standing in a circle looking at each other. Good question! When I find out the answer I’ll let you know.

My purpose in writing this blog is to share Indonesia with the people in the United States, my family, my friends and my special school partners. I’d like to invite all of us to open all our eyes to a different way of looking at the world. I’ll let you know about the things I find fascinating and challenging. I’ll share a little corner of the world with you in the hopes that all our lives will be enriched. And secretly I hope that one or two of you will want a Peace Corps experience for yourselves!

Thank you all for being my support group as I begin this adventure.

Monday, March 8, 2010

One week till Indonesia

Tomorrow I have a phone call with the PC Indonesia country director to begin "to understand the expectations of Peace Corps Volunteers." He's also going to field any questions and have the staff email the responses to all the members of my training group. My brain is filled with questions! But instead of trying to get answers, I think I'll just take a deep breath and keep my eyes and ears open.

One week from today I will be at Peace Corps staging in San Francisco. On that first step of the journey we get an orientation, H1N1 vaccinations, meet with Chalief Tjandraningrat, the Minister Counselor and have dinner with the Consul General from the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia. It's kind of exciting to be a part of this first group going back into a new country. We're getting a lot of honor that most volunteers don't get.

Then on Tuesday, March 16, I leave for 36 hours enroute to Jakarta via Tokyo and Bangkok, and arrive 2 days after I leave and 13 hours ahead of Salt Lake City.

Right now there are 20 of us in my group of Peace Corps Trainees. We'll officially be trainees after we fill out all the paperwork in San Francisco.

This preparation time has been good. I've given away everything I own, except for 2 suitcases worth of stuff I'll take and two rubbermaid bins with cold weather clothing that I'll leave here with my daughter. Because I plan to get a little RV and travel when I return it just didn't make sense to hang on to all the furniture, clothes, dishes, pictures, knick knacks, vacuum cleaner, towels, tools and other things that I've accumulated. My son, Peter, will take my car and my home in New Mexico is set up in a trust for my children with my brother, Eric as the manager. It's kind of freeing to let go of all that material wealth, like taking a beautiful picture that you painted and removing every color until you have a blank canvas again.

So, my "To Do List" this week consists of saying goodbye to all my friends and family, packing the hula hoop, the raingear, the clothes and a few of the school supplies, learning a little more Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, figuring out Katrina's laptop computer which she is so generously giving to me and savoring each day.

One fun thing I've learned is that my grandchildren will always be beside me. The word for left is kire (for Kira) and right is kanan (for Talon). Thank you, terima kasih, literally means: reiceive love and the response, kembali, means:to return it back.

Little children in Indonesia practice playing "market" so they learn the life skill of bargaining for everything. I don't know if I'll ever be good at negotiating the price of bananas or a bus ride but I've memorized how to ask for the "senior discount." (the moon took a parachute which lands on a jet next to a usi - untuk para lanjut usia.) I hope I can at least get a smile and a little money off the "rich American price."

To ask: Where is the bus station? I think: the manna from heaven, Tom, with a pot, in the pot is a pear and on top of that is a chicken holding a cup of tea, then comes the word BIS which I know means bus. All this comes out: Di mana tempat perhentian bis? It's a crazy way to learn a new language but it seems to be working for me. The word for peanuts sounds exactly like cat chow!